Our societies in crisis are waiting for revival. But the experience of modernity, the idea of progress in the nineteenth century, the ideologies of the twentieth and their human and moral tragedies have made us distrustful, quite rightly so, towards the mobilisation on huge projects. Peter Sloterdijk emphasises that the “infinite mobilisation” set in motion by modernity, the project of making history to bring humanity to its full capacity, has immediately become a mobilisation for mobilisation, a movement towards movement, which lead us to tragedies and could still lead there, in an absurd motion that we gloomily perceive as unstoppable.
It will then be more about seeking, identifying, preserving, and growing the seeds of renewal in our day and age. As we have to begin again, we certainly shouldn’t start again in the same way! We’ll have to re-start, in a resolute manner, but we’ll also have to start differently, more discreetly, in a non-aggressive neither triumphant way.
Yet, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasises, it isn’t possible to be fully aware of our day and age. Having a historical consciousness, worried about the future, scrutinising the present and examining the past, implies being immersed in history ourselves. Evaluating our day and age requires that we be a part of this day and age, thereby limiting the claims to full transparency. It’s this belonging that makes it opaque to us. To evaluate our day and age, we have to be subjective; to see it, we have to be both opposite it and in it, thus preventing a divine point of view.
Our time seems disorientated, but in a minor mode, without the frantic search for a lifeline, without the need to put an end to a situation which would be unbearable because intolerable for most. Our time is both relatively satisfied with itself, and slightly disillusioned or without a clear idea of what would be urgently needed. Its relative satisfaction is legitimate; accomplished modernity left us results which are far from being insignificant and which form the backdrop of most European countries: thriving societies – even if there are still unacceptable inequalities and pockets of poverty –; political systems established in representative democracy where violence and oppression have greatly diminished; a social organisation (health, education, culture) offering support to the most vulnerable and giving development opportunities to most. Europe has seen an impressive decline in hunger, war, diseases, early deaths, discouraging poverty and blinding ignorance. All these results deserve to be maintained, looked after, and improved.
But this post-modern society thereby takes any clear horizon to pursue collectively away from us; both by the accomplishment of modernity and by the very clear refusal of its past destructive mobilisations, we’ve entered without even realising it into the “end of history”. Even the perspective of a future disaster to avoid, nuclear blaze, major environmental disruption, pandemics, collapse of a frantic technological quest on itself or tragic anthropological mutation due to biotechnologies isn’t really taken seriously anymore; it’s still only discussed with the “back thought” that it’s a good motive to work towards goals which, even if they are legitimate, as international stability, a less voracious way of life, technological restraint, seem too modest to get passionate about. Either negatively, because of an imminent disaster that we’d have to disarm, or positively, thanks to a spectacular horizon that we’d still have to conquer, we lack a unanimously mobilising objective.
Such is the strange post-modern situation, somewhat vacillating, and which can leave us distraught in front of the seeming modesty of what’s left to accomplish. A symptom of this is the shift in meaning of the heroism of a war paradigm, about the ordeal of war, thankfully become obsolete, towards the concern of care and the ordeal of pain: fight against mistreatment, patient support, and worry about the end of life, of which the current rise in medical ethics is the sign.
However, even if that’s essential too, it can’t be only about working for the protection and deepening of what has been gained; or only about helping to make it happen, even if that’s urgent too in the parts of the world that are still crushed by poverty, that suffer cultural abrasion because of globalisation, political oppression and murderous conflicts. We do have to take up tasks for our European societies again too, while respecting what the minor mode of our societies reflects of clarity in front of the preposterous collective mobilisation and of consciousness in front of valuable achievements. That is the original task, sometimes unsettling, of our day and age: renew with singularbut not individualistic hopes, based on our conditions of existence often desirable, and without the illusion of magnificent hopes that could be destructive again. There needs to be seeds, concrete experiences of hope that aren’t humble; as our terms of satisfactory existence are not enough to meet the tragedy of human existence and its unfathomable questions of meaning. Our terms of satisfactory existence represent for us a requirement, which is to face decisively these issues that the material, social and political tumults – which have thankfully diminished – may have kept the previous generations from taking them head-on. Indeed, the risk of our day and age would be to solely take advantage of these desirable conditions to enjoy the pleasures of consumption, design, fine cuisine or sport.
The renewal task must then be beforehand to pay attention, in a delicately reflexive manner, to the promises carried by our time. It will be about pointing out the opportunities, the beautiful achievements that are just starting, arising from our historical situation and our designs. Of course, the risk would be that overly highlighting those seeds could freeze, objectify or rigidify them. Truly shedding light on them can only be simultaneously guiding, seizing and giving each other a taste of them to improve them. Only then will those motives of hope, those designs in the making be able to feed us and enable us to feed them in return. But again, such hopes can’t be exultantly shouted on rooftops without being altered; a thoughtful care will be needed; as well as some silence unveiling the mystery of the start without fully driving it out, because “the only thing helping hope (…) is an inflexible discretion. (…) He who really nurtures hopes, let him also bury them as deeply as he possibly can, as they’ll only be rewarding as silent strengths; this is the only way to avoid them mixing with causal successions, thus leading to tragedies; the only way to avoid them contributing to mobilisations undertaken in bad faith; the only way for them to become the vital strengths acting behind people’s backs and carrying them over the abysses above which the diurnal worlds are erected.” (Peter Sloterdijk, Eurotaoïsmus)
Translated to english by Magali Hamilton Smith
Silkscreen printing by Grisor.