Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’ – Hunter S Thompson
WHAT would the good Doctor Thompson make of today’s safety-at-all-cost culture? Moreover what would today’s culture do with the inventor of Gonzo? If there’s no space for the maverick, how do things change? Where does art come from? Thompson was the court jester able to tell the truth via ‘a savage journey into the American dream’. Whither the truth tellers today? Corporate media would cancel Hunter before he hit his second beer, the truth a casualty of their need to sanitise everything you read.
The criminally under-read aphorist Antonio Porchia wrote that ‘what cannot be domesticated in a man is not his evil but his goodness’. Hannah Arendt more famously illustrated this concept in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, The Banality of Evil. Eichmann’s evil was domesticated by ideology. He wasn’t a sociopath or insane: he didn’t need to be, he just followed orders. Goodness doesn’t follow orders. Goodness is Oskar Schindler or Harriet Tubman in an earlier age. Who is it today? Is Bill Gates acting selflessly to advance his fellow man? Where is it today? It certainly won’t be found in our corporatist culture. What is our current ideology domesticating?
When Jeremy Bentham considered the behavioural change wrought via the ‘panopticon’ he might as well have been writing about vaccine passports and contact tracing apps. The panopticon is the tower in a prison where the guard can see into every cell but the prisoners cannot see the guard. The prisoners never know whether they are being watched. This has a fundamental effect on behaviour. If the watching, or in our case the constant monitoring, prevents those who effect change from breaking the rules where does change come from? Is there a name for a society resistant to change?
In his book Reinventing the Sacred, the pre-eminent complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman describes the human condition as ‘living forward into mystery’. Kauffman says it’s not that we don’t have enough information to predict the future, it is that the future is simply unimaginable. Prediction becomes impossible and emergence takes centre stage. Emergence is what happens when something new cannot be inferred from studying its constituent parts. It’s hard to infer Tinder from a silicon chip. Emergence forms the basis for agency and free will. The very nature of an unpredictable universe is what frees us. What are the consequences if we reduce a universe of infinite possibility to one of ‘stay home save lives’? What are the consequences if we hand power to those who believe, with religious intensity, in the ability of science to predict the future? Look around, for that is the world we now live in. If the lockdown modelling feels wrong it’s because we’re leaning against an unpredictable universe where unintended consequences abound. It can’t end well.
If the true battle of our times is not the Left versus Right political theatre but command-and-control technocrats versus adapt-to-survive ‘emergents’, it feels as if we are losing. Instinct is greater than intelligence. Your instincts will have been whispering when I asked the question about Gates earlier in this piece. What do they say? We’re overrun by ‘intelligent’ experts and they’re always so damn sure of themselves, while epistemological humility is on the endangered list.
The ecologist John Muir said: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe’ https://discoverjohnmuir.com/ and he has been misquoted ever since. Today we might be wise to take Muir’s quote as a warning when we consider interfering on a species-wide level in complex systems such as the human immune system, the dynamics of which we cannot possibly understand. The outcome of our arrogance is completely unpredictable. The writer George Cooper channelled the philosopher John Gray when he said the last vanity of man is that he could somehow reinvent himself outside nature. The behaviour of certain billionaires might suggest George undercooked our capability for hubris as Gates et al try to reinvent the entire species in their own image. There’s no operating system for our species. Life emerges from billions of years of complex interactions way beyond the abilities of a software salesman to comprehend. God save us from those whose wealth has granted them the power to endanger the human race. To paraphrase Muir: nature does not like to be f***ed with.
Muir was heavily influenced by Henry David Thoreau. A hundred years ago Thoreau, writing in his cabin in the wilderness, said ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’ but it feels like a direct challenge to those who force more control into our lives and on to our society today. Thoreau wasn’t talking just about preserving wildness in the world. He was talking about preserving the wildness in our own nature as it may be our ultimate salvation. This doesn’t mean running riot or even protesting (although we could do with a bit more protest). It means the wildness which is the unknown part of ourselves we realise we don’t control. The sense of humility towards the part of our lives that always feels just out of reach. That is the wildness that may be our preservation – the acknowledgement that we do not have control. Humility in the face of an unpredictable universe. Humility sorely lacking in our institutions and a ruling class more interested in controlling every aspect of not just our lives but, via the ubiquitous screens to which we are all habituated, our thoughts and instincts as well.
Freedom is hard won. Freedom to think differently, freedom to criticise, to effect change. Freedom to break rules, to object and refuse. Freedom to ride the unpredictable, to dance in the new and unimaginable possibilities of life. Freedom is not the oxymoron of vaccine passports. Freedom is not ceding control of our minds and bodies. In freedom lies all hope of survival.