Friday, 16 May 2008

Thanks, Jean Jacques: Or Why We're All So Bloody Miserable

The destruction - or deconstruction - of the world in which we live can be rooted in post-Enlightenment scepticism and most properly laid at the door of Jean-Jacques Derrida, who, although he denied that he was attempting to set a philosophical imperative by making meaning redundant, has done more to internally shape and subvert nature and culture than any other thinker in the twentieth century (pace, Sartre). By dismissing metaphysics comprehensively from A to Z, it is difficult to work up any system of B(b)eing; there is no grounding to our perception of ourselves and the Other. Only that which is represented by clear, hard fact - universal natural laws - is intelligible.

Although deconstruction, a phrase of which Derrida did not approve, is largely self-defeating - in that deconstruction means deconstruction, so that meaning is arrived at by way of a via negativa - it is the uncomfortable bed-fellow of many ‘isms’: determinism, social behaviouralism, existentialism, nihilism. If there is no grounding to our internal being, it makes sense to look at the shell that houses it: the human body. If, like the response to German idealism in the 1930s, the internal voice is so subjective that it is impossible to develop a set of objective criteria to define it, it is perhaps more useful to note specific behavioural patterns and how they work socially and environmentally. If again this internal world is so subjective that it has no commonality with the Other, one is indeed isolated in a ‘world of wills’; and lack of communication between these various wills, signifying the greatest possible loneliness of - and therefore pointlessness of - the human condition makes one wonder ‘what the point could possibly be.’

One of the great topics of the post-Enlightenment world was theodicy: or how evil and God can exist at the same time. Though such a subject is hardly new - Augustine discussed it in his tractate On The Free Choice of the Will, and it was a hot topic with Plato et al - it was one that caused growing conflict throughout the years, as disasters afflicting humanity grew commensurately greater with discoveries about the natural world and means of communication opened up. Evolution outraged many by the suggestion that nature is inherently self-seeking, others, however, were content to accept the fact that bad things happen to good people: the world was made that way. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ has been widely accepted and spawned various unpleasant ideologies (sociobiology in particular) which state that humanity is inherently selfish and hostile; altruism is a way in which we boost our superiority complexes; goodness in se doesn’t exist. The total desecration of the nobility of life during the First World War, accompanied by its levelling of the social classes, precipitated atheism en masse: God was tried by a jury of His Creation and sentenced to non-existence. It is sobering to note that more people believe in the devil and malign forces, than forces for good.

Such disenchantment with the world and fear of the hostility all around us gave rise to ideas about the meaning of life and ways in which to contain it. Whether a Freudian narrative, which places sexuality at the centre of the individual’s universe, or behavioural determinism, which claims that man is pre-programmed by his environment alone (the ‘rat in the maze’ premise) is employed, it is safer to find ways in which nature can be tamed, rather than battling with the uncertain. Enter Propaganda, the brainchild of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, which has often been called the PR blueprint: ways in which to manipulate the general populace without their knowing about it. This has been used to the utmost by politicians and marketing bodies alike. Bernays’ conjecture was that there was simply too much information in the world for any one person to be able to take in, so, rather like Plato’s Philosopher Kings, it was up to the wise powers-that-be to make only limited amounts of information available, in order not to overwhelm the people. Propaganda relies upon behavioural-determinism narratives in order to succeed: find the right combination of images, trusted phrases and sounds, and you can convince almost anyone that the slogan you’re broadcasting is absolutely correct. In 1929 Bernays was set a little task by the US tobacco industry: to encourage the female population of New York to smoke despite the fact that smoking was considered a vile and unfeminine habit for ‘nice’ women. Hundreds of New York City debutantes marched in the Easter Day Parade, defiantly smoking cigarettes. Bernays’ first campaign was entirely successful.

