Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Turning the Clock Back

“…in refusing to believe that an identified historical trend may be challenged, the historicists have divinized history. In any given case, they have absolutized this trend and thereby put history’s seal of approval on this status quo, one, no doubt that is moving their way. The paradox of a moving status quo is explained by the function of historical movement in historicist thinking; it plays precisely the same role as the lack of movement to a traditionalist, acting as a standard or value with which one must not tamper.

As a matter of simple historical observation, it would be hard to find a common saying as implausible as “We can’t turn back the clock.” The reason intelligent observers of the past found the cycle theory of history persuasive is precisely because it seemed as if the clock had been turned back. For, if turning back the clock describes the ending of a perceived historical trend and a reversion to the historical configuration that it replaced, we could list examples of this phenomenon endlessly; alternations between democracy and authoritarianism, high and low hemlines, moral permissiveness and prudery, war and peace, and so on. At each turn of the times we might be able to find historicists (witting or otherwise) saying plaintively that we can’t turn the clock back. As a polemical device this idea pictures historical trends as juggernauts that cannot be stopped even if one were so foolish as to wish them to stop. These juggernauts, in fact, always do seem to be stopped eventually; and after they are, it is not a convincing explanation of what happened to say that the clock was turned back.

The problem with the clock that cannot be turned back is that it is the wrong metaphor. Only a metaphor having to do with space rather than time will help us out of this blind alley. That seems like another paradox since the whole discussion is one of historical and not geographical interpretation. The resolution of the paradox lies in the fact that people support or oppose historical trends on the basis of the ends to which they are directed. “This will lead us to the welfare state.” “That will lead us to a society based on competition.” The analogue of those ends is destination, and so we need to speak of taking a path to a place we wish to reach. We take a wrong turn and find ourselves in what appears to be an endless bog. We decide to turn around and retrace our steps to discover the correct route to the destination. However, someone in our party has read his Hegel and tells us that we want to turn back the clock back. The reply to that is that to go straight ahead will take us deeper into the bog without knowing how many miles it stretches or what lies beyond, that the destination is elsewhere, and that the only way we shall find it is to discover where we made our mistake. Thus, the turning back has to do with space and not time.” (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 15-17).

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