enlightened unreason

The Enlightenment. This is our tradition. This is our world view. The liberal, rational, humanitarian way of thought. It has persisted for over two centuries. This is a tradition which is bending against strains that challenge its hegemony. At what point has it lost its relevance? …

The proposition that the Enlightenment has anything of interest to say to our time sounds at first merely absurd. It sounds like special pleading, the efforts of cloistered scholars to establish some sort of relevance to our impatient time. The Enlightenment seems unreal. A vanished world charming in the worst possible sense of the word “historic” , wholly remote from us and our pressing needs, as though it were five centuries away, or ten, rather than into its third century.

Engraving by Jean Huber who specialized in caricatures of Voltaire. Voltaire is the wizened little man with his arm raised. Beside him to his left is Denis Diderot, editor of the Enlightenment's compendium of rational knowledge, the Encyclopedie. The figures standing around the table have no counterparts in real life. The image is from the Biblioteque Nationale.

We know, we are embedded in this belief, that the age of the Enlightenment was addicted to reason, to optimism, to humanitarianism, to secularism, to rising expectations, and that its self appointed spokespeople, almost all men, the philosophes, were a collection of irresponsible literary men, like Voltaire, or unworldly professors, like Kant, or shallow politician-philosophers, like Jefferson, all guilty of first arousing and then encouraging unjustified expectations.

If this portrait were accurate, the age of the Enlightenment would be nothing more than a condition to which it would be pointless to aspire. And the reforming program of the philosophes would be nothing better than a fantasy that once aroused false hopes, and as its inescapable consequence, produced real despair. At best the Enlightenment would be irrelevant; at worst, it would be pernicious.

Peter Howson. Hades I. Kant:When an Indian sees a European going somewhere, he thinks that he has something to accomplish. When he comes back, he thinks that he has already taken care of his business, but if he sees him going out a third time he thinks that he has lost his mind, as the European is going for a walk for pleasure, which no Indian does; he is only capable of imagining it. Indians are also indecisive, and both traits belong to the nations that live very far north. The weakening of their limbs is supposedly caused by brandy, tobacco, opium and other strong things. From their timidity comes superstition, particularly in regard to magic, and the same with jealousy. Their timidity makes them into slavish underlings when they have kings and evokes an idolatrous reverence in them, just as their laziness moves them rather to run around in the forest and suffer need than to be held to their labors by the orders of their masters.---Read More:http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/03/29/enlightenment-racism/

But the portrait is, in fact, badly distorted. Each of its lines must be redrawn and assigned new significance. And it is important to undertake theis corrective activity. Santayana once said that those who do not learn from the past will be condemned to repeat it. And those who do not understand the past will be unable to learn from it.

“Enlightenment” is the name given to two distinct but interdependent entities. It is the name of an age, the eighteenth century all across Europe and the European colonies in the New World, and at the same time, the name of a movement that pervaded and came to dominate that age: a movement of philosophes. The two Enlightenments were not the same; Kant, with his customary acuteness, called his age an age of enlightenment, but not an enlightened age; there was, in other words, a great deal of work for reforming, critical philosophes to do.

Mel Ramos. Lucky Lulu Blonde. 1965. ---Kant:Montesquieu is correct in his judgment that the weakheartedness that makes death so terrifying to the Indian or the Negro also makes him fear many things other than death that the European can withstand. The Negro slave from Guinea drowns himself if he is to be forced into slavery. The Indian women burn themselves. The Carib commits suicide at the slightest provocation. The Peruvian trembles in the face of an enemy, and when he is led to death, he is ambivalent, as though it means nothing. His awakened imagination, however, also makes him dare to do something, but the heat of the moment is soon past and timidity resumes its old place again…Read More:http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/03/29/enlightenment-racism/ image:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/mel-ramos-american-dream-girls-3-5-12_detail.asp?picnum=6

The age of Enlightenment was an age of hope among other things. The hope that radiated from scientists and philosophers captured the imagination of a wide public. More and more men came to feel a sense of power over their environment and over their individual destinies. This hope arose from a number of sources, and it was this confluence of elements that made it so appealing. Not merely professional optimists like Condorcet, but hardened realists and unsparing critics of optimism like John Adams, found their age a time that offered solid grounds for self-confidence.

