Sunday, October 24, 2021

No Time To Think: The Changing Geopolitics of International Blockbusters?

Review of James Bond No Time To Die film


The latest Bond flick No Time To Die was certainly a rollercoaster ride of exciting action scenes and great special effects, yet contained more than a quantum of longueurs. With a running time of 163 minutes it certainly tries the patience and the bladders of its audiences (who I saw popping out of the cinema throughout the film). Personally, I think 90 minutes is enough for any film, especially since the disappearance of the intermission and ice-cream selling of yore. In this case, the increased length seems to have been to incorporate backstories of some of the individuals involved. The effect of this is to attenuate Bond's appearances in the film, while adding very little to the story (hence the longueurs). 




By Official James Bond 007 Website



One effect of this narrative style is to put more emphasis on the story of Bond and less on the usual geopolitics and action we associate with Bond films. Now this is very interesting considering that if one was to ask oneself: which country would be the most likely target and villain of the latest Bond film as a cultural representative of the world's imperialist and neo-colonial powers? It would have to be: China.
 

Who's bad?
 
Yet there were no Chinese baddies, no stereotyped 'yellow peril', no Chinese mad scientists, no Chinese monomaniacal nutter bent on ruling the world. Why would this be? Could it be something to do with new British geopolitical sensitivities and Brexit anxieties over its current position in the world? In the past the Russians were usually targeted, as well as the more abstract multinational SPECTRE baddies. At least during the Cold War (and some time after) there was definitely a cultural reflection of the realities of geopolitics in the James Bond narratives. Are they keeping one eye on the potential economic and military alliances of the future while keeping the other eye on their current alliances?

Instead what we get is yet another Russian mad scientist with a comically exaggerated Russian accent, lots of SPECTRE goings on, and the monomaniacal nutter 'Lyutsifer Safin' (with equally crazy spelling). Thus we have a caricature of the early Bond films with some 'emotionally deep' background filling to make up for its lack of relevance to current geopolitics.

Added to this emasculated plotline is the Bond's 007 replacement with Nomi, his successor - a female black Bond. Not that there's anything wrong with a female black Bond, but it does show one of the weaknesses of current identity politics, that her identity as an operative for an imperialist, militarist organisation is more important than her identity as a colonial victim of imperialist, militarist organisations in the past.
 
The Noname Book Club, for example tweeted the general point that:
 
"under white domination we consistently celebrate the “first black …” because we’ve been taught that assimilation into white society means safety, upward mobility, liberation. beyond how this can lead to black children idolizing the first black billionaire or war criminal, [...] it also individualizes / romanticizes black success. it reduces our desire for collective liberation and makes us hyper focus on white approval."

There is also a slight ramping up of what I call the 'theatre of cruelty' factor - that is the pushing beyond the normal standards of 'common decency' that underlies cinema narratives in the public sphere. In general the depiction of violence and cruelty has been increasing steadily since the 1950s and 1960s, progressively desensitising audiences to basic human norms (another role of action movies like the Bond films). In this case, a child (Mathilde) is used in the narrative as a human shield but in the end the film does not go so far as to actually hurt her - there are still some limits to what is acceptable in the public's eyes.






Militarism
 
However, there seems to be very few limits to the extent to which the British government is creating new and targeted strategies to promote support for the military, for example:

"Armed Forces Day, Uniform to Work Day, Camo Day, National Heroes Day - in the streets, on television, on the web, at sports events, in schools, advertising and fashion – the military presence in civilian life is on the march. The public and ever younger children are being groomed to collude in the increasing militarisation of UK society."

The role of these forms of militarism has been to encourage people "to see the military, and spying, in positive terms; to think of violent, military solutions as the best way to solve international disagreements; and to ignore peaceful alternatives."

Children have long been drawn in through comics such as The Boy's Own Paper, published from 1879 to 1967, and aimed at young and teenage boys. For example the first volume's serials included "From Powder Monkey to Admiral, or The Stirring Days of the British Navy" and promoted the British Empire as the peak of civilization.

Later comics about World War 2 were founded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as War Picture Library (1958), The Victor (1961) and Commando (1961) (which is still in print today) were popular for decades after the war. According to Rod Driver, these comics

"had a strong focus on patriotism and heroism. They stereotyped people from enemy countries as cruel or cowardly, and used derogatory terms such as jerries, huns or krauts for German people, eyeties for Italian people, or nips for Japanese people. A generation of children grew up with a very distorted view of the war and people in other countries."

As for the adults, stereotypes and cruelty are still the stock in trade of culture producers and the James Bond films rejoice in them.




The Victor cover


Recruitment campaigns
 
The significance of Nomi as a black 007 can be seen in new recruitment advertisements which feature a black female soldier. Women represent less than 10% of the British Army, so they launched a new female-led recruitment campaign. According to Imogen Watson, the 'This is Belonging' campaign:

"follows the army's most successful recruitment to date. Four days after the launch, the record was broken for the highest number of applications received in a single day. After a month, 141% of the army’s application target was reached. By March, it had surpassed 100% of its annual recruiting target for soldiers, for the first time in eight years."


International institutions
 
In one sense James Bond films depict a reality that despite the many International institutions dedicated to promoting world peace, military build-ups continue apace. In an article entitled 'The False Promise of International Institutions', John J. Mearsheimer writes "that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior, and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world."[p7]
He discusses the differences between the ideas of Realists and Critical Theorists. The Realists believe that there is an objective and knowable world while the Critical Theorists see "the possibility of endless interpretations of the world before them", and therefore there is no reason "why a communitarian discourse of peace and harmony cannot supplant the realist discourse of security competition and war".

However, there is a contradiction in that, for example, Americans who think seriously about foreign policy dislike realism as it clashes with their basic values and how they prefer to think about themselves in the wider world. Mearsheimer outlines the negative aspects of realism that depict a world of stark and harsh competition, where there is no escape from the evil of power and which treats war as inevitable. Realism goes against deep-seated beliefs that progress is desirable and "and with time and effort reasonable individuals can solve important social problems." One major problem is that while the international system strongly shapes the behavior of states, "states still have considerable freedom of action". He gives the example of the failure of the League of Nations to address German and Japanese aggression in the 1930s. Thus, the role of international institutions may actually be to stave off war until countries feel ready to attack or defend themselves.

