[Marxism] Re: "breaking the cycle" of cliche'

DLVinvest at cs.com DLVinvest at cs.com
Thu Apr 29 17:43:33 MDT 2004


Please, no insult was intended: I was not trying to dismiss what you say, but 
rather to engage you in a metalogue of the type I share with friends and 
colleagues, and comrades, including my daughter, to whom I'm copying this 
exchange, because she too is an aspiring historian/world-changer. I simply take 
exception to your off-hand propositions as statements-of-fact rather than as 
opinions which reflect a received and conventional thinking that masquerades as 
"common sense" and thus hides reality rather than illuminates it. So, I challenged 
what you were "simply trying to say" to unmask what's behind your choice of 
words; for example:

In a message dated 4/28/04 4:21:10 PM Mountain Daylight Time, 
Lanasnest at aol.com writes: 
> history repeats itself

Well, maybe and maybe not, but certainly not as often as we say it does in 
trying to understand or talk about it -- that's why I resist summary-by-cliche' 
-- but to further quote-monger, since this describes itself as a site for and 
about "marxism", which I take to be a methodology for understanding history 
precisely in order to take control of the future:

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in 
world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as 
tragedy, the second as farce.... {my emphasis]"

Ironically, this phrase (from the now-famous preface to the essay on "The 
18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon") has itself become a kind of cliche' -- a French 
printers' term deriving from a labor-saving pre-set "line" of type-blocked 
letters set aside in a tray for quick insertion in the body of text to be 
assembled on the press because that"catch-phrase" was so often repeated (not 
necessarily to be confused with a handy "line" for introducing oneself or "picking 
up" somebody, nor a political party's line to which all partisans are obliged to 
adhere, or a telephone party-line shared by several subscribers to their 
surprised embarrasment when they interrupt some others' private gossip, or 
intimate conversation, or when one deliberately "eavesdrops" to listen 
surreptitiously on another's words, stealing their gift of gab, to gather "intelligence" or 
spread rumor, all arguably obsolete either culturally or technologically 
thanks to media such as the one to which we recur here. But the phrase has the 
"ring of truth" even though cliche' is a way to dismiss further inquiry and 
conversation rather than invite the wrangling over words that accompanies wrestling 
with ideas.

Note that the author did not bother to look it up and cite Hegel exactly, 
because he had other, contemporary fish to fry -- the press of economic penury 
had once again pressed up against the urgency of the revolutionary moment, so 
Marx chose to re-issue his work on the ersatz emperor's coup d'etat for what 
workers in France and Germany might learn in their upcoming struggles in the 
Franco-Prussian War that inspired the first great proletarian experiment of the 
Paris Commune --  so we are left to take his word for it, or do the plodding 
work of further research into what Hegel intended with the statement attributed 
to him.

History repeats itself? Twice? More? By contrast, Heraclitus is said to have 
remarked that "you can't step in tn the same river twice." Both you and the 
river (circumstances, history) have changed with each moment, perhaps 
imperceptibly, though they may look to be "the same." Here, the author was making more 
than a witty point about the irony of history, conceived in Western (not 
"Eastern") terms as "cyclical" in a formal, systematic way (that is, ideologically) 
since Origen, if not since origin in a cosmic Big-Bang or more 
species-specific Jurassic too-close-encounter that gave meteoric rise to mammals, or since a 
pre-historic flood sunk mythic Atlantis and gave rise to Mesopotamian 
civilization, because he goes on to say:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; 
they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under 
circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past...."

This is an important insight about what some call "destiny" or fate" -- 
determinism -- and individual "free will" or a world-historical Will in Nietzchean 
or Hegelian terms, respectively, depending on your predilections; more recent 
debates prefer to wage metaphysical war between "chance" and "necessity" in 
the evolution of mind-body and the emotion-reason to which our species' 
interaction with the world gives rise. In short, neither humans nor their history is a 
metaphorical "blank slate." But then he adds another insight, to which I will 
write my own "reading between the lines":

"The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the 
brain of the living. [Not a sweet dream, mind you, and a far cry from 
Chesterton's conservative notion that "tradition is our way of given democracy to the 
dead" -- whose votes outweigh the living, especially in societies where a 
mystical-religious doctrine of cyclical epochs holds sway over the living, reinforced 
by ancestor-worship, loyalty to family, clan and tribe.] And just when they 
seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things [in your phrase, 
"breaking the cycle"?], in creating something that has never yet existed.  
[impossible, if all is repititon of a cycle], precisely in such periods of revolutionary 
crisis [when the world, our survival and our very identities are "up for 
grabs"], they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and 
borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new 
scene [unprecedented circumstances] of world history in this time-honored 
disguise and this borrowed language [that is, the familiar language of cliche' that 
reflects obsolete patterns of thought and behavior which may distort rather 
than explain the new situation and disguise what to do about it or even our 

He goes on to describe some historical examples. Then he adds another 
interesting inisght:

"In like manner a beginner who has learned a new language always translates 
it back [in his head, or brain or mind] into his mother tongue... [This also 
rings true from personal experience, but we don't bother questioning why some 
languages are "tongues" let alone why they are maternal rather than paternal, 
since not all languages assign gender to inanimate objects or processes, but 
note that some people call their homeland a fatherland or a motherland. And since 
all words are metaphors for things and things metaphors by which we reify 
processes, I suggest this proposition about language also applies to any new way 
of thinking and talking about the world.]

"...but he has assimilated the spirit of the new language and can freely 
express himself in it only when he can find his way in it without recalling the 
old and forgets his native tongue in the use of the new." [In other words, you 
have "grasped" the new "tongue" when you "catch yourself" thinking in the new 
language without having to translate it. To this proposition about 
language-acquisition, about which nuerologists have a lot more to say than philologists 
now that we are learning more about the neuro-phyiological-chemical processes of 
which we are composed and by which we compose language and ourselves, I would 
only add that real understanding of a language (even the quasi-languages of 
mathematics and music that are often described as "universal" systems of 
symbolic logic) comes with the capacity to apprehend and tell a joke, especially one 
that involves word-play. Voltaire is said to have remarked, roughly 
translated, that "anything too stupid to be said is likely to be sung." Hyperbolic but 
true: Maybe not all, but certainly most lyrics to popular music or "classical" 
opera are bouffe if you strip away the melody, simply turn to a friend and 
repeat the words, with or without feeling. To which my corrollary is, "it 
doesn't matter what they say because all dance is a form of foreplay."

But, then, you don't agree with any of this, do you, since you state that 
there is no beginning and no end to anything, by which I assume you mean that all 
that is is the infinite and timeless now? 

How, then, would you propose to break any cycle, and where? And why?

Douglas L. Vaughan, Jr.
for Print, Film & Electronic Media
3140 W. 32nd Ave. 
Denver CO 80211

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