art history Art installations Museums philosophy Think Piece

MoMA from Modernity into the Post Modern

By guest contributor Edward Maza

In a 1953 letter, Alfred H. Barr Jr.—the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—wrote: “in our civilization with what seems to be a general decline in religious, ethical, and moral convictions, art may well have increasing importance quite outside of aesthetic enjoyment” (204). Per Barr’s logic, MoMA’s founding marked more than an effort to build a new home for western art in Manhattan; it was an explicit attempt to reframe art as the moral and ethical source of knowledge in a secularizing world. It was, in other words, a stand-in for biblical religion.

In fact, nearly half a century before the founding of the museum, God had died in the minds of many thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, proclaimed: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (trans. Walter Kaufmann, 181). Nietzsche lamented the loss of God as the loss of societal and individual values. Life, the philosopher observed, had no significance, no “comfort,” in a world without a priori meaning. Furthermore, the Bible had long informed a shared human experience with “roots in a continuum of tradition”—and yet, in a godless world, there ceased to be a unifying cosmic entity (Nochlin 41).

The void that God’s death created had unique resonance in the United States. As Linda Nochlin notes, there was “a sense of alienation from history as a shared past—an alienation central to the Americans’ experiencing their own condition as a purely contemporary one, without roots in a continuum of tradition” (136). In 1929, when MoMA was founded, the United States had only a century and half of shared history. In the interwar years, the US was not yet the global superpower it would become after the Second World War. The modern era was marked by a need to create a shared narrative of history and values to inform the future of the nation (Nochlin 136). The Museum of Modern Art, I contend, was an institution born of modern necessity—designed to provide a structure of shared value and meaning to undo the newfound alienation in the godless future.

The question posed by Nietzsche’s observed deicide remained contested throughout the early twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre centered the human subject as the source of meaning. In the modern era, Sartre argues, the individual subject is thrown into a godless world and is forced to forge a meaningful relationship with the world for himself. Sartre explains that “before the projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be” (quoted in Kaufmann349). There is no divine mandate that inherently imbues life with meaning and structure. Man exists innately without purpose and must actively create meaning in the world for himself through relation with the world around him. At MoMA the individual is forced to forge a meaningful existence for themselves in relation to the works of art on display. Objects are spaced apart from one another highlighting their individual importance while allowing the viewer sufficient space to view a single work of art. The works are then hung on unadorned white walls so nothing distracts the viewer from the object on display. The artworks provide a guide for the individual to develop themselves as a locus of moral thought. In an attempt to fill the void left by God’s absence in the world MoMA centered the artist as the subject of worship, assembling a pantheon of artists arranged by the curator-priests of the museum in the hallowed halls of the building on 53rdStreet.

Figure 2. Photograph by Beaumont Newhall, Installation view of the exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,”(including an African sculpture and works by Picasso, Rousseau, and Seurat), March 2, 1936–April 19, 1936. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN46.21.
One of the museum’s early exhibitions Cubism and Abstract Art serves as a clear example of the curatorial style established at MoMA. Paintings are hung on clean white walls, spaced apart from one another, and in a linear fashion drawing a clear teleology from Rousseau, and Seurat to Picasso. This image also demonstrates how Barr cast African art a “primitive” artform whose relevance is tied to its influence on Western painters.

When Barr asserted that MoMA would be the definitive arbiter of artistic quality in the modern age, he constructed an art historical future in which he hoped the museum would remain focal. As the museum’s director, Barr strove to be the omnipotent force determining that history.  In Barr’s 1933 “Report on the Permanent Collection,” he reveals his teleological understanding of art history in a description of the guiding principles of the museum’s acquisitions. “The permanent collection may be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of fifty to a hundred years ago” (MoMA archives, Barr Papers II.C.17). Barr even included an image of his torpedo metaphor, anchoring the collection in the works of Ingres, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner, with supplemental influence from the general categories of “non-European prototypes and sources” and “European prototypes and sources” (Fig 1).

This diagram refers to one of the early instantiations of the theological ramifications of MoMA’s organization and collecting practices. In 1889, Henri Bergson penned his paradigm-shifting essay, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness,” which serves as an intellectual antecedent to the torpedo model developed by Barr. In his essay, Bergson outlined the implications of teleological readings of history for the present and for free will. In Barr’s sketch of the arc of art history, the “ever advancing present” is a direct result of the “ever receding past.” The present art scene is an inevitable fruition of the formalist innovations of the past vanguard. In his diagrammed comparison, Barr converts the passage of time into a material, spatial form: the torpedo. Bergson warned that “time, conceived under the form of a homogenous medium [space], is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness” (98).

Barr’s Torpedo

The transformation of time into measurable space, as Barr suggests doing to organize modern art, limits the individual’s ability to make free choices, as it makes the past the basis for the future. In Barr’s organization, artistic innovation must flow linearly from the past into the present. Once an idea has been around long enough to be absorbed into the present, it is done away with as it passes through the tail of the torpedo. Bergson insists that “we could not introduce order among terms without first distinguishing them and then comparing the places they occupy; hence we must perceive them as multiple, simultaneous, and distinct; in a word, we must set order in what is successive, the reason is that order is converted into simultaneity and is projected onto space” (102). By claiming that converting time into space allows one to “project time onto space,” Bergson is arguing that this space-time can be projected onto the future, nullifying the possibility for free choice. Time, when measured in space, is predetermined.

