From one Abstraction To Another – Hassan Askari

A short yet precise overview of a major shift in humans’ perception of our world’s reality by comparing the ideals of modern and pre-modern world. In my opinion, any attempt to understand any psycho-socio phenomenon in the modern world is futile without considering this paradigm shift…
This is a translation of the original piece of Hassan Askari which is in Urdu.

Can literature survive in the atomic age or not? If it can then under these circumstances, what are its duties and its position in the society? These are the questions that which writers and patrons of literature have been preoccupied with nowadays. Ideas and opinions are being shared openly on these issues but whatever abject and of which ever sort of literature is being produced nowadays; it is also overshadowed by the malignity and pestilence of these issues. Be it thinkers or writers, every way of analyzing these issues has three underlying assumptions that these intellectuals regard as established facts:

1) Science and not literature is assisting man in subjugating the universe. hence, science has taken precedence over literature.

2)  The world has made material progress its main objective and has lost interest in all non-material musings. Therefore, every country’s struggle is centered around increasing their rate of production.

3) The intellectual horizon of people living in today’s world has also squeezed so much that they do not seek anything beyond material luxuries.

            I cannot deny that these hypotheses are also, in a sense, facts. These facts have been so evident now that even a blind could see them clearly. Twentieth century has, in a way, inherited these three trends from Nineteenth century. But Twentieth century has only mediated in globalizing what was restricted to a few countries and classes till now. Now, these trends are reaching the limits of their internal logic. The inevitable result of this process is that new trends would evolve as soon as older trends are about to die. And now our world has entered this phase.

            Some European poets and writers had assessed this new process a good thirty to forty years earlier. Though Ezra Pound had already mocked the aforementioned trends, signs of the initiation of this new process can be found in his work as well. An even vivid concept of new trends can be found in D. H. Lawrence’s work. While Rene Guenon had extensively analyzed on this process in 1945. But now these trends have taken such a form that does not require an insightful eye to be seen. They have become so prominent that they can be analyzed from sociological and economical aspect as well.

            Such two analyses have been presented by two American scholars: Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” from an economic perspective, and William White’s “The Organization Man” from a sociological perspective. These two books are incumbent for an understanding of world in the second of Twentieth century. Since literature is enmeshed in the circumstances of the world, a study of these books is important to determine literature’s current position in the world as well. These books are focused on the analysis of American society but in one respect, America is not the name of a specific country. Rather, it is the name of a few factors and expressions. In the Western Europe, some ideas, more clearly conceived in Sixteenth Century, were born in Fourteenth century. These trends were holistically and logically nourished in America and their last shape is becoming widespread through the influence of America. Thence, these rules do not only apply to America; there scope is universal. What has been revealed in America is steadily showing in other countries as well. The process started in Western Europe and its results will more or less be bore by the whole world.

The ideology at work behind this whole process is that there is essentially only material reality and there is no reality other than material reality. Therefore, it is obligatory upon each human to constrain himself to the material reality; and the results of his actions should also appear only in material form. Real work is physical work. But because humans also have a mind and that mind assists in physical work, therefore mind was held responsible for limiting all its attention to matter. It is its submission to these principles that led Europe to reject not only Eastern ideologies but also its own Medieval worldview. The contestation Europe presented was that such a worldview is absolutist and abstract and has nothing to do with the material world. Hence, it was required from Europe, practically as well as ideologically, that it should avoid abstraction and stick to matter.

            Following are the milestones that Europe has reached over three and a half centuries of restraining itself from abstract thinking:

From political perspective, nations built states. Whereas, economically, they made exponential growth in the production of machines on one hand and tried to maximize the expansion of their market in other regions on the other. This toil has also given birth to what is termed as Scientific progress or the conquest of universe. It became of individuals to accumulate as much money and luxuries as they could whether it is morally correct or not; Neither am I concerned with looking at it from a moral standpoint. And this trajectory is quite straightforward: Europe did abandon abstraction in action and thought to become materialistic and it did succeed in this endeavor; and it did so in hope that it will remain so forever.

            The extent of their success in this regard has been addressed by the two books I have mentioned above. People who read literature will find no new revelation in these books but what distinguishes these books is that you cannot sweep them under the rug by calling them individual reaction or inwardly impressions. Their analysis is external, and they have argued materialistically. From the standpoint of these two books, let us start with individual to understand the essence of human life in the second half of the twentieth century. Probably the most accurate hypothesis about today’s common man is that he is lunatic about earning money and the urge of earning money has taken over all his other urges. Inasmuch as the passion for earning is concerned, this hypothesis is true. But as for accumulating/saving wealth, it was more of an occupation of Western man of Nineteenth century. Today’s Western man does not save but expend money. In fact, he often expends first and earns later because he buys everything on installments. Thence, he has a huge figure on his pay cheque, but he possesses none of that, which means that he earns money in an abstract form. His earning is not “material”.

