Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Where is Enlightenment?

For the last three centuries the West has been living with an illusion of Enlightenment. Writing in 1784, when Sapere Aude! appeared to many as the most fashionable motto to celebrate reason triumphant, Kant was well aware that his was an Age of Enlightenment and not an ‘Enlightened Age’. Enthused with the general optimism of the time as he was, he saw – in the alluring freedom under Frederick, obstacles to Enlightenment ‘gradually diminishing’, shekels of ‘self-imposed immaturity’ finally being broken and above all, a clear assurance for mankind to raise above barbarism. For Kant and other philosophes of his ilk Enlightenment was a meta-narrative where rational thinking was destined to produce a new civilizational utopia. Hence onward, in the succeeding centuries, the struggle to create an entirely Man-centred world intensified. Initially it appeared that a new alternative world was possible. The birth of democracy in the aftermath of French revolution, the discovery of more continents than those mentioned in the Bible, the replacement of biblical static view of the earth-centred universe with a yet evolving view about the cosmos and above all, rapid inventions and industrialization empowered Man with an unflinching confidence in himself. This optimism however was short lived. The latter half of the nineteenth century was marred by scepticism of all kind; as deism finally evolved into atheism and intellectual landscape became ripe for such future isms as nihilism, structuralism and existentialism etc. With the horrors of two world wars and Nazi experimentations at Auschwitz, faith in Man’s goodness further deteriorated. Today at the dawn of the 21st century when the Bush Administration has thrown upon us ‘war on terror’ as a new meta-narrative we are faced with an Enlightenment winter. Is a new dark age descending on us? Who is really turning the light off?

Enlightenment narrative as it evolved in Europe was inherently a flawed concept. By sending God to a perpetual exile Man had overburdened himself. As he rejected myths or accumulated wisdom he could only feel isolated, finding virtually nothing to hold on. In a universe where the Creator had left after creating it, as most of the first generation Enlightenment thinkers believed, it was too heavy a burden for man to find meaning. Despite so much credit to Enlightenment which created a whole new world around us and which radically altered western worldview for ever, here intellectual challenges always left a void. It was as if man was pitted against an infinite cosmos. Probably, it was too much for Man. Nietzsche toyed with the idea of a super man and by doing so he fell prey to the same age-old myth of a super-human messiah. Unlike the biblical messiah, Nietzsche’s √úbermensch was not to descend from the sky, it had to be created right here on this earth. But both the propositions made at least one thing clear; that man was no match for the enormity of the problem.

When Rene Descartes came up with the proclamation cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’ he was sounding a paradigm shift; hence onward man rather than God had to be the focal point around which everything would revolve and human reason had to serve as the foundation of future knowledge. This coronation of man as the chief deity, once lauded as Enlightenment’s major achievement, latter became its bane. As man became the locus of this new civilization human perception was now reduced to a mere cluster of ‘a priori’ and ‘posteriory’ leaving no room at all for any revelatory wisdom. Instead of an omnipotent God now everything had to centre on Man who was the ultimate yardstick. Thus the new religious sensibility was termed as Humanism and the new polity was canonised as democracy.

But Man was no fixed or standardised canon. Any polity built on him was doomed to be vulnerable. Democracy never delivered what it promised. It always remained fragile and shaky; at times justifying colonialism, genocide and even weapons of mass destruction and nuclear annihilation. Worse still, in a post-modern world which saw the meta-narratives virtually redundant thus leaving for us no valid myth to cling to, the very being in Man perished and the new barbarians were born. The death of God eventually led us to the death of Man. And it is against this background that the difference between democracy and fascism, traditionally taken as two opposite poles, faded. Democracy has often resulted in plutocracy, dynastic rule, military dictatorship and even fascism which in turn revert to democracy. In essence, aren’t they all the celebration of man?