What he does not discuss however is the situations where ordinary people rose up to extricate their nations from imperialist wars, such as Ireland in 1916 ("We serve neither King nor Kaiser), and the Peace! Land! Bread! campaign of the Bolsheviks in 1917. These campaigns show that while ordinary people are generally considered cannon fodder in times of war, it is possible for future mass movements to transcend the narrow triumphalism and national chauvinism encouraged by recruitment campaigns and blockbuster films.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Awakening: Martin Luther King and the Poor People's Campaign

 

In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to
raise certain basic questions about our national character. We
must begin to ask: Why are there forty million poor people in
a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?
Martin Luther King Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? [p141]


The usage of the term 'woke' has spread rapidly in the last ten years from meaning awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination to describing the identity politics of various ethnic groups in the USA. The term has a long history reaching back to the 1930s when Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly finished a song advising people with the words to 'best stay woke, keep their eyes open.'



Lead Belly with a melodeon c. 1942


The history of ethnic- or identity- based politics has long been a long one in the United States going back to the ethnocultural (ethnic, religious and racial identity) politics of the 19th century. Identity- based politics resurfaced in the 1960s with the Black Panther Party (BPP) (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense), a Black Power political organization founded by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966. In the 1970s, identity politics were seen with the Black feminist socialist group, Combahee River Collective, and spread with the LGBT movements of the 1980s. Today 'wokism' is associated with identity-based groups such as Black Lives Matter (BLM).

The complexity of identity politics in all its positive and negative forms has become more prevalent in recent years with the production of many 'woke' films. These could be described as films that have women in leading positions, gender or racial swaps, and the inclusion of gay characters in a diverse cast, etc. However, prior to this change in ideology there was also the identity politics of dominant heterosexual white men, so for some there is also the satisfaction and feeling of social justice with the depiction of racial and gender reversals.

One prominent and popular TV series to look at both sides of the complexity of identity politics was The Sopranos. The episode "Christopher" is the 42nd episode and the third of the show's fourth season. The teleplay was written by Michael Imperioli, from a story idea by Imperioli and Maria Laurino and was directed by Tim Van Patten. It aired on September 29, 2002. Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, is an American actor, writer, and director, and it seems he was also impressed with Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States which this episode is based on. He even has Tony Soprano's son reading the book for school over breakfast at home. The episode focuses on Columbus day and the different perceptions of Columbus by individuals of various ethnic backgrounds. The influence of the book on this episode can be seen in the historical and political awareness of the history of identity politics that is depicted. Imperioli not only shows the complexity of various  identities in the USA but  also how these identities are manipulated to foment strife between different groups both on the street and in the mass media.



Agent provocateur in combats, black jacket and black beanie


This is very cleverly done in a scene where the Sopranos arrive at an anti-Columbus demonstration being held by Native Americans and students. A bottle is thrown and fighting ensues. It is interesting to see how the different characters are picked out in this scene. The Native Americans look generally like Native Americans (skin color, hair etc), the students (long hair, denim) and the character who threw the bottle is distinguished by combats, black jacket and black beanie (connoting the military, the state, undercover i.e. agent provocateur). This scene happens so fast it is almost an easter egg (I had to slow it down frame by frame to get a screenshot). Thus, like in real life, the provocateur gets lost in the mayhem and the later clashes seen on the news are described as 'tragic'.



Ralphie holds up poster of Iron Eyes Cody


The complexity of ethnic identity feeds some of the humour in the show, when, for example, Dr. Del Redclay doesn't realise that Iron Eyes Cody who portrayed Native Americans in many Hollywood films was actually Italian; Pauli didn't know that James Caan's heritage is German, not Italian; and Chief Doug Smith, 'Tribal chairman of the Mohonk Indians and CEO of Mohonk Enterprises', announces: "Frankly, I passed most of my life as white until I had an awakening and discovered my Mohonk blood. My grandmother on my father's side, her mother was a quarter Mohonk." Even Redclay's TA, Maggie Donner, turns out to be one-eighth Italian - her "great-great something-or-other".



Chief Doug Smith, 'Tribal chairman of the Mohonk 
Indians and CEO of Mohonk Enterprises'


The same humour is used in the title of Maria Laurino's memoir, Were You Always an Italian?, which was a national bestseller and explored the issue of ethnic identity among Italian-Americans.

Chief Doug Smith represents the use of ethnic identity for private gain. In the 1970s the Supreme Court had ruled that only Indians have the authority to tax and regulate Indian activities by Indians on Indian reservations. Academia does not get off lightly either, as Professor Longo-Murphy, who is invited to give a lunch-time talk on modern Italian-ness to the Italian community, is obviously half Irish.

By having Tony's son read about Columbus and his encounters with the 'savages', Tony's power position as dominant white male is illuminated as he defends Columbus's actions and thereby shutting down any real discussion of the realities of history while maintaining ethnic group myths ("in this house Christopher Columbus is a hero. End of story.")



Tony's son reads Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States


It's interesting that this episode touched many nerves. In an article on this episode a writer describes the Native Americans as 'fanatics' (the author missed the agent provocateur) and describes the dialogue as being "like it was written by an eighth-grader assigned by his history teacher to write up Columbus's pros and cons." The whole Columbus theme is described as 'clunky', even though in many TV shows the political and cultural life of their characters is generally completely ignored. Out of 86 episodes this was the only one that touched on the cultural and political history of the Soprano family, and still managed to raise a lot of hackles. The reality is that often people dont know much about their own history and cling to nationalistic biases or myths. For example, a recent survey (2019) discussed in the New York Post noted that:

"Americans have an abysmal knowledge of the nation’s history and a majority of residents in only one state, Vermont, could pass a citizenship test. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 41,000 Americans in all 50 states and Washington, DC, the organization said Friday. Most disturbingly, the results show that only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 across the country demonstrate a basic knowledge of American history. And only four in 10 Americans passed the exam."

