In Hegel’s world of thought without language, the paradoxical effect of language on the world it purports to describe is fully recuperated in the fuite en avant of the dialectic, within which art and religion incarnate ideas that only attain fully self-conscious expression in propositional or declarative form. The “end of history” is the revelation of an ultimate truth simultaneously anthropological and ontological: the Spirit once embodied in art or evoked in religious rite is now known.
The framework of Francis Fukuyama’s notorious equation of the end of history with the triumph of liberal democracy is the dialectic of political forms in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, but its cognitive corollary is clear. We come to the end of history when we have nothing essential left to learn about the human. Political organization is the ultimate anthropological test; if we now know how to construct the ultimately successful society, and know that we know this, any further learning can reveal only what is already implicit in this social form through which humanity realizes its full potential. Within this final state, following Hegelian logic, art as the imaginary presentation of paradoxical relationships, that is, those not expressible in propositions, would no longer have a necessary function. Whether or not “entertainment” (not a Hegelian category) would remain as a means of discharging our residual “pity” and “terror” (read: resentment), art would have nothing left to reveal.
From the standpoint of political theory, the Achilles’ heel of the “end of history” thesis is that it hypostatizes the nation-state as the permanent overarching form of human organization. Phenomena such as the evolving integration of the European Union and the globalization of international capital markets suggest that the nation-state is far from the ultimate stage of political development. Nor is the future likely to bring “world government” as either a reproduction of the structures of the nation-state writ large or an overarching federation of individual states taken separately. Rather than a linear hierarchy of political bodies from municipality to nation to regional confederation to “globe,” what appears to be emerging is a network of intersecting hierarchies regulating different aspects of human intercourse.
But there is a deeper sense in which it is naïve merely to substitute the liberal-democratic nation-state for Hegel’s Prussian autocracy as the ultimate political institution. Once liberal democracy is perceived to be the synthesis of all previous political forms, it no longer has an antithesis and therefore ceases to be a specific “thesis” or category at all. If, as it now appears, communism and fascism-Nazism were not serious alternatives to market society but aberrations on the world-historical scene, then “history” in the narrow sense of the emergence of new forms of political organization has been over since (at least) the mid-nineteenth century, and the last century’s painful struggle with totalitarianism was merely the conclusive demonstration of this fact. Rather than see the end of the Cold War as the triumph of the liberal-democratic nation-state, we should view it as the beginning of an era whose chief task is to lay the groundwork for a stable and universally beneficial world exchange system.
The greatest human problem of the post-millennial era is the resentment provoked by great and durable economic inequality both among and within nations. Inequality within market society can of course be theorized; this theorization has in fact become the dominant intellectual mode of our time. Yet if it is increasingly impossible to maintain the claim that the social sciences, whether sociology, economics, or political science, are value-free even as an ideal, it is precisely because of the impossibility of constructing value-free models of unequal relations. It is no coincidence that the demise of the illusory alternatives to market society has been contemporary with the rise of victimary thinking in the social sciences as well as in the humanities and in the popular consciousness. Feminism provides perhaps the most striking corroboration; in many recent collections of neutral-sounding articles on questions such as globalization or corporate management, one finds a group of studies that denounce, often in quite vehement terms, relevant aspects of the condition of women. In the humanities, victimary discourse has long been the norm rather than the exception. In a post-national market society in which no quasi-unanimous ideology is conceivable, to speak of unequal relations in neutral terms is implicitly to violate our most fundamental ethical intuition.
This has not always been the case. The model of an unequal system is in principle a tool for modifying that system, as is Marx’s analysis of the capitalist production system in Das Kapital. But this kind of analysis is acceptable only because it purports to find a path beyond inequality to a fully reciprocal state of free exchange. Post-utopian models of the market can no longer explain inequality as a structural necessity (“exploitation”) of a system (“capitalism”), which for that very reason is fated to give way to a higher (“communist”) form. More or less orthodox Marxist analyses of the world economy continue to be produced, but these can no longer plausibly situate themselves within the eschatological horizon of the market’s self-transcendence; to the extent that they posit historical evolution, the engine of change is moral rather than economic. In a word, Marxism is henceforth only one of many forms of victimary discourse. Absent a plausible claim of historical inevitability, it is impossible to analyze inequality without denouncing, at least implicitly, its causes.
