Saturday, 21 January 2017

Donald Trump and the Myth of Progress

In my confused reading of Enlightenment philosophy and the origins of Dramaturgy, only two things have remained clear. Putting Donald Trump in the headline of an article guarantees interest, and there are few things that can't be related to eighteenth century ideas about knowledge.

Robert Darnton's idiosyncratic selection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre (1999) includes an attempt to explain the epistemology of the Encyclopedia, the compilation of knowledge published during the latter half of the 1700s. Examining Diderot and d'Alembert's advocacy of a 'tree of knowledge' - which was sometimes described as a map - Darnton recognises the confusion of d'Alembert's metaphors and language (sometimes, he's drawing on Newton, other times, it's Locke) but concludes that their serious purpose was to 'remove it from the clergy and to put it in the hands of intellectuals committed to the Enlightenment' (page 209). In part, he did this by drawing up a lineage of approved thinkers (yep, all white men) who had advanced human understanding. 

If it was nothing else, the Enlightenment was a self-conscious movement (don't worry, I'll get to Trump eventually). Rather like a contemporary internet fandom, members would mention their affiliation, reference each other and, as in the case of Kant, offer definitions of the philosophy. As the contemporary apologist Vincenzo Ferrone comments, it was 'the first cultural phenomenon expressly recognised by its contemporaries through the name that it gave itself' (page 4, The Enlightenment, 2015). 

Diderot and d'Alembert's various prologues to the Encyclopedia, then, made the project's importance clear and, through their 'tree of knowledge', established an epistemology that divided information into the valuable and the 'unknowable'. Religious knowledge was dumped. But by imagining a lineal development of human achievement, they did advocate a myth of progress, something that still turns up in ideas like 'manifest destiny' or the vision of social justice advocates - known as 'progressives'. 

Myths aren't bad things, in themselves, although Diderot would probably debate that. Of course, the word is used to describe bullshit: those classical myths about gorgons and cyclops, anti-vaccine propaganda, gender binaries, anything that the speaker doesn't believe. But a more neutral definition - a 'story with meaning' - allows a less prejudiced conversation. Following Adorno, the 'myths of the Enlightenment' are another way of saying that the Age of Reason ended up with a reliance on untested articles of faith. That's interesting, but not the point.

The 'myth of progress' seems to demand a counter-myth, the myth of degeneration. If this guy says things are getting better, this other guy is bound to say things are getting worse. And that is where Trump can be shoehorned into the conversation.

I'm not even getting into the wrongs and rights of Obama and Trump - for most people, these are self-evident, anyway. But Obama appears to stand for the myth of progress (when he claimed 'change' as his manifesto, he evoked a brave new future). Trump is the other guy, looking back to the past and asking 'where did it all go wrong?'

Trump is an anti-Enlightenment President. Although I am pretty cynical about the religiosity presented in his inauguration, he is deliberately suggesting that Christianity was part of those good old days. In itself, that's not against Diderot and the gang - they were a lot more circumspect about religious belief than their contemporary apologists claim. But add in the specific Bible that Trump swore on - his mother's old copy - and the backwards glance is more obvious. Unless his finances are even worse than he admits, it's not like he can't afford a nice new translation. 

Hope that everyone notices my dramaturgical reading there.

The appeal of Trump has been explained away a thousand times - it's latent racism, it's a reaction to progressive language policing, it's fear of Islam and so on. And saying that he is simply appealing to one of the great myths is just another essay for the bonfire. I mean, I can use a classic British text to support my point.

Of course, I am being sly... calling something a myth removes it from history and makes it a negotiable truth, an act of faith rather than reason. It also places Trump's critics on the side of reason, and Trump on the side of a reactionary tradition that feeds on pessimism. I'm claiming that the dramaturgical reading of Trump's inauguration is more useful than any amount of critique toward his policies, because it reveals an underlying philosophy rather than creates flash-points for skirmishes. This claim is not especially original, nor is it necessarily helpful. 

It's just today's attempt to relate my research to contemporary life. 

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