A colossal inheritance

Under what conditions is it a good thing that one’s beliefs, attitudes and values are not realized as believed, expressed or held? The immediate answer is when those beliefs, attitudes and values are wrong, and this indeed is the charge sheet against the authoritarian personality and totalitarian mind.

The matter is complicated when the opposite of good is good intentions. We probably have just as many cases of good ideas going disastrously wrong as we have of wrong leading to more wrong.[1] Think here of the charge sheet against an utopianism of the perfectibility of humans.

But to believe the latter means explaining how good-in-thought leads to bad-in-practice. In an important sense, it doesn’t matter if you have an utopian or authoritarian mentality. When the world in which action takes place is full of inadvertence (“not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning”) and contingency (“subject to chance”), it is hardly surprising that difficulty and inexperience come to the fore and work against fulfilling your wishes and dreams.

It’s hard work to implement, operate and manage above and beyond the wants you have. No wonder that the present’s future and the origins of the future’s actual present differ so markedly. Yes, one’s intentions give meaning to one’s actions, but there’s all manner of inadvertent, contingent meanings in the balance.

I am not saying that what happens is in spite of our intentions. Rather, just as war, pandemic and economic precarity create their own contingencies, so too the monumental wreckage of intention—good and bad—creates its own difficulties and inexperience. This mess is constantly unmaking a stable present, or if you want, making a complex one where unrealized wishes and unfulfilled dreams criticize everything that happens instead.

To leave it at that, though, is too negative. The actual challenge remains, in the words of David Alff (2017, 8), one of “demonstrat[ing] how to think with the past’s inadvertent posterity in the moment it tried to build an unknowable here-to-come that we used to viewing [only] through hindsight.” That is: Yes, of course, there is a gap between the past’s future and the present actually realized, but that tells us little about what to do at the rock-face of present difficulty, inexperience and hardship for the here-to-come.[1]

Which would be a banal observation were it not for its first-order implication: We improvise with what’s at hand, or accept failure as an avant-garde in order to reinvent ourselves later on, or we do both. The latter is always an option.

Principal sources

Alff, D. (2017). The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660 – 1730. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Philippe Parreno, artist, on the ontology of the avant-garde in: DADA: One Hundred Years On. The Art Newspaper (accessed online on February 24 2020 at https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/dada-100-years-on)


[1] This puts to mind Phillip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral (1997, 35):

You get [people] wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.


[1] It’s important to recognize just how much a prejudice this “reliance on hindsight” is in a world of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty. Hindsight is a superstition about superior intelligence, in this case our having afterwards a clear way to seeing what now, after the fact, really does matter. Angela Carter, the late novelist, is refreshingly honest on this point: “If you told any sane person in the mid-eighteenth century what the Industrial Revolution would bring in its wake, the kind of human misery it would cause, and how the culmination of it all would be in a nuclear weapon, they’d have said ‘Smash the looms!’ Yet the possibilities of my life are entirely predicated on the products of the Industrial Revolution. . . . But I would probably have said ‘Smash the looms’, too” (quoted in an interview accessed online on April 14, 2018 at https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/angela-carter-wilson-harris/)

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