A return to art?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the wonderful 1969 British TV series, Civilisation, written and presented by historian Kenneth Clark. It was Clark’s attempt to summarise the last thousand or so years of western civilisation not by focusing on its politics (who invaded who and when) but on its art.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation

Clark’s assumption was that great art provides the truest form of expression of a civilisation because it is not caught up in the triviality of fashion, the hysterics of day-to-day politics or the dogmatic belligerence of religious dispute. Great artistic movements also transcend national boundaries and so provide an object of study that corresponds to the level of civilisation, which is almost always supra-national.

Recently, I went back to the final episode of Clark’s series to find a reference and realised something I hadn’t fully grasped the first time around. Clark called the final episode Heroic Materialism and it is the one episode in the series where he expressly forgoes an analysis of art for something different. That something different is the railways, bridges and skyscrapers that we all take for granted in the modern world but which originated in England in the 19th century. The building of these enormous objects required genuinely heroic effort and they also implied a worship of mammon. Put the two together and you get Heroic Materialism.

The first thing to note about this is what Clark explicitly didn’t cover in his last episode; namely, pretty much the whole of 20th century art. No Picasso, no expressionists, no cubists, no Jackson Pollock or abstract art, no Stravinsky or Schoenberg, no modernist literature, certainly no conceptual art. Clark implied that these innovations, whatever their artistic merit, were no longer the primary expression of the culture in the way that Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare or Michelangelo were in times past.

The phallic banana symbolises the masturbatory tendencies of modern art. Dontchya think?
The new style

If art was no longer the primary expression of the culture, what was? The answer was the aforementioned railways, bridge and skyscrapers. These were created not by artists but by engineers using the language of mathematics alongside the new materials that the industrial revolution had brought into being. This combination of mathematics and engineering created its own style.

Clark differentiated engineering from science because this was also the time when science, through Einstein and quantum physics, had begun to detach itself from everyday life and had even, both metaphorically and literally through the atomic bomb, become a threat to life.

It was engineering tied to capitalism that constituted Heroic Materialism and changed the physical world around us. The world that we still inhabit embodies the bourgeois ethic of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bigger is better.

China has recently jumped on board the Heroic Materialism bandwagon
Concrete enthusiasts will appreciate the new rail bridge built near my house

Shortly after mulling over the above points, I happened to be sitting in my car at a traffic light and looking across the road at one of the many new rail bridges that have been built here in Melbourne in the last several years. Suddenly, it occurred to me that these bridges are also the ongoing expression of Heroic Materialism.

Now you might say to yourself that a rail bridge is built for practical, utilitarian reasons and that is exactly how the government here sold them to the public. But I can tell you from direct experience that this is not true. The reason I had time to sit in my car and peruse the giant chunks of concrete across the road was that, despite the newly built rail bridge, the traffic at the intersection where I was sitting has only gotten worse in recent years. As far as I can tell, the rail bridge has made no noticeable difference to traffic flows and, in fact, the changes in the local roads that were made in order to build the bridge have made my general commute around the neighbourhood worse. By utilitarian criteria, the bridges are a failure.

What if we don’t really judge such bridges by utilitarian criteria at all? What if the bridges are built precisely because they are the expression of our deepest values, of Heroic Materialism itself? Here in Melbourne, we have spent tens of billions of dollars on rail bridges in recent years and have increased the state’s debt in order to do so. The official reason was to save people time driving in their cars. But any time that might have been saved by the bridges was quickly eaten up by the increases in population which means more cars on the road and more time sitting at traffic lights. If we actually cared about making people spend less time in cars, a cheaper and more effective way would be to have smaller cities but smaller cities contradict the bigger is better ethos that underlies Heroic Materialism.

The truth is that Clark was right, the bridges are built because they are an expression of our values. The State Premier here in Victoria, the man who became world famous during corona for telling people not to watch the sunset, has enjoyed great popularity in recent years and looks set to win an election again this year despite having given Melbourne the longest lockdown in the world. How is this possible? Because he gives the public what they want and what the public wants are large, public demonstrations of power in the form of rail bridges, rail loops, huge underground tunnels and skyscrapers.

The link here to corona is not accidental. The lockdowns and vaccines were also Heroic Materialism in action. They were Heroic Materialism applied to a domain where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t work but, again, that was not the point. The point is the expression of values. In that way, it was fitting that Melbourne had the longest lockdown in the world. That was only ever possible because people here really believe in the underlying ethic.

Heroic Materialism also explains other seemingly incongruous aspects of modern society. For example, why has the environmental movement shifted away from the local, communal, small is beautiful ethic of the 70s towards the save-the-planet ethic of recent times? Answer: Heroic Materialism.

Environmentalism in the 70s
Environmentalism today

We can’t possibly fix all these problems at the household or community level. That’s not heroic enough. No. We must build enormous wind farms and solar plants. The bigger the better.

The modern environmental debate now revolves around which ginormous technological solution will save us. On the right side of the political spectrum are those who say we should stick to coal and gas and on the left are those who think wind farms and solar panels will do it. Underlying it all is the assumption that heroic feats of engineering must be deployed.

Strangely enough, it seems both sides of politics have recently agreed that nuclear power will once again solve all our problems. Didn’t these people watch The Simpsons?

What’s that, Smithers? Nuclear power is back in fashion?

