Ascesa & Declino: “All that is solid melts into air”

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In his marvelous study of modernism All that is solid melts into air, Marshall Berman claims there is an idea which the human civilization owes to the Germans: the idea that economic development and human expansion are one and the same phenomenon. Quoting him:

“In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personalities must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change: not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively to seek them out and carry them through.
They must learn not to long nostalgically for the “fixed, fast-frozen relationships” of the real or fantasized past, but to delight in mobility, to thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments in their conditions of life and their relations with their fellow men.
Marx absorbs this developmental ideal from the German humanist culture of his youth, from the thought of Goethe and Schiller and their romantic successors. This theme and its development […]
may be Germany’s deepest and most lasting contribution to world culture” (see ASMA, pgg 95-96)

Take Italy. The time of Fellini & Antonioni, Burri & Fontana was the time of Natta pioneering plastic, Ferrari & Alfa Romeo triumphing in international car contexts, Olivetti inventing arguably history first PC, Piaggio building Vespa. In Pisa, the strongest PDE school in Europe was being created under the auspices of Ennio De Giorgi (of Hilbert XIX problem’s memory). In Milan, Berio & Maderna with the Studio di Fonologia Musicale were actively advancing the frontier of 12 notes agenda.

One must then be grateful to Emanuele Felice for his wonderful book on Italian Economic History (“Ascesa e Declino”, Il Mulino, 2015): a story that appears to reinforce the point raised by Berman. This article is a quantitative summary.
Italy had given birth to the modern world with Renaissance, and its lead went as far as Galileo, having progressed through the likes of Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo and Machiavelli (admittedly without cuckoo clocks). A remark is appropriate here, as the book is a bit reticent about the decline in the XVII century. One should not indulge in the idealistic fallacy of attributing that decline to whoever ordered to burn people at the stake for their ideas (although that did not help, of course): Cipolla (see: The Decline of Italy: The Case of a Fully Matured Economy) is exhaustive, here. Responsible for the collapse were economic causes, not encrusted geocentric ideologies.

Italy resurfaced from that ordeal  only at the beginning of XX century, had another dip into troubled waters under Mussolini and really took off after 1945. That was the time where we were strong again, leaders in the visual arts & cinema, strong in science, big in design.

Cultures and civilizations evolve, they are living systems: it is a delusion to think scarcity and material privation can engender systems of thoughts, scientific revolutions, deep art.

This is not an input-output analysis, for exceptions, i.e .heroes or geniuses capable of penetrating the core of the problem from afar, do exist: take Dostoevsky, thinking about the dissolution of the Western-christian Weltanschauung from the midst of S. Petersburg, or Kafka, perceiving the fall of Europe from the backwater of Prague.

But Marx needed the British Museum (i.e. London) to write ‘Das Kapital’. Late XIX Wien was the center of Europe when Freud, Schönberg, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Musil and Mach were destroying every gradualist & deterministic conceptual foundation for XX century man and woman.

That was the center of the economy: hence of culture.
The rest is backwardness: hence –with Gramsci-  folklore (pgg. 626 ff).

Are we serious when we think we can escape this mirroring?

Categories: Society, Technology

2 replies


  1. Arretratezza e folklore (Gramsci) | rtraba
  2. Su un treno italiano | rtraba

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