By converting the temporal history of modern art into a spatial organization, Barr limits the possibilities of future production through the canonization of present artists. The only artists acceptable in the torpedo model are those that can find their roots in the tails of the torpedo. As time (and art history) progress, the artists who are presently the nose of the torpedo will eventually become the tail, and new artists must root their practice in the works of those sanctioned by Barr and MoMA more broadly. All future relevant “modern art” must find its roots in the works that Barr and MoMA have validated as foundational to future production. The Museum of Modern Art, led by Barr, then controls the future of modern art, predetermining what forms of art will be accepted into the canon and which will be rejected because they cannot find grounding in MoMA’s torpedo. This model is designed to outlive Barr. By rooting the development in a canon, the torpedo model insures that all future “quality” art must forever be rooted in the canon as conceived by MoMA institutionally.

In the post-modern world, the seemingly solid framework of the Museum of Modern Art begins to melt into air. Alfred Barr attempted to use the torpedo as a closed system to describe the entirety of modern artistic production. The torpedo held modern art together as a unified system to overcome the modern preoccupation with alienation in the face of the death of God. But as Derrida notes:

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ”out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down (trans. Alan Bass, 258).

Barr positions himself as the engineer of modern art; claiming to establish the truths of the discourse. Barr uses the teleology from the torpedo to construct a narrative of modern art that claims to be a closed, all encompassing, system. As the museum leaves the modern era of systemic discourse into the open systems of post-modernity, its authority imbued by Barr begins to waver. No longer can the museum claim to be the authority on the closed system of modern art, as said system begins to fall apart. As the world of contemporary art expands beyond the articulated confines of the western tradition and breaks free from (and expands beyond) its western roots, it can no longer be contained by Barr’s modernist model of artistic development: “Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible” (Derrida 289).

In the global age, art is the ultimate form of play. It takes signs of the past and alters them to have new and expanded meaning in the present with disregard for their historical meanings. Signs and their signified meanings are loosely related to one another, constantly and unpredictably changing with the progression of dissociated time.

Edward Maza is a master’s student at Oxford in the department of Theology and Religion. His academic work focuses on the intersection of religion and art history with a particular focus on the Hebrew Bible in modern art.

Critical theory history of science Industrial Revolution philosophy

On Hartmut Rosa and the acceleration of social change in modernity

by contributing writer Bart Zantvoort

What is the cause of social alienation, the increasing number of burnouts and depressions, and the failure of political institutions in our late-modern times? According to the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, all of these problems can be traced back to a single phenomenon: the continuous acceleration of social change, which puts us under increasing pressure to keep up with technological, economic and social developments. Rosa puts a distinct spin on the notion of acceleration in the history of ideas. His notion of acceleration is new but he also develops it in relation to the history of the notion, as developed by Reinhart Koselleck and others.


The notion that the world is changing fast, and perhaps even ever faster, seems intuitive at first glance. For who has never heard or uttered the complaint that modern gadgets and devices break or become obsolete so quickly that we are continuously forced to purchase newer versions? Or that there is an increasing lack of time and increased competition in the workplace, in education or in healthcare? Nor is it a new idea: Marx and Engels already wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the essence of modernity is that ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify’, and ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But is acceleration indeed the most fundamental characteristic of modernity, as Rosa maintains? And is it possible to use this insight as the starting point for a new theory of social criticism, as he intends to do?


Though quite a lot of his work is available in English, Rosa is still much less well known in the English-speaking world than he is in Germany. In his first major work, Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity (2013, German edition 2005), he convincingly sets out his wide-ranging theory of social acceleration and the social problems it causes. The solutions to these problems are addressed in his more recent Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016), which is due to appear in English with Polity Press in June this year. A perfect moment, then, to introduce his ideas and some of their theoretical background.


When thinking about acceleration, the first thing that always comes to mind is technological acceleration. It is clear that technological innovation has brought about successive increases in speed in transportation, trade and communication: from horse-drawn carriages to steam trains to the space shuttle; from snail mail to telegrams to email; and from trade by camel to modern ‘flash trading’. This form of acceleration, with its clear link to economic and military competition, has taken centre stage in most discussions on the matter, from Marx to Paul Virilio’s notion of ‘dromology’ to recent debates on ‘accelerationism’. It is one of the strengths of Rosa’s theory, however, that he takes a broader view. He distinguishes three forms of acceleration: besides technological acceleration, these are the acceleration of the pace of life and the acceleration of social change.


The acceleration of the pace of life can be explained in terms of the following paradox: how is it possible that our lives seem to get (or at least ‘feel’) busier and busier, despite the fact that technological change, which allows us to do more in less time, should leave us with more free time on our hands? The point of inventions like the washing machine, the car and email seems to be that they should save us time. But the availability of cars has led us to live further away from work, and although writing and sending emails is faster than writing and sending letters, the volume of emails sent and received has increased to such an extent that we spend more, rather than less time on them.


