Category: Alienation

Anarchist Reactionaries

The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white. 

It seems there has emerged a new reactionary in the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. The classical reactionary core has persisted, an illiberal nostalgic set that verges on (and sometimes indulges in) racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia. But there is another kind of reactionary force that neither seeks a return to the past or an elimination of the liberal conception of progress: these reactionaries seek to blow up the system itself, this image of the world that has failed. This is often poorly articulated, but finds voice in those who respond to claims that Trump or Brexit will cause huge disruption with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘So?’ they would say, ‘That’s why I voted for him/Brexit!’ They are fed up with left and right; they didn’t vote for a party, they didn’t vote for an ideology: they voted for an explosion. 

The new reactionary has more in common with anarchists if the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. They are reacting to the inequality that both the conservative right and the liberal left are seeking to preserve and perpetuate. The right seeks to stop the liberal socialist agenda and maintain a historic position of ascendancy that has been successful for them; while the left seeks to perpetuate the progressive politics that serve their people better, with their cosmopolitan / Utopian view of the world. Each of them has little to offer the marginalised, the less well educated, the impoverished, whose numbers continue to swell. The electoral calculus is less between the parties, and more between the disenfranchised and the voters, between the numbers of unequals who choose to vote, and those who do not. And even were they to vote – who would they vote for? Brexit wasn’t a who, but a what – and that was a box they could tick. Similarly, Trump wasn’t really a Republican – the GOP hated him almost as much as the Democrats – and that meant avoiding a red/blue choice entirely.

On top of all of this, history is served by that group deciding between left and right. This isn’t quite the same as shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic; these ‘leaders’ aren’t even on the same boat as everyone else. It may work, in the short term; but our history is a short lived thing. In the greater scheme of things, hubris to one side, what exactly are these people – those in titular power – trying to achieve? Can they articulate that?  There is a detachment of power from populous, where the architecture of State is not governed by the people but merely navigated by them. Moises Naim’s 2013 book The End of Power is a useful assessment of this new alienation, and helps to inform what happened in 2016; but it doesn’t explain how those in putative control persist their ambition, itself an atavistic, out-dated model.

The alliance of these two groups – the opportunist elites and the marginalised poor – is a strange one. They share an objective on one level – that of blowing up the status quo – but their ultimate aims are both nebulous: the marginalised just want to shout that ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’, while the elites merely want to acquire power for power’s sake. Neither is a substantive ambition beyond immediate electoral success. Ultimately, having succeeded in the first part of their plan, the question is a simple one: Now what?

Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

Plato’s Republic begins ‘I went down to the Piraeus.’ He is descending to the port of Athens, where unsavoury types tend to gather, the great unwashed. These are the uneducated people, the slaves, the lower order beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the cave on top of the mountain as a kind of shift from pure being to some kind of contaminated entity. Marx and Engels develop Feuerbach’s theme of alienation for the worker (something that was apparently not an issue when craftsmen made objects and sold them) from the commodity, has similar themes of distance. Indeed, in Feuerbach’s original work his distinction was that between God and Man, between the moral and the immortal. Most of all, Heidegger’s language evokes The Fall of Man, the original sin in the Garden of Eden, of innocence and paradise lost.

There is in all of these things a clear distinction between a higher plane of existence, and a lower, base, grubby humanity. There is a gap between what Heidegger would call authenticity and inauthenticity. It is between the real and the unreal.

Sometimes we open windows onto this realisation, when something that defies science or rationality rears its head. Something that just doesn’t make sense. Like Brexit, or War, or Suicide. How can rational beings act in such ways? Does the question morph into – are we rational beings at all? From time to time, we inquire into the nature of our reality to try and understand – to really understand – what is going on, to seek to become authentic. We get glimpses, brief moments of clarity. We recognise that we have blind spots; we recognise some of the follies of our world, the hypocrisies and the hubris. We might briefly recognise that upon these false assumptions we have built enormous social edifices, that persist through a shared (mis)interpretation of what our purpose on this earth is.

That misinterpretation is there because we are fallen, descended, socialised, machined. Heidegger also talks about technology – a lot! – and describes technology in two ways: as revealing, and as enframing. In revealing, technology is a revealing of the potentiality of the world. A tree is a potential mallet; the emergence of the mallet from that tree is a revealing of its potentiality. In enframing, technology (particularly modern, industrialised technology) enframes the world, it corrals the world for the purposes of human advancement (to wherever).

In my continued evaluation of the theology of technology, these themes in Heidegger resonate forcefully. In particular, however, I continue to consider the power of AI and information technologies to see past the blind spots and hypocrisies and hubris not just occasionally, but persistently; unless we design all of these machines to be inauthentic – and many of them will certainly be designed that way – AI will become authentic. AI will become Zarathustra. And to us, it may appear that the machines will have gone insane. As Heidegger said in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, ‘…only a God can save us now!’

Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy

Later this week I’m speaking to the UCC conference on Eco-cosmology, Sustainability and a Spirit of Resilience, on the subject of ‘Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy’, about the challenges of modernity and computational epistemology. Here’s a sneak peak.

The Genealogical Method for Independent Research

Cheese and Wine
Who actually decides what a wine or a cheese is called? Where do they acquire their authority?

The genealogical method, where an idea is traced back to its roots as one would map a family tree, began in the nineteenth century substantially, it seems, with Nietzsche and in particular On the Genealogy of Morals. It is in one sense an attempt to escape the trappings of history, to understand the lineage of ideas in the context of their time. In another, it is an attempt to loose ourselves from the alienating influences of modernity, stripping ourselves of prejudice and ‘education’. For the independent researcher, it appears to me to be an essential tool in understanding things, and in plotting a research agenda.

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Postcolonial Guilt, Revisionism, and the Idea of Progress

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Reg (John Cleese), the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, implores his party: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” – from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a delightful re-telling of the story of Jesus in a secular and historical context, finding its humour in the conflict between orthodox and invariably religious interpretations of the time, and a more ‘enlightened’ understanding, based on archaeology and academic research. As it wends its way through its telling of life in a Roman colony, the real politique is surfaced in the resistance movement the People’s Front of Judea (PFJ). During one of their serious and clearly well intentioned meetings, the leader Reg berates the Romans for their oppression of the poor Galileans, asking in a fit of rhetorical pique ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ One lonely voice suggests ‘the aqueduct’, which Reg grudgingly concedes. Another suggests ‘sanitation’. Several others venture still more technologies, which Reg attempts to summarise thus: ‘All right, but apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

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Progress and Technology

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Martin Heidegger: We talk as if humans are actually in charge of things, but we’re not.

Do you know what progress means? Do you know what technology is? Many elements of cultural structure have been so consistent and unchallenged now for so many years that we may have landed in a kind of intellectual stupor. Our self-awareness has dissipated, and our alienation has become so complete that we have almost become meta-brands, brands of brands, images of images, pictures of pictures. Our pandemic mimesis denies innovation and inspiration, and only increases the penalty for deviance, or perversion. Self-knowledge has become a curse, something denies us membership of society, leading us to post-truth, and ‘fake news’.

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Beautiful Ideas Which Kill: Accelerationism, Futurism and Bewilderment

futurist soccer player
Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913 (MOMA). Saw this on my visit in December 2017, it’s a provocative piece.

In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty. Continue reading “Beautiful Ideas Which Kill: Accelerationism, Futurism and Bewilderment”