Category: Bewilderment

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?

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? Continue reading “The Lost Soul of Europe”

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.

Continue reading “Deus Ex Machina: Schmitt’s Political Theology”

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”

Progress and Technology

Heidegger_1955
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’.

Continue reading “Progress and Technology”