Ian McKay’s Liberal Order Framework


“It is telling that there are so few recent major works by Canadian historians of all persuasions on the political crisis of the past thirty years.” (617)

Ian McKay’s “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” was published in the December 2000 issue of the Canadian Historical Review and has since been widely cited by academics in the country to the point that there have been panels and forums about it. I kept seeing it, and related articles, cited so finally read it. I was a bit reluctant because McKay is basically a Canadian Terry Eagleton lite. Like better Marxists, he’s really only fun when insulting people, but often gets very close to saying something genuinely worthwhile, then backs away because he knows it will not be in his best interests. So, it may be better to read him in a Straussian way, but then again, maybe I’m being too generous.


McKay begins his ‘neo-Marxist’ (631) text by recognizing the unconsumable proliferation of academic work on history, work which continually fragments (through specialized language and critique) and undermines disciplinary boundaries. In part because of this, history takes on a ‘pre-millennial’ atmosphere since historians are being constantly reminded of (or insist upon), the ‘politico-ethical centrality’ of their work. (617) Fragmentation and apocalyptic sensation (both of the field and its object – Canada) results in ever-fashionable academic ‘crisis’ mode. Attempts to provide a cohesive or normative argument only produce more ‘balkanization’. As the notion of history becomes increasingly circumspect, professional historians largely ignore each other’s work and operate in alien theoretical traditions. He asks: “If Canada is more or less just a ‘vacant lot,’ one more (relatively minor) place where class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on, interact as they do everywhere else on the planet, why not go to where the action really is, to the United States, to Europe, or ‘global’ analyses?” (618) So, in one of his typically intriguing if unclear statements, Canadian historians follow the international norms of “demonizing the Other within our gates, all the better (perhaps) to keep our own more disabling fears of nihilism at bay.” (618) [It’s utterly unclear what the proverbial Other in this context refers to. The big Other of international norms? The Othering of traditional nationalist historical practice within an increasingly anti-nationalist field? The Othering of proponents of Otherness? And how does nihilism oppose to this? This is never seriously broached.] (more…)

Worringer’s Egyptians

Wilhelm Worringer was one of the most remarkable art historian/cultural theorists of the first half of the twentieth century. While he was a significant, if unintentional influence, on movements like Expressionism and different strains of abstraction, he seems to rarely be read at this point, while more dubious parasites on his work (such as Benjamin) have been glorified beyond reason. Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907) was a key text for T.E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis and his lesser known book on Egyptian art is remarkably consonant with much of what Lewis was arguing about art in the 20s and 30s. A student of Simmel, Worringer managed to be one of the best sociologists of modernity by not writing about modernity at all.

Vivant Denon's etching of the Sphinx of Giza, 1798

Egyptian Art (1928) was written as a polemic against what Worringer regarded as a false idea of Egyptian profundity, one accorded to them by a “glorification of the abstruse.” (27) He pinpoints an irony in the fact that what Europeans glorified in the Ancient Egyptians often seems formally comparable to that which they claim to despise about America (judging by the inclusion of Canadian examples, he means the northern continent in general). (x) His project then was to de-romaticize and de-heroicize the Egyptians, whose ancient civilization have been distorted through their late ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘degenerate’ phase after they had been infected by Hellenistic and Roman society and eroticized in their exotic qualities. False eroticism is coupled with false religiosity. If the Egyptians have a reputation for spiritual profundity this is due to the “fascinating power of the senseless. Nothing has a more profound effect than paradox.” (15) This paradox is the simultaneity of high material culture with a senseless ideal one. (16) The confusion of this  resulted in immense fantasies for hidden or secret depths beyond the stereotypes and fancies, fantasies that are unattuned to the fact that “the heart-beat is audible only under pathological conditions.” (18) (more…)

Modern antiques and artificial eternity


“The atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture is one reason for the bitter hatred which the preachers of the most extreme individualism, above all Nietzsche, harbor against the metropolis.” Simmel

Charles Baudelaire by Frantisek KupkaBaudelaire casts the city and the modern as a kind of paradox. History is the transitory stretched out in eternity. The modern or contemporary consists of the most ephemeral aspect of the wastage of time’s passing. To be a great modern artist is to capture this excess as though it were eternal rather than to trap it within the cliches of the Historical or Classical. To be modern is to live within the specific gaits and gestures of one’s time, that is, to prepare to be an antique. The painter “makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.” But the modern individual is no more than an animated antique. Their external life is all artifice, but this is the very material that constitutes them and which the artist captures (an artist only captures artifice and this is the ‘truth’ or the ‘soul’ of the matter). And from this matter Baudelaire spins more paradoxes: the nobility proper to artifice; the savagery found in civilization; the evil devoid of any spirituality. And each member of this trinity finds itself diagrammed out upon the body of the city and its inhabitants with their “emaciated flesh of consumption or the rounded contours of obesity, that hideous health of the slothful.” (more…)

Notes: On the rudiments of culture III


René Girard on the ‘anticulture we call modern’ (from Violence and the Sacred [1972]).

If the history of modern society is marked by the dissolution of differences, that clearly has something to do with the sacrificial crisis to which we have repeatedly referred. Indeed, the phrase “modern world” seems almost like a synonym for “sacrificial crisis.” It should be noted, however, that the modern world manages to retain its balance, precarious though it may be; and the methods it employs to do so, though extreme, are not so extreme as to destroy the fabric of the society’. As my previous chapters indicated, primitive societies are unable to withstand such pressures; violence would quickly get out of hand and trigger the mechanism of generative unanimity, thus restoring a social system based on multiple and sharply pronounced differences. In the modern Western world nothing of this kind takes place. The wearing away of differences proceeds at a slow but steady pace, and the results are absorbed more or less gracefully by a community that is slowly but steadily coming to encompass the entire globe.