Sunday, 22 November 2015

parasitic ideologies (musings from the World Press Photo exhibition)

There's an excellent exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall (Southbank, London) at the moment. This year's World Press Photo competition collects several individual photographs and sets (termed in the exhibition  "stories"), including carnivorous plants (and the post-carnivorous which now live in harmony with animals, swapping housing for nutrient-rich droppings - this one also deserves its own link), the effects on orangutans of palm-oil farming in Indonesia, environmental degradation and its concealment in China, the Gezi park protests in Istanbul, the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza war, Eritrean wedding festivities in Israel, the Russian offensive in Ukraine, a transgender community being aided by Sunni groups in Indonesia, the Nigerian schoolgirl abduction, development in Mongolia, and an American community of sexual offenders.

What I found the most captivating was Anand Varma's images depicting that subclass of parasites which actively take control of their host, manipulating it into patterns of behaviour which are necessary for the parasite to continue its own life cycle. Usually these lead to the death of the host, for example in the case of the nematode which, entering ants through the bird droppings they collect, turns its abdomen bright red like a ripe berry, while influencing the ant to walk with its rear end raised - thus making it more apparent to the birds which will eat it, under the impression that it is a tasty little berry. The nematode can only complete its life cycle and reproduce while in the gut of these birds.

There are many more examples, and I've read about them also in the pages of New Scientist. The most famous, and perhaps concerning, is the   virus which is present in cat feces and serves to influence mice to behave in an unnaturally brave/careless manner, so making them more likely to get eaten by said cat. Some people have speculated that the virus could also be influencing humans who live with cats and are exposed to their feces through a litter tray.

This has made me think about the role that a metaphysical kind of virus can play in the human world. Ideologies such as communism, fascism, religious concepts, and the like, cannot survive outside the human world; they require us in order to reproduce themselves and spread their evolving progeny. An idea such as life after death, or metaphysical salvation must emerge in the context of consciousness. But once it has emerged, once it has become a species of idea or way of looking at the world, it can influence the life and behaviour of some individuals, encouraging them towards attention-attracting lifestyles and preaching which then spread rapidly through a population (think of how quickly Buddha's ideas regarding life and social order spread through India and then the Asian continent). Such ideas may affect our brains but they are not necessarily passed on in our genes; rather they pass horizontally, infecting those we come into contact with, taking control of their behaviour in a way that will, if the idea-virus is to be succesful, similarly influence other people to change their behaviour. The idea can even evolve, incorporating new data into itself from each host, experimenting with new mutant forms, only the most effective of which will survive in any given environment. And so we see how the Japanese form of Buddhism is radically different from the prior Indian, geared as it is towards the way of life and cultural nuances of the Japanese it encountered.

Crucially, there is nothing in this process which necessarily leads to a positive outcome for the human hosts; all that is required is that the behaviour of the host successfully influences others to adopt the idea or a mutation of it. And so we see this in some forms (the most obvious at the moment being Jihadism), which actively drive some adherents towards suicide. Jihadism of course is not the only such case, and it can be argued that the host themselves, under the influence of the ideology, is in a state of bliss regarding their behaviour; much as the Orthodox Christian monk makes themselves incapable of reproducing their own genetic lineage (surely a tragically unnatural outcome for the host), while preserving and aiding the ideology; or, the Indian Aghori ascetics, who remove themselves completely from normal society in order to pursue their devotion on an individual basis, replicating in some way Agamben's homer sacer, the "sacred" man who is condemned and judged to have placed themselves outside society and therefore whose murder is unpunishable; anyone may at any time kill them without consequences.

This way of looking at metaphysical postulates, and how they can take on a life of their own which then turns back and alters both individual consciousness and society, is something I find fascinating, and I've been working out some of the implications in recent publications. 

The progressive evolution of these ideological viruses is something we would be wise to contemplate. They are not self-aware enough to keep enough humans alive to preserve themselves entirely. They can influence us in ways that might be devastating for human civilisation. As well as the political instabilities threatened by Jihadism, the Christian American right-wing seems intent on a game of chicken with climate change, which some have managed to incorporate into their own doctrine of apocalypse and redemption; but the outcomes will affect us all.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Some thoughts about Paris, the history of Western-Middle Eastern relations and the role of nation states

Two things to share, first of all; one long and one short.