One of the side effects of Heroic Materialism is the feeling of powerlessness at the individual level. Heroic Materialism dictates that we formulate problems of such enormous scope that there simply isn’t anything a single person or even a small community can do about them. So, we must leave it to “the experts”. Gigantic projects also require gigantic injections of capital and thus behind the scenes are Mr Burns and his friends who fund the whole shebang and from whose point of view bigger really is better because their cut is directly proportional to the size of the transaction.

It’s the bankers and technocrats who run Heroic Materialism and always have. The de-humanising aspect of the ethic has always been its scale which seems expressly designed to make the individual feel as small and insignificant as possible. Just a cog in a machine. I noted with interest that the new Italian Prime Minister said almost exactly that during the recent election campaign in Italy. She spoke of “identity” and not being a “consumer slave” beholden to financial interests.

Those with a knowledge of history will recognise the tone of those words. Last time we tried to combat the problems of Heroic Materialism through politics it turned into an even worse version of Heroic Materialism much like the environmental movement has since it sold out in the 1980s.

And this is where we come back around to Kenneth Clark and to art. Art has always been concerned with the individual. Art took a backseat in the 20th century because the 20th century was the turning away from the individual and towards the mass, the crowd, the aggregate. As Heroic Materialism continues to falter around us every day, one of the silver linings for those of us who care about art is that we may see an artistic revival and along with it a return to the human and the humane.

The horror! The horror!

Recently, I was reading a short story by one of the masters of the genre, the 19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant. The story was set during the Franco-Prussian war. A group of French elites, to use the modern term (aristocrats in the old language), are stuck in a strange travelling group with the goal of escaping their province which has fallen under Prussian control. The group includes two nuns, a local prostitute and, even less agreeably from the point of view of the elites, a democratic socialist.

Guy De Maupassant

The group stops overnight at a hotel in a small town where the Prussian officer who is in charge demands to spend a night with the prostitute. Being a patriotic woman, she refuses to sleep with the enemy. The officer seems to take it well. He doesn’t resort to violence or intimidation. But he does inform the group he will not let them leave the hotel until his desire has been satisfied.

After a couple of days of sitting around bored, the elites get sick of the situation and form a conspiracy (Maupassant’s word, not mine) to convince the prostitute to do as the Prussian officer wishes so they can leave the hotel and reach their destination. One-by-one they try to talk her into doing what is desired using a variety of arguments including appeal to religion, to self-interest and also to the fact that what the officer is asking is simply for the woman to practice her profession. It’s not like she can object on moral grounds. So, what’s the big deal? Just do your job and let us be on our way.

It occurred to me while reading the story how well it describes the situation we are still in to this day. Maupassant had forseen the modern world; a world in which the supra-national elites have more in common with each other than the people of their own country.

But there’s a more specific correspondence. Our modern elites are the equivalent to the French elites in the story. They use a variety of tactics to get the public to acquiesce. Behind that facade, even though we don’t talk about it, is the raw politics of the situation. We don’t have Prussian soldiers in our hotels and towns but we do have an invisible empire, the US Empire – aka the “liberal world order”, to whom our elites are bound.

The elites in Maupassant’s story simply have different priorities to the common folk and one of those priorities is not patriotism. This makes logical sense.  When a foreign power dictates the rules to your country, anybody who is a genuine patriot is not going to last long at the top and wouldn’t want the job anyway as they would have to be aware that the rules are not in the interests of the country. Almost by definition, the elites must be conspirators, although it is quite likely that they are not consciously aware that this is the case.  

Let’s call Maupassant’s story, and those like it, the Conspiracy Story (yes, I’m following the same form of analysis as I used in my book The Plague Story).

Overseas readers might recognise a young Eric Bana in the middle

The primary dynamic in a Conspiracy Story is that a group who is in power is trying to conspire against a group or person of lesser power. This is the plot line in many novels and films including one of the most popular Australian films – The Castle – where greedy property developers conspire against several working class Australian families to force acquire their homes at well below the market value. Just like in Maupassant’s story, a variety of tactics are used by the conspirators to gain acquiescence including pretending to be friendly, divide and conquer and, as a last resort, physical violence.

The popular action movie Die Hard is another example of a conspiracy story. In that movie, the conspirators are not elites in terms of social position but they are elites in the sense that they are a highly sophisticated band of criminals (conspirators) aiming to conduct a robbery. They are pitted against the common man, pigheaded New York cop John McClane, who will need to save the day, and his wife, from the bad guys. Again, in that movie we see a variety of tactics used by the conspirators against McClane but mostly these involve various kinds of firearms and explosives. 80s action movies weren’t exactly known for their subtlety, after all.

Same story but with guns.

There are a couple of important facets to the conspiracy story. Firstly, the bad guys are out in the open for all to see as is the injustice they are perpetrating. Because of this, the Conspiracy Story implies the possibility that justice may be served at a later time. The conspirators are obviously in the wrong and they can be captured and held to account.

Another important facet of the Conspiracy Story is that there must be a power imbalance. This power imbalance means that a moral imperative has also been breached alongside any legal one. The “elites” are stronger and they use their superior strength to gain at the expense of the less powerful.

So, we can sum up the Conspiracy Story as follows: a small group of conspirators unite to use their position of strength to gain at the expense of a less powerful group or person.

The reader might already have guessed where I’m going with this because throughout corona the Conspiracy Story has been told many times from the dissident side of the debate. And, of course, there is plenty of justification for that. It’s a sign of the surreal nature of our times that there was the perfect Conspiracy Story already sitting there in plain sight in the person of Klaus Schwab and his merry band of lunatics at the WEF.