The form of acceleration that is most important for Rosa’s project of social critique, however, is the acceleration of social change. It is not just technology that changes faster and faster, Rosa argues; so do fashions, languages, customs, work relations and family ties. In early modernity – roughly until 1800 – social change was ‘intergenerational’: social structures did change, but only over the course of multiple generations, making it nearly imperceptible in the lifespan of an individual. In terms of work, for example, a son would inherit the profession of his father and in turn pass it on to his son. In ‘classical modernity’, by contrast – roughly the period from 1800 to 1970 – social change was ‘generational’: each man could choose his own profession, but generally kept this profession for the rest of his life. Today, in ‘late modernity’, change has become ‘intragenerational’: we no longer hold a single profession or work for a single employer for our entire lives, but regularly change jobs or even professions.


But what does all of this have to do with social criticism and alienation, one of the other core themes in Rosa’s work? Alienation is an important concept in Marx and in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, in the tradition of which Rosa can also be placed. The concept has recently regained currency as a way of explaining the dissatisfaction with and problems of late-modern, post-capitalist society, and Rosa uses it to capture what is wrong with acceleration. The notion of alienation, he maintains, primarily seeks to describe a situation in which we feel we are not living as we wish to be living, even if we are ‘free’ to choose how to live for ourselves and are not obviously forced in our choices by external forces. We feel we are forced to keep up with the heady pace of modern life, even if we ourselves choose to live this way.


Both on an individual and on a political level, Rosa argues, we have ended up in a paradoxical state of ‘frenetic standstill’ – a term indirectly derived from Virilio’s ‘polar inertia’ – where everything is constantly moving and yet nothing ‘really’ ever changes. According to Rosa, this is because the rate of technological, economic and social change is now so fast that we are unable to control and manage these spheres through the slow processes of deliberative democracy, and are unable to manage or plan our own lives in any meaningful way. While the relatively modest pace of change during classical modernity gave us the sense that our lives had a meaningful direction, which we could influence through our plans and by investing in education, we are now caught in chaotic, directionless processes and are forced to ‘surf’ the waves of change. Similarly, while classical modernity gave rise to the notion of social progress guided by meaningful collective action and long-term social planning, today democratic politics is unable to keep up with the frenetic pace of change in technology and the economy and has therefore become reactive, inert, weakened and ineffective.


So what is the solution to all these problems? In Social Acceleration, Rosa announces his theory as a project of social critique, but does not offer much of a way out of this crisis: either we find a way to escape acceleration, he concludes, or we will be forcibly slowed down by ecological or political catastrophe. In his contributions to an interesting collaborative volume, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique, he provides a more developed concept of philosophical-sociological critique in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. Following Axel Honneth’s project in his recent work Freedom’s Right, Rosa argues we can ‘normatively reconstruct’ the values which are central to (Western) modernity’s self-understanding – the main value being autonomy. If our society is to be successful by its own lights, therefore, it must successfully institutionalize autonomy over against, for example, alienation; and this is what acceleration is making it impossible to do.


The alternative to alienation-through-acceleration is to be found in what Rosa calls ‘resonance’, a notion worked out at great length in his most recent work. Acceleration is here reconceived more broadly as the ‘imperative to increase’ (Steigerungsimperative), while resonance is conceived as the opposite of alienation: a relation between a person and the world, between subject an object in which both sides form a mutually ‘responsive’ relation, and neither side is reduced to the terms of the other. Resonance can be found in religion, art and in nature, but also in our relation to other human beings or to objects. Yet Rosa’s analysis is still distinctly pessimistic. We are stuck in a world with little ‘resonance’, where we seem ‘completely unable to offer a political remedy to the “iron cage” of the imperative to increase. The world (in the sense of the institutionally embedded capitalist reality) mercilessly enforces the everyday disposition of reification, and proves to be almost completely immune to any form of protest, in the street or in the voting booth’ (Resonanz, 706, my translation).


The possible practical solutions to bring about a world of greater resonance that Rosa suggests are hardly new, though they may resonate with current sentiments in left-wing discourse in Britain and elsewhere: socialization of the economy, and introducing a basic income. Yet how these changes are to be brought about in the face of an alienated, reified world and a paralyzed political system remains to be seen.


Bart Zantvoort wrote his PhD on Hegel at University College Dublin. He is a lecturer at the University of Leiden and editor and researcher at the Nexus Institute. His research focuses on the relation between social change and resistance to change in individuals, institutions and social structures more generally. He is the editor of Hegel and Resistance (Bloomsbury, 2017) and has published articles on Hegel, political inertia, Critical Theory and on Quentin Meillassoux.


book history companion piece French history Intellectual history philosophy religious history

Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

by guest contributor Marco Menin

Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

The first time I read Paul et Virginie I was nearly ten years old, attending elementary school in a small town in Northern Italy. Among the few books that were available in the so-called school “library”—which in reality was a modest metal shelving unit which held, at most, fifty books—was the Italian translation of the novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, tucked away among books for young readers ranging from age 8 to 12 years of age. Surprisingly, as I was able to ascertain years later, the translation of the work was complete, with only one brief passage censured, due to the complete nudity of the sailor who attempts to pull Virginie to safety during the shipwreck.       

