This is the sixth and hopefully the last in a series of blog pieces started at the beginning of 2021:
Human beings invent powers over themselves which they claim they cannot control. This claim is usually called faith. Why they do so is a matter for the history of religion. The main strategy of patriarchy in the collective domination of women is to make an appeal to a higher heavenly power that completes the logic of the hierarchies they construct to countervail the powerful dependence they feel on the magic of human reproduction, associated with women’s earthly powers, menstruation and relationship to the moon. This might be woven around their subjective perception of the manifestation of their sexuality that can be attributed to the power of women’s beauty over them. Their exclusion from what appears to them to be the secret of women’s coming into being correspondingly generates ideas about knowledge that depend on secrecy and disembodiment. Forms of thought that divide spirit or mind from the body are worked into being.
When the English political elites that emerged out of the English Revolution (1642-1660 CE) decided to restore the monarchy they must have been impressed by their experience in the war years of seeing the rise of a leader (Oliver Cromwell), primarily successful as a military commander, whose son succeeded him as Protector on his death. Old forms of sovereign rule appeared to persist because of quasi-geological movements of continuity that mysteriously derived from the earth or the heavens above. Had not Cromwell signed the warrant to execute Charles I? A king killer becomes king! The men in power wanted a monarch to rule over them that they could control! Because of the peculiarly theocratic character of the English State, the legacy of the English Reformation (1527 CE) that authorised the monarch as the Head of the Anglican Church, the king they eventually selected in 1688 had to be a Protestant. This sealed the spiritual security of the state. Taking the Anglican communion could be used alongside swearing allegiance to the sovereign as the prerequisite for holding public office. Hours measured in lifetimes were given to working out the articles of faith that went to make the liturgical balancing act embodied in the 39 Articles that formulated the core creed of the Church of England. This ensured an easy doctrinal confluence with Catholicism while steering clear of the extremities of radical ‘non-conformist’ protestantism. The words of Charles I’s father, grandfather of the restored monarch, re-echoed: ‘No bishop, no King’ or was it the other way round?
New forms of thought – new ways of knowing the world and of knowing what knowledge is – preceded, and were cultivated and affirmed by, the new regime. A new version of humanity installed itself, new mentalities developed. At the break up of a regime corresponding changes occur. The paradigm shifts, humanity redefines itself. In my view in the present circumstances it does so by going back to the origins of homo sapiens development in the crucial development of intersubjectivity by collectives of human females that heralded the evolution of our (then) new species. There is a fluent and complex connection between forms of thought, beliefs about the world and material reality, and political structures. The English political elites saw the formula of ‘monarch in Parliament’ as the underpinning of what was happening in their world, the emerging capitalism that was imperialist and therefore co-created with racism. The dehumanisation characteristic of racism was practiced institutionally on women first. The assignment of degree to physical characteristics was already endemic.
For capitalism the core content of commodity production is labour power. Its production depends on reproduction. The exploitation of women’s bodies is connected to the exploitation of nature, of environmental resources. At first sight ‘monarchy in parliament’ doesn’t immediately say: capitalism, imperialism, racism. However the regime, the system, is a totality.
Definitions of freedom and humanity that flowed from the work of the key philosopher of the English Restoration, John Locke, were rooted in private property. Private property as a system is essential for the exchange processes of transforming commodities into money and vice versa. Freedom is the freedom to own enslaved people. The main vehicle of collaborative investment at the time of the English Revolution was the joint stock company, incorporated as a legal entity or person. The Royal African Company was an English mercantile trading company set up by Charles II and City of London traders in 1660 (the year of the restoration of the monarchy) to trade principally on the west coast of Africa. Main commodity: human beings. John Locke famous for his writings about human liberty, the ‘father of liberalism’, famous for his Treatises on Government and Essay concerning Human Understanding was an owner of stock in the Royal African Company and worked for it as an administrator. He was a leading empiricist, making deep assertions about the nature of mind and rationality. I am using shorthand, trying to summon an exemplary instance.
The coronavirus didn’t cause the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t make us suddenly and collectively conscious of our existence as a species. It didn’t start the recognition that something is systemically and institutionally failing in our society. The connection between the recognitions we make between the oppression of women, of people of colour, of consumerism, of climate change, of capitalism isn’t just in our heads. It is in our bodies and our history. It’s not true to say that when one thing changes everything changes but there’s a limit to our ability to pick and choose. The change we are experiencing is environmental. We have irreversibly (in the millennial medium term) changed the chemical composition of the biosphere. Change doesn’t arrive from our individual will.
