The Liberal Supernarrative (As Taught to Normies)
Including discussion on the following topical issues and queries: The liberal historical supernarrative defined. In the future, historians will look back and say something stupid. The iconography of Uatu the Watcher. The Protestants take aim. The Illuminati set forth. Sorel mogs Jaurès. Gnostic Gaga. The historicists reign triumphant. How to teach The Taming of the Shrew. Why the Straussians are confused. The anticlimax of “Late Capitalism.” Let Terminus hold court. Why the serious leftists get hung out to dry. Baywatch in the eye of the storm. Hamilton and the 1619 Project: masterpieces of meta-whiggery. The significance of the 1619 riots.
I. The Left, the University, and the Exoteric Model of History
II. Origins and Decay of the Liberal Supernarrative
III. The Exoteric Model’s Pedagogy in Action
IV. The Exoteric/Esoteric Distinction in the Wild
V. Conclusion: Signs of Breakdown?
- Books Consulted
I. The Left, the University, and the Exoteric Model of History
In 1990, after taking inventory of the controversy generated by his Culture of Narcissism (1978) in which he attributed the narcissism of the New Left to diminishing expectations for the future, Christopher Lasch corrected his mistake: “The left had no quarrel with the future, I discovered, but only with the backward, benighted, or simply misguided opponents of progress whose blind resistance might prevent the future from arriving on schedule. It was the belief in progress — the death of which I had taken for granted until I began to look into the matter — that explained the left’s curious mixture of complacency and paranoia” (p. 36). The informed reader will recognize that although it has been thirty years since that passage was written, little has changed. To be sure, the left itself has changed in various ways. It has increasingly concerned itself with various forms of sexual liberation inconceivable before the turn of the millennium. It has also accepted increasingly stringent standards for what one might consider a nonracist or anti-racist society. It still carries the pretense of being primarily economics-oriented while, in reality, it has allowed powerful interests to exploit its commitments to racial and sexual fairness. Yet all the while, it has generally maintained the same quasi-utopian energy that it has always shared in common with the liberals. How could this be?
I suspect the answer has something to do with how these progressive leftists and liberals are taught. Since the 1970s, critical theory has firmly planted both feet into the university system via the humanities and social sciences. It eventually found a purchase in the form of internet discussion, where it has nurtured online tribal communities steeped in extremism/absurdity. Although the progressive agenda of the left was already changing in the 1990s, the media clash between the printed word and the internet starting this century has led to the growth and development of various ostensibly leftist but essentially liberal heresies. Lacking some sort of mechanism to prevent the dross of critical theory from spilling over onto unsuspecting flocks of neurotics and stoners between the ages of 18 and 22, the university has been a necessary condition for a shift in left wing priorities.
Yet, all the same, there is one hallmark of the liberal worldview that has remained more or less unscathed, without any terribly warped or distorted variations bleeding into mass public consciousness. It is the liberal conception of history, and its sturdiness should not be taken for granted. After all, critical theory does involve the radical (and usually justified) critique of such an understanding of history. There is no shortage of ways one might look at history, and critical theories have supplied plenty of alternatives. It’s just that none have stuck. So while the soon-to-be progressive receives her college education and she is exposed to a veritable smorgasbord of liberal heresies that might cause her to question so many aspects of day-to-day life, that sense of forward momentum so key to the liberal conception of life never dies down. It is the trade wind that guides her sails.
Let’s dwell for a moment on just how much of an achievement this arrangement really is. What will henceforth be called the liberal historical supernarrative, or what the historian Herbert Butterfield called “whig history” back in 1931, is the exoteric model of history. It is the basic understanding of history inculcated in virtually every American (and most Westerners, really) since birth. And it is exoteric because it’s easy to understand. It goes something like this:
In the Beginning, things were Bad. Then, over time, they got Better. But they were still Bad. Compared to before, they were Good. But compared to now, they were Bad. But then! Then, they got Better again! But compared to now, they were still Bad. But finally, they got Better once more! And now, things are Good. But we sure have lots of work to do, because in the Future, the Historians will look back at today and say that it was Bad.
Everything else — every other conception of history that strays from this model — is esoteric. So, for instance, “Things used to be great but have been declining ever since” is esoteric. “History is cyclical” is esoteric. “History is deceptive because its written manifestation occludes the experience of the everyday” is esoteric. “History ought to be rewritten every few decades to change emphases corresponding to the exigencies of the current era” is esoteric. “History is chaos and all grand narratives are nonsense” is esoteric. Even the business you sometimes hear about “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” is esoteric. All this stuff may occasionally surface from time to time — an adherent to this arc, for instance, might accidentally invoke a “Golden Age” myth, feeling nostalgia for the distant past — but to fully absorb one of these esoteric ideas as the foundation of one’s understanding requires a certain degree of practice. The default position is the one quoted above.
What has allowed the liberal historical supernarrative to work so powerfully is its relativity. The value of any moment in the record of human events always depends upon that to which it is contrasted. Consider an optical illusion in which the same shade of gray appears to be white in one image and black in the other. It is always the background that determines the value of the foreground, even if these two seemingly different shades of grey are technically identical. So it goes in the liberal conception of history. Compared to Then, X is Good. Compared to Now, X is Bad. Compared to The Future, X is really Bad. Simple and digestible.
Moreover, this understanding of history lacks a distinct cosmogony or eschatology, so there are never any well-defined absolutes with which to put things in perspective. The “Beginning” has no real definition; it is more like a deictic marker that merely invokes the possibility of the concrete (when I say I’m talking to “you,” the second-person pronoun “you” is deictic because “you” could be anyone). The “Beginning” of history can be calibrated as any year: it could be 50 BC, or it could be 1900 AD. And when studying the history of a certain place or group of people, the subject often assumes its own self-contained temporality. That is, the instructor will rarely make lateral comparisons between one subject and another. He won’t, for instance, discuss what was going on in the Carolingian Empire if he’s meant to teach the history of the Abbasid Caliphate, even though both existed at the same time. The mind of the student often compartmentalizes these two subjects into two different incommensurable areas, rarely juxtaposing one against the other, even though both are understood to be part of the self-same History of all things. So “the Beginning” of history is usually just where the teacher sets “the Beginning” of a given subject, and no absolute “Beginning” ever need be reached.
Likewise, the “Future” to which the liberal always appeals as a realization of the Absolute Good is itself a pure abstraction; it has no set time or set conditions. Political commentators across the spectrum like to reiterate this part of the liberal supernarrative when engaging in polemic: “In the future, historians will be saying that so-and-so was a real jerk!” It rarely occurs to them that perhaps in the future, historians will be saying something stupid about so-and-so, because they themselves will be the products of a much dumber time. It never occurs to them that at some point in the future, historians will get the situation regarding so-and-so about 80% right, then later historians will screw it up and get it mostly wrong, then the historians that succeed them will recover some of the truth, and so on. In effect, “the Future” is a secularized version of the eschaton, and thus the metaphysical region of the heavens to which all the chosen shall ascend after the rapture. And given that the historian’s job, in this understanding of history, is to transcend his own limited vantage point and function as the all-seeing eye of the cosmos, he therefore achieves this God-like omniscience when this “the Future” finally comes.
The ideal historian within this exoteric model thus operates as the all-seeing subject who attempts to place himself outside of history and, in doing so, deny his own subjectivity, even as he lives and breathes within history’s continual flow. There is a useful figure within American pop culture iconography to illustrate the task of this kind of historian: Uatu the Watcher from the Marvel Comics universe. Uatu, an invention of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appears in Fantastic Four #13 (1963). In that issue, the Fantastic Four are tasked with defeating the Russian space force, led by an old man named Ivan Kragoff and his team of specially trained astronaut super-apes, in a race to land a space vessel on the moon. After narrowly defeating Kragoff in this race, then engaging in conflict with him and his apes on the moon’s surface, the Fantastic Four encounter Uatu the Watcher. He introduces himself and informs them that he belongs to a race of aliens from a distant planet that is, in fact, one gigantic computer. This alien race, according to Uatu, is only destined to observe the universe from afar and record everything that happens for all of eternity. But because he was dwelling on the moon and his presence has been disturbed by the space travel of these Earthlings, he must now break his vow merely to “watch” and instead directly interfere. He does this by not only revealing himself but organizing a fight between “The Thing” Ben Grimm and one of the super-apes, which will determine who gets to claim ownership over the moon. Uatu believes that this fight will prevent a cataclysmic nuclear conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia. Once The Thing defeats the super-ape, the Watcher declares that America has proven triumphant, announces that he will recede further back in space to continue watching the humans, and he dramatically concludes his appearance by telling Reed Richards, “Space is your heritage — see that you prove worthy of such a glorious gift.” Presumably, he is addressing all of humanity.