I clearly remember how the events of Paul and Virginie, so distant both in style and content from the adventurous books that excited me at the time (I was an avid reader of Emilio Salgari and Alexandre Dumas, father), fascinated me and repulsed me at once. I was enraptured by the narrative ability and descriptive expertise of Bernardin, who painted before my adolescent eyes the exotic and lush sight of the tropics. Yet, I was deeply disappointed by the dramatic conclusion of the novel, which left me with a bitter taste of injustice. Being used to happy endings, typical of literature for young readers, I could not understand why Paul and Virginie—two young, beautiful and good individuals—had to die so tragically. One might say that, in a way, I had already grasped (albeit unconsciously) the philosophical problem of the theodicy that brings Bernardin’s novel to life!

In my view, this biographical anecdote—as trivial as it may be—allows us to reflect on the unique historiographical destiny of the Lumières catholiques, the religiously-inspired enlightenment, whose most famous exhibits include Paul et Virginie. Up until recent years, the history of ideas strived largely to exalt anticlerical discourse and the progress of secularization, both typical of the French Enlightenment. This would explain why this time period was perceived as irreconcilable with faith and, more specifically, with Catholicism, which was effectively deeply-rooted in eighteenth-century France. Despite the philosophes’ efforts to destroy the ecclesiastical institution and Catholic dogmas, religion, which often prevails over reason as regards moral efficacy, maintains a prominent position in a society that is continuously in search of moral progress, while increasingly absorbed by mundane habits.   

Faced with the ever-growing importance of secular values, which were glorified by the Utilitarian movement imported from England, the religious apologists adapted their discourse to the trends of the time, in order to defend a conception of religion that was more philosophical than fideistic. In a book from 2008 David Sorkin confirms the central position of the movement in eighteenth-century Europe; a movement somewhere between philosophy and religion which he defines as The Religious Enlightenment: “It [the religious Enlightenment] was at the heart of the eighteenth century: it may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment. The religious Enlightenment represented the last attempt by European states to use reasonable religion – as opposed to romantic, mystical, or nationalist interpretations – as the cement of society (p. 21).”   

Due to their ambiguous position, suspended between secularization and religious conservatism, between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment, the Lumières catholiques had been long ignored or, at best, embraced by a generic “edifying literature” which was to be regarded with benevolent indulgence. In addition to the case of Bernardin, one might consider Mme Leprince de Beaumont (as one mere example), who in present-day collective unconsciousness is considered exclusively to be an author of childhood literature (one might think of the tale La Belle et la Bête), while in reality she was a leading spokeswoman for religious apologetics, brimming with philosophical implications.   

Alongside content (their presumed conservatism), an additional misconception which has long characterized the reception of the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment regards form; that is, the choice to serve as a prevalent expressive means of the sentimental novel. Though it has been superficially interpreted as a merely aesthetic choice, this decision has solid theoretic foundations. Not only does the sentimental novel genre allow for a broader circulation of ideas, consistent with the democratization of knowledge which was typical of the Enlightenment, it also fosters a proper philosophical investigation. As a theater of the expression and operation of moral sentiment, restored by Rousseau, the sentimental novel is presented as a privileged space in which a tolerant and enlightened faith is defended, and sensibility is considered to be a source of morality. Free of its theological implications, religion becomes a powerful moral instrument, equipped with the extraordinary gift of political and social cohesion.     

In the case of Paul et Virginie, as I hope to have demonstrated in my article Paul et Virginie, or the Enigma of Evil: The Double Theodicy of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the exotic adventure and amorous idyll (destined to transform into tragedy) serve to illustrate a clear theodical plan, which cannot be fully understood if the novel is not considered against the broader backdrop of Bernardin’s philosophical-naturalistic reflection, showcased in his Études de la nature.

A similar discussion to the one we have had regarding Bernardin can be applied to all of the apologists who were involved with the genre of edifying novels: from the aforementioned Mme Leprince de Beaumont to the abbé Gerard and Mme de Genlis, authors of Le Comte de Valmont ou les Égarements de la raison (1774) and Les Petits Émigrés (1798), which though nearly forgotten today, were best-sellers of their time.

In the case of all these authors, repeated references to Heaven and to divine providence as narrative motors should not be reduced to pathetic ornamental epiphenomena; rather, they must be considered an integral part of the sentimental rhetoric that fuels the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment, and that exerts leverage on the affective dimension before the intellectual dimension of the reader. The apologist novelists use a precise aesthetic and ideological system in order to desacralize Catholic orthodoxy by democratizing it. By making orthodoxy mundane through fiction, these authors draft a new order, which is clarified simultaneously by the lumières of faith and of reason.     

From this standpoint, as vigorously confirmed by the historiographic events of Paul et Virginie, a more in-depth examination of the Lumières religieuses allows us to reconstruct a relevant building block of the cultural life that characterized France (and Europe) in the late eighteenth century, while returning to unjustly marginalized texts their due place within the history of ideas.

Marco Menin is an Associate Professor in History of Philosophy, Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy). His article on Paul et Virginie is available in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

book history French history philosophy

Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man, or the Impossibility of Thought

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

In his L’Oraison funèbre en l’honneur des citoyens tombés of August 10, 1792, the French writer and priest Cousin de Grainville preached a funeral oration full of revolutionary fervour for those killed during a recent insurrection. In it, he painted an enthusiastic picture of the future in which “from dawn till sunset, the people will reign” as “happiness awaits this moment to descend from heaven to earth” when “men will find a brother and abundance.” Deploying a millenarian tone, Grainville enjoined his audience to be “big as the revolution” for “the victories of our brothers in arms [would] change the world” and “all countries become fertile.” He wanted to help “engrave in indelible traits the memory” of those who had helped herald a new dawn and if possible, render it “hereditary, by showing from what dreadful precipice their memorable victory has saved us, and of which good deeds it [would] be followed.”

