Welcome to Starting Monday on patkane.global - my musing over the last week of busyness, and what leads it gives me for the next seven.
The great theme of this last week was about vast implacable forces, and our relationship to them. Do you turn away from their presence, and “cultivate your own garden”, in the words of Voltaire’s Candide (or “first tidy your room”, in the words of Jordan Peterson)? Or does the sheer absurdity of their overweening power compel you to be just as preposterously ambitious, in your own radicalism and activism?
Depends, of course, on the scale and nature of those forces. Democracy - or at least that form which we’re used to from the last 100 years - has been the way that the people’s will, and society’s mega-structures, have to some degree been connected.
From my Scottish constitutional and other experiences, I’m never going to stop being a democrat - or believing that a good society/state/nation is possible, by virtue of rational discussion and social movement.
But sometimes, beyond one’s activist bubble, you sense other power processes in play - vast, destructive, possibly even nihilist in their motivation.
What is interesting to me, in the context of this column, is how our awareness of this simmers just below the culture we consume. Sometimes it seems as if we are being consistently challenged to respond, at the appropriate scale.
I’d have to say this challenge began for me last week in a moment of near-farce. My editors at the National (a Scottish paper for which I write a weekly column) had asked me to write a piece on the 50 year anniversary of Faslane, the River-Clyde based inland port that has hosting Britain’s submarine-borne nuclear missile system.
I opened the piece with the corny, faintly-superheroic names of the submarines and their missiles over the years: Resolution. Repulse. Renown. Revenge. Vanguard. Victorious. Vigilant. Vengeance. Polaris. Trident.
Yet there’s nothing camp or ironic about a single submarine that contains the power of 108 Hiroshimas in its warheads (four of them in the Clyde base). Nor about a concept of these weapons as a form of “deterrence”: to deter implies an ultimate willingness to use force, and using this force would destroy the very civilisation it was supposed to “defend”. Nor about the fact that its rickety systems and sloppy maintenance could produce a meltdown that could irradiate hundreds and thousands of miles around, without a shot being fired.
However, farce is always possible. So, at the end of a sun-kissed and jaw-droppingly beautiful drive past various Scottish lochs, my brother and sound engineer and I (the team behind Hue And Cry) found ourselves at a promotional gig, celebrating 40 years of the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. As we were setting up, with the muscled, dappled hills rising up before our eyes, someone pointed out that, over the other side of the hill, was Coulport - into whose hills were built 16 reinforced concrete bunkers, containing the totality of the Trident warheads.
My piano-playing brother Greg, who rarely takes to the stage mike during a gig, couldn’t help himself. “How do you all feel living here? When there’s global annihilation over the hill there? How do you cope?” Half of the room cheered (probably a contingent of Scottish independence supporters, which still has the removal of Trident from Scottish territory as an aim). But the other half looked embarrassed, maybe even insulted (these bases are major local employers).
Each gig is its own totality of experience - all the elements weave in to the whole, and you learn each time. As a frontman, I have recently been allowing otherwise sharp-edged political songs from the Hue And Cry archive to occupy an ambiguous, all-too-human zone. I’ve said enough over the years for an audience to know where I’m coming from. And the evocative nature of a gig, its rich bath of emotions, may sometimes effect more of a shift in position than a definitive line proclaimed behind each song.
But I was glad Gregory broke the poise - because the gig had real stakes, from that point in. We left to a standing ovation. All the preceding love songs having been directly targeted at an abyss, just over the mountains.
The infinite war over human capacity
And yes, as Nietzsche said in his famous quote, sometimes you should beware staring into the abyss - because it can start to stare back at you. (His preceding line is, "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” )
So I’m in quite a mood when walking into a Sunday moviehouse in the West of Scotland, to see Avengers: Infinity War (recommended by many pals). Monsters of all kinds, staring out of a giant digital screen, at me and past me. And implacable forces? Up there, it's nothing but that.
I buy the great comic’s writer Grant Morrison’s argument about the current, inexhaustible appetite for superheroics and caped crusaders - rooted, that is, in our deepening cynicism and despair about the public realm. Could it be, he asks, that “a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source, in search of utopian role models?”
“Could the superhero in his cape and skin-tight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become?” he continues. “That is, a form of being in which our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?”
We live in a “comic book reality”, as Morrison puts it – “traumatised by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear”.
Beneath the wisecracking characters and breathtaking simulations, Avengers: Infinity War runs on exactly the machinery Morrison describes. It’s clearly a warning against charismatic, reality-defining autocrats - and particularly if they get their hands on the most powerful technology.
Thanos (only two letters away from Thanatos, the Greek god of death) seeks some elemental gems that were spat out of the Big Bang. Gathered together, they will give him absolute power over all material and mental existence. But Thanos is a genocidal Malthusian. He believes that burgeoning life will exhaust a finite universe. So his consistent aim is to halve the populations of the planets he conquers, so that the remainder may flourish.
By the end of the movie, now possessing all the “infinity gems”, Thanos can make entire populations - including previously beloved superheros - literally crumble to ashes. The damned flake into nothing beside the saved. Like a Putin in his dacha, Thanos ends the movie contemplating the hills from his eyrie, receiving the gratitude of the known (and now subjugated) universe.
After the strenuous and kinetic drama of the preceding two hours, this ending is actually devastating in its bathos. This is the banality of evil - but operating at an atomic level. And I’m sure the dusty incinerations Thanos inflicts is no accidental reference; it’s exactly what happens to humans in the immediate blast of an nuclear bomb.
And all that was preceded by a series of trailers obsessing about existential risk - another Mission Impossible, some movie about the decimation of children, another manichean Harry Potter franchise. I came out of the filmhouse staggering somewhat.
Billions seem to want to watch these massive fables. Fables in which the human ambition to ultimately control all matter - whether in terms of bytes, atoms, genes, through tech or magic - can only be explored through (as the movie title has it) an "infinity of warring".
So here’s my questiona for the next seven days:
Is this the only way we can culturally deal with the “destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project", as Morrison puts it? Are these CGI’d orgies of simulated destruction, conducted by wise-guy “utopian heroes”, a way to discharge and defuse our potential collective aggressions? Aggressions which can potentially be expressed in a million ambient ways, in a world of nano, bio, info and robo-tech?
Or are there softer, more subtle tales that could be told about humanity’s transforming power? Where is the ecological, the nurturing, the motherly narrative about a superpowered future?
What’s your answers to these? Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.