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Week 30 Supplemental Readings.pdf

Week 30 Supplemental Readings.pdf

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Published by: Daniel Lee Eisenberg Jacobs on Nov 14, 2013
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Meaning in history: Marx and Engels as philosophes of a second Enlightenment

"In pre-modern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life:
people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue
to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary
customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past,
and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not
forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at
the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The
reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the
chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move
the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of
ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be
contingent and time-bound. This is why death, in modern societies, is the
great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close
of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the
task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead,
somewhere over history's horizon. Modern societies don't know what will
count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have
no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position
to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge
that the values of one's own time, the values one has tried to live by, are
expunge-able. . . .

"Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the
individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a
trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama.
Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is
faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the
establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal
for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might
have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning
in which human beings might participate, in history itself. When Wilson
explained, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of To the Finland
Station, that his book had been written under the assumption that 'an
important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental
"breakthrough" had occurred,' this is the faith he was referring to. . . .
Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment."

— Introduction by Louis Menand (2003),
Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (1940)

On Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874)

From the Introduction by Peter Preuss (Hackett, 1980):

Man, unlike animal, is self-conscious. He is aware that he is alive and that he must die.
And because he is self-conscious he is not only aware of living, but of living well or
badly. Life is not wholly something that happens to man; it is also something he engages
in according to values he follows. Human existence is a task. . . .
Whatever a person does finally receives its meaning only so far as it is integrated into
the total task of existing. If it fails to further this task it is valueless. If it hinders this task
it is to be rejected. . . .
The quest for knowledge and truth is also a part of the task of existing and, like every
human enterprise, it receives its value from being integrated into the task of which it is a
part. . . .
The 19th Century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education
bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts
about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man: man, unlike animal, is a
historical being. Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, either natural or divine,
but in part produces his own being. The task of existing is a task precisely because it is
not a case of acting according to a permanent nature or essence but rather of producing
that nature within the limitations of a situation. History is the record of this self-
production; it is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into the present
which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity man would fall short of
humanity: history is necessary.
But what if this activity is perverted? What if, rather than remaining the life-
promoting activity of a historical being, history is turned into the objective uncovering of
mere facts by the disinterested scholar — facts to be left as they are found, to be
contemplated without being assimilated into present being? According to Nietzsche, this
perversion has taken place — and history, rather than promoting life, has become deadly.
This, then, is the dilemma Nietzsche faced: history is necessary, but as it is practiced it is
The present work is an attempt to extricate himself, and us, from this dilemma.


From Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874):

"A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a
past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . Here it is not
righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which
announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-
desiring force. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and
destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt
to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be
descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is
always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline
to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker
than the first."
Le monde va finir. La seule raison, pour laquelle il pourrait
durer, c'est qu'il existe. . . . Car, en supposant qu'il continuât à
exister matériellement, serait-ce une existence digne de ce nom
et du Dictionnaire historique? Je ne dis pas que le monde sera
réduit aux expédients et au désordre bouffon des républiques
du Sud-Amérique, que peut-être même nous retournerons à
l'état sauvage, et que nous irons, à travers les ruines herbues de
notre civilisation, chercher notre pâture, un fusil à la main.
Non; car ces aventures supposeraient encore une certaine
énergie vitale, écho des premiers âges. Nouvel exemple et
nouvelles victimes des inexorables lois morales, nous périrons
par où nous avons cru vivre. La mécanique nous aura
tellement américanisés, le progrès aura si bien atrophié en nous
toute la partie spirituelle, que rien, parmi les rêveries
sanguinaires, sacrilèges ou antinaturelles des utopistes, ne
pourra être comparé à ses résultats positifs. . . . Mais ce n'est
pas particulièrement par des institutions politiques que se
manifestera la ruine universelle, ou le progrès universel; car
peu m'importe le nom. Ce sera par l'avilissement des cœurs.
The world is drawing to an end. Only for one reason can it last
longer: just because it happens to exist. . . . Suppose it should
continue materially, would that be an existence worthy of its
name and the historical dictionary? I do not say that the world
will be reduced to expedients and the buffoonish disorder of
the republics of South America, that perhaps even we shall
return to a savage state, and that we will go, through the grassy
ruins of our civilization, to seek our grazing ground, rifle in
hand. No: because such adventures would still suppose a
certain vital energy, echo of first ages. We shall furnish a new
example of the inexorability of the spiritual and moral laws,
and shall be their victims: we shall perish by the very thing by
which we fancy that we live. Technocracy will Americanize
us; progress will starve our spirituality so far that nothing of
the bloodthirsty, sacrilegious, or unnatural dreams of the
utopists will be comparable to such positive results. . . .
Universal ruin will manifest itself not solely or particularly in
political institutions or general progress or whatever else might
be a proper name for it; it will be seen, above all, in the
baseness of hearts.

-- Charles Baudelaire, Fusées [Rockets] (1867)
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)


Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
In trouble?

It is true: I earn my living
But, believe me, it is only an accident.
Nothing that I do entitles me to eat my fill.
By chance I was spared. (If my luck leaves me
I am lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would gladly be wise.
The old books tell us what wisdom is:
Avoid the strife of the world
Live out your little time
Fearing no one
Using no violence
Returning good for evil --
Not fulfillment of desire but forgetfulness
Passes for wisdom.
I can do none of this:
Indeed I live in the dark ages!


I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.

I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.


You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think --
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.

For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.
To the Planetarium
If one had to expound the teachings of antiquity with utmost brevity
while standing on one leg, as did Hillel that of the Jews, it could only be
in this sentence: "They alone shall possess earth who live from the
powers of the cosmos." Nothing distinguishes the ancient from the mod-
ern man so much as the former's absorption in a cosmic experience
scarcely known to later periods. Its waning is marked by the flowering of
astronomy at the beginning of the modern age. Kepler, Copernicus, and
Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific impulses alone. All
the same, tlle exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the uni-
verse, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what
was to come. The ancients) intercourse with the cosmos had been differ-
ent: the ecstatic trance [Rausch]. For it is in this experience alone that we
gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest
from us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that
man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the
dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant
and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of
starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither
nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly dear by the
last war) which was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling
with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were
hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through
the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean
depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were
dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted
for the first time on a planetary scale-that is, in the spirit of technology.
But because lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction
through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a
bloodbath. The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the pur-
pose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who pro-
claimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education?
Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship
between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of
that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the
mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men
as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but
mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology, a physis is being
organized through which mankind's contact with the cosmos takes a new
and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One
need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind
is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of
time, to encounter there rhythms from which the shall draw strength
as they did earlier on high mountains or on the shores of southern seas.
The "Lunaparks" are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of gen-
uine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we
are accustomed to call   In the nights of annihilation of the last
war, the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the
bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first at-
tempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of
the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to
the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will
save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the
ecstasy of procreation.
Written 1923-1926; published in 1928. Excerpted from One-Way Street. Gesammelte
Schriften, IV, 146-148. Translated by Edmund Jephcott.

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