Enlightenment versus enlightenment.
So, here we have it: Tweedle Dee, and Tweedle Dum. In our rush towards the oblivion that scientists are becoming increasingly more strident in their warnings about our planet's future, our politicians are found to be naked. They are powerless confronted by the enormity of the problems confronting humanity and indeed, the 200 plus species that are reportedly going extinct every day. This is no time to be playing a Viennese waltz, or even fiddling from the rooftops like Topov.
We are confronting a disaster caused in large part by the success of Homo sapiens sapiens
as a species. It is a disaster of our own making to be sure, but as Marx so aptly put it, “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”
|Johann Strauss II|
Marx, of course, never had the longevity to witness just how debauched the Tartaric Socialism that he warned of could be. The Russians certainly had, and still have, a certain way of doing business that is peculiar to their country. The Germans, too, whom Marx had no time for at all in the revolutionary stakes, outdid themselves by destroying Europe and a very large part of their most intellectually productive subclasses, the Jews, Homosexuals and Gypsies who had contributed greatly to the formation of Germany as a modern country, only to have that same country turn on them singly as a group and obliterated them, their books, and art works.
In 1941, they gave the gold stolen from the European banks along with the gold teeth extracted from wealthy Jews who they enslaved before gassing, all in the name of science, of course, and gave it to the Swiss bankers, the gnomes of Zürich, for protection.
|The Gnomes of Zürich, © Daniel Pudles, from Financial Times March 29, 2016|
The Swiss are renowned bankers, and as such, when the war was over, or the European Civil War (see Hobsbawm) as it would be better named, and to the Americans had moved in to rebuild Europe under their own image, the call went out to return this stolen money and artworks. The Swedes, collaborators with the Nazis, agreed sheepishly to the request, no doubt to rejoin the Western project that was rebuilding under the tutelage of the Americans. The Swiss just blankly refused to even discuss the subject. They distastefully to this day have the attitude of "It's our money now, so bad luck."
What has this got to do with the price of fish? Well, to put things in perspective you must understand that I am an artist who has struggled for years as to how best represent what Anthony Giddens called the Juggernaut of modernity. After World War II, renowned academic Theodor Adorno returned to Frankfurt to only be denied the job that was taken from him by the Nazis.
Before Adorno's return, he was in exile in California along with other notables of the Weimer Republic's German intelligentsia. Adorno and Horkheimer began work on Dialectic of Enlightenment late in the war, as an attempt to understand and explain the disaster that be struck Europe and Germany in particular. Europe was the home of Enlightenment thinking and the German's were at the forefront in many ways of this movement. The called it die Erklarung.
|Liberty, by Eugene Delacroix|
How was Germany, a centre of enlightenment, commit such a preposterous act against one of the major forces of the that movement for the secular betterment of society, the European jewish intelligentsia? Through their analysis, published in Frankfurt in 1947, they come to the conclusion that their are two enlightenments: the Enlightenment, which is concerned with only what can be rationally understood, and the enlightenment, the spirit if you like of the movement towards freedom from authority of the Church and their statist cronies.
This rings so true in the current climate in the West. We have those pushing ahead with coal and other fossil fuels, including myself I must add (it is hard to escape this paradigm while still functioning in society at all), and the obvious need to change in drastic ways. I cannot see how the future can be capitalist as some would hopefully hold out. Capitalism is based on compounding growth and surely this exponential underpinning of the current economic system is at the very source of our problems. The Enlightenment and capitalism went hand in hand driving ever more towards the ultimate demise of itself as a system, but also to the very environment that it has been so efficient in exploiting for the profit of both the capitalists, and the well situated workers and professionals within that system.
But this is not of interest to me. What I am interested in is how this internal conflict between a striving towards rational domination versus the equally strong desire for freedom which must include, of course, an environment in which to be free. Max Weber had a bleak outlook for our future under Capital, believing that it would lead us into an Iron Cage of our own making. For the Frankfurt School, Adorno, Horkheimer and later Jürgen Habermas, all leave a way out, if only we are men and women enough to take it.
|Waiting For Godot, Avignon 1978.|
Beckett comes closest to this representation notably in his plays Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, and his novellas Murphy and Dante...Bruno . Vico..Joyce. Beckett takes over from where Joyce leaves off, diverging from his earlier mentor's overly 'realistic' portrayals. Beckett goes for the minimal, the absurd, the existential, but with the flourish of a baroque classicist. The times he lived in became progressively more unspeakable and yet he had to find a way in which to speak his times. He speaks his times by avoiding them altogether. Vladimir and Estragon get nowhere interspersed by scenes of cruelty and degradation with the sporadic appearance during intermezzi with Pozzo and Lucky parading around the stage to the bemusement of the two characters and the audience.