We need more resilient forms of social organisation. The current forms and the thinking that underpins them, are inadequate. Our view of ourselves and of the natural world are changing
Lucretius, born well over two thousand years ago, in his De Rerum Natura, insisted on a connection between conceptions of the natural world and social forms:
Furthermore, I will show by what force piloting nature steers the courses of the sun and moon, in order to preclude the possibility of our thinking that these bodies freely and spontaneously pursue their perennial courses between heaven and earth out of kindly consideration for the growth of crops and living creatures, or that they roll on by some divine design. For even those who have rightly learned that the gods lead lives free from care may wonder how all things can be carried on, especially the phenomena above their heads in the ethereal regions; and they relapse in the old superstitions and subject themselves to cruel tyrants whom they believe, poor fools, to be omnipotent, in their ignorance of what can be and what cannot, and again by what law each thing has its scope restricted and its deeply implanted boundary stone. Lines 75-90 Book 4 On the Nature of Things
It is a fair warning against institutionalised vanity and the danger of believing that the earth is here for our benefit and why this leads to a submission to hierarchical oppression. Lucretius’ observation that there is a connection between earthly powers that claim an eternal or divine aspect (the Tyrant) with the the ignorance of a sense of limit is prescient. Students of the history of philosophy will know that it was at the crucial period of the development of the European nation state based on kingship (from 1100-1300 CE) that the idea of eternity or infinity was re-invented. The medieval Church proclaimed it an error to maintain that motion had no beginning; that time was eternal. Look at Kantorowicz’ Chapter VI on Continuity and Corporations in The King’s Two Bodies. A corresponding change to the lexicon of mathematics was the addition of zero to the order of numbers. This latter was directly attributable to the work of Fibonacci (1170-1250 CE).
Lucretius was an atomist, a proponent of the ideas of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) who had founded his school in Athens and had revived the atomist theories of Democritus (born 460 BCE). The idea that everything is composed of irreducible elemental particles became important again at the turn of the twentieth century with the work of Ludwig Boltzmann (who laid the basis for understanding entropy and thus the recognition of the end of the universe), Ernest Rutherford (who provided experimental proof of atomic particles) and Albert Einstein (who initiated an understanding of time as time-space). The further development of the ideas of relativity by quantum physics (Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) led to the understanding that particles are simultaneously waves. The discovery of quantums or ‘bundles’ of energy changed what could be known and our way of knowing. The outcome of this work was that natural philosophy was absorbed by experimental physics. Carlo Rovelli in his wonderfully lucid work, Reality is not What it Seems, explains why infinity is a concept that has a limited use. By the way, the special treat in this work is his description of the similarity between the shape of the world given in Dante’s La Commedia Divina and in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (pages 77-90 op.cit.). Clarifying the unity of time and space as a 3-sphere he could formulate the universe as having a finite volume but no borders. We are what we are surrounded by. He thus asserts the idea of limits to time and spatial dimension.
Analysis based on the continuous divisibility of matter stand in the way of our knowing the world. It is impossible for me to say how commonly agreed this predisposition is in the world of experimental physics. This is not the point. Scientists root their work in the ‘knowability’ of the world. Lucretius and the tradition of human thought that he connects with is one example but the best known is Archimedes (he of the overflowing bath and ‘Eureka!’ fame but I really encourage the reader to look at all the other useful things that he came up with!). His work The Sand Reckoner set out to count the number of grains in the universe, driven by the assertion that the material world was knowable.
