Tony on Gil II: How Politics Begins in Thought, Jamming, 05/03/2018

As the principle has been received popularly these days, it’s been kind of a shit show. A disaster. The centrepiece of contemporary reactionary conspiracy. And at the centre of some serious anti-Semitism too.

Yet it is actually true that radical social and political change begins with culture, with how people understand themselves. That includes what resources they have available to understand themselves, whether or not they use them.

Here’s how Antonio Negri put it in his essay on the thought of Félix Guattari – The best way to deal with the death of Man is to celebrate the self-creation of people.

Is nihilism the only response to the impossibility of universal
So what does that actually mean? Let’s unpack it.

The “death of Man” is the old way of thinking about the birth of what’s called postmodernism. There was once, so the story goes, a universal concept of the human that everyone could believe in – the living embodiment of universal reason itself.

Faith in the Man of European culture as the highest yet expression of universal reason peaked in the 19th century, as this image of the universal Man justified the global imperialist occupations of the time. But it was also the heart of Westerners’ conceptions of themselves as individuals and as a culture. Even subordinated people like women, the poor, or well-off members of racialized groups believed it.

But the scientific underpinnings of this self-image – Western Man as the most advanced organism on Earth – began to slip as the implications of the truth of evolution began to be understood in popular culture.

Life developed contingently, and reason was fundamentally instrumental, if not a spandrel. The Western image of Man was teetering from his superiority’s justification. Not only was there no purpose in Nature itself, but such a purpose wasn’t the dominion of Earth and all other peoples.

Frankly, it's easier to think of yourselves as the highest achievement
of the human race when you have everyone who's different from
you treating you like a divinely appointed king.
I’m not going to get into the details of what effects came immediately from this crisis of faith in Western Man. We’ll be here for the length of a thousand* dissertations. I want to get to the last few decades, when the broadly existentialist tradition that flowed from this idea finally started getting creative about how to handle it.

* At least, just to get a vague sense of all that was going on.

Think about the contemporary creative approach in terms of knowledge. What kind of systems of thought and investigations could you use to achieve genuinely universal knowledge?

Here’s the kind that was the only sensible answer to that question during the heyday of that concept of Man – a single, simple field of knowledge that encompassed all the variety of Earth. Lay aside Denis Diderot’s actual thinking, and consider the popular image of the original Encyclopedia – all the facts and truths of the world in a single compendium. One house of knowledge.

If you lose the possibility of that achievement, then you lose your bearings. Compared to that one all-enfolding universality, everything else falls short. I mean, of course it would. Less than perfection can never be perfect. By that standard, no human knowledge can measure up. True may as well be false, good and evil are meaningless, there’s no right or wrong.

But only the fool says in his heart that because there is no universal, there is no truth or good. It only means that there’s no universal, truth, or good.

Jomo Kenyatta in a gathering of Mau Mau liberation fighters. What
was good for Kenya wasn't good for Britain, living demonstration
that not every approach to the world can harmonize together.
This doesn’t reduce to any of this “Good for me and Good for you” relativism that you hear from self-entitled 18-year-old dudes taking their first philosophy course and trying to get the prof to justify their dickishness. At least, that’s where I always heard it.

See, that relativism shut people up in themselves – in their own subjectivity – much deeper than they really are. It ignores the fact that we all share a material world. So our different conceptions of truth and good – as individuals, as cultures, as mass media empires – will overlap and influence each other.

We live in society, in relationships with each other. We all figure out similar problems in the ordinary and profound parts of our lives. We communicate.

We harmonize a whole bunch of different approaches to the world. They overlap and reciprocate ideas, among so many other ways of influencing each other. The best way to organize how to get as many approaches to knowledge as possible working together is so that everyone who has something productive (or at least potentially productive) can contribute to the overall project for knowledge and truth.

The only approaches not permitted are those that denigrate and devalue other approaches. It smacks too much of the false arrogance that there’s one universal truth, and that of course there’s one Man that expresses it.

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