The age of despair: reaping the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence (Counterpunch)

Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis' dramatic feature-length analysis of the west's intervention in Afghanistan and what this tells us about imperialism and social narratives) - iPlayer link

I have sympathy with the Counterpunch article; it is certainly the case that Western powers have done much to manipulate, control and overthrow governments in the Middle East if they were not favourable to our interests (and of course not just in the Middle East). It is worth noting however, these nations were not pre-existing stable entities; at the end of the first world war, Sykes-Picot carved up the region which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries; there is little reason to think that stable nations would have emerged from there (the western construct of nation states is predicated on individualist universalism which developed in our culture over centuries, and isn't so far native to this region with strong traditions of tribalism), or that, left to their own devices, the evolution into stability would have been free of bloodshed (the creation of social order never is). However, in this region the West has found itself increasingly on the wrong side and apparently making choices which guaranteed its people the beneficial use of resources from those lands without having the foresight to grasp what the social effect of their lack of concern for human life in those countries would be: a similar lack of concern for western life by the people whose lives and environments have become hellish. When America and the UK overthrew the democratic revolution in Iran, installing instead the very power we now find so reprehensible, the governments and agencies seemingly thought only of immediate fiscal benefits to our nations and populations; but as the human tragedy has spread across and  out of the Middle East during the 20th century we increasingly see Western civilians - who benefited from material gains mostly without knowing the cost at which they came - bearing the effects of our governments' choices.

There is something to say here about the nature of nation states. Some commentators have remarked that this underscores the need for more powerful state forces, to monitor and protect civilians (omniscience is a requirement of omnipotence, after all; I find it interesting that in a West largely irreligious now we find still the comfort/despair of absent freedom under the watchful eye of Government, where freedom is still only the freedom to be what you are allowed - and is certainly more a freedom-to than a freedom-from); I get this. Authority is an important part of human nature, and having authority to respect and to exert discipline is important for the stability of social order. Anarchy as a system is practicable only on the (very) small scale. It is the duty of nation states to protect their people, and sometimes the people have to feel the pressure of that happening. But we also need to problematise the nation state. It is this very function which has allowed governments to manipulate other societies in order to get the best deal for the people of their own; in the competition which seems necessary between these meta-individuals, there will always be the more- and the less-powerful; and the former will take advantage of the latter in order to maintain their privilege. Does it have to be this way? If we international politics takes its lead from the same source which conditions human group-action, then probably yes. So we should always be willing to challenge the increasing power of a state, because the executive control and decision-making apparatus of (national/individual) consciousness has to be 99% organically determined by the needs of the constituents lest it forget what connects it to the body it controls. But, what happens when states themselves are internally disintegrating due to conflicting identities and narratives within the population? Then we find the kind of brutal repression of non-conforming groups which we ourselves criticise those less-than-democracies for.

And still, the refugees of collapsing countries, destroyed by internal tensions developed as brutal dictators are supported by America and Europe and then removed under the smokescreen of "human rights" without consideration of human nature, flood into Europe - a place which attempts to offer universal rights and freedom to all, as long as you are inside the borders or hold one of our passports. The children of these refugees, realising that the prejudice they face in free Europe is another side of the knife which cut their parents from their homeland, are likely also to consider how they will deal with their place in society - by exacting violent revenge on the citizens who pretend not to know the cost of their freedoms and lifestyles?

And what now will the West do? If it is Daesh, the Islamic State, behind it (as we must suspect), a larger offensive will soon be underway. And what then of the civilians of this region, who welcomed the simple certainty which IS brought to a region collapsing into chaos, the law and stability necessary to human social life even if they are sometimes too harsh for comfort? Will they welcome this stable if oppressive government being removed? Or will they also fight to protect themselves against those who first protected Hussein then killed him and handed Iraq to the lions? If IS is destroyed, what worse force will take its place?

I still do not think this is anything to do with religion, or with Islam. It's to do with the simple mechanical effects of coming from or witnessing regions which have been socially devastated; of bearing scars which can no longer heal; of having witnessed the black void which stands on the brink of society, always threatening to engulf it and make us animals again. The biggest individual killer of the 20th century wasn't Islam, it was Soviet Communism (clocking up some 65 million deaths, most from within the Soviet Union's own population - an attempt to instill the national-intellectual homogeny required for a united state, a means of cleansing the narrative), although communism didn't match fascism for its sheer disgust with human life. Now, I wonder, if we seek explanations for what happens in terrorist attacks such as those in Paris, why do we not for Nazi Germany, for example? The nationalist fervour, the xenophobia and the rise of Nazism are something of a direct result of the crippling of German economy after the first world war - hatred never comes from a vacuum, it must serve a purpose in alleviating a greater suffering.