Archive for Jan, 2018

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Can an historian be objective whilst also being politically active?

My previous blog posts have often mentioned the need for people to accept more political and social responsibility if they are to genuinely subvert a system that oppresses us. But more specifically, it is the idea of academic responsibility that needs greater evaluation. In the wake of a series of political “rebellions” (Brexit and Trump) in which the ‘expert’ was no longer to be trusted and that all sovereign power should be naturally diverted to the people, it is important to provide some brief clarity as to how this has come about. Much has been made about our political culture operating in a post-truth world but I see it only as a post-trust world where evidence and facts are either withheld, suppressed or falsified. In my opinion, this means the obligation for clarity and truth rests on the professionals who have the ability to inform the wider public about the knowledge they currently hold. Unfortunately it is these same academics who are have been accused of dictating their knowledge in a manner that can appear arrogant, self-righteous and elitist. It is no wonder that professors and universities are seen as tools of the establishment rather than tools of the people. The assault on intellectual behaviour does not stem from a resentment of an academic work ethic but from a belief that academica has withdrawn itself from the ‘working man or woman’.  Secondly, with the ongoing reports of universities clamping down on freedom of speech only emphasises the greater obligation for academics to give a better representation of academic life. My experiences with universities have mostly been positive, it was only 2 months ago that I had a good conversation with a university lecturer at Goldsmiths about the need for academics to expand their intellectual reach. We are starting to see this in video games and television shows, but much more work is required.

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Is our Judicicary accountable to the people? Could we even regard them as academics?

There was an inspiring story in the news last week about an historian called Mark Curtis who is digitally publishing hundreds of declassified documents regarding the government’s shadowy international dealings from the mid 20th century onwards. These documents are already available for the nation to access but unfortunately the public are widely ignorant of this. Curtis is not doing anything groundbreaking. But by making the public more aware of this country’s history,  he is arming the people with weapons of information to attack the establishment. Whether, people will be receptive to Curtis’s efforts is a different matter entirely. (the media will certainly stifle any attempts for people to unite against injustice) But in an era where censorship is beginning to override political liberty we need to convince citizens that universities and academic insitutions can be our allies not our enemies.

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Lately, I have been thinking about the sort of cultural advances we as species need to make if we are to overcome some of the global hardships we face right now. Since I decided to renew my poetic endeavours, I have recognised that there is an emotional and intellectual vacuum in our society. We have become a race that seeks quick solutions to deeply complex historical problems, a race that wishes to ignore the grey moral areas and rushes to the blacks and whites, a race that believes in replacing subjectivity with defined rules about how the world should be run. Writing poetry again has reminded me that there are few things in life that we can fundamentally reject; it has allowed me to recognise the fluidity of language, nature and history that resides beyond politics and foreign affairs. This is not to say that we should live in a world of little to no boundaries, but that we should embrace a world that believes in challenging unquestionable truths.

I also feel that this flexible world will be encouraged by the works in science fiction, I am not necessarily talking about the big blockbuster Hollywood movies we watch from time to time (most of those films end up reinforcing the same societal stereotypes that have led us to this position), but the sort of science fiction that considers what a truly radical future could do for humanity. More importantly, it is this sort of literature that could encourage us to envision a world where political structures operate far differently from ours, it also emphasises the value of discovery with the way it can interact with controversial scientific subjects without the moral weight that a scientist may carry. Finally and vitally, it is this sort of creative endeavour which inspires the reader to imagine a future that breaks with conventions of the past. This process of questioning, challenging and tackling unknown realms has positive repercussions when it comes to our attempt to be politically radical; history has shown that some of the most momentous changes occur when people have the willingness to break down their socio-political barriers. But one of the most interesting aspects is how a certain revival in fantasy and science fiction can motivate people to envision new possibilities. I have always felt it is easier to break down structures and deconstruct systems than it is to build futures, this is especially relevant in a world where revolution and reform has become fashionable and little thought is given to the actual process of change.

Politics: Fiction, Non Fiction & Depends on Point of View.

Could Science Fiction teach us something about Political Science?

Politically and historically, new visions and prophesies were used often used a method to break down traditional social barriers.  There used to be a time in politics when our political representatives use to believe in far-reaching possibilities for the future. The Fifth Monarchists (who were also MPs) of the 1640s and 1650s were the perfect embodiment of a how a hostile political period could produce such grand imaginations for the future. As the Civil war in Britain and Ireland raged on. They prophesied that in 1666, Christ would make his return and bring forth his fifth monarchy (the first four being the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman retrospectively). By modern standard, these views may seem slightly outlandish, but this was an ideology that was genuine and committed. I do not particularly wish for a revival of this sort of religious zeal but I do no think it is too much to ask for politics to include a similar level of principled integrity.

