Northrop Frye on “progress” and mortality

“The conception of progress grew up in the nineteenth century around a number of images and ideas. The basis of the conception is the fact that science, in contrast to the arts, develops and advances, with the work of each generation adding to that of its predecessor. Science bears the practical fruit of technology, and technology has created, in the modern world, a new consciousness of time. Man has doubtless always experienced time in the same way, dragged backwards from a receding past into an unknown future. But the quickening of the pace of news, with telegraph and submarine cable, helped to dramatize a sense of a world in visible motion, with every day bringing new scenes and episodes of a passing show. It was as though the ticking of a clock had become not merely audible but obsessive, like the tell-tale heart in Poe. The first reactions to the new sensation-for it was more of a sensation than a conception-were exhilarating, as all swift movement is for a time. The prestige of the myth of progress developed a number of value-assumptions: the dynamic is better than the static, process better than product, the organic and vital better than the mechanical and fixed, and so on. We still have these value-assumptions, and no doubt they are useful, though like other assumptions we should be aware that we have them. And yet there was an underlying tendency to alienation in the conception of progress itself. In swift movement we are dependent on a vehicle and not on ourselves, and the proportion of exhilaration to apprehensiveness depends on whether we are driving it or merely riding in it. All progressive machines turn out to be things ridden in, with an unknown driver.”

“…for most thoughtful people progress has lost most of its original sense of a favourable value-judgement and has become simply progression, towards a goal more likely to be a disaster than an improvement. Taking thought for the morrow, we are told on good authority, is a dangerous practice. In proportion as the confidence in progress has declined, its relation to individual experience has become clearer. That is, progress is a social projection of the individual’s sense of the passing of time. But the individual, as such, is not progressing to anything except his own death. Hence the collapse of belief in progress reinforces the sense of anxiety which is rooted in the consciousness of death. Alienation and anxiety become the same thing, caused by a new intensity in the awareness of the movement of time, as it ticks our lives away day after day. This intensifying of the sense of time also, as we have just seen, dislocates it: the centre of attention becomes the future, and the emotional relation to the future becomes one of dread and uncertainty. The future is the point at which ‘it is later than you think’ becomes ‘too late’. Modern fiction has constantly dealt, during the last century, with characters struggling toward some act of consciousness or self-awareness that would be a gateway to real life. But the great majority of treatments of this theme are ironic: the act is not made, or is made too late, or is a paralyzing awareness with no result except self-contempt, or is perverted into illusion.”

Bonus: Marshall McLuhan

“When you hear the word progress, you know you are dealing with a nineteenth-century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because you now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us, thanks to electricity. But it’s not thanks to print, it’s not thanks to photography, it’s thanks to electricity. Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.”

Jacques Barzun on historical trajectory

“…what is history in itself, the vast profusion of events tending now this way, now that? Is there in it a meaning to be read, a goal to be foreseen? And whether there is or not, how are we to explain the emergence and dissolution of ‘civilization’ or of any given civilization?

These are deep questions. Many good minds have tried to solve the riddle of the rise and fall of empires, and the answers vary widely: soil exhaustion, inferior weapons, low morals, mosquitoes and malaria—take your choice. Some observers, like Vico in the 18th Century, Nietzsche in the 19th, and Spengler and Toynbee in our time, have seen in the total record a cyclical movement, but they have not agreed as to its pattern. Others, such as the Biblical prophets, Saint Augustine, Hegel and Karl Marx discerned a linear progress, but they disagree about its direction: toward the end of the world, or perfect freedom under government, or perfect justice without the need for government.”