The complexity of identity politics was further developed when Furio, an actual Italian gang member from southern Italy agrees with the negative analysis of Columbus:

"But I never liked Columbus. In Napoli, a lot of people are not so happy for Columbus because he was from Genoa. The north of Italy always have the money and the power. They punish the south since hundreds of years. Even today, they put up their nose at us like we're peasants."

Italy, the country, the nation, arose out of many different regions, ethnic groups and languages (only a small percentage of Italians spoke Italian at the time of unification in the 19th century). Indeed, the potential for Italy to break up into regions is never too far away either. Gianfranco Miglio, a political scientist wrote in 1990:

"Lega Nord, a federalist and, at times, separatist political party in Italy, proposed "Padania" as a possible name for an independent state in Northern Italy. According to Miglio, Padania (consisting of five regions: Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna) would become one of the three hypothetical macroregions of a future Italy, along with Etruria (Central Italy) and Mediterranea (Southern Italy), while the autonomous regions (Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia) would be left with their current autonomy."



Italian unification
By Artemka - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Thus, the definition of ethnic or even national identity can be rewritten at any time. The lines of the map of Europe were constantly being drawn and redrawn depending on the political and military strength of local elites who bring their 'people' with them and redefine their identity when and how it suits them. As elites gain strength they demand more autonomy, in defeat they are integrated into a larger region e.g. Catalonia.

The only way people can stop being a bobbing cork on the sea of international geopolitics is to switch from the vertical structure of ethnicity (full class structure) to a horizontal structure of class (e.g. trade unions). The particularist policies of identity politics leaves groups open to manipulation and divide and rule. The American journalist Christopher Lynn Hedges has written that identity politics: "will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance."



King was arrested in 1963 for protesting the treatment of blacks in Birmingham.


It seems that Martin Luther King came to the same conclusions about the weakness of identity politics when he wrote in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

"Too many Negroes are jealous of other Negroes’ successes and progress. Too many Negro organizations are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. The Pharaohs had a favorite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression. But when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypts of slavery crumble." [p132]

In 1968, King was involved in organising the Poor People's Campaign to bring economic justice to all those struggling to make ends meet.  It was a "multiracial effort—including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Indigenous people—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race."

The Poor People's Campaign "sought to address poverty through income and housing. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution. Under the "economic bill of rights," the Poor People's Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included, among other demands, a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The Poor People's Campaign was part of the second phase of the civil rights movement."



Demonstrators in the Poor People's March at Lafayette Park 
and Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. in June 1968


The necessity for unity between black and white is made more explicit by King in his book, where he writes:

"This proposal is not a “civil rights” program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate." [p174]

King was not naive about the potential conservative backlash such unity would create but saw it as the only way forward, as the movement would encompass ever greater numbers of people. As we have seen the fluid nature of identity politics can be summed up with the observations that: maps change (independent city-states and regional republics, ‘Padania’), identities can be complex  (North vs South, intermarriage), identities are not fixed (Cody, Caan), and identities can be manipulated (Divide and Rule, ethnic 'leaders'). King came to the realisation that any campaign group will be limited by the size of the movement and the breadth of its ideology, and soon moved away from his own prejudices and biases, although he was not able to bring his dream to fruition.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Great Fear: The Accelerating Apocalypse

 

Greenland_(film).png
Theatrical release poster

Review of the film Greenland (2020)



For apocalyptic disaster films, they don't get much more up close and personal (and apocalyptic) than the film Greenland (2020). Set in contemporary times, the story revolves around the news that an interstellar comet named Clarke is heading for Earth, and that it was made up of fragments of rock and ice big enough to wipe out modern civilization.

John Garrity, a structural engineer, receives a message from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notifying him that he and his family have been selected to go to emergency bunkers. While he is at home a massive fragment lands on Tampa, Florida and wipes it out live on TV. Garrity receives another message with instructions to head to Robins Air Force Base for an evacuation flight. They are to be taken to large bunkers in Thule, Greenland, as the largest fragment is expected to cause an extinction level event.

However, as panic sets in among his neighbours there is mutual shock as they realise that they have not been selected, and Garrity is unsure why he was. Gradually he realises that his skills as a structural engineer would be required in the rebuilding of the post-apocalyptic world, hence the reason for his inclusion.

As others realise the value of the wristbands the family have been given for the flight to Thule, Garrity and his family become targets for different kinds of attacks and schemes to wrest the wristbands from them throughout the narrative of the film.

Overall, Greenland is a well crafted film and focuses on the family's desperate attempts to make it to Thule before the main fragment of Clarke strikes Europe (!) and destroys civilization.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the drama around the conflicts between the 'chosen few' and the rest of the population. While Garrity may be an all-American citizen, he does not reject the elitism of his new status but embraces it wholeheartedly. He may be a member of a democracy, and hold democratic values but when push comes to shove, all that is very quickly forgotten about in the panic. It's every man for himself and he accepts the changes in state ideology from citizen to elect in a heartbeat.

The 'chosen few'
The idea of the 'chosen few' is not new. According to the bible, Jesus initiated a New Covenant on the night before his death during the last supper. Those who had heavenly hope would be selected by God to rule with Christ as kings with him for 1,000 years. The Bible also gives the number of those anointed:

"Revelation 14:3–4, 'And they are singing what seems to be a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, and no one was able to master that song except the 144,000, who have been bought from the earth.'"




