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Current Debates

As I was born in 1961, my life is divided nicely over two centuries. As a result, I have consciously experienced Western culture and society both before and after the deep and irreversible transformation that took place since the 1960s and had its pivotal "point of no return" roughly around the turn of the century. Of course these changes did not happen overnight - some of them had been building up for decades, others even for over more than a century - but from our present vantage point I suspect hat future historians will speak in general terms of a period before and a period after the year 2000. The changes we are presently going through have no historical precedent, and as a cultural/intellectual historian with an analytical mindset I just cannot help myself: I want to understand as well as possible what is currently happening to all of us, why it is happening, and where it could be leading. 

During the period before 2000, we basically felt safe. Of course there were many problems, challenges and crises, but there was also a general sense that these could ultimately be dealt with and we had reason enough to be confident about the future. I was born and raised in a well-organised country with little crime, reliable healthcare, good educational institutions, and a culture that valued equality, individual freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination. When I finished my studies and pursued an academic career, I had absolutely no doubt that the academy in general, and the humanities more in particular, would always be there as a rich and nourishing environment in which deep research and intellectual exploration were valued and stimulated. As I began to delve deep into the historical record of Western thought and culture, my fascination with its hidden and forgotten treasures of "rejected knowledge" was grounded in a basic optimism that seemed perfectly justified at the time. By recovering all those ideas and traditions that had been lost and suppressed, by bringing them to the attention of our colleagues, we would be adding to the storehouse of cultural knowledge and understanding. If we worked hard and put the bar high, we might be able to contribute to a future transformation of the humanities, the academy, even society as a whole - towards broader, deeper, more liberal, less dogmatic, more diverse and more inclusive perspectives on human culture and on everything that gave meaning and depth to our lives. There was work to be done and it was worth doing it. Such were my aspirations, hopes and expectation towards the end of the twentieth century.  

Two decades into the twenty-first century, the picture has changed dramatically. That turn-of-the-century sense of confidence and optimism seems hopefully naive to us now and has given way to a deep sense of crisis and uncertainty. Over the last two decades, but increasingly since around 2014, it began to dawn on me that I had to revisit and reconsider most of what I once used to take for granted. I see it as a special responsibility of scholars and intellectuals from my generation to analyze and seek to understand these changes to the best of our ability, and to write about them. I feel that responsibility because younger people born in the 1980s/90s do not have our advantage of having lived consciously in "both worlds," so that it is much harder for them to see how much of what they take for granted is by no means self-evident and therefore could be entirely different. Hope and freedom lie in that realization. We are not fatally condemned to the world in which we are living: we can change it, difficult as it may be. But this requires us to think out of the box and remain aware that other worlds are possible.

Roughly since the mid-2010s I have begun to write a bit more frequently about topics of contemporary relevance, mostly on my blog Creative Reading, and here I often take a more personal and political personal stance than in my strictly academic work. In my attempts to understand what is happening to our world on the structural level of our collective imagination, my chief foci of attention so far have been the following.

  • The rise of neoliberalism since the 1980s and its effects on culture and society;

  • The rise of "postmodern" thinking and the spread of its most basic assumptions from elite intellectual discussion to mass popular culture;

  • The impact on academic culture of deconstructionist logic combined with discourse theory and its reduction of knowledge to power;

  • The rise of identity politics and the "epistemology of provenance"; 

  • The rise of "network thinking" from the 1960s countercultural "holistic" imagination to that of a high-tech cyberculture along with the confluence of neoliberalism and the internet since the 1980s;

  • The gradual dissolution in online and offline contexts of our ability and our willingness to differentiate between "knowledge and information" and between "fact and fiction"; and finally

  • The far-reaching effects of all these factors on the public debate, on politics, on society, and on our very consciousness.

 

Different and complex as these trends may be, it seems to me that they have at least one thing in common. Each in their different way, and for different reasons, they find it difficult if not impossible to handle or even recognise the notion of quality - which gets replaced by quantity or rejected as metaphysical, hierarchical, elitist, nonexistent, or irrelevant. In response to these trends and developments, I am convinced that we need to find creative ways of developing a new, constructive cultural narrative: one that is grounded in positive human values which cannot be quantified, cannot be reduced to economics and power dynamics, have general human relevance that transcends our narrow identities, and allow us to make qualitative distinctions between "better and worse" in all domains of culture and society.