LI has been in a long and winding correspondance with an ardent supporter of the Iraq War. We spent a lot of time proposing and dissing each others analogies. Is the occupation of Iraq like the occupation of Germany and Japan, after WWII? Or is it like Vietnam? Etc.
Now, LI has a rule about history: there are no lessons in history. This is a rule we violate, for rhetorical reasons, all of the time. However, in calmer moments, we realize that the lesson metaphor is horribly overdetermined, and structurally suspect. For one thing, it implies a control, both conceptual and organizational, over history that doesn't and can't exist. Or at least it requires a belief in a trans-historical agency that needs to be established first. Such an agency could make history as a form of lesson, although it is unclear what that lesson would be about. A lesson is made around a subject, while history is made as history -- as the synthesis of the variously satisfactory enactments of human intentions with the contingency of natural events or countering intentions. This doesn't sound like lesson-making. For another thing, the metaphor downplays the complexity of the agents and systems at play within history. The lesson implies the class room, the teacher, the student. It follows a definite communicative channel, one determined by the social organization that allocates the teacher and the student positions. The odd thing about the lessons of history metaphor is that the teacher becomes the subject -- history teaches itself. The student of history reads the lessons of history from history itself. The triple relationship -- teacher, subject, student -- is collapsed into a double relationship -- teacher, student. The student's reception of the lesson requires a temporal and spatial location - a certain retirement -- while history, teaching itself, becomes a kind of confession. This is one of the attractions of the metaphor for the politician: such retirement is consonant with an old pattern, within Western culture, of making the values of the ascetic ideal superior to the practical one. It's the ruse of the priest, in a sense, to create the order for which the warrior fights. It's the ruse of the warrior to claim the priest's position -- that key retirement, that key distance. As Weber has remarked, somewhere, the artist and the politician emerge at the same time in the West, both of them signs of a certain form of modernity, both of them related in the peculiar individuality of their endeavors -- both of them throwing off the system of patronage as a sort of constitutive gesture. Which is just a way of saying, to paraphrase Marx, all insights into social science appear twice, once in poetry and once in Weber. Shelley's dictum that poets are the rulers of the world comes to much the same insight as Weber's, except that Shelley is sublime, Weber mundane.
However -- stepping back, here -- if history doesn't teach itself, and if, consequently, there are no students of history, how is one to take any practical action in the world? We do recognize a certain sense in saying that the occupation of Iraq is like that of Japan -- even if we disagree with it.
We're going to discuss this in our next post. In the meantime, we recommend this link to a book on metaphor in science.
As for our own embattled position -- we have now been running on an empty checking account since last Friday. The milk will be gone by the end of the day. We have four dollars, and we are trying to figure out how to spend it most wisely. There's bread and cheese and some cans of soup. There are some eggs too. Alas, no mail tomorrow, so -- if we aren't paid today, we will have to go into next week like this.