The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent.jpg 
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an important icon kept and exhibited at Saint Catherine's Monastery, located at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The gold background is typical of icons such as this, which was manufactured in the 12th century after a manuscript written by the 6th century monk John Climacus who based it on the biblical description of Jacob's ladder. It depicts the ascent to Heaven by monks, some of whom fall and are dragged away by black demons. 
(The recent scenes of chaos at Kabul airport with people crowding up stairs to passenger jets and falling off military jets are unfortunately brought to mind)
 
 
 
 
Elites have always tried to keep a section of their loyal, unwavering followers on board with their ideology by doling out good jobs, high status symbolism (e.g. knighthoods), or good pay (for mercenaries). While they espouse democratic ideologies which imply that everyone is important, they are also very aware that their actions lead to mass resentment (e.g. massive national debts, unemployment, inflation, declining national health systems, etc.), and the potential for mass uprising. For this reason, for example, middle-class political police can be more important to the state than working-class national armies.

The mass media play an important role in reducing resentment by playing up the activities of politicians, ideologically controlling the news and history, and popularising the use of specific language.

Everytime an idea critical of the ruling ideology becomes popular it is relabeled or branded with terms such as: 'political correctness' (covering up or trivialising legitimate concerns about "language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting to groups of people disadvantaged or discriminated against"); 'cultural Marxism' (covering up or trivialising legitimate concerns of, for example, feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights, etc); 'conspiracy theory' (covering up or trivialising legitimate concerns regarding anomalies in high profile events); 'The Good Guys'/'The Bad Guys' (covering up or trivialising legitimate concerns regarding who the state defines as progressive or reactionary); 'wokism' (covering up or trivialising legitimate concerns regarding racial prejudice, discrimination and social inequality, etc.); thereby sterilising the ideas and fitting them into 'acceptable', non-threatening language.

Every new deviation from the capitalist norm is diverted and instantly bubble-wrapped so that it does not impinge on the growing mass consciousness/suspicion that something is wrong. Whistleblowers are hounded (Assange, Snowden) and workers are kept quiet or ignored (Boeing).



Originally printed in New York World, October 30, 1884. Reprinted: Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings. HarpWeek. HarpWeek, LLC.A political cartoon parodying James G. Blaine. Wealthy and influential figures dine on dishes labeled "Lobby pudding", "Monopoly soup", "Navy contract", etc. while a poor family begs.



Furthermore, Monolithism denies radical difference in ethnic groups (the most reactionary become the spokespersons of the group), while on a philosophical level Modernism, Postmodernism and Metamodernism deny reason and radical opposition. All with the promise that if you are good, if you behave yourself, you will be put on Santa's nice list and become one of the chosen few when the financial/political/social catastrophe or cataclysm begins.

During the crisis, the rhetoric of universal protection collapses (neighbours shocked and disappointed), leading to struggle for survival in elite terms (bunkers, planes, boltholes).

The struggle for survival
It is then that the masses realise that they have been duped, misled, or even deluded. Because Greenland could be said to represent the ideology of the elites, then one sees the choices offered by the elites are: to be chosen or damnation, and no other possibilities. Similarly, when the elites represent the masses they are in negative terms of fear, for example, the symbolism of the masses of zombies in the film World War Z (2013). (See also my article on  World War Z here).

Historically, mass uprisings result in a fundamental change in society, not a temporary blip in the ruling ideology, therefore elites have a good reason to be afraid. For example, the Great Fear in France in 1789 ultimately resulted in the end of its feudal system: 
 
"The members of the feudal aristocracy were forced to leave or fled on their own initiative; some aristocrats were captured and among them, there were reports of mistreatment such as beatings and humiliation, but there are only three confirmed cases of a landlord actually having been killed during the uprising. Although the Great Fear is usually associated with the peasantry, all the uprisings tended to involve all sectors of the local community, including some elite participants, such as artisans or well-to-do farmers. Often the bourgeoisie had as much to gain from the destruction of the feudal regime as did the poorer peasantry. Although the main phase of the Great Fear died out by August, peasant uprisings continued well into 1790, leaving few areas of France (primarily Alsace, Lorraine and Brittany) untouched. As a result of the "Great Fear", the National Assembly, in an effort to appease the peasants and forestall further rural disorders, on 4 August 1789, formally abolished the "feudal regime", including seigneurial rights." 
 
 
 
  "You should hope that this game will be over soon."
Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (nobility) on its back.



Current elite ideology of the future tends towards ideas of bringing about global governance, or post-apocalyptic colonies on earth, the Moon or Mars. Like lemmings going over a cliff (or the aristocracy of the eighteenth century), they can only imagine a future with themselves in total control, or total destruction.

Thule in Greenland, where there is an American military base, is symbolically appropriate as "in classical and medieval literature, ultima Thule (Latin 'farthermost Thule') acquired a metaphorical meaning of any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world"."

Unlike the destruction wrought by comet Clarke in Greenland, we are not doomed to be destroyed or hiding in bunkers because of an errant comet, but only condemned to have our future dictated to us forever - unless we take our destiny into our own hands.



Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. 



Thursday, August 5, 2021

Going to Hell and Back: Fighting Our Worst Nightmare

Review of the film Bullets of Justice (2019)
 

Interrogate the devil; he will tell you that beauty is a pair of horns, four claws and a tail.
Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary

 

 

Bullets of Justice is a gritty 2019 film made by Valeri Milev and Timur Turisbekov, which takes place in the United States during the Third World War. The story centres around Rob Justice, an ex-bounty hunter who is fighting a mixture of half humans and half pigs (human bodies and pig heads). They were bred under an American government secret project to create super soldiers called Muzzles. The project goes awry and years later the Muzzles are at the top of the food chain and are farming the remnants of the human race. Rob Justice is trying to find their source to eliminate the Muzzles once and for all. The film is shot with bleak scenes in very bleak colours and has quite explicit sexual and violent scenes. However, it also has a very dry sense of humour and can be very funny without intentionally playing for laughs.

 

 

Image Courtesy of The Horror Collective

 

Image Courtesy of The Horror Collective

 

The whole premise of the film is based on the symbolic reversal of our treatment of animals as food products, and shown in all its horror. Muzzles fatten up humans in cages, kill them upside down in factories and throw corpses on to conveyor belts. Their meat is even tinned and sold (“Human Meat, Always Fresh, Steak from a well fed male”). The idea that humans are somehow ‘special’ and superior to animals is ‘debunked’. In an early scene the Grave-digger unearths a human skull and says to his kids: “See, they don’t go nowhere. They just turn into dirty old bones. God is a human mistake. We die ‘cos of some shit and we die full of shit.”

