Category: Bewilderment

The Philosophy of History and The Binary Wasteland

Image result for dead or alive poster original
Death, the ultimate opposition, is the one we choose to disregard.

Presence or absence, with us or against us, in or out: righteousness has dogged mankind in modern times. Confidence in ourselves, in our existence, in our being, as rightful, positive entities on this planet and in this universe, has dominated the human condition. And so we seek to dominate! Assertive and strong (for to be otherwise is wasteful and somehow wrong) our existential duty is to dominate and multiply, to spawn and own. We are – nay, I am – absolute. Who denies me this? Who would argue that my existence is not infinitely significant, eternally worthwhile? Just as I shall not deny others their entitlement, I shall have mine.

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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. 

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Guilt, Anxiety and Glory in the Anthropocene

Dr Joanna Zylinska of Goldsmiths university was interviewed recently on the Cultures of Energy podcast, in the context of her 2018 book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. The short book considers technology and techno-utopianism, with its attendant myth of progress, and feminism, in the context of the climate crisis and coming transformations. There are a thousand different ideas in there, but the words that kept resonating for me as I listened were guilt, anxiety and glory. I’m not sure if I fully grasped everything she said – I’ll listen to the podcast again later, and I’ve ordered the book – but if you’re interested in reading this, you should try and find time for the podcast.

The first word that resonated was guilt. The crushing order of our species is one that insists on a perceived failure, in the face of extraordinary opportunity. We have caused the climate crisis, because of our myopia, our greed, our self-centered nature. Not just that, but economic precarity, global inequality, and the generally poor state of the world today. It’s all in there: despite magnificent technologies and epoch-defining political structures, we have persistently failed to progress.

The second word was anxiety, perhaps less dwelt upon in the podcast (we’ll see about the book) but this pearl-clutching and hand-wringing at our impotence in the face of such enormous challenges: we can fight against fossil fuel consumption, but not at the cost of our way of life. We won’t pay more for bread; that lesson was learned in Paris more than two hundred years ago. So how is real change effected? We are stuck in this dreadful mess, somewhat in denial of our latent hypocrisies.

The third word was glory. Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by machines: sleek, bright, shiny, airbrushed. It is an artificial world, a made up world, a sanitised non-existent reality that is magnificent! Our politics, our sports, our media are all relayed to us as absolutes, binary versions of life that are simply excellent. There are few grey areas: bad guys are invariably bad; good guys, if they do bad things, do them for good reasons. You’re either with us, or against us. This world presented to us is a world of perfection, a mortal impossibility, only sustainable as a utopian representation, a theological dream: this is the world as in some abstract, objective, good sense it should be. All hail the shiny screen, the tinselled glimmer of the comforting unreal.

This of course has echoes of the bewilderment I’ve written about before, the dichotomy of one the one hand extraordinary technological and even socio-political achievement, eulogised in media and the salvational elements of which are extolled by politicians; and on the other hand, accelerating inequality, impending climate catastrophe, and political apathy and disenfranchisement that delegitimises the so-called ‘public’ sphere.

Zylinska also published a short film – Exit Man – which is worth a look. Her adventurousness in terms of media and platform is praiseworthy, as she considers avenues outside the academic mainstream to connect and communicate: in this time where experts are rejected, and public intellectuals appear to have vanished from the stage, we need new mechanisms to inject thoughtfulness into our politics.

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 Lost Soul of Europe

Clyfford Still's 1944-N No. 2
Clyfford Still’s 1944-N No. 2. For Still, art was dead in the aftermath of World War II, for it was based on European ‘dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject’ (MOMA)

What has happened to Europe? What of our glorious post-war project to bring together our cultured peoples after centuries of war, that brave experiment not merely in statecraft, but in post-state statecraft, to redefine government, and seize peace to our hearts? It has persevered and grown for over sixty years, launching exuberantly into the new Millennium with the Euro, but now she finds herself beset on all sides by vast forces including geopolitics, security, technology and global finance. Worst of all, Europe seems to have lost its soul. Not merely its raison d’etre, but its spirit, its ambition. What is missing?

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Deus Ex Machina: Schmitt’s Political Theology

The concept of political theology describes the theological genealogy of political legitimacy, the validation or justification of power over others in the equitable establishment of order, and the protection of freedom. As an idea, it is associated with Carl Schmitt, one of what Yvonne Stewart called ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, an intellectual inheritance tainted by his association with and support for the Nazi party. Nevertheless, as an abstract concept, political theology helps us to deconstruct the nature of power, and trace its origins in legitimacy and the development of political order. Because as we have seen technology embeds politics, particularly and more aggressively as automation and AI proliferate, it has become important to consider whether technology itself has some divine provenance in its human construction.

While Schmitt was immediately despondent, and wrote on the night of Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 ‘[i]t is a terribly cold night’, in the words of Stewart ‘[h]e relegated democracy to a burnt memory, and, like a dark phoenix from the ashes, he allowed tyranny to rise: authoritative, powerful and legitimate.’ (p. 103) It is impossible to detach his legacy from Nazi Germany, and it is necessary to read his work carefully in anticipation of the ideology that it would ultimately support. In the 1934 version of his Political Theology, for example, a work with which this post is substantially concerned, he quotes Emmanuel Sieyès, saying ‘The people are always virtuous. In whatever manner a nation expresses its wishes, it is enough that it wishes; all forms are good but its will is always the supreme law.’ (p. 48) Still, there are sufficient constructions in the work that allow us to consider a coherent, structured theological etymology or structure for politics and the political.

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Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order

order-now
Order is something we take for granted. That’s the mistake, the grand error of modernity.

In his 1966 work The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes in his preface a passage from Borges to establish his objective. Quoting Borges, who in turn refers to ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, the section describes a classification of animals as being ‘divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In a later lecture recalled by Laurie Taylor, Foucault lambasted the impulse to capture and mount every butterfly in a genus and lay them out on a table, to highlight minute differences in form and colour, as if trying to solve God’s puzzle. Continue reading “Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order”