“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” From The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Great Feast Forgotten
Can the Great Feast of Knowledge save us from our worst excesses at this moment of political and reactionary ferment? I would like to think it could help. But it would require the regular diners to do their part and remind visitors of the customs of dining and etiquette practiced therein. The feast is at its liveliest and most heartening when everyone participating follows some basic guidelines.
Do tuck in! But remember not to shit in your plate. Piss in the corner. Punch the other diners for merely burping. Or take over the kitchen and enforce your own country’s god awful cuisine.
No, that will not do.
Here are some tips for decent feasting;
First of all, remember the critics! A good food critic is worth a thousand meals they say. Try the food for yourself as they might be utterly wrong in their judgments, but they are essential when evaluating a potential meal. The best of them provide unexpected insights, history, context, and appreciation for the hard work it can take to cook up a complex dish. And an insightful critic can help you avoid indigestion: A most common problem these days!
Secondly, dine with guests who know a surprising thing or two about the meal you’ve ordered. Always listen out for unexpected diners and see if you can hang with them for a while to learn more about ingredients and their origins. They bring variety to the monotony of the familiar and can make the real difference between a successful evening of dining, and a disaster of epic proportions.
Three, ask how the meal might be improved. Yes, you are entitled to your own opinion, and it may be you that surprises the company you’re in by offering up a refinement to the dish, reinvigorating a classic, or offer surprising innovation to alt-cuisine. Of course, you may also end up spouting bullshit, but here, someone will help you to note the bad odor in the air and change verbal percorso.
Fourth, don’t get stuck at the table. Move around, see what else is happening at the other tables and stop for a while to chat. The more social connections you build at the Feast, the more likely you’ll come back and dine further. It really is important to network you know.
Fifth (for now), pay attention to the quality of the ingredients. Sometimes the food has gone bad and you may not even realize it. Be sure to examine your plate carefully for signs of rotten food. Don’t be shy in sending your dish back to the kitchen if it’s clearly rancid. Do remember that some of the kitchen staff are new to cooking, and a bit of patience will be needed if they are to learn.
Sixth, don’t force others to eat when they are full. Remember digestion! To overeat, to eat too fast, to skip meals; these are all unhealthy eating habits and spoil the pleasure of dining.
Finally, try to share the conversation. Droning on about why your diet is the best of all and should be adopted by all the other diners is rude and presumptuous and most guests hate it.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, idling at the traffic lights waiting for part 1 to begin.
In a world of easy dopamine vices, it can be insightful to look up the meaning of words in a number of dictionaries and marvel at the variety of definitions given. Definitions that can at times be miles apart, unexpected, or differ in small ways that may be of upmost importance if precision were to determine the success or failure of a thing. This variety reminds us, in a small way, just how strong our tendency is to fix the world into easy categories, and simplistic definitions, and how much of a habit this is for us all. It reminds us how our simplification of the world causes us to miss its multiplicity, its complexity, its visible and invisible relationships, and the ever-present role of history in our present, even as we push on, trying to ignore or escape the past. For a word, as any linguist knows, tends to wriggle out of the boundaries within which it is placed; Take the word gay for example. And that’s just a word. How about a concept? Intelligence. Or philosophy or art? Post-modernism. A movement? Anti-racism. A religion? Buddhism. Or, how about that incredible mass of wriggly humans that we are, all wriggling together for thousands of years with varied pasts, presents, dreams and futures.
Such variety. Such a mix.
And yet, for some folks, too many of them actually, words, concepts, movements, people, and even the world itself, can be summarised rather simply, captured within a single phrase, narrowed down and placed inside a nice conceptual box, or even caught by a solitary word.
“Done and dusted,” they bellow. “Got that figured out,” they chime.
Really? One might reply. How interesting.
We could put this down to a number of causes. A lack of imagination might be one (if we were to be generous), intellectual poverty (if we were to be harsh), or epistemological immaturity: perhaps as a consequence of being waylaid in one’s learning, or as an expression of the joys of youthful ignorance (remembering that youthful ignorance can last a lifetime). It can also come down to a question of time in today’s frenetic and demanding world. We all need to know so much, and yet often lack the pace and rhythm of life to give knowledge the attention it needs, digest it slowly, reflect and mature our understanding turn information into more than mere data. Within the practising life, it would appear, all the same, that we have ourselves an eminently workable condition – learn, and learn some more, dedicate time throughout your life to learning well, make plenty of mistakes, fail, grow, keep on learning, and discover the limits of what you know, and then (and so importantly) the limits of what we know, all of us; including our favourite image makers and heroes.