Instead of a life-giving futuristic attitude that the enlightenment was intended to shape, today we are confronted with a situation where man is not so much afraid of the supernatural but of his own destructive potential. Three centuries of our collective disaster ranging from colonialism to brute oil-wars of today, which ‘civilised’ nations have camouflaged as war on terror, clearly indicate that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were no aberrations but very logical corollary of our ‘enlightened’ intellectual outlook. Today with the arrival of post-modernism, anti-Enlightenment ideas of that German giant, Fredrick Nietzsche – whose arch heir has been Derrida, is on the march again. Nietzsche – whose √úbermensch plays a key role in his future utopia and who sympathised with the annihilation of the weak, was not only the Nazi regime’s official philosopher and an intellectual powerhouse for Mussolini but still holds sway with post-modernists. Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze were inspired by Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophising about truth, morality and beauty. And their considerable success in altering the meaning of the text or at least making the meaning move out of the text and yet claiming that there is nothing outside of the text (il n'y a pas de hors-texte) was the most devastating blows of all time. It had cast a shadow on the language itself, the very tool of our thinking and philosophising.

The Enlightened Age that Kant and many others believed would dawn one day as a result of their sole reliance of reason, never came to a full bloom. Instead, today we find people complaining of the tyranny of reason or ‘logo-centrism’, as Derrida puts it. Enlightenment’s waywardness, rather its leap in the wrong direction has brought us to a complete mess. Deconstruction’s vogue has left us not with any meaningful void but an utter confusion about values. Apparently Derrida may sound pleading for individual freedom when he says: ‘general maxims – be they moral, constitutional, or legal – are intrinsically incapable of doing justice to the specificity of the individual case’, but implications of such utterances create tremor in the very foundation of our common values and even legitimise, to some degree, political existentialism of the Bush Administration. If no set of moral conduct or constitutional norm is capable of doing justice and if one unethical political move can be as good as the other well considered moral action, aren’t we legitimising everything from Auschwitz to Abu Gharib and to Guantanamo?

The inherent contradictions in western Enlightenment that have been active over the centuries have come to fruition in our age. Some perceive it as the dimming of the enlightenment or consider it as a temporary eclipse. Yet those aware of the full magnitude of the mess that we are in; the ultimate triumph of plutocracy and of corporate capitalism, the end of individual choice in the madly globalising world, the media generated and controlled blindness, mindless exploitation of natural resources to the extent of threatening the future of our only earth, the looming danger of nuclear annihilation and at the top of all a complete absence of any effective leadership who can turn the ever rising tide, rightly conclude that a new Dark Age is fast descending on us.

The moral consensus in the modern West has come to a complete collapse. At one plane, we live in a world which can boast of longevity of life due to advances in medicine, mass transportation, space journeys, laser-guided weapons, unmanned planes, computers and the internet. But on the other plane, empty lives are asking more than ever before, ‘what is the use?’ Who has stolen our sweet world, they ask? There are plenty of New Age gurus and Kabala centres out to fix the problem. Then, we have a number of cults assuring us a safe exit to heaven. Many have already taken up their journeys and yet many others are still perplexed about their future. Are we on a fast-track to a culture of mass suicide?

Adorno and Horkheimer are only partially true when they complain that reason has become irrational. Given the enormity of the situation, probably it is too much to expect from poor reason alone. It is a mind-boggling situation when mind can behave only frantically. When people loose hope they look for short-cuts and magic wands. Superstition becomes the norm and unreason governs our actions. It is precisely this situation that today we find ourselves in. Let me rather elaborate.

Unreason

The Enlightenment fathers intended to salvage us from what they perceived as ‘self-imposed immaturity’. Man was supposed to take his affairs into his own hands independent of a master, guru or clergy. This exercise in intellectual empowerment however has been a grand failure as we see today biologically grown-up men and women look for professional healers and snake-oil vendors. Modern snake-charmers style themselves as life-style gurus, be-happy consultants, parenting coaches, makeover guides, spiritual healers and mentors. They are the new shuyukh or spiritual seers of our Age of Unreason. They invade almost every aspect of our life telling us how to see, how to think, and even how to feel. From art of dressing to reading a book and from meeting a friend to casting a spell on your beloved, they claim to have a ready solution. They teach us the ‘art of living’. Yes, for them, it is an art of living on our vulnerability as the New Age gurus have amassed huge wealth and this farce has now developed into a multi-billion industry. For example, in the US, Deepak Chopra’s annual revenue crosses $ 20 million and in the UK, the female feminist guru Gina Akers charges as much as £ 2,000 for a consultation. Then we have high profile Kabala centres with celebrities like Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and Demi Moore as their clients. They believe that Kabala water can cure diseases and wearing a Kabala bracelet can seal in all the positive energy and ward off negative vibes or the evil eye.

