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THE MADNESS OF MAPS

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By Brian Patrick Bolger

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The Montréal Review, June 2022

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Atlas Orbis by Benjamin Sack

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In ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ 1967 Guy Debord noted that the modern world had become merely one of representation. In this ‘being becomes having and having appearing’. It was the time when the left morphed into the right; when so called Marxists began reading Heidegger. Heidegger had long before lamented the ‘inauthenticity’ of modernity; the idea that man was uprooted from traditional structures and community. The solution for Heidegger was the affirmation and return to being, rather than becoming. Jean Baudrillard continued this theme with his idea of reality as ‘Simulacra’ in which society has descended from reality to copy to simulacra. The pre-modern period was closest to reality and the post- Industrial Revolution period became a copy. Postmodernity, however, represents a time where there is no relationship between the world and reality. The simulacra of the modern was facilitated by television and print media and underpinned by a globalisation which removed a large part of humanity from relationships with nature.

This simulacrum of existence covers all aspects of life. Baudrillard gives the example, aptly copied from Jorge Luis Borges, of a mythical Empire which produces a real life map the size and entirety of the Empire itself. This map is a copy of the Empire in every detail. However, over time, due to loss of territory and conquest, the Empire contracts. The map remains and becomes a simulacrum of thought for the people. These are the maps which now ‘precede’ the actions of nations in war. It is the contemporary map of the Russians; the map set into the minds of Russians by media representations. It is the map of the Ukrainians. The Northern Ireland issue of the ‘Protocol’, with the symbolism of the dreaded hard border between the UK and Ireland, and placing a border in the middle of the ocean, personifies the madness of maps. It is the map of Europe’s borders shifting and ebbing with the historical tide. It is the map of the nation state; that idea romanticised and inspirer of the revolutions of the nineteenth century. People’s perceptions of maps are not based on realities; but on what came before. The perceptions persist on, long after Empires have crumbled.

This simulacrum of maps provides an obfuscation for liberal media to legitimise war. The Gulf war became a ‘liberation’, an appeal to human rights. The reality was a resource and strategic war. The Ukraine war likewise hides behind a simulacrum for the independence of Ukraine, the sovereignty of its people. This itself hides behind the ‘copy’ which is a strategic and resource war and the American contraction of influence.  But the deep reality, behind the others, beyond the maps, is a cultural war between the death of liberalism and the rise of Caesarism. It is the signifier of a global resetting and a collapse of Enlightenment values. It is a retrenchment from globalisation, from universalist values such as human rights. It is the darkness of night when all the cows are black, to coin a phrase from Hegel.  By that is meant that the liberal universalism, the ‘progress’ of the world produces a sameness. It is this sameness which has produced the antipathy and revolt against liberalism. This can be seen in the resurrection of Islam and the internal fragmentation of the liberal world. The ideas of economic growth, development have failed. The neo-liberal economic model, exported worldwide has produced an endemic collapse of ‘telos’. Only the torn and withered maps remain. The end game is an end to liberalism; not an end to history.

Europe requires a return to Westphalian principles of sovereignty and the dissolution of the big and grand entities of the globalised world and the European Union. The Peace of Westphalia concluded between 1644 and 1648 effectively dissolved the Holy Roman Empire after the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years war, and consolidated the sovereignty of the German princes over the Holy Roman Empire. The devolution to the provinces ensured their independence. The settlement also harboured a degree of religious tolerance within the new territorial arrangements of 300 princes. It was this spiritual dimension of the states which evolved from the late Middle Ages onwards and which formed the basis of community. Aristotle spoke of the ‘perfect community’ and one which gives a ‘complete and self -sufficing life’. The identity of the community, has, from reality to simulacra, descended from close knit community, to nation state, to anti-identity globalism and universalism. Herein lies the hypocrisy of the Ukraine response from the liberal world. Blind to conflicts in the periphery where borders are broken but alive to an infringement to safety at their doorstep. Solzhenitsyn mocked the collapse of courage in the West, the health and safety society, full of spectacle and no substance. It was Heidegger who saw History, not as a line of sequential occurrences to a historical conclusion, but a being interrupted by volcanoes of critical events which cannot be legislated against.

The end of the cold war ushered in a period of self- satisfied complacency. That is, the liberal ‘end of history’ synopsis, which viewed the Hegelian movement of history as closing into a liberal democratic and capitalist utopia, has been scuppered by the antithesis of the rise of authoritarian nationalism. It was Oswald Spengler who understood history in its cyclical unfolding. He compared cultures to the seasons; modernity’s spring and summer of culture is represented by the pre -industrial period of harmony with nature. Autumn and Winter are post industrial and ‘Faustian’- this is the pivotal point for Spengler. The Faustian pact with Mephistopheles embodies the abandonment of God; Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ assertion. Now, after God, man stands at an abyss. The solution was science and the infinite, so the west replaced God with the Enlightenment, exploration, colonialism, development, globalisation. The decline sets in, for Spengler, with the ‘rationalisation’ of cultures and the departure from nature and instinct. This can be seen with the Greeks in the arrival of Socrates (Plato) analysing everything. In the modern era it is the Enlightenment and reason. Then begins the decline of structures such as democracy. With the Romans the era of checks and balances ends with Caesarism. Real democracy becomes representative democracy and then force and executive dictatorships take over. This is the era we are in now with Faustian culture. However, Spengler’s idea of a Copernican view of history (the separate development of individual cultures, with no hegemonous culture) has a proviso. The proviso is that Spengler thought that some cultures possess a messianic belief in proselytizing their virtues. This is indicative of the Faustian west, but also of the Russian spirit. Whilst the West’s Faustian view is encapsulated by infinity; the Russian, for example, is represented by the idea of the endless plain, by vast open spaces, by Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky likened St Petersburg to a ghost town. It was alien to the Russian mind, imported from Europe. According to Spengler the Russian soul is the ‘plain without limit’. Russia’s soul is different and similar to the Faustian one; it looks across the plains rather than to the stars. It has its own version of a messianic outlook, which differs to the globalisation of the west. Russia’s is born of the Orthodox Church and it looks to a bipolar, not a unipolar world.

However, Russia too is in the end cycle of a development; it too has reached the stage of Putin’s Caesarism. This Spenglerian view can be seen worldwide in the rise of authoritarianism. Spengler predicted the ascent of Caesarism between the years 2100 and 2200. These end points to civilisations result in conflict, war and cultural earthquakes. At the culmination of Roman democracy there was a vicious burning of books. Early Christianity ended in the Inquisition. Christianity’s prodigy, Liberalism, has ended in a uniformity of thought and universalism and an attempt to convert the world. Cultures evolve through destiny and incident. Destiny is the river flowing in the background and incident is the boatman. So, the movement of the Enlightenment was embodied in the French Revolution; but this incident was superfluous to the general flow of growing liberalism and rationality. Likewise, Putin’s war in Ukraine is the incident in the torrent of authoritarianism; it ushers in Caesarism and then the next Spenglerian cycle. The maps that we obsess over are merely the landscape amidst which these great cyclical rivers and boats play out. We do not know what that destiny entails for, as Heraclitus maintained: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’

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Brian Patrick Bolger has taught Political Philosophy and Applied Linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in magazines such as 'The Salisbury Review', 'The European Conservative' etc. His new book, Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth is available now in the UK and US.

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