Francis Picabia. Le Blonde. 1946.---...Wolin’s book is an “intellectual genealogy” that intends to trace “the uncanny affinities between the Counter-Enlightenment and postmodernism.” The contemporary academic Left’s hostility toward Enlightenment values such as humanism, reason, and liberal democracy, suggests Wolin, echoes the hostility of such Counter-Enlightenment thinkers as Joseph de Maistre and later thinkers such as Carl Schmitt, Nietzsche, and Heidegger toward those values, while postmodernism’s celebration of “difference” bizarrely echoes the far Right’s insistence upon the “difference” between, for instance, Aryans and Semites. For Wolin the right-wing, anti-democratic orientation of many literary and philosophical intellectuals in the 1930s has re-emerged where we might least expect it: among the anti-universalist “identity politics” of the academic left in the 1980s and 1990s and in a kind of “Left Heideggerianism” that internalizes many of the assumptions of the intellectual Right in 1920s Germany. That Nietzsche and Heidegger are the intellectual forebears of much postmodernist thought is commonly accepted; Wolin’s original argument is that the darker, political sides of Nietzsche and Heidegger are clearly evident in the putatively Left-wing politics of postmodernism, and that in fact postmodernism’s genealogy can be traced all the way back, via a “subterranean affinity,” to the far-right politics of de Maistre and the Counter-Enlightenment, for whom flawed human beings cannot rationally shape their own history, and for whom human history is always determined by larger, impersonal forces – a position which, Wolin points out, sounds suspiciously similar to Michel Foucault’s....Read More:http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/grieve.htm Image:http://www.artnet.com/maga


Science, and its companion, technology, were opening new, exhilarating vistas into a life that might be longer, easier, pleasanter, safer, than life had ever been before. Science, too, with its spectacular successes, suggested a dependable method for acquiring knowledge outside the increasingly specialized realms of physics or astronomy.

Few philosophes were presumptuous enough to deny their forbears all capacity for fruitful thinking, but the scientific thinking of their own day struck them as being a new instrument, far more powerful, far more accurate, than any intellectual instrument ever devised. Scientific thinking was unprecedented and unique in commanding the unanimous assent of informed minds. As the French physiocrats put it, a little quaintly, Euclid had been, the greatest despot that ever lived; his propositions had compelled the agreement of all men of intelligence and goodwill. Philosophy, the philosophes argued, ought to imitate the exact sciences and produce ideas that could be corrected, refined, and improved upon, so that they could be universally accepted as no philosophical system or theological doctrine had ever been or could ever be accepted.

Roberto Matta art.---Zizek:"Goodbye Lenin" is tolerated, "Goodbye Hitler" not – why? Already at the anecdotal level, the difference between the Fascist and the Stalinist universe is obvious; say, in the Stalinist show trials, the accused has to publicly confess his crimes and to give an account of how he came to commit them – in start contrast to Nazism, in which it would be meaningless to demand from a Jew the confession that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. This difference points towards the different attitude towards Enlightenment: Stalinism still conceives itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, within which truth is accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved he is, which is why he is subjectively responsible for his crimes, in contrast to the Nazis, for whom the guilt of the Jews is a direct fact of their very biological constitution – one does not have to prove that they are guilty, they are guilty solely by being Jews. For this same reason, on Stalin's birthday, the prisoners were sending telegrams to Stalin, wishing him all the best and the success of Socialism, even from the darkest gulags like Norilsk or Vorkuta, while one cannot even imagine Jews from Auschwitz sending Hitler a telegram for his birthday...Read More:http://www.lacan.com/zizlovevigilantes.html image:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/roberto-matta-pace-gallery-11-18-11_detail.asp?picnum=1

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