Is the Renaissance experiment over?
For over a year now I have been working on an essay about the early twentieth century English modernist T.E Hulme and his pernicious influence on the English poets of the time, particularly T.S. Eliot. Hulme flirted with dangerous reactionary thoughts, but died in the Great War before he could have influenced anyone to take up fascism full bore. That blame has to fall full square on the shoulders of Eliot, Pound, Lewis, Lawrence and their followers. But Hulme had a large part in setting the boulder rolling.
There is one thing that causes me to hold back on finishing this essay (which is already well beyond what blog readers will tolerate, much like most of what appears here). It’s that I can’t disagree with one big thought he had: The era that began with the Renaissance is over, he argued. Humanism, and all that “man is the measure of all things,” the business about inevitable progress, the belief that rationality can solve all problems, all of that is over and has been for a century. For myself, an old leftish sort, who pulls for the little guy and believes (despite the evidence) that human dignity is worth fighting for and we are better off together than alone—for my part, I say, I don’t subscribe to this concept. But, and here’s what bothers me, I think I am in a very small minority.
This is not just a political question, but politics are a bit of the evidence. Any one who has watched any of the Republican debates must, if he is honest with himself, despair for this republic (which, when founded, might have been the supreme political expression of Renaissance values). But we have seen this show coming for decades. Europe is probably a more accurate bellwether. Unfortunately, they seem to be heading down the reactionary, nationalistic rathole even faster than we are. And then there’s the West’s last great political creation—Israel. Do I need to explain despair? It’s not just that the policies of that nation are repellant, it’s that it has found a way to make this country sponsor it, no matter what medieval course it decides to follow.
Let’s forget politics. What about culture? I have to say that recently I have been close-reading Shakespeare (the quintessential representative of Renaissance humanism in English) and Homer. Homer was barely out of the Bronze Age when he wrote the Iliad. Is it significant that I, even I, am more comfortable with the values and style of Homer than Shakespeare?
Please believe that I am a humanist in the strictest sense of the word. And in fact I’ve been learning that I’m probably a sloppy Romantic (much as I would never have guessed) these days. I recently have been reading Franco Moretti’s analysis of Western literature (particularly the novel. Moretti is a representative of the New Left. This is far to the left of me, evidently, because it seems to have left behind all human qualities. Moretti uses something like quantitative analysis to evaluate literature. Maybe Leonardo would have been happy to have the power of computers to aid his fancies, but would he have used big data to critique his art?
I must say that I have listened to the worries of Stephen Hawking and others about the dangers of artificial intelligence. And I have even spent far more time than I should (given how much I have left and how this will unlikely be my problem) on Roko’s basilisk. But I have always thought that that if computers and big data ever tried to take over, we humans, awakened by Renaissance dignity, would fight back much like the USS Enterprise did against the Borg. Even though such a fight would more likely be much as the people of good will rallied to the defense of the Republic of Spain against the guardia civil and the Moroccans. But even in that scenario I always thought we’d all be on our side. Reading Moretti, I am not sure. And when I think about it, given that we all depend on “the grid,” but more essentially on the interconnected set of networks, for electricity, cash supply, groceries, heat, air conditioning, energy, etc., it seems to me we have already built Roko’s basilisk (and that is only the barest minimal way we have packaged ourselves for a computer takeover). Now with Moretti it has its own literary apologist.
Or maybe all of this is just the musings of an aged citizen past having a useful thought. A curator of a museum of the imagination, where Haydn is more important than Beyoncé and where one believes there is a qualitative difference between Joyce and graphic novels. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe “liking” on Facebook (and WordPress!) is really just a more efficient way to express what Petrarch did in 14 lines or Edmund Wilson in several pages.
All I know is that I will (deo volente) soon finish the Hulme essay, and condemn his thought that we have outlived the myth of the dignity of mankind. Whether or not big data agrees.
By the way, for those who really worry about Roko’s basilisk, here’s my take: We no longer care about our own common good, that we are likely to shortly make the planet uninhabitable for both humans and computers. So rest easy.