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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The Anti-Apocalypse of Being

Francis Bacon, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952)

Themes of alienation, vacuity, and absurdity have permeated the art and literature of the late twentieth century. From Samuel Beckett, to Mark Rothko, Marcel Duchamp, Brett Easton-Ellis, Salvador Dali, and Albert Camus, there appears to be a recognition of something misdirected, misaligned, out of whack. It’s political, social, economic, and even aesthetic – the artists themselves often recognise the futility of even their own art. What has been missing is – naturally – hard to pin down; but there is something essential about it, something epistemic. The resultant failures of society to compensate, despite eager, youthful, soviet-style enthusiastic promises of progress and improvement, merely accelerate the retrenchment of people from the public sphere, from the political, and into the familiar space of the self, and the narcissistic selfie. If this is wrong, if this is not right, or not how it should be, what happened to us?

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The Dynamics of Power Decline

US President Donald Trump speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

States have power based on multiple factors, including natural resources, technology, and the strength of government capacity. As the global system develops and evolves, demands for certain resources move around, and globalised supply chains in the past twenty to thirty years have had the effect of distributing wealth less unequally. Thus we have had the paradox of inequality: that the extremely rich have disappeared into the distance, while the wealth generating capacity of the not-rich has increased significantly. Alternately put – the middle classes continue to grow. There are shifts occurring in relative power, as in general relative wealth moves from west to east, and in particular from the US and Europe to China. How are these shifts impacting geopolitics and decision making, in, for example, the cases of America and the United Kingdom?

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Technologies of Theology

The British Museum is a controversial edifice. In part a persistently triumphal display of looted treasure – such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes – by a brutal and supremacist empire, part conservator of important artefacts of social history, its symbolism at a time of Brexit and resurgent nationalism is unhelpful to liberal sensibilities. It remains something of a contradiction that its erstwhile director, Neil MacGregor, combines a defence of its virtue as a world museum with criticism of the British view of its history in general as ‘dangerous’ (Allen, 2016).

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The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

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The Rule of Law and Bentham’s Panopticon

Modern politicians, and – if polling is to be believed – modern electorates are preoccupied with law and order. Policing, rural crime, safety on our streets are issues of grave concern to the politicians promising more and more cops, and deliverance from threats to safety and security. At the same time, spending is being reduced, and outcomes are deteriorating in visible ways through reduced sentences, and lower conviction rates. The rule of law appears to be weaker.

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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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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.

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Judgement, Certainty and Theories of Value

In a recent high court case in Ireland, a Judge in the High Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision that in delivering an ‘all-clear’ result from a cervical smear test, the lab should only do so in cases where they have absolute certainty. The language used has raised significant concerns, as such a threshold is seen as too high to reach. As cancer specialist Prof Donal Brennan told RTE, there’s very little that is absolute in medicine; one presumes he was thinking of death as the sole exception to the rule. The reaction briefly opened up a dialogue on science and knowledge, truth and epistemology, revealing a fundamental flaw in the human condition, and just as quickly it closed again.

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Van Gogh @ Tate Britain

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over The Rhone: such a lovely picture! But is that all? Sadly, perhaps, yes.

There are two aspects of the Tate Britain show ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ that to my mind are remarkable: first, the extent to which the artist himself is sensitive, but shallow; and second, that the connection with Britain is somewhat forced. Van Gogh is a painter of landscapes, flowers, and people, who introduced innovations in brush strokes and impasto, with occasionally fauvish colours that were radical in their time. Stylistically, van Gogh is instantly recognisable, with his wavy lines and deliberate forms; but where is the depth?

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