The Reversible Straitjacket Of History

Alan W. Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), deconstructs our faith in the power of belief:

“Most of us believe in order to feel secure, in order to make our individual lives seem valuable and meaningful. Belief has thus become an attempt to hang on to life, to grasp and keep it for one’s own. But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.” (24)

Watts exposes the profound absurdity of human existence: the pursuit of life gets us nowhere in the end. The wise know there is no security. This is the beginning and end of the proverbial human story.

The grand narrative of modernity centers on the indestructibility of Progress. Mankind is constantly getting smarter and moving faster, onward and upward to bigger and better things. The sky’s a limitation—for now.

Baudrillard challenged self-perpetuating systems of modernity, working hard to destroy them, theoretically, in his polemical prose. A disillusioned postmodern mystic, Baudrillard believed in the power of reversibility. Systems, he said, have the ability to undermine themselves. Computer viruses, for example, circulate in vast networks built for the smooth transmission of critical data. Superbugs continually infect residents of meticulously scrubbed hospital rooms, mocking the germaphobe morality we’ve waged against the natural dirt and stink of the human body.

Baudrillard tells us to celebrate reversibility; when we try to perfect systems, they fight back for our own good. We reclaim what makes us human in the face of out-of-control technically efficient machines. In a blessed moment of poetic resolution, the violence of perfection becomes the perfect violence against our increasingly sophisticated attempts to realize the world in its totality. Reversibility itself is subject to reversal.

History has the uncanny ability to jump over its own shadow. At their peak performance, oppressive economic, political and social systems engineer their own implosion. The most spectacular events of terror set the scene for the one-upmanship of further murderous replies. Clever machines compute themselves into exhaustion, activating the internal suicide switch of their planned obsolescence.

What’s “done” today is free to be undone tomorrow or next year or next century.

A recent example: Billy Bush conducts the “pussy grabbing” interview with Donald Trump in 2005. Hot mic audio of the exchange resurfaces in 2016; Bush’s career is finished within days of the leak. Trump, no matter his place in history, remains a tool.

A new year is upon us as the world rushes headlong into the past. Russia and the United States are engaged in full-blown Cold War mode again. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, if Congressional Republicans get their way, more than twenty million Americans currently covered under Obamacare will lose their benefits.

We’re forever bound in the straitjacket of history, but when we relax and let our minds run, things have a way of turning inside out. One day the poor man will be rich and the rich man poor. We make poetic resolutions every day, not just on New Year’s Eve.

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