It is worth acknowledging the connection between The Watchers’ approach to history and liberalism as a political ideology. The purpose of Uatu and his species is to record all of history, but for whom it is never said. Their records are meant to be kept distant from human eyes, and therefore, the only way Uatu can make himself and his mission known to the characters and the reader is by doing the very thing he claims to oppose: interfering. And he does come to interfere with the course of history many, many times, as he becomes a sporadically recurring character within the Marvel Comics Universe. Moreover, Uatu has a value system. In that aforementioned issue, he tells The Thing that he has seen “noble races turn savage and warlike with the passing of time! A fate which your own foolish breed seems headed for!” And though the statement as delivered may seem ambiguous, by the end of the issue it becomes clear that he sees the menace of Communism as this dangerous reversion to savagery that he has indirectly helped prevent. Over the course of his numerous appearances in various Marvel titles, Uatu comes to resemble the liberal historian who has reached Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and thus passively watches over other less-developed races as they stride progressively toward his own species’ final inert state. It is not so different from the goal of the USS Enterprise within the Star Trek universe, except that the Watchers have already established cosmic omnipresence (cf. Sam T. Francis’s discussion of it in his short piece “Beam us Out”). But just as with Star Trek, The Watcher does have his own “prime directive” of non-interference that he himself comes to break all the time. It is more or less like the real American military and its frequent interferences in international affairs overseas. Anyway, when the good liberal historian is engaging in analysis, he strives to be like Uatu and his race of Watchers, who have reached the final stage of political development, possess perfect omniscience, and upload all their data into a gigantic computer planet. All of them having been everywhere at once — and yet effectively nowhere at all.
Now, in the university, the exoteric liberal model of history functions as the starting point for virtually every undergraduate who enrolls, and for the steep majority of students, it will remain the model when they leave, whether they graduate or drop out. But if this university has a graduate program in the humanities, those undergraduates will occupy many of the same buildings on campus with another group of people whose understanding of history will often be quite different, and certainly more diverse from person to person. In a word, it will be truly “heterodox.” All of those esoteric notions of history described above will be on the table for consideration, and although some will be roundly rejected (unless heavily qualified), the students of various critical theories will find themselves no longer trapped within but one stalwart supernarrative. On the whole, they will pay much more attention to the notion of history as a concept, and they will be far more sensitive to the assumptions we make about how it is recorded and understood, its ontological status, questions of its singularity or plurality, multiple approaches to temporality, and so on. They may be pressured to conform to various opinions and fashions on other topics, especially those of a politically sensitive nature — but in this area, they are set free.
II. Origins and Decay of the Liberal Supernarrative
It should be stressed that there is nothing “natural” or even universally accessible about this exoteric model of history from which critical theory departs. Although Herbert Butterfield explained that he was using “whig history” as a mere label to describe “an unexamined habit of mind that any historian may fall into” (p. 30), it is not really a native part of the human condition. It developed over centuries of history, and it took a considerable amount of struggle to assemble. First forged in the fires of the protestant reformation starting in the fifteenth century, this historical model began to assume its most refined shape during the enlightenment about three hundred years later. It was undeniably different from the ancient and even medieval conceptions of history that came before it. The medieval understanding of history was really the point of departure. Although there was more variety and inner tension during the medieval period than is often assumed, the understanding of history under Christian orthodoxy was generally one of structural stability and homeostasis. Its most distilled expression is found in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Book XI) when he states that the entirety of the passage of time is best understood as essentially a bloatening or distention (distentio) that man perceives as a temporal vastness, and it lies within the unchanging infinitude of God Himself, the divine author of all creation. And for God, all of human time takes place as an infinitesimally short instant, everything having been foreseen through providence, for His being constitutes an eternal “present tense” with no past or future.
For the Protestants following the Reformation, however, the corruption of the Papacy necessitated a departure from what was now to be understood as a Satanic period within human history. Departing from Orthodoxy thus meant departing from the view of history as balanced and homeostatic. So as Protestant denominations multiplied in their numbers, history became increasingly treated by their various clergymen no longer as a series of typographical recurrences within a sustained cosmic unity (the corporeal presence of the Christ acting as the fulcrum), but instead as supersessive. By the sixteenth century, this new historical conception was on full display in John Foxe’s martyrological history Actes and Monuments (otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563), which itself made a great impact on the Puritan historians of the New World colonies such as William Bradford and Edward Johnson. Geographically, this culture in the New World laid the groundwork for the secularized “whig” history to follow. For America in particular, this secularization of an essentially protestant conception of history has had a clear impact, but it is hard to understand it without observing the manner in which the specifically Christian sheen to the philosophy of history began to fade.
During the enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the philosophy of history as a secular doctrine made its most decisive impact on what would eventually become the foundation of our liberal supernarrative, for it amounted to one of the chief justifications in using the perceived distinction between society and the state to engage in politics through subterfuge. Though the influence and moral legitimacy of the aristocracy was beginning to wane, the rise of the bourgeoisie and its occupation of the European intellectual milieu still occurred under political absolutism. This arrangement required bourgeois thinkers to engage in critique from an apparently depoliticized and secular standpoint set in contrast to political and theological authority. Though the enlightenment is often understood as a period of openness and free inquiry, we often forget the impressive degree of both secrecy and self-deception that occurred within its time. So do not be surprised to hear that one of the most important vehicles for this new philosophy of history was none other than the largely middle-class initiatory brotherhood of the Illuminati, itself an offshoot of Freemasonry, which was involved in the same essential project. For these secret societies, the secular progressive model of history was one of their chief animating forces. As Reinhart Koselleck explains in his Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society,
“The Illuminatus was a philosopher of history to the extent that he remained politically not responsible. Thus the revolution was papered over by the structure of historical progress, but this same structure practically mandated the factually revolutionary aspect — the plan to occupy the State and ‘do away’ with it. The veiling of the political tension, its pseudo-solution sometime in the future, intensified the tension in the present. Thus the Illuminati, basing themselves on their philosophy of history, asserted that they were not rebels, despite their secret efforts to absorb the State, that the danger of overthrow was non-existent, while that same philosophy of history persuaded them that their efforts to abolish the state were bound to succeed. […] The philosophy of history was simply indirect political power.” (pp.139–140)
But of course, once the French revolution happened, the bourgeoisie did not decline in influence, and the same secular philosophy of historical progress remained, surviving Marx’s revolutionary theory and becoming an integral feature of both financial liberalism and socialist labor politics. To be sure, it lacked the intellectual creativity of its original form in the eighteenth century, which at least made room for considerations of cyclicality, epicycles, and other pertinent concepts. And this philosophy’s utopian disposition, originally more markedly aware of its own problems, began to lose its nuance. For instance, in Conversations for Freemasons Between Ernst and Falk, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing — himself a freemason and, later, illuminatus — makes it clear that although he considered state boundaries and social differences between men to be essential outgrowths of man’s nature, the freemasons’ role was to set themselves against such marks of distinction pragmatically so as to prevent their evils from spreading more than absolutely needed. Evidently, he did not suffer from the delusion that “utopia” could mean anything but literally “nowhere.” But this level of complexity and self-awareness would inevitably disappear in the same way that both time and popularity will vulgarize any delicate system of thought, wearing away the fine impressions and rich handiwork of its creator.
When Georges Sorel wrote Reflections on Violence in 1908 and viciously mocked the now-pitiable socialist reformer Jean Jaurès for his bourgeois incrementalism, the Communist revolution had not even begun. But this did not stop Sorel from seeing weakness in the progressive philosophy of history that Jaurès relied upon — the same philosophy that by dint of its unassuming veneer helped set the stage for the French revolution once upon a time. As Sorel understood, a coward like Jaurès could never appreciate the necessity of political violence and the general strike with such an approach:
“It is very difficult to understand proletarian violence as long as we try to think in terms of the ideas disseminated by bourgeois philosophy; according to this philosophy, violence is a relic of barbarism which is bound to disappear under the progress of enlightenment. It is therefore quite natural that Jaurès, who has been brought up on bourgeois ideology, should have a profound contempt for the people who praise proletarian violence” (p. 65)
Sorel goes on and on bashing Jaurès frequently throughout the remainder of the book for being, as he makes clear in so many words, a huge sissy. The reason is not hard to grasp: what was once the vanguard mode of thinking had become banal and limpwrist in the aftermath of the first major cataclysm of revolutionary violence. What was once esoteric and insidious gradually became exoteric and milquetoast.
Elsewhere, Sorel tells us, “the friends of Jaurès, the priests and the democrats all take the Middle Ages as their ideal for the future; they would like competition to be tempered, wealth limited and production subordinated to needs” (p. 79), whereas Marx, by contrast, argued that the revolution will occur when capitalism is oppressive, strong, and productive to excess. The view Sorel attributes to Jaurès suggests a cyclical understanding of history and the desire for a return to a mythic Golden Age in the distant past, which may seem at odds with the liberal supernarrative. Such backward-looking yearnings were revived in part by Rousseau, and they still surface occasionally even today, but they always occlude the experience of day-to-day reality beneath a mist of nostalgia, longing for the return of a general feeling of worldly enchantment, yet without any of its negative material consequences — including the much greater regularity of violence, the very thing Jaurès opposes. In our time, the Golden Age myth still persists as a complement to liberalism rather than a contradiction. It has occasionally gotten so powerful that during the postwar era, anthropologists (especially in the 1970s) scrambled to invent specious theories that made primitive tribes seem more peaceful and less violent or covetous than they really were. But the advancement of the physical sciences continued, and such misconceptions were later cleared up even while the desire for the innocence of earlier times still persists on some level in the vulgar outposts of public thought.
In today’s world, the bourgeois philosophy of history that Sorel describes has not changed much, though the structure of the social classes and the genetic stock of its participants have both shifted about. Even his revolutionary attitude is familiar as a recurring feature of liberal discourse. The Sorelian future-oriented “myth” of a general strike, secession, violent revolution, or whatever else, frequently charges up to the forefront of public consciousness but then recedes back just as quickly as it appeared. The philosophy of liberal progress, for its part, remains just as robust as it is seen by radicals as underwhelming.
