Tag: featured

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.

AI and Las Meninas

Tomorrow I’m going to visit Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid, and I hope to learn something about how we are designing AI machines. How can a painting from 1656 and a technology from the twenty-first century have anything in common? Well, in a sense, both address the problem of subjective and objective reality, perspectives on the world and on memory. Diego Velazquez would have been an outstanding AI ethicist!

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Two Theories of Art

The recent BBC revisiting of the history of art – Civilisations – is fascinating for its juxtaposition against the 1969 predecessor by Kenneth Clark. The new version tries to be genuinely global, post-imperial, and generally woke, so to speak. However, it doesn’t quite get to the philosophy of the creative act, the artistic imperative. The series grapples with consequences and politics, with religion and hierarchy, but not really with any philosophy of art, or questions of meaning. The interpretations of Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuzes, while diametrically opposed in some ways, are illuminating on the subject.

Heidegger’s view (specifically on Modern Art) was that it was essentially destructive. In a 1956 Der Spiegel interview, published after his death ten years later, he argued that just as philosophers could not prescribe a new condition for humanity to confront modernity, art had no suitable perspective from which to contribute. Art in essence, as I read his comments, compounded the inherent entrapment of the modern, further distancing us from our essence, or being.

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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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