On The Darkness Where the Future Should Be

Issue #2:

1. The Art that Obscures the Future:

Towards the end of January (2020) I was surprised by an article in our local newspaper: The title was "The Darkness Where the Future Should Be" by Michelle Goldberg. A web-search later showed that the article apparently originated in the New York Times
The original under-title also posed the question "What happens to a society that loses its capacity for awe and wonder at things to come?"
The article describes the problems the (cult?) writer William Gibson had with coming to terms with the election of Trump as US president: Apparently, it took Gibson around three months to mentally adjust.

In the meantime, he had written sections of a new book that was no longer relevant to the new situation. However rather than (literally) write  off this work he decided to recycle it -by incorporating it into a tale of time travel to an alternative (parallel) universe.
This "recycled" book may be good for Gibson's bank account -but one wonders what its effect on society might be.....
Will a literary trip to an imaginary universe where Trump does not exist actually help  the reader to live in the "real" universe where Trump does exist as president of America?
Is literature merely (profitable) escapist "entertainment" -or should it also help us in some way to improve the society in which we actually live in?

2. The Politics of Pessimism:

The question of the social effect of art and literature is not is not merely of academic importance.
It seems that the escapism that Gibson and others project onto, and into, society does have concrete political implications in real life:

In order to preserve an open social dialogue, the public and the artists (including the business people who profit from the artistic process) need to behave responsibly.

If the various social layers do not think positively about the kind of society they might want and how to achieve it -then the social dialogue is in danger of disappearing completely, together with any reasonable vision for the future -as the discourse slowly slides into mental depression.....

So, the images presented to the public affects the possibility of achieving or maintaining a desirable community.
Apparently, even Gibson is aware that people no longer look forward to the future with the inquisitive gusto they did before.

However, pessimism is not a purely psychological state -apparently, it has political implications too. A pessimistic society encourages demagogues to push the romantic nostalgia of a non-existent past -in order to sell their repressive and dangerous solutions to a frightening present: While those that believe in progress become too discouraged by the present failures to look for better solutions for the future.
Distopias, it seems become much more self-predicting and self-preserving than utopias.

Indeed, even the promises of modern technology seems, in many cases, to encourage a distopian vision rather than provide an exciting chance for a stimulating optimism with regards to the future.

For example, how will Artificial Intelligence and face recognition help us to feed our families in the future? Will there even be a role for humans in a world dominated by genetic engineering, surveillance systems and intelligent machines?
On the one hand, escapism and false hope can easily encourage others to exploit our fears in ways that only make matters worse -but, as things get worse, any attempt to realistically analyze the situation can easily lead to a damaging and paralyzing pessimism.
So, is there a realistic way out of this conundrum?

It would seem that the price of failure is simply too great -we simply have to find a way forward to a more positive and realistic future -because the alternatives are totally unacceptable.

3. The Art of Propaganda:

The French Philosopher Jacques Ellul has said: "Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins."
So, I assume the opposite is true too -that propaganda starts where dialogue ends.

For me, this "negative" definition is very useful -because we tend to think of "propaganda" as being a deliberate attempt by some dark power to subvert our thinking for nefarious purposes.
However, I believe that many forms of propaganda exist which are not deliberately intended, or consciously seen as propaganda by the their authors.

Such messages are generally assumed to be true (or at least not intentionally false).
 But does this make them reliable and are they always benign -simply because they are well intended?
  ....And more importantly, are we allowed to question them?

For, example, within a good education system there is an emphasis on encouraging the student to think for themselves and to ask creative questions that provide them (and perhaps the teacher) with a better understanding of the subject.
However, in a simple training system, rote learning of "correct facts" and procedures (tested by the examination system to make sure the student has memorised them correctly) is seen as the main aim. This is surely indoctrination -and the opposite of "education"

In the arts too, we can often see a form of (symbolic) expression which is supposed to promote some preferred idea -which is often assumed to be socially useful by the artist.

So, in both educational training and in art (as well as advertising, politics and the area normally accepted as "communication media") we see forms of communication that are not intended to stimulate dialogue.
I would include all these cases to be "propaganda" under the negative definition suggested above.

4. The Difference That Makes A Difference:

Usually, in any detective story there is a point where "Something Doesn't Fit": There is cigarette ash in the house of no smoker who claims not to have had any visitors -or there is a fingerprint belonging to somebody who should never have been there.
In the books it is this "difference" between what "is" and what "should be" that breaks the case.

However, in real life such discrepancies can be very confusing: How does the apparently irreconcilable contradiction arise? Is somebody lying. did we misunderstand something and  make a mistake -or have we been interpreting the available evidence wrongly until now?

In practice, such problems can be difficult to solve -because often each "fact" is built upon a chain of other "facts"..... and once one link is broken, the whole chain can collapse.

For certain professionals, spending years trying to sort out the new chain of facts, after the old one has fallen apart, can be part of their job description.
But for normal people with other more pragmatic concerns to deal with in their lives, the collapse of their functional belief system, which they rely upon to live their daily lives -can be very destructive psychologically.
We need to be very careful when playing with belief systems.