The gradual deterioration of once-powerful ideas also explains the status of the Illuminati today. For the Western underclass, the Illuminati has retained merely symbolic power as the iconic representation of the elites and their spiritual degradation of the masses via mainstream pop music and Hollywood. The culture industry, for its part, plays along with such mythology and mischievously inserts occult symbols and notions in the work of today’s major stars as “easter eggs” for the fans to talk about in the form of a kind of socially conscious celebrity gossip. The morality behind these “illuminati” videos is always that of vulgar liberalism, but it shares the same progressive assumptions from an ancient or elevated vantage point that lies outside of human history in illo tempore. For instance, in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” music video, Gaga begins by narrating the cosmic exploits of a female demiurge figure who births two races within humanity: a race of evil, and “a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” This description in the introduction, self-consciously Gnostic and morally dualistic, gives way to the actual song whose lyrics combine the moral certainty of the civil rights era with the celebratory enthusiasm of the self-help guru, telling the LGBTQ community that it is “on the right track.” Though the transition proved jarring to some, there is no contradiction between the video’s strange introduction and the song itself.
To make matters all the more bizarre, a story occasionally comes along like that of the NXIVM sex cult with its equally banal New Age platitudes, lending an uncomfortable amount of credence to such mythology, insofar as these Hollywood esoteric groups might themselves suggest the presence of even deeper, broader organized forces of the occult. But whatever the case may be, the absurdity of the whole situation speaks for itself. The true Illuminati of Bavaria may be long gone, but the “Illuminati” lives on as a self-reproducing symbol within a perverse yet apparently stable market-driven pseudo-culture. It inserts its Satanic symbols into the music videos of gyrating underfed women with kitty-ear headbands and grinning, sweaty back-up dancers for the pleasure of young girls everywhere, years before the same videos are fondly retained only in the memories of club-going gay men. Yet even in this coarsened representation, “The Illuminati” still forms a powerful cultural myth that bears traces of the same philosophy of history from the enlightenment.
III. The Exoteric Model’s Pedagogy in Action
Although the liberal historical supernarrative is not “naturally” intuitive, it is evidently quite powerful to have lasted the way it has in the university system. After all, there are other liberal mainstays that have failed to retain their exoteric shell, having been gradually pushed out by more exciting esoteric ideas within undergraduate pedagogy. We will examine those later. But for now, it is worth making absolutely clear just how stable this approach to history is, despite so much criticism having been leveled against it. The best way to grasp its stability is by observing how it functionally works.
One of the major adhesives that holds this edifice of the liberal supernarrative together is the theoretical approach known as “historicism,” rooted in the eighteenth-century writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder, himself an enlightenment philosopher and Illuminati initiate. It may not seem this way upon first glance, because essentially, historicism contends that past events and cultural artifacts of various kinds are the products of their own unique historical circumstances, which created specific mentalities within the society that engendered their occurrence. So for the art critic or historian of ideas, it is thus imperative to contextualize the subject of discussion historically in order to assess and appreciate it on its own terms rather than those of the present. For earlier American academics with historicist leanings, such as Herbert Butterfield and Leopold Ranke, the liberal “whig” supernarrative was precisely the thing to avoid. It may be difficult, then, to see why such an approach could be useful to the liberal progressive view of history if it must refuse to make a judgment, only to lurk passively in the shadows of history. Indeed, some conservatives have pinpointed historicism as a major cause of nihilism that they feel is common to University students. But on the contrary, historicism serves the aims of liberalism quite well because it effects an opening of space in which every figure, event, or cultural product from the past can be judged on an implied gradient scale, the kind mentioned in the beginning of this essay. The critic can at first evaluate the topic of discussion “on its own terms,” but then acknowledge his own subjectivity and say something like, “According to today’s standards, X may be bad, but during its own day, it was actually doing something interesting,” the designation of “interesting” applied from the vantage point of the present.
The approach of historicism has, in fact, undergone various attacks from a wide variety of distinct philosophical stances, each with its own motivations. It started most notably in the nineteenth century with Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” in which Nietzsche calls the historicist a eunuch who guards history’s harem — passively tending to it and believing himself to be engaging in scientific analysis, even as this analysis denies him the life-giving forgetfulness that quickens man’s ambitions and strengthens man’s will to act. The Neo-Kantians such as Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert also disagreed with historicism for different reasons, criticizing it for its lack of rigor and metaphysical certainty. These criticisms quieted down for a while, but following World War II, they flared up again, since left-wing intellectuals felt that historicism led to a quietistic stance that would inevitably excuse atrocities like the recent rise of Hitler. Historicism, to them, lacked a sense of an ethics and was thus unable to address contemporary affairs. And so the approach weathered a fresh barrage of attacks, and not just from the left. The liberal, bourgeois American New Critics, for instance, argued that historical contextualization detracts from a literary work’s intrinsic value. While never arguing against liberal historical narratives, they nonetheless felt that historicism should be kept separate from aesthetic considerations. Meanwhile, in Germany, a new school of theoreticians influenced in part by Dilthey, Heidegger, and Löwith began to attack historicism for various reasons pertaining to the experience of the living subject (Meinecke’s work was a favorite target). Apparently everyone had something bad to say about historicism.
But then, for all these storms of criticism, historicism never went away. Sensing that it was becoming passé as a theoretical discipline, a number of American academics in literature studies promoted something called “New Historicism,” and Stephen Greenblatt, an American Shakespeare scholar, became its most notable mouthpiece. Unsympathetic critics have claimed that the so-called New Historicism fails to demonstrate what exactly is so “new” about its historicism in the first place, particularly since representatives of the old historicism had already distanced themselves from theoretical positivism, just as New Historicism does. Critics of Greenblatt in particular have argued that in addition to offering little in theoretical depth, he himself is guilty of adopting the attitude of the same kind of dumbed-down progressive “whig historian” that any New Historicism worthy of the name ought to supersede rather than faithfully restore to prominence. As John Ellis has pointed out in his essay “Is Theory To Blame?” New Historicism answers essentially none of the longstanding criticisms of historicism and instead prefers to sharpen its focus on matters of race, sex, and social class. Whereas historicism had posited the belief in a sort of “zeitgeist” pervading a given era that determines what can be understood within it, New Historicism, for Ellis, stacks two additional assumptions atop it: first, politics is the most important consideration for literature; and second, the key concerns of politics are oppression via economic inequality, hegemony, or systemic power advantages. Thus, the theory can pay lip service to all of the revolutionary demands of the other grievance-oriented theories being developed in other fields, but without itself offering anything of substance.
We can call New Historicism what it is: a shallow theory. A pseudo-theory, even. And moreover, it flagrantly violates the original historicism’s rule of resisting the appeal to present-day values, opting for a tropological reading of the past. Yet it was enough to woo large swaths of the literary establishment and curry favor with the mainstream press (Greenblatt’s work has won both a Pulitzer and National Book Award). And while one might suspect that the second item explains the first, things do not always work that way. The mainstream press will often speak favorably of an idea about literature or culture that holds almost no currency in the academic world (“Literary Darwinism” is but one example). So it is fair to wonder why New Historicism managed to win over both the mainstream newspaper consumer and the academic establishment simultaneously. Look: there is a reason. It is due to the necessities of pedagogy. Or, more pointedly, the needs of the university students — the clientele, the customers, the buyers, the consumers, the rubes, the dupes, the easy marks… the fools paying tuition. And not just the liberal arts students, either, but all of the students. That New Historicism could not help but rely on the concerns of contemporary morality to create space from which to plumb the depths of the past proved to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage, and the students are largely to blame.
Ideas travel in the university system largely because of its structure, which itself places certain demands upon the pedagogical approach of the professors. Critics of academia’s many excesses understand well enough how to attack the ideas they dislike, but they rarely focus on the manner in which they are circulated. However, the circulation matters a great deal because that is where the pressure points for ideological influence reveal themselves. And in this circulation of ideas, the failure to see where some parts are strong while others are weak often leads to confusion. Conservative outsiders, for instance, fail to understand why so many PhD students feel hemmed in by the academic institutions. They are baffled if they happen upon a conversation between various academics attacking the university as a reactionary if not outright oppressive system. What an absurd thing to say! But there is a certain degree of truth underlying the complaint, if only one can perceive the structure as it is.
While the university system tolerates some of the most nonsensical ideas one can imagine, it still must rely on nuts-and-bolts considerations in order to function. One of these considerations is how a humanities subject might appear at least somewhat legitimate in order to keep the alumni donations and new student enrollments flowing in. And unsurprisingly, one way it does this is by maintaining a commitment to teaching the canonical authors. The big names. In English literature, it’s guys like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, and Faulkner. And Shakespeare. And Wordsworth, Donne, Swift, and Blake, too, but also… Shakespeare. And while there has been a concerted effort to attack the canon from various university professors — usually because they want to increase the value of their own insignificant if not downright risible area of study — no one has been able to agree upon a good replacement canon, or answer the original question of how to maintain legitimacy without some sort of canon. So we have canons for all these different subjects within the humanities, and they are surprisingly robust. One of the reasons an astoundingly well-published English literature grad student won’t wind up with a job is that she ignored the canon altogether, did her PhD on queer relations within some dopey comic book, and failed to anticipate that the most urgent question a professor with some administrative duties will ask her while she’s on the job market is, “Can you teach Shakespeare?” These sorts of considerations are why the system seems so reactionary.
