Can I ever see Modis go down
futureWhy the West doesn't go under when it goes down
Just like it will probably be in 100 years. Wouldn't it be time to understand the downfall of the West as a kind of perpetual motion machine, instead of invoking it forever or flatly denying it? As a discourse machine that keeps both the West and its demise alive and sustainably managed.
By making the current as bad as possible and the past as good as possible, it devalues the present. And in doing so, it contributes to the improvement of the future - often against the will of its operator.
The literary scholar Johannes Ullmaier is Academic Councilor at the German Institute of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.
The full length manuscript:
"Today's youth are more hollow than ever."
"Our politicians are just corrupt."
"You can't find real tomatoes these days."
"What kind of students are they who don't know when the First World War was?"
"We are destroying our planet!"
"Someone like Goethe would be absolutely unthinkable today."
"Neither are the Beatles."
"Hurray, we surrender!"
"Help, we're dying out!"
In short: everything used to be better!
This diagnosis will inevitably appear in every human culture as soon as there is a concept of "earlier" (versus "later") and of "better" (versus "worse"). And the popularity that this saying has enjoyed in different versions for millennia is so huge and robust that one might think that the words "earlier" and "better" were invented only so that people could finally announce to how much more beautiful, truer, clearer, at least more bearable everything was once. And how degenerate, empty, disheveled, where it is not unbearable now.
In principle, this option, i.e. being able to play off a good yesterday against a bad today (or let it be), initially marks an expansion of the cultural scope for action. Not to say: progress. Such a choice was by no means available in prehistoric and pre-moral societies. On the other hand, the "In the past everything was better" topos is often used so inflationary, so foolishly and so unfairly that one sometimes ponders whether not really earlier - namely when one could not say "Before everything was better" - that's why everything was better.
The paradox of this constellation is not exhausted in the self-cancellation of such a statement as with "I am lying" or "This is not a sentence". Rather, it also points to far more tangible ambivalences in the present-day assessment of historical processes. Ambivalences that arise in delicate and largely unanswered questions such as:
Where exactly is the boundary between historically conscious cultural criticism on the one hand and dogmatic cultural pessimism on the other? Where the between analysis, prophecy, admonition and nagging? Or between poetry, truth and rhetoric? What exactly do you talk about in each case when you notice a general decline? And as who? What do you want to achieve with it? And why do you so rarely achieve what you think you want to?
"Today only emails will be sent ..."
Investigating such questions should be worthwhile in several ways: First, of course, in the hope of finding clues for a criticism of the general talk of decay - a criticism that can, if not prevent, identify the rampant abuse as such. But this inevitably also shows how closely wanted and unwanted, good and bad effects are often intertwined here. To an extent that encourages the suspicion that the speech act "In the past everything was better" has now developed a self-sustaining discourse machine - a kind of perpetual motion machine, which what you feed it as a speaker with serves primarily to feed itself regulate and maintain. And if this suspicion should be confirmed, it would of course be good to at least recognize the contours of this machine so far that one has the chance to deal with it reasonably purposefully instead of operating it blindly.
"What a happy time those were when you still wrote proper letters! Today we only talk on the phone."
What a happy time those were when you could still make proper phone calls! Today only emails will be sent. "
"What a blissful time it was when you still got proper emails! Today you only get scraps of WhatsApp."
What a happy time those were!
In order to make the problem a little more concrete, it makes sense to start in one's own culture and in one's own present - that is, in the so-called Occident, where our so-called "we" feel at home. The occidental prime example, quasi the regional evergreen of the "In the past everything was better" -topos should of course be the word of the downfall of the occident. Since Oswald Spengler announced it for the first time in 1918, it has become a household word, and not a day goes by on which it is not repeatedly stated, complained, sworn, ironicized or denied.
As with most winged words, however, the original meaning soon sank into the sea of everyday use - so that of those who use the term today, probably only very few details about Spengler's historical-morphological speculations about the germination, blossoming and decay of Cultures and empires. Even the core question, namely whether Spengler's prophecy that the West will be inherited as a leading power by "Russia", has since been fulfilled or not, seems rather idle today. And not only because almost any answer can be constructed, depending on whether the focus is on the rise or fall of the Soviet empire or the current Russia and what role you assign to the USA in each case. But even more, because almost nothing depends on this answer for today's discourse. Because the downfall of the West can now do very well without its cue - like a child who learned to walk independently at an early age and since then walks all alone, without any father's help ... and walks ... and walks ...
"Communism threatens the free world"
"The black howl is destroying the music culture."
"A gay minister!"
"And as Chancellor? A woman!"
"Asia overtakes the west."
"TTIP and the NSA are subjugating the EU."
"The wave of refugees is flooding Europe."
