Judge Robert Bork, the conservative jurist best known for having been Borked by the Senate out of a seat on the Supreme Court, expresses in his recent book, Slouching Toward Armageddon, an apocalyptic view of American culture. But if the Right complains that traditional moral values are neglected, even mocked, the Left bewails our politicians’ reluctance to use the l-word as a symptom of our selfish indifference to the deserving clients of liberalism. For the former, we have abandoned constraints on our individual desires; for the latter, we have… abandoned constraints on our individual desires. The difference between the two critiques is that the Right proposes rules for limiting the expression of these desires, whereas the Left proposes other ways to expend the social capital we now devote to them. Explicitly transcendental or not, the Right judges us by the inherent nature of our acts; historically determinist or not, the Left judges us by the presumed consequences of our acts. They are opposed as a priori vs a posteriori, being vs doing.
And both sides blame the market system; the first, because it encourages us to indulge our desires at the expense of moral restraint, the second, because it encourages us to indulge our desires at the expense of the rest of the human and natural world. A la rigueur, some of these condemners of the market will admit their own complicity in it, but none ever seem to envisage–as diehard revolutionary Herbert Marcuse‘s One-Dimensional Man did back in 1964–that their very condemnation is itself in complicity with it. Why, my hands are clean: I don’t read pornography / invest in tobacco stocks. If it weren’t for all those unreconstructed souls who do…
But the two positions I have been discussing are not altogether symmetrical. Transcendentally grounded wisdom, whether Christian or Confucian, never expects the real world to correspond altogether with the moral ideal. Transcendentalism is not utopianism; its ultimate truth is expressed by “my kingdom is not of this world.” But this vision does have a special category for what happens when this world and my kingdom become not merely distinct but altogether incompatible. Apocalypse or Armageddon occurs when the social order falls apart in violence, when the deferring function of culture is no longer operative. At this point, the transcendental takes over from the worldly, the paradox of the sacred realizes itself in the here and now of mimetic crisis.
In the immanentist vocabulary of the Left, this is the moment of Revolution, the final conflict. But the Left is farther adrift from its historically recent traditions than the Right from its far older ones. Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God; how many, I wonder, still believe that the International Soviet will be the human race? Immanentism, rightly considered, is incompatible with apocalypses and final conflicts. These are prophesied from on high not as goals but threats, so that we may act to avoid them. A position that refuses the religious credo quia absurdum should not make claims about the end of history.
Cultural pessimism, like all our everyday social discourse, is historically naive, not because it cannot fulfill thought’s ultimate goal to be fully conscious of itself, but because it does not realize the possibilities of self-reflection already available to it in the present moment. This kind of thinking is a step behind the postmodern era. That does not mean that the content of its moralism should be disregarded. But we have heard enough of the dialogue de sourds between the old-fashioned transcendental moralist and the new style immanentist moralist. Postmodern thought must be capable of understanding both discourses of cultural pessimism as themselves apotropaic gestures within the market system.
Is cultural optimism any less naive? Can it exist independently of the frenetic futurism that is really just another apocalyptic mode? Futurism may be optimistic, but only because it confidently awaits a technological Messiah to resolve problems insoluble by other means. Cultural optimism is the conviction that human society is capable of solving its own problems. The simplicity of this conviction need not reflect a naive anthropology. GA adds the significant nuance that the human capacity to defer violence through representation is dependent on our paradoxical relation with transcendence: the ability and the need to make the central focus of our desires the transcendental signifier of the sign is precisely what defines us as human.
GA is sometimes mistaken for an apocalyptic mode, its hypothesis turned inside out into a prophecy, as though the historical horizon of originary thinking were the return to the originary moment at which the metaphysical Idea of the Good and the God whose incarnation saves us from our own mimetic violence are one and the same.
But they will surely never again be one and the same. The horizon of originary thinking is ever-broadening. Believers and non-believers, social critics of the Left and Right will continue to coexist, to argue and occasionally war with each other over the future direction of society. True cultural optimism consists in accepting the perennity of conflict in the context of the deferral of ultimate violence.
Since optimism asserts the possibility of success, it is obliged to face the practical question of preventing failure. Any Armageddon in our future will most likely come not as brimstone poured from heaven on readers of pornography, but as the detonation of atomic, biological, or chemical warheads bearing the address of powers holding ethical views even more aprioristic than those of Professor Bork. We in the West, as beneficiaries of an effective socioeconomic system, can probably cope with our problems without destroying ourselves. The resentments of the less developed world are far more deadly.
The term Armageddon reminds us that the archetype of our cultural pessimism is that of the Hebrews. Can it be a coincidence that the reestablished nation of these same Hebrews is once again the focus, symbolic and real, of the world’s most virulent and potentially dangerous social resentments? Cultural pessimists and other apocalyptics would do better to devote their energies to Jesus‘s original mission: to bring peace to humanity, beginning with the Middle East.