The University’s surprisingly resilient commitment to teaching the major authors, musicians, historical figures, and so on, will mean that these lessons show up in the General Education courses that all students will be expected to eventually take at some point, whether they are humanities or STEM majors. When the time comes for these students to confront the past, even if only the recent past, they will quickly realize what it means to look at another culture — an experience that they will not get by looking at the 21st century “culture” of another race or country whose values will be presented as exactly the same as theirs. It becomes immediately apparent to the average student that the culture of the past is different from his own. And this difference is going to present a challenge for that student when attempting to write a paper or do a presentation on the product of another culture whose values seem completely incompatible with liberalism, the value system this student has been taught all his life to consider so perfect that it actually both expresses and consummates the default state of man.
Let’s get specific. Think of a Shakespeare class that teaches a play like The Taming of the Shrew. For the uninitiated, the Taming of the Shrew is about a woman named Katherina who doesn’t want to be married, so she acts difficult towards the various men with whom her father tries to get her romantically involved. Eventually, one of them, a man named Petruchio, shows up and realizes that the way to tame her is by engaging in an ostentatious display of highly comic yet morally questionable tomfoolery, much of which would be considered abuse by today’s standards. For instance, he starves her by sending all of her food away, insisting that what her servants have prepared is not good enough for someone as refined as she. In another festive moment, he “gaslights” her into agreeing with him that the sun is actually the moon. It’s pretty funny stuff, and the fruits of Petruchio’s offbeat tactics are realized in Katherina’s grand concluding speech in which she demonstrates that he has truly crushed her will her once and for all. You don’t have to read it all, but here it is anyway. (But you really should read it.)
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled-
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt.
[Good Lord! Let’s keep going.]
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
[Oh, come on, now! It’s as if she hasn’t even heard of the Captain Marvel movie.]
Come, come, you forward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease. (V.2644–2687)
Heavens to Betsy, that is one tamed shrew! And this sort of thing wasn’t unique to Shakespeare. There was plenty of “shrew-taming” literature circulating around the sixteenth century from which Shakespeare was borrowing his ideas. Such a speech may be exceptional if only for its poesy and emotive intensity, to be sure, but its moral argument was nothing new. This sort of “pro-taming” sentiment was always controversial (even in the medieval period, the women of the courts would complain about the misogyny in various popular literary works that were read aloud during dinners and other events), but it was all familiar to the anticipated audience. And though it is probably impossible to tell what Shakespeare himself felt about the subject of marriage one way or another, one thing is for certain: you wouldn’t ever see such a speech in such a context in a work of art now, not even in something done from an independent press. Even someone relying on crowdfunding would probably get kicked off the platform for being so defiantly reactionary. So this is truly a foreign speech from another culture altogether. This speech is what real multiculturalism looks like.
Now, consider the following. Let’s say you’re a college sophomore taking a Shakespeare course for a Gen Ed requirement. You don’t really care that much about Shakespeare; you just want to get your Bachelor’s degree in engineering and get a decent job. The Shakespeare class is something you’re taking because you feel like you should read Shakespeare. You don’t want to be some dope who hasn’t read him — and as luck would have it, he was one of the choices for your Gen Eds. Now you’re faced with the task of writing your final essay on The Taming of the Shrew, and you find yourself in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, you can’t salute the play and call it a masterpiece because of its misogyny, even if you yourself laughed a few times during its most incorrect moments. To do so would draw attention to yourself as a woman-hating chauvinist, and that’s improper; it goes completely against how you were brought up. But on the other hand, you can’t just tear the play to shreds and accuse it of being anti-woman propaganda. That would suggest that you’re attacking Shakespeare, and you’ve been told your whole life that this guy is an amazing writer, and besides, your teacher seems to like him. You don’t want to look unrefined and foolish. So what do you do?
Well, luckily, your teacher has anticipated this pickle, and unbeknownst to you, she has called upon the magic of historicism in her pedagogy to help you find your way out of it. Upon reflection, you remember a lecture she gave on the emphasis that sixteenth century Elizabethan society placed upon the silence of women. You were stoned on marijuana at the time, but you dimly recall your teacher showing a bunch of Power-Point slides filled with quotations from a bunch of mean old-timey guys about how women must remain silent to prove their submission to men, or something like this, and further, the teacher made some vague comment connecting this notion to the fifth act. Then she went on some tangent about something boring, while your thoughts drifted to your beloved Malvina, the most beautiful girl who dines in the Pewderschmitt Residence B Cafeteria. Ah, Malvina, with her plump, red lips, her long and tawny locks, and her taut, furrowed brow as she studiously pores over her assignments for the Queering Archie Comics class that she takes over at Wormwood Hall. Yes, the same Wormwood Hall where you see her every day — only due to a serendipitous circumstance regarding your scheduling of course — with those lithe, supple legs of hers sauntering down the stairwell. Oh, Malvina, precious Malvina, it is destiny that one day I will gather the courage to –
Hold on –
Wait a minute –
Well, strike me pink! –
Katherina’s speech is quite long! She is not being silent at all! Quite the opposite! Could it be that Shakespeare was doing something subversive, here? (At this point, your brain begins to fire on all cylinders). Why, now it is all so clear — Shakespeare was no misogynist; he couldn’t have been! He was an independent spirit in a society hopelessly mired in misogyny, subtly commenting upon its injustice in his own clandestine manner! Katherina’s speech was no expression of submission, but a subversive reclamation of her independence through the power of poetic language! She is asserting her womanhood while merely feigning enthrallment by matrimony, and she performs it in such an overwrought manner as to perfectly mimic the absurdity of the reactionary attitudes that surround her! (Your brain really starts to pick up intensity here; a powerful blitz of neurons fires across the synapses). Of course, Shakespeare himself may have held views that would be deemed unacceptable today — who among us can say? — but for his time he was quite forward-thinking, and that’s what ultimately counts. And this forward-thinking attitude has revealed itself in Katherina’s speech, which revolts against the patriarchy by dint of its sheer length and improbable exuberance! Yes! And at this point, your teacher will have no choice but to congratulate you with an A. With such a balanced and nuanced view of Shakespeare, you have officially managed to get out of a real conundrum. You know exactly what to say.
Is this analysis correct? Is it accurate? Does it make sense? Well, who knows? Who cares? When our student is just trying to get through the course, he’ll take all the help he can get, and that approach was the dangling rope that helped him escape the quicksand. When the teacher was bringing all of that historical material into her lectures, she was answering a fundamental demand from the students, which was for a way to negotiate between the values of the past and those of the present. Historicism, when applied to specific topics in specific courses, is the greatest pedagogical tool available for upholding the liberal supernarrative, because it allows the teacher to present whatever cultural product from whatever time in history as being just ever-so-slightly ahead of the curve, and thus relatable albeit on an adjusted set of criteria. The tension that the student experiences between the need for an objective analysis placed within a limited context and the desire to offer enlightened judgment from a God’s-eye-view corresponds to the same liberal tension between the goal of “objective,” passive analysis and the compulsion toward judgment and active intervention — the kind seen in Uatu the Watcher, the Starship Enterprise, or whatever contemporary mass media parables that young people have absorbed before reaching their freshman year. And although the teacher might herself be immersed in another, altogether different theoretical conception of history — or perhaps she herself is an historicist who manages to keep her judgments less obvious in her scholarship — the liberal supernarrative answers to a real demand that the structural and material considerations of the university have set in place. It gives the students what they need.
Even the teachers who eschew historical background in their lectures, perhaps speciously claiming that their pedagogy is influenced by New Criticism or something like that, will often fall back upon a similar appeal to the values of the current year. If anything, they will be more likely to do it. Their historically undisciplined approach will encourage students to write silly things such as, “Shakespeare was really a feminist,” divested of any helpful cues to guide their argumentative direction. For any fidgety and distracted student taking a Gen Ed, the values of the present will always be the primary reference point, and historicism is the teacher’s best bet to allow the student to learn something about the past without altogether abandoning his present-day values, despite historicism’s stated aims. Without an approach that makes use of historicism on some level, even if it is only done in a perfunctory manner, the students will not feel the same sense of gradual improvement — the implied premise that ideas evolve incrementally over time. That sense will still ultimately remain with them due to its prior reproduction in lower forms of entertainment, like the kind mentioned earlier. But without some reference to the topic’s surrounding historical circumstances, the students’ imaginations and wishful thoughts will hold greater sway over their reasoning faculties. There are even professional academics who have the same problem.
Consider, for comparison purposes, the Straussians — the followers of Leo Strauss, another critic of historicism. He rejected historicism due to what he considered its moral relativism but from a standpoint more amenable to conservatives. His most well-known view, closely related to his critique of historicism, was that great thinkers of the past perceived certain truths that were so unacceptable to the commonplaces of their time that they communicated them using a veiled, “esoteric” manner of writing that one can only unearth using just the right hermeneutic approach. In other words, the great thinkers could not be reduced simply to the products of their historical environments. But intriguing as the theory may be, it is often not so impressive in practice. The Straussians resemble a school of thought that often inadvertently embraces an ahistoric presentism that itself, like New Historicism, strongly resembles the “whig history” that earlier American historicists attempted to resist. The major work of the late 1980s that influenced conservatives to turn against historicism was The Closing of the American Mind (1987) by Strauss’s student Allan Bloom. Most academics today, not being particularly bright, seem to consider it a far-right reactionary propaganda piece. But Bloom was himself a liberal, and his interpretation of Plato’s Republic, to which he so frequently refers throughout the text, is one that presents Plato as much more of a rationalist and ally to democratic principles than he likely was. To be fair to Bloom, new and more plausible Plato scholarship has made use of his “Socratic irony” as a potentially valuable tool of exegesis. Yet his actual view of the republic that Socrates envisions, compelling and intelligently constructed though it may be, still resembles wishful thinking done out of a presentist bias, and most likely is just that. And yet despite his own epistemic limitations, Bloom presents his essentially liberal interpretation of Plato as established fact in his Closing, paying little mind to the panoply of differing interpretations from Plato scholars. As Paul Gottfried has noted in his appraisal of the Straussians, “A frequently heard joke […] is that a properly read text for a Straussian would reveal that its author is probably a Jewish intellectual who resides in New York or Chicago. Being a person of moderation, the author, like his interpreter, would have attended synagogue services twice a year, on the High Holy Days — and then probably not in an Orthodox synagogue” (p. 99). Although Bloom did not care for Nietzsche any more than he cared for historicism, he was at least no eunuch in history’s harem.