In fact, Vivian Mercier put it best when he wrote that Waiting For Godot is a play where "nothing happens twice". (The Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6. cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivian_Mercier, November 28, 2019).
Here we have a decaying classicism mingled with a playful exploration of the absurdity of life. But the life is made absurd, not by the characters who are seriously pursuing their tragicomic denouement with a reserved vigour, but with vigour nonetheless. Beckett achieves what the entire 60s and 70s and whatever decade of rock music that has come to replace poetry in the collective consciousness never has been able to: to represent the grotesqueness of late capitalism with a tenderness and care that no one I know of has even come close to achieving.
So, somewhere here is an inspiration. But in many ways I think that the resistance fighter Beckett is too much tied up with the rubbish heap of modernity that he found himself in at end of WWII. He never seems to lose hope that somehow humanity, as frail as it may seem, will in some way redeem itself somewhere, sometime. Today we are faced with a different problem altogether.
Having witnessed to dismantling of empire and the influx of émigrés, first from a crumbling Europe and later as the result of revolutions and coups around the world, has become exposed to the criticism that indeed, the emperor has no clothes. Of course, many of these critics are trying to negotiate social mobility within their new found homelands, but also, there is an underlying truth to this.
Post WWII, Britain and France were 'persuaded' to give up their colonies, not without complaint mind you (they were forced out of the sub-continent and Indo-China respectively). They were not so quick in giving up the riches they had plundered from these colonies and stored in mega-companies and museums. Nevertheless, there has been a great turn around, with the post-modernist and post-colonialists represent the disaffected colonialists and colonised respectively. The USA became to defacto leader of the West. The rest is history.
Which brings me to my point. Humanity is facing more than a bloody existential crisis as is often touted about ad nauseam by the disintegrating outpost of post-capital modernity, the press. It is facing destruction, pure and simple. Greta Thunberg knows this. A sixteen year old knows this and she puts it very eloquently in her new book, No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference. Humanity approaches a paradigm shift where nothing will be as it is now, and everything that we do now will stand discredited. This is the way society evolves, culturally, not physically. It is how the enlightenment gave birth to the competing forces of capital and liberty, by discrediting the ecclesiastical and the aristocratic sycophants who blitheringly supported the religious nonsense of the Middle Ages.
|Portrait of M. and Mme Lavoisier,|
by Jacques-Louis David, 1788 (Metropolitan Museum)
That is all well and good, but we are moving into a new world from where we are. Just as the Enlightenment thinkers and artists made short work of the magical thinking of the church, now the powdered wigs of the ruling elite will be discredited. But how? How is this possible when faced by the destruction of life as we know it. First, the future is already here in the present. It has been here for some time. It is always already here if we only have eyes to see, noses to smell, and ears to hear. If I cannot sense it maybe I can feel it.
Maybe it is in the gaps between words, the pause between thoughts, the moment between touch. It is present in the world as the possibility of a becoming. It is not a done deal. The future can always take turns that were never imagined. People retreat into the past, try to recover identity in a world where identity is simply the account password for your email. In doing so, they have been encouraged into the aristocracy of identity politics. It is a fools errand. A dead end street. A cul de sac of broken promises and backroom deals filled with spies and state actors. Freedom is on the verge of becoming illegal. The planet is on the brink of becoming a windswept desert inhabited by drought tolerant cockroaches if at all.
If there is to be a light at the end of the tunnel, it will be shone through art, humanity's contemplation of the world in which we live. It will be a songline to the future, a path that is buried in the overgrowth of years of miseducation and misinformation. The future is not bleak. Fear is what Machiavelli found to be the best way to rule the populace. To move into the future will be to overcome and put aside our fears and trepidations. It will be to create a world where all people are free from the fear of the future oblivion, poverty, disease and ignorance. It is a world where we find our place amongst the greatness of the universe. A world where we have given up all claims to the universal knowledge of the Enlightenment and replaced it with the gentle inquisitiveness of an enlightened being free in the world.