Cousin de Grainville, Le dernier homme (1805)

And yet, a little more than ten years later, in February 1805, Grainville threw himself into the Seine, leaving behind him his epic, The Last Man (Le dernier homme), in which he staged the extinction of mankind and the destruction of the earth. This was the first work of its kind, a subgenre of apocalyptic literature he was credited with pioneering, and which would spawn various other novels in the course of the early nineteenth century, including contributions from Byron to Shelley. While it fell into oblivion soon after its publication and has only  ever been sporadically examined since, Grainville’s Last Mandeserves to be revisited for its ability to qualify traditional accounts of the passage to modernity, and as a literary testament to the devastation the author experienced first-hand after the foundering of the revolutionary project and the gaping disillusionment that followed.

Divided into ten cantos, the nameless narrator of The Last Man travels to a cave in the ruins of Palmyra, where a mysterious spirit reveals to him the future of mankind through enchanted mirrors—a future in which abundance has been replaced with sterility when crops fail and thehuman race loses its ability to reproduce and starts dying out. The survival of mankind, which here goes against God’s will, depends solely on the marriage and procreation of a chosen man, Omegarus, with a chosen woman, Sydaria. This they succeed in doing, with the help of the Genius of the Earth, until the last man, Omegarus, upon having a vision of the degenerate and cannibalistic race he would father, chooses to obey God and abandon Sydaria to die, thus precipitating the destruction of the world.

The story itself is a fascinating mess, a confused bundle of different, unfulfilled typologies and often contradictory strands, which never lets itself be pinned down and from which no clear-cut conclusion or unequivocal moral lesson can be taken away, no new vision allowed to emerge.Omegarus inhabits a world no longer ordered by God and seemingly devoid of the promise of messianic redemption or revolutionary palingenesis. The traditional eschatological motif has been eviscerated and divorced from its doctrinal dimension and brought to human scale, offering the reader instead a phenomenology of the apocalypse which constantly alternates viewpoints. Linear and sequential chronology has been broken up in favor of a radically fragmented temporality and extreme historicity which Grainville manipulates to exhaustion through the use of reiterations, pictures, tableaux, and flashbacks.

In fact, the initial premise is paradoxical, for time itself has been upended from the very inception. The narrator witnesses these future events as they unfold, events which the Spirit tasks him with memorializing even before they have occurred, so that people can know of the last man, who “will have no descendants who can know and admire him. My desire is that before he is born, he will be known in memory. I wish to celebrate his struggles and his victories over himself—to tell of the pains he will suffer to shorten those of humanity, to end the reign of time, and to hasten the day of eternal recompense that awaits the just.”

While the modern project served to consecrate man’s conquering of an uncertain and open-ended future, here that future already appears foreclosed and, so to speak, dead before being born. It is, in fact, in its self-abortion and as a future already past, that it is to be memorialized. Upon reaching Paris, Omegarus contemplates a sea of ashes. The city has vanished and been reduced to “an extensive waste, an immense field of dust.”

Paris was no more: the seine no longer flowed amidst its walls; its gardens, its temples, its Louvre have disappeared. Of the great number of buildings that covered its heart, there was not even a little cabin left where one could rest.

Aside from a statue of Napoleon, the sole object that survives and to which Omegarus pays a final homage as his “name cannot live longer in memory,” nothing remains of the past—nothing, not even the sight “of the grave of [Grainville’s] brothers” who “[taught] him his duty” as he once put it in his Oraison Funebre. The break from the past is such, in fact, that he is denied even the possibility of mourning an irrevocably lost past. “Even the ruins have perished,” exclaims Omegarus as he mourns the fact that he cannot even find a ruin to feel melancholic about.

Are those the remains of this superb city of which the slightest movements agitated both worlds? I did not find a ruin, not even a stone over which I could shed my tears.

The Last Man’s narrative goes nowhere, and offers no resolution. Grainville’s account constantly oscillates between hope and bleakness, visions of paradise and gratuitous suffering and cruelty and it is impossible to make sense of it. The apocalyptic event itself—presented as the culmination of the narrative—is muted and the resurrection of men does not occur, nor does the final judgment, in the process rendering Omegarus’ design to conquer history by tragically fulfilling it, futile. Grainville baffles every expectation and hope he raises including the final possibility of regeneration or renewal of possibility.

In fact, the fulfilment of human agency and the course of history seem to lie in their self-abortion, harking back to the initial paradoxical premise on which the novel is built: to save mankind, it will be necessary to sacrifice it. In a sad irony, history here finds its fulfilment in its termination from within, as Omegarus places man’s newly discovered freedom of choice and agency in the service of his own dissolution. It is, ultimately, life for its own sake—in its most extreme incarnation of a cannibalistic, and meaningless, potential future mankind—that Omegarus decides against. All that remains is a general sentiment of uncertainty and emptiness.

