We exist in a world run by sleeping people; people virtually dead to any sensible perception of what they imagine to be going on; they may appear to make great and important ‘decisions’ on our behalf in some kind of democratic charade but because we ourselves are equally asleep we cannot see that we are being led blindly towards what Gurdjieff in his arcane sort of way calls ‘sinkrpoosarams’—belief in any old twaddle.
Observe the current level of political debate, or argy-bargy, in what James Kirkup used to call yUK: it’s around the price of pasties, parties dedicated to the purchase of privilege, a petrol crisis stoked up by a government halfwit so their chums can rake it in, pulverising the poor and underprivileged, plans to demolish the National Health Service, relaxing of rules on countryside development so Tory friends can make even more loads of money. No principles involved here, just a reliance on abstractions like ‘growth’ and Deficit-reduction and austerity to keep us in thrall to what appears to have some meaning, just the whim of the Power Possessors. And they re-direct our attention to what appears to be the enemy without—the distant illusions of Syria, Iran, The Taliban and so forth.
The real terrorists are those in power here but their terrorising is so successful that they contrive to make us think that the enemy is without. We would be able to see that they rule by terror if only we did not see things upside down. It goes like this: if you do not comply with our rules you will starve to death; you will work till you are 70 having had your pension rights taken away so that you will not have the time or energy to see through our little games, the infinite twaddle we feed you with.
Meanwhile, we ordinary chaps choose to allow ourselves to be tranced out, put even further to sleep by electronic gadgetry, by hours spent watching TV, duped to momentary excitements by the total irrelevance of ‘sport’; we have been led to tell ourselves the story that we need to be constantly ‘in touch’ by text or voice messages; we tell ourselves the story that computers and so on are central to education and so on and on. It’s all a story we tell ourselves: ‘they’ tell me that these things are important, therefore I must believe them because ‘they’ are in authority. Must keep up with the latest gismo—the e-book, for instance.
We lose ourselves in a great maze of beliefs, understandings, swindles; we lose contact with our selves in a great flux of opinions, subjective urges, fantastic imaginings and unenlightened cons delivered to us by the Power Possessors who in spite of all their lies, always do all right for themselves, the millionaire functionaries at the top of the heap whose benefits are always intact; we are led into further fictions in the opposite direction by the snappy drivel of the New Age purveyors of seemingly useful little apophthegms.
This is the Terror of the Situation
Do you see it? Unlikely, since the analysis will probably already have become a fog for you as constituting an absurd attack on your identity as an ardent & sensible subscriber to the status quo, dedicated democratic voter, enthusiast for the latest New Age fad.
I spent the last week with one of my beautiful grandchildren whose last essay to contribute to her body of work for her degree was to be on a tough, appallingly badly written book by Jean-François Lyotard—The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge.
We read the book together; I did a commentary which was supposed to help us make sense of it; she wrote the essay in the gaps. Then I stood back in Meta-I and really thought about what I’d experienced which, of course, for me happened in the context of my own Gurdjieffian mentation, out-lined above.
What Lyotard seems to be saying (thirty years ago) is that life is a story we tell ourselves. It is all the product of our imagination, spinning what seem like quite reasonable yarns based on our own programming. There is nothing to determine whether we tell ourselves the ‘correct’ story or not; we might as well tell ourselves one story as a completely different one which would be equally convincing to us. “I am a good teacher… I learn quickly… I relate well to people… I am a poet… I am an artist… I am an amateur composer… I am a survivor…” It’s all a story. We become so entangled in the net of words that make up our narrative that we eventually come to believe in it without question.
A philosopher ought perhaps to include in the story she tells herself the question of what it is that legitimises one story rather than another. Since this question is about what underlies knowledge in general, within free-wheeling philosophical discourse this has to lead on to the much broader question: what is it that legitimises any aspect of ‘knowledge’ about the world? What is it that determines the kind of knowledge that we set out to say is true (or false)?
Once there were the master narratives: the heroes of our stories (Plato, Marx, Descartes, Bush, etc) gave us big abstract concepts according to which we felt safe in making up our stories; they came with the accepted master narratives. It made a kind of sense, for instance, to go along with Plato’s myth of the Forms; that was the way ‘knowledge’ worked: once upon a time before we were born we lived in a kind of heaven place where everything was perfect; there were perfect tables, perfect horses, perfect notions of justice & freedom & beauty, piety & love and so on; the moment of birth was a grand forgetting—we were just left with a vague memory of perfect things; thereafter we spend the whole of the rest of our lives looking for the lost perfection. This narrative helps as an description of why we spend so much time seeking out the perfect way to be.
The heroes of the master narratives helped us to explain things: they helped us to think in terms of abstractions like ‘class struggle’or ‘democracy’, the ‘freedom’ of the western world, the ‘communist tyranny’, ‘capitalism’, ‘incentives’, ‘competition’, ‘love’, ‘beauty’. Choose your abstraction and get reinforcements in the shape of a political party, a grand theory, a church, a war machine.
