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Posterità, la narrazione implacabile della fine
Magazine, POST - Part I - Gennaio 2017
Reading time: 10 min
Leonardo Ruvolo

Posterity, the relentless narrative of the end

A narrative that delegitimizes Western civilization is the narrative of its end or the attempt to overcome it laying the groundwork for a possible evolution?
Adams Monumental Illustrated Panorama of History – 1878 – Source: Wikipedia.

Postwar, postcolonialism, postgender, posthuman, postinternet, postglobal, posthistorie, postrock, postcapitalism, postcommunism, postrave, postmodernism, postcontemporary, postrevolutionary, postfeminism, postwork, postaesthetics, postgenomics, postmarxism, poststructuralism, post-truth, postdemocracy.

This long list, potentially endless, shows how it is customary to use the prefix post before words that fully represent the Western thought. From a lexical point of view the prefixes have no minimal unit of meaning, we will try to understand whether the contemporary use has defined an autonomous meaning of the word post.
From the second half of the 20th century, the prefix post has invaded the narratives of contemporary phenomena as a linguistic category. Strictly speaking, the history is a narrative of political, military and economic events, which legitimize a state of affairs, an order. How does a narrative of passed events justify a current state of things? First, defining the geographic region where the events occurred. It is no coincidence that in history class, after a few superficial steps on Assyrians and Babylonians, through the Phoenicians, we come immediately to the ancient Greece, the «cradle of the Western civilization». Second, choosing certain events that, thanks to a cause-effect relationship, lead to accept the actual state of things as the only possible. For example, if we want to talk about the current European order, we would not get through all the events occurred in Europe from 1945 up to now. The historical narrative will use only those events that, thanks to a strict causation, legitimize the current state of affairs: ECSC, Schengen Treaty, German reunification, dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Maastricht Treaty, Euro, the non ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

Adams Monumental Illustrated Panorama of History – 1878 – Source: Wikipedia.

This introduction allows us to mistrust the so-called «Universal History», the periodization that divides the history of humankind in ancient, medieval and modern time. It is unthinkable to include in a single narrative all the events occurred to determine the contemporary state of things without legitimizing the history of a specific civilization. From Herder to Kant, through Hegel and Nietzsche, each of them looks at history as something different, but all refer to the Western civilization, in particular the continental European one. In this regard, Spengler in Decline of the West, says: «When Hegel declared so naively that he meant to ignore those peoples which did not fit into his scheme of history, he was only making an honest avowal of methodical premises that every historian finds necessary for his purpose». Also the word Europe is difficult to interpret. From a geographical point of view, Europe is a secondary concept: «Europe is not a continent defined only in terms of geography, but it is instead a cultural and historical concept». There is not a universal history, there are histories of different civilizations with non-overlapping cultures and traditions.

Adams Monumental Illustrated Panorama of History – 1878 – Source: Wikipedia.

Thanks to this distinction we can trace the function of such a use, other than the temporal one. Beside the legitimation function, a narrative can also have the opposite one: to delegitimize a state of affairs. This seems the function of such a use of the prefix post. Through the use of the word postcapitalism, postgenomics, postrock and so on, we describe those contemporary phenomena based on the overcoming of capitalism, genomics and rock rules. Often, the prefix post precedes words that represent Western thought in all its maturity. In this attempt to delegitimize the state of things that we do not feel fitting the reality, we try to legitimize an additional one, another; as Jean-François Lyotard says: «we are facing a delegitimation process driven by the need of legitimation». By this activity of delegitimation and destruction of the linguistic categories, that represent the Western thought, we are laying the groundwork to create new or other linguistic categories, different from those we are accustomed. Wittgenstein says: «our language can be considered as an ancient city: a maze of streets and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with parts added in different periods; and this all surrounded by a network of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses».

Adams Monumental Illustrated Panorama of History – 1878 – Source: Wikipedia.

A civilization, according to Spengler, is the inevitable fate of a culture. «They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic». For centuries, Europe has based its domination on technology and science, on other continents and peoples exploitation and on global trade. Western civilization has relied on this culture imposing it to its own identity. Today, the contemporary narrative, which increasingly makes use of words formed by using the prefix post, tries to delegitimize the identity of Western civilization, even though it still uses categories and much of the language of this civilization. Can we say that the one of the posterity is the narrative of the end approaching or the end has already taken place?
There are some warns that lead us to think that Western civilization is declining. After the Great Recession, the expectation was a rapid recovery: so it was not. In an effort to support the recovery, the Federal Reserve kept interest rates, the cost of borrowing money, near zero. In order to restart the economy, the European Central Bank established negative interest rates. For the first time, the deposits that the European banks hold at the central bank do not produce profit, but a loss. Before the crisis no one would have imagined such a scenario. From 2008 until now, the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product has grown significantly from 41% to 74% in the United States and from 47% to 70% in Europe; the debt has grown faster than GDP. The interest rates of ten-years bonds, of countries such as United States and Germany, are significantly low. This means that the market does not expect that these conditions will change soon. Some analysts speak of secular stagnation. In industrial societies it has come to light an imbalance between propensity to save, on the rise, and the propensity to invest, in decline. The saver takes a conservative position, characterized by insecurity of the present, uncertainty of the future and will to survive. The investor assumes an entirely opposite position. He believes that the future can be better than the present and he accepts the risk of failure. In the OECD countries, the so-called Western world, some data on the labour market confirm this trend. Youth unemployment has risen, on average, in all the countries, with peaks that exceed 40% in Italy, Spain and Greece. Over the past decade, the average age of retirement grew. Together these data do not bode well about the future development of this civilization.

