” (..) Warum wurde mir nicht die Körperkraft, die Sünde dieses Planeten mit einem Axthieb umzulegen? Warum wurde mir nicht die Gedankenkraft, die geschändete Menschheit zu einem Aufschrei zu zwingen? Warum ist mein Gegenruf nicht stärker als dieses blecherne Kommando, das Macht hatte über die Seelen eines Erdenrunds? Ich bewahre Dokumente für eine Zeit, die sich nicht mehr fassen wird oder so weit vom Heute lebt, dass sie sagen wird, ich sei ein Fälscher gewesen. Doch nein, die Zeit wird nicht kommen, das zu sagen. Denn sie wird nicht sein. (..)”
Karl Kraus, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, suhrkamp taschenbuch, 1986, p. 671.
[Amateuristic English translation: The grumbler at his writing desk: “(..) Why didn’t I get the bodily strength, to slay with one blow of the axe all the sins of this planet? Why didn’t I get the strength of thought, to force this defiled mankind to an outcry? Why is my voice of opposition not stronger than these hollow commands, that have in their power the souls of this globe? I keep documents for a time, no longer capable of grasping them or so far from now, that it will say, I am a manipulator. But no, the time will not come to say this. Because it will never be. (..)“
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 30-03-2009. As these posts get more recent I would hope they get better. Hope is always misguiding. It is what it is.]
I am an optimist. But, being an optimist, I don’t get it; I don’t get why, despite Kraus, we wound up in another world war; simply don’t get it why, for all the advances we did make, we still see words used in service of this, that or the other pet belief of one or another set of ‘in’-people domesticating us to pets.
The point is, I guess (or at least that’s been chasing me ever since I re- read the quote above), that we make steady progress (ignoring times of intermittent world war type collapse [and we might well at current be in such a relapse]) but that at every time we wind up in the worst possible world that we’d be able to have at that specific time.
Let me in turn try to chase the thought that has been chasing me for a week now. I am not a fan of ‘possible worlds’ logic and certainly not the kind that – in an almost mystical way – tends to give a lot of reality value to worlds possible but not actual. I do however think I can make sense of ‘the worst possible world at a specific time’. More specifically as per the following:
Each specific time – instant, historical period – is characterized by many possible ways of organizing. At least, to limit ourselves to the really real, there are at any time a range of actual (politicial, judicial, economic) systems in place. We can therefore – glossing over many important qualifications no doubt, but bear with me – quantify at a specific time over these actual systems.
If we can quantify over such systems, and we can make sense of the predicate ‘better than’ predicated of such systems, we’re in good shape. Indeed, any world that doesn’t maximize its ‘better’ systems is worse, and any world in which the ‘better’ systems are, in effect, minimized is the worst.
OK, fair enough with rather more than a whiff of poetical liberty (I do apologize for buckets full of implicitly assumed non-trivial premises but I’m chasing here; only if I actually catch something will I be able to give it a thorough going-over).
But I did introduce maximize (& minimize, but you’ll sure forgive the one if you forgive the other) and that, at least, requires me to pause (likewise with the jump from systems to worlds would, but – whether you forgive me or not – I will pass that one for now). Maximize implies that there is an action that could at least be taken but who is the actor? And what is the action?
Time for some more boldness. Time to get back to Kraus.
My suggestion is that the actors would be the people living at that specific time, and the action would be to use their knowledge of better/worse systems. I guess by now I’ll have lost what little credibility I had when I started but my suggestion poses an interesting constraint: the actual systems over which I was quantifying have to be ‘visible’ to all actors. Not only have they to be known but they also in some way have to be understood (it isn’t, by the way, at all necessary they be completely understood, they need only to be relatively clear and only insofar as the ‘better/worse’ relation is concerned).
An example from Kraus’ time:
There was the Austrian system and the British one,. The British one was better (if an historian reads this: just assume with me, for fun if not for anything else). Both systems were visible to each other: there was no lack of communication. In fact there were people like Kraus that were very vocal in the worse system on the fact that there was something ‘better’ to be had. In the Austrian empire one could make a lot of excuses on why they stuck to the ‘worse’ (and they did, just read Kraus) – but not because of lack of knowing the ‘better’ (and remember: this is no longer about the ideal ‘best’, at any time – lots of criticism applies to what I say but not that of utopianism). Opting then – not only to stay in the ‘worse’ – but also to go to war with the ‘best’ is – at least close to very categorically – the worst possible situation; a situation that actually minimizes the good.
At this time I can relax the quantificational diversion – the worst possible world at a given time is the world that takes minimal account of the knowledge and the criticism that is available at that given time. Minimal account does not mean ‘no account’ as it is perfectly plausible that, however much the Austrian rulers tried, they were unable to disregard entirely the knowledge and criticism waged at that specific time (it is, in fact, part of the Kraussian story how these rulers quite deliberately saved appearance by giving lip service to modernity; and, in double fact, isn’t that something that rings a bell, across all times, including ours?).
[Maybe it comes later but my cultural optimism is based on the assumption that, whatever else rulers do, they have to at least pay lip service to what is better and in so doing, regardless of their own aims, cannot but further knowledge of what is good.]
Given we do progress, the argument isn’t too hard that in actual dynamic reality the ‘minimal account’ isn’t zero (yes, I will have to allow this over a considerably longer stretch of time than from instant to instant, otherwise the world war data would falsify the theory).
So, enough chasing done, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can be a grumbler and I can be an optimist. Grumbler because at any given point in time, including a time like the present, we are as worse off as possible (taken statically). Optimist because I can see evolution over sufficiently large stretches of time as showing such clear progress that nobody would deny if for instance speaking over the last century.
[Turning back to the Kraus’ quote: it is in fact true that in newer times it is less and less possible to understand the worst of older times. It becomes literally inconceivable to understand why the facts were as they were. This is specifically true of acceptance of inter-personal violence.]
Shorter all of the above: things progress extremely badly.
The reason for this, and therefore the reason for the conundrum with which Karl
Kraus expresses his frustration in the quote, is that “the word” (knowledge and criticism and all that) isn’t allowed to ‘flow’ (more: the word is actively blocked and abused by the people which happen to be in charge at a given time). My optimism, to close on the up, is that it nevertheless flows and, like water, can’t be
blocked indefinitely. Kraus could not see that because he could not see progress over time, yet. Better still: progress is self-re-enforcing – the more the word has flown the more rapidly it will flow next.
But, unfortunately, the mechanisms of delay by the powerful is still with us. Although we know the tricks of propaganda and abuse of power, we haven’t been able to get rid of them (cfr. Murdoch and Davos and economists in general) . The word is still more controlled than that it controls our progress (and, on a darker note, possibly the point of irreversibility has not been reached yet 😦
[See On Education elsewhere on this blog. Progress to dynamics is based to large extent on the ability of masses of people to understand the word and the speed with which it flows is directly proportional to the number of people capable of critically understanding it. This is why education is not just a crucial thing but is the crucial thing contra the current zeitgeist that puts several items, specifically wealth and tradition, as more primordial than learning. I am happy with this one as it may be badly written and all but it is nevertheless spot on.]
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Bill Laswell; both Dub Chamber 3 and Land of Look Behind.]