The World is Dead. Long Live the World!
October 22, 2017 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Has the World Already Ended? Or Just History?

Way back in 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote his essay, "The End of History?" but a lot has happened since then, right? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel might disagree. Fukuyama wrote about "The total exhaustion of viable system alternatives to western liberalism" and said "History 'ends' when societal problems are not solved by switching to an alternative political-economic system" which sounds an awful lot like Hegel's End of History. Without the dramatic battle of ideas to drive us forward to progress we have become stuck as Fukuyama predicted.
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostaligia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. - Francis Fukuyama, The End of History? 1989
But wait, there's more! Not only is progress halted, but thanks to mass media overexposure, and an inability to distinguish between fact from fiction, we have effectively created a black hole in reality itself (previously).

Jean Boudrillard, in his 1997 essay "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown", wrote that we not only deify the past with nostalgia by creating an "artificial double frozen in sham exactitude" but we also venerate the future with predictions and countdowns. We cling to the past so feverishly that we cannot move forward. This nostalgia obsession combined with neurotic countdown fever forces us to experience events only as mediated to us via technology. Just imagine the last 9 months. Were you allowed to just experience on your own emotional and personal terms? Or were you forced to consider all possible causes and ramifications in the same moment anything occurred?

This deluge of information, instead of making us more informed, instead leaves us confused, cynical, and trapped in "hyperreality"
In our culture, Baudrillard argues that we take ‘maps’ of reality television and film as more real than our actual lives. These simulacra or hyperreal copies precede our lives, such that our television friends may seem more ‘alive’ to us than the real person playing that character. He also began studying how media affected our perception of reality and the world. Here he found that in a post-modern media-laden society we encounter “the death of the real”, where one lives in a hyperreal realm by connecting more and more deeply with things like television sitcoms, music videos, virtual reality games or Disneyland, things that have come to simulate reality. He argues that in a post-modern culture dominated by TV, films, the Internet and media all that exists are simulations of reality, which aren’t any more or less ‘real’ than the reality they simulate.
This mixing and mingling of reality with fiction is what allows the post truth society to exist. It is why hitting consumers or citizens with more information will never make them more rational. And it is why truly skilled liars can always invent larger more complex lies to escape a scandal. "Reality" is a socially agreed upon norm, not a scientifically provable fact. Look at the digression of popular television from real to reality to "reality" to inverted reality over the last 30 years. Something has gone seriously wrong.

Maybe it's not only the end of history, progress, and purpose, but the world itself. Not the earth, the 3rd planetary rock orbiting our sun, but the world. The earth is clearly still here, and will continue largely unchanged regardless of human activity. But according to Timothy Morton the world is largely an "aesthetic effect" and we are coming to grips with our own ability to destroy it. Just as history is better understood as the ever evolving interpretation of past events, "the world" is all of our social contracts, norms, laws, cultures, and beliefs. This set of feelings and effects that are "less true and more useful" has been upended in recent years by technological forces beyond our own control. And we are collectively freaking out about it. Morton refers to "Hyperobjects" as ideas and forces that are so large that they are beyond a person's ability to fully understand. For example: Climate change, Globalization, or Hyperreality.

Morton contends that these human made Hyperobjects are products of the "Anthropocene" or the Age of Humans. Our inability to cope with reality, design and imagine alternatives or solutions, and the truly depressing time we find ourselves are direct consequences of the creation of these larger than life forces. But all is not lost. In fact, the very end of history and destruction of the world might save us from our own Hyperobjects. But not through defending "nature," retreating from globalization, or defending ourselves against hyperreality. We must strive to create a new world designed for the new principles and ideals of the Anthropocene. And we must reckon with this godlike power that we have given ourselves as honestly and authentically as possible. Only then can we begin to fully integrate with the new world we are creating.
Since we never experience any object directly or in its entirety, we will “always be wrong.” What this means for ethics, is not that we curl up in a corner, or continue to delude ourselves with thoughts that there is some special, pure space, “God” or “science” or “Nature” where the messiness, incompleteness, and weakness of our knowledge and power can be completely removed or doesn’t matter. Similarly, there is no place so far away, so small or so big, e.g. at the level of the atom or at the level of the Earth as a whole, where hypocrisy, lameness and weakness do not operate. Rather than grieve over the realization that we are not supermen, we ought to embrace the fact that by recognizing our own weakness, our finititude, we open ourselves to resonance with an infinite variety of other that we can never fully know let alone command. So, what to do? In place of idealism, Morton makes a plea for non-cynical incremental action, precaution and a commitment to contemplation whether this is in the form of philosophy or art or meditation. Certainly this response will not satisfy those readers looking for the big answer, the final number, but for those who approach with an open mind, the end of the world may be the very thing that saves us. - Illya Szilak, Review: After the End of the World, 2014
posted by Glibpaxman (19 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Every generation creates a new world. And every time that happens the previous generation calls it the end of the world. How arrogant. History will not end until the death of the last human. Just because things are changing, and they are changing, does not mean the end of history.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:44 PM on October 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

Although I agree with Homo neanderthalensis, I favorited this post (thanks Glibpaxman!) because it offers a wonderfully wide-ranging mix of commentaries demonstrating the seemingly unstoppable human impulse to believe our moment is unique.
posted by twsf at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Or, as many have joked, "nostalgia just ain't what it used to be"...
posted by twsf at 12:54 PM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

The world cannot end, if it doesn't exist.
posted by thelonius at 1:12 PM on October 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Baudrillard. /end pedantry
posted by leonard horner at 1:14 PM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

As Monkey 2 says, “If we have reached the end of History then why do I have History homework?”
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:43 PM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

That first youtube link does a great job of presenting otherwise theory-heavy ideas in the youtube vernacular. Nice job PBS!
posted by postcommunism at 1:58 PM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Terrific post. Thank you for making it.