"Islamist terror endangers the Western community of values."
"The war on terror even more so."
"The internet turns us into digital zombies."
In short: the West is going under.
At least since Spengler's time, that is, for 100 years, if not much longer, the West is now in the process of extinction. And this with a continuous boom that other discourses or branches of the economy can only dream of. Certainly, the fall of the West also has its boom times and dry spells, its cycles, its fashions. Structurally, however, it appears timeless in a way that in the long run must arouse suspicion as to whether things are right in such an evergreen autumn. How is it possible that something goes down all the time and yet, like the West, is still there? Just like 100 years ago. And most likely still in 100 years. Technically, there are at most two explanations for this: Either the West is inexhaustible. But then it can never go down anyway, just like a cash cow never goes bankrupt. Or the downfall is so tough that you don't even notice it, especially as an individual with a limited life span. But then why all the shouting? Neither one nor the other explanation is particularly convincing.
At first glance, more plausible and correspondingly more popular are two other, although completely contrary "solutions" to the problem of permanent doom: The first is to deny the downfall of the West, while the second denies its continued existence.
The advocates of the first solution say: "No wonder that the West is still there. Because it is not going under, on the contrary! If you look properly, you can see that in truth it is always going up! All talk of doom is just nothing Deception or ideology. Because the better is not behind, but ahead of us! In the future! "
The advocates of the second solution, on the other hand, say: "No wonder that we see doom as a permanent state. Because the West has long since gone under! And so completely and deeply that the majority of its descendants do not even notice it. What they still see of the West what is left is pure illusion. Because she no longer knows anything about the true Occident and its size.
Between such radical optimism and such radical pessimism there is, albeit not so loudly, a third strategy of forcibly severing the Gordian knot of permanent relegation. You could call it radical equanimity. It also denies the downfall, but unlike optimism only passively, without assertion to the contrary. Their "solution" is: "The perception of historical changes, whatever tendency and type, is just a fantasy. Basically, everything always remains the same. No wonder, then, when the West and its downfall, like everything else, only changes on the surface, but never at its core. "
All of these strategies have their own rights. Not least as a corrective in individual controversies about progress or regression:
So whoever railways against the car in principle has to be asked by the optimist whether he would definitely prefer the horse-drawn vehicle, including on the way to the emergency operating room. Those who, on the other hand, cheer the achievements of the latest generation of combat drones have to be asked by the pessimist whether the predecessor model did not already lack any humanity.
And where two people are quarreling about whether the very latest trash TV format will finally seal the fall of the West or whether it is its pointed exaggeration and thus criticism, it may help to point out that there have always been and are rude cultural areas - and that, as a rule, not much depends on their respective characteristics.
But as valid as such objections are often in a specific case, especially where they complement each other to form a three-edged discourse razor, they cannot, as general counter-theses, eliminate the paradox of permanent doom. First of all, they are mutually exclusive, so that one would have to limit oneself to one. And secondly, they are no less contradicting each other:
The doctrinal optimists must on the one hand - as in the official GDR, and until their own downfall - always deny or reinterpret all signs of crisis. And on the other hand they can never explain why so many people either do not register their progress or, if they do, do not appreciate them consistently - until humanity itself finally appears to them as an obstacle to progress.
The doctrinal post-apocalyptists, on the other hand, have their hands full to describe every obvious improvement or recovery as a chimera, while at the same time they cannot say (or only in the mode of religious revelation) why they are still constantly involved with it after the ultimate fall of the true West Continue measuring the scale and where you actually get it from.
The doctrinal fatalists, after all, not only have to accomplish the feat of reducing every change to imagination or nothingness, i.e. to explain via Twitter, as it were, why nothing has happened since the Stone Age. Rather, consequently, they cannot even justify why they are commenting on anything at all. Ultimately, everything remains the same.
Obviously, the paradox of the permanent decline of the West cannot simply be resolved from the outside. The only way left is to analyze its internal structure. But what are the individual components? If you just stick to the wording, it is, roughly simplified, the following:
The "downfall", the occident ", the speaker and his speech act as well as the effects proceeding from it.
All these elements are - so our hypothesis - indeterminate in everyday use in a grandiose and fatal way. And this indeterminacy, especially in combination, is the basis for the functioning of the paradoxical doom machine with all the satisfaction, but also the dangers that it harbors.
What exactly is the West?
But first things first: As far as the downfall is concerned, it usually remains largely unspecified. Although there are quite a few things that need to be clarified. For example, whether it is just relative or total; cosmic or just local; creeping or catastrophic; temporary or final; inevitable or preventable; Fate or chance; through no fault or well deserved; coming from within or from without; etc. - But the lower the specifics, the smaller the attack surface. And the greater the rhetorical effect.
