Not All Those Who Wander are Lost

The drive that Lewis Mumford called “the will-to-order” is at the core of technological progress. To exemplify the damage that can be generated by monolithic forms of analytic intelligence attempting to rule biodiversity and neurodiversity, we can take the recent example of French management of national forests. In the early 2000s, the French government introduced the analytical accounting methods of New Public Management into the management of the Office National des Forêts. Two decades later, a report from the Commission des Affaires Économiques of the French Parliament mentions a crisis in which no less than forty-eight forester employees committed suicide as a result of the rationalization of their practice, while tree diversity became seriously endangered because of the financial decision to focus on coniferous monoculture.

What are the principles of New Public Management? The notion that a national institution is part of a market or quasi-market and needs to make significant profit according to a factual short-term cost-based control system, a focus on citizens as customers, and, last but not least, the introduction of analytical accounting. This form of arithmetic management now enhanced with the use of predictive analytics tends to read the complex realities of a biopsychosocial system in terms of credit and debit. If a forest caregiver is wandering among the trees, apparently doing nothing but in fact in intuitive and careful dialogue with the forest, this will be analyzed by the grid as an unproductive slice of time – a cost that should be cut. The result in this case was suicide or depression, loss of meaning and joy at work, and an endangered life diversity.

In the long term, the national economy also suffers from its arithmomania. The coronavirus pandemic itself felt like a long computational list of new cases of illness or death, and many measures were taken based on these numbers only, as per the scheme of reductionist measurement concepts that govern biopolitics. Oversimplifying our decisional grids with a predictive analytics lens leads to a loss in neurodiversity and biodiversity.

In the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel discusses the different ways that people confronted the absolute through nature, symbolised by the god Pan. For Hegel, Pan represents not just an alien totality that has no relation to humans, but something “friendly to the human spirit.” Nature or Pan is represented, not as the objective whole, “but that indefinite neutral ground which involves the element of the subjective; he embodies that thrill which pervades us in the silence of the forests.” We need a pan-democracy. We need to be able to meander while working:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Riddle of Strider, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Less We Die, The More Enslaved We Become

There is at Cambridge University a Centre for Existential Risk, the mandate of which is to examine and help to reduce the risks that could lead to human extinction or civilizational collapse. But perhaps the most dangerous risk for humanity lies in the idea that we can eliminate existential risk. Existence supposes risk. The phantasy of the abolition of death is the ghost that floats over the current pandemic politics or over the technocratic and transhumanist coup for the control of life. Saving and extending all lives at all cost is our most dangerous idea, now revealed to be dominant: if we are prevented from the possibility of risking our life to defend what we believe in, then, as shown by Hegel, we may all become slaves of our own fear and securitarism.

Pathologies of Free Will

Free will is the individuative concept upon which modernity is built, but a hyperdigital normative society may function like a self-inflicted determinism in which subjects are produced by reductionist and statistical protocols, and therefore might loose their access to self-possibility, and self-demonstration (the real deployment of a singular destiny).

Friendly Nothing

Nothingness: Jean-Paul Sartre brought it back into fashion in the post-World War II period with his book L’Être et le Néant. It must be said that reality seemed quite absurd at the time. The idea of ​​a nihilistic humanity, enamored with emptiness to the point of extermination, seemed to be demonstrated by two insanely devastating international conflicts.

But Sartre’s Nothingness is not nihilistic in its intention. Nothing is the twin brother of Being and they form the double face of an existential Janus. What we call the Creal is close to what Sartre called nothingness, or to the fruitful vacuity of the Buddhists, linked to what the Japanese call nehan, divine salvation, or what Max Stirner called the creative nothing, at the source of the self, before any determination.

Consider our human experience. At first glance, we are afraid of nothingness like a child is afraid of the dark. The philosopher Aristotle once said: “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and indeed it seems like the earth is a space saturated with swarming entities; we are all made of microbes. It seems that the human mind too is “nihilophobic”, unable to confront the Nothing and to hold fast to it until it perceives the continued creation of the virtual.

But on closer examination, nothingness attracts us too, because precisely, often our daily bustle is just a restless void: we may spend some time on trivial tasks which, if we eliminated them, would not change much, or rather would improve our well-being. The banality of emptiness is not only the result of inactivity but also the product of insignificance, of the anecdotal, of all kinds of addictions that we develop out of divertissement.

Or perhaps we fear the power of life. We are afraid of the consequences of our personal power. We spend much time making ourselves believe that we are powerless because too much real power would be terrifying. We feel that deep in the unknown there is a well of potentialities just waiting to be activated, but what about the responsibility of activating nothingness and doing something with it? What if it went wrong?

