I’m trying to re-read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Inifnite. Or, more accurately, I am re-trying to read it, since I began it as an undergraduate and found it too difficult to ever finish. Every sentence I read that I understood struck me as incomparably profound, but the further I read in the fewer sentences I seemed to understand. It’s been many years (and many degrees) since then, and I’m now ready to give it another shot. Only a few pages in–and still not sure I’m understanding quite everything–I came across this quote:
Perhaps [Milbank] is right; if nothing else, good intentions rarely retard the effects of malign metaphysics, and the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture. Milbank merely echoes (among other things) Dostoyevsky’s prognostications of post-Christian “nihilism’s” ineluctable antinomianism, and if his language regarding the inevitability of fascism may be hyperbolic, he still correctly grasps the inescapable amphiboly of any “postmodern ethics” or “politics”: if being is not also the good, but only “eventual,” then force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally “true.” And power enjoys a certain greater eminence.
This more than anything has helped me make sense of the current presidency. When I hear media personalities (and primary candidates) complain about the demise of truth, of decency, of morality, I look on those laments with a certain measure of cynicism. There has never really been truth or decency or morality in politics. At the same time, though, I cannot deny a certain measure of nostalgia and morning myself. Because whatever my conscious conviction was about the nature of politics, I always took some unconscious comfort in the civility of American politics.
Hart makes the argument–or at least concurs with John Milbank’s argument–that if civility, morality, and truth have not disappeared from contemporary ethics and politics then they have at least been reordered in a great postmodern democratization of value. Power (or would it be more illuminating to say “potency” or “efficacy”) has at least as much theoretical value and a fair bit more immediate and visceral appeal. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president lies. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president breaks the moral, social, or legal rules. If anything, this merely confirms his potency. He doesn’t need your approval or your legal sanction. He continues to effect himself. He is, in his own words, “winning.” And, however much many of us may hate to admit it, he’s doing so much winning that we are (as predicted) getting tired of it.
The irony, according to Hart, is that most postmodern theorists espoused “some form of emancipatory, ‘left-wing,’ and pluralists politics.” Postmodernism is the cultural and political language of the left. It has taken the hammer of Nietzsche’s philosophy and smashed everything gleefully to bit with it, freeing people from antiquated conventions in favor of unfettered self-actualization. In a postmodern age, however, the best self-actualizer is the tyrant, who’s will is actualized purely for the sake of the self and without consideration for the other. Politics by potency is not a break with the trajectory of American life; it is the culmination of it. Time will tell whether or not the genie can go back into the bottle, but it is safe to say that–contrary to apocalyptic predictions from the left–the current president has not changed American politics forever. The current president is the change in American politics.