Month: September 2014

Notational, No. 11

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.

The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.

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Fragmentary, No. 6

But watching [12 Years a Slave], being forced to confront its depiction of the unrelieved brutality and sorrow of slavery in the context of the brutalities being committed in the here and now, should turn all our heads sharply backwards and unloose our tongues to revive King’s question for our times: “How Long?” And in unison we should answer, the arc of the moral universe is still bending toward justice, but it has not yet reached its mark.

♦ Deborah E. McDowell, “How Long?—Not Long”

The Summer of “1984”

It was a surprisingly bright, English day; and swarming with crowds through London’s theatre district. My companion, whom I had come all the way across the pond to see, was providing the commentary, as my voice was out of commission. Just before all the fixed points of my life were upheaved and mobilized at the beginning of the summer, I lost my voice. Everything I wanted to express, direct, or exchange was throttled by a forced rasp that was all my ailing vocal cords could accomplish.

“It’s viral. Your body’s fighting it. That’s good,” said my doctor after I had submitted to her examination.

“I need to move cities and then leave the country within the next week,” I narrowly managed to convey to her.

She shrugged. Shrugged!

So, from my perspective, the visit to Britain was a little less convivial than I would have hoped; but ultimately the trip was already paid for and I wasn’t about to cancel. Sulking moodily in a newly acquired apartment, solitarily mired in an unfamiliar community, rather than exploring the banks of the Thames, wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the first half of July. So be it, I thought.

I packed up. I went.

It came to a frustrating result, but still, a rewarding one. It was a worthwhile visit: hanging out with physics nerds in the East End; frequently venturing out to buy bargain white wine from Tesco’s; navigating the Tube without being fairly able to ask for directions; wandering. England’s weather didn’t reject me—it was identifiably summer. There were lots of opportunities to rove about in the open air, and circumnavigate the kinks of London’s urban knot. It will be recorded as a cherished trip.

That day, though, frequently crushed by the mobile agendas of bamboozled tourists, we skittered past the theatre production of 1984.

“Everyone makes such a big deal out of that book,” my chaperone said to me. He went on to ask what I thought about it—does it predict a future we are on a collision course with? Or has it already happened?

“I actually haven’t read it,” I wheezed in a forced strain beneath the background noise.

He, the student of science, was shocked that I, the student of literature, did not have first-hand knowledge of the book. Although, when pressed, he admitted that he had only ever made it through the first 40 pages, and was basing most of his opinion regarding the interface of Orwell’s dystopia with our evident reality on hearsay. The conversation we managed to have about the novel’s lauded prescience in a way succeeded in spite of our mutual handicap. The upshot was the observation that, despite vocal remonstrations from the modern public concerning the erosion of confidentiality and the growing ubiquity of surveillance, recording, and monitoring technologies, it seems that we have in fact quite prosaically handed over the rights to our privacy in steady increments. Could we not say that we have already acquiesced to Big Brother? Has the revolution not happened around us? Isn’t Orwell’s future here?

Now that I’ve read the book, I see that there were some quite conspicuous lacunas in our unsubstantiated assumptions about the nature and character of Big Brother. As one of those frequently required schoolhouse texts, 1984 has a kind of imaginative currency that transcends the actual act of reading it. Having never cracked its spine I still felt familiar with the broad strokes of the text just by virtue of cultural osmosis; but that knowledge was a sketchy equivocation and did not adequately map out the content of the novel’s concerns. As a result our rhetorical questions about an already realized Orwellian present-future were fairly off base.

The omnipresent telescreens and the consequent obliteration of privacy; the techniques of doublethink and the reworking of language to delineate the boundaries of what is thinkable; the machinations of the Ministry of Love and its subversive agents; all these together produce a framework of technologies devoted to the subjugation and control of the very people who are at work maintaining that same control in 1984. The totalitarian regime of the Party in Oceania is indeed devoted to power: having it, exercising it, perpetuating its hold of it; and it does this largely through the management of information. The ultimate goal is to govern thought itself to render resistance impossible and secure the future of the Party indefinitely. The techniques are forceful, brutish, and conspicuous; but, more importantly, they only concern the 15 percent of the population who are members of the ruling class. The proles, the remaining 85 percent, remain relatively untouched by the social engineering, surveillance, and coercion techniques of the Party. The masses are simply kept poor, kept busy, and herded.

Orwell’s 1984 has not come to pass. The brutality and ham-fisted manipulation tactics of the Big Brother regime are quite self-evidently totalitarian, conceived and enforced by a relative few under the guise of a war-mongering communism. The conditions we live in are far more insidious, far-reaching, and all encompassing. The mechanisms of control that pervade our modern society bring to fruition the primacy of information that exists in Orwell’s vision, but they diverge sharply when it comes to concerns of centrality and complicity. We live in a network of coercions that lacks a definable centre: the nodes of power that continuously form and dissolve, while remaining continually mobile or nebulously defined, influence us from all sides. The agendas of human interests work to win us over through the functions of every design, every product of human endeavour. As we want, as we desire to interface, as we exchange and as we capitalize upon our options, we collaborate. Not only that, we proliferate the very forces which enact the processes of restriction and control that delimit us. The scale of our complicity in the management of human life does not confine itself to the ruling class—in this information age every participant in the circuit of feedback and interchange makes a tacit acquiesce to regulation, and in turn does their part in contributing to the policing of the comprehensive complex that overwrites the boundaries of our interconnectedness.

George Orwell didn’t predict this. We’re in a much more subtle mess than he could have envisioned.