Hollywood stars alone are not to be blamed for their obsession with unreason. We have otherwise sophisticated policy maker and even heads of powerful governments who wait for the nod of their spiritual seers. Formers US President Ronald Reagan’s reliance on astrology is well known. His official diaries were arranged and rearranged as per the advice of his astrologer. It is on record that at the time of Geneva summit in 1985 he asked his astrologer Joan Quigley to check the star-chart of Gorbachev to anticipate his likely behaviour. The Clintons too never felt shy of their frequent hooking up with self-help gurus. President Clinton’s brainstorming sessions with Hollywood mystic Marianne Williamson and management guru Anthony Robbins and Stephen Covey are no secret. Hillary was especially known for her heavy reliance on Jean Houston who styled herself as ‘sacred psychologist’. Then we have Tony and Cherie Blair who underwent a re-birthing ritual in 2001 during a Mexican holiday. As they undertook a perfumed mud-bath smearing papaya and watermelons on each other they were expecting the birth of a ‘new you’ – a popular claim of the New Age healers. In India, the traditional abode of god-men, it is a routine that ridiculous beliefs become a matter of concern. Some years ago, the situation took an interesting turn when soothsayers suggested that outgoing Prime Minister Narasimha Rao vacate his official residence on 10th of June while it was supposed to be auspicious for the new prime minister to move in on the 6th. Superstition dictated that both of them share the same residence to avoid evil influence. Esoteric sciences that were rejected even in the Middle Ages by sensible individuals are now marketed as holistic, alternative, spiritual healing, re-birthing etc and there is no dearth of gullible individuals ever-willing to buy them.

When reason dims unreason takes over and that is the beginning of a catastrophe. Today anything goes in the name of New Age metaphysics; from occult to Wicca, from witchcraft to Satanism and from animism of all sorts to the debunked paganism of the ancient past. Can we ignore the historical fact that the Nazis were also a product of occult and unreason? They frequently held occult rituals at Wewelsburg castle – the centre of the knights of the SS, and believed in the supremacy of the Aryan race which according to their belief fled the Atlantis when the third moon crashed. They even launched a search for the Atlantis and the Holy Grail. Like Nazis of the past, the New Age healers are also tech-savvy and they can successfully mix myths with technology to create disasters. Shoko Asahara experimented his vision of salvation by introducing poisonous gas into a Tokyo subway and Marshal Applewhite, leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, was successful in sending a couple of dozen of his followers to a trip on the Hale-Bopp comet. And very recently, President Bush’s unfounded belief in his chosenness, as one who has been assigned to promote democracy and freedom, has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of innocent lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Are we amidst a catastrophe or it is just the beginning? Carl Sagan has an insider’s insight:

I have foreboding of an America in my children’s or grand-children’s time … when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost their ability to set their own agendas or knowledgably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness’.
(The Demon-Haunted Worlds)

Superstition

Unreason begets superstition. Not long before, in 1995, India which styles herself as the superpower in waiting was taken over by a wild frenzy of milk miracle. Sensible and educated individuals thronged to the nearby temple to witness the drinking of milk by clay idols. Rationalists and scientists had to debate long hours on electronic media to expose this farce. In Hyderabad, the cyber city of 21st century India, when there was a solar eclipse people were looking for safe confines. Pregnant women were tense and according to some newspaper reports (The Hindu), some grandma’s even prevented them from scratching their bodies lest the new born develop scars.
That superstition is on the rise the world over can also be gauged by the increasing popularity of funny pages in the print media. Newspapers publish horoscope which has no religious or scientific rationale yet according to a 1984 Gallup Poll, 55 per cent of American teenagers believe in astrology. Officially, both Christianity and Judaism have an aversion to astrology. Moses Mamonides considered it ‘a disease, not a science’ and for Martin Luther ‘astrology is framed by the devil’. Despite the Judo-Christian tradition’s strong stance, astrological publications and gurus thrive on people’s gullibility.

