This post is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project commemorating the life and work of Harry Redner
by David Roberts
Harry Redner, Art and Science: A Parallel History. Extract here: ‘The Birth of Science’
Harry Redner, The Humanities, the Social Sciences and the University: A Study in Knowledge Production (Routledge, forthcoming). Extract here: ‘Theorybabble’
Harry Redner, Politics, Ethics and Culture in our Time: A Post-Civilizational Perspective (Brill, forthcoming). Extract here: ‘East and West’.
At the time of his sudden, unexpected death in September 2021, Harry Redner had just completed three book length manuscripts. The three books were conceived as a trilogy but one in which each part could be read independently on its own terms. Together they constitute a last comprehensive reflection on the themes that had constantly preoccupied him, which takes the form of a stock taking at the end of European civilization (see Redner, Beyond Civilization, 2013). His critical overview takes its orientation from what Karl Polyani named the ‘great transformation’ that ushered in the new world of capitalism, the market economy and the ever more rapid expansion of industrial production, scientific progress and technological invention in Western Europe. What were the consequences of these combined and cumulative revolutions for the civilization from which they sprang and for the culture of modernity since the Enlightenment, what we may call the epoch of European modernism from the French Revolution through to the Second World War? The crucial turning point in Redner’s reading is the endgame of modernism as it played out after 1945, when the arts and sciences celebrated a last burst of creativity in the USA. The 1960s marks the watershed, registered in the rise of postmodernism: a programme and a self-description that succumbed to its own contradictions and has since mutated into the ‘contemporary’ as the moving index of the loss of all sense of historical tradition.
The first of the three books, Art and Science: A Parallel History, is based on the Weberian premise of rationalization. Western civilization was the only civilization to have systematically pursued a thoroughgoing rational development of the arts and sciences. This shared spirit opens the possibility of a comparative history of these two distinct expressions of human creativity, which Redner has realized in an illuminating fashion, building on his previous work in this field, from The Ends of Science (1987) to The Quintessence of Dust: the Science of Matter and the Philosophy of Mind (2020). A first chapter on the cross influences between music and physics, painting and perspective in the Renaissance (see ‘The Birth of Science from the Spirit of Art’ in this online issue) introduces a comparison of the arts and sciences in the twentieth century up to postmodernism when they go their separate ways. Although the natural sciences were scarcely affected by the postmodernist siren song that ‘anything goes,’ the sociology of science was not spared (see below). The arts, however, after the break with the moderns’ distinction between high and popular art, find themselves increasingly determined by the fashions of the art market and defined as art industries.
The end of the shared modern history of the arts and the sciences is for Redner a symptom of the loss of the creative power of Western civilization, the final logic and outcome of the great transformation that has now expanded to become the globalized technological society we all live in today. World technological society lies, as indicated, beyond civilization and is to be understood as the successor to the civilizations of both the East and the West. Global consciousness has placed the necessity and challenge of conservation on the agenda, most obviously in relation to the threats of climatic charge but also in relation to the threats to the historical inheritance — and here most obviously in UNESCO’s efforts to preserve world heritage. For Redner there is also a third imperative: to understand the present through the past, to affirm civilizational continuities against the deep discontinuities of today, to conserve, that is, as far as possible not just the material cultural inheritance but the spirit that once inhabited it. All the more in that modern Western civilization was itself a continuation and renewal of the legacy of Athens and Jerusalem.
This third imperative gains its force from Redner’s penetrating analyses of the negative consequences of the far reaching changes over the last half century to Western culture in the arts and sciences (the first of the trilogy), in the humanities and the social sciences and the university itself (the second), and to politics and ethics (the third). He sees a civilizational dialectic at work here, in which, for all its tremendous productive dynamic, the process of progressive rationalization of all spheres of life finally split substantive and formal rationality apart and led to a self-destructive formalism. Thus the practise of science has on the one hand become ever more specialized and on the other ever more bureaucratized and driven by ever more powerful technologies. In this respect all spheres of life from business enterprises to public services, from government to health and education are governed by the same process-driven bureaucratization, which Weber already recognized a century ago as the iron cage of modernity, where substantive values have given way to the formal rationality of the law, the sciences and the rules of politics.
In The University Today: the Humanities and The Social Sciences (Routledge: forthcoming) Redner critically dissects the disciplines of literature and history (Part I), sociology and economics (Part II) and the far reaching transformations affecting the university and academic publishing (Part III). After it had differentiated itself from the earlier humanistic continuum of literature, history writing and philosophy, literature in the modern sense has been closely tied to the rise of modern criticism marked by the battles of the books in the eighteenth century and subsequent contending literary movements. In Aesthetic Life (2009, see the review in this online issue) Redner argues that aesthetic life can only flourish when the practice of cultivated aesthetic judgement also flourishes. Once literary criticism declines it has serious consequences for literature itself, for without a living critical culture no fundamental values and standards can be maintained. Postmodernism in all its variants epitomizes this decline, whether it takes the form, as in French theory, of the cult of the critic (Foucault, Derrida, French feminism) at elite universities, or of cultural studies (popular and mass culture and media) at red brick universities. The proliferation of specialisations – as ‘theory,’ political agendas from Marxism to postcolonialism and identity politics – all coalesce in the confused jargon that Redner dubs ‘theorybabble’. His special scorn is reserved for French theories of ‘reading,’ which amounts to the loss of all reference outside the text and the eclipse of meaning. The overall loss of a sense of purpose in academic criticism means that literature and literary culture are now themselves no more than a ‘special interest’ course at today’s university. In turn the effects on writers are equally deleterious. Writers have become part of a culture industry that thrives on publicity and celebrity and where success is the measure of value. The ‘prestige’ that derives from best seller lists is complemented by the rivalry between the top ranking literary prizes that is turning literary production into a competitive sport.