Though undergraduates lack the skill to accomplish the kind of stimulating arguments that Bloom and Strauss achieved, one can interpret their own ahistoric arguments appealing to the values of the present (e.g. “Shakespeare was a feminist”) as unrefined versions of what Straussian arguments can often do. And the students do not make such claims out of any “moral relativism” or “nihilism,” because they are neither moral relativists nor nihilists. Like the Straussians, they — when studying a certain writer or philosopher with some “problematic” elements — like to assume that their subject was a man against time, someone who could see past the artifice of his age to somehow end up with precisely the same values that they, the students, have always had. Strauss himself holds limited influence in academia, so the students will not start talking about “esoteric” messages that they’ve discerned by “reading between the lines.” Yet amusingly, professors will often indirectly encourage them to undertake essentially the same Straussian project, just in a less methodical manner. If the students find something inconvenient in a subject they must write about, the more ingenious ones will come up with an “esoteric” reading to serve the exoteric liberal supernarrative. Historicism, far from being nihilistic, is the best way to refine the students’ intentions and assure them of their argument’s plausibility, which inspires a greater commitment to liberalism rather than a weakened one. Without some historical framework to limit his horizon of options, the student will just make up gibberish that he knows to be gibberish, so his convictions will atrophy over time. As a tool of scholarship, historicism can certainly remain more or less morally neutral. But as a tool of pedagogy to aid the professor in the lecture hall, it tests and strengthens the liberal supernarrative, even as its implementation exposes the same inner tensions that the liberal supernarrative has always had.
Whatever the teacher’s pedagogical strategy, the majority of undergraduates will approach the historical material they encounter from this liberal framework with very few deeper theoretical considerations provided to them. But there are exceptions. Toward the end of their four-year education, a few of them (usually within the liberal arts) will develop a more mature understanding of what history essentially is, how it functions, and so on. These are typically the students who will have already made up their minds that they wish to pursue a graduate education. Perhaps a teacher will introduce them to E.H. Carr’s What Is History? Perhaps another will have the students read some of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Maybe some professor will even try to draw out the deeper implications of the French Annales school, and the student will try to think through them. This sort of thing does not happen much, but as the more inquisitive student passes along through her studies, she will gradually develop an appreciation for the difficulty of these questions alongside a willingness to reexamine some of her previous assumptions. When she decides to become a graduate student, the process of acquiring a more complex understanding of the philosophy of history will not therefore resemble an initiatic rite in which the adept undergoes a simulated death and rebirth. It will not be a traumatic experience, like a soon-to-be shaman getting struck by lightning in order to gaze upon the depth and profundity of the greater mysteries. It will have been an anticipated process that likely began somewhere around the advanced courses, one that involved minor stresses and adaptations away from the comfort of the exoteric supernarrative and towards the onerous burden of freedom. Uatu the Watcher needs to have something to talk about when he is introduced to Machiavelli’s Fortuna, the Pagan Norns, and Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.
IV. The Exoteric/Esoteric Distinction in the Wild
But what about the other students, those wise enough to just take the degree and get a normal job? As graduate teaching assistants grow to understand by the time they have finished their studies, the students they teach do not generally care for needlessly abstruse theories. Stammering and stuttering through a half-prepared explanation of what deconstruction seeks to accomplish will win the teacher no friends among an audience of hapless second-year undergraduates, and so the practice does not typically last long for anyone silly enough to try it. For this reason, the French poststructuralist theories, and others like them, count as esoteric disciplines that will only generate interest with the grad students, some particularly diligent upper-classmen, and a few autodidacts with a masochistic streak. But the exoteric/esoteric distinction on the philosophy of history is uniquely important because esoteric theories are not always just cute wellsprings of ideas for essays on literary works. History is its own vast, heavy subject, and due to the reaching implications of how one conceives it, the trained observer can occasionally spot the exoteric/esoteric distinction revealing itself in the outside world.
Consider, for instance, the short-lived mainstream popularity of the term “late capitalism” within the left. Its use has faded in the last couple years, but from around 2017–2018, virtually everyone had something to say about “late capitalism.” But what was late capitalism, exactly? Well, it depends on whom you’d ask. The term was popularized within highbrow Marxist theory by Frederic Jameson in 1991, though he took it from Ernest Mandel’s dissertation from 1972. Prior to that, the basic concept of “late capitalism” had been fleshed out by the Frankfurt School during the 1950s. Essentially, it refers to the point at which capitalism has overwhelmed nearly all aspects of life, rendering the basic framework of human existence malleable to its own ends and thus degraded in qualitative value. It also does not suggest that any sort of revolution is imminent. In fact, it does not suggest any kind of straightforward temporal periodization scheme. “Late” is perhaps best understood as an ahistorical category, meaning something like “mature” or “fully realized.” As Jameson himself noted in the preface to his Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, periodizing “late capitalism” would be difficult since it would require one to acknowledge supplementary epicycles and other complicating factors. He even says that it “rarely means anything so silly as the ultimate senescence, breakdown, and death of the system as such (a temporal vision that would rather seem to belong to modernism than postmodernism).” But he wrote this in 1990. Twenty-seven years later, its usage on social media suggested just that.
The term, as used by young online socialists with red-rose emojees adorning their user handles, meant something rather different from what it had traditionally meant within Marxist literature. Here, it was used to suggest that the system is about to collapse, and the socialists will win. It became a feature of fist-pumping rhetoric designed for cheap applause. The word “late,” a floating signifier, came to mean “the last days of,” and so the various absurdities of Western consumer culture, modern advertising, and the spectacle of mass media all attested that the system was fragile and crumbling rather than jacked, juicy, and flexing on its haters. As an article in The Atlantic pointed out, the use of “late capitalism” grew in popularity from the excitement of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Bernie Sanders campaign, but this also means its growth in popularity followed the gradual economic recovery after the financial crisis of 2008, which prompted bailouts from the fed and the manipulation of interest rates. It was an ostensibly revolutionary phrase, but its usage was guided by an optimism that liberal economic progress strengthened. And the online socialists with whom it was so popular were largely college-educated and had absorbed the liberal historical supernarrative more thoroughly than the Marxist one. Yes, the whig narrative. And so, as it happens so often with leftism in general, its most enthusiastic participants fervently adopted the ornamentation of revolutionary rhetoric even while liberalism was providing them the temporal architecture upon which their political considerations rested. Even their seemingly apocalyptic understanding of “the revolution” was rather modest. They just wanted America to be more like Europe, basically, with free health care and maybe some more artisanal coffee and cheese shops. The more perceptive members of the left, i.e. the ones who saw the delusion for what it was, mostly sat back and let the excitement run its course. It certainly didn’t seem to be harmful, in any case.
For Marxists and other revolutionary socialists, perhaps that example will be unsettling. But from the perspective of someone who believes in gradual improvement rather than cataclysm, like maybe a Burkean conservative, it ought to be reassuring. Though liberalism prides itself on its openness, here we have an example in which the university did not bother challenging the students regarding their naïve perceptions of history, and its taciturnity was better for the stability of the country’s social fabric. Far from anything genuinely revolutionary, the discussions surrounding “late capitalism” were a sign that liberal optimism was alive and well, and young people were excited to take part in the democratic process, exercising their civic engagement for what they perceived to be the greater good. They may as well have picked up American flags and proudly waved them while singing “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” And amazingly, it all happened by accident; no intelligent overseer created this lacuna of mutually non-communicative historical understandings. Only when people’s optimism faded — ironically the moment when they started to behave with the exasperation one would expect to see during late capitalism properly understood — did the term concomitantly fall from regular usage.
Beyond the theory of history, I would argue that the current political moment in general is hard to appreciate without acknowledging the dynamics regarding other exoteric and esoteric distinctions in the university system, for the vulgarization of once-esoteric theories and their dissemination within the university does seem to have had noticeable consequences. Appreciating the sturdiness of the exoteric liberal supernarrative is far more difficult without recognizing the fragility of its views on other subjects. And the university, far from powerless, could have helped to maintain the discreteness between exoteric and esoteric stances on a couple different topics whose importance are now exploding into the public consciousness with unprecedented intensity.