To ward off the effects of evil-eye there has come up a world-class industry in Istanbul which specialises in nicely made crystal amulets. The Evil-eye amulet has a global market as it is probably the most popular superstition. The Arabs call it ‘ain’ and in modern Europe and America a person who looks run down is generally taken as ‘over looked’, wished or ill-wished. In America it is not unusual to find someone who believes that breaking a mirror can bring bad luck or even death in a family. And it is no secret that American sailors still avoid whistling aboard ship lest it raise a whistling wind. They say: ‘whistling girls and crowning hens/ always come to some bad ends’. Some of the superstitions that were successfully wrapped up sometime ago have made a come back. For example, Reform Judaism had put off long ago ancient practices such as having mezuzah at the door-post or breaking of glass at a wedding. The new generation of reform rabbis are not just reintroducing such practices they even justify them as another way of dealing with anxieties.

When it comes to number 13, the notion of a civilised West evaporates. In Florence, for example, houses between 12 and 14 bear 12 and a half and Italian national lottery purposely avoids number 13 in its tickets. In modern metropolis, high-rise buildings, especially hotels and hospitals, skip the 13th floor. Aeroplanes have no 13th aisles and some airports skip 13th gate. Some even believe that having thirteen letters in one’s name can be disastrous or at least a source of intriguing troubles. There are specialised gurus who tell us how to adjust the spelling of our names to avoid the evil effects of number 13.

Tyranny

With the transformation of democracy into plutocracy, tyrants are back to business. In recent years, following the American occupation of Iraq, anti-war demonstrations in western capitals made at least one thing clear; that the ruling elite do not represent the will of the people. Recently, in Gujarat (India), the electoral victory of Modi despite international condemnation for his state orchestrated pogrom in 2002 has questioned the very efficacy of the system long held as a civilised means for political change. In the West there is a general feeling that the golden age of democracy is over and now elections are only a camouflage for a system that shrouds itself in secrecy. Today, there are some 700 US military bases across the globe and no one exactly knows what goes on in these camps and what the terms of agreements with the respective governments are in whose territory they are located. In countries that claim to be nuclear powers the citizens have no idea about the number of nuclear war heads in stock, nor do they have any information about biological and chemical weapons. In the wake of 9/11 many governments passed draconian laws, like US Patriot Act and UK Anti-Terrorism Act, which further strengthened the culture of secrecy. Things have come to such a pass that in 2006 the Congress appropriated funds for building concentration camps in the US.

In the US the slide from freedom to tyranny has not gone unnoticed. But neither the opposition nor the public opinion has any role in a system which displays an air of arrogance: truth be damned. This plutocratic culture allowed successive US Presidents to destroy what once was termed as the American Dream. Abraham Lincoln, otherwise known for his democratising hype, significantly curtailed freedom of the press. Woodrow Wilson was tough on war critics and Roosevelt interned American citizens of Japanese origin. Bush almost wrapped up the Bill of Rights. Dick Cheney – whom the former CIA director Stansfield Turner labels as the ‘vice-president for torture’, solved the ethical dilemma of using torture once and for all. In the backdrop of the homophobic nature of torture at Abu Gharib prison, the New York Times reported:

This week, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed a novel solution for the moral and legal problems raised by the use of American soldiers to abuse prisoners and the practice of turning captives over to governments willing to act as proxies in doing the torturing. Mr. Cheney wants to make it legal for the Central Intelligence Agency to do this wet work.
(Editorial, October 26, 2005)


The Siege-Mind

That religion is on the rise and God is back in fashion are only illusory if we look at what goes on behind this spiritual smokescreen. We still live in a spiritually barren wasteland where devil rather than God appears shaping our destiny yet the TV evangelists through their digital blitz; live telecast of beautifully arranged church rituals, impressive liturgy of Catholic masses and round the clock religious channels make us believe that the Age of Faith is back again. Televangelists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and R. Albert Mohler even preach that the Bible is inerrant word of God. They are either unaware of biblical criticism of the last two hundred years or arrogantly ignore it. Some of them even claim to have achieved direct communication with God and assert that they can relieve us of our pain and suffering through their ‘holy solution’. Are they driving us back to an age when paying tithe was the most effective way of getting rid of ancestral demons, curses and evil-spells?

