In giving the Annual Lecture to the Ciceronian Society last week, I chose to speak on Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, against the background of the interpretations offered by G. W. F. Hegel and by Seamus Heaney. I argued in part that Antigone was (pace Heaney) an alien figure today because she was so profoundly and consciously shaped by her history, her family commitments, and the presence of the dead in the land of the living. Yet modern audiences have no conception of what that means because history, family, and the dead have today become not so much a given source of identity as either an irrelevance or a set of problems to be overcome.
As a teacher of history, I often wonder why history as a discipline occupies such a low place in today’s society. When I tell people at parties that I teach church history, it is hard to tell whether it is the church or the history part which more marks me out as a sociopathic weirdo. Indeed, there are few trades which seem more irrelevant today than the traditional study of the past.
In part, I suspect this is because it is often badly taught. For my generation, too many of us experienced it as a mere concatenation of names and dates, trotted out in a dusty monotone by a teacher who really wanted to be an actuary but failed the personality test. It was tedious but not a problem. For this generation, however history is so awash in angry tales of the oppression of this or that micro-identity that it has become little more than present-day politics pursued through the idiom of the past tense. As Philip Rieff memorably expressed it in Fellow Teachers:
But, for Americans, all pasts are embarrassments, beyond recall except as tactical instruments of scarcely concealed rancor against present or imagined inferiorities.
Sadly, what was true of Rieff’s America in the early 1970s has become a general characteristic of the West in general. History is now useful on college campuses primarily as a means for bestowing much-sought-after vicarious victimhood on a generation that knows little or nothing of what it actually means to be a real victim of anything beyond over-indulgent parenting and a society that knows not what it means to be an adult.
But the attempted elimination of history as being of positive importance in the present is not restricted to the pseudo-sophisticates of the New Left academy and their self-absorbed spawn. A whole arsenal of aspects of modern culture militates against it. An economy built upon a commercial philosophy which creates desires and then offers to satisfy them is inevitably forward-looking and creative in a manner which weakens ties to history. Mass produced architecture, the automobile, the importance of science and technology to the imagination, and high population mobility all mean that those traditional markers of memory—distinct places and enduring possessions tied to particular times and events—are greatly weakened. And when memory is weakened or destroyed, eventually concern for history follows in its wake.
At the heart of this anti-historical present age, however, stands that great hero of our time: the sempiternal orgiast, the one who lives for the pleasure of the moment. Once the end of human existence was identified with happiness and happiness came to be identified with pleasure and pleasure came to be identified primarily with sexual gratification, the game was up for history. For the sempiternal orgiast has no need for history for he has no time—no past and no future, just the intensity of the pleasure of the present moment.
This is surely one of the most lethal but little noted impacts of the pornification of our world. Pornography is an anti-historical medium and thus it disrupts human identity at what is its most basic level, the history within which it is formed. It focuses on the pleasure of the moment and makes it a contextless event, without even the past-present-future of real human relationship. It offers a vision of humanity of merely solipsistic, hedonistic significance. Yes, pornography objectifies and commodifies the human body. Yes, it alters neural pathways. Yes, it hinders healthy relationships. But it also cultivates an understanding of the human self which is profoundly disconnected from historical context, from the cosmic to the individual and all points in between. And its significance is far-reaching. Even our current politics and dominant economic policies, concerned as they seem to be only for the immediate moment, bear all the marks of the pornified culture of the sempiternal orgiast.
So, in addition to a previous generation of tedious high school teachers and today’s tenured sans culottes, I would also nominate Hugh Hefner, that doyen of aspiring sempiternal orgiasts, to the Anti-History Hall of Fame. He, rather than Derrida or Foucault or Fanon, should be credited with a key role in the popular assassination of history. Indeed, somebody should write the history of the death of history with that in mind. But then again, why would they bother? Thanks in part to Hef, I guess nobody would be likely to read it. Better to make it into a YouTube clip or a video game.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.