It is most effective if it is not even clarified to what extent the respective downfall has already taken place or is only on the way, whether the phenomena described are more of a sign or the matter itself. Preferably both at the same time.
It is almost even more favorable when it comes to the indeterminacy of the second element: the Occident. Already geographically the Occident metamorphosed in the course of history fluently between the Carolingian Empire, "Western Europe", "Central Europe", "Overall Europe", the "Western Hemisphere" (up to Australia) or the Habsburg Empire, where the sun no longer set. Beyond that, however, the West can just as well mean a cultural tradition, an idea, a form of state, society or economy, in the worst case even a "race" - although this does not mean which one.
You probably come closest to the real usage of the term when you say: The "Occident" is - ideally as geographically - always that own sphere, where the other should not have anything to look for or to report. Accordingly, depending on requirements, it can be defined as Christian, ancient Greek, Nordic-Germanic or, more recently, Christian-Jewish. The West - yes, the tactical finesse goes so far that, like recently, people can even take to the streets en masse and protest against this danger without providing a clearer profile of the West than singing Christmas carols.
With the combination of indefinite doom and indefinite Occident, the entire content of our speech act turns out to be downright fantastically indefinite. And therefore universally ready for use. Which is why the talk of the downfall of the West, as well as any general talk about decay, would soon come to an end, if in future every speaker were obliged to always state which form of downfall and which West exactly he meant, or what exactly when exactly and in what way should have been better. An obligation whose implementation is not to be feared.
As far as the speaker or speakers are concerned, it would of course be interesting to know how the doom-finders are statistically distributed by region, religion, educational qualification, income, age and gender, especially over the last 100 years. However, since the database is missing here, it is necessary to approach the phenomenon in a different way. The best way to do this is to ask to what extent the speaker himself is or is not part of the downfall he has stated.
In reality, it seems very clear at first: Anyone who talks about the sinking of the Titanic is either on board or on the safe shore. And that makes a difference for the act of speaking! Just as it does not matter whether the downfall of the Occident is noted by a Westerner or an Easterner.
This is where the difficulties begin, of course. Because who exactly is "Occident"? And who is not? It becomes completely unclear when the speech act, as is very often the case, does not include such self-attribution: Is the anonymous online commentator who says "Poor Germany!" deposited, even a poor German? Or a rich Indian woman?
This opens up a further indeterminacy margin, which is probably decisive for the discourse machine, namely the unclear relationship of the speaker both to the content of the finding and to the speech act itself. Do Oswald Spengler and his book "Untergang des Abendlandes" belong to the Occident or to its decline to? Or isn't this type of speech act primarily a distancing gesture? Namely, the conscious or unconscious desire to stand next to, or better: above, the process of decay - to transcend it by naming it. In the end, is there even the hope of saving yourself from ruin by becoming its chief witness or Cassandra? Do you want to create a metaposition? Or escape to an intermediate realm of past glory? Is it just fun to celebrate the downfall? Or do you just want to care about something?
A complete typology of doom speech acts and their originators would be the subject of a special research area: the intellectual spectrum ranges from biblical apocalyptic and the high ridge of skeptical philosophy of history to the dignified lamentation of the bourgeois feuilleton and the catastrophe alarmism of the spectacle media down to the most stupid complaints and Trolled. Morally, the scale runs from honest, possibly desperate concern about the world’s course to luxuriant fearfulness to decay and profit-making and insidious scare tactics. Yes, there is even a doctrine of age of its own, which remains on the trail of the doom discourse from youthful verbal radicalism to the disillusionment of the midlife crisis to the disenchantment of old age with the present. And even beyond the individual lifetime. Quite different conditions come into effect as soon as one finds out about conditions that lie before one's own birth.
In addition to the sociopsychology, aesthetics, politics and the economy of doom and speech acts, it is above all their rhetoric, which is as fascinating as it is susceptible to abuse, to be examined. And not just with a view to their effects, but in the concise sense of speech-act technology. Surprisingly, some of the distinctive speech modes of doom correspond to the relevant categories of rhetorical adornment:
A climate researcher, for example, who paints the impending catastrophe on the wall in the brightest colors, acts essentially hyperbolically, exaggerating in expression. Perhaps out of vanity, but probably in order to achieve at least a minimum of effect.
The unhappily in love philosopher, on the other hand, who writes a 1000-page book about the fall of love, proceeds synekdochically, that is, he projects his personal concern onto the general fate of the world, so he, more or less consciously, sets one, i.e. his part as Whole. One can sometimes see this in his work, without it necessarily having to be any less true. Perhaps the supra-individual clairvoyance stems from the individual pain.
