Sunday, July 12, 2009


This is Ihab Hassan, writing in 1961:

The political and social experiences of our century reveal two opposite tendencies at work: the unremitting organization of society and the unleashing of vast destructive energies against civilization. Both tendencies are incarnated by the superstate which is at once utopian and demonic. Both have been abetted by the incredible development of technology.

On the one hand, there's an impressive prescience in these words, which precede Vietnam as well as our own present day cultural struggles. But there's also something self-fulfilling about the defeatist tone and the way that the discussion is twisted slightly so that 'technology' is presented as culpable.

The 'unremitting organization of society' is not a technological matter, although of course technology makes it much, much easier. Rather, it is the function of a state increasingly interfering in the affairs of its citizens. This, I admit, is made easier by the secularisation of society and the resultant diminution in the power of religious organisations, although I do not accept the arguments of people like Eric Voegelin, who lamented the loss of influence of religion when he declared: 'the world finds itself in a severe crisis, in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience'. This takes the argument too far. But nonetheless, there is a sense that our modern world is becoming an increasingly alien place. Voegelin also wrote, in 1938, in response to the rising Nazi threat:

The contact between one human being and another is interrupted; non-human ideologies stand opposed, and man is transformed into a cog in a machine, playing along mechanically in the bustle of life, outwardly warring and killing abstractly.

As with the Hassan quote, there is much to agree with in this, although again the author's undeniable concern for humanity leads him to a questionable conclusion. Voegelin continues:

That the power of the State is primal, or absolute, is no longer a judgement of the person who submits to the State, but rather the dogma of a believer. Through this experience, the existence of man loses reality; the State appropriates it and become what is truly real and that from which a stream of reality flows back into men, transforming them with new vitality into parts of the suprahuman reality. We have entered the center of a religious experience, and our words describe a mystical process.

Voegelin was, of course, a religious thinker, and it is natural, then, that his critique of an institution - the State - which he believes has won a bitter struggle against spirituality and indeed has supplanted it, should be couched in mystic terms. But as with the Hassan quote, he is creating a false dichotomy. Just as Hassan loads blame incommensurately on 'technology', Voegelin's implicit criticism of the secularisation of the State unfairly ascribes the alienation of modern man to a lack of spirituality. There are many reasons for the rise of Nazism, and increasing secularisation may be one of them, but only one of them. Instead of examining broader arguments, both Voegelin and Hassan appear to be focusing on the mechanisation of modern times and seeing it as a threat to liberty.

This is an exaggerated fear. Just as the Futurists, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at Tate Modern at present, were in thrall to the machine and venerated it in fascistic terms, it seems that these liberals are opposing it in equally exaggerated terms. Hassan goes on to quote Mussolini: "Nothing beyond the State, above the State, against the State. Everything to the State, for the State, in the State." Hassan rightly describes this as 'insane', and is also correct in suggesting that 'when technology is put in the service of such an ideal, the refinements of mass terror, mass torture... and mass hysteria become virtually inexhaustible.' Just so. But technology (and the State) have no monopoly on mass terror and mass torture. By creating such an easy target, it is possible to overlook other reasons for alienation.

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