Lyotard’s argument is that the old master narratives are now seen for what they were—just stories made up by people who now appear to be a lot less than heroic. But we poor mortals, fast asleep as we are, ship-wrecked, still cling to the planks of the old abstractions which are powerful because they have the hypnotic status of a dream that cannot be deconstructed.
Then there were the ordinary simple folk narratives legitimised by the authoritative voice of the story-teller: it was enough for the listeners to hear, “Now I am going to tell you a story which was handed down to me by my ancestors…” The truth of that kind of story came from the way it was told. UK citizens might listen to the Tory Party when they hold the air waves currently: “Once upon a time there was a bad old party that ran up a lot of debts. We have come to save you from that bad old party by cutting back all the social benefits that gave rise to the deficit… We care for the whole community so much and we will see to it that when the Good Times come again we will all benefit from our policies…”
When ordinary simple folk narratives about the fabric of society entered into the collective psyche, they helped to establish the ‘social bond’ but they are now seen for what they were: just stories told by a speaker whose role was simply to be part of a tradition; now the speaker of such stories is merely seen to be making up stories perhaps to conceal their own hidden agenda.
Is There No Way Out of this Seemingly Infinite Story-telling?
Scientific narrative appears to be more solid—to provide more in the way of believable ‘truth’ but now there’s so much of it that it can easily be challenged with a simple “Sez who?” Proof of proof of proof has one disappearing back into an endless maze. Born Again Christians reject Darwinism. Flat Earthers reject the idea of Global Warming. Such views transcend rational explanation but they become part of the collective psyche.
In any case to put their ideas across to the ‘ordinary public’ scientists have to reframe their findings in terms of ordinary simple folk narratives, dumbing them down to the lowest common multiple.
This allows the Power Possessors to slip between the cracks and encourage the postmodern belief that the current test of ‘truth’ is not how true it might be it but whether or not it works, how much money it will make and what power it will give them.
Data banks of knowledge have become the possession of the power possessors and decision-makers. The question they ask themselves is not, ‘Where is Truth?’ but how much wealth can I accumulate if I go along with this bit of knowledge just as it is presented to me? What power will it give me?
This in turn gives the power possessors the wherewithal to invent new master narratives. For instance, currently, the global capitalist conspirators tell us that it is necessary to make cuts to public services in order to reduce the deficit—the implication of this is that when cut-backs have worked we shall all be so much better off because there will be no dragon deficit to contend with. Whether this is ‘true’ or not is beside the point; it’s the story we’re being told and there arises a consensus that that’s the way it is.
But the legitimisation of knowledge through consensus is no longer credible either. If, as the politicians are fond of saying, you start a ‘consultation process’ or do a ‘listening exercise’ in order to gain some kind of what you might call a ‘consensus’, there will be endless contradictory responses, impossible to reconcile one with another to produce even the beginning of a real consensus. Producing a consensus is an incomplete meta-narrative that becomes part of conventional wisdom. What happens to a consultation process? Does it ever result in a consensus? Does the government ever present us with a précis of a consensus? There were said to be a thousand amendments to the UK Health Bill; but we do not and cannot know what effect they had and the Bill was being cynically implemented even before it was passed. This is the way it is: intellectually moribund; too many variables for any individual to keep up with; no possibility of keeping up with the intricacies and swindles of decision-making.
‘Consensus is a horizon that is never reached…’ The old paradigms are always challenged by the new. ‘…someone always comes along to disturb the order of ‘reason’…’ ‘Consensus is a component of the system which manipulates it in order to maintain and improve its [economic] performance…’ We are duped into believing that there is a democracy but when 65000 people petition against the building of a local incinerator the decision is over-ruled by those who [imagine] they know better…
‘The technocrats declare that they cannot trust what society designates as its needs; they [imagine that] they ‘know’ that society cannot know its own needs since they are not variables independent of the new technologies. Such is the arrogance of the decision-makers —and their blindness…’ They identify themselves with the social system as a totality… and just barge on regardless of human requirements, of Life requirements…
To give added strength to the death of Truth, the Power Possessors go along with the idea that knowledge no longer exists in the mind of a professor; knowledge has been highjacked by the insane dash towards the computerisation of society. Remember that this was written in 1979.
A Nihilist Old-fashioned Analysis? (1979)
Just consider that you can now put a single word into a search engine and come up with millions of entries: for instance, in .09 of a second, googling the word ‘nihilism’ will give you four million entries, at which the mind reels; it is not made to cope with so much information. The computerisation of knowledge completely steals the possibility of one person being able to master anything but a very small corner of it—which would have no money-value at all.