The novel Three Body Problem is an important example of how science fiction (and science itself) can help us to envision new futures whilst we go through the motions of revolution.

To provide a brief summary; The book begins with the Character Ye Wenjie and the devastating way she witness’ her father’s ( a leading professor) persecution during the 1974 Chinese Cultural revolution. Having been born into an academic and therefore bourgeois family, she faces the brunt of the revolutionaries’ wrath: her own mother betrays her father for the survival of her position and her life.  Because of Ye’s scientific expertise she was luckily recruited into a top secret military base which gave her a chance to redeem herself politically. Whilst monitoring the air waves in Aerospace Ye encounters what she believes is alien communication. She then proceeds to send a response as an invitation for the aliens to invade earth and reform human society. She also manages to meet with and persuade a billionaire environmentalist to invest in the preparations for the aliens to visit earth. The novel then fast forwards to the future through the life of Wang; a nanotechnology professor. The professor then has some very strange experiences including hallucinations of glowing numbers and strange coloured atmospheres. He ends up working with a police officer called Da Shi to investigate the mysterious recent deaths of some scientists. He come across a mysterious virtual reality game called Three Body, and decides to participate. The objective of the game is figure out how to create a stable weather atmosphere on the fictional planet called Trilosaris; Wang eventually develops a theory based on the orbit of the three suns around Trilosaris called the Three Body Problem. Wang’s reward for reaching the objective is an inviation to a Three Body Society meeting which is led by our initial protagonist Ye Wenjie. The Three Body Society was developed the virtual reality as a sort of playful experiment based on research from corresponding with the aliens. When Wang attends the meeting it is broken up by the police officer Shi and Ye is thrown in to custody. As Ye gives her testimony, the reader begins to understand the moral breakdown of Ye as she reveals how she callously killed her husband and colleague to suppress the knowledge of alien correspondence – we also reveal how her disturbing political past became the main motivation for her to invite the alien invasion. For the final section of the story, the novel switches to the aliens’ perspective as they first receive Ye’s transmission. They decide to meticulously destabilize Earth’s technological advancement for the next 400 years through the release of certain protons towards earth. This is done in order to ensure that when the aliens arrive on earth, they will face no detrimental hostility as they look to sustain their superiority over humanity. The final chapter of the novel features a reflective Ye as she admits that the world will never remain the same.

I felt that the book was a fascinating exploration of how humanity could actually respond to the prospect of alien intervention. The way in which the book contrasts the radical societal changes from the Cultural revolution with the psychological prospect of cosmic intelligent life is entertaining and stimulating. It examines the way in which historical legacies can make a drastic impact on how one perceives the world. Whilst this book was a great piece of creative work that broadened my mind I want to try and demonstrate how this sort of book is especially relevant in a politically unstable world that struggles to enter new ways of thinking.

There is prominent historical methodology called Whiggish History which asserts that humanity has been following a path of political, social and economic progress from its very inception to the present day. This book essentially challenges that mode of thinking, this is demonstrated when Ye decides to invite the Trilosarians on to earth because  Humanity has hit a huge obstacle which has ceased in its ability to advance as a civilisation. Ye’s reasoning may be considered to be slightly extreme by some, especially if we consider the technological advances we have made in recent years, however many current political commentators have stated about the cultural regression of society and how we have reentered the ideological arenas of the 70s, 60s or even the 30s and 40s.

The upheaval that preceded World War II and the need to to avoid repeating mistakes have cast a long shadow since Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected in September with no obvious coalition partner. While no-one is predicting a return to fascism, the unexpected threat of instability at the heart of Europe’s biggest economy has alarmed business and political leaders alike.

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The German election of 2017 is eerily similar to the one in 1933. Is this really a mark of political progress?

It is true that fascism has evolved in complex and sophisticated ways but it is important to recognise that it is a regression to a political idea which has shown to be morally defunct and politically ineffective (in the long term). Furthermore, although Germany has attempted to break away from its the horrors of its political past, they still suffer from the ghosts of their national failures. In a way this has some semblance with Ye’s belief that humanity has reached the point where it will eventually become prone to repeat its historical mistakes. Her belief may stem from witnessing the human rights violations that existed after the Cultural Revolution, but it may also resonate with an idea that perhaps humanity has already peaked in its progress.