Essentially, we might learn about epistemic humility and apply its principles liberally to every other imperfect human we come into contact with physically, through the pages of books, or the magical screens we spend some much time staring at these days. A learning that emerges from an increasing willingness to state, “I don’t know” and “I could be wrong” is a wondrous thing indeed. When shared generously to those we adore, or are infatuated with, it can be even more wondrous. From such learning, grace, tolerance, appreciation and patience might even begin to emerge: Much needed qualities today, as they have forever been. We might question the faith we tend to hold in the knowledge of others. We might even go further and inhabit the space of what ifs and dine out on the idea of the democracy of thought, the democracy of knowledge, and take a seat (often) at the Great Feast.
A fast track to greater human knowledge if ever there were one.
Socially, as in that mass of wriggly humans that make up any given society, the challenge of ignorance is rather different, and one that many consider and have long considered impossible. “Humans are too stupid”, the cynics say, “Too ignorant”, “Undisciplined”, “Trapped by their desires” the sceptics call out, “Caught in the moment”, “Distracted”, “Blinded by faith”, others still claim, and the list goes on.
And no doubt these things are true at times and in given circumstances.
But always, and forever more?
I’m not so convinced. I have a certain amount of faith in my fellow wriggly humans, but I would like to think it is not blind. If imperfection is at root our condition, then it is simply all a work in progress; but how easily we tend to forget this! And how easily we turn books into holy transmission, and teachers into prophets. From religion to politics, the behaviours are all too easily recognisable; the smell of the seduction of certainty is all too familiar.
And there is that issue of over-confidence in one’s current state of knowledge, and the warm glow of certainty that ideological capture brings. These two, when working in tandem with intellectual poverty, provide a recipe for anti-intellectualism to gain momentum and build to levels that our current “cultural” climate exhibits. Remember: ignorance can be a many worded thing. Possessing an appearance that would convince many that intellect and sharp minds are at play when in truth, to poke at the surface, is to find obfuscation, blind-faith, abundant belief, and untested assumptions chugging along rather happily.
As well as being linked to decades of failure in our education systems, and an insufficiently developed understanding of adult development, this mash up is increasingly linked to the politicisation of the collective imagination in a time characterised by polarisation and the assertion of ideological boundaries of being, behaving and naming; Three familiar traps that we all get caught by easily enough.
The massive polarisation we see around us, taking shape in different forms and permutations in societies at present, is something that we must all contend with. Some of us choose to do so passively, some of us actively, but very few creatively, and with a desire to transcend the dullness of conformity; either to the ideological entrapment on offer, or the reactive anti-stance that’s so tempting too. As a consequence the collective imagination is too often caught by obsessions that range from ideological conformity, to the dispersion of much needed mental energy dedicated to opposing what is imagined, rather than what is real: Twitter tantrums, Facebook fanaticism, Instagram idiocy, all plough our mental energy, time, and creative juices into the schizophrenic bucket going nowhere that is social media at its worse.
I am not immune to all this myself. Everyone’s at it, it seems.
The custodians of wise encounters with knowledge are not only sparse (they always were), but have now become a part of the problem, apparently, as the anti-intellectual thrust pushes away any of those voices that might shed light on capture and the madness of it all. The wise elders are part of the problem don’t you know.
“But what is this you speak of Matt? I simply can’t see what you’re worried about.” Some claim so, and I don’t doubt that for them this is true. But what must they avoid looking at and seeing to hold to such a view? What blinkers have been donned? What easy justifications are performed?
Which company is kept to enable such short-sightedness?
Things are far more complex than your reading allows for. Keep looking. It is both _______ and _________.
Ideological entrapment too often ends up being the collective form of our very human tendency towards simplicity, easy categorisation, over-confidence, and therefore imaginative poverty. And clearly social media is making this worse. Clearly it takes time and tolerance to avoid it, and effort to read with care, reflect, and say something worthwhile that won’t merely antagonise someone on one side of the polarisation aisle. And today, with polarisation building a pressing and oppressive force on the collective imagination in many pockets of society, this ideological blindness, or refusal to see beyond one’s often simplistic beliefs and uncritically held identity markers is being pushed ever more strongly and ever more deeply with myriad consequences that all sides seem loath to consider, let alone discuss. Those on the side of the good (aren’t we all), will usually do anything to maintain the myths that bind them to their cause.
Though perhaps you have found someone capable of avoiding this, and the doubt that lurks deeply in it all?
Perhaps it’s you? Well done.
Information bubbles, closeted online communities, and wilful dismissal of the other become an easy escape from the difficult reality of difference. Some of you reading this might be confused. What are you arguing for? Which side are you on? Whose ideological entrapment mate? As a diner at the Great Feast, how could I do anything other than insist we hear from many voices before reaching conclusions? How could I not wish to hear the critique offered by the many sides of the many discussions underway, including those that likely disagree with you reading this?
Who wouldn’t want to?
Unless you have something to hide, or something you simply refuse to see as a practitioner of intolerance (oh, aren’t we all?). What fears lurk underneath the insistence that others conform, and free thought be prohibited?
“Oh”, some say, “That’s just a tool of the alt-right”.
Really? Are you sure?