Some bad guys have a black cat on their lap. Schwab has the entire world. Touché, bro.

If corona were a fictional story or movie, Klaus Schwab could never happen because he is too cheesy even for Hollywood. You can imagine the conversation in the writer’s room as the screenplay was being developed:

Head Writer: Ok, folks, we need a villain for the story. Gimme some ideas.

Junior Writer: I’ve got it! How about an old, bald man who talks with a thick German accent and who wears glasses that look like monocles. He plots world domination from a chalet in the Swiss Alps. Oh yeah, and his ancestors were Nazis!

Other Writer (sarcastically): Whaddya gonna call him? Hans Gruber?

Junior Writer (proudly): We’ll call him Klaus Schwab.

One of the defining features of postmodern literature is its use of irony. Well, clearly we live in a postmodern world. It’s a world where Klaus Schwab ironically (and unironically) exists. And it’s true. It’s true that there is a conspiracy going on right before our eyes. It’s true that the conspiracy is not in the interests of the common folk. It’s true that our so-called elites fly up to Davos for the privilege of taking part in the action. All the elements of the Conspiracy Story are right there out in the open.

But just to be even more postmodern, the Conspiracy Story is given the name Conspiracy Theory and thereby neutered. You’re now a crank for pointing out what’s exactly in front of everybody’s eyes. “So, there’s this guy who wants to take over the world, huh? And he’s German too. Wow. Cool story, bro (eye roll).” That’s multi-dimensional irony. Welcome to postmodernism.

In the spirit of postmodernism, where just because one thing is true doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally valid truths, I’d like to introduce another kind of story that is prominent in the modern world: the Horror Story.

We can summarise the Horror Story as follows: a powerful force is out there. You know it’s there but you can’t really identify it. It doesn’t care about you. You can’t communicate with it. You can’t reason with it. And it might kill you.

Immediately we can see that there are strong parallels between the Horror Story and the Conspiracy Story. From the point of view of the less powerful, the elites are a powerful force. They don’t care about you. You have very little ability to communicate and reason with them and, in extreme cases, they may kill you.

The main difference between the Conspiracy Story and the Horror Story are the properties of identity, agency and control. In a Conspiracy Story, the elites might be screwing you over but you know who they are and how they are doing it. In the Horror Story, you don’t know what the force is or how it is working. You just know it’s out to get you. We can plot the Horror Story and Conspiracy Story on a continuum as follows:

In psychological terms, the Conspiracy Story belongs to consciousness while the Horror Story belongs to the subconscious. The primary emotion of the Conspiracy Story is anger at injustice while the primary emotion of the Horror Story is fear caused by an absence of knowledge and understanding.

It is no coincidence that pandemics are prime examples of the Horror Story with viruses playing the role of the amorphous, indifferent force that might kill you. What the conscious mind wants more than anything in a Horror Story is to remove fear and doubt. Thus, the protagonists in such stories spend their time trying to identify what is afflicting them.

I think a big part of the reason why covid tests remain so popular is that they (claim to) identify the invisible enemy who would otherwise be lurking in the cellular shadows. The tests and the vaccines are the attempt to bring to consciousness what would otherwise remain in the subconscious. They fulfil this psychological need independently of any technical or scientific value they might have.

Even prior to corona, the Horror Story seemed to be becoming increasingly popular in the West. One example is the Japanese horror movie Ring which has seen numerous sequels and remakes including a version done by Hollywood. Note that the plot of Ring is symbolically identical to the way a virus spreads. Coincidence? I think not.

The woman without a face i.e. lacking identity

The literary genre of Cli-Fi, Climate Fiction, has also become popular among the upper middle-class professional demographic in the last decade. One of the more common tropes in the Cli-Fi genre is pandemic. In the technical sense that I outlined above, many Cli-Fi novels are Horror Stories in which the amorphous, chaotic forces of nature will strike down not just the protagonist but the whole human species.

Cli-Fi was into masks before they were cool. Note that masks de-identify the wearer, hence their popularity among people committing crimes

And, of course, the climate “debate” in the public discourse is also framed as a Horror Story complete with apocalypse fantasy elements.

Identity, agency and control. These are what is missing in the Horror Story and their absence drives fear. We tend to think the fear is caused by the Horror Story. But what if the causality is the other way around? What if it’s underlying fear which makes Horror Stories popular?

If this is true, we can surmise that the increasing popularity of the Horror Story is because of an increase in fear caused by a perceived lack of identity, agency and control in the lives of many people. We can then go back one step further and ask what has caused people to feel that their identity, agency and control was slipping away.

The first thing to note is that this problem has been around since the start of the industrial revolution and has only been getting more pronounced since then. The speed of change in modern society means that people can never feel that they are standing on solid ground. This dynamic has been given the name anomie and it has been around for a couple of centuries.

With the neoliberal reforms of the 1990’s, the level of anomie has gone into overdrive. Thus, it’s fair to say that “forces of globalisation” have been driving the rise in the popularity of the Horror Story via increased anomie in the population. This makes sense. The “market forces” of the global economy don’t care about you, you can’t reason with them, and they might cause you to lose your job and break up your family. That sounds like a Horror Story to me and it has been a real life Horror Story for a great many people in the last thirty years.

And here we come back around to the Conspiracy Story. The neoliberal agenda was implemented by the supra-national elites who convinced the voting public in each country to go along with it. In that sense, it was a Conspiracy Story. Neoliberalism was quite clearly in the interests of the US Empire because, among other things, it financialised the public assets of most countries thereby increasing the amount of dollars flowing back to the US. The elites in those other countries, including here in Australia, dutifully got on board the program and sold the idea to the public as being all about free markets, competition, globalisation and the liberal world order. In other words: ideology.

