On cyclical versus linear history

Every now and then I come across that old saw: the Bible (and thereby the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ tradition, whatever that is) introduced for the first time a notion of linear history, one that moves from creation to eschaton, from a beginning to an end. All those other ‘primitives’ were locked into a cyclical idea of history, prisoners of the cycles of the seasons and agriculture. Thereby, any historian who follows a linear narrative is by default indebted to this biblical heritage. Nice piece of quasi-theological special pleading, that one. Strange thing is that there is plenty of cyclical stuff in the Bible, and I can’t help noticing that ‘primitive’ texts such as Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh, let alone the annals of the Assyrian kings seem to be quite linear as well.

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6 thoughts on “On cyclical versus linear history

  1. That ‘cyclical versus linear’ conception is an enduring myth, alright.

    … and is this not the result of the Western, modernist valorization of progress being read back on its founding stories so as to create a self-differentiating, ethnocentric moment in the concept of “progress”?

      1. Greeks always in modernity, Hebrews from time to time. And I especially like that queer moment in the 17th-18th centuries (with ‘survivals’ in certain circles today) when the demonstration of the purity and superiority of modern Western religion was effected by championing the Indians or Chinese. Decaffeinated Indians and Chinese, as your pal Slavoj would say.

  2. Here’s something I just read (from The General Theory of Law and Marxism by Evgeny Pashukanis), perhaps informing your recent battles with the primitive “capitalist” economy:

    “Karner admits that ‘sale and purchase, loan, deposit, rent existed previously, yet their range was very small, with regard to the persona as well as to the res’. Indeed these various legal forms of the circulation of goods were in existence at such an early date that we have a precise formulation of lending and borrowing even before the formula for property itself had been elaborated. This fact alone is enough to provide the key to a correct understanding of the legal nature of property.
    Yet Karner believes that people were property-owners even prior to buying and selling or pawning things. The relations we have mentioned appear to him merely as ‘quite secondary, makeshift institutions, stop-gaps of petty bourgeois property’. In other words, he proceeds from the assumption of totally isolated individuals who have hit on the idea (one knows not why) of creating a ‘common will’, and–in the name of this common will–of ordering everyone to refrain from assaults on objects belonging to someone else. Later–when they have realised that the property-owner cannot be regarded as entirely self-sufficient, either as a labourer or as a consumer–these isolated Robinsons decide to supplement property through the institutions of buying and selling, borrowing, lending and so forth. This purely rational scheme of things stands the actual development of things and concepts on its head.
    Karner is here quite simply reproducing the so-called Hugo-Heysian system of interpretation of law. This too starts out in just the same way, from man subjugating the objects of the external world (law of objects), thence proceeding to the exchange of services (law of obligations), to arrive ultimately at the norms which regulate man’s situation as member of a family and the fate of his assets after his death (family law and law of inheritance). Man’s relationship to the things produced by him, or acquired by conquest, or forming, as it were, part of his personality (weapons, jewellery), has undoubtedly been a factor in the historical development of private property. This relationship represents property in its primitive, crude and limited form. Private property first becomes perfected and universal with the transition to commodity production, or more accurately, to capitalist commodity production. It becomes indifferent to the object and breaks off all ties with organic social groupings (family, tribe, community). It appears in its most universal sense as the ‘external sphere of freedom’, that is, as the practical manifestation of the abstract capacity to be the subject of rights.
    Property in this purely legal form has little logical connection with the organic natural principle of private appropriation resulting from personal expenditure of energy, or as the precondition for personal use and consumption. The fragmentation of the economic totality in the market renders the bond between the property-owner and his property just as abstract, formal, qualified and rationalistic, as the relationship of a person to the product of his labour (for example to the plot of land he cultivates himself) is elementary and accessible even to the most primitive turn of mind. (It is for precisely this reason that the apologists of private property are particularly fond of appealing to this primitive relation, for they know that its ideological force far outweighs its economic significance for modern society.) Whilst there is a direct morphological connection between these two institutions: private appropriation as the precondition for unlimited personal usage, and private appropriation as the condition for subsequent alienation in the act of exchange, nonetheless, logically speaking they are two different categories, and the word ‘property’ used to describe both, creates more confusion than clarity. Capitalist landed property, for example, does not presuppose any kind of organic bond between the land and its owner. On the contrary, it is only conceivable when land changes hands with complete freedom.”

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