It would take a lifetime to make a synthesis of statements in any one area of knowledge let alone in an inter-disciplinary kind of way; unless all statements are taken into account one ought to have a hunch that one is operating on incomplete information; any statement you care to make is relative and incomplete. But it may also be a convenient ploy that has grown up enabling the power possessors to keep us in the dark and make hay with a version of reality, acceptably incomplete as far as they are concerned; they have no need to aim for completeness when they can achieve power & wealth while painting an incomplete picture of reality. ‘They’ are not philosophers…
‘Games of scientific language become the games of the rich—whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency and truth is thus established… Science is just a moment in the circulation of capital…’
Or, philosophically, it may be the case that there is no such thing as ‘ultimate truth’ anyway… Grand narratives were an attempt to get out of that fix; ordinary folk narratives were the simple person’s way out; consensus is a way the politicians have latched upon to make us think that there’s some other acceptable way of getting agreement then they can consider themselves free to resort to the rhetoric of the ‘Everybody agrees…’ kind.
The scientific narrative runs on its own but must resort to folk narratives to get its point across to us ordinary folk. There’s no possible metalanguage to explain all language games. The individual is forever lost in language games. Nobody speaks all the languages. Nobody can master all disciplines.
What is Lyotard’s Solution?
One might hope that after ploughing through his book there would be some startling conclusion but there’s nothing revolutionary, no manifesto for action. The only way out is for the individual to stand fast with insights deriving from as rich a picture as possible. That is the task—to develop a rich picture for oneself.
‘Knowledge… resolves into a multiplicity of incompatible statements; they can only be made compatible if they are relativised in relation to a scale chosen by the speaker…’
There are so many different takes on every single thing imaginable that the individual becomes incapable of even beginning to comprehend the complexity of things. The individual has to make a stand, make a determined effort to set up shop against the resulting relativity of things. This may be the most positive thing in Lyotard’s position.
‘…our business is not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented…’ But how far is it possible to go? Lyotard quotes Borges in The Universal History of Infamy: ‘An emperor wishes to have a perfectly accurate map of the empire made. The project leads the country to ruin—the entire population devotes all its energy to cartography…’ We might spend rather too long gathering material towards perfection.
But the result of making a stand can’t be in relation to any old map; it has to be one based on considering all factors, as Edward de Bono used to say; developing the richest possible picture. Everything in a system is related to everything else.
Complete control over a system is impossible because of complexity. ‘It is not true that uncertainty (lack of control) decreases as accuracy goes up; it goes up as well…’
One response to complexity is to simplify; the search for truth is too complex and doesn’t make much money but the promotion of skill is easy and profitable; in higher education therefore where once open exploration and research were the main aim, the system goes like this:-
In the swim of a system, the most that Lyotard provides us with as a solution is to hold fast to a particular position and always be prepared to vary it depending on new information. He is not, he says, in the business of predicting the future or providing blue-prints for action. If he were to get into offering solutions he would find himself falling into the trap of developing a new master narrative which by definition would simply constitute just another story to tell ourselves. He has been accused of doing just that.
If Lyotard does have a master narrative it is that life is a story we tell ourselves; that ‘truth’ is no longer the measure of acceptable knowledge; that the stories we are fed by the power possessors are the new consensus.
We are in the business of inventing new rules, new narratives. ‘A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text, the work are not governed by pre-established rules and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying the familiar categories. The rules and categories are what the work of art is looking for. Artist & writer are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done…’ So what are the new rules of society as we find it in operation?
My grand-daughter and I thought about the question of whether Lyotard’s text was nihilistic. My own conclusion was that his book is not nihilistic in itself. The narrative he presents us with is about the nihilism of the age which is a product of the dehumanisation of knowledge, both scientific, societal and philosophical. It’s quite clear that there is management of media ‘news’and the concept of truth by the current political set-up The computerisation of society, its dehumanisation, is a fact of life—far more so than it was in 1979 when life seemed quite simple to me.
George Galloway’s astounding success in the Bradford bye-election while we were struggling with Lyotard was a strike against the Nihilism of the Age.
My Own Story—My Solution
The only total solution I can think of is to demolish all electricity-producing concerns—no more computers, no more ‘growth’ (‘growth’ is another master narrative—a story we are told—a capitalist myth—we can’t keep growing forever), no more cars, trains, buses.
I do remember that somehow we were able
to move time and space about as we chose
like scenes in a dimly lit theatre
we League followers travelled throughout
the world without motorcars or ships
or any other petrol-driven contrivance
we conquered the war-shattered world
by faith and transformed it into Paradise—
the notion of the East was not so much
geographical—it was more the home
and youth of the soul—everywhere
and nowhere— the union of all good times
our great pilgrimage was only a wave
in the eternal stream of human beings
of the eternal striving of the human spirit
towards the East towards Home—
we lived like pilgrims and made no use
of those contrivances which appear
in a world deluded by money time
and figures which drain life of meaning—
clocks mobile phones computers
(Found Poem included in my The Grand Reformation of Intellectual Life, a long found poem distilling the essence of Hermann Hesse’ Glass Bead Game Hub Editions 2011)
The story I tell myself is that I am a modern conceptual Souvarine (see Emile Zola’s Germinal), in my case hankering after destroying all electricity-producing concerns—knowing that the most I’ll ever manage is to compose a master narrative, with attendant meta-narratives, that would envisage such a thing as a metaphor for change.
Switch off might be the closest I’ll ever get to making my story come true.