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« Reply to Bousquet: Humanity and Anthropocentrism | Main | Urban Destruction and Social Bonds »

A Few Thoughts on Modern Metaphysics

Martin, thank you for your reply, and a big thanks to Mike for finding my post!

I have a suspicion that we are operating on very different timeline assumptions, which is certainly not surprising given our different disciplinary backgrounds.  I was thinking about your comments on the historicity of the post-Westphalian State last night and people's general tendency to project the present into both the past and the future.  I was also listening to a recording of Tomás Luis de Victoria's (1548-1611) Ave Maria for 8 voices and Marc-Antoine Charpentier's (1643-1704) Messe de Minuit pour Noël as I write this response.

I am not mentioning my music listening habits solely for amusement: these composers bracket the 30 years war and are amongst the top composers in their respective time and nation (Spain and France respectively).  Their styles of composition seem to capture and reflect metaphysical assumptions that reflect both the elite and religious stances of their time.  And, yes, there is a qualitative difference between them, albeit a subtle one.  The Angus Dei in Charpentier's Messe, for example, has an almost frenetic quality, quite in keeping with, say, a shopping trip to a modern mall on December 24th, which is something that never shows up in Victoria's work.

Even more interesting and indicative of a shift, is how the music is sung.  In Renaissance music, such as the Victoria piece, you sing your own line in a "horizontal" manner (i.e. you focus in on your line), with the occasional group "interludes".  In the Baroque music of Charpentier and, later, Bach, there is a much more complex interweaving of parts, the whole ensemble has to move as one, and individual lines take the lead in some places and hand it off in others;  it's an almost Durkheimian metaphor for a shift to a more complex society.

This has been a rather long, and somewhat tangential, introduction to answering the question you asked me:

I might want ask, however, whether the modern state has particular dynamics – especially in light of the widespread idea that the holocaust (though not necessarily genocide) and the modern state are linked. One thing to think about is the way that the idea of national self-determination (as enshrined in the UN) is a quite historically specific phenomenon that is always mixed up in (if not at the root of) cases of contemporary ethnic violence.

As I understand it, the concept of State self-determination is quite explicitly laid out in the Peace of Westphalia (I'll talk about Nation in a second).  Now, for me, the truly interesting thing about the Peace of Westphalia is that it established State self-determination over ethnic self-determination.  It did this in an odd way by re-affirming the existence of multiple, self-determining States covering a single ethnicity (I'm using the concept of a Volk here).

I've noticed that many of my students have a tendency to think of State and Ethnicity as being the defining characteristics, the ground of being as it were, of a modern Nation State.  Indeed, I've been watching the ever ongoing debate about what "Canadian culture" is with a lot of humour, with many of the Canadian Nationalists ranting about what "makes us different" (twits; it's obvious - we prefer to end conflict by drinking beers together and blaming the Americans for our problems!).

Now, you asked about whether the modern state has particular dynamics, and I am assuming you mean that are unique to it.  I would have to say that no, it doesn't; not that are unique.  Again, I'll go back to that comment I made about frequency distributions in an earlier post.  Many of the dynamics that are often talked about as being "unique" to the modern state, in fact, show up well before modernity (whenever that is dated from).  I would suggest that the underlying dynamic is not "modernity" per se but, rather, a state being composed of multiple cultural groups that attempts to construct and maintain a trans-ethnic identity.  The classic Western exemplar would be Rome, while China is also an excellent example.  I suspect that the period from, say 2500bce to 1850 bce in Sumeria is also another example (with the breakup period from~1850-1650 bce), and there are probably similar dynamics at work in the Mayan city states, the Indus Valley civilization and pre-dynastic Egypt.

Having said that, however, I do think that there are some very specific, historically situated factors that mask / modify / shift / situate the modern version; primarily the massive increase in urbanization, changes in productive technologies, and massive shifts in communications technologies.  One of the (almost) unique characteristics of modernity is the massive upsurge in diasporic communities held together by these webs of communications. 

Cities, especially in multi-ethnic states and, usually, trade cities, have usually had diasporic communities in them, but the rapid shifts in communications and transportation technologies from, say, 1830ce or so, have both enabled and enhanced that trend.  The relatively recent deployment of electronic communications networks have, for the first time, allowed people to focus their nexus of identity on self-selected communities rather than on geographically based ones; a situation that encourages both diasporic communities and neo-tribalism (the distributed network that is AQ is a good example of this, but there are many others).  I suspect that this enhancement of neo-tribalism is at the root of many of the revitalization movements that we are seeing globally.

[I have got to stop listening to Victoria early in the morning!]

A quick comment on the concept of "cyborg":  I suspect that this is a major disciplinary difference, but I have always held that humans, and our proto-human ancestors, were "cyborgs" or, more properly, symbiotic creatures who have enjoyed such a relationship with our technology for at least 1.9 million years and, possibly, 2.3 million years.  I suspect it is firmly rooted in our brain structure as social animals...

The concept of "actants" is quite interesting in many ways.  I suspect that humans have always acted as if non-humans (animals, tools, buildings, concepts, etc.) have had the ability to act if for no other reason than that we tend to anthropomorphize such non-humans.  When it comes to ascribing intentionality, however, things get tricky.  Does a volcano "intend" to explode?  Can it be reasoned with or bought off? Certainly our ancestors thought so.

I have been quite impressed with Gregory Bateson's work in this area (e.g. A Sacred Unity, Angel's Fear, etc.).  One of the insights I've taken from Bateson is that non-actors will be perceived as actors until we can perceive the laws governing them.  In other words, we will act as if "they" have "intentionality", and treat them as "human", until we "know" them.  But if we assume that this is a human characteristic, a way of dealing with our exterior environment, then we also need to treat those non-human actors as if they were real for those for whom they are real (this is the old Map-Territory paradox; the Map is never the totality of the Territory, but people operate on the basis as if it was).

Well, my network connection is dropping in and out, so I will end this now before I loose it all (there is a Gremlin in the Network connections in the Dominican Republic!)

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