Thursday, 22 May 2014

History and determinism

The belief in progress, that civilisation incrementally advances from a savage to benign state, spawned from the Enlightenment. The great thinkers from this period were convinced that their ideas could lead to societies founded on reason. Such were the views of political thinkers like Mill, Locke, Marx, Rosseau, etc. This was a deterministic view of history in that it presupposed that it had a telos - a beginning, a middle and end. For these thinkers, progress in ethics and politics is like progress in science and knowledge - it is cumulative.

Enlightenment thinking informed, alongside the ideas of the type of thinkers listed above, scientific racism. Following the discoveries of Darwin, it seemed to them vindication of the subjugation of the American tribes. The conquistadores, when they first arrived in the continent, assumed that the white races were superior because of their most 'advanced' societies. Of course, the indigenous tribes had their own practices, languages and cultures. Cultures like the Mayans were skilled in mathematics and astronomy. Most of these tribes had their own unique philosophical conceptions of the world, couched in their own logic and terms. Western European knowledge had largely been centuries of variations on the theme of Socratic thinking.

Among these 'unique conceptions' was a circular view on time. The European view was the one outlined above; it was deterministic. The aboriginal view was that time is one continuum - what happened a hundred years ago is the same as what will happen in a hundred years in the future. They did not arrogantly think, as many European thinkers did, that their societies were more 'advanced' than their predecessors. All material objects, all of their divinities, all ideas, occur simultaneously. This type of pantheism was more inclusive than monotheism, which informed this teleological view on history, in that it did not presuppose that one mode of thought is superior than another. If anything, the aboriginal view on time was more accurate than the European one. The Spanish invaders saw nothing of value in their practices, indeed saw them as verminous, and eradicated them.

There is a tendency to reduce historical events to "one" explanation and cause. I remember an incredibly stupid question in a school test which asked me why Hitler hated the Jews, as if there was a right or wrong answer. In my answer I wrote that it is ambiguous and that there is not a 'single' answer to be given. Needless to say, the teacher gave me a cross (X) and proceeded to give a definitive answer to the question.

There are many historical tracts which say that, if Franz Ferdinand had not been killed, we would not have the First World War. Tensions were already been fomented between the European countries at them time. Similarly, there have been attempts to understand what led the Germans to Nazism and the lure of fascism. Whilst you could say it was the economic deprivations or the lack of checks and balances in the Weimar republic, the truth is more ambiguous. It is better to raise questions than to answer them. There is no single cause for historical events.

Societies are complex and variegated. Civilisation is comprised of billions of people with different motives, beliefs and lifestyles. Invariably these motives and beliefs will clash and invariably there will be strife. The utopian society in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is only possible because the citizens have been engineered to accept a set of injunctions prescribed by society.

History does not speak for the voiceless. History is largely scripted by those who wield power. Prisoners, mad-men, aboriginal tribes and many cultural and religious minorities have rarely been given the chance to express their plight or insights. As a result, we have a historical narrative which is not as inclusive as it should be. When it attributes these simplistic 'causes,' it does so at the expense of the voiceless and repressed.

The truth is that history meanders. It does not follow a straight line. Ancient Rome collapsed and there followed almost a thousand years where standards of living were not as great. Indeed, the dark ages were characterised as been completely bereft of culture (which is not wholly true and at the time the Arabic world was undergoing an Enlightenment of its own). Indeed, if anything right now we are regressing. Income distribution is closer to the 19th century than it was during the tail-end of the 20th century. Another 'dark age' may be around the corner.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The posh boys

****** I have spent the past month working on my dissertation and, as a result, have hardly found the time to blog. I will be blogging more frequently now that I have a four-month summer break ahead of me. *********

Open a broadsheet newspaper and turn the 'culture' section. Which writer is most likely to feature? Usually it will be Martin Amis, Will Self, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan etc. With the exception of McEwan, this is an Oxbridge educated elite. Just as parliament is dominated by Eton graduates and bellicose men, the culture pages of the broadsheet papers are exactly alike.

It seems that the only path-way to the media world is a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. These writers dominate the media so much that it deters the emergence of new talent. Most of them are posh boys with plummy accents. Often they hold reactionary political views (though they are quick to cite their left-wing credential from back in their youth) and are misogynistic. The class system in UK is as deeply ingrained in the media as it is in politics.

I won't deny that many of these authors are actually rather good writers. I found Martin Amis' Time's Arrow to be sharp and dexterous. What most annoys me is the secular priesthood these people have. If Amis makes bigoted statements about Islam that are really of little intrinsic value, they will be all over the papers. None of these writers have talk about ideas and there seldom is that much gravitas in a lot of what they say. Their views are eccentric at best. They still think that the profession of 'writer' puts them ahead of us mere mortals. They speak about their mystique and how writing is so 'mysterious.' What does that mean? Fuck all. They are often the most smug, supercilious type around. Christopher Hitchens bullied others in his 'debates' (they rarely were debates and most often resembled two people trading personal insults with one another). Again, he held facile views, spoke with a strange and florid syntax and was a insensitive opportunist.

Amis in a characteristically pensive and poncey portrait. 

Watch a BBC 4 documentary on literature. Just think of all those professors who are experts on the subject. Invariably they will bring in Amis or Self to pontificate. They may be interested in 18th century literature (or whatever else), but why should that place them above from people who have devoted their whole livelihoods on the subject?

Ultimately, these writers are this esteemed because they are part of an elite group which sanctifies them. Some of their novels might actually be quite good. Yet there are plenty of other writers out there who are merely in a dark corner of the world. And there are certainly other writers with more penetrating analysis and more original ideas. I doubt that anything these people write will last for long (people are already forgetting who Hitchens was and Amis' daddy, Kingsley, is seldom read anymore).