One such topic is race. The once-standard exoteric liberal doctrine on race went something like this: “all races are equal, we ought to treat them all equally, we ought to strive toward colorblindness in dealing with all races, and so long as our institutions work to uphold these principles (with a few unprincipled exceptions such as affirmative action), the country will not succumb to an unethical racial prejudice.” This is a fairly easy position to grasp. After all, it was the official position for decades, and a significant number of people still operate from this framework. But for all those who crave a more sophisticated understanding of this undoubtedly complex subject, the university had kept several different esoteric perspectives for them to study in its more advanced graduate and upper-level courses. These courses contained the sorts of revelations that grade students are now being taught — in a broken and fragmented manner, of course — as early as elementary school. They included ideas like: the entire capitalist system carries an element of entrenched racism due to varied and plentiful subtle factors; the ideal of colorblindness in social interaction often results in accidental offenses, which, though individually minor, compound over time to create a level of stress that the majority race does not have to feel; the majority race is privileged in various subtle ways that lie outside of official policies in the government or private sector; the members of a given race can be distinguished from the essence of that race, the latter of which is always a cultural fiction that drives inequality; and so on. And considering that these and other more esoteric concerns regarding race are still being discussed and debated within academia, and with perhaps a surprising degree of civility (see the recent book What is Race?: Four Philosophical Views), it is hard to see how maintaining this separation of discourses would not benefit the overall civility of the general public. Another major topic that has undergone a similar process is that of sex/gender, and the subsequent confusion that has come from the vulgarization of its own esoteric theoretical concerns should not be hard to identify.
The liberal supernarrative has proven robust when other liberal stances have fallen apart with astounding ease, overtaken by what might best described as moralistically excessive heresies of liberalism. And the breakdown and vulgarization of the esoteric stances on race and gender happened simply because there were no barricades in place to separate the higher-level conceptual ideas from the low-level, easy-to-swallow mores and mainstays of liberalism. You may have bristled, madam, when I chose earlier to highlight the importance of the Illuminati and Freemasons as the major impetus for the development of the philosophy of history, because concern for such topics is the hallmark of only the most deranged minds. Of course. But what if the exclusivity of these organizations was paradoxically the one thing that allowed the roots of a secular liberalism to properly plunge the recesses of the earth? What if their subtle hypocrisies were always required for liberalism to thrive? What if the barriers to entry found within these groups, then later the university system as a whole, are even more important than the ideas themselves generated at the upper echelons? Since their discovery of Nietzsche, our verbalist elites have honored Bacchus, the wine god who exudes paradox and contradiction, who celebrates the transgression of boundaries, like the boundaries that separate us from one another — even the boundaries that separate life from death! But who among them has understood that their Bacchanalia were only ever possible by virtue of their exclusivity? That all along, the orgiastic revelry had been overseen by Terminus, the god of boundaries and thresholds — the consecrator of sacred spaces?
Yet even without boundaries, the liberal supernarrative has remained robust, whereas for race and gender, the waters were quickly troubled. And this is likely due to a rather humdrum circumstance: history became a uniquely abstract concept in the eighteenth century when it began to be theorized from a secular standpoint, and abstract means boring. Before the enlightenment, there was basically no conceptualized understanding of a single “History” that hangs over everything from the beginning of time to its end — there were just “histories,” little tales or recorded records of specific things, with no secular implication of a sweeping arc over them. Also, these pre-enlightenment histories were often written in anticipation of distinct theological or mythological interpretations, meaning that these histories came from different premises regarding their own purpose. “History” was not understood as its own object of epistemological inquiry until rather recently in human history. One reason the liberal supernarrative is so successful is because it can freely exploit the mind’s native tendency to decontextualize smaller narratives, or histories, and remove them from this grand arc while, at the same time, maintaining the pretense that such an arc exists and is absolutely real. That tension is what gives it such power in the classroom, for the lines for any given topic always can be redrawn to paint a picture of progress every time, which metonymically provides impressionable youths a distinct but sketchy perception of History’s essence.
It seems that the only way to emancipate oneself from this theoretical abstraction of big-H history is to engage in even more abstraction — sometimes done in the service of needless complication for its own sake, but also sometimes as a disassociative type of questioning to ward away the ghosts of eternity, preparing one’s ears for the wood nymph song beckoning man back to the telluric. But the latter is a difficult path. Who would willingly take up arms against such a powerful trick of the mind? Who would be so absurd to seek out more abstraction to defeat the abstract? The prospect is just not all that interesting to the average person, who has become more or less comfortable with this history qua history and its various implications.
Race and sex, by contrast, are much more powerful subjects, ones that already rest in the domain of the telluric and thus immediately excite the passions. Although there are no formal classifications of race or gender roles that themselves don’t involve some degree of plasticity and abstract essentialism, the two categorical systems still exploit skin-deep differences (leaving aside the entirely separate question of innate differences). And such differences involve the most salient phenomena available to one’s horizon of experience; features noticeable to all the birds and beasts of the animal kingdom. There is no way these topics could have been restrained from such intense yet easy vulgarization. Furthermore, this vulgarization appears to be a problem that the political left has been so far unable to confront adequately. While social class may indeed be the better identity category around which to organize politically, the peoples’ understanding of class carries a similar sort of exoteric/esoteric distinction that holds up just as well as that of liberal history. Which is to say, there is a generic, layman’s way of understanding class, and an array of more advanced and varied ways to understand the subject, and the lack of striking overlap between the two modes of understanding suggests that class is not an inherently exciting subject. It is perhaps just as boring as the philosophy of history. But even if those within the left are correct in saying that class is, in fact, the intuitive ground of identity within an oppressive capitalist system, it remains up to them to figure out why their aims have been so effortlessly deterred by concerns over race and gender that aggravate rather than reduce intra-class hostilities for everyone below the top ten percent of income earners. It is also up to them to figure out why there is so little demand for a heightened awareness of class qua class, just as with history, that stands as more than an idle curiosity for the boffins.
But enough of this soporific talk of social class and the left. By this point, some of you may be underwhelmed with this essay’s account of how historical attitudes are formed within the university system, for it has mostly portrayed the system as functional, barring some of slippage just mentioned. The discussion in Part III might even seem downright whimsical to those who pay keen attention to conservative media and have been following closely the crises on American campuses from coast to coast. Such coverage is important, and the trends are alarming. However, the journalistic coverage detailing the frequent bouts of campus hysteria has perhaps given the impression that things are more unhinged than they really are. It is important to remember that most tenured professors are still, at this point, baby boomers or generation Xers, and thus they usually lack the emotive excesses of their younger counterparts. The students also still have surprisingly “conservative” expectations for what they ought to learn, and they show an admirable willingness to work through and understand the great texts of western civilization — all the more impressive considering the growing new breed of professors who attempt to suffocate such curiosity in them. Additionally, the structure of the course requirements has kept its basic shape for most of the majors.
However, admittedly, the major course requirements are starting to shift to make historical knowledge less of a priority, and that slackened emphasis on the past is where the problems begin. For a good while, Shakespeare courses have not been required for English majors (though their courses are still prioritized in other ways), medieval studies (in various majors) have started to face usurpation from irrational social justice activists pushing much dopier scholarship as the new norm, education in classical civilization becomes increasingly micromanaged to root out moral heresy, and so the students have been increasingly capable of ignoring historically significant material altogether when pursuing degrees. More and more space is made for socially conscious classes on contemporary garbage media, as if its analysis were a skill requiring special training, and “multiculturalism” is held as a high priority, even though the “multicultural” texts from “marginalized identities” that professors assign mostly come from the same 21st century neoliberal ghetto. With less understanding of history, students will still adhere to the liberal supernarrative due to sheer inertia, though it will subsist in a weakened and vulnerable state. And the mainstream media still preserves it through its narratives and iconography, though each individual instantiation is typically either bare-bones or half-formed, thus rendering it susceptible to malformations over time. So what will come along to replace it, if anything? And is it showing signs of decrepitude already?
V. Conclusion: Signs of Breakdown?
When Christopher Lasch acknowledged in 1991 that his earlier claim from 1978 about diminished expectations among the American progressive left may have been a bit hasty, he was more correct than perhaps even he thought. In 1978, the United States still had an industrial base, and despite the embarrassment of the Vietnam War, there was still much room left to dream. In the early 1980s, Saudi oil restored national confidence once Reagan made the U.S. dollar the international reserve currency (essentially allowing for unlimited printing from the Federal Reserve) and by the 1990s, America was back to feeling optimistic again. In popular culture, California became a mythological paradise just as it had in the 1960s, only now signifying America’s dreams of economic wealth and physical beauty with films and TV shows like Encino Man, the Bill & Ted franchise, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell, and Baywatch. It was once more the land of milk and honey, the celestial Jerusalem of the eschaton tinctured with commerce and plastic surgery. Yet all that time, America was rapidly outsourcing its manufacturing base overseas and increasingly engaging in free trade deals at the behest of multinational corporations, all to the detriment of the country’s overall stability. Only a small number of astute minds across the political spectrum, including the would-be presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, were able to see the economic and cultural situation for what it was while resisting the cynical urge to profit from it.
By now, the year 2020, it has finally become intuitively if not explicitly obvious to most of us that the pinnacle of American prosperity was an immediate consequence of World War II. It began in the 1940s, it ended in the early 70s, and it has become irretrievable for the foreseeable future. The splendor of the 90s was a collective mirage that we all witnessed on television, resting across the distant shorelines of Malibu, the outermost edge of the west before the world begins again in the east. The contrast between then and now could not be starker. Just last year, even before the coronavirus pandemic, the 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, “You all come to us young people for hope? How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. [She says something about climate]. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.” This speech, whatever one may think of it, undeniably struck a chord with most of those who watched it, and the reason probably had little to do with climate change. Though a semi-apocalyptic environmental catastrophe would be of greater importance than mere economic downturn, it was probably the latter that agitated the minds of those whom the speech touched. The suffering of everyday people even now, before nature in her infinite wisdom strikes man down for his unbridled arrogance, is not difficult to sense. It is all around us.