The creation of forms of knowledge that divide the mind and the body, that break the dynamic of duality of the knower and the known, that attribute life to the knowing subject but death or inertness to objective matter and reduce knowledge to binary information tend towards abstraction. It cannot be a coincidence that the system, capitalism, developed by human beings that has recently become dominant constantly obscures material processes with more elaborate forms of abstraction. The money system itself is the first step on this trajectory, but the further step is the elaboration of money into forms of credit. This became dominant when the international reserve currency, the dollar, severed its link to the value of gold (1971). This hastened and facilitated the systems of quantification hastened by financialisation, where the aim of transactions that propel material production (ie the consumption of natural resources) is to increase quantities of money. In other words, the role of money in the exchange of commodities may appear to be the production of commodities, expressed by the exchange Commodity-Money-Commodity, but with financialisation this has become inverted so commodities are produced in order to increase money amounts, as in M-C-M. The only question becomes whether, when I put in my dollar, will I get more than a dollar back. A further step towards abstraction is taken with the digitalisation of these money quantities so that money becomes information. It becomes pure quantity expressed in the the form of a binary code. Infinite growth driven by infinite demand. This mechanisation (or ‘electronicalisation’) relies on technology that directly derives from quantum physics. The crucial element is the development of the transistor and then the silicon chip that allows for the miniaturisation of electrical circuits. So much information can be processed that it perfectly creates a system that would have made the mouths of the early hierarchs and patriarchs of the Neolithic Revolution water. Imagine a system that runs through these extraordinary mineral elements that is so complex that nobody can possibly understand what the outcomes might be. A tool of which we can become tools. We have finally managed to elaborate a system that has power over us and that doesn’t appear to be a religion. We go into ululations when a computer beats a human being at chess and put our faith in Artificial Intelligence. We could be forgiven for imagining that information technology is immaterial but the carbon footprint of the social network system with its massive data banks, even before the pandemic, was more than the whole of the international civil aviation industry. Today a critical situation has arisen, especially in automotive production, because of a shortage of silicon chips. This is connected to the increase in the use, and therefore the production, of electronic devices during the pandemic. Of course there is no shortage of sand out of which silicon is made. Consult Archimedes on this question.
Isaac Newton the great mathematician and physicist, alchemist, rationalist, founder of modern physics and of optics, finished his working life as an employee of the Bank of England engaged in seeking out coin-clippers who reduced the precious metal content of the coins of the realm (they were called sovereigns and crowns!) and put them up for prosecution. If they were found guilty they were subject to horrendous public torture and death. Undermining the currency was tantamount to treason, a desecration of the monarch. The sovereign’s visage was stamped on to the sovereigns and crowns and therefore they were sacred.
There is a kind of congruence between Newton’s ideas about physics and the new English regime founded in 1688 of which he was a contemporary. His laws of motion and of universal gravity which gave a metric to the relationship between mass and velocity and force, finely articulated in in differential calculus, was a part of a scientific revolution that would only be superseded by the work of Einstein and others in the comparable revolution of the early 20th century. It is as if the social revolution that could accompany the latter is protracted and we are in the middle of it and because of this may be unable to comprehend its full dimensions.
Surpassing the current regime, as it disintegrates, requires new ways of knowing. A woman activist from a people indigenous to the Amazonian rainforest, speaking at a session of the Radical Anthropology Group, told us about her encounter with academic work at a University where she was studying for a Masters degree and how she realised an ‘epistemological rebellion’ was required to counter the thinking that had developed around and through the exploitative, ‘growth’ system that was destroying her people’s homeland. What on earth does this involve?
How can we use technology, cybernetics, quantum physics, biochemistry and other forms of knowledge that are advancing in our world rather than become the tools and victims of what appears to be a massively complex system consisting of almost incomprehensible quantities and interactions? Understanding that these goods are the common property of humanity and creating institutional ways of wresting them from private ownership is a good idea. This probably means that all these networks should be brought into public ownership and control but only if there are governance structures that ensure transparency and freedom of information. However this requires a cultural shift.
My way of knowing the world has been shaped by working in theatre and drama for half a century, producing performances, running companies, training actors, directing courses, writing plays. At the core of drama is a space of transformation. This is the inner and outer work of the actor: to embody, to transcend the limits of subjectivity, to encounter the other, to make the invisible visible. For me this connects very strongly to the ‘intersubjectivity’ that I have spoken about as being the invention of collectives of human females at the very origin of our homo sapiens species in the Rift Valley of Africa 200,000 years ago. I have quoted the work of Sarah Hrdy in this respect. This is at the deep core of our reproductive capability. This is common knowledge and yet it is trapped and confined. It is undervalued.
