- Debating the End of History: The Marketplace, Utopia, and the Fragmentation of Intellectual Life by David W. Noble
This is a small book on a large topic by an important American studies scholar, who, “near the conclusion of [his] personal life cycle” (p. 1), casts a backward look upon his own intellectual contour and, in an effort to make sense of all that, relates a conversion from the traditional Western cultural utopia of “perpetual economic growth” and “infinite expansion” to the current—seemingly more realistic—view of the earth as “a finite living body,” one that is “unstable, timeful.”
In a matter of six chapters, Noble relates on how “Plato and his colleagues” have invented “a metaphor of two worlds—an old world of unstable, timeful cultures and a new world of stable, timeless nature” during the past two thousand years and more, locking humanity—or to be more exact, mostly Euro-Americans—in a vain attempt of “exodus into that new world,” a conviction shared by “all members of bourgeois cultures.” Thus, each generation of American historians would construct their own versions of timeless “exodus” narratives; each generation of American economists would assume that “the American nation was a timeless space of perpetual equilibrium” (p. 55); literary critics would almost always portray the old European culture as “artful, particular, irrational” and their own national culture as “artless, universal, rational” (p. 89), as instinctive rebellion against preceding generations of historians, economists, and literary critics, denouncing the latter as backward and doomed, especially in times of crisis. Thus, when ecologists and other scientists point out to them the limitations of time and space, or when their own prophesies fail, their instinctive response is deliberate ignorance, mocking, and repression.
The sheer dimensions of the book and raw honesty of the author combine to make this a pathetically refreshing read. It is pathetic because of the ironic fact that wisdom often comes with age, and even with age, it can be inexhaustive, this despite of the much trans-disciplinary effort as manifested in the book. It is refreshing because one does not often encounter such sobriety and sense in “hegemonic” Americans, like Francis Fukuyama: They proclaim the “end of history” and—they imagine—it’s going to end; they practice consumptive growth, and nature is supposed to be bountiful, forever. In an important sense, Noble is questioning all of this wishful utopian thinking, which the fragmentation of intellectual life seldom allows, which creates another pathetic scene of larger dimensions. All in all, Noble should [End Page 658] be congratulated for taking the heroic trouble to reveal the “patterns of continuity and change”1 in Western culture(s), or to recover from their “destructive value system” (p. 177).
To address this problem, Noble, in various places, and especially near the end of the book, expresses his hope that scholars may “identify and renounce the bourgeois exodus narrative” and “participate in the creation of a politics of nature in which the resources of the earth, our home, are sustained for future generations” (p. 177). This is tantamount to leaving the problem unresolved and leaving us with another nice utopian dream. But perhaps this demand for change of thinking is essentially hard for people without an alternative cultural reference—the Chinese dream of a harmonious cosmopolitan world, for example.
To be sure, the Chinese, at least since the time of Confucius (551– 479 b.c.e.), have also cherished their own version of a utopian world. In fact, Confucius himself was assigned the role to explain this in “one of the most celebrated [essays] in Confucian literature”2:
When the great Tao was in practice, the world was common to all; men of talents, virtue and ability were selected; sincerity was emphasized and friendship was cultivated. Therefore, men did not love only their own parents, nor did they treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment was given to the...