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"The Hula Hoop Theory of History", Morris Berman

"The Hula Hoop Theory of History", Morris Berman

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Published by Giuliano Valverde
There is a curious rhythm to human affairs, or perhaps more specifically, to
Western history. Some movement or idea comes along, and everyone gets swept up
in its wake. This is it, then; this is the Answer we’ve been looking for. All of those
previous answers were wrong; now, at long last, we’re on the right track. In the
fullness of time, of course, this shiny new idea loses its luster, betrays us, or even
results in the death of millions. So apparently, we were deceived. But wait: here’s the true new idea, the one we should have followed all along. This is the Answer
we’ve been looking for. Etc.
There is a curious rhythm to human affairs, or perhaps more specifically, to
Western history. Some movement or idea comes along, and everyone gets swept up
in its wake. This is it, then; this is the Answer we’ve been looking for. All of those
previous answers were wrong; now, at long last, we’re on the right track. In the
fullness of time, of course, this shiny new idea loses its luster, betrays us, or even
results in the death of millions. So apparently, we were deceived. But wait: here’s the true new idea, the one we should have followed all along. This is the Answer
we’ve been looking for. Etc.

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Published by: Giuliano Valverde on Mar 13, 2013
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WEEKEND EDITION JANUARY 11-13, 2013
The Founding Document of Catastrophism
The Hula Hoop Theory of History
by MORRIS BERMAN
 Above all, no zeal.– TalleyrandThere is a curious rhythm to human affairs, or perhaps more specifically, to Western history. Some movement or idea comes along, and ever yone gets swept upin its wake. This is it, then; this is the Answer we’ve been looking for. All of thoseprevious answers were wrong; now, at long last, we’re on the right track. In thefullness of time, of course, this shiny new idea loses its luster, betrays us, or evenresults in the death of millions. So apparently, we were deceived. But wait: here’sthe
true
new idea, the one we should have followed all along.
This
is the Answer we’ve been looking for. Etc.The American writer, Eric Hoffer, described this syndrome roughly sixty years agoin a book that also generated a lot of zeal (for a short time, anyway),
The True Believe.
People convert quite easily, observed Hoffer; they switch from one ism toanother, from Catholicism to Marxism to whatever is next on the horizon. The belief system runs its course, then another one takes its place. What is significant isthe energy involved, not the particular target, which could be anything, really. For what drives this engine is the need for psychological reassurance, for Meaning witha capital M–a comprehensive system of belief that explains everything. There is afeeling, largely unacknowledged, that without this we are lost; that life would haveno purpose, and history no meaning; that both (as Shakespeare put it) wouldamount to little more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifyingnothing.I call this the Hula Hoop Theory of History, but one could also label it the Pet Rock Theory, or any other craze that grabs our attention for a week or a century. It hasa lot in common with the skeptical thinking of the sixteenth-century philosopherMontaigne, who had a great influence on Eric Hoffer, among others. In his
 Essays
,Montaigne pointed out that the new sciences of Copernicus and Paracelsus claimedthat the ancient sciences of Aristotle and Ptolemy were false. But how long, he
 