If our systems of belief and understanding evolves gradually, then we can benefit from the new discoveries -but if they suddenly collapse then we are (individually) likely to suffer greatly -and society itself will suffer if the collapse happens on a collective scale.

In fact, one might suspect that that the collapse of our (traditional) belief and value systems caused by the many unresolved logical inconsistencies that we are presented with on  a daily basis (resulting from the clash of ideas from many sources, including, cultural, educational, social, political, economic and even personal or familial ones) may well be responsible for the bleak view the future seems to present to many people.

5.  Logic, Art and Life:

In (modern) western logic, it is assumed that nothing can be both true and untrue at the same time....
However, from ancient Greek drama we have inherited the story of Orestes: While Agamemnon is away fighting the Trojan wars, his wife takes a lover -and when Agamemnon returns his wife and her lover conspire to kill him. This puts their son, Orestes, in a difficult position,  because according to the Greek customs at the time, he is forced to kill his mother (to avenge his fathers death) -while at the same time being forbidden to kill his mother (for obvious reasons).
So, it seem that in art (and perhaps daily life) there are situations imaginable that can defy logic....

6. The Science of Investigation:

In her lecture "Brainwashed -The Mainstreaming of Nutritional Mythology"
(Transcript: <https://www.crossfit.com/health/georgia-ede-ddc>)
Georgia Ede tells us how to challenge propaganda:
Learn to recognise the signs of propaganda
  • Does rhetoric invoke fear or manipulate your emotions?
  • Consider motives and interests
  • Stay open minded and curious
Ask Questions and play Devil's advocate
  • Examine all sides of an argument
  • Don't rely on any one source
  • Seek uncontested facts
  • Don't deny your own experience

To summarize, she uses Dr. Terence Kealey's words:
  "How and why is this lying bastard lying to me?"

I guess both Terence Kealy and Jacques Ellul would agree that the above tips are a way of undermining the presentation of propagandist "facts" by the simple technique of creating a  dialogue around those facts.
Presumably, such an approach works well within a rational, scientific framework -but does it work equally well for people less well trained to question their own fundamental assumptions?
Are other approaches also possible?

7.  The Art that Can Change the Future:

In the world of logic it is impossible for an idea and its opposite both to be true and not true at the same time. Given a polarity between such ideas as Nationalism  vs. Globalism, Capitalism vs. Socialism, Hierarchy vs. Anarchy, etc...  we are forced to choose between one or the other. The conflict can only be resolved by the defeat of one side by the other side.
However, in the world of Orestes the two opposites (to kill or not to kill) unite to form a dilemma -or a dialectic, that presumably has to b resolved in some way.

For example, I suppose it might be possible for somebody in the same unfortunate position as Orestes to (in some way) force his mother's lover to kill his mother, and thus avoid the taboo. Then the lawyers would have to argue over the question of whether or not Orestes had killed his mother by causing her death to occur at the hand of somebody else.
In this case, one might conclude that the question: "Did Orestes kill his mother?" -could only be answered by asking ourselves how exactly we define the term "kill"

Do we mean "Personally Murdered" or do we mean "Caused to Die" (in some way)?
We might consider the  difference as irrelevant -but in a court of law, the way the law is written could literally mean the difference of life and death for the person involved.
So, it seems that the way we define things can have a great effect on the way these things operate in our lives.

By changing definitions we can change our relationship to the thing defined -and it changes its relationship with other things too.
Analogies work in similar ways -so if we say a table is like a stool we can sit on it -and if we say a table is like a ladder then we can climb on it too.... Of course, there are limits, a table might not make a very good stool or ladder -but that doesn't change the basic principle.
Exploring these limits can be quite useful and interesting -but we can't say that the table is like an airplane -so we can fly away in it (except in out imagination). So perhaps exploring the limits of what things can and can't be when we change their definitions (or the analogy) is a very important part of the creative game of discovery and developing understanding.

The important point is: Our minds can actually change the "reality" of the world we live in.
If we can understand the way the flow of air over a curved surface changes the air pressure in various places around that surface -then we can design an airplane wing, and we can fly. However, if we do not understand the basic principles then we cannot fly (unless we use a machine built by somebody who does understand the basic principles).

So, "reality" is not the immutable concrete prison that it often appears to be: "Reality" is conditional.
...and "reality" is conditional on our understanding of it. So, it is our understanding and knowledge that allows us to change the world we live in -for better or worse.....

So, who determines if the changes are for better or for worse?
Unfortunately, life is never that simple: Perhaps the changes we make improve one persons life and ruin another persons life.
So who can say if even the improvements are all good -with no down-side? Or that there is nothing good that could come out of a change that has generally made things worse?

Perhaps life is like a game: If we can learn to play with the way we define things, to explore the way our definitions change the relationship between things -and study the consequences of these changes -we may be able to regain control over our lives again.
...and if we can regain control of our lives -then there is surely no reason to fear the future.
But there may be more to it than that.....

trevor batten,
Baclayon, 24 Feb 2020


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Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon  2020