 

 

Image Courtesy of The Horror Collective

 

There is an apocalyptic feeling to the film as humans are dying out and some strange human oddities form a resistance to the Muzzles (a woman with a prominent moustache, a fighter who can stop bullets with his chest, and a female leader who talks as if using a home-made speech synthesizer). However, we get the feeling that their resistance is pointless and the Muzzles are the strongest of the two opposing sets of monstrosities.

 

 

Image Courtesy of The Horror Collective

 

The portrayal of human monsters is not new in culture as the depictions of the Golem, Frankenstein’s monster and Zombies makes apparent: representations of humans that cannot really live or reproduce, the symbols of anti-nature. Our anxieties about our position in the natural order of things and our treatment of animals have always been reflected in our beliefs and depictions of ourselves as a higher order and created by an omnipotent being.

However, our relations with animals has always been fraught, as Yuval Noah Harari writes:

About 15,000 years ago, humans colonised America, wiping out in the process about 75% of its large mammals. Numerous other species disappeared from Africa, from Eurasia and from the myriad islands around their coasts. The archaeological record of country after country tells the same sad story. The tragedy opens with a scene showing a rich and varied population of large animals, without any trace of Homo sapiens. In scene two, humans appear, evidenced by a fossilised bone, a spear point, or perhaps a campfire. Scene three quickly follows, in which men and women occupy centre-stage and most large animals, along with many smaller ones, have gone. Altogether, sapiens drove to extinction about 50% of all the large terrestrial mammals of the planet before they planted the first wheat field, shaped the first metal tool, wrote the first text or struck the first coin.

 

The Golden Age

These realities contrast wildly with our mythical story-telling of a Golden Age when humans lived in “primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During this age, peace and harmony prevailed in that people did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance.”  And as Richard Heinberg has stated: Dicaearchus of the late fourth century BCE noted “of these primeval men […] that they took the life of no animal”. [1]

 

 

Roman Orpheus mosaic, a very common subject.  He wears a Phrygian cap and is surrounded by the animals charmed by his lyre-playing.

 

 

 The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615, depicting both domestic and exotic wild animals such as tigers, parrots and ostriches co-existing in the garden.

 

However, as the Golden Age declined through the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, to the Iron Age, the dire warnings got direr. As men moved from the wondrous cornucopia of nature to the wars of extractivism, they paid a heavy price for their bloodlust. Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) wrote: “As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” Much later, Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) follows up with similar sentiments:

Not so th’ Golden Age, who fed on fruit,
Nor durst with bloody meals their mouths pollute.
Then birds in airy space might safely move,
And tim’rous hares on heaths securely rove:
Nor needed fish the guileful hooks to fear,
For all was peaceful; and that peace sincere.
Whoever was the wretch, (and curs’d be he
That envy’d first our food’s simplicity!)
Th’ essay of bloody feasts on brutes began,
And after forg’d the sword to murder man.
— Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) Metamorphoses Book 14

 

 

Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market (1614)
 Frans Snyders  (1579–1657)


As Christianity took hold and changed the reverence for nature to the reverence for a monotheistic god, nature itself became demonised as the heavenly was substituted for the earthly. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Devil (“a pair of horns, four claws and a tail”) and the animal-like god of nature, Pan, “the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and connected to fertility and the season of spring. Pan’s goatish image recalls conventional faun-like depictions of Satan.”

Hell

In medieval depictions of Hell, the Devil and his helpers torture humans. Hell, as Sartre has said “is other people” and, like packed trains and buses, always seems to have an awful lot of people crammed into very small places. Moreover, the animal-like Devil and his helpers seem to be like animals getting their revenge on humans by killing them and cooking them in the same way that humans kill and eat animals, by hanging them upside down (blood draining?), roasting over a fire on a spit, boiling in large vats, or baking in a fiery oven.

 

 

The Torments of Hell, French book illumination, 15th century. Illustration for Augustinius’, De civitate Dei, Bibliotheque de Ste. Genevieve Ms. 246, vol. 389.

 

It seems that deep in our psychology, the more we brutalise animals the more we fear that one day the animals will rise up and brutalise us. However, in some sense it is already happening. As Mike Anderson writes, they do get their revenge but in a slower, but just as deadly, way:

As far as eating is concerned, humans are the most stupid animals on the planet. We kill billions of wild animals to protect the animals that we eat. We are destroying our environment to feed to the animals we eat. We spend more time, money and resources fattening up the animals that we eat, than we do feeding humans who are dying of hunger. The greatest irony is that after all the expenses of raising these animals, we eat them; and they kill us slowly. And rather than recognise this madness, we torture and murder millions of other animals trying to find cures to diseases caused by eating animals in the first place.

In his article ‘Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history’, Yuval Noah Harari wrote:

The fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. Tens of billions of sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions, live and die on a production line. Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history. The march of human progress is strewn with dead animals.

At least in recent years, in tandem with the ever increasing herds and flocks of domesticated animals for human consumption, there has been the development of movements against the slaughter in animal rights activism. Peter Singer wrote about it in the 1970s in his book Animal Liberation and, inter alia, in the 2000s Joaquin Phoenix told us about this slaughter in two truly difficult-to-watch documentaries: Earthlings (2005)  and Dominion (2018).

 

 Animals - Studio album by Pink Floyd
An image of the Battersea Power Station in England, where a giant pig can be seen flying between its left chimneys. The album was developed from a collection of unrelated songs into a concept which, in the words of author Glenn Povey, "described the apparent social and moral decay of society, likening the human condition to that of mere animals".