            Second hypothesis is that today’s man, concerned with uplifting his lifestyle, accumulates luxuries in abundance. That’s all good but since the commodities are bought on installments therefore, legally, he does not own them. Now that a new model for everything is introduced each year hence, those things are changed every year. For that reason, today’s man has no emotional connection to the goods in his house. Other than that, these things are neither necessarily bought out of a need. In the main, these things are ‘symbols’ of social status. And these symbols change with the changing towns and regions. He neither withal buys luxuries nor necessities but bare symbols of social status. Think of it this way that as traders in Nineteenth century England used to buy titles, today’s Western commoner buys fashion goods to boast his social status. Their homes do not house goods but social symbols. Is this a material life? No, but pure abstraction.

            Hence, for the Western man, everything – his habits and behavior, social relations, political opinions, literary taste; in fact, even religion sometimes – is a coincidence and prone to constant metamorphosis. All these things are ordinated according to such a strange system which can neither be justified on logical nor on emotional grounds. Life is organized in different regions through some unknown or half-known misadventures which the people keep entertaining regardless of whether that system aligns with their emotional, intellectual, or even physical needs or not. For example, if a neighborhood develops a trend that residents of house number 1 will befriend residents of house number 3, and those in house number 2 will befriend the ones in house number 4 then even if the residents change, the pairing of the houses will remain as it is. In short, this system of abstraction has taken over each and every human necessity even in everyday life.

            Moving on from Individual to Collective life, this trend of buying goods on installments has become so prevalent – in America completely, and a little less immensely in Western Europe – that the whole economic system, not only on individual level but also in trade and industrial institutions, relies on loans. This is so, not just in case of individuals but also in the case of trade and industrial institutions. This means that the economic system is governed not by industrialists, but banks and insurance companies reign it. Therefore, transactions are based on paper work now. Capital was a material reality back in Nineteenth century. Nowadays, it’s an abstract concept.

            They say every country, nowadays, is putting all its resources into increasing production. But in industrially most developed countries, every institution has its own system of action/gimmick (and even a system of ethics); the imperative is to execute the minutest commands of this system strictly, whether the yield goes up or down. These institutions are most concerned about seamless functioning of their systems. Apparently, the purpose of establishing a factory is to manufacture goods but the final destiny of development is that manufacturing of goods is not as important as keeping the abstract system intact… And this ‘holiness’ has been ascribed to this system not because it holds any inherent value but only because it is a system.  

            Such is the condition of industry. What about science then? Afterall, the Western civilization relies on it and has fixed great hopes with it. The zest with which science has been emblazoned, it forces us to think that scientific research is going to be immensely facilitated in the West, and that scientists would receive great reverence in society. But William White has profoundly elucidated how scientists are not the most important stooper in research institutes but the person who runs the office. The utmost duty of scientists in these institutions is not to get fully immersed in their research. It is first demanded from him to abide by the system of the institution not only with respect to his work but also regarding his conduct and socialization. White has even extended it to the level of a rule that the better a scientist is at his work, the harder will it be for him to be a part of these institutions or even to enter in these institutions.[1] Why? Because science is not the dearest to these institutions, bureaucracy is. it means that today’s materialism is creating similar circumstances for scientists that religion created for Galileo in medieval times. No wonder that our age has already rejected literature, but it is also not ready to accept science completely. Writers are flustering in vain. In fact, writers and scientists are in the same boat.

            In the Sixteenth century, West had forsaken metaphysics and abstract thinking so that man could obtain emotional, sensational, and physical gratification through material resources. But as the ability to utilize material resources increased, the capacity to be gratified by anything at all kept decreasing in same proportion. Now, human life is being taken over by another abstraction. The previous abstraction appealed to human emotions and feelings; rather it was considered the source of feelings and emotions. Therefore, this abstraction met the needs for sensational gratification whereas since the new abstraction does not approve of any reality beyond matter on one hand and negates emotional and sensational experiences of humans on the other – since it has been founded on the negation of these two – hence, neither can this abstraction accommodate spiritual consolation nor physical gratification. It does not even propagate the creative ability that analytical intellect gives birth to. Even analytical mind has a minimum connection, but this abstraction has been severed from both soul and matter. Its neither a spiritual nor a material reality. It is characteristically aversive of making a relation to any reality; but that it considers itself the only, sovereign reality.

            This new abstraction first came into being in Protestant countries and has been gaining intensity there as well. One cannot blame those who have been clawed by this abstraction but at least Protestant scholars should oppose this new abstraction or at least be able to differ between the old and this new abstraction. The irony is that the clerics in Germany and America are the chief proponents of this abstraction. They are not only strengthening it but have misinterpreted as the right way[2] or are trying to invent a new religion from it.

            These are the circumstances in which today’s literature has to survive and find a way through it. Lust for wealth and the awe of science, literature has already been facing these two dreads since the Nineteenth century but now there is this third enemy which is the strongest of all… the new abstraction.    

[1] Ludwig Boltzmann, Georg Cantor

[2] Mazhab is also way. Way suits better here than religion.

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