In these circumstances, societies and sub-societies whose economic conditions justify a claim to victimary status pose the following dilemma. On the one hand, situating the causes of inequality entirely outside the social unit deprives it of subjecthood, reducing it to the passive status of an animal species; yet, on the other, situating these causes even partially within the society risks further inflaming resentment by giving the appearance of “blaming the victim.” Where inequality is endemic and not easily eradicated, so that individuals born into disadvantage cannot be given a clear path to its diminution, no model, however true to the facts, is likely to be found acceptable. Within the realm of theoretical discourse, only the narrowest paths are available for negotiating this dilemma.
But the integration that cannot be accomplished by the declarative discourse of theory is accessible to the ostensive representations of art. My thesis is that what maintains the revelatory function of art throughout history from the earliest times to the present is inequality within a system of at least partially reciprocal exchange. What is new about our liberal-democratic times is the absence of any credible ideological justification for this inequality, either as ontologically grounded in itself (“the will of God”) or as a temporary stage in a process leading to its abolition. Art no longer either puts itself in the service of the Revolution or seeks by catharsis to restore a timeless stasis; its dominant mode in our era is (non-socialist) realism (see Chronicle 228). The deferral of resentment that art accomplishes within its local universe is at the same time a movement toward the integration of this universe within global culture. In this context, “esthetic value” is increasingly assimilable to exchange value, not simply because of the rationalization of markets (e.g., for painting) under conditions of “perfect information,” but because the artifacts and behaviors of the particular worlds that art reveals acquire value in the marketplace.
As a simple example of this contrast between art and theory, let me first recall one of the most controversial works of social science in recent years, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994), which purports to explain and offer solutions to the educational and economic difficulties of the African-American population. Many of the book’s critics attacked its use of data on technical grounds, but the hostile tone of most of these attacks, many of which accused the authors of racism, makes clear that statistical methodology was not the issue. The real problem of The Bell Curve is what led conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, not known for his exquisite racial sensitivity, to express his disapproval of the book’s overall project: in explaining unequal Black performance on IQ tests on the basis of long-term factors, The Bell Curve’s theoretical model is unethical on its face. Even if the book’s ultimate intent is to aid the unequal to become more equal, it violates the implicit ethic of social science within a democratic exchange system by justifying their inequality, however “objectively,” in the first place.
Let us now turn, in contrast, to the plethora of films made by Black directors (Spike Lee, John Singleton, the van Peebles, the Hughes brothers, Bill Duke…) over the past decade or so about life in the “inner city.” However critical these films may be of the larger society, they rarely hesitate to reveal the factors that make inner-city families and their children poorly adapted to the post-industrial economy. But because this revelation takes place within an esthetic context, the spectator, white or black, is made to experience the characters’ actions as meaningful, to share their resentment and its esthetic transcendence. Young people’s more radical identification with the resentments of rap music is fundamentally similar: this identification, both in a broad sense and in its specifically youthful version, is fundamental to American popular culture, particularly its music.
A simple statement of the originary hypothesis is that humanity and its culture are founded on the fundamental principle that signs are more easily exchanged than things. But before the signs of human representation can be distilled into the declarative propositions of theory, they function in their ostensive, esthetically evocative role as means of deferring violence. Art may be unnecessary for those wholly and confidently focused on success in a world that sees itself as nothing but a network of human exchange. But the rest of us need the esthetic sacralization of human action that, by dissolving the imaginary barrier between failure and success, helps make ultimate success in this world possible. If this analysis is correct, then art, as well as history, will survive the end of history.