In Maupassant’s story, the ideology used to convince the reluctant prostitute took the form of religion. As Napoleon once said, religion was the only thing preventing the common people from stringing the elites up from lampposts. We don’t have religion anymore and so the elites need new kind of ideology which is dutifully churned out by modern universities and think tanks (another term dripping with postmodern irony).

But, unlike Christianity, the new ideology has no basis in what was once a vibrant religion and its associated symbolism. The ideology produced by the modern university is untethered from history and from reality in general. This is a feature, not a bug, because it means that the ideology cannot be reasoned with. It is specifically designed not to be thought about.

Thus, the modern ideology is a Horror Story in and of itself. To make matters worse, that ideology is then promulgated through a propaganda apparatus the size and scope of which the Church could never have dreamed of. The underlying purpose of that propaganda apparatus, however, is still the same. It is there to convince the common folk to acquiesce. These days it does so more through bewilderment than anything. But that bewilderment is ambiguity and amorphousness; the properties of the Horror Story.

As I have noted in recent posts, the modern propaganda apparatus also no longer focuses exclusively on ideology but directly targets the subconscious. This is the big change that has occurred in the Conspiracy Story since Maupassant’s time. The combination of meaningless ideology and Magic means that the propaganda of the elites is no longer understandable by the conscious mind, even the conscious mind of the elites themselves. Therefore, it exists purely in the subconscious causing the Conspiracy Story to become a Horror Story.

Prior to the neoliberal reforms of the 90s, the two main political parties in most western countries represented labour and capital. You knew what they stood for. You knew whose interests they served. Identity, agency and control were well defined and plain to see. This system was then dismantled from within and the labour parties were convinced to sell out; the same betrayal we see in Maupassant’s story.

Sorry, Jack, there’s nothing we can do about that.

It is often the purpose of propaganda and ideology to make identity, agency and control opaque so that the conspirators can get away with the scam. And so, in a sense, a Conspiracy Story always tends towards a Horror Story. To the extent that elites in modern society have unleashed an unprecedented volume of propaganda, it has achieved that result. All agency, identity and control appears lost. You lose your job to “globalisation” or “market forces”. Your wages are eroded by “inflation”; impersonal and external like forces of nature.

This absence of identity, agency and control leads to fear and explains the popularity of the Horror Story in the modern climate debate as well as the various apocalypse fantasies of which corona was the most extreme example. What we saw from the start of corona was a deep-seated desire on the part of a large section of the public for politicians to take charge, to be identifiably in control and to show that they had agency. It didn’t matter that what the politicians were being asked to do (“control” a respiratory virus) was impossible. The psychological desire was the end in itself.

Viewed in this way, there may actually be a deep-seated wisdom at play here. It seems almost certain that corona has brought neoliberalism to an end and probably also signifies the end of the “liberal world order”. To the extent that the liberal world order had morphed into a Horror Story, corona could be seen to represent a demand for a return to identity, agency and control. It’s the demand for real human beings as leaders who don’t hide behind ideology, who govern over things that they do actually control and therefore must take responsibility for.

We’re not there yet, of course. There will be a whole lot of ducking and weaving, a lot of propaganda aimed at keeping the ship afloat as long as possible. But we are looking at a reset. I very much doubt it will be the one that Herr Schwab wants. Instead of increasing de-humanisation, I expect we’ll see the opposite. For better or worse, it will be a return to humanity which is to say identity, agency and a less hallucinogenic and far more humble level of control.

A cure is a cure is a cure

Ask the average person in a western nation what it means to cure a disease and what will they answer? Chances are they think a cure means a solution. You get sick with something, you take a treatment, then you’re no longer sick. Ask the same person how many diseases have been cured in the last century or so and they’ll probably think there were quite a lot. And yet, by the definition of cure just given, there have been very few actual cures developed.

Here’s a good example of the schizophrenic nature of our cultural understanding of what it means to cure. The headline reads “12 Deadly Diseases Cured in the 20th Century”. The average person would interpret this to mean that once upon a time there were 12  deadly diseases in the world and then the 20th century came along and now those diseases don’t exist. But the very first disease listed in the article is chickenpox and the article specifically states that chickenpox is not a deadly disease, is not cured, and is, in fact, a rite of passage for most people.

This kind of disconnect between the headline and the actual content of an article is extremely common these days and, once you get an eye for it, you can start to discover some interesting things about our culture. The pattern is as follows: the headline refers to the deep-seated cultural script while the body shows the “reality”. Many people would call such articles propaganda. But even if it is propaganda, it’s very subtle propaganda that works by reinforcing a cultural script that is perfectly familiar to the average reader. In this case, the cultural script is that we have cured lots of diseases through the wonders of modern medicine. If we dig a little deeper into that script, we find that it revolves around the word cure.

Fittingly, the word cure has its etymology in religion. To cure is to make healthy and healthy is related to holy. In French, curé still means priest or chaplain. In Latin, curare means “to take care of”. In the original meaning, you cured a person and you did that by taking care of them i.e. nursing them back to health (which could also have meant spiritual health).