 


Flying pigs

Image Courtesy of The Horror Collective

 

Colonialism and Genocide

Our attitude towards animals, our bloodthirstiness, has unfortunately carried over into our historical and current treatment of our fellow human beings in the form of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Joseph Conrad expressed it succinctly in his novel Heart of Darkness (1899) where Mr Kurtz (making a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs) reveals his true colonial mentality when he writes ‘Exterminate all the brutes’. The colonial mindset that sees ethnic groups as not much better than animals (brutes) is predicated on the idea that the coloniser is somehow ‘superior’ and ‘civilised’ despite the fact that nowadays and ecology-wise, it is realised that these ‘primitive’ groups generally live in tune with nature rather than destroying it, as the ‘civilised’ West does. Sven Oskar Lindqvist (1932 – 2019) a Swedish author of mostly non-fiction, took Mr Kurtz’s exclamation as the title of his book on the history of colonialism and genocide, Exterminate All the Brutes (1992). The title was subsequently used again for a harrowing four part documentary series (2021) directed and narrated by Raoul Peck who worked with Lindqvist.

 

 

Punch (1881)

 

Furthermore, even in our more ‘enlightened’ era, our attitude towards animals as our fellow ‘earthlings’ has run into other, more serious problems, as Michael Cronin writes:

In more recent times, it is fears around what is seen as the neo-Malthusian pathology of deep ecology that prompts a reticence around stressing the animal nature of humans. In this reading of ecology, treating humans as one species among others leads inevitably to the conclusion that the only way to deal with human overpopulation is through the mass elimination of humans. As they would not enjoy higher ontological status than other species, such genocidal practices could be justified by the overall flourishing of species on the planet.[2]

Once again, our fears of our brutal selves lead us to try and characterise ourselves as more important than ‘mere’ animals in a self-defeating vicious cycle. Which brings us back to the point that Pythagoras made (‘as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other’). In other words, as long as we treat animals like ‘animals’ (brutes) we will treat each other like ‘animals’ too.

  1. Richard Heinberg, (1989) Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age, Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, p. 48.
  2. Michael Cronin, (2016) Eco-Translation: Translation and Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene (New Perspectives in Translation and Interpreting Studies), London: Routledge, p. 74.
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Power of Romanticism today: 21st Century Irrationalism


"Christianity defeated and wiped out the old faith of the pagans. Then with great fervour and diligence it strove to cast out and utterly destroy every last possible occasion of sin; and in doing so it ruined or demolished all the marvelous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods; and as well as this it destroyed countless memorials and inscriptions left in honor of illustrious persons who had been commemorated by the genius of the ancient world in statues and other public monuments …. their tremendous zeal was responsible for inflicting severe damage on the practice of the arts, which then fell into total confusion."
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Lives of the Artists.



The development and spread of Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century instituted new movements based on a scientific approach to the pursuit of happiness, sense evidence as the primary source of knowledge, and which believed in progress, liberty, constitutional government and separation of church and state. However, while the growth of Romanticism in the nineteenth century was a new movement emphasising the non-rational, or irrational, this was not new. Irrationalism stressed feeling, will and instinct over or against reason and its influence stretched back through time to the early Greeks. For example: "In ancient Greek culture—which is usually assessed as rationalistic — a Dionysian (i.e., instinctive) strain can be discerned in the works of the poet Pindar, in the dramatists, and even in such philosophers as Pythagoras and Empedocles and in Plato. In early modern philosophy — even during the ascendancy of Cartesian rationalism — Blaise Pascal turned from reason to an Augustinian faith, convinced that “the heart has its reasons” unknown to reason as such."

Here I will look at the relationship between science and irrationalism throughout history showing that at times rational investigation complemented irrational ideas, and at other times irrational ideas arose that conflicted with rational analysis. Early polytheistic society was less dogmatic in its attitude to science compared with Christian theology. Science slowly regained a foothold over the centuries and church ideology weakened. However, Romanticism took the place of the church as the main irrationalist ideology to hinder the growing influence of science in many different fields. Similarly with Christian ideology, it was the conservative elites who advanced and benefited from the irrationalist ideas of Romanticism, using the various offshoots of Romanticism (Nationalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, Metamodernism etc.) to try and hold back the progressive development of societies towards genuine democracy and freedom, the essential ideas that originated in the Enlightenment. However, as globalised hegemonic culture today becomes ever more saturated with Romanticism - in parallel with Romanticist political movements - there is a real fear that another wave of extreme irrationalist ideas and violence could be provoked and sweep the world within a short period of time.


Early religion and rational investigation

In early societies the irrational ideas of polytheistic religion were aided by rational investigation that helped with human understanding of nature, for example, the Mesopotamians studied scientific subjects, like astronomy, that helped with their religious system.

Astronomy was of utmost importance to some civilizations who left behind large artifacts (proto-observatories e.g. Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in Great Britain, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Abu Simbel in Egypt etc.) connected with the longest and shortest days of the year. This would have helped in determining the seasons and understanding the length of the year and when was the best time to plant crops. Early religion was polytheistic and rooted in nature which can still be seen today amongst the indigenous peoples of many countries. In Ancient Greece, worshipping the gods centred around fertility, childbirth, farming, harvest and death:

"Peasants worshipped the omnipresent deities of the countryside, such as the Arcadian goat-god Pan, who prospered the flocks, and the nymphs (who, like Eileithyia, aided women in childbirth) who inhabited caves, springs (Naiads), trees (dryads and hamadryads), and the sea (Nereids). They also believed in nature spirits such as satyrs and sileni and equine Centaurs. Among the more-popular festivals were the rural Dionysia, which included a phallus pole; the Anthesteria, when new wine was broached and offerings were made to the dead; the Thalysia, a harvest celebration; the Thargelia, when a scapegoat (pharmakos) assumed the communal guilt; and the Pyanepsia, a bean feast in which boys collected offerings to hang on the eiresiōne (“wool pole”)."


Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis, to play the pan flute, Roman copy of Greek original c. 100 BC, found in Pompeii. Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and  connected to fertility and the season of spring. Pan's goatish image recalls conventional faun-like depictions of Satan.