argued, before some future scientist comes along, and says the same thing aboutCopernicus and Paracelsus? Do we ever really know the truth once and for all?One might also call this the Drunken Sailor Theory of History, I suppose. Reflectingon the first flush of the French Revolution, William Wordsworth wrote: “Bliss it wasin that dawn to be alive.” After Robespierre, the Terror, and the rivers of bloodthat flowedthrough the streets of Paris, however, a sober Talleyrand could only comment that what the human race needed, above anything else, was to stay clear of zeal. Thepath from bliss to barbarism may not be linear, but it does seem to be fairly common, historically speaking.The latest treatise in the Montaigne-Hoffer school of history is that of the Britishscholar John Gray,
 Black Mass.
Gray draws liberally on the work of the Americanhistorian Carl Becker, whose
 Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers
(1932) has never been surpassed as an analysis of modernity. Beckerclaimed that the notion of redemption that lay at the heart of Christianity wasrecast by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in terms of progress, orsecular salvation. Enlightenment utopianism, in a word, was the transformation oChristian eschatology into the belief in the perfectibility of man–heaven on earth, asit were. This would be the Second Coming, the defeat of ignorance and evil (= sin) by means of reliable knowledge, science and technology in particular.In Gray’s view, the modern “secular fundamentalisms”–Jacobinism, Bolshevism,Fascism, and most recently, globalization–followed directly from thistransformation. The result has been satanic–a black or inverted mass (i.e., onerecited backwards)–in that these pseudo-religions have all caused a world of harm.The one idea common to all of them is that progress andperfectibility are within our grasp, and can be attainedthrough an historical process whereby true knowledge will defeat ignorance (evil). Thus the world, and ourpsyches, are saved, no less in the modern secular worldthan they were claimed to be in the medieval Christianone, because history itself is imbued with Meaning.Sad to say, the first three of these secular religionsproved, in the fullness of time, not to be the Answer butrather the God that failed; and globalization (ThomasFriedman and his devotees notwithstanding) is in theprocess of going the same route, revealing itself to be a “false dawn.” Of course,says Gray, once globalization and neoliberalism are finally exposed for what they are, and take their proper place on the scrap heap of history, it will hardly be the
 
case that we shall abandon notions of progress, utopia, and Meaning in history. Nota chance. We in the West will have to find another hula hoop, another pet rock, because as a Christian civilization we are simply unable to live without the myth of redemption. Hence, he concludes, the “cycle of order and anarchy will never end.”The tragedy is that we “prefer the romance of a meaningless quest to coping withdifficulties that can never be finally overcome.” Hence, “the violence of faith looksset to shape the coming century.” At the present time, it’s not clear what the next hula hoop will be; but I’m not sureit matters all that much. If the Montaigne-Hoffer-Gray school of historical analysisis correct, what is certain is that there will be no derailing the zeal in advance, nostopping the next ideological-religious binge at the second martini, so to speak. The word “some” has very little meaning in the world of secular fundamentalism; for us,it’s all or nothing. “Man cannot make a worm,” wrote Montaigne, “yet he will makegods by the dozen.”For it is all a kind of shamanism, in a way, an attempt to become whole throughmagic. We are all broken, after all; that is why the promise of redemption has sucha powerful hold on us. “I am he who puts together,” declared one Mazatec shaman,some years ago. It finally comes down to a (misguided) attempt at healing, which isreinforced by tribal practice (commonly known as groupthink). I recall attending aconference on postmodernism in the 1990s and being struck by how similar thelectures were, in form, to those of Communist Party members of the 1930s. The“holy names” were different–one cited de Man and Derrida instead of Marx andLenin–but the glazed eyes and the mantra-like repetition of politically approvedphrases were very much the same. Truth be told, I have observed the samehypnotic behavior at all types of academic conferences, from feminism to computerscience. You watch, you listen, and you wonder: When will we finally wake up? And you know the horrible truth: never. In effect, we shall continue to erect statues toNapoleon, but never, or rarely, to Montaigne. This much is clear. Which brings me to what I consider the bottom line, namely the structure of the brain. The frontal lobes, the large neocortex that governs rational thinking andlogical processes, is a relative latecomer on the scene, in evolutionary terms. Thelimbic system, which is the center of impulse and emotion, has been around muchlonger. The conflict between the two is perhaps best illustrated by the case of thealcoholic sitting at a bar, staring at a frosty stein of beer in front of him. Theneocortex says No; the limbic system says Go. Statistically, most drunks die of alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver; very few escape from the siren song of thelimbic brain. As Goethe once put it, “the world is not logical; it is psycho-logical.” And that is to put it quite mildly, it seems to me.

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