In the modern meaning, we now cure a disease. But this is a very different meaning. This version of “cure” now means something like eliminate or defeat. We call disease the “invisible enemy” and we declare war on this enemy. In you think this is just semantics, bear in mind that the last two and a half years saw wartime measures implemented in western nations and wartime levels of debt and inflation to go with it. Boris Johnson used a war metaphor early in the development of the vaccine saying the “scientific cavalry” was coming over the hill to rescue us. Words matter as do the cultural scripts they point to.

The lesser known 3rd meaning of cure

Whether you think that medical “cures” are largely about returning a person to wholeness (and holiness) through healing or whether you think a cure is the medical equivalent of carpet bombing the invisible enemy into oblivion will in large part predict your reaction to corona. As a member of the former group, I was horrified. But most people in our society follow the latter cultural script according to which the Dr Faucis of the world are the great generals leading us into scientific battle and we must play the role of obedient soldiers.

Live footage of Biden’s speech

What got me thinking about these matters was a video of US President Biden I came across in my internet travels in the last couple of days. Biden was shouting (is it just me or does Biden always shout during his speeches?) about finding a cure for cancer.

We were, Biden shouted, going to get rid of cancer once and for all. Now if you know the history of diseases we have “got rid of once and for all”, you know that the list starts and ends with smallpox. So, it’s a pretty big claim to say we can do the same for cancer. How did Biden think this incredible feat is going to be achieved? The answer, incredibly, is mRNA vaccines; the same safe and effective treatment that worked so well for covid (I’m not making it up, that’s literally what he said).

How does the leader of the free world say that with a straight face, especially given that he himself is vaccinated up the wazoo and still got covid? Well, that’s between Biden and his curé (his priest) and I hope he’s got a good one. But, in fairness, Biden probably believes what he’s saying and so do a great many people in western nations. What’s going here, despite how absurd it might look to those of us who are apostates from this strange religion, is not actually anything new but a basic element of human psychology.

The phenomenon of disregarding what looks to non-believers as overwhelming evidence permeates even the domain of science. As the saying goes, science progresses one funeral at a time. Even some of the greatest scientists have gone to their graves denying what later became standard theories of how the world works. Gerald Weinberg gave this phenomenon the name The Law of the Conservation of Laws:  

“When the facts contradict the law, reject the facts or change the definitions, but never throw away the law”.

That’s not the way science is supposed to work, but it’s the way science does work because it’s the way humans work. A vaccine is a cure and cures are safe and effective. That is the cultural script or law that must be preserved in our culture and it will be preserved until it can no longer be preserved. If this means disregarding obvious facts and changing the definitions of words, then that’s exactly what will happen and it’s exactly what has happened in the last decade in order to get more “cures” onto the market.

Many dissenters analyse corona as a one-off mass formation psychosis where people were so traumatised that they continue to behave irrationally. This line of thinking puts corona in a box with a nice bow around it and places it in the crazy basket alongside historical episodes like the Dutch tulip craze or the South Sea Bubble.

But that’s not correct. Corona follows the Law of the Conservation of Laws. We acted according to some of our most deep-seated cultural scripts and, though they were a complete failure, we have not thrown away those scripts and we continue to act by them. I would add to Weinberg’s law the qualifier that the more blatant the disregard for the facts, the more fundamental must be the law that is being protected. Right now, so many deep-seated beliefs of western culture are under threat that our entire public discourse is completely dissociated from reality. That’s not a state of affairs that can continue for much longer.

I tried to unpack the main cultural scripts related to corona in my book The Plague Story. It’s because the modern west thinks of itself as undogmatic (part of our ongoing rebellion against religion) that we are unable to see that we are just as dogmatic as any other society, perhaps even more so because we are unaware of our dogma. Because we never hold our dogma up to critical review, it doesn’t change. Thus, when faced with such an obvious failure as the corona vaccines, the modern west not only doesn’t acknowledge the failure but doubles down on it. That’s what Biden’s recent announcement amounts to.

There was one other thing that Biden shouted in his speech that I thought was telling as it relates to another core cultural script of the modern west. He said an mRNA vaccine for cancer “could be used to stop cancer cells when they first arise”. You know what else stops cancer cells when they first arise?: our immune system.

It’s worth remembering that the scientific discipline of immunology is very young. Almost everything we know about the immune system at a technical, analytical level has been learned in the post war years (although we had a tacit understanding of the principles of immune response well before that). We now know that the immune system is constantly on the lookout for cancer cells which it will destroy. This is the normal state of affairs. The abnormal state is when the cancer cells evade the immune system and the chances of this happening increase with age as the immune system begins to degrade along with the other systems of the body.

From a systems thinking point of view, the immune system belongs to the category of medium number systems i.e. those systems which display organised complexity. Biden is calling his cancer-cure push the Cancer Moonshot. But this analogy is a category error. The moonshot, sending a rocket to the moon, belonged to the domain of classical physics and is therefore in the organised simplicity category. A cure for cancer, whatever that means, must come from the domain of organised complexity.

But this implied definition of “science” is just another of our most deep-seated cultural scripts. “Science” means reductionist science. It’s true that reductionist science gave us the moonshot of which we are so proud. But reductionist science does not work in the domains of organised complexity of which medicine and biology are two prime examples. We can see another example of this category error in the executive order Biden released a couple of days ago in relation to the cancer moonshot. Here is an excerpt:

We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale‑up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.

Huh? Write circuity for cells? Program biology like a computer? As somebody who works in the IT industry, I don’t whether to laugh or cry at this statement. I will say this, I wouldn’t let a computer programmer anywhere near the “circuitry” of my cells. In these metaphors we see the same old category error. Electrical circuits and computer code belong to the domain of organised simplicity. Biology belongs to the domain of organised complexity.

