“Art as aestheticism, love as eroticism, politics as totalitarianism”
by Ken Myers
“[T]he theses by the authors of the so-called Frankfurt school, from Adorno to Marcuse, have great resonance today. They do not speak of religion in the proper sense, it is true; however, they agree that the advent of the technological civilization marks the end of the transcendent dimension, albeit in the sense of transcendence within the world.
“It is important at this point to define in the simplest terms what I mean by religious dimension. I mean just the following: that there is an eternal and unchangeable order of truths and values, which we can come in contact with through intellectual intuition. In short, that there is a super-human reality, no matter how diverse may be the ways of signifying it. Before the advent of the technological mindset that has reached today the climax of its explication, all peoples agreed to this. And, on the other hand, how could man receive the light of the true faith if nothing had been left in him of this primitive revelation, even after sin?
“Now, it is precisely this religious dimension that is undermined and denied by the distinctive form of thought of the technological civilization, inasmuch as it presents itself as a new civilization. Let us use the terminology that was dear to [Antonio] Rosmini: in this form, the light of reason — the organ that perceives the absolute, the necessary, the objective and eternal — is replaced by man’s reason — individual and subjective, contingent and changeable. In other words, in the traditional view primacy belongs to the contemplation of an ideal order to which our action must conform. The technological civilization replaces it by the primacy of action, in the sense that human knowledge takes value only to the extent that it can serve practical purposes: transforming matter so that sensitive man may use it and exercise dominion over things.
“Of course, this attitude towards knowledge also affects practical values. From the thesis that knowledge is limited to the sensible world, it follows that the only reality that counts for man is material reality. And because matter is a principle of multiplicity and division, the consequence for man as a practical attitude will be a form of individualism which will imply the negation of every principle higher than the individual. The ‘creation’ of values will be set in opposition to their authority, but since the word creation is meaningless in reference to man, this formula will take the meaning of negation and radical destruction of tradition.
“We only have to open our eyes: nobody can fail to observe that the progressive diffusion of the technological mentality has been accompanied by the disappearance of the words true and false, good and bad, even beautiful and ugly — also, or above all, in common language. They have been replaced by the words ‘original,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘fruitful,’ efficient,’ ‘meaningful,’ ‘work in progress,’ and so on. This is, in fact, perfectly consistent. Affirming the primacy of action, understood along the lines that we have described, means that there is nothing beyond the human. And if the truth is not something higher than man, it is destined to grow old, and in this situation an old truth will have no more power to attract attention than, for example, an old woman. Hence the worship of the ‘new’ and the correlative spirit of destruction.
“Let us consider further: what must happen when men are no longer united by ideals or by supra-empirical values? The quest for well-being will replace that for a good life. And there can be no well-being — a notion completely different from happiness — without, precisely, ‘new’ sensations. Therefore, intellectuals will serve the public not in order to elevate it but to satisfy this need for novelty.
“An individual will not feel united to another except to the extent that he needs it for his ever-greater perceptible realization. Therefore, everything must become an object of trade. Often people talk about a loss of modesty, and on this subject some people, even prominent figures, of course repeat the usual phrases about fighting taboos, searching for authenticity, struggling against every kind of mystery. Let us simply say that this loss has a symbolic significance, namely the reduction of everything to an object of trade. I will add that I am not in the least inclined to embellish reality in the usual way of certain Catholics, who view this situation as a phenomenon of despair due to the dimming of the truth. Always late, these Catholics rediscover today an attitude that was real, but in the Romantic age. The technological mentality knows no despair, precisely to the extent that such an end of the truth and the ideals is not perceived as a tragedy, but is instead presented (or better, ‘mystified,’ in the true sense that the word ‘mystification’ ought to take today) as a liberation. Someone might counter that technological development is not guilty, as such, for these attitudes. This is perfectly correct, but when we speak of technological civilization we do not have in mind technical activity as such, but its absolutization. We are in the domain of -isms, the perversion that turns a human activity, taking place in the sensible world, into an idol. Art as aestheticism, love as eroticism, politics as totalitarianism.
“Then, the inseparability between technological civilization and positivism becomes clear. To find the clearest definition of this link, one only needs to read a beautiful book by Friedrich von Hayek [The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason], one of the most rigorous indictments ever written of the technological mentality or, as the author says, the ‘engineering’ mentality, which produces the type of the ‘social engineer,’ the intentional manipulator of a planned society, or gets to the point of thinking in engineering terms even of the activities that seem farthest removed — for example, artistic activity itself.”
— from Augusto Del Noce, The Age of Secularization (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), translated by Carlo Lancellotti.
An excerpt from Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity is available here.
Michael Hanby has engaged some of Del Noce’s ideas in an article discussed here.
Translator Carlo Lancellotti talked about Del Noce’s ideas on Volume 128 of the Journal, noting that the Italian philosopher’s reading of Marx was “very theological. He’s not interested in Marx as a political thinker or a political economist. He’s interested in Marx as a metaphysician, as a fundamental philosopher.”