Native-born employment in OECD countries – Source: Foreign-born employment in OECD countries – Source

In Europe the failure of the political project of union is there for all to see. Some key steps. It’s 1985, the Soviet Union is moving towards the dissolution. Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. He pulls the trigger on the series of events that led to the reunification of Germany and to the evolution of the European Union project. In exchange for the German reunification, France wanted guarantees on European integration process and asked to pool the German most powerful weapon: the Mark. On 3 October 1990, German reunification occurred, on 14 and 15 December of the same year the Rome European Council opened the two intergovernmental conferences on Economic and Monetary Union and Political Union. Having realized the monetary union before the political one, on the basis of intergovernmental agreements between national states, has frustrated the chance to come together on the grounds of truly shared values. Or rather, it was considered that free market and common currency were the common and founding values of Europe. Today the European Union is perceived as the political design of an élite, which bases its existence on neoliberal principles. This failure can be summarized in the non-ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
The migration phenomenon is subverting the composition of the Western nations, on which the narrative of modern history is based. In the report of the United Nations, «Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2015 Revision» a data comes immediately evident: the number of international migrants has grown faster than the world population. The share of migrants on world’s population rose from 2.8% in 2000 to 3.3% in 2015. The latest surveys of the net immigration rate, that can be found on the World Bank website, tell us something about the direction of these movements. The net migration rate measures, in fact, how many emigrants and how many immigrants are registered by country providing a balance. It is a one-way movement: it starts by low and middle income countries and heads to high-income countries. Without taking into account the refugees who leave their homeland because of war, most migrants are headed to OECD countries. In this article it’s not important to understand migration causes. In fact, although many are to be traced in the policies put in place by national western states, it is more useful focusing on the effects that migration entails. One above all: G7 states members are facing an increase of the foreign-born employment rate compared to the native-born one, with some differences related to the specificity of each country.

Net migration rate per il 2016. Blu: positivo; arancione: negativo; verde: stabile; grigio: nessun dato – Source: Wikipedia.

It is difficult to narrate events and facts that happen in the contemporary world, using past historical linguistic categories. We need new words for new things. «The statute of discontinuity is not easy to establish for history in general. Undoubtedly, even less for the history of thought. Do we want to draw a division? Each limit is maybe just an arbitrary cut in a continuously moving whole thing. Do we want to crop a period? But, do we have the right to set, in two points of time, symmetrical breakages, in order to make appear between them a continuous and homogeneous system?». This need for order and categories clashes with the fact that time flows regardless. In fact, the categories Antiquity, Middle Age and Modernity have been lengthened and shortened according to the needs of each single author. With time, a great confusion has been created and the boundaries between these periods are faded.
The events and the facts that are occurring today still fall within the category of the contemporary history? The use of the prefix post in delegitimizing function of Western thought allows us to state that there are linguistic categories indicating the end of contemporary history? Can we define this historical period to come, or perhaps already begun, as posterity? Can we do this without falling into the error of considering posterity a universal language category, which belongs to other civilizations in the world? We need to understand that the category post and the historical period, that we could define as posterity, refer only to Western civilization, the one adopting the periodization that divides the history of humankind in ancient, medieval and modern time. Once you accept this, you have to wonder if the narrative of the posterity delegitimizing history, culture, and Western civilization represents the relentless narrative of the end of the same or the attempt to overcome it laying the groundwork for its possible evolution.

The rate corridor – Source: ECB, Goldman Sachs Research. Long-term government bond yields – Source: ECB, Deutsche Bundesbank, Bank of England, and Federal Reserve Board – Latest observation: may 2016.

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di Leonardo Ruvolo
  • Leonardo Ruvolo si laurea in Giurisprudenza presso l'Università di Palermo e consegue successivamente un Master in Diplomazia presso l' ISPI - Istituto per gli Studi Politici Internazionali a Milano. È fondatore e curatore del progetto di ricerca artistica Landescape del Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Alcamo . È attivista di Macao, centro per le arti, cultura e ricerca di Milano. Ha fondato il collettivo di scrittura performativa Youngboyswritinggroup. Attualmente vive ad Alcamo dove ha fondato con altri collaboratori Posto Segreto.

M. Foucault, Le parole e le cose, Rizzoli, Milano 1967.
J. F. Lyotard, The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge, Vol. 10. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
O. Spengler, The decline of the West, Oxford University Press, USA, 1991.
L. Wittgenstein, Ricerche filosofiche, Einaudi, Torino, 1967.
L. H. Summers, The Age of Secular Stagnation, «Foreign Affairs», March/April 2016.
The World Bank, Net Migration, official website.
OECD, Migration. Foreign-born employment, official website.
OECD, Migration. Native-born employment, official website.