Later this week I’m speaking to the UCC conference on Eco-cosmology, Sustainability and a Spirit of Resilience, on […]
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Two themes that have recently grabbed my attention are those of ‘object-oriented ontology’ and ecology, both extending from my study of the sociology and politics of technology. Because technology is separate from us, as in not-human in its essence, and yet artificial intelligence is trying desperately to make these non-human objects assume human characteristics, it is important, I think, to understand why we would want to do that. Object-oriented ontology seeks to reject anthropomorphism, and instead look upon the world as a collection of objects, with no special status attaching to humans; it is not clear to me if any special status attaches to the subject. Ecology is interesting because it seems to be the opposite of the inclination of technology to unilaterally dominate, to overpower, to understand. Technology extends the human mostly-male power impulse, designed as it is to subdue the environment, to control the world, including human beings themselves. When technology fails, it is entirely bewildering – and men insist on finding the reason. When the light switch does not illuminate the room, the man goes to the fuse box. Finding no answer here, our hero reaches for a torch and finds a spare bulb. With still no resolution, the electricity company is called – and on it goes. The man seeks to resolve the problem not merely because control over the environment is in some sense ‘man’s work’; but because the thought of not finding a rational, scientific answer to why the room remains dark is quite terrifying. The ecological view of the world suggests that there are other reasons as to why the room remains dark, non-scientific reasons, and therefore in some way perhaps unknowable reasons.