The Great Sea Change

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.

—J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World

Of late been rereading some of my favorite authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Thomas Ligotti, Henry Miller, and J.G. Ballard. An odd assortment and motley crew if there ever was one. Each has a distinct voice and view of art, life, and the quandaries of our mental aberrations. More than any of them Ballard brought to bare a particular psychonautic calibration, as if he were in his writings enacting a future as possibility rather than forecasting some iron law form of its immediate tendency. Writers such as these do not predict the future, none of them are prophets or mad men. Although each in his own way stepped out of the common sense fold of our staid world of shared illusion to reveal a fragment of it we sleepers of the commons never touch even in our dreams or nightmares.

Yet, if as Ezra Pound pontificated at one time the “poets are the antennae of the race” then the story writers above are more likely to be considered the engineers of strange futures, zones of feeling and habitation that seem to be coming from some sidereal timezone just this side of the unreal. My own fascination with thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek is not so much because I agree or disagree with his thought as it is that he in his obsessive repetitions touches on the liminal zones of such strangeness, enters the great outdoors breaking the chains of our mental constructs and beliefs to smithereens, all the while revealing a dimension of incomplete world and ourselves as if for the first and last time. Philosophy has always been a fictional enterprise, but of a different kind than the novelist, poet, and short story writer. Instead of character studies these thinkers study concepts and the conceptuality within which we frame the worlds of mind and outer horizons we all inhabit.

What’s most important to me is the cracks and gaps in thought, the moments of indecision and breakage in which a thinker finds himself at a loss unable to clarify or discover a solution to his proposed problems. Its in those knots of undecidability (Derrida) that new thought begins to churn and reveal itself from some withdrawn lair of darkness, a darkness that is neither obscure or from some other half-baked Platonic cave or world beyond or transcendent. Instead it is of this world in its newness and strangeness, a realm of unexplored possibility where our repetitive circle of linguistic traces have never been, nor mathematical theorem encompassed. A realm of openness and process that is situated in the give and take of our negotiations with the unknown that new thought and worlds arise.

Not being a philosopher I have never forced myself into the formal practice of such rule bound systems of logic and example in which most philosophers seem to couch their conceptual explorations. The ponderous bulk of most philosophical speculation seems to be constructed not to convince others of one’s truth, but rather to allay the suspicions of one’s enemies that indeed what one is revealing is neither truth nor lie but a site of brokenness in our constructed realities that opens a door into and out of our mental prisons. For we have all constructed an illusory world of mind and shared feeling, an artificial safety net against the Real. As T.S. Eliot once put is “humankind cannot bare too much reality” (The Four Quartets). Instead we build up false worlds to protect us from the madness surrounding us.

The reality systems we’ve carefully constructed over the past few millennia served us well up till our time. Most of these systems of reality were constructed by carefully circumscribed cultural and civilizational processes in which people mapped territorial limits to their collective enterprises. It’s this limited frame of territorial limits that have reached saturation in our age. Our modern move from the written to audiovisual age of radio, television, cinema, and internet have broken the worlds of religious and political bonds built up around print and the Book. Most of the monotheistic worlds of our forbears were carefully circumscribed by specific religious tomes that mapped the fictional universes of our lives to the patterns of the heavens and their workings. In the old parlance thought and world were hooked to a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy).

The Enlightenment, a trope for a new kind of charlantry and darkness, changed all that. The whole project of the supposed Enlightenment was to dis-enchant us from our accepted worlds of religious imagination and replace it with the realms of scientific discover and the theoretical imagination. For the past few hundred years this process has been undermining the traditions of our forbears to the point that even this process itself is being undermined in itself. The sciences of physics and neuroscientific analysis of the brain and human mind have brought us to the edge and horizon of our circumscribed world. Our engineering projects have broken our trust in knowledge. We have uncovered a dark truth: we are bound within a circle of ignorance and neglect from which we cannot escape. Trapped in the landscapes of our ancestral successes and the ecologies of mind that helped us dominate the planet and become the rulers of earth through propagation and survival techniques we’ve begun to discover just how little we actually know. And not only how little we know, but that what we know is in itself mostly a bag of lies and tricks.

Nothing to be cynical about this truth of our ignorance and neglect, rather it has provided us an opportunity to push further into this failure of our intellects and imagination. To realize that every culture on this planet is a narrativized prison house of human constructs, and begin to break these safety nets once and for all. As these constructs decay and fall apart many who have trusted in these worlds have begun to experience anxiety, frustration, and madness. Angered by the failure of these systems people for the most part have begun a great blame game. Every leader on the planet becomes the master signifier for this blame, attacked from all sides as the scapegoat and progenitor of our ills. Instead of realizing our supposed leaders are just as clueless as we are we bicker and war among ourselves over the false worlds we inhabit. Traditionalists seek to shore up the old worlds, while the progressives seek to undermine every aspect of these systems. Neither realizes that the others illusions are all part and partial of a grand narrative that we’ve all agreed to disagree with, not realizing that the world itself has moved on and elsewhere. Closer to Freud’s death-drive of pure repetition we have fallen into the trap of repeating over and over the minimalistic designs of our own neglect and ignorance. Unable to break free of the old we are as yet unable to even envision the new. Caught in the mesh of our own ignorance and neglect we dance the danse macabre of an era of death culture across the known world. The dance of death has in our time become universal.

Certain visionary writers have been addressing this process for quite a while now, and it is these very women and men that I’ve begun to reread and think through in the past few years. They too have seen this world grow false and temporal, decaying into an impediment that has stifled creativity and human freedom to the point of collapse. Most of them had no answers, only more questions. And, yet, it is the questions not answers we need most. Asking the right question can open one to the possibility of a challenge and a promise. For if that old goat man Socrates was even close to the mark in his belief that philosophy did not give one an answer or wisdom, but was itself a never ending quest for wisdom, then it is this path toward the future as open and incomplete that we must all begin again to walk and think. No single human can provide the answer, only the collective power of us all working to solve this problem can. We’re truly all in this together, and what we do over the coming years will either bring us a breakthrough into newness or a collapse into chaos and madness and death. Which shall it be? No one knows… all we have is the courage of despair to move forward into this unknown with our eyes open and fearless.

8 thoughts on “The Great Sea Change

    • I like some of the crime fiction… Ian Rankin, and Stuart McBride come to mind right off… I like the Irish Jack Taylor series of Ken Bruen as well for its dark humor. Man there’s so many good Scots writers in that genre… hell weird tales for Sir. Walter Scott on up through now have been anthologized to death. Scotland seems made for mayhem, murder, and hauntings… 🙂

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