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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Forget Eris, Discordianism is an orphan branch in the progress of culture

Religion goes to our emotional response to the world, and emotions form the cornerstone of our ability to survive, and to live together in dense populations where the economic means of subsistence are unevenly distributed. The second statement I made sounds wrong, of course. Many would think that reason sits at the root of our ability to get by in the world, but recently science tells us that without emotions it is impossible to make any decision at all. I have tried to find the article that substantiates this counter-intuitive claim. I read it one day in a coffee shop in Sydney on a Saturday with the Sydney Morning Herald scattered over the counter by the window where you stand and drink your tasty beverage. I read of a man who had had a car accident that had damaged his brain in such a way that the parts of the brain that look after emotions were severely affected. The result was that the man was unable to do anything. He couldn't do the laundry or drive a car, he lost his job and his whole life changed. You could say he lost his religion.

People who demand absolute certainty and who fail the test of periodic solitude by deeming the anxiety it can produce an unbearable torment have my sympathy. Because time is rigidly unidirectional existence can seem impossibly difficult, and we seek both the comfort of community and proper guidelines for conduct. Symbols and ceremonies work to generate and sustain community and sacred texts give us help in working out how to live in the world. There is also the idea of a "personal God" that introduces the divine into our thoughts and brings it into direct contact with our feelings. And hegemons have always seen the benefits of religion because it works to buttress social and economic structures that both benefit them and serve to ensure the economic viability - essential for the purposes of defense - of the community.

People who study history or the cultural artefacts produced in distant ages have no choice but to tackle the fact of religion because it was ubiquitous. The Koreans who colonised the Japanese archipelago 1000 years BC and who are known as the Yayoi were successful compared to the Jomon hunter-gatherers who already lived there because the Yayoi's wet rice cultivation economy could support heavier populations. I wonder what religion they practiced. In any case, the excess value their form of subsistence produced made them more competitive than the Jomon, who were pushed northward into the forests. The Yayoi also had better technology, in metal implements, which were designed to help them work the land, but which also could be shaped into weapons. Once the displacement was complete it was a matter of time before new innovations would be introduced to further strengthen society and make it more competitive in a geopolitical sense, and in 500 AD Buddhism and written language were introduced from the dominant hegemony in the region, China.

Those who want to read and understand the people of medieval Japan through their culture must also understand how religion operated at both the personal and social levels because where people live in dense populations these things are intimately linked. Similarly, those who want to understand European culture must also know about the religion that was practiced there.

The introduction of the printing press in the 15th century was beneficial simply because it lowered the cost of access to cultural products. At the same time it happened that governments in many parts of Europe mandated universal education for male children; this was done to ensure that men had access to the Bible. The explosion of printed books linked with higher levels of education in especially northern Europe lay the ground for the propagation of ideas, leading to such things as the experimental method in science, for example. Europeans also used books to discuss matters of government which led to the institution of a universal male franchise in some of the American states following the revolutionary war there. So modern technology and representative democracy derived ultimately from people reading and talking about the Bible translated from ancient Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew into the vernacular, which was part of a cultural movement - as opposed to a religion - of the 16th century called Humanism.

Those who claim a special place for religion in Western societies are perfectly justified in doing so. You can even posit that religion enabled the scientific method to survive in Europe because, as the Lord’s Prayer says, God will forgive any trespass, which sounds very much like an invitation to people to experiment, and make mistakes. Because it ensures the economic success of the community, facilitates life in society, provides comfort for the individual, and generates the desirable sense of community that humans crave, religion continues to thrive.

One recent addition to the arsenal of Western religions is Discordianism. (All hail Eris!) The product of two men living in California in the late-50s, Discordianism celebrates chaos, as opposed to a perceived sense of order that most religions promote where they are practiced. It has its texts, symbols and tenets, all useful in many ways for those to whom it appeals. But it seems to me to be a lazy way to understand an increasingly complex world. Although it promotes tolerance of complexity - the world is getting more and more complex, and will continue to do so as technology and global capitalism work to undermine the integrity of even such basic institutions as the nation state - it seems to me to form an orphan branch of cultural progress.

Frankly it seems to me like evidence of a lack of imagination. Possibly some people just don’t have the perception required to understand how the elements of cultural artefacts work in the ways that the artists who create them use them. Certainly, technology - a cultural artefact that needs to be reined back into the fold of the incomplete Humanist project, and acknowledged by all as part of it - has become so complex, sophisticated and specialised that most people feel excluded from discussions of it. But in societies where there is universal education to secondary level these are failures of will, not of access. For myself, I see learning as landscape of incalculable sophistication and complexity and scope that always rewards examination using the rational mind; this applies equally to postmodern literature as to molecular biology.

As we saw in the case of the emergence of the scientific method, the liberal arts lie at the root of all disciplines that exist. The liberal arts are unique in the world because they possess the kind of highly plastic quality that encourages experimentation. Artistic artefacts are also highly shareable; all you need is the means to understand and you can experience what they offer and take away something of symbolic and emotional value. They are also often inexpensive to make. The liberal arts function like an emotional exchange mechanism in society and have many of the attributes of religion. Their plasticity means that this important emotional economy can appear anywhere at any time. You often see creative people achieving great sophistication even though they live inside a society that signally lacks it.

Instead of falling back onto a few emotional props in the ambit of Discordianism intelligent peeps need a new Humanism that can foster tolerance for innovation in the liberal arts, whence all cultural artefacts - from ICBMs to credit default swaps to Elizabethan sonnets - derive. And help the community to rationally appraise their desirability and usefulness, and not just their economic viability or geopolitical instrumentality.

In all cases the arts go ahead of all other disciplines, and function to propagate sometimes very complex ideas throughout a society, thus enabling it to reflect on itself, or on a specific matter, in a useful way that then leads to good outcomes. Perhaps one day there will be a course on Lolcats at the New College of the Humanities in London.

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