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How the liberal West is dismantling itself

Duchamp's 'Fountain', part of an absurdist cultural mission to Afghanistan, has proved to be a true icon of the present time. Photo: Google Images/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Duchamp's 'Fountain', part of an absurdist cultural mission to Afghanistan, has proved to be a true icon of the present time. Photo: Google Images/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

November 7, 2018   6 mins

The occupation of Afghanistan by American, British and allied forces – which followed soon after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, lasted officially until the end of 2014 and continues in a diminished form today – was not only a military campaign. In fact, since the occupation lacked any well-defined or achievable strategic objectives, it was not strictly a military campaign at all. The stated aim was to deny al-Qaeda a safe base in the country – a goal that might have been achieved by a concentrated bombing campaign and diplomatic initiatives. Instead, allied forces decided to overthrow the Taliban and enact a far-reaching transformation in society.

In the event, enormous quantities of money, weaponry and human lives were expended over the ensuing 17 years in something more like a vast missionary enterprise than a military one, with the aim of converting the country’s inhabitants to modern beliefs and values. Not only were the Afghans taught how to run elections. In an effort to shake them out of pre-modern modes of thinking, they were also instructed in the emancipating power of conceptual art.

In Bitter Lake, a documentary by the filmmaker Adam Curtis, a short clip illustrates how this this cultural mission was conducted. The footage shows Afghan men and women in a darkened seminar room, sitting in the dim light given off by a projected image of Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated urinal, listening to a lecture given by a young English woman with a faint Roedean-like accent on the work’s significance.

When the lecturer says she does not expect the females in the audience to recognise the object in question, the camera pans away from her to show their reaction. Glancing nervously at one another, the women seem baffled; one shakes her head incredulously. Most of those present seem perplexed not so much as to the function of the object as by the purpose of the lecture. Unfazed, the lecturer assures the audience that the work was a revolutionary act. In later footage, she goes on to assert that Duchamp’s aim was to “fight against the system”.

The notion that Afghanistan needed to embrace Duchamp’s art may seem comically absurd. Yet it has a hidden logic.  The Franco-American painter and creator of “readymades” – everyday objects that have been slightly tweaked and designated as works of art – followed early 20th-century Dadaism in aiming to deconstruct art itself. Signed and dated “R. Mutt, 1917”, the urinal signified that art would not in future be shaped by any practice or tradition. No longer a distinct sphere of human activity with its own ruling norms, it would be whatever anyone wanted it to be. Duchamp inaugurated an assertion of unfettered human autonomy that has come to pervade ethics and politics. If the liberal west stands for anything any more, this is it.

A similar ideology was intimated in the Romantic Movement, which viewed human life as an exercise in self-creation. But the Romantic Movement was a rebellion against Greco-Roman rationalism and Jewish and Christian monotheism, which in their different ways posited external constraints on human autonomy. Humans were surrounded by a realm of values – embodied in a transcendental deity or a natural order – that limited how they could fashion their lives. However much they tried to escape it, the Romantics could not help continuing this constraining inheritance. Even when they glamorised evil, they invoked a domain beyond the human world that determined what evil consisted in.

In contrast, Duchamp’s anti-art was a secular version of antinomianism – the mediaeval heresy in which any kind of law was rejected as an impediment to the spiritual freedom of those who claimed a direct relationship with God. In this modern antinomianism, however, human will was asserted in a void.

It was a project that quickly found political expression. Some in the Italian Futurist movement embraced Fascism as an embodiment of values of creative destruction, novelty and speed. Museums were to be burnt down, ancient civilisations flattened and replaced by modernist constructions. The author of the Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, exulted in the savage Italian assault on Abyssinia, which he celebrated as an opportunity to obliterate the past and build a new society from nothing.

In the 20th century, the political expressions of this project were principally in totalitarian regimes. If Mussolini’s Fascists aimed to raze Abyssinia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks and Mao’s cultural revolutionaries bulldozed the past, along with tens of millions of human lives in Russia, China and Tibet. As well as killing nearly two million people, around a quarter of Cambodia’s population, Pol Pot laid waste to much of the country’s cultural inheritance. In Europe, the Nazis projected, and partly achieved, a uniquely hideous desolation. All of these regimes were driven by the belief that a new world could be created by unbridled human will.

