Recovering the myth of progress is an urgent need. There’s no value or meaning in knowledge without it. It has no alternatives, because in its absence, only magical thinking and messianic politics grow. We need to reconquer time. We must once again raise the banner of progress.
Progress was one of the most important and transformative myths in human history. The myth of progress doesn’t tell us that progress is inevitable, eternal, or that is directed towards a predetermined end. It’s not a replacement for “messianic hope” or Platonic teleology. But in each contribution, a door opens to meaning and hope. It’s really about the union of two ideas about knowledge.
The first tells us that knowledge is cumulative and can be described as a series of genealogies of ideas, discoveries, and applications, or alternatively, of teachers and schools, that have been compiling knowledge over time. This idea is linked to Baroque thought and birth of modern science between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But surely the image that best illustrates it would be the famous quote from John of Salisbury on Bernardo de Chartres:
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.
Bernardo thought of the teachers of Antiquity as giants and of his medieval contemporaries and himself as dwarves. Taking the same metaphor, the ideal of progress imagines knowledge as a sort of inverted structure, with a few “big ideas” at the base being elevated and being diversified in every new age and generation, without, in principle, there ever being a maximum height, a “total” knowledge. Once again, this doesn’t mean there’s no limit, or that part of the structure couldn’t “fall”–as happened to Alchemy, Astrology, or Theology–or that those lines can’t be broken and knowledge lost or fractured over time. It only points out that knowledge is accumulable, and that it makes sense to study your lineages before “starting from zero.”
The second idea, whose roots can be traced back to the Renaissance, tells us that new knowledge, when it is applied and allows humans to transform Nature and society into new and more productive forms, transforms the “human experience” in itself. Progress doesn’t mean that we are “better” than our medieval or neolithic ancestors, but rather, the experiences we have access to in societies with a greater level of knowledge and well-being are “richer,” and allow us to enjoy lives with more meanings, nuances, and complexities, and therefore understand our own existence in greater depth.
By uniting both, the logical result is that each new generation and each new person has the possibility and the responsibility to contribute a new level a historical construct whose result is the improvement of the living conditions of their own community and of the species as a whole. Few stories create as much meaning: progress turns science into a movement, serves as a base for the hacker ethic, and offers a material path towards transcendence–without involve gods or eternities–to everyone.
Progress against Adamism
But it means many more things. In the first place, it requires those who want be part of it to provide themselves with a historical view of the knowledge they want to research or improve. So, for example, the theses that were written before academic life became a game around the “h-index” weren’t a collection of papers, but a “state of the art.” There’s no place for Adamism in progress. Even when dealing with radically new topics, the writer sought to situate himself in continuity with centuries of prior effort, which was more credible the more detailed and recent the chain of authors and teachers he was building on, even if it was to criticize them or “surpass” them.
The conception of time in knowledge in progress is like a skein of crisscrossed yarn, the stands of which can sometimes be tied together or break apart, stretch or make a loop to go “backwards,” but where continuities can’t be hidden. In a conception of time like this, someone like Michael Onfray for example, can’t be a Epicurean in a vacuum. He can’t simply go back and “start” the history of thought as if nothing had happened in more than two thousand years. He has to recognize his own affiliations, discover keys, and define himself with problems starting with those posed by his own direct teachers, those who instructed him. Or, a social movement has to be defined, beginning with its origins, as historical continuity. When the cooperative movement is born in the Iberian peninsula, for example, its main theorist, Fernando Garrido, who is presented to us as disciple of Fourier, writes a monumental History of the Working Classes and dedicates its first three tomes to the slave, the servant and the wage-earner, and only the last to “worker-member.” To propose radical innovations, it was first necessary be legitimated through genealogy–how else could he show progress that the movement itself contributed?
And that’s before we ever get to schools of thought: idealism, classical economics, Hegelianism, Marxism, American pragmatism, postmodern thought itself… all new thinkers present themselves as a continuation, even when they break with their teachers. The “forker” always will be the other disciple, who didn’t understand the necessary rupture, or broke the inescapable continuity. Nobody, in the logic of progress, can be allowed to abandon the value of knowledge that a long social history and a long lineage of teachers have brought them.
The myth of progress was easy to believe in the era of accelerated and sustained growth of wealth and knowledge opened by the Industrial Revolution. Immobile time, ahistorical time only will survive in magical thinking… until the end of the twentieth century. The “end of history” was much more than a victory cry from American think-tanks after the Cold War. It was the expression of what had swept away a gigantic empire–for the first time in history, without requiring a war–and was also going on in its “Western” rival. It was what we call “decomposition” and whose manifestation, in the end, is none other than the simultaneous destruction of market and state. This is our time.
It is a time marked by an antiquated order, incapable of imagining or projecting itself into the future in a way that’s useful for people. It destroys social wealth with its rattling on, so as to not change the structures of power. This order is no longer seen as a step towards abundance or towards the liberation of mankind. It has no qualms in “seriously” proposing “degrowth” and promoting “voluntary” poverty, which it imposes on the large majority through the economic crisis, the inefficient waste of resources, war, and the direct appropriation of rents and levies.
The time of a decomposed order also decomposes with it. The skeins then become tangled, and the effort to justify what exists falls into the ultimate suicide of thought: presenting the idea that everything “has always been t,” a large amorphous mass of events where, in a murky and ugly “human nature,” only a few original thinkers have stood out and made changes.
The place that’s presented as desirable is that of innovating from out of nothing, and at all costs. Steve Jobs replaces Spartacus and Madam Curie. Messianic messages multiply in popular culture, cinema, and TV series. Saviors and geniuses, messiahs and providential politicians fill a symbolic landscape where everything is presented as discontinuous, and everything outdated, everything disfunctional, everything that makes life miserable, whether political systems or food, is “innocently” explained as a vacuum of ideas waiting for a new app or a cool idea. It’s the smile of the abyss.
The forker and progress
In this framework, “forking,” a social mechanism that normally multiplies knowledge and brings is closer to abundance, becomes “forkism”: contributions through ruptures, accumulation of knowledge through historical deletions, the multiplication of paths through sectarian battles, identity in faith. It is the dark side of our days, the way the decomposition of the old system prevents itself from being overcome.
So, recovering the myth of progress is an urgent need. There’s no value or meaning in knowledge without it. It has no alternatives, because in its absence, only magical thinking and messianic politics grow. It’s what’s before our eyes. We need to reconquer time. We must once again raise the banner of progress.