Of late I have been reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A considerable novel of some 1200 pages, set in Vienna in 1913. The Man Without Qualities’ central theme marks the end of the Austrian empire in crisis. Not necessarily the wholesale slaughter and violence that was to follow in the First World War, but a crisis of thought that was antecedent to war. Musil presents Austria as the pinnacle of the modern state in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The historical and philosophical underpinnings of the state are the Enlightenment. It is the triumph of reason, the capacity to rationalise and calculate in order to provision and order that society. We could probably not go as far as saying ‘democracy’ though there is a semblance of such. We could claim that Austria was perhaps a precursor to contemporary liberal democracy where there is an aspiration to a logic within civil society, based on conscious reason and materiality. There is ownership and a system of algorithms that dictate the nature of that ownerships and how value might be extracted. For this reason, it is liberal and for the reason that there is a vibrant libertarianism amongst the middle class it is also liberal. There is a democracy of sorts. There are elections and a parliament. There are many who are marginalised. Musil presents Austria in a crisis of collective loss. The nature of the crisis is symbolic, the liberal proliferation and the ideas burgeoning from bureaucracy and science are not resolving or reconciling the day-to-day experiences of individuals, they are leading to contradictions. Not just contradictions between competing ideas, explanations and representations but also contradictions between day-to-day affective experience of the world and the abstract conscious reason that is supposed to create order. It is a crisis of representation and of order.
I am only 190 pages into the book, but this is the impression I am getting. And for me this book resonates with now. Not the coronavirus pandemic as cause but just as much an effect of a crisis of liberal democracy and consequently a crisis of liberal democracy. The undoing of reason, where reason almost begins to consume its own indulgences, as reason confronts its foundational paradoxical character. We can’t now – as Musil describes how they couldn’t then – really make any enduring sense of what is happening to us, of what we experience. Meaning that is derived from cold logical reason is insufficient to account for our affective experience of the world. The espoused crisis, or looming disaster, the forthcoming zombie apocalypse, the global pandemic. We are forced to simply experience, and we cannot – or increasingly we cannot – make sense of what is happening. We are removed to perpetual state of uncertainty and doubt.