- The Career of Living Things Is ContinuousReflections on Bergson, Iqbal, and Scalia
It is the forgotten war, but still the watershed event of modernity. The Great War was a catastrophic shock to world civilization. The rationalization of slaughter raised the question of what value Western civilization actually placed on life, but the fascist reaction to the horrors of World War I also gave new meaning to life and identified it with death. Only some responded to the carnage with calls for healthy and sensuous living—calls to limit nicotine or alcohol use, to wander in nature, and to display the naked body. But in Germany the intense lived experience of the battlefield formed the basis of a new Kriegsideologie. The German Erlebnis captures this fusion of life and experience. To live meant to live life dangerously. Ernst Jünger’s war writings explored the psychodynamics of extreme lived experiences (echoing all the way to Katheryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker). We also find an increasingly strident irrational commitment to the vitality of the nation, predicated on the racist destruction of life that is weak.1 Life either had to grow or die out. But life could only grow through death. Imperial expansion in search of Lebensraum created holocausts, but it was ontologized as an expression of life itself, and the bully boys trying to throw off the bridle of the intellect to think with the blood found that there was no better way to silence the reasonable criticism of an [End Page 225] opponent than to paint him as against life. Life became a political banner, but it was also understood implicitly as a perverse Hegelian identity of opposites: life passed discursively into death, death proved itself to be life. It was already known that all living things share the always realized capacity to die and that the word “life” makes it difficult to express that death is part of it, just as the word “day” implies that the night is not part of it. But the relationship between life and death after the Great War was newly based on a profound identity.
Life had become a concept as central to cultural dialogue and production as nature, God, ego, and consciousness had once been.2 A vitalist metaphysics posited the world as fundamentally composed of matter and life forces that were taken to be the primary reality. In German philosophy and European thought in general, this metaphysics eclipsed that of critical idealism, in which objects and ideas were held as equally constitutive of reality. The appeal to the guiding life forces of entelechy and élan vital was strengthened by the putative inability of the mechanical life sciences to solve problems in developmental and evolutionary biology and by general resistance to the mechanical worldview. Life, understood as both a spiritual and naturalistic force, came to be widely accepted as the fundamental reality in part due to its mysterious nature. Speaking in terms of life discourses became a sign of the depth of one’s mind and attunement to the era’s most profound metaphysical questions regarding ontology and the nature of experience, and hence a form of cultural capital.
While the fascist uses of the life concept proved to be the most historically important, “Life” was in fact as polysemous as it was culturally central (and perhaps central because it was polysemous): life came to have several meanings, most often oppositional to the nineteenth-century scientific mind-set and the mechanistic assumptions commonly thought to be inherent to it. In Europe, life, leben, erlebnis, élan vital, and la vie became philosophemes and expressed, inter alia, the rejection of the protocols of naturalism for the sake of the creativity of the artist; a thoroughgoing skepticism of language to express private and primal experience; the immediate demand for real experience and real life against the detested [End Page 226] artificiality of bourgeois manners and the enervating nature of urban life and against the promise of an afterlife predicated on the acceptance of suffering and dying well; a progressive demand for the creative reform of institutions as they became outdated in the course of the evolution of social life and an...