I’ve been writing this essay during a time in which widespread mob violence and race rioting has occurred all over the United States, even as much of the destruction has failed to make mainstream national news. One of the most noteworthy features of this rioting has been the destruction of public statues depicting confederate soldiers and slave-holding statesmen. These particular forms of aggression are iconoclastic, and so they have prompted the accusation that anarchists and Marxists — aided by the verbalist elites and multinational corporations essentially cheering them on — are attempting to erase the nation’s history. Consider, for a moment, the significance of the public statue. Long ago, the erection of public statues to commemorate statesmen was initiated in the aftermath of the French Revolution across continental Europe, and its popularity throughout the nineteenth century signaled a shift toward a new public faith in the dignity of the liberal nation state herself. That the United States chose to commemorate confederate insurrectionists with statues had been, for many until recently, one of her harmless if puzzling charms. So before the riots, when some local governments ordered the removal of these statues due to concerns of racial sensitivity — a victory for progressives — it was taken as an understandable if not necessarily advisable act by both average citizens and even some devout conservatives. But the unruly mob defacement of non-confederate statues such as Jefferson, Washington, and even Lincoln might suggest a truly radical force of anti-liberal thought.
The direct attack on symbols of the past might appear to be an attack on the past as such, and thus the national narrative of self-overcoming and progress upon which it depends — i.e. the liberal supernarrative. After all, how could one maintain the sense of onward striving toward perfection when there is no wrinkled past left to remind us of why we must iron the fabric of the future? And further, how could there be an endpoint of earthly perfection toward which to strive as we slowly come to realize that it can no longer be ornamented with earthly luxury? Everyone knows, of course, that “milk and honey” are just metaphors for dirty, filthy lucre. Yes? But then — what if something else is happening to our liberal supernarrative? Surely, the breakdown of all these once-esoteric theories on race has informed at least the outward presentation of America’s national unrest, so could its effects perhaps be so potent as to reconfigure our liberal model of history altogether? Well, I will conclude this essay by suggesting that although we may be seeing some incipient signs of possible breakdown, the liberal supernarrative will remain stable in the public consciousness for the foreseeable future.
Over the course of the last decade, there have been two major presentations of history that have attempted to come to terms with America’s past as a slaveholding nation: Hamilton and the 1619 Project. These two cultural artifacts might be seen as exact opposites in tone and temperament, and in many ways they are. But their apparent opposition should not be understood as adversarial but rather complementary. They each resemble a story of America’s founding, they both won Pulitzers, and although they both suggest a more theoretically sophisticated approach to history and the question of values to paint two radically different pictures, they ultimately defer to the liberal supernarrative.
In a way, their most apparently novel qualities service the most familiar aspects of the liberal supernarrative. Both projects’ theoretical sophistication partly stems from how aggressively focused on the present each one is. In a recent NPR interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and star of Hamilton) says, “If there’s any thesis about [Hamilton] it’s everything that’s past is present … The contradictions that were present in the founding — the moment that those words ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ were written and the ways in which we fall short of that — are still present.” And on social media, Nikole Hannah-Jones (creator of the 1619 Project) similarly stated, “The 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.” These statements suggest an elevated understanding of the available possibilities when constructing a history, for both works are in some sense revisionist and require the interrogation of collective memory. But concern for the present is in no way new. In the original description of “whig history,” Herbert Butterfield treated emphasis on the relevance of the past to the present as the fundamental cause of the whig interpretation of history. If so, then Hamilton and the 1619 Project could be called works of meta-whiggery.
Hamilton, the Broadway hip-hop musical about the same Alexander Hamilton who authored The Federalist, offers its viewers a mostly feel-good story about the nation’s founding with perhaps the most cornball soundtrack in music history. It was a Broadway exclusive, and it spent most of its time completely sold out, despite being the most expensive show in Broadway history. The cheapest tickets went for $1,200. It was praised almost universally by politicians and journalists for outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker. It was made for America’s cultural and economic elites, and one listen to its soundtrack confirms that it will stand as a testament to their profoundly insipid tastes for decades to come. In hindsight, the success of such a production should have been predictable. 2011 marked the forty-year anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a comparably corny stage production about the conflict between religion and hippie-dippie social issues delivered from the viewpoint of an obscenely wealthy, aging liberal Jew (Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of Bernstein remains just as powerful today as when he first wrote it). And its various anniversary performances from that year marked the beginning of a popular resurgence among the grad-school educated literati across the entire western world. Though it was rightfully panned as an overwrought mess by critics upon its original debut, something in the passage of forty years’ time made its sociopolitical banality more palatable for the educated audiences of today. Just four years later, Hamilton debuted and gave America’s managerial elites exactly what they craved.
The point of Hamilton was never to celebrate or even acknowledge the actual politics of Alexander Hamilton, like, for instance, his opposition to immigration, his opposition to free trade, or his integral role in setting up an electoral college. All of these policies have proven highly unpopular among managerial elites, even antithetical to the neoliberalism they represent. Neither was the point to engage directly with America’s historic flaws. One critic from a “dirtbag left” publication complained at length that slavery is barely mentioned. He howls at the musical’s attempts to dissuade its audience from “being bothered by the country’s collective idol-worship of men who participated in the slave trade, one of the greatest crimes in human history.” But such criticism misses the point entirely. Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself ardently opposed to America’s present-day “systemic racism” (and, interestingly, an open supporter of the FALN, a radical left-wing Puerto Rican terrorist organization), is not an idiot. He chose a mostly nonwhite cast for Hamilton, with black men portraying the slaveholders Jefferson and Washington, delivering all of their dialogue in verse set to traditionally black music. The political significance for this musical comes from that which it conspicuously ignores. By offering a revision of the nation’s founding as a project of the same kind of men whom it once enslaved, Miranda presents the viewer with a synthesis of the values of the past with the standards of the present. The point is to say, “America’s founding fathers were to the European monarchy what the nonwhite but especially black men of today are to the slaveholders of the antebellum period.” The restraint from emphasizing slavery could not have been lost on Barack and Michelle Obama, two of the musical’s most ardent supporters.
So although there is something esoteric and high-concept about Miranda’s casting and music decision, it is still essentially done in the service of the liberal supernarrative. The past is good compared to the further-past, but the present is deployed subtly and metatextually to force the audience to confront that same past as still flawed despite the opportunities it opened. One can see why such temporal and self-referential creativity would appeal to America’s verbalist elites, whose love for the musical cannot be attributed solely to their gradually rising philistinism (note that Bernstein’s Mass at least had moments of real harmonic experimentation, whereas Hamilton is musically bland all the way through). I haven’t bothered to check, but I would bet money that at least one grad-school-educated writer has used the Derridean jargon word “hauntology” to describe the racial dynamics at play. Miranda honors the historical slaves by transfiguring their real-life descendants as the protagonists in this quintessentially American story, even as slavery itself still lingers uncomfortably in the background, the memory of its brutality “haunting” the cheery optimism of the musical spectacle.
But in order for Hamilton’s effect to be achieved, slavery still must be held in the nation’s memory — otherwise the musical loses its spark of poignancy altogether and just turns into a tediously long, nonwhite episode of Schoolhouse Rock. So while Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project might seem to contradict Miranda’s vision, it instead resembles a more aggressive version of the heightened emphasis on slavery that the American education system has brought over the past few decades — the same emphasis that charges Hamilton with contextual meaning. The 1619 Project, a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, explores the legacy of American slavery on the 400 year anniversary of the first slaves being sent to Virginia, and it aims to make the case that 1619 should be reinterpreted as the true foundation of America, not 1776. Hannah-Jones even goes as far as to argue that the Revolutionary War happened because Americans wanted to keep holding slaves against the demands of the British. This statement, which is completely wrong, has since been retracted and withheld from reprints of the publication. But its editor Jake Silverstein has continued to defend the project and imply, along with Hannah-Jones, that the beginning of American slavery should essentially be reinterpreted as more important than its official founding. Despite the disapproval of various prominent academic historians, it is now being distributed in large quantities and used in K-12 history education, and its influence has been palpable. During the recent riots, one anarchist spray-painted “1619” on a George Washington statue that a mob had recently toppled. When conservatives began to suggest that we call the riots “The 1619 Riots,” Hannah-Jones considered it “an honor.”
Leaving the question of history aside for a moment, there is an underappreciated and simple reason for the 1619 Project: print media has been losing sales consistently over the last few decades. Consequently, it has resorted to increasingly grandiose shock tactics to try and generate a buzz, and the audacity of “wokeness,” even when completely irrational, is often an excellent way to generate such buzz. This first became apparent in 2012, when Time Magazine featured on its cover a picture of a woman breastfeeding her rather mature preteen son, and in the same year, Newsweek published a cover declaring that Barack Obama was “The First Gay President” depicting him with a campy rainbow halo above his head. When examining the actual 1619 magazine issue from this standpoint, it begins to make much more sense. The emphasis on the year 1619 is more of a marketing gimmick than a real proposition. The bulk of the magazine features various negative aspects of present day American life, with slavery and/or racism in general presented an important cause, but it has little to do with 1619 or the issue’s thesis per se. The project could perhaps seem to some like an expression of a uniquely sinister and “Marxist” anti-Americanism — that is, until one reads the headlines, with their aggressively banal clickbait-style approach. Then it all becomes a bit too familiar. One says, in a big old-timey-looking typeface, “A traffic jam in Atlanta would seem to have nothing to do with slavery. But look closer…” before the article addresses the well-worn topic of white flight. Another, in the same typeface, reads, “For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.” Wow. Just wow. But beyond this use of rhetoric that would only have been seen in Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy a mere decade ago, the actual content of the magazine articles themselves is mostly old hat. The project only appears to deviate from the liberal supernarrative by dint of its bold challenge to the common periodization model, and the forcefulness with which this challenge is presented.
