His­tory, to­tally de­stroyed

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Crispin Sartwell

Like many top in­tel­lec­tu­als the world over, I’ve been think­ing about the shape of his­tory it­self. Spurred on by the emer­gence of un­ex­pected events and per­son­al­i­ties onto the world stage, I have been cog­i­tat­ing deeply on the ques­tions of where we’ve been and where we’re head­ing.

The world-his­tor­i­cal con­fronta­tion be­tween US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which may well pro­ceed from ver­bal to ac­tual Ar­maged­don, de­mands a new un­der­stand­ing of his­tory: It has all, un­de­ni­ably and in­ex­orably, been lead­ing up to this.

North Korea de­mands that we oust the “lu­natic” who gov­erns us or face “the abyss of doom”, while our own dear leader char­ac­terises Mr Kim in his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant tweets as a “mad­man” on a sui­cide mis­sion whom we will “to­tally de­stroy.”

As all top in­tel­lec­tu­als know, Hegel ar­gued that his­tory, in its essence, is the com­ing-to-self­con­scious­ness of the Ab­so­lute; Marx said that it is the di­alec­ti­cal un­fold­ing of the ma­te­rial con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion; Michel Fou­cault pointed out that it is a suc­ces­sion of “epis­temes” (roughly, a body of com­mon shared be­liefs), each in­scrib­ing its own regime of power; Fran­cis Fukuyama claimed it was over; and Jean Bau­drillard said it never ac­tu­ally hap­pened in the first place.

Be­fore these the­o­ries emerged, it was the Great Man view of his­tory that dom­i­nated the field. “The his­tory of the world is noth­ing but a bi­og­ra­phy of great men”, wrote Thomas Car­lyle. Or as Ralph Waldo Emer­son had it: “It is nat­u­ral to be­lieve in great men. We call our chil­dren and our lands by their names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of lan­guage, their works and ef­fi­gies are in our houses.” On this view, the driv­ers of his­tory are not races or classes or na­tions, but par­tic­u­lar mil­i­tary ge­niuses, mes­si­ahs, kings, dic­ta­tors, in­ven­tors, cap­tains of in­dus­try, artists and saints. The Great Men swag­gered onto the stage one af­ter an­other, each cap­tur­ing and con­quer­ing the Spirit of the Age. You will no­tice, of course, that the Great Man the­ory in­volved no women. This made per­fect sense to the men writ­ing the the­ory of his­tory.

But the true test of philoso­phies of his­tory is his­tory it­self. I sug­gest that the Great Man The­ory, though al­ready bat­tered by Marx­ism and fem­i­nism, isn’t likely to sur­vive the his­tor­i­cal dia­lec­tic be­tween Mr Trump and Mr Kim. These phe­nom­ena sug­gest the need for a com­pletely fresh ac­count of his­tory it­self, a new the­ory that is al­most cer­tainly my ticket to a long-an­tic­i­pated MacArthur “ge­nius” grant. Or it would be, if I could set­tle on a name for it.

Ac­cord­ing to your mood, it might be termed the Jack­ass The­ory of His­tory, the Howl­ing Medi­ocrity Ac­count, the Colos­sal Bun­gler Hy­poth­e­sis or the Block­head Con­jec­ture. US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son writes in to sug­gest the Moron The­ory, but this is in­sen­si­tive to­wards those with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties.

We must now reckon with this fact: Hu­man his­tory is the bum­bling-about of self-de­luded and in­com­pe­tent doinks. Surely you are not go­ing to deny that. It is noth­ing so much as a series of prat­falls by in­ept lead­ers and the suck­ers who fol­low them to­wards doom. Their in­com­pe­tence is a his­tor­i­cal force in the lives of each and all of us.

The world-his­tor­i­cal con­fronta­tion be­tween US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which may well pro­ceed from ver­bal to ac­tual Ar­maged­don, de­mands a new un­der­stand­ing of his­tory.

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