Wednesday, 28 March 2012

troubling concerns

John Aubrey

In this post I want to discuss something that has been on my mind recently since I read a rather strange extract from the Introduction to John Aubrey's 17th Century Brief Lives, in which the author is quoted as saying:

Till about the yeare 1649, when Experimental Philosophy was first cultivated by a club at Oxford, 'twas held a strange presumption for a Man to attempt an Innovation in Learnings; and not to be good Manners, to be more knowing than his Neighbours and Forefathers; even to attempt an improvement in Husbandry (though it succeeded with profit) was looked upon with an evil eie. Their Neighbours did scorne to follow it, though not to do it was to their own Detriment. 'Twas held a Sin to make a Scrutinie into the Waies of Nature...In thouse times, to have an inventive and enquiring Witt, was accounted Affectation, which censure the famous Dr William Harvey could not escape for his admirable Discovery of the Circulation of Blood.
Not Karl
Around the time that Aubrey was writing, then, the idea had only just come into circulation that actual, demonstrative progress in human affairs (even to the point of improving one's own income) was a good thing, prior to which it was considered almost taboo to break with tradition and the ways of the forefathers.  Modes of production and human relations can be seen in this snippet to be so entangled that changes in the one affected the other, and to be seen to be making an 'Innovation' 'was looked upon with an evil eie.'  From there on in it is only a small step to the situation we have now, which was commented upon by Marx in his 1948 Communist Maifesto.  He wrote:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[1]
The logic of modern consumer capitalism can be seen here to be a constant revolutionising of all modes of life. Everything must change all the time. Working as a postgraduate in a small British university it is hard to miss the absolute imperative that what universities are for is the production, legitimisation and dissemination of 'new knowledge.'  In this they are wholly in keeping with the revolutionising logic described by Marx.  There is not a whiff of the attitude towards innovation that Aubrey noted amongst his near contemporaries.  Indeed, it is very hard to imagine living in the kind of static mind-world Aubrey describes, and yet, as both he and Marx testify, our current model of production, consumption and human relations has a particular historical origin within a matrix of specific social conditions and practices.  

Bishop Schiori
Part of the point of these thoughts is the troubling idea that theology, too, has been caught up in an unthinking compliance with the same imperative.  As much as I enjoy speculative theology, I am suspicious of the drive towards theological and ecclesiological innovation for precisely the reason suggested above, that it is more in tune with the kind of unconscious modes of being brought about by capitalist revolutionising practices than it is about dogged fidelity to Christ.  Marx's maxim that material practices determine thought seems to me to be right on the money, and so it is unsurprising that so much heterodox theological thought should emerge within a global economic system devoted to all forms of transgression in the pursuit of ever increasing capital.  Obviously there is more than simply modes of production going on here, but the point remains that the cultural imperative towards innovation is strongest in a society like ours that demands constant changes.    

The other point I would make is that of the impossibility of anything resembling a community life under capitalist conditions.  How can human relations withstand the onslaughts of life when everything is in flux all the time, when 'all that is solid melts into air'?  It becomes a case of the individual against the world.  That's another blog post though.

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