[A little bird whispered to me recently that all of these quick fire judgements bear the signs of undiagnosed misanthropy: that self-hatred’s all the rage these days it tells me. I have to think on this some more before deciding if she is a reliable whisperer. I suspect the misanthropy she chirps of is of a highly selective form.]
The political and social upheaval around us today is highly complex. From Italy to England, from Canada to the US, from Hong Kong to Australia, there is much afoot. And all of it is unfolding underneath the almost forgotten environmental change that threatens all life on Earth. The racial tensions in America are but one among an endless list of injustices and concerns spanning the entire globe. Can I stand with anti-racism in America? Yes. Must I renounce my capacity to think critically, question assumptions, investigate axioms, and think and act freely? No. Conformity is not freedom, but the mere exchange of one form of blindness for another. If I am forced to take a stand, it will not be with those ideologies that preach an eternal race war, or demand you take their side or else.
“But that’s not really happening” they say.
Really? One could reply. Have you been paying attention to the world out there? (Oh, I forget once again, we all struggle extremely hard to exit our information and informant bubbles these days, myself included).
One might even ask what ideologies are so delicate that they must insist others blindly conform to their worldview and turn a blind eye to criticism, or weaponise criticisms to justify their ideological machinations; a shitty little Machiavellian trick if ever there were one. “Oh”, some might respond. “That’s not what we’re doing. Can’t you see we are on the side of the good?” Kneejerk self-defence has long been known to cover over doubts, weaknesses in conviction, and mistaken views. Better to address those weaknesses through learning anew, discourse with divergent thinkers, analysis from near and afar, and change. But who might help you with that? Perhaps your critics, even if they are ultimately wrong.
To disrupt certainty is to open the way to learning. Where am I certain, and who did I borrow such certainty from? Now, there’s a question worth asking.
The Great Feast though should ultimately be our final destination. There we can locate our struggles in history; learn from the mistakes of the past, refine our understanding so that it speak more clearly to our time, and even envision a future where many possibilities might play out, both those we desire, and those our actions may lead to in a worst case scenario. It is the place where we might establish an ideology of epistemic humility in the face of such certainty, and where no matter the struggle, we might remain open to the many possibilities, insights, and views so that we may turn intellectual impoverishment into a many faced god immersed in a world of rich and ripe potentials, and not the black and white narratives of the impoverished dualism of Protestant ancestors. We need an ecological ideology that can help us face a globalised world of enmeshment and complex, intertwining histories, presents and potential futures.
If the most captured of folks were to take a look over their shoulder at human history, they might see that the list of evil done in the name of the good is very long indeed, and that increasingly polarised societies barely last for long and that as a wise man once told me, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. But it’ll never be as you imagined it.”
That said, the social turmoil we see is a sign of what many who are most vocal in pushing it claim it to be. I won’t deny that: A set of fights are underway against injustice everywhere you look, from Hong Kong to Baltimore, from London to Nairobi, a much need corrective to politics-as-usual is being sought, an outpouring of justified anger is taking place, timely protests against government are unfolding, a revolt against neo-liberal Capitalism and austerity, and the failure of the political elite to make society work for the many and not just the few has become more visible than ever before. This is all good. But, there is much more going on that your narrative misses, and there has never been an apparently benevolent story (or ideology) that was without darkness: and of course, the purer the claim, the more righteous the cries, the darker that darkness can end up being. The fact is, we struggle to know what it even means to truly be on the side of the righteous, or what it would take to stay there.
“But, we’re different” you claim.
Really? How can you be so sure?
Just as Brexit was a multi-headed symbolic hydra that too many folks were willing to attempt to capture in a single word, or single cause, and subsequently bellow such claims with such undeserved confidence, so to the protests in America are many things, as are the offshoot of them that is the British protests and statue tumbling, as are the reactions from different quarters in other countries. Claiming any of the events that make up the major political turmoil in the world underway are only the one thing we believe them to be is to put your blinkers on, strap ‘em tight and carry on regardless. It is to engage in voluntary ignorance, and boy do we have an excess of such volunteers at present.
I personally don’t believe we can afford to do this at this time. I believe that our greatest collective enemy is ignorance and that we must build a way forwards out of our habits of indoctrination into stupidity. Those engaged in the practising life have even less room for indulging the comforts of ideological enchantment, and dogged conformity to simplistic thought if practice is to be worth a damn. We need a concerted stance against anti-intellectualism: That which involves the refusal to see, and that which involves utter capture by narrow, impoverished visions of the world. Those caught in the latter often critique the first, but fail to even grasp they may be part of the problem too, let along apply their own critique to their own pet narrratives. The reasons for not doing that are endless of course, but the result is always the same.
It takes maturity, learning, and dare I say wisdom to do so, but if you can excuse away such a thought with your ideological apparatus, I am going to suggest you are a fully captured subject, and unlikely made it to this point in your reading of this text.
What’s next? Hyperrreality! Oh, boy are we in trouble…