History as it was traditionally practiced set out to recall the past for its own time. It was a form of literature depicting events and in no sense a kind of generalising science. This all changed across the nineteenth century with the Marxian and the positivist conceptions of historiography, whose most important successor in the twentieth century was the French Annales School of the 1920s, which brought together historians, economists and sociologists, who shared a common vision of history as governed by long term underlying changes. The limits of this approach became apparent in the inability to account for the political actions and responsibilities of individual agents, above all in relation to the totalitarianisms of the interwar period.
In part II Redner contrasts the development of sociology and economics since the Enlightenment. Whereas economics has consolidated itself ever more strongly into a discipline modelled on mathematics, sociology has dissolved into an ever growing spectrum of specialisations, characterised by a deep gulf between theoretical and empirical approaches. Sociology’s great period lay in the first third of the twentieth century, with such leading luminaries as Simmel, Durkheim, Weber, Mauss, Pareto and Hobhouse. But after World War II when the US became the centre of sociology questions of method largely replaced European historicist interpretative approaches. This split has stood in the way of all later attempts to reunify sociology from Parsons to Habermas and Luhmann. Rather. as we have seen with literature or with historiography, special interest studies have come to predominate with their own ideological agendas. The self-defeating extremes of theory are particularly evident in the sociology of science, where knowledge and reason are treated as contingent social constructs. Redner thus registers a process of scientization in economics on the one hand and of specialisation in the humanities and sociology on the other that has led to a whole series of parallel universes, each with its own self enclosed discourse. The loss of any common theoretical core in the humanities and the social sciences can be seen as both cause and effect of the flight into multiple forms of identity politics from minorities to race, ethnicity, and gender in the academy. The bigger social questions of class and inequality have been largely abandoned to economics.
The neo-classical idea of economics as a strict science has largely displaced the historicist critiques of economic formalism. Professionalization has been bought at the cost of a strict and increasingly self-referential intellectual conformism. But even here the question of methods and models is still pre-formed by the opposing positions of Keynes and Hayek in the 1930s and 1940s.
The correlate of ongoing specialisation in the study of literature, history and society is the competitive struggle in the new type of university that emerged in tandem with the vast expansion of student numbers since the 1960s. The decline of the modern humanistic disciplines is the other side of the enormous growth in funding for the natural and applied sciences. The commercialisation of research and the commodification of education are primary symptoms of an education industry, in which bureaucracy has supplanted the former collegial autonomy of the university. As an education industry, metrics now rules supreme, whether it be in the form of competing university rankings, citation indexes, publications, research funding, student employment prospects. The ongoing multiplication of what is measured eliminates both in practice and principle everything that is not measured – with cumulative consequences for the humanities, whose social relevance in technological society becomes less and less evident. When the only criterion becomes the market, it is not surprising that the humanities and the social sciences are desperately engaged in chasing fashion. In short, the old university of scholars has gone the way of the civilisation that sustained it.
The third part of the trilogy, Politics, Ethics and Culture in Our Time, provides the wider civilizational perspective, both historically and geographically, to the trilogy as a whole through an introductory overview in Part I of the ages and stages of history in East and West (see ‘East and West: Introduction’ in this online issue). The problems of modern politics (Part II) are acutely diagnosed in the two abiding contradictions bequeathed by the French Revolution: the failure to achieve equality despite all the promises of socialism, whether democratic or totalitarian; the failure to achieve fraternity other than in the regressive forms of nationalism, as for instance in National Socialism. In turn the problem of ethics lies for Redner in its reduction to formalism, once it has cut its ties to the ethos, the living context of expectations and duties, which give life to the rule of law. Part III focuses on the commodification of culture in our time with a striking analysis of what Redner calls the sportification of culture, underpinned by a novel application of Canetti’s theory of the crowd to mass culture. This brief overview of the themes of Redner’s survey of culture today provides I hope a sufficient indication of the intent and the framing perspective of the trilogy. As regards intent, Harry Redner invites us to take stock of the present state of culture. Recognition of things as they are is not a call to despair, however, but to reflection on what values and traditions can still be maintained. In turn it is important to stress that the framing civilizational perspective is that of a grand narrative, directed against postmodernism’s consignment of all grand narratives to the rubbish bin of history. There is no question, however, of any kind of teleological or prophetic narrative, whether Marxian or Spenglerian. Redner speaks in relation to his three book-length essays of a historical retrospective in the spirit of Hegel’s Owl of Minerva. Like Hegel he eschews any pretence of knowledge of the future. His grand narrative is a critical retrospection on the end of Western civilization and of the world’s Axial civilizations in East and West.