by Christos Tombras
It’s already February. Eleven months into this pandemic that is gradually transforming our lives into a less and less recognisable video conference-call / reality show.
“Look at this”, my friend Patrick says. He is reading an old issue of The Atlantic, a true hardcopy one, made out of ink and paper. He found it buried underneath piles of other, more recent (and perhaps more relevant) printed material: newspapers, mail order catalogues, HMRC notifications, sundry bills, half-read books, magazines. “It’s about Reiki”, he says, talking to no-one in particular. “You know what Reiki is, right? That energy hocus pocus blah blah blah they do with their hands to heal you. It doesn’t work, it says. And yet it does. Or so it seems, anyway. Placebo or something. Here!”
He hands me the magazine.
It’s already February. In a few days, Trump’s second impeachment Senate trial will begin.
At the moment of this writing, the gesture to have Trump impeached for a second time is predicted to be of little or no real consequence. There simply aren’t enough Republican Senators willing to muster whatever is left of their conscience and vote to indict Trump. The trial carries, of course, a huge symbolic weight, and as such seems to be well worth the effort. Or so everybody says. Well not everybody, but you get the point.
I was writing last time about the hope and promise of modernity, the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect qua objective observer in the world. The basic premise of this promise was the recognition that if we are to study and understand the world, we need to leave all subjective biases behind. This was a suggestion, but then became a rule, an imperative.
Predictably, a war ensued, a true war, whereby the forces of objectivity and rationality were fighting against what was seen as the forces of subjectivity, mysticism, fear. What began as a research methodology became an ideology. The world of reason against the bleeding hearts and artists. A moral choice. An ultimatum of sorts.
There are no subjects. Only objects. Reject all subjective particulars in the name of the objective universal, or else!
The ultimatum of modernity.
Examples abound. Think of the laws of history. They can describe, presumably, the fates of all humanity, they can explain who did what, when, and why; and also, crucially, they can tell us where this all is going: to Socialism perhaps; or, instead, to the end of history. Wherever it might be going, one thing is clear. In the grand design of the future your own subjective suffering is an aberration, an unimportant, or irrelevant detail at best. Some of us will be the unlucky ones, yes, but in the big picture it doesn’t matter. A starving family in Ukraine in the 30s? Forget it. A middle-aged traditional school teacher beaten to death on the high street during the Cultural Revolution? Big deal.
It works the other way round too. Even when society and economy are seen as far too complex to be organised successfully and the grand designs are forgotten or rejected, the neoliberal promise of effortless prosperity brought about by the self-regulating forces of the marketplace has the exact same effect, the neglect of all particulars in view of the unavoidability of the universal. It’s the same paradigm.
One does not need to look far in order to find examples. Thinking about the poor, neglected child looking forward to become a bit older in order to join a gang? Just an unlucky lad. Or the overworked van driver working long hours in the distant hope that he might be able to pay off his shark loans and start his own van business? He didn’t like school when he should, you see. And what about the young female actor enduring all kinds of humiliation and sexual advances hoping to break big? Vanity, what can you do?
As M. Thatcher aptly put it, there is no such thing as society.
No wonder, then, that people become alienated and fearful. They see an iceberg and they turn against it. They can only see the tip, of course, but they don’t care. It’s enough that they see something. They don’t see paradigms or ideologies. They only see the ultimatum. Or rather, sense it. They see “experts” and their scientific arrogance; they see elites and their inhuman machinations; they see world-wide machinations and their ruthlessness; and so on and so forth. Immersed as they are, they too, in the all-pervasive paradigm of modernity, some of those people decide to hold on to each other, become emboldened by their own attempts at universal truth, and start building their own conspiracy theory Titanics, in the hope that they can now avoid the iceberg, now that they have seen it.
They cannot avoid it.
As the poet says, Everybody knows that the Plague is coming, everybody knows that it’s moving fast. Everybody knows, that’s how it goes.
I read this article about Reiki after all. It was actually quite interesting. I am not converted to Reiki or anything, but I did like the ending. “Every once in a while,” the person who wrote it says, “friends will hear that I’m Reiki-trained and ask whether I’ll ‘do it’ on them. They usually ask whether it’s real, and I say I don’t know, but that at a minimum, I’ll have spent some time quietly and gently focusing on the idea of them being well. They usually answer that this sounds good.”
Placebo, no doubt, as Patrick said. But at least the subject is back. As a subject, not as an object. To me too, that sounds like a good starting point.