The narrative literally goes in circles, ultimately reaching a dead-end in its closing moments, when the celestial spirit turns down the narrator’s request for knowledge about the fate of the world, “consign[ing] him [instead] to the revelation of this history of the last age of the earth,” thus looping back the conclusion to the narrative’s very beginning and restricting the narrator—and reader—to the seemingly endless reiteration of a future already past from and from which it seems impossible to break from. While Adam violated the prohibition to seek knowledge and in the process triggered the human adventure, Omegarus and the narrator -come to understand that it is simply futile and that there is no escape to retroactive self-annihilation.

What Grainville experienced first-hand, and inscribed in the body of the text itself, beyond the failure of the millennial prospects attached to the Revolution and the end of one particular world, was the impossibility of conjuring up a new world altogether, from thought itself.  The permanent state of irresolution that forms the core of the novel gestures towards the defeat of the human mind, whose “choicest productions,” in what Michelet came to refer to “l’age d’ennui,” had been reduced to “nothing” and been “abandoned to destruction”.

In the Last Man, Grainville places imagination in the service of its own defeat. And yet, even as a young man, in his 1772 essay Quelle a ete l’influence de la philosophie sur ce siècle,for which he won a prize from the Academy of Besançon, Grainville had inveighed against the steep decline in his fellow men’s ability to imagine and to project themselves, describing how the “contempt for imagination” had deprived men of the “life, fire and enthusiasm which animated [our] first artists” but had turned men into cold reasoners who “follow[ed] one another with the same care as a herd going over a mountain.” For him, the modern project could not be carried simply by “the habit of yielding to only intrinsic evidence” (l’habitude de ne ceder qu’a l’evidence intrinseque) but required poetry and fantasy to make sense of it and conjure up a new world. Now in the post-revolutionary period, reduced to misery and ostracized from society mainly for having sworn an oath of allegiance to the new revolutionary constitution, Grainville experienced first-hand the fulfilment of his prediction. It was precisely this that struck him as so extraordinarily bleak: that thought itself had been aborted.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

German history Intellectual history linguistics philosophy

From the Rational Animal to the Metaphorical Animal: Max Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Metaphor in 19th Century German Thought

By Contributing Editor Andrew Hines

The theme of the relationship between language and rationality has resurfaced as of late. This is not in the least due to concerns about “post-truth” that have emerged from a political landscape in which rhetoric takes on a life of its own, divorced from the necessity of facts or rational argumentation. Some commentators have suggested the blame lies with twentieth century French thinkers such as Lyotard or Derrida. I am sorry to have to tell the reader that the re-evaluation of language’s relationship to rationality is much older. While post-war French philosophy has undoubtedly had a dramatic influence on the trajectory of Western thought, its relevance to the relationship between rationality and language is part of a longer story that goes beyond radical developments in cafés on the Parisian left bank.

One particularly poignant chapter of this story is the transformation of the West’s view of the relationship between rationality and metaphor in 19th century German thought. Metaphor, the device of figurative language which Aristotle famously described as “the application of a word that belongs to another thing”(1457b), was given a distinct relationship to reason in the Enlightenment by Hobbes and Locke. They recognized metaphor’s power to persuade, but for them such persuasion operated in all of the wrong ways. While they believed that metaphor had entertainment value as a poetic device, they also believed it should be avoided in rational argumentation because it was illusory and led one’s thinking away from the truth (26, 36; 372). Other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Vico and Rousseau, were more charitable but metaphoric expression and rational thought were still viewed as distinct categories.

What is startling about 19th century German thought is the way in which this distinction was transformed. We could cite many episodes in this story such as Gustav Gerber’s distinct understanding of Lautbild (a phonetic or articulated image) or Heymann Steinthal’s notion of linguistic relativism. But one episode in particular encapsulates the transition from the view of the human being as the rational animal to the human being as the metaphorical animal: the influence of Max Müller on Friedrich Nietzsche.

This transition was set against a backdrop in which various 19th century German thinkers were grappling with the implications of Schlegel’s historical comparative method and Christian Gottlob Heyne’s and Friedrich August Wolf’s approach to language. In this approach art, religion, customs, and usage were considered equally important to the mechanics of grammar. Thus, as Benedetta Zavatta has put it, some thinkers in this period had an ‘anthropological interest’ in language because they viewed language “in relation to the man who speaks it”(285). This “anthropological interest” interest in language reframed the question about the relationship between language and rationality. Why? Because it allowed space to question the ability to judge between rationality and the aspects of language, deemed, from the perspective of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, as productions of poetic fancy, such as metaphor.

Müller is significant because while he is widely known for his assertion that mythology was a “disease of language,” it is less recognized that metaphor is in fact central in this notion (129 – 130). This reminds us that, for Müller, metaphors play a central role in the formation of abstract concepts. Yet, as we shall see, it also shows us that Müller is still firmly committed to a distinction between metaphor and reason where one can judge between the two.

In Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language, he called language “the one great barrier between the brute and man… Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to pass it” (392). This quotation reflected Müller’s anthropological interest in language and how he held on to language as a demarcation of what it meant to be a human being. When a human being used language, from Müller’s perspective, he or she used language as a rational being that is distinct from the irrationality of animals. This commitment to the human being as the rational animal also appeared in Müller’s famous notion of mythology as a ‘disease of language’.

