They are the stewards
Of the whole universe
Masters by force
Commanders without laws.
They eat everything
They eat everything
They eat everything
And leave nothing.
José “Zeca” Afonso, “Os Vampiros” (1963)
Fifteen years ago, a good Uruguayan friend said to me, “Tom, we are at the end of an era, not just any historical period, but an era. I don’t know what will come next, but I’m sure that almost all the structures that regulate our world today are no longer valid. “
Although I was well into the process of radically questioning the fantasies pumped out daily in my country about the culminating timelessness of the “liberal” order erected by the United States at the end of World War II, the flat, confident tone of my friend from down under still managed to disturb me.
And it set in motion a very long series of reflections about the enormous blindness that people, even so-called “thinking” people, who live and work at the heart of the world system of economic power and cultural production, often suffer.
It has been stated on more than one occasion that the modern novel, defined among other things by its extraordinary diversity of voices, and the constant dialogue between them, was born with the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
And within this same critical framework, many have seen its protagonist’s famous shout of “I know who I am” as a statement of principles for the emergence of modern man, a being who, in contrast to his medieval predecessor, placed much greater value on his own perceptions of reality and demonstrated an increased confidence in his own ability to successfully navigate the multiple contingencies of life.
It was not so much that the role played by God in the previous age was excluded from the mental framework of man. It was rather that man appropriated a much larger parcel of the responsibilities and privileges that social pedagogies had said belonged exclusively to God or his “chosen” representatives on earth.
We can say that, in a sense, the modern man or, rather, the small educated class that adhered to the new principles of modernity, began the process that continues to this day of progressively deifying themselves while systematically ignoring and denigrating the accumulated “natural” wisdom of those who could not, or did not want to share the new vision of reality.
The first sustained dissent against this radical change of criteria from within the bourgeois class came from the romantics of central Europe, followed by thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bergson and Ortega who warned, each in his own way, about the very harmful secondary effects of the process, at first sight so laudable, of separating man from his most primary instincts and customs.
But, surprisingly for many, the vigorous resurrection of Western culture (1945-1975) after its two clear attempts at self-immolation (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) invalidated the pessimistic views of these thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Or perhaps not.
As Pasolini tried to convince us in the 1960s, and even more fervently in the early 1970s before his death, in all likelihood, at the hands of the Italian deep state, we should not and cannot place our faith in cultural recovery based on the propagation of consumerism.
This, for a very simple reason: consumerism, with its absolute contempt for the past, is nothing more and nothing less than anti-culture, a force, as noted by his contemporary Debord, that devours everything, including the idea, so essential for the growth and maintenance of modernity, of the willful person disposed to challenge the orthodoxies propagated by the great centers of political and social power.
If there is a master trope in the discourse of consumerism, it is this: “You are defective and we, only we, can repair you.” Listening to this repeatedly in advertising on a day-to-day basis, works, in time, and in the effective absence of any other attractive model of the good life, like the waves that wear down the sharp edges the stones located near the tide line at the beach.
Looking at our covidophobic, or perhaps more accurately, covidophilic world of 2021, it seems clearer and clearer that the long agony of modernity is finally over. Westerners are very tired, so tired that they are not even interested in minimally investigating the very questionable logics and findings of the oracles of the new church of biosafety.
The signs of what Unamuno called “the reason of unreason” are everywhere.
Like the peasants of yesteryear with their garlic necklaces, people now devotedly wear masks that, no matter what the public health authorities and their media lackeys say and repeat, have no clear cut, scientifically proven efficacy against the transmission of the virus.
And they cannot wait to take an experimental and non-fully licensed vaccine for a disease that has a survival rate of more than 99.5%.
And they accept as unquestionably legitimate methods for the containment of the virus freedom-robbing lockdowns that, when studied rigorously in comparative framework, show no clear sign of having positively affected infection curves or death rates in the places where they have been employed
In effect, consumerism has done what none of the reactionary movements of the past or the many self-inflicted wounds of the Enlightenment were able to do: empty the modern being of his desire to manage life along rational lines and in the expectation of ever greater freedoms. After sixty years of being bombarded by images designed to make us constantly doubt the often miraculous self-sufficiency of our bodies and our individual powers of discernment, we have surrendered to the law of “experts” paid by, and loyal to, big business.
Returning to Cervantes, it could be said that we no longer “know who we are” and it seems that, for most people, this loss of will and prerogative is not the slight bit problematic.
Why worry? Why look at the previously essential question of how to manage both risk and our own libidinal forces, they say, when we have well-credentialed sages, working hand-in-glove with power who, like the princes of the church in days past, clearly know how so much more about our defective lives than do we ourselves.
Thomas S. Harrington is an essayist, photographer and Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford (USA). In addition to his academic work, he is a frequent commentator on politics and culture in the US press and a number of international media outlets, especially the Catalan-language press. You can find much of his public writing, photography and press interviews on his website. A selection of his academic writings can be found at Academia.edu
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