New wars and permanent liminality

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Szakolczai, Árpád
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The aim of the paper is to give an anthropological and historical background analysis of the new type of wars characteristic of our times. It will start from the point that ‘new wars’ are not a recent phenomena; rather, the modern world can be characterized by an entire series of puzzling ‘new type of wars’, moving backwards through the ‘Cold War’ and the two World Wars, up to the Napoleonic Wars, and probably even the civil and religious wars of the 16th century. This leads to a genuine intellectual problem: how is it that modern civilization, pretending to bring peace and prosperity to the world, through scientific and technological progress, at the same time recurrently proves itself to be particularly inventive in warfare, and proliferating wars? It will be argued that the problem is genuine, and cannot be reduced to scarcity of means or abuses of position and power, but extends to some of the most cherished modern values, and therefore can only be handled through revisiting the anthropological foundations of modern society and modern thought, including our understanding of terms (or values) like ‘rationality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘democracy’. While the ideas of René Girard are particularly helpful through the contrast set up between rationality and mimesis, they are quite problematic in his assertions about the violent origins of all cultures and civilizations. In search for a more comprehensive anthropological framework, the paper will first present a fundamental-anthropological perspective on ‘old wars’, using Homo Ludens by Johann Huizinga, and then will argue that the central characteristics of the modern ‘new wars’ are depersonalization; unboundedness, even infinite extension in time, space and kind; and the recurrence to mechanisms of sacrifice, closely linked to an ever increasing reliance on a generalized psychology of terror. At this point, in order to provide a historical reference point, the paper will present some of the main features of the ‘civilizing process’ (Norbert Elias) that took place in ancient Mesopotamia, and the manner in which this culminated in a series of globalizing processes, including global wars, and the related developments in religion, including rituals of sacrifice and their problematization, making use of the anthropological based theoretical framework I developed in my study of the European Renaissance. In its concluding section the paper will address the question why and how European civilization, due to the collapse of the Renaissance, culminated in the globalizing processes, including the new kind of ‘limitless wars’, of the past centuries and the present days, moving towards a paradoxical state of ‘permanent liminality’ which is simply incompatible with the possibility of a meaningful life, which requires a decent society, revisiting from an anthropological perspective the classic analyses of de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Eric Voegelin, focusing on ‘Puritanism’ and ‘salvationism’.
New wars
Szakolczai, A., 2010. New Wars and Permanent Liminality. In CRASSH (The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), Understanding New Wars. Cambridge, UK 12 – 13 Feb 2010.
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