Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

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When I was in college and struggling to get postmodernism in philosophy, I asked a friend who was a writing student what postmodernism in literature meant. His very brief description — he was dismissive like that — was that in modernist literature, ordinary, every-day occurrences drove the drama of the story. In postmodernist literature, extraordinary events drove the plot of the story. The example that he made was that a story might start one morning when a man realizes that there’s a tree growing out of his leg.

Today, Komsomolskaya Pravda Daily reports that Artyom Sidorkin of Izhevsk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation, went for surgery to remove what doctors had believed to be a tumor, but in fact turned out to be a five centimeter tall spruce tree growing in Mr. Sidorkin’s lung (“5 cm. Fir Tree Removed from Patient’s Lung,” MosNews.com, 13 April 2009 [Warning: Images Not Safe For Dinner]).

Two observations:

  1. Life imitates art — and vice versa. It’s not just philosophy and literature that are post-modern. They are merely middling indicators. They have become so only to the extent that actual lived life has become post-modern. Trees are actually growing out of people. I’m concerned that tomorrow I might read news of a man who woke up to find that he had turned into a giant beetle, or that the latest trend among young people was to turn into a rhinoceros.

  2. Life is fucking relentless. I used to find it bizarre that a mile out into Lake Washington on the 520 floating bridge, weeds grew in the automobile soot that had accumulated in the crevices in the asphalt and spiders had spun webs amidst their stems and apparently caught enough food to survive. Here you have a tree that actually tried to make a feeder-log of a man.

Update, 2 May 2009: On Monday, Steven Colbert picked up the story for his segment, Craziest Fucking Thing I’ve Ever Heard. He offered that that’s why he uses Roundup Nasal Spray.

The Grand Historical Narrative of Postmodernism

When people think of postmodernism in philosophy, they usually have in mind a pretty specific list of thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and a number of lesser lights among the French post-structuralists. But I am thinking of an alternate trajectory where the key figures would be Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger (Heidegger is at least a bridge figure in any version of postmodernism). In the grand historical narrative spun by these two, there is a founding period of the Western intellectual tradition where a series of conceptualizations dramatically circumscribed the realm of possible future development, determined the course of the developments that would occur and cut us off from other potential futures. For Heidegger it was the impressing of ουσια with the form of λογος in the metaphysics of Aristotle. The remainder of the Western tradition has unfolded within the confines of this original conception.

A point made by Spengler in The Decline of the West but similarly prominently by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence is that such an original conceptualization has only a limited potential. It is a potential of sufficient abundance as to play out over the course of millennia. Nevertheless, some time in the midst of the Long Nineteenth Century the Western tradition hit its pinnacle and has now entered, in Spengler’s terms, the autumn of its life. Either at some point in the recent past, or at some point in the imminent future the West will have exhausted itself. The parlor game is in arguing for various watershed events: the death of god, the First World War, “on or about December 1910” (Virgina Woolf).

In its negative mode, postmodernism is that attempt to clear away the debris of the wreckage of the West (Heidegger’s Destruktion or Abbau, Derrida’s deconstruction). In its affirmative mode, it is the attempt to get behind that original conceptualization, revisit that original openness to that unbounded potentiality of ουσια and to refound the Western intellectual tradition — or something more cosmopolitan still — on that basis. Hence the interest in Heidegger with the pre-Socratics, with Parmenides and Heraclitus.

I have lived in sympathy with similar such ideas for some time now in that my trajectory out of natural science into philosophy started with my first encounter with Thomas Kuhn in the May 1991 issue of Scientific American (Horgan, John, “Profile: Reluctant Revolutionary“). In Kuhn I was introduced to the notion of a domain formed by an original act of genus insight (a paradigm), but with only a limited potential, eventually to be exhausted and superseded by subsequent reconceptualization of the field.

I suspect that one of the causes of the structure of scientific inquiry as Kuhn describes is that the object of scientific inquiry is, at least phenomenologically, a moving target. A theory is derived within a certain horizon of experience, but just as quickly as a theory is promulgated, human experience moves on. The scope of human experience expands as our capabilities — for perception, for measure, for experiencing extremes of the natural world — increase. Consider that when Albert Einstein published the special and general theories of relativity people had no idea that stars were clumped into galaxies. They thought that the milky way was just one slightly more dense region of stars in a universe that consisted of an essentially homogenous, endless expanse of stars. They had identified some unusual, diffuse light patches that were referred to as nebula, but they had not realized that these nebulae were each entire galaxies of their own, tremendously distant, and that the local cluster striping our sky was the galaxy containing our sun, as viewed from the inside. And no one realized that the universe was expanding. They imagined that the spread of starts was static. Einstein — in what he later called the greatest error of his professional life — contrived his equations of relativity to so predict a static universe, whereas they had originally predicted one either expanding or contracting.

Notice that if one were to accept these ideas above, the intellectual scheme with which we would be faced would be one of cycles within cycles of superior and subordinate ideas, e.g. the Newtonian and Einsteinian and quantum mechanical scientific revolutions all take place within the horizon of ουσια qua λογος.

This is a romantic series of ideas, that a primordial act of genius is capable of radically redirecting the course of history. Of course postmodernists reject such totalizing abstractions as “Western civilization,” “the Western intellectual tradition,” and “the West” as well as the practice of constructing such grand historical narratives as the one I have sketched above. But there it is. I think that postmodernist thought is riddled with tensions, especially between its macro structure and micro tactics.