The reperiodization of an established temporal model is undoubtedly an esoteric feature of the project, since any argument for redrawing the lines requires some higher level of abstract thinking than merely coloring within them. That decision demonstrates some willingness to think metahistorically, which is not nearly as common for the average person as thinking metasexually or metaracially. But the project hardly acknowledges any history at all before 1619, a decision that necessitates a feeling of extreme gloom given its choice of focus. The intensity of its gloom is what really drives home its appearance of anti-liberal radicalism. Although the black race is the first race in all of humanity, one could in some sense interpret the 1619 Project as their origin story, not that of America. Hannah-Jones, for her part, has previously shown credence in dubious Afrocentric historical revisionist theories, but there are none to be found here; only the claim that black people were kidnapped from Africa with no substantive discussion of the Africa from which they were taken. But who were these black people? What were they like? Did they have any value or meaning before slave owners seized them? And if so, why don’t we hear about it? The cover story is written as if white racism miraculously summoned black people into existence, and at this exact moment of cruel genesis, America, too, was born. Seemingly aware of these implications, the blogger Steve Sailer suggested that someone put together a 1618 project to showcase the lifestyle of black people in Sub-Saharan Africa, so that readers might gain some sense of the living conditions from which the slaves were being taken. One might be tempted to dismiss the suggestion as a racist provocation, but does it really need to be? In any case, it is obvious that the NY Times would never do such a thing. As it says in the beginning of this essay, the brilliance of the liberal supernarrative is that history can effectively “begin” at any point based on the context of the discussion. In this case, it is 1619. And it would be best that you forget that it was also a time in which Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and Rousseau’s Social Contract had not yet even been conceived; the slide rule was not yet invented; the Europeans still took alchemy quite seriously; and there was also a massive, much bigger slave trade already established in east Africa to the Arab world.
In addition to being presentist and insular, Hannah-Jones’s article demonstrates other key features of the whig interpretation of history. It does nothing to resist the notion of American exceptionalism, but rather strongly agrees with it. It also posits America as a series of successive victories, only with black people at the vanguard, not whites. As she puts it, “It is we who have been the perfecters of this American democracy.” The gloom of the beginning and the brightness of the end is not Hannah-Jones denying American liberalism, but rather limiting the scope of American history, hermetically sealing it from other places and times, and cranking up the “contrast” knob as on a television set. So it is unsurprising, then, that the whole 1619 Project ends on a note of optimism. Its last headline reads, “Their ancestors were enslaved by law. Today, they are graduates of the nation’s pre-eminent historically black law school.” And the article concludes, “Today’s nearly 44 million black Americans are themselves the testimony of the resiliency of those who were enslaved, of their determination to fight and survive so that future generations would have the opportunities that they never would.” The articulation of the liberal American dream is fully realized here, albeit recontextualized.
The reason for Hamilton and the 1619 Project doesn’t have much to do with a turn against liberalism at all. It is instead found in the now-truly diminishing expectations for the country, the kind that Lasch prematurely identified over four decades ago. The signs of breakdown in the exoteric liberal model of history were only initiated by the influx of critical theory-derived ideas on race, ideas that were dumbed down as instantly as they were popularized in America’s mass consciousness. But we are not looking at a domino effect, here. We are watching as our verbalist elites shift the goalposts for American prosperity in real time. The so-called 1619 riots likely happened for many reasons, but the match in the powderkeg was the death of an unarmed George Floyd at the hands of some police officers. When the body cam video footage of his arrest was released, it became apparent that police brutality had less to do with his death than it initially seemed. The video confirmed what was already apparent from his toxicology report: he died of a cardiac arrest in large part due to a combination of a fentanyl overdose and the deadly coronavirus. As one social media user noted, both fentanyl and the coronavirus are exports from China. Perhaps that unfortunate and inconvenient aspect of the tragedy ought to be addressed, but the once-powerful United States now plainly lacks the power or the will to confront it. So it is instead left to shadow box pathetically against an invisible “systemic” racism wherever it might be lurking in the shadows.
The truth is that the most radical actors in the 1619 riots were not the underclass or the lazy people without jobs, as many conservatives seem to believe. Those guys participated, certainly, but mostly for non-ideological reasons. The most radical element in these riots was the college-educated upper-middle class, who not only imbued the chaos with some semblance of narrative coherence but also offered free legal representation for those arrested, raised large amounts of money to bail them out, and even participated in it themselves. Tellingly, these “mostly peaceful protests” (a media nonce coinage) were sponsored by Amazon, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and many more of your favorite multinational corporations. The symbolic gesture of “taking the knee” was created in the context of corporate sports entertainment, and it resulted in its innovator, football megastar Colin Kaepernick, receiving a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Nike. These riots were not a product of far left ideology. They were the result of a mutated liberalism flailing its arms about, desperately trying to retain its optimism. But seeing no optimism to be found in the wealth of the nation or the beauty of its citizens, the managerial class has offered a substitute: it now peddles an optimism at the prospects of overcoming ill-defined prejudices as the nation’s wealth sinks further and further, America’s global influence declines, and the physical, psychological, and spiritual health of the average citizen plummets. That is the real upshot of Hamilton, the 1619 Project, and these riots. They represent a victory in the educated class’s project of reorienting America’s priorities to preserve the structural integrity of its own progressive supernarrative — deploying esoteric flourishes as bandages on a wounded mythology.
When that anonymous anarchist spray-painted “1619” onto the broken Washington statue, conservatives were notably filled with dread. It was, to them, a horrific moment — a sign the far-left junior staff at the NY Times had finally usurped the good liberal senior staff. They were now enacting their diabolical schemes of plummeting the country into chaos, and moreover, by God, they were succeeding. But look. I don’t want to seem too flippant. There are many, many excellent reasons to be concerned for the future of America. But if conservatives were fearful for the death of liberalism, then that unknown anarchist and his graffiti tag ought to have reassured them that liberalism is alive and well. A bit scorched around the edges, maybe, but basically doing fine. As it stands, the distinction between its exoteric historical supernarrative and the various esoteric theories on the nature of history remains firm. The esoteric remains esoteric. The more dangerous situation for liberalism would have been the destruction of statues with no stated purpose at all — just the eradication of the past for its own sake. Consider ISIS and its destruction of historical monuments by comparison — they were acting not out of some namby-pamby concern for social justice, but rather the radical iconoclastic hatred of graven images first demanded in the book of Exodus, then in Deuteronomic Law, then making its way much later to the hadith, the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad. That is a motivation that liberalism, with its current reliance on spectacle and visual rhetoric, could not withstand nearly so easily.
So even while the once-exclusive liberal heresies on race and sex have been vulgarized, commodified, and released into the mass public consciousness like rabid hounds chasing helpless rabbits, the cornerstone of the whole edifice remains mostly unmolested at this time. The liberal view of history is that cornerstone, for it supplies the interpretive meaning of the events of the past while generating the sense of forward momentum to harden the convictions of its adherents. The dedicated liberal, whether Democrat or Republican, may want to reform various aspects of this supernarrative’s current presentation, but its durability should be nothing short of inspiring. However, if the worry warts have a point, it is this: nothing lasts forever, and the liberal supernarrative remains just as unguarded as its previous stances on race and gender once were. If the liberals want to keep this arrangement intact, they might need to engage in “the hypocrisy that vice pays as a tribute to virtue,” as the old saying goes. Though the grand supernarrative arc is stable for now, we have just begun to see the emergence of fissures in the wall separating it from all that which could one day creep in and fully contaminate its essence. It will be nothing short of interesting to watch what happens if that wall is never mended.
Note: In an attempt to avoid writing something that would look like tedious academic scholarship, I conceived and outlined this essay only from the memory of previous books I’ve read or at least skimmed. But as I started to write, I realized that I would need to pull some quotations and re-read a couple things. So this is just a list of books I physically opened and checked while writing.
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon & Schuster, 1988
Anthony Kemp, The Estrangement of the Past: A Study in the Origins of Modern Historical Consciousness, Oxford UP, 1991
Charles R. Bambach, Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism, Cornell UP, 1995
Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, W.W. Norton & Co., 1991
Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke UP, 1991
Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (transl. Jeremy Jenkins), Cambridge UP, 1999
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Ernst and Falk, Dialogues for Freemasons, A Translation with Notes” (transl. Chaninah Maschler), in Interpretation (The Hague) 14.1, 1986
Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, W.W. Norton & Co. (reprint), 1965
John M. Ellis, “Is Theory to Blame?” in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (eds. Patai and Corral), Columbia UP, 2005
Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck, Bergahn Books, 2012
Paul Gottfried, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Moment in America: A Critical Appraisal, Cambridge UP, 2012
Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (transl. Maria Santos), MIT Press, 2000
Reinhart Koselleck, “History, Histories, and Formal Time Structures” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (transl. Keith Tribe), Columbia UP, 2004