Let me give an alternative metaphor which I think better captures what is going on with “cures” for diseases.

The body is a system and the immune system is a sub-system. Both systems interact with the larger systems that are the “real world”. The domain of study most relevant is ecology, which investigates the relationship between livings beings and their environment.

When we treat somebody with a “cure”, we are bringing a new element into the ecosystem of the body. It is assumed that the ecosystem is out of equilibrium (in a state of disease). We hope that the new element will trigger a process that brings the ecosystem back into equilibrium. mRNA vaccines are a novel element we have now introduced into the ecosystem of individual human bodies as well as the population of human bodies. Unlike programming software or wiring an electrical circuit, such an introduction of a novel element can, in fact almost certainly will, have unforeseen effects.

Here in Australia we have numerous historical examples of introducing new elements into the ecosystem. Due to its nature as an island continent far away from major historical population centres, Australia has developed a unique flora and fauna. When Europeans arrived a couple of hundred years ago, they brought with them a bunch of new flora and fauna. One of the earlier introductions were rabbits whose purpose was to allow the aristocracy to engage in the old British pastime of hunting. The rabbit population got out of control and the rest is history.

The famous rabbit-proof fence constructed in the early 1900s is apparently the longest fence in the world at about 3000 kilometres. It was built to keep out rabbits. Elmer Fudd, eat your heart out.
Jabba the Cane Toad

But perhaps the better of example for our purposes is the cane toad because the cane toad was not introduced for entertainment purposes but in order to solve an ecosystem problem. Specifically, some insects were causing large amounts of damage to the sugar cane crop and the toads were brought in to eat the insects.

Sounds like a good idea. What could go wrong? Well, it turns out cane toads will eat not just insects but pretty much anything (including snakes!). This fact, combined with a lack of any natural predator to keep the population in check, meant that cane toad numbers exploded and are an ongoing problem to this day in the tropical north of Australia.

Now it must be said that there were many other species introduced to Australia that didn’t backfire as spectacularly as rabbits and cane toads. Nevertheless, the lesson holds. The use of any new kind of medication is broadly equivalent to introducing a novel species to an ecosystem. The metaphor breaks down somewhat in that most medications will exit the “ecosystem” by natural excretory processes; although the mRNA concept was always more dangerous in this sense because the process by which it would exit the system was less obvious. Nobody predicted the cane toad population would explode in Australia and cause huge problems because such things are not predicable

This is the main difference between the domains of organised simplicity and organised complexity. The science of organised simplicity eg. classical physics, produces predictable results. That’s the whole point of it. Reductionist science always aims for an “if A, then B” formulation. That works fine in the domain of organised simplicity. It does not work in the domain of organised complexity. In the domain of organised complexity there is always the risk of a cane toad-like phenomenon. In relation to medication, we mitigate that risk by testing extensively before releasing the medication “into the wild”. Well, we used to. Now we rush medication through testing and next thing you know it’s curing cancer. Even Jesus would be like “dude, that’s totally a miracle.”

Immunology and medicine are not like flying to the moon or writing computer code or wiring up electrical circuitry. They are qualitatively different disciplines. But the people running our society do not understand this. Until we acknowledge this fact, we are going to keep repeating the same errors of the last two and a half years. And that’s exactly what we are doing and will continue to do because of the Law of the Conservation of Laws.

If science progresses on funeral at a time, then at the generational level it progresses as the generations pass. The generation running society at the moment will continue making the same errors. As the consequences of those errors mount, they will continue to try and use their political power to silence dissenting voices. But eventually all that will pass. It will be the upcoming generations who are not blind to the abject failures of their leaders who will finally start asking the right questions and finding the right answers. Well, it better be, or we’re in real trouble.

Book Announcement

As some readers would be aware, I am the author of four narrative comedy novels. So, when one of my favourite bloggers and authors, the Archdruid himself John Michael Greer, put out a call for comedic short stories about a year ago, I leapt at the chance to submit something. I’m happy to say my story was chosen and the finished product is now available.

The title of the anthology is The Flesh of Your Future Sticks Between My Teeth:
Stories from the Gristle Cli-fi Parody Contest
. As the name indicates, the stories all poke fun at the nascent literary genre known as Cli-fi. Yup, that’s short for Climate Fiction, probably the most unnecessary genre since Bro-core burst onto the alternative music scene some years ago and, just like Bro-core, ripe for parody.

My contribution to the anthology is titled “Tell it to the King of Sweden, honey”. When America’s richest woman, Karrenn Smith Hernandez Wong, discovers that the King of Sweden’s niece has stolen her fortune and squandered it on a series of frivolous environmental schemes, she travels to Stockholm to seek justice.

You can check out a preview of the book, including the first half of my story, at the Amazon site.

If you’re interested in owning a copy, why not buy direct from the publisher here.

Carrots and Stimuli

Cogito ergo sum is undoubtedly one of the most well-known phrases from philosophy. Just like other popular memes such as e=mc2, the catchy phrasing hides a wealth of complexity. The “I think” part is problematic enough. What is this “I”? And what does “think” mean? English grammar implies that the “I” is causing the thinking to occur and yet that’s clearly not always true. In fact, the opposite might be far more common. What if thinking happens to us? Anybody who’s tried meditation exercises knows that experience and if you’re lying awake at night unable to sleep cos there’s a million thoughts going through your head, you certainly don’t feel like the causative agent in the process.

