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Monday, 18 September 2017

How We Know Things


Around the seventeenth century, a funny thing called 'The Enlightenment' was happening. One of the effects of this movement was that sundry gentry from all over Europe suddenly decided that a productive use of their time would be to dabble about collecting odds and ends from the deep past and either construct elaborate fantasies around them, or simply label them and shunt them into vast private collections. These people were called 'antiquarians', and one of them, Sir Robert Cotton, had what was possibly the biggest collection of Anglo Saxon documents extant at the time. This collection was eventually willed to the British nation, and was moved to the ironically named Ashburnham Manor for safekeeping. Ironic because the house burnt to the ground on the 23rd of October, 1731. The fire destroyed many of the the 563 manuscripts in the library, but one which was miraculously preserved was Beowulf, labelled as such, and bound, for some reason, within a collection of mediaeval bestiaries. Another antiquarian, Icelandic scholar G J Thorkelin, translated and copied Beowulf, then took it to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Copenhagen was occupied by Napoleon's forces at the time and the translation, along with Thorkelin's house, was destroyed in a British bombardment in 1807. Luckily, Thorkelin himself was not destroyed, and he did a do-over, thus ensuring that the earliest full version of a British literary work was preserved, by the skin of its teeth.

Years later, a grand, crazy old widow called Edith Pretty, left alone in a big house in Suffolk, became interested in attempting to contact her dead husband through spiritualism - a movement that was big in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and one which couldn't be more different from The Enlightenment. Spiritualist 'thinking' prompted Mrs Pretty to decide that she'd had a bunch of prophetic dreams about the collection of artificial mounds on her property. So she toddled off to the local university, hired a self-taught archaeologist (the amusingly named Basil Brown), and told him to get digging. This was in 1938. Over the next few years, subject to minor interruptions owing to WWII, it was gradually determined that these mounds were dark age ship burials containing the richest hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure discovered then or since. Amongst the finds were two objects - a drinking horn and boar helmet - which exactly matched descriptions of objects found in Beowulf. The boar helmet is the only one of its kind that has ever been found, helmets from dark age Britain being about as common as honest parliamentarians, and is the best and most dramatic evidence that the world described in Beowulf has firm anchors in reality - is, in fact, a real world.

The survival of the Beowulf manuscript, and the attestation of its world in the Sutton Hoo burial, account for a worryingly large proportion of all that we know about Britain between 600 and 1000CE. If the folks fighting the fire at Ashburnham had been just a little less assiduous, or that random Icelander just a little less dogged, that old lady just a little less crazy; there would be a yawning gap in our knowledge of a period which is pretty dark to us as it is. Which is why we used to call it 'The Dark Ages'. Without these two random and tortuous narratives of exploration and discovery, the history of English literature and the Anglo Saxon period would be dramatically different. And wrong. And there's the thing. We know we're not as wrong as we might have been, thanks to all kinds of dumb luck, but what we don't and can't know is how wrong we still are. This isn't limited to obscure aspects of British history, either. If Schonky Schliemann had never met that spy, he'd never have dug that huge trench in Hissarlik and found the city variously known as 'Wilusa', 'Ilium', or 'Troy'. If Bedouin shepherd Mohammed Edh-Dhib hadn't fallen into that cave, our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible would be missing one thousand years of its history as a manuscript. If anonymous bad boys hadn't burnt down the palace at Hattusas, we would never, ever have been able to confirm the existence of an entire empire (Hittite), which vanished from the record in around 1200BCE, its memory surviving only in a handful of casual mentions in a bible story about someone else (Abraham).

Given, then, that what we know about ourselves is based in large part on what we know about our past, and that what we know about our past is governed in large part by random chance, it's difficult to see how anyone goes around being certain about anything. People who know this are of course aware of the very tenuous and probably wildly unreliable thread that connects us to the origins of the present, and thus are born those rather fatuous aphorisms about knowledgeable people being aware of their ignorance. There is a mad tendency to try to reduce the sum of our knowledge into what I like to call 'Dinner Party Facts'. All people came out of Africa. The Jews have always lived in Israel. The Bible forbids [insert thing here]. None of these things, taken as hardened, absolute information, is entirely true. Simple narratives and certain facts are the playthings of the ignorant and the stupid. The acquisition and application of knowledge is not and cannot be the philatelogical process of collecting 'facts', as there really is no such thing. 'Knowing' things consists of the much harder, much less comfortable endeavour to understand and synthesise what little we have, and above all, to maintain an awareness of the dark immensities of ignorance which form the shifting basis of all our knowledge.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Kardashian Gap


There are many arguments for and against the legitimacy of the fame of the Kardashians. Most of the arguments for have to do either with a perception of their positive influence on someone or other, or their existence as a kind of fait accomplis. They're famous now, so are therefore important to know about. The arguments against are pretty obvious, and are mostly put in the form of questions about why they exist, what, at the end of the day, they actually do, and so on and so forth.

What these arguments ignore is that there really isn't any legitimate basis for fame of this kind, and nor does there need to be. The Kardashians and others of their ilk are not rational products of a rational system, and it's a little bit foolish to try and explain them as such. Just like Rockefeller, Beau Brummell, Trump in his pre-presidential phase, or Alcibiades, the Kardashians are clearly manifestations of the cult of celebrity. So far, so obvious. But what I wonder is how clearly we see the implications of the very existence of this cult.

The last half century or so has seen a massive acceleration in attempts to systematise and formalise social and political mechanisms. The recently revolutionary notion of 'bureaucracy' has become ubiquitous, standard rhetoric for the nations of the west always includes talk about being 'a nation of laws', and most people in western democracies, if you really push them, will admit that their particular societies are at least supposed to be based on equity, fairness, and egalitarianism. Given this, why aren't we all currently living in our own various utopias of freedom and whatnot?

There's a lot of potential answers to this question. Many people will argue quite cogently that the gap between ideology and practice is created by corruption, greed, institutionalised unfairness, popular apathy, and a host of other factors. I don't disagree, but I think that there's probably something deeper at play. In a world where everybody is shouting about fairness and compassion, the fact that so little of these things seem to exist in our systems must surely be down to something lurking beneath our conscious impulses. Something that we're not entirely aware of.

And the Kardashians are my proof of its existence. In short, the Kardashians and other celebrity cults speak to the insane human compulsion to create gods and aristocrats. As far back as we can see in time, humans have always set up shrines or images to some sort of divine or semi-divine personification of a perfect or ideal other. It doesn't matter how many systems you put in place, how much you try to scrub out the influence of church or tribe or nobility - all this does is create a gap into which something like the Kardashians can spring fully formed as objects of trivial worship. Huge sections of our informal systems of culture are built solely around the elevation and emulation of these people, and built in such a way as to leave absolutely no doubt that the veneration of these images is very much an aspect of the popular will. As in, nobody is being compelled to slavishly admire these idiots - they're actually paying to do it. And this teaches us an important lesson about the current limits of the human animal when it comes to the acceptance and judicious use of freedom.

It would seem that our social development has outstripped our collective cognitive evolution. Still today, unchanged for thousands of years, it's all too possible to observe the inability of people en masse to understand anything if it is not cast in the form of a story containing at least one hero and one villain. And it would seem that it is collectively impossible for us to understand even ourselves without recourse to some more or less artificially constructed ideal. The impulse to quarantine our aspirations into some inaccessible, otherworldly realm is a recurring theme in the story of humanity's constant falling short of its ideals. The horrible familiarity of our current problems is a symptom of the fundamentally unchanging patterning of our minds.