The joy of talking about doom
Finally, the grim apocalyptic, who conjures up atomic overkill, but secretly hopes to prevent it precisely by doing so, proceeds according to the figure of permissio, the apparent neglect of what one is actually trying to avert: "Just keep going! Run quietly in your downfall! " Whether that kind of irony always works is another question.
Which finally brings us to the effects and thus to the fundamental ambivalences of the doom discourse machine, that is not to be cleared up simply by specification and de-generalization. Because the fact that a speaker achieves exactly what he wants with his downfall speech act should be about as rare as a main prize in the lottery.
This raises a twofold question: Firstly, why is it so? And second, why so many are still playing. Both times the answer lies again in the highly effective indeterminacy of the discourse machine. On the one hand, it can hardly be used in a targeted manner - again as with the lottery. And on the other hand it throws enough for everyone to encourage them to continue playing. Even if the main prize does not materialize, the next chance always beckons. In addition, there are smaller prizes here and there, and last but not least, the desire to play itself! Transferred to the doom discourse machine, this would correspond - in terms of the main prize - initially to the (usually only) opportunity to participate in the great, to have a say in the fate of the world - albeit as an indicator of loss and almost always as a loser. In addition, it cannot be denied that here too there are occasional gains, that every now and then real knowledge arises, which sometimes even leads to real improvements. And finally, the speech act of doom simply brings joy to many people: joy in criticizing, joy in exhorting, joy in lamenting, glee or - last but not least - joy in repetition.
Seen in this way, the permanent downfall of the West is above all a well-oiled compensation economy of disappointment and consolation, identification and distancing, absolute perspective and total ignorance. Accordingly, he not only has no worries about the next generation, but can also react extremely flexibly to real historical developments: In obvious phases of crisis and catastrophe, for example at the time of the Thirty Years' War or the Second World War, the doom discourse machine runs by itself anyway Externally uphill, for example during the founding or economic boom, the doom discourse therefore by no means ends, but merely tends to shift from the elementary to the fundamental: Nietzsche's "Last Human", Herbert Marcuse's "One-Dimensional Human" or Günter Anders' "Antiquated Human" would therefore be more of a boom or even luxury variant of alienation. Which, in turn, does not mean that their diagnoses must therefore be wrong. Just as the insight into the existence and efficiency of the doom discourse machine as a whole must not lead to the seminaristic illusion that doom and deterioration are per se "just language games" and thus never real.
As far as the ambivalent effects of the doom machine are concerned, the indeterminacy of all other aspects is shown here again to the power: if, for example, an elderly person declares a certain present-day phenomenon - such as a new gadget or a pop style - to be a symptom of deterioration, the most varied, barely plannable Have effects. It is true that these will depend on how conclusive and catchy his diagnosis is. But also about the place to speak to him: does he speak out of mature insight? Because he knows better things from before? Or just because he no longer understands the world? Or even out of envy of something living that escapes him (which himself will soon go under)? Hatred of a cool future without him? How all these factors then come together to produce concrete effects, whether the speech act is followed by an epochal reversal, or silent shame, diligent or dismissive refutations, shrugging shoulders, malice or - as with the vast majority of all decay verdicts - nothing at all seems far less plannable and predictable than with almost all other speech acts. Many subordinates shouldn't care too much. The profit is not important to them, but that the lottery is again next week. That the machine keeps running. And she does. Most certainly.
Of course, their effects are not all irrelevant to all subordinates, on the contrary: the more ambitious they are, the more likely they are to note the imponderability of their own speech acts - especially where the failure becomes too blatant:
It goes downhill! But nobody listens to me! "
"For 40 years I have been proclaiming and justifying the downfall of capitalism. And what is going down in the meantime? Communism."
"Actually, we just wanted a fat audience rating for our bird flu hotspot. But now my children are freaking out. And I'm scared myself!"
"Mankind has learned nothing from its last days."
In short: "I didn't mean it!"
But even those who believe they know the ambivalences of the doom discourse machine in advance are not immune to them. A lecturer in the humanities who realizes that his students are increasingly unable (or unwilling to grasp) complex texts finds himself in the dilemma of either trivializing this or risking applause from the wrong side for the diagnosis. Similarly, an editor who defies the cultural fatalism of the quota thinking must constantly fear losing his autonomous leeway precisely to this.
Conversely, of course, even the most ardent admirers of the past (and the most unforgiving smashers of the now) do not escape the dilemma that their speech acts are in fact serving the present and the future. Namely in such a way that they not only gild the "former", but - as alchemists of immanent transcendence - make it really better than it ever was.
To demonstrate how this is done in detail - unfortunately there is no airtime for this in the declining West.
But it works.
So switch on again tomorrow if everything was better yesterday.
It can only get better.
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