We know through interaction. This accords with the wonderful recognitions made by Augusto Boal when he describes theatre in The Rainbow of Desire as being the first human invention because theatre is human beings seeing themselves and seeing themselves seeing. He attributes the discovery of theatre to a woman, a Chinese woman called Xua Xua, in the preface of Games for Actors and Non-Actors. It is a space where we able do things and watch ourselves doing them at the same time. He described it as being gnoseological, a way of knowing. He took the deep cue for his work from that of Paulo Freire, who through his literisation projects (teaching people to read) amongst the peasant communities of Brazil and Chile developed his pedagogy, the pedagogy of the oppressed. In this work he constantly makes the distinction between active knowledge (derived from interaction between the knower and the known) and banking knowledge (the accumulation and reiteration of units of information). It would be generally helpful to understand the difference is between knowledge and information.
In somewhat the same vein, the founding of the Sarugaku (the Japanese Noh Theatre) is said to be the re-emergence of the Goddess of the Sun, who had gone off in a huff to a cave, sealing herself off with a large boulder, thus leaving the world in darkness. The singing and dancing of the performers outside the cave caused her to push the boulder aside bringing light and joy back to the world. It is said that the first crack of light as the cave was opened resembled the movement of a smile across her face.
There are false divisions in our culture between the kind of knowing we summon when we say we know a person (or a dog!) or a place (or a home!) and that which we summon to know the society we live in or the system we use and inhabit or a mathematical formula. Our intellectual lives (quite a lot of people even disclaim that they have one) are institutionally divided between the intuitive imaginative (arts) and the ratiocinative and analytical (science). This is a disabling disaster. It means that places of learning, especially universities have no organic institutional connection with the society around them. This is made worse by processes of commercialisation, making universities into businesses. This is why I have recommended a project where citizen reporters (activists) in every constituency report on all aspects of life at a local level, going out to engage with different sections of the community, breaking open the resources of local ‘places of learning’ or universities, breaking down artificial barriers between different kinds of knowledge. This activity has to be collated and democratically edited into an accessible database at a ‘national’ level, using information technology with wit and live human passion to build an ongoing big picture of our lives together. This network could be a live wire.
Going back to what Lucretius said about ‘limit’, I’m reminded of the crucial moment when computer modelling was used to analyse the interaction between social and natural systems and a new step forward was taken in our knowledge of ourselves. Limits to Growth in 1972. Look at Donella Meadow’s work! She led the team that developed the modelling, World3, systems analysis technology that effectively is the same but on a massively extended scale as that which is used for climate change models. Limits to Growth was the first comprehensive study of processes that predicted exhaustion of natural resources. Look at what she has to say about systemic change.
When we say we know about climate change and global warming, the knowledge we have is derived from a truly extraordinarily wide number of sources. It’s not a simple fact. It’s not a dogmatic belief. It’s an understanding derived from interaction, that is from a complex sentience characteristic of human beings because we have developed (although this is always problematic) a capacity to interact with ‘the other’. Are we going to be able to create a society that roots itself back into this primordial ‘intersubjectivity’?
Look at the extraordinary work of theoretical physicist and philosopher, Karen Barad, in her exploration, in Meeting the Universe Halfway, of quantum physics and interactive knowledge. It is true to an extraordinary degree that elemental particles reach towards us and we reach towards them in mutual knowing, defying the erroneous and quite stultifying division which splits off consciousness from matter and renders the environment, the world around us, as less alive than we are and subject to our superior examination and exploitation. She is a Professor of Feminist Studies.
What is our knowing of the environment? I refuse to simply immerse myself in a kind of incandescent deism. As we go about our lives on this earth, what is the truth of our interaction with it, individually, collectively, poetically, scientifically? This was written by a man 223 years ago from his recollection of looking over a rural landscape in the west of England:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore I am still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half create
and what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
Is this consciousness thus expressed compatible with the information outputted from a climate change model? Of course it is.
We need the epistemological rebellion called for by the woman I mentioned earlier. The work of the prophetic singer Bob Marley echoes through my mind: ‘Free yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds’ (Redemption Song) and ‘Would you let the system get on top your head again? No, dread, No. The biggest man that you every did see was, was just a baby’.(Coming in From the Cold) Seen.
Thanks be. This is the last of six essays I am publishing online in an effort to understand more clearly what the basic underlying story of our times might be. I’m sick of the sound of my own voice. What’s so good about writing drama is that somebody says something and then, thank our lucky stars, somebody else says something back; the more contradictory the better!