In his meditations, Descartes was carrying out an example of what is sometimes called directed thinking. He intentionally set out to doubt everything and then realised that the one thing he could not doubt was that he was doubting. Other famous examples of directed thinking from history include Archimedes jumping out of his bathtub with the answer he was seeking, Newton or Kepler pouring over the mathematical patterns of the solar system, or a Socratic dialogue. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Space Program are classic examples from the field of engineering. These all fit into what I have been calling, following Gebser, the Mental Consciousness.

In the modern world, we equate this kind of thinking with “truth” and yet there are other kinds of mental experience that also claim to discover truth. French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote of an experience he once had lying in a boat on a lake in Switzerland. He told of being overcome by a feeling of oneness with nature. We might describe his state as a kind of disintegration of the ego as if there was no longer any “I” involved.

Rousseau represented, among other things, the turn towards “nature” in the 18th century

Does Rousseau’s experience count as “thinking”? It certainly wasn’t an example of directed thinking and yet there are religions and philosophies in the world (mostly eastern) that argue that this kind of experience gives access to the true nature of reality. They might say “I don’t think, therefore I am”, as if thinking somehow got in the way of perceiving what is real.

With the changes brought about by Rousseau and the romantic movement in general, the seemingly simple phrase “I think” had become rather complex by the beginning of the 20th century.  Edmund Husserl founded the discipline of phenomenology which examined mental phenomena in great detail and found that “directed thinking” was just one among many types of cognitive activity. Meanwhile, Freud and Jung found that the “I” was made up of many parts. Jung further found that consciousness had both an unconscious and a collective aspect i.e. the collective unconscious, while the broader historical investigations of the 19th century placed thinking/consciousness in a historical context. Descartes’ original certainty has become far less certain, but arguably also more interesting.

Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of consciousness from the point of view of “energy”. The turn towards energy in physics had its precursors in the 18th and 19th century but reached a new peak with Einstein and Quantum Mechanics. But the focus on energy was not just limited to scientific investigations. Through the industrial revolution, the harnessing of energy changed society. Fast forward to today and we have a society that runs on energy, something we have come to take for granted but are going to have to re-learn the hard way in the years ahead.

As I’ve intimated in the last several posts, some of that newfound energy was turned turned into psychic energy – aka Magic – in the form of propaganda, advertising, marketing and public relations and it is here where it makes sense to model psychological phenomena in terms of energy. To do so, we can use a couple of concepts from Nietzsche.

Although he would have vehemently disagreed, Nietzsche’s will to power fits perfectly within the concept of the Magical Consciousness

Most people who’ve heard of Nietzsche know about his concept of will to power. In the original German, the phrase Nietzsche used was Wille zur Macht. Macht can mean, among other things, strength (it is related to the English words might and mighty). The word strength appears a lot in Nietzsche and is arguably one of the most misunderstood concepts in his philosophy. Nietzsche was primarily concerned with psychology. Accordingly, he gave the word strength a specifically psychological meaning: the ability not to respond to a stimulus.

In Latin, a stimulus is a stick or pointy object and so the modern meaning is a metaphorical extension from a physical cause i.e. getting poked with a pointy object, to anything that causes a mental or emotional response. Let’s take the everyday example of bullying. While bullying can and does take physical form, the majority of bullying occurs at the psychological level. The bully provides a stimulus that they hope will achieve a response from the victim: fear. The ability not to show the bully that you are scared, even if you are, is where the strength comes in. In the Nietzschean sense, that’s the ability not to respond to the stimulus. We see the exact same thing with internet trolling where the goal is simply to elicit a response of anger or outrage. As the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls. Don’t respond to the stimulus.

From the philosophical and intellectual point of view, Nietzsche’s definition of strength evokes the idea of epoché from the Pyrrhonic school of philosophy in Ancient Greece. In its more extreme forms, epoché is the idea that any assertion of truth is invalid (quite similar to certain eastern philosophies). But there are less extreme interpretations of the same notion. Goethe, for example, advised us to investigate a phenomena from many different angles before drawing conclusions. The systems thinkers of the 20th century promoted the same idea.

Pyrrho of Elis

What we are talking about here is scepticism. It’s indicative of our culture that scepticism has a bad connotation similar to cynicism. But just like the original cynics were mostly concerned with freedom, the original sceptics were concerned with investigation, exploration and discovery. They saw the premature assertion of “truth” as a limiting act. Having worked in the science and technology fields my whole adult life, Nietzsche’s implication that scepticism requires strength seems to me to be true. It’s hard to be sceptical. It’s difficult to withhold judgement and keep an open mind. That’s true of individual psychology and it becomes even more true when social and political pressures enter the picture.

If we translate this into energy terms, we can put it this way: it takes more energy to be sceptical. It takes more energy to keep an open mind, to do one more test, to consider one more alternative hypothesis. To the extent that society punishes scepticism, it takes strength to withstand social pressures and hold onto your own mind.

Socrates’ fate showed that making people think when they don’t want to can be a career limiting move

We see a variation of this in cheesy cop movies where the grizzled detective knows the suspect is innocent and won’t let the case go despite the fact that everybody else is happy with a guilty verdict. This is how it often works in the real world. Things are abandoned when they are good enough, not when they are absolutely good or true in some abstract sense. What’s more, forcing people to re-evaluate what they already believe to be true is the equivalent of making them do work and typically gets the same response as asking them to do real (physical) work.

