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35 2 Forgetting by Remembering Historicism and the Limits of Modern Knowledge To return once more to Heidegger’s notion of the modern Weltbild, it appears that yet another change wrought by the age of the “world picture” concerns a thoroughgoing shift in the form, function, and scope of narrative. The structure of narrative mutates from the mnemonic to the emancipatory, from the genre of epic to that of utopia, and from an evolving, deepening, and transformative engagement with received concepts and meanings to the methodical cultivation of a detached and critically objectifying stance whose principal concern lies with overcoming the past. Developing their critique of modernity from diametrically opposed points of view, both Schopenhauer and Coleridge recognize that what impels and legitimates modernity’s changed concept of narrative is a deep-seated fear of error, be it as a result of the constant possibility of deception perpetrated by Descartes’s specter of a dieu trompeur or because of our supposed propensity to become mired in the past, a habit that for Descartes spells mere stasis and mindless repetition; hence modernity’s preoccupation with both remembering and overcoming the past, which accounts for the modern era’s simultaneous cultivation of vigilance and forgetfulness. To fend off this perceived threat of the past as sheer recurrence, modern narrative unfolds as a utopian quest for a radically autonomous and entrepreneurial model of agency—one that produces and consumes both its own conceptual inventory and those social, moral, economic, and political meanings to whose construction that inventory is 36 prolegomena deemed uniquely conducive. Defining of modern “progress,” Hans Blumenberg notes, is “the continuous self-justification of the present, by means of the future that it gives itself, before the past, with which it compares itself” (LMA, 32). While some of these issues will be taken up more fully at the beginning of Part IV, it is necessary to identify more precisely the kind of narrative of modernity that is being presented in what follows and, in particular, how it differs from a by now fairly established model of intellectual history or some such historicist survey that aspires to (or presumes outright) the essential “pastness” of the past and its merely archival interest for the present. Neither the historical evolution of the concept of the will nor that of the person admits of being treated as some kind of prehistory, be it in the spirit of our having overcome its alleged inadequacies or finding ourselves as the putative telos of the trajectory of either idea as it migrates from Greek philosophy into the modern era. If, then, modern narrative conceives (by default, as it were) the past in essentially historicist form—viz., as something concluded, alien, and incommensurable with present and future exigencies—it is also true that modernity has proven a fertile ground for the production of a very different kind of narrative. The basic impetus and objective pursued in modern narrative is a notion of the event as essentially unprecedented and singular, that is, a novum or, indeed, a “novel.” Not only must modernity find forever new ways to impress on us the sublimity of its very occurrence , but it must simultaneously cut from whole cloth the intellectual template whereby this event is to become intelligible for us. One of the first “discoveries” of the modern era—and structurally cognate with the emergence of Heidegger’s Weltbild— thus involves the proposition that the past is a historical object, deemed intelligible because (and only insofar as) it has definitively expired and thus no longer constrains our self-awareness. If, as Heidegger concludes, “the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture” (Der Grundvorgang der Neuzeit ist die Eroberung der Welt als Bild), its Achilles heel will be a one-sided conception of narrative as a strictly archeological endeavor concerned with preserving, and thus containing , what is peremptorily construed as other.1 Under conditions of modernity, all history is merely prehistory. Staging a curious version of Sigmund Freud’s fort/da game, modernity thus compensates for its original dilemma by simultaneously engaging with and disengaging from the past. It invents the notion of a “past” as strictly passé, as archival, fossilized (“sedimented”), and inert stuff. Already the etymology of modernus (first attested around A.D. 500) shows the word denoting less a particular span of time than a fundamentally changed perspective on temporality itself. Derived from modo (Lat., only, merely, just), a word that also means “lately” and...


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