Popular Culture in terms of block buster television shows are increasingly portraying a world where our new machinery will eventually lead to our own demise. Sci-Fi films like GeoStorm and Tomorrowland have already explored the difficult relationship between human responsibility, technology and the environment. I once heard in a lecture from Alan Watts(dated 1970) that humanity’s ignorance with the spiritual/natural and their adoration for the technological is akin to self harm, he once claimed that this age is for “The Misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and consequently, its eventual destruction”. It is important to recognise that the advance of science can radically expand to our world for new possibilities, but we must also be aware like Ye Wenjie of Mankind’s tendency to revert back to a state of such primitive thinking.

Another important and thoughtful aspect that Three Body Problem touched upon was the ever-changing relationship between the subject and the state. Although Ye Wenjie was given the opportunity to work in her profession without political prosecution she was still effectively a political prisoner who was forced to abandon  her family. It could be argued that these suppressed feelings of shame, anger and injustice eventually exploded in her drastic decision to invite the Trilosarians to Earth. I have often felt that Ye Wenjie is the embodiment of the modern day populist; the subject who has felt ignored and deserted in a world that rapidly evolved around them. In many cases this could result in fear or docility, but it could just as dangerously lead to rage, resentment, the emboldened rise of the Far Right in Europe and the persistent/ continued support for Donald Trump is strong example of what cultural isolation can do for a nation.

Furthermore, this also has repercussions for political radicalism. Many activists and commentators acknowledge that a huge moral awakening is needed if we are to bring about genuine progressive change. However, due to the fact that humanity has been in the dark for so long about the corruption and unethical standards of our political framework, are we in any actual shape to bring about the sort of large scale revolution that our society so desperately craves? Perhaps the political awakening of the last few years is too big of a shock to the human core for us to enact any sort of rational yet extreme challenge to the status quo. I think it is fascinating how The Three Body Problem uses a science fiction plot to unpick the entangled influence of political shocks on the human psyche, to discuss how our political history affects our capability to maturely confront society and also to explain our inability to morally comprehend our own political achievements.

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Ye Wenjie at Red Coast Base. Is Ye Wenjie’s political suppression symbolic of modern populism?

Finally, I believe there is a great sense of political irony within Three Body Problem. Ye initially calls for aliens to come to Earth and reform society but her movement eventually splits in to two groups. One that despises human nature and wishes for the aliens to eradicate mankind, and another groups that worships the aliens in some sort of godlike manner. The two groups eventually became symbolic of mankind’s desire to idolise everything or for its tendency for self-loathing. The Aliens were never meant to be some sort of political Tyranny but a race that could guide and raise the human intellect, the fact that the movement evolved into such a simplistic divisions was the Author repeatedly trying to show humanity’s lack of creative ability and its wavering sense of integrity given the fact that the movement had made such a big departure from Ye’s initial principles. Could it also demonstrate that sometimes our we have tendency to try and achieve revenge for political injustices that happened in the past without remembering the contextual included. For example, one might resent human society during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for its global complicity in the Transatlantic Slave Trade whilst also forgetting the organised and persistent abolition campaign that led to its end or the creation of the British welfare state in 1940s and the nationalised institutions that sought to protect the British populace should another world war ever occur. The humans that wished the Trilosarians to overrule them are just symbolic of that selective political feeling that resides in all of us, it is the knee jerk reactions that seeks quick solutions to complex problems.

Three Body Problem is a great work that draws from different philosophical, historical, scientific and political perspectives and attempts to use these to challenge our sense of primacy and superiority in this world. But I believe that the secret strength of the novel is its support of the art of discovery and the joy of possibility. We live in a world that attempts to be progressive but ends up being inadvertently regressive and we also face groups that use the rhetoric of change and revolution to mask their aim of restoring outdated and failed ideology. Change is necessary. But it must be meaningful and refreshing. Humanity has continuously displayed its ability to create new ways of thinking, interacting and surviving. We must continue this trend or face a path of stagnation and self-destruction.

Future Blog Posts

I am going to continue in this strand of thinking by discussing the concept of futurology and more specifically people in the past who attempted to predict the future. Some these predictions were politically motivated whilst other tried to be in their clinical in vision based on the contemporary state of science. I will try and examine all of these futuristic ideas and assess how accurate they were and what relevance they hold for our unstable political and social culture.