Modern marketing strategies, however, would be less successful than they are if it weren’t for the great mantra of ‘Science Says’: science, a blanket term for numerous forms of speculation about the universe and its systems, has replaced the Churches as the voice of authority. (What most people fail to realise, because one voice - genetics - speaks for all science is that there are many extraordinary things happening in the astro-physical sphere, for example; but that is another topic altogether.) Our super-secular world prides itself upon having removed religious language, symbolism and meaning from society, little realising that ‘science says’ has become just as powerful an authoritative voice in its own right, uttering edicts that legislate for every manifestation of human behaviour. The secondary mantra that follows ‘science says’, ‘clinically tested’, is taken upon trust, even though such trust is often misplaced. People are encouraged to obsess about their health and appearance, to make sure that they have their ‘5 a day’, look after their heart, be regularly screened for this disease and that, reduce or terminate their alcohol intake, and a thousand and one other things way beyond each individual science’s remit. ‘Science says’ rarely looks at the societal discontent that causes a growing dependence on alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex and other addictions; it fails to notice that such anti-social behaviour arises because ‘science says’ leaves little hope for present or future. Obsession with the material body has overlooked that which fundamentally motivates it, what encourages it to thrive, aspire, to build relationships, and its constant search for that which is ‘other’, ‘meaningful’.

Deconstruction robbed history of its meaning: its predecessors and its offshoots also robbed people of personhood. Once upon a time, a heart was the fount of wisdom, and of love; the fount of the soul; something precious to be given and received. Now it is impossible to talk of the heart in such terms, unless you want to be described as ‘soft’ or ‘unscientific’, the latter being tantamount to a malediction (unless of course, you are celebrating Valentine’s Day, an extremely lucrative commercial occasion). But to rob us of being able to describe humanity in ‘soft’ terms has robbed us of our humanity; small wonder that the current generation is so ruthless about abortion, when an unborn child is referred to as either a ‘viable’ or ‘non-viable’ foetus: a mere mass of cells, of useless tissue. Many in the West see the images of unborn animals as more appealing than a child in the womb: some are even ‘morally’ outraged when abortion is referred to as ‘murder’.

Whilst it is possible to undo the entire human history of thought by approaching it subversively - that is, to subvert parts of the statement that deny the fundamental argument of any piece - it is not possible to undo it permanently, which could be a reason for humanity’s contemporary obsession with the fantastical: a form of mental exploration which has developed beyond the matter-form synthesis of the world as we know it today. It seems that the ‘rat in the maze’ has escaped the maze by abandoning the idea of the maze altogether: and in order to escape this matter-form world, has created a virtual one. Here, people can reign supreme. They can be a hero or a villain or an altogether more rounded person than the ‘Real World’ allows. This ‘Real World’ is a world in which one is rarely exposed to natural light, as one works under artificial light and goes home in the dark; one should suffer in a dull job with overwhelming financial commitments and no say in one’s own future. It is a world in which one should live for a mere three untrammelled weeks a year and an all-too-short weekend, retire on an inadequate pension and die unremembered and unsatisfied. This world has been represented as somehow virtuous.

Humanity is beginning to strike back. Freedoms are so shaky and the political climate at once so suppressive and uncertain, however, that it is easier to step into the realms of a controlled game than to indulge in a spot of free thinking. Such is the vice-like grip that the state has on the individual: consciousness is something to be regarded as a commodity, designed to create or maintain corporate infrastructures, and everyone, it is tacitly implied, is for sale (the mantra for achieving any decent job is ‘sell yourself). Anyone who steps outside the infrastructure is automatically penalised by society itself for wanting that which isn’t the norm. But we are all complicit in our own destruction. If we perceive ourselves as matter, shouldn’t we be treated as such? If we fail to challenge our government’s attempts to interfere and snoop into every part of our lives, do we not deserve to live in a police state? If we don’t take steps to increase our collective vocabulary and therefore our collective consciousness, the world of the imagination will be relegated to the advertising agencies and online virtual worlds, which again deny those essential freedoms for which we once fought so long and hard. It takes so little to step on to the uncertain path of hope. In the words of Robert F. Kennedy: “each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope... and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

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Life is to be lived, not controlled, and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat -Ralph Ellison