This cult of the will did not end with classical totalitarianism. An ideal of self-creation has returned in 21st-century liberalism. Part of the craze for identity politics is the insistence that each of us can be whoever and whatever we decide to be. Not fate or accident but untrammelled choice must shape our identities. It is an illusory vision, since identity in practice is never unilateral. Everyone’s identity depends on recognition by others – a relationship that must be negotiated, one way or another. Yet pursuing a fantasy of autonomous self-creation has come to be seen as the fundamental human freedom. The fact that the demand for recognition of one’s chosen identity leads to the fragmentation of society into warring groups has not diminished the appeal of this vision.

The problem is that identity is being asserted in a cultural vacuum. According to the ruling philosophy of deconstruction, freedom is not exercised within a matrix of practices and institutions. It is found in anomie – the normless condition of insatiable self-assertion that the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the malady of the infinite”. Individual autonomy is fully realised only once the structures that helped form identities in the past have been demolished. True freedom means creating oneself, a god-like power which requires that the norms that defined western civilisation be left behind.

Exponents of deconstruction will dispute this description. When they dismantle ideas of family, nationality and religion they believe they are exercising the power of critical reason – the faculty, they seem to think, that distinguishes them from the rest of humankind. This attitude shapes their attitude to benighted people who have yet to receive the antinomian revelation.

In the past, an idea of western civilisation was promoted in foreign lands by an imperial caste of soldiers and administrators, some of whom went so far as to learn the languages and customs of the peoples they ruled. Today, a lumpen-intelligentsia aims to erase the central traditions of the West while knowing little or nothing of their fellow citizens who still live by them. Instead of injecting western traditions into other cultures, these bourgeois antinomians look forward to a time when their own anomie has become universal.

For all the idle chatter about the evils of colonialism, the claim to represent a superior form of life has not been renounced. Deconstructionism is peculiarly and ineffably a progressive western ideology, and among those who promote it, the ceaseless assault on the West’s past only serves to demonstrate their own advanced level of development. This time, however, what they aim to bring to other cultures is a formless freedom cut loose from any tradition – in other words, a type of nihilism.

A long history lies behind this contemporary western project. Its ultimate origins may well be in Gnostic currents within western religion, which aim to liberate the human spirit from any material constraint. More recently, the project of self-creation continues a Romantic faith – the idea that we should fashion our lives as original works of art – which entered liberalism from German thought when Mill invoked the idea in his paean to individuality, On Liberty.

At the same time, the project of autonomous self-creation marks a crisis in the Enlightenment. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment pursuit of human autonomy ended in Nietzsche’s glorification of will-to-power. Enlightenment humanists believed reason could establish norms of conduct to replace those of religion; but the end-result of their inquiries was subjectivism, the extinction of any idea of truth in ethics and Nietzsche’s assertion that value is created by acts of will.

In identifying the culmination of the Enlightenment project with Nietzsche’s prophetic frenzy, however, MacIntyre missed the mark. Duchamp’s unruffled nihilism is a more likely end-point for the Enlightenment. Humankind cannot bear very much autonomy. Hence the dangerous allure of would-be dictators, which is gripping hollowed-out liberal societies throughout the world.

The Afghan people were casualties of an absurdist mission. Already proficient in the destruction of Afghan traditions, the Taliban were unlikely recruits to an ideology of deconstruction. But the beneficiary of the western project in Afghanistan was never going to be the Afghan people. It was the western need to leave a mark on the world, even as the West is visibly fading, which drove on the Afghan mission.

Geopolitical factors have perpetuated the western presence in the country. There would be strategic risks in any sudden withdrawal. An admission of defeat akin to that of the Soviets when they began their exit in May 1988, it would leave a black hole that would be filled by China. This may be the rationale for continuing the occupation indefinitely, as apparently envisaged in Donald Trump’s proposal that the occupying forces should in future be private contractors. The war has left the allies with an insoluble geopolitical dilemma.

But the futile Afghan mission and the ruinous western interventions in Iraq and Libya that followed were not consequences of mistaken geopolitical calculation, however inept. They expressed the collective malady of western societies, which has brought them to a point at which their defining project is dismantling themselves. With the liberal West gripped by this passion, what could be more logical than exporting Duchamp’s vision to countries the West is bent on remaking in its own image?

To be sure, the western project in Afghanistan failed. The Taliban is as strong as it has ever been, if not stronger. Duchamp, on the other hand, has succeeded. In the West, antinomianism has become an ideology that is marketed throughout the media. The “communism” of Teen Vogue is only the latest example of the commoditisation of nihilism.

Embodying the spirit of the age long before the age had come fully into being, Duchamp’s urinal has proved to be a true icon of the present time. If the self-composed anti-artist could have known how his work would come to be used he would surely have responded with a playful smile.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.

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