The desire to systematize the connection between nature and farming resulted in the many-century long scientific endeavour to create an accurate calendar. The Greek poet Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC developed the Works and Days calendar "in which the farmer was to regulate seasonal activities by the seasonal appearances and disappearances of the stars, as well as by the phases of the Moon which were held to be propitious or ominous."

Thus, the calendar would help people more accurately mark the seasons with celebrations and rituals that integrated their activity with the earth's cycles:

"The cycle of the year, at both the change of the four seasons as well as the height of each season, used to hold great importance. The winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, was a time of new birth. Often it was symbolized by the birth of an annual male fertility figure, a representation of the year's new sun. The height of the winter, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, was a time to nurture that new life. Spring was about encouraging fertility, when the sun and earth would unite to later bring forth the abundance of the harvest and the bounty of the hunt. From the summer solstice through autumn the sun's energy transferred to the crops. The height of summer and the fall equinox were celebrations of the year's harvest and bounty. The end of the year when fields lay dormant and the earth seemed to die at the height of autumn was a time to honor the dead and release the past." [1]

From the later sixth century BCE onward, myths and gods were subject to rational criticism on ethical or other grounds as the early Greek philosophers such as Thales of Miletus and later Anaximander and Anaximenes tried to explain natural phenomena without relying on the supernatural.


The rise of irrationalism

The spread of Christendom from the Middle East to Africa and Europe by 600 CE was to have huge consequences not only for polytheistic religions but also on burgeoning scientific exploration. The struggle to convert the Roman Empire to Chrisatianity was perceived by Christians as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light, between God and Satan.[2]


Saint Aemilianus, known for his destruction of ancient temples and libraries is shown using ropes to pull down a statue. His followers are breaking up statues with picks and axes.


As Christianity gained more and more power it worked to not only convert the polytheists to monotheism but also to eradicate scientific learning through attacks on books, libraries and the philosophers themselves. The only thing that mattered in life was worshipping god and any threat to the ideology and theology of Christianity, like, for example, Epicurean (341–270 BC) atomic theory, was to be eradicated. Atomic theory stated that everything in the world was made by the collision and combination of atoms and not created by a divine being.Thus, according to Catherine Nixey:

"The intellectual consequences of this powerful [atomic] theory were summarized succinctly by the Christian apologist Minucius Felix. If everything in the universe has been 'formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, what God is the architect?' The obvious answer is: no god at all. No god magicked up mankind out of nothing, no divinity breathed life into us; and, when we die, our atoms are simply reabsorbed into this great sea of stuff. 'No thing is ever by divine power produced from nothing,' wrote Lucretius in his great poem, On the Nature of Things, and 'no single thing returns to nothing'. Atomic theory thus neatly did away with the need for and possibility of Creation, Resurrection, the Last Judgement, Hell, Heaven, and the Creator God himself." [3]


Marble relief from the first or second century showing the mythical transgressor Ixion being tortured on a spinning fiery wheel in Tartarus. Epicurus taught that stories of such punishment in the afterlife are ridiculous superstitions and that believing in them prevents people from attaining ataraxia ("tranquility").


While the classical philosophers had variously argued multiple positions on the existence of gods ("that there were countless gods; that there was one god; that there were no gods at all, or that you simply couldn't be sure" [4]), they were tolerated by the general polytheistic populace. This could be because the general population and the philosophers had the same aim in common: to understand nature. This was also because the Greeks saw their gods as being similar to themselves:

"it is important not to forget the fact, which Hannah Arendt stressed (quoting Herodotus), that whereas in other religions God is transcendent, beyond time and life and the universe, the Greek gods are anthropophyeis, i.e. have the same nature, not simply the same shape, as man. If therefore one takes into account the Greeks’ absence of belief in supernatural God, their lack of belief in fixed and revealed truths and the consequent absence of given moral codes, one may assume that Greeks were, in a sense, atheists."

In Christianity, irrationalism is founded on the idea that human reason cannot fully grasp the meaning of the human condition, and that God and evil coexist in a way that cannot be rationally explained. Therefore, only prayer and faith were necessary for salvation and all earthly necessities and desires were to be swept aside to focus on the promise of eternal life. The Christians attacked classical monuments and shrines, razed temples, burned books and sacred groves, imprisoned and executed 'idolaters'. As a result, according to Helen Ellerbe, "As the Church assumed leadership, activity in the fields of medicine, technology, science, education, history, art, and commerce all but collapsed. Europe entered the Dark Ages. Although the Church amassed immense wealth during these centuries, most of what defines civilization disappeared." [5]

The effect of the Church on classical learning was devastating. While a lot of classical literature was preserved over the centuries "it has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains." [6] Instead of celebrating nature directly, people eventually prayed to the Christian "saints for good crops, rain and healthy children almost as pagans once prayed to specific gods assigned to oversee agriculture or fertility." [7]


Chart of Pagan traditions and Christian adaptations from The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe


Christian eschatology (study concerned with the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire created order) and the idea of linear time took over from the people’s strong connection with nature and the ever-changing seasons. Although, according to David Ewing Duncan, in early medieval times the peasants still lived and died “in a continuous cycle of days and years that to them had no discernible past or future.” [8] Old habits die hard and the church eventually had no choice but to incorporate polytheistic nature-based traditions of the solstice, the Nativity, Saturnalia, Yuletide, the Easter hare and Easter eggs into their own traditions over time.


Science makes a comeback - the Renaissance

By the twelfth century things began to change. The intellectual revitalization of the Renaissance in Europe led to a new intelectual reinvigoration. Universities were set up and Europeans gained access to scientific Arabic and Greek texts, including the works of Aristotle, Alhazen, and Averroes. There was a huge increase in the rate of inventions and economic growth. As Jean Gimpel writes in The Medieval Machine:

"The Middle Ages was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe. The scientists and engineers of that time were searching for alternative sources of energy to hydraulic power, wind power, and tidal energy. Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, western Europe experienced a technological boom. [...] Energy consumption increased considerably. Technological innovations brought about improvements in the efficiency of existing methods and also led to a successful search for new sources of energy. Many of the tasks formerly done by hand were now carried out by machines. Concurrently, there was a revolution in agricultural methods, which enabled farmers to produce enough food for an expanding population and provide a more varied diet. There was a marked increase in the general standard of living." [9]

The reemergence of Aristotelian scientific ideas exerted pressure on the Catholic Church to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) believed that: "Faith and reason, while distinct but related, are the two primary tools for processing the data of theology. Thomas believed both were necessary—or, rather, that the confluence of both was necessary—for one to obtain true knowledge of God. Thomas blended Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine by suggesting that rational thinking and the study of nature, like revelation, were valid ways to understand truths pertaining to God." Like the pagan festivals, scientific or rational thinking was incorporated into Christian thinking to bolster Christian theology.