Horrible conceit, this "End of History". The beginnings of a shift from the Western imperialistic drives of the last 300 years, yes, and (hopefully) the end of nationalistic "exceptionalism", but something else will replace it. We humans are a tenacious virus, we'll figure something out.
posted by Kelrichen at 2:07 PM on October 22, 2017

the youtube vernacular.

I'm finding that that default Youtuber style of restless jump-cuts, insincere self-deprecation, and fast talkin' is getting kind of old, personally.
posted by thelonius at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

First, thank you very much for this excellent, informative post Glibpaxman.


Horrible conceit, this "End of History". The beginnings of a shift from the Western imperialistic drives of the last 300 years, yes, and (hopefully) the end of nationalistic "exceptionalism", but something else will replace it. We humans are a tenacious virus, we'll figure something out.

I think China is the model of what comes next. Not in a "China rules the world" sense, but in the kind of digital authoritarian state it's building. I think the near-medium term future will see world governance and ideology shifting to exist on a digital authoritarian with polities like the EU on the more benign end and China on the other, with the US landing somewhere between (but probably towards the China side).
posted by Sangermaine at 2:22 PM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I feel fine.
posted by tspae at 4:37 PM on October 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

The spread of spiritual emancipation through reason, science, liberalism and democracy is unstoppable, even by those who would use those very things against it.
posted by No Robots at 5:06 PM on October 22, 2017

Some people think the future means the end of history.....well we haven't run out of history quite yet

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Star Trek VI yet which is a very contemporary take on all this from early 1990s popular culture. In the movie, elements of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire were so utterly terrified of a universe without their defining ideological struggle that they conspire to sabotage a conference which threatens to bring peace and promote cooperation between the powers.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:13 PM on October 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

In a way, Fukuyama was right. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the most active and viable opposition to American style free marketism was gone and we've seen the result of that. While I don't argue that the economic elites were exactly quaking in their boots over Western workers defecting to the USSR, I also don't think it's coincidental that the collapse of the USSR was coeval with the extreme stagnation of wages relative to productivity and the dramatic expansion of the wealth gap.

Without the Soviet Union American style marketism did become essentially uncontested on the global stage. The success of social democracy in Scandinavia and other places is a thorn in the side of capitalism, but not nearly such a threat as the USSR was. China was never in the same category as the USSR, and lately has been Communist in name only.

But that's hardly the end of history, merely a pause. Because American style marketism is blatantly, nakedly, unstable, and cannot be sustained. Without the presence of Communism and the USSR to act as an inhibitor, the excesses and flaws in American style marketism are becoming increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.

An unstable system, like Western/American capitalism, will eventually fail and collapse. And then "history", in the Fukuyama sense of the term, will start back up with a vengeance. It will not be pretty and I fear for my child's future because while I think I'll be an old man or possibly dead by the time it really starts getting bad, he'll be middle aged and right in the thick of it.

History is not pretty, and whatever system(s) arise from the ashes of capitalism won't arise peacefully. We've seen in the past that transitions from one economic system to another tend to be accompanied by violence, death, widespread deprivation, and general unpleasantness.

In theory the elites of the current system could mitigate that pain, but that would require they recognize the system that has made them elites is failing and that they have the moral courage to help kill it quickly. Which is to say it won't be happening.

In the Fukuyama sense, history has ended (locally anyway) many times through the ages as extended periods of stability came into existence. During the good times of the Roman Empire or the Chinese Empire there was no history in the Fukuyama sense. As feudalism stabilized across Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire history again ended. And so on.

But history, as Fukuyama defines it, has a way of coming back from the dead. Anyone who thinks we will be living in our current market economy even 50 years from now is fooling themselves.

History is coming.
posted by sotonohito at 5:30 PM on October 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

Fukuyama has a lot of good points. I originally read his article in college, and dismissed it offhand. "End of History?" what intellectual garbage is this? But I read it again last week after watching the PBS video and then took the time to study up on Hegel, who Fukuyama cites A LOT. And... well, it's interesting. I mean, in 1989 it certainly seemed true. And even for years after it was defendable. One interesting twist is that Fukuyama is a former student of Samuel Huntington, author of "Clash of Civilizations" which apparently Huntington wrote in response to Fukuyama.
posted by Glibpaxman at 4:33 AM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

My main problem with all these macro analyses of history is they always end up muddied if you look too closely. How often are there posts on metafilter alone that completely reframe a huge swath of history using sources that were either lost or ignored by previous generations. The most well known of these I think being "The Dark Ages" myth.

So yeah we have convenient terms for all these things like "western", "capitalism", "communism", "social democracy", "Roman Empire", "Chinese Empire" etc. They're great for telling all sorts of just so stories or teaching moral lessons - but then you spend a few months clicking through r/askhistorians and it turns out any scholar can tell you the supposed definitions are so vague as to be useless or a case of selective historical memory.

The more I read about history the more I realize how ridiculously subjective our knowledge of it is. Reading The Origins of Political Order was like intellectual candy but I'm not sure how useful books like that are aside from ingratiating the readers ego.
posted by laptolain at 9:33 AM on October 23, 2017

The Yellowstone Supervolcano has its own take on the end of history.

Phosphorus would like to weigh in as well.

And there's other things waiting in the wings. Many other things.

So well, nature doesn't really care about our proclamations, but don't let that stop you from saying "History has ended". But then again, I'm certain there were people in Ankor Wat, the Mayan civilization, the ancestral pueblos or Minoan Thera might have thought the same thing, once.
posted by happyroach at 10:30 AM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Those are the most substantive YouTube comments I've ever seen.
posted by spacewaitress at 2:08 PM on October 23, 2017

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