It is no spiritual revival but the religious faddism and spiritual bankruptcy of the worst kind. Instead of the inspiring words of gospel, the neo-Christians of our time are interested in the Bible codes, dream interpretations, occult wisdom, aura and Nostradamus. Religious bookstores are full of such books that tell us how and when the author encountered demons or angels who were moving, not from left to right, but from bottom to top. Mind you, they are serious books meant for adults and not Harry Potter stories for children. Desperate junkies are even turning to the Bible as a book of alternative medicine. There is an ever-growing craze for esoteric solutions. All sorts of craps go in these books. Recently, I came across Mark Bubeck’s Spiritual Warfare Basics – a harrowing and depressing guide for esoteric adventures that teaches people how to pray to God that He may search their sexual organs, blood, bones, hair, skin and even cells for demon activity. Such things may not have even a remote connection with the Bible but they have a ready market among the religiously inclined. People who could claim to have a vision of God might have diminished in the Muslim East but they are constantly on the rise in the modern West. Kathryn Riss is one of those poetic seers who claim to have received this song directly from ‘the Lord’:

If you feel too serious and kind of blue
I've got a suggestion, just the thing for you!
It's a little unconventional, but so much more fun,
That you won't even mind when people think you're dumb!
Just come to the party God is throwing right now,
We can all lighten up and show the pagans how
Christians have more fun and keep everyone guessing,
Since the Holy Ghost sent us the Toronto Blessing!
I used to think life was serious stuff
I wouldn't dare cry, and I acted kind of tough
Until God's Spirit put laughter in my soul,
Now the Holy Ghost's got me and I'm out of control!
Now I'm just a party animal grazing at God's trough,
I'm a Jesus Junkie, and I can't get enough!
I'm an alcoholic for that great New Wine,
'Cause the Holy Ghost is pouring, and I'm drinking all the time!
(Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 245-246)


Dare to question this siege-mind religiosity? Western culture today is a paradoxical mix of inquisitional mentality and unconcerned self-abstinence. Doubting almost everything so as to improve, or at least to know – once the hallmark of post-Enlightenment western mind – has been effectively eroded by the wind of faith blowing in the post-modern West which prefers to create its own reality. And the triumph of inquisitional mentality or neo-conservatives has played a vital role in creating an atmosphere of terror where thinking and rational arguments are effectively suppressed. In his State of the Union address 2006, George Bush appeared no less than inquisitional:

Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos.

Such zealous pronouncements only make us feel as if we are back to the time when Christian Church condemned Galileo.

Those who oppose this inquisitional mind and advocate for a culture of techno-science and rational values are equally guilty of placing science to the position of deity. They are not against unreason as such; they are more for a thorough demystification of the mystery that man is. Theirs is a tall order; alleviating hereditary diseases by removing defective genes from sperm and eggs, solving social problems or even making breakthroughs in criminal investigation by one’s genetic code, assessing one’s candidature for a suitable position on the basis of his genetic profile, or even getting some insight about hereafter through ‘near-death’ brain mapping and further possible explorations in neuro-science. Whether we will be able to create flawless supermen in the future remains to be seen but if the world is really four dimensional, as the exponents of Special Theory of Relativity claim, and the future already exists, we come to a closed circle. Not much can be done. Rather, nothing can be done. We come to a dead-end; back to the centuries old oppressive theological debate about freewill and determinism. This sort of irresponsible scientism cannot rescue us from the dark abyss that we have slipped into, nor Heidegger, Foucault or Derrida or postmodernism can shield us for long. Reason must be engaged and mystery should not be euphuism for troubled water, nor should meaning be suppressed or imposed. But this cannot be achieved unless we deconstruct the Enlightenment narrative.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 Jan 2008
 

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