The influence of the Renaissance was long lasting and allowed for the growth of scientific communities which by the sixteenth century produced profound results. The Scientific Revolution is believed to have been initiated by the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and ended in 1632 with publication of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It was a process that started with the recovery of what was left of the knowledge of the ancients and was completed by "the "grand synthesis" of Isaac Newton's 1687 Principia. This work formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, thereby completing the synthesis of a new cosmology."


Isaac Newton's copy of Principia from 1687. Newton made seminal contributions to classical mechanics, gravity, and optics. Newton also shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.


The Scientific Revolution progressed into the Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) which became the main intellectual and philosophical movement in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and covered a range of ideas "centered on the pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state."


The Romanticist reaction

The revolutionary significance of such progressive ideas was not lost on the wealthy elites who discussed universal ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity but soon limited them to their own class. They reacted to progressivism by looking back to medieval times and society (to a non-threatening peasant class) as an ideal, hoping to divert or divide the developing new revolutionary working class. They rejected collectivist ideals and emphasised emotion and individualism. Romanticist ideas had a profound negative effect on the liberatory and progressive aspects of the arts, and Romanticist thinkers influenced liberalism, conservatism, and nationalism. In contrast to the usually very social art of the Enlightenment, Romantics were distrustful of the human world, emphasised a belief in spiritual freedom, individual creativity, the artist's own unique, inner vision, ultimately melting away the very notion of objective truth.

Philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard emphasised the idea that the world of rationalism was deceptive and ill-equipped to grasp the 'essence' of things.

The rise of Romanticist irrationalism in the twentieth century led to the Nationalist conflicts of the First Word War and the aggressive Fascism of the Second World War. Since then irrationalism has been a more subtle part of many social and political movements. Takis Fotopoulos, for example, has discussed two types of irrationalism: 'old' and 'new' irrationalism. 'Old' irrationalism which has flourished since the Second World War "has taken various forms ranging from the revival, in some cases, of the old religions (Christianity, Islam etc) up to the expansion of various irrational trends (mysticism, spritualism, astrology, esoterism,  neopaganism,  ‘New Age’ etc) which, especially in the West, threaten old religions."


Book burning in Berlin, May 1933


Fotopoulos describes three aspects of the 'new' irrationalism in terms of the universalisation of the market/growth economy, the ecological crisis, and the collapse of ‘development’ in the South. He writes:"at the cultural level, the liberalization and de-regulation of markets have contributed significantly to the present cultural homogenization, which led to an irrational reaction, in the form of the rise of various fundamentalisms [and], at the ideological level, the emergence of the neoliberal consensus was associated with the rise of postmodernism." He sees the ecological crisis in terms of "the ‘instrumental’ or ‘pragmatic’ approaches versus the ‘spiritual’ ones [and] the deep ecology approach considers the present non-sustainable development as a cultural rather than as an institutional issue, as a matter of values rather than as the inevitable outcome of the rise of the market economy, with its grow-or-die dynamic, which is to blame for the present growth economy." This led to collapse of ‘development’ in the South:

"Under these circumstances, the return to tradition and, particularly, to religion seemed very appealing to the impoverished people in the South, whose communities and economic self-reliance were being destroyed by the internationalized market/growth economy. Particularly so, when religion was seen as a moral code preaching equality of all men before God set against the injustices of the market/growth economy.  Similarly, the return to spirituality looked as the only way to match an imported materialism which was associated with a distorted consumer society, i.e. one that was not even capable of delivering the goods to the majority of the population, as in the North."

Thus, the influence of irrationalism in society today is very broad and deep, and affects so many people and movements negatively. It pervades culture, society and politics. This is partly because of the chameleon-like nature of Romanticism which reacts to any progressive ideas or movements by appearing as a radical opposite while it soaks up dissent (e.g. medieval crafts in opposition to modern industry), or, by appearing progressive when it copies the form while substituting in an opposite content (e.g. the Church incorporating polytheistic nature-based traditions of the solstice, the Nativity, Saturnalia, Yuletide, Easter etc.). This means that the insidious nature of irrationalism must be constantly exposed and dealt with before it develops its own momentum again and leads to the kind of socio-political disasters we have seen in the past.


Extract from the frontispiece of the Encyclopédie (1772). It was drawn by Charles-Nicolas Cochin and engraved by Bonaventure-Louis Prévost. The work is laden with symbolism: The figure in the centre represents truth—surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the Enlightenment). Two other figures on the right, reason and philosophy, are tearing the veil from truth.


However, the importance of the legacy of the Enlightenment is not so much its support for and development of science, but how particular philosophers used that scientific learning to fight against injustice (an older legacy of many centuries of exploitation and oppression). The idea that knowledge would not just make one aware of how exploitation and oppression worked, but would develop into ideas and practices that could eventually bring such exploitation and oppression to an end was the truly revolutionary legacy of the Enlightenment movement.


Notes:
[1] Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (1995) p145
[2] Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p9
[3] Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p36
[4] Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p147
[5] Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (1995) p41
[6] Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p166
[7] David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: The 5000-year Struggle to Align the Clock and the Heavens – and What Happened to the Missing Ten Days, (2011) p142
[8]  David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: The 5000-year Struggle to Align the Clock and the Heavens – and What Happened to the Missing Ten Days, (2011) p137
[9] Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1986) pviii/ix

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.