Many spend their lives feeling guilty about what they haven’t done yet. Since inactivity is frowned upon in our overproducing societies, we always seem very busy and forget to cultivate the mental minimalism that would not only make us healthier, but also, ultimately would be beneficial to the planet. As the poet Robert Browning wrote in 1855, “less is more”. When you accept not to try everything – and again – and have the strength to let certain aspects of your life undevelopped, you can focus on the essentials and cultivate your style in action. What you refrain from doing keeps you on course. What you do anyway, because it makes sense, you will do it better and with more intent and solemnity.

Accepting creative vacuity as a friend is also giving up that old human dream of controlling and owning everything. To face the abundant void without greed is to accept our own power to say sometimes yes and often no. In the end, we remain like ants in the face of infinite possibility. No artist can tell the full profusion of the Creal.

Kaleidoscopic Perception

The kaleidoscope is a bicentenary invention due to the Scottish optics researcher David Brewster, who in 1816 wrote the first kaleidoscopic treatise, nearly two hundred pages dedicated to the polarisation of light and the ideal number of coloured glass fragments necessary for the best variety of structures: twenty-four! It wasn’t until a few decades later that the scientific object became a children’s toy, and an adult metaphor. A kaleidoscopic reality, according to the Greek root which speaks of beauty and forms, is a harmony composed of disparate elements, a succession of unified varieties that can take on several aspects depending on the angle of the experience and the moment of the observation.

Artists also have been fascinated by kaleidoscopes, those googles of the imagination, including Picasso and his Cubist friends, who wanted to unveil the essence of the geometric fragmentation of the world and our ordering gaze. The poet Aragon, in Le Paysan de Paris, wrote with the haughtiness of the dreamer: “When I think of what you are thinking, all of you […], the sky as a crown, my upside down kaleidoscope, shipwrecks in your pocket, a little meadow between your teeth, the whole universe, the vast universe… ” The poet’s kaleidoscopic vision designates an opening to the richness of reality and of its possibilities. It is a metonymy for the creative profusion of the cosmos, of which poetry is a pure (too pure?) echo. In a fiercely analytical and gray world, we clench our teeth with an aftertaste of bitter meadow in our mouths.

In Creative Evolution, the philosopher Bergson relates the kaleidoscope to our consciousness of the world. For Bergson, we do not see the world as it is, because the invisible is too rich and metamorphic: we perceive a reduced and biased composition, an image that we mistake for reality. Walter Benjamin spoke of our social reality as a montage of images, like in a movie, and this also reveals the, if not arbitrary, at least contingent or singular character of any montage, as in cinema direction. An artist lives in a regenerative and regular shaking of the kaleidoscope, in the in-between of assemblages, a current of lava that can intensify or burn the lives of those who approach it.

The playful nature of the kaleidoscope is a clue: chance is a component of the creative experience that weaves our existences, our pockets full of joy or our fatal shipwrecks. In our approach to reality, we tend to accept perceptual reshuffles imprinted by others, for example the media, and all structures that reproduce on a large scale the norms that govern us. We adapt by forgetting to shake the real to reorder the colours and shapes. We get attached to our habits and sometimes prefer to suffer in a familiar environment rather than to venture out into new horizons. Few of us have fun giving a kaleidoscopic, hazardous and risky shake up to our world, to generate new ideas, new points of view, new perceptions, new territories. A dangerous and vital game. A game that is nothing without thought and action, because the colored constellations are not values ​​or ideas, they only suggest them intuitively to our interpretation. The labour of giving meaning to diversity takes longer than a new arrangement of optical forms. We cannot live of metaphors alone.

The creative shaking of the kaleidoscope is not a roll of the dice, it is a persevering openness to the flow of possibility that runs between two realistic illusions. Charles Fourier is perhaps the French thinker who came closest to a kaleidoscopic political proposition: according to him there are more than eight hundred different types of human beings, or characters, contrary to what the monotonous psychologist propaganda tells us, one that would like to see us cry and laugh at the same things, all united in a soporific emotional consensus driven by Hollywood screenwriters. For Fourier, the philosopher-poet, there are butterfly passions (desire for renewal), composite passions (desire for unification), and cabalistic passions (desire for competition), among others.

The world would undoubtedly be richer if we combined our intellectual and emotional differences in an attempt to compose society as a living kaleidoscope rather than as a panoptic prison where everyone watches the same reflections. Contemporary loneliness comes from the fact that we are educated in the possibility of being all different and then re-educated in the need to be all alike.