The phrase “disease of language” referred to Müller’s suggestion that key features in a myth, such as the name of a god, were metaphorical descriptions of natural phenomena. However, these metaphors were imbued with anthropomorphism and over time become more substantial. One example of this can be seen in Müller’s long essay “Comparative Mythology.” There he wrote about the gendered nouns in Greek or Sanskrit. He said that because of these gendered nouns it was ‘simply impossible to speak of morning or evening, of spring and winter, without giving to these conceptions something of an individual, active, sexual and at last personal character’ (72–73).  Gendered nouns inevitably anthropomorphized their subject because they projected a human characteristic – gender – onto natural phenomena like morning or spring.

Müller famously generalized this idea to show the way that language works in the creation of mythology. He wrote, “Mythology…is in truth a disease of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence. Most Greek, Roman, Indian and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day” (12).

As Andreas Musolff has pointed out, for Müller metaphor created a “fundamental misunderstanding” in thought (129 – 130). The reason that Müller called it a misunderstanding at all, comes back to the view we have seen where Müller asserted that language was a unique human phenomenon and indicative of an underlying rational mind.  Therefore, it followed that, for Müller, “the disease of language” was apparent because there was a clear line between the natural phenomenon, the metaphor and the figurative expression used to describe it.

Nietzsche appropriated this idea in a subversive way. Nietzsche is perhaps the most famous for his critique of propositional truth via metaphor when in ‘On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense’ (1873), he wrote, “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors…”(146). Müller became central to this famous critique when Nietzsche appropriated him to explain metaphors role in the creation of truth claims:

[Truth is] a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation…and which after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins (146).

When Nietzsche was trained as a philologist in Leipzig by F.W. Ritschl and Georg Curtius he encountered Müller’s work and also frequently borrowed it from the university library in Basel (273 – 274). However, while Nietzsche clearly drew on Müller’s ideas, he took them a step further when he wrote, “the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals who, by nature, are denied horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence” (142).   This ‘disease of language’ as Müller would call it, was the greatest strength of the intellect according to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, dissimulation, calling a natural phenomenon by a metaphorical description that relates to a divine personality, was not some aberration of rationality, like it was for Müller, rather, it was the greatest strength of our intellect. He uncompromisingly asserted that metaphor was the rule and law of cognition when he wrote that it was “that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves” (150–151).

This does not simply critique truth. Rather, with Nietzsche’s subversive reading of Müller, he collapsed the gap between metaphor and reason and transformed the Aristotelian rational animal, which Müller held up as the clear distinction between ourselves and animals, into something we might call, a “metaphorical animal,” as the French philosopher Sarah Kofman so poetically put in her book Nietzsche and Metaphor (1983) (25).

The intellectual-historical question this poses for us regards the trajectory of the relationship between our western conceptions of rationality and of metaphoricity. A re-evaluation of the relationship between these concepts in this period could shed light on the still murky relationship between them across a number of fields, including post-war French philosophy and cognitive metaphor theory. Politically, the question it poses to us is much more pragmatic: whether we can detect reason’s error, whether we can distinguish between dissimulation, between truth and lying is perhaps irrelevant. For as Nietzsche also wrote, while truths are simply metaphors that “strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding,” the fact that they strike us as canonical and binding, help us to create “peace treaties.” However relative these peace treaties may be, they help society to prevent a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and enable communication (143).  Perhaps, what matters most about metaphor in the age of post-truth is whether we want to see the world shaped by these new attempts at “peace treaties.” If not, what are the alternatives besides a nostalgic yearning for good old rationality and rhetoric that plays by the rules?

Dr. Andrew Hines studied at both the University of Oregon and the University of Tübingen, obtaining a BA in Philosophy. He also holds a MA in Philosophy from University College Dublin and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Queen Mary, University of London. His thesis was on the concept of metaphor in European philosophy after Nietzsche. A specialist in the history of metaphor theory and post-Kantian European philosophy, he is more broadly interested in the political power of language, the history of ideas, and the relation between philosophy and cognitive science. He has written for The Conversation, The Huffington Post, and Newsweek.

Intellectual history Kant philosophy

What can we even think about immaterial spirits?

By guest contributor Matthew Rukgaber. See the full article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Incompatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Arguments in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.”

Perhaps it is because Immanuel Kant’s life was so uneventful that his minor controversies seem to take on a heightened significance. Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics from 1766 is a moment of self-created controversy that resulted in a worrisome review from Moses Mendelssohn that could have derailed his entire future. Charged with making metaphysics into a laughing stock, Kant made clear to Mendelssohn in correspondence that that had not been is intention. But it seems that Kant is laughing at something in the text and scholars have had a rather hard time figuring out what exactly.

Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is nominally concerned with the visionary theosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Perhaps this is the target of his laughter? After all, throughout Kant’s life he was a critic of what we know under the untranslatable term of Schwärmerei, which he defined as “a delusion of being able to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e., to dream in accordance with principles (to rave with reason)” (AA 5:275). Mendelssohn himself seemed unable to determine whether Kant’s aim was to make Swedenborg’s communion with the world of spirits into something credible or ridiculous. Even today some scholars argue that Kant’s text has a hidden agenda to support esotericism. Although entirely mistaken about such esoteric undercurrents, the Swedenborg apologists are certainly justified in attempting to counteract the unusually large influence that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer has had on the fortunes of Swedenborg’s thought. The reason that they are justified is that Kant’s text says almost nothing of substance about Swedenborg. When Kant finally turns to Swedenborg’s writings in the sixth of seven chapters, he abruptly ends the discussion for fear that in reproducing these ecstatic visions that he might frighten pregnant women (AA 2:366). Although Kant has some rather harsh words for these “spirit-seers,” he ultimately sees them as akin to ecstatic poets, whose imaginings hold a sort of internal logic that, while detached from true reason and fact, are not the sheer irrational nonsense of complete madness. He concludes that his own philosophical treatise is not of much use to such prophets of the netherworld, but he does offer a brief account of why people are drawn to the possibility of spirit-seeing: we are afraid of death and hope for an afterlife.

When Kant sardonically cuts off his discussion of Swedenborg, he pulls back the curtain and confesses that he had “a purpose in mind” that is in fact “more important” than the purpose that he claimed to have in discussing spirit-seeing (AA 2:367). According to some scholars, that more important purpose is in fact to ridicule metaphysics as a whole and the dominant rationalist Schulphilosophie. His claim to Mendelssohn to not be doing so and to actually hold that that “lasting welfare of the human race” depended on metaphysics (AA 10:70) must be, according to this reading, Kant recognizing that he had insulted one of the most respected thinkers in Germany. He was in no position at this stage in his career to burn such a bridge. Those who believe that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer intends to demolish metaphysics in general see within his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime from 1764 a shift towards a common-sense, anti-metaphysical school of thought referred to as Popularphilosophie. This skeptical destruction is presumably a step along the way to Kant’s mature philosophy as spelled out in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. But there are serious textual problems with such a reading, not to mention the fact that Kant seems to return to the metaphysics in the 1770 “Inaugural Dissertation” that he supposedly laughed at in 1766. If Kant is laughing at metaphysics in the 1766 text, then that also means he is repudiating over a decade of his own previous publications. Major works interpreting Kant’s early writings have claimed that this is so. But is there any evidence that Kant has tossed his previous labors out the window?

One would expect such a radical change in Kant’s thinking to be rather obvious. Given the divergence of interpretations, it obviously has not been. What has plagued the interpretation of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is the fact that the first four chapters of Kant’s text obscure what his own view is. The first chapter offers a “metaphysical knot” that asks what sense we can make of the idea of immaterial spirits. Because Kant wants the most charitable reconstruction of what we may be thinking of when we talk about immaterial spirits, he uses his own past metaphysical writings to illuminate this concept of a sort of entity that is in space and time but that will never constitute an impenetrable body no matter how many are combined together. Those scholars who believe that Kant is rejecting his own past metaphysical beliefs and the rationalist metaphysics that dominated Germany at the time must contend that this charitable reconstruction is a) an accurate representation of his earlier thinking and b) that he rejects this attempt to make intelligible the notion of an immaterial spirit. In the article “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Compatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Argument in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer” in volume 79, issue 3, of JHI, I show that (a) is false: this is not a legitimate application of Kant’s philosophy from the 1750s and early 1760s. So although (b) is true, it does not have the implication that most scholars have claimed. It neither repudiates all metaphysics nor overturns Kant’s earlier reflections on the metaphysics of simple substances (i.e. monads). Instead, the view that Kant ultimately holds is that although legitimate philosophical metaphysics leads us to the idea of metaphysically simple substances at the foundations of rational physics, rational psychology, and rational theology, the nature of such entities is not given to us and cannot be made comprehensible. It is this fact that is overlooked by metaphysicians using reason and spirit-seers using mystical visions. Thus, they both mistakenly believe that the idea of an immaterial spirit is something we can understand. Kant makes very clear that even the possibility of immaterial spirits is beyond the limits of human understanding, whereas the metaphysical notion of simple substances is a necessary rational posit indicating a nature that remains beyond our understanding.

Besides the fact his early works are generally misread as advancing a Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy that they actually diverge from in numerous ways, a contributing factor to misreading Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is that Kant ignores his own view of the limits of legitimate metaphysics in order to reconstruct a notion of what spirits are that he then facetiously allows to spin out of control in the second chapter dedicated to “occult philosophy.” He counteracts the excesses of the second chapter in the third chapter by offering a reductive, physiological explanation of all this talk of spirits that he calls the position of “ordinary philosophy.” Spirit-seeing may not be full-blown madness, but ordinary philosophy views talk of spirits as the result of a non-rational disturbance in the body. Neither the second nor the third chapters actually represent Kant’s own views. The first chapter does at least give us an accurate picture of Kant’s metaphysical beliefs, but the extension of those beliefs for the sake of rendering intelligible the idea of immaterial substances is not something Kant endorses or had ever endorsed.

At the end of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Kant seems to have contained his laughter fairly well. Although his harshest comments are certainly directed towards the visionaries like Swedenborg, ultimately he believes that a passionate hope in a future life, which is not to be sneered at, naturally leads us down this path. Although we may continue to hope for such things, we should not deceive ourselves into believing we either see or understand the possibility of a ghostly realm of souls and spirits. But that real purpose that Kant announces when setting aside Swedenborg is the goal of reforming metaphysics towards a more critically restrained and, therefore, less laughable version of itself. This is what Kant had in fact been doing his entire career and would continue to do.