The end of the frontier

I keep apologising every time I post about the amount of time I’m away from the blog. I have been working in real life at a very engaging job in a news organisation. The greatest joy of it is that it has enabled me to focus my philosophical thoughts in an extremely acute manner by way of doing something completely different. Perhaps a paraphrase of the Nietzsche quote would be in order: some of my best thoughts have come from doing expenses claims.

 

A lot has happened in the past few months, in the past few years, and the past few decades. I’ve already in my absence become out of date and a relic of a distant internet past. The kind of generation who apparently pronounces .gif in the wrong way and who didn’t get the note that civility in politics and online is over.

 

I grew up on the internet and lived through the many fun things of blogging, cloud computing and APIs, but the abstract issues of the mid 2000s like the threat to privacy or giving away our freedoms by participating in the machine are no longer abstract, and as the landscape has changed, the questions have too.

 

If we were to use an analogy, the world wide web (ed: used interchangeably with internet) has moved on to a different age. I was a fan of the new atheist, so-called rationalists. I used to like Christopher Hitchens. After his death, I enlightened myself about his ‘women aren’t funny’ essay and took to distancing myself from the default male perspective of his work. The left-right distinction simultaneously seems more relevant than ever and at the same time is increasingly inaccurate. The coming US president (supposedly) promises a massive social spending programme for jobs, and yet did so on a Republican ticket. In the UK, the leader of the Opposition, out of fear of irrelevance, made a statement conceding that migration caps are a relevant feature of future national policy.

 

In the middle of it is a form of populism. I’m not sure whether the populist leaders fully understand what they are trying to be the apex of. I’m reminded of the oft-stated analogy that some commentators make (thank you Quentin Letts) that having a popular base could be like Robespierre at the French Revolution.

 

Kant had the foresight to be cautious about the new ‘democracy’ of the French. Aristotle thought seriously of democracy but acknowledged there was always the element of mob rule.

 

In this time more than ever, there is such a need for philosophy, and yet philosophy in the academies is eating itself alive. From university administrations to the internal conversation about the diversity and inclusivity (or lack of) of the organisation, clear thinking seems to be hijacked as a brand of rhetoric.

 

I want to think that philosophy should have the role of the distant critic. The agenda of the Frankfurt school has become more relevant than ever. That includes if you disagree with them. Culture in the English-speaking world has gone into a direction that is deeply frightening. It makes me wonder if the intellectual discourse will turn inwards in the way that Roman philosophy was not really interested in common philosophical issues of metaphysics or epistemology, but focussed on the Socratic notions of a live well lived and how to deal with difficulties in life.

 

Philosophy must not be a salve to the politically wounded. Nor should it be a catnip. Our critical voices and our critical thinking must call bullshit. But we must also understand as best we can the underlying issues.

 

Some issues of consideration should be:

 

  • How the famous individual cuts the pretence of the political
  • Active and passive consumption (revisited)
  • The importance of narrative (truth is secondary)
  • Culture has become politics
  • (Politics attempting to become cultural)
  • Appealing to ideals in public discourse: rights, ‘democratic’, ‘privacy’
  • How ‘mainstream’ became marginal

 

2017 marks the year in which Martin Luther wrote his ninety-five theses a half century ago. The implications of which changed the world. People to this day still think about the extent and power to which the rise of Protestantism had impacted on the world. I wonder if the increasing ease of communications and our capacity to express ourselves, and our discord with the world has also affected the order of society. I suspect our Luther moment has already happened, but we are seeing the earthquake of its impact unravel.

 

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