by Michael Carson
If you go to the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas on any day of the week, you will find families clustered around two pieces of twisted metal, staring reverentially up at burnt bent steel. It doesn’t matter that the menagerie surrounding the violated beams – the jackets, dresses, dog collars and bullhorns – has no pattern, no basis in logic, no reason for being there other than the blunt sentimental force of memory. It makes no difference that this metal comes from another city and has little directly to do with the man being memorialized. All that matters is that those pieces of metal exist, and these pieces of tower give everything else in the museum a supremely beautiful and indisputable rationale, one that provides the visitors a moving and profound sense of the past.
The designers of the museum did this on purpose. They used this totem of our common suffering and apocalyptic terror to create a certain historical aesthetic, and rightly so, for in the modern world aesthetics usually trumps reason. In fact, in many ways, the more rationality has allowed us to accomplish, the stauncher our devotion to aesthetics has become. We need art and history to explain and justify a future that reason (and technology) has opened up for debate. The barbaric artifact then, this tangible evidence of fire and brimstone that we experienced, ties tight our tautological knot in the most convenient way possible, and we choose to use this icon of our common suffering as a touchstone, a point of historical departure in minds desperate for direction.
Yet, importantly, this love of the past, our predilection for grotesque historical memorabilia does not make us barbaric (or medieval). In fact, it makes us hopelessly and dangerously modern. It makes us like everyone else living in our fragmented world, everyone living in a world defined by a desperate ambition for history. To be modern means we live in a world with many different pasts and many possible futures, and thus we are continually tempted to forge a relationship between the past and the future through violence, to see an existential anchor in the finality of death.
I bring this up because there has been much confusion in the news recently over what it means to be barbaric, especially with regard to ISIS. Fashioning themselves as lone voices of common sense in a wilderness of cowardice, armchair historians have fallen over themselves to valiantly decry the actions of ISIS as savage. They have attested to the unique and invidious primitivism of these murderers, taking pains to show that they are not, as some have argued, byproducts of the modern world and those in control of this world, but artifacts themselves – testaments to a purer strain of 8th century fundamentalism. Ironically, they argue that ISIS is in fact exactly what ISIS perceives themselves to be: heroic champions of a past that once was, a faithful version of Islam that a stupid liberal world refuses to admit as an existential threat.
These critics of ISIS’s critics go on to imply that as long as we refuse to recognize that that ISIS is the ultimate other, that they are truly enemies of all that is modern and good in the world, and embody all that is archaic and reactionary about it, we will continue to give them power. The logic goes that we need to do something manly and violent, and fast, before they take us back to the Stone Age too. But this type of thinking misses a crucial point about what it means to be modern: namely, part of being in the Post-Enlightenment world is this exact obsession over the past, an overwhelming need to find a tradition to escape the shifting penumbras of a world denied transcendence, the radically contingent facts of our modern experience.
In his Use and Abuse of History for Life, Nietzsche argues that history in the modern context can often be as insidious as it is edifying. Instead of grappling with the past, many historians (and many people generally) seize on historical minutiae, singular facts or totems, “to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action.” Wars rage and instead of discussing the fact of war Germans serve up new stimulants “for the weary palates of those greedy for history.” Faced with so many possible futures, history, Nietzsche contends, has become a neurotic disease, one that, if practiced in this way, seriously threatens the well-being of civilization.
But this should hardly be surprising. One way of knowing you are part of modernity is by how often you point to artifacts and events that prove you are part of a tradition, for only in a culture that knows the radical mutability of history do historical choices become important. For a long time, we have been reinventing histories through similar artifacts, using the contingency of culture itself – our capacity to choose what aspect of history we want to remember and ignore what we do not – to combat the terror of our provisional relation to any other history and the universe. People tend to be confused by this (and this confusion is itself a condition of modernism). They want to say there are people out there who choose to be relativists and those who believe in tradition. They miss the fact that anyone who chooses tradition over relativism implicitly makes an argument in favor of relativism. Their choice for tradition is an ironic rejection of the very values they espouse.
Currently, ISIS is destroying historical artifacts in Mosul and Northern Iraq. Distrubing as this is, it is important to see this destruction as not uniquely dangerous (as the Secretary of State has recently argued), or as the logical outcome of a fundamentalist reading of the Koran (as some journalists contend). Like the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, these pointed historical actions are born not simply of a terrible religiosity but of a terror at the idea of religious choice (historical relativism in other words). ISIS strictly reads certain scriptures, choses artifacts from the whole, and uses them to justify present “cowardly and base actions.” To blame the Koran rather than the actors is to engage in more fruitless iconoclasm. We make choices to read texts certain ways and to act on what we do read. These choices are historical choices made by real people living in this world. They are not in any way constitutive of Islam, nor should they be construed as such by our terror and our own iconoclastic temptations.
Like us, ISIS has a voracious appetite for history. ISIS worships the past and they furiously try to burn and break away the aspects of the past they say they do not like. The fact that they burn and break what our culture holds valuable from a distance only points to how much history dominates their imagination. They too are afflicted with what Nietzsche described as “the historical disease.” Lost in the modern world, deprived of any sense of self and power, they see a path to power and pursue it with the insane doggedness of their fear, for anyone who pursues what is in fact already dead and gone, and with such fanatical ardor, has mistaken the form of history for its substance, and abuses what they should be using to come to terms with the terrible and solemn responsibilities that come with being modern. Tragically, for us and for them, they value the study of the past so much they have degraded human life to the point where it has no meaning at all compared to their particular interpretation.
As I left the Bush Presidential Library on a sunny August afternoon with hundreds of other tourists, each looking for something there to organize their experience, some scrap of the past to make sense of the future, I could not help but think how much better we would be at approaching world problems if we understood we were all in some respects fighting the same fight against and with our temporal fate. If we did, we might be less surprised when Russia found succor in some artifact of its past strength, some fear of Nazis or of NATO, or when Israel or China chose to act out of the chosen artifact, the wellspring of their soul and suffering, rather than through reason or common sense. We might see them for what they are: scared and terrorized by modernity, trying desperately to find some footing, flailing and lashing out destructively at their own impotence. We might even see how we have sometimes done the same.
This does not mean of course that ISIS and others should not be stopped with the methods we have at our disposal (granted that these methods do not simply perpetuate the problem), only that if we truly want to be “serious” about groups like ISIS – as we have so many cheerleaders of the last disastrous war in Iraq telling us we need to be about the situation there today – we should start by recognizing ISIS as products of the same historical experience as us, as fellow travelers in modernity. This strikes me as infinitely more serious approach, to admit that the disease is a universal one, a fact of the world we are all born into, and then to do what we can together to mediate its more devastating epidemics.