Tying these threads together, we get a view of the human psyche as follows. It is a complex entity composed of parts. It is capable of multiple kinds of cognition of which directed thinking is only one. Its mental or psychic state is heavily influenced by external factors, mostly socio-cultural in nature. The “energy” that impacts the psyche can come from within in the form of desires, drives, instinctual reactions and will or it can come from without in the form of political hierarchy, peer pressure and cultural norms. Another way to think of the Nietzschean definition is that mental strength is the ability not to allow these energy flows, whether internal or external, to overwhelm the mind. In a more specific philosophic and scientific sense, it’s to be able to continue to think logically, rationally and sceptically despite pressure not to do so.

Amount of stimuli per capita?

One of the things that has happened in modern society with the massive increase in the amount of energy available thanks to fossil fuels is that the amount of “external energy” impacting individuals has grown enormously. Although I don’t know how this could be quantified, I assume the amount of external stimuli the average person is exposed to has grown proportionally to the amount of energy available to society.

I’ve talked about this in relation to advertising and propaganda in the last few posts. In those cases, the stimuli in question is the images, sounds and words transmitted though newspaper, radio, television and now the internet. While all of these mediums can be enjoyable and educational, there is also no doubt that they now comprise the most extensive propaganda machine the world has ever seen.

But what is propaganda if not stimuli designed to elicit a psychic response? And that is the other main difference. Not only is there more stimuli, it is stimuli designed to achieve an outcome. It achieves that outcome by treating the individual as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Such stimuli is de-humanising but it is this stimuli which has grown exponentially in the post war years. The de-humanising effects have been hidden by the fact that most of this has taken place via the feelgood mechanism of the consumer society. But now that consumer capitalism is starting to fail, we are catching a glimpse of the horror behind the curtain.

Modern capitalism has been increasingly employing such stimuli in order to sell products. Processed food might lure us in with the promise of convenience, but it is largely the sugar, salt and spice content that does the job of creating a regular customer often at the expense of the physical health of the individual and community (as the soaring rates of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases evidence). Computer games, pop music (check out the theory behind K-pop), internet marketing funnels and all kinds of other products are now designed with stimulus-response mechanisms in mind.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes an example of a company developing a household cleaning product that was odourless. Even though the product worked well as a cleaning agent (or so they said), it didn’t sell. The company stumbled across the idea of mixing a scent (a stimulus) into the formula and suddenly sales skyrocketed.

Now, it might be argued that what’s the harm in adding a little sugar and spice if it gets people to buy products that work. There’s at least two problems with that. Firstly, it’s a very small shift from hijacking people’s subconscious to get them to buy products that work to getting them to buy products that don’t work. In fact, this would make economic sense because you don’t have to waste all that money on research, development and testing (hello corona “vaccines”). You just churn out any old crap and let the marketing and advertising people sell it.

The second problem is that, even with the best intentions, the overall amount of stimuli will increase to the point where it overwhelms the psyche. If strength is the ability not to respond to a stimulus, we can also surmise that nobody is infinitely strong and through sheer volume of stimuli the psyche will get overwhelmed. This seems like a good description of modern society.

However, natural systems are not static. They adapt to stimuli. A good example of this can be found in recreational drug use. Recreational drugs change the chemistry of body and usually involve a large release of dopamine. The dopamine receptors in the brain are calibrated for natural amounts of dopamine. When the body starts producing unnaturally high amounts of dopamine due to a drug stimulus, those receptors recalibrate. They desensitise themselves as a protective measure. What that means for the drug user is that, over time, the same stimulus no longer has the same effect. Many users will increase the dosage to compensate and this all too frequently ends in overdose.

This seems to me to be a good analogy to modern society. The amount of stimuli the average person is exposed to has grown rapidly in the post war years and this has caused a subsequent desensitisation process to occur to protect the psyche. What this process feels like is meaninglessness. Nothing really seems to matter. Furthermore, the effect of any new stimulus is dulled by the already over-stimulated state of the system. More and more stimuli are then added to try and compensate in the same way the drug user increases the dosage.

The current state of western society to me can best be summed up by the adjective catatonic. In the aftermath of corona, arguably the greatest propagandistic stimulus in history, the psychic and political body of western society is completely moribund, zonked out on the floor like an opium addict, unable to respond to any stimulus at all. Coincidentally, the same is true in the economic sphere. Trillions of dollars are now pumped into the economy as a matter of course and all we get is inflation.

Science, philosophy and the Mental Consciousness in general have always been predicated on an absence of distracting stimuli. Kepler and Newton poured over their equations alone in their studies. Archimedes was (presumably) bathing alone when he had his eureka moment. Nietzsche lived alone in the Swiss alps and had his greatest thoughts while mountain walking. Einstein worked by day in the sensory deprivation tank of a patent office. All else being equal, we would expect an increase in stimulation at the societal level to lead to a reduced functioning of the Mental Consciousness and that does seem to be a fact of modern society.

If there’s a silver lining to be found, it may be this: as the amount of energy available starts to fall in the years ahead, that will mean less external stimuli to deal with. Is it too optimistic to hope that this will create conditions in which thinking can once again take place? It’s also true that longer-term adaptations can take place which open the possibility of increasing strength over time. Could that be a re-discovery of scepticism, withholding judgement for longer and integrating more? In short: the Integral Consciousness. Scepticism takes more time and within the current economic paradigm where time is money, it costs too much to be sceptical. If that economic paradigm disappears, maybe we’ll be able to afford to think again.