Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 17

Section 6: A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun:

People cannot get enough.  In fact, we live in a world where most people are numbed to boredom fulfilling their desires.  We have too many choices and can do what we wish at a whim.  This is Gray’s message in this section – at least, my assimilation of it at any rate.  Once again his prose is beautifully seductive and enchanting.  Oh my God, look at all those holiday makers wishing to have a balcony facing the sun!

Once the human economy was dominated by agriculture.  Now it is dominated by industry, a dominance, Gray argues, that is coming to an end.  (Op.cit., 162) Let me return momentarily to a direct quote:

Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity.  It is to keep boredom at bay.  (Ibid., 162-163)

I believe the good philosopher is correct.  Boredom is the modern malaise, at least in the developed world.  Those human animals, to use Gray’s language, in the developing countries are too busy trying to survive to be ever bored.  Boredom is a disease too many of my pupils have at school.  They become all too easily bored.  Why?  Quite simply as my mother used to say when she was compos mentis: “Children today have too much.”  Well, those children are now adults with children of their own, and parents with a low boredom threshold have reared even more bored offspring.  The following is sadly all too true:

The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression.  The spectre that haunts it is a glut – not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled.  New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities.  (Ibid., 163)

While everywhere we look we find multiple aids to pleasure in all its dimensions, they are fact becoming "antidotes to boredom.” (Ibid., 163)  It’s so hard to find fault with Gray here if we really accept what Western culture has become.  Further down this section we learn that Gray’s title for this section is from a novel called Cocaine Nights (1996) by J.G. Ballard (1930 – )

Section 7: Twentieth-Century Anti-Capitalists, the Phalanstery and the Medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit

What a cumbersome title for any sectional heading.  It sounds like some medieval horror novel.  Anyway, let’s get to the point.  This subtitle is all about Utopian and Millennial or Millenarian dreams.  Gray introduces us to the dreamers, and sure aren’t we all dreamers.  Firstly, he introduces us to the Situationists who were a small exclusive sect who were active, he informs us, about a generation ago.  They inspired anti-capitalist riots in many of the capitals of Europe.  However, like all sects, they were not offering anything new, but rather presented old wine in new wineskins, to repeat a cliché.  Gray goes on to inform us that they were inspired by a mélange of influences, the most unusual and powerful of which was that of a late medieval sodality of mystical anarchists called The Brethren of the Free Spirit.  They were also influenced by Marxist teaching, Anarchism, nineteenth-century revolutionary theories and twentieth-century vanguardist art.  What a stew of ideas indeed!  Let us read Gray’s own words here:

The Situationists’ dream was the same as that of this millenarian cult – a society in which all things were held in common and no one was forced to work.  In the early 60s, they enlivened student protests in Strasburg with quotes from the medieval revolutionaries.  During the events of 1968, they scrawled similar graffiti on the walls of Paris.  Among the most memorable of these was Never Work! (Ibid., 166-167)

Gray, like other experts he quotes, sees modern revolutionary movements as heirs to the mystical anarchist cults of the Middle Ages.  Again he remind us that the goals of these organisations came not from science but from “the eschatological fantasies of religion.” (Ibid., 167)  In a rather wonderful reflection on Marxist socialism Gray opines:

Marx scorned utopianism as unscientific.  But if “scientific socialism” resembles any science, it is alchemy.  Along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx believed that technology could transmute the base metal of human nature into gold… animated by the faith that humans are destined to master the Earth, he insisted that freedom from labour could be achieved without any restraint on their desires.  This was only the Brethren of the Free Spirit’s apocalyptic fantasy returning as an Enlightenment Utopia.  (Ibid., 167-168)

Again, I am indebted to Gray for introducing yet another unknown figure to me, namely Charles Francois Fourier, the early-nineteenth-century utopian.  It was this man of vision who proposed that in future human beings should live in monastery-like institutions called phalansteres, in which free love is practised and no one is compelled to work.  Marx somehow thought, along with Fourier and other dreamers that the state would wither away.  And then Gray concludes this illuminating section:

The Situationists and the Brethren of the Free Spirit are separated by centuries, but their view of human possibilities is the same.  Humans are gods stranded in a world of darkness…  This mystical vision is the Situationists’ true inspiration, and that of anyone who has ever dreamt of a world in which humans can live without restraint.  (Ibid., 170)

We do so much need to laugh at ourselves. This is a picture of an add for Des Bishop's comedy show I took at Howth Railway station recently, March 2008 in fact.

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