Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Sinai Schema—some theological thoughts on the Prime Minister's Christmas message—Holy Innocents' Day

Massacre of the Innocents by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872) 
Readings: Matthew 2:16-18, the massacre of the the innocents, and the story of the Golden Calf from Exodus 32

It is worth remembering that these stories are not historical accounts, rather they are etiological tales,  i.e. tales designed to "explain" the origins of various religious practices, norms, natural phenomena, names of places and peoples etc. and that, therefore, as Peter Sloterdijk observes, "The true location of these events is purely in the stories themselves" ("In the Shadow of Mount Sinai", Polity Press, p. 27).

Given that the wider context of my words includes the horrific conflict going on in Syria it is not inappropriate to observe that, although Holy Innocents' Day is observed in the UK tomorrow, the 28th December, in the Western Syrian Christian tradition, it observed today.

From the publisher’s introduction to Peter Soloterdijk’s essay, “In The Shadow of Mount Sinai” (Polity Press, 2015):

“At the core of monotheism is the logic of belonging to a community of confession, of being a true believer — this is what Sloterdijk calls the Sinai Schema. To be a member of a people means that you submit to the beliefs of the community just as you submit to its language. Monotheism is predicated on the logic of one God who demands your utmost loyalty. Hence at the core of monotheism is also the fear of apotheosis, of heresy, of heterodoxy. So monotheism is associated first and foremost with a certain kind of internal violence, namely, a violence against those who violate their membership through a break in loyalty and trust.”

From the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s Christmas 2015 message:

“It is because [our armed forces] face danger that we have peace. And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.” 



One of the many joys and privileges of training for ministry at Oxford was having the opportunity to meet and get to know, just a little, an historian whose 1952 book, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny” was profoundly influential upon my own early thinking about history, Alan Bullock (1914-2004). He was also a lifelong Unitarian, his father had been a Unitarian minister, and he generously gave me some of his time in conversation about life, the universe and everything. On one occasion after Sunday chapel in Harris Manchester College I asked him what was the single most important thing he felt he had learnt from his study of figures like Hitler and Stalin? Without hesitation he replied that whenever you saw or heard expressions of the kind of ideology that might lead down similar, extremely dark paths, you were to challenge it, even if you only overheard it casually mentioned in the queue at a Post Office. I vowed that day to follow his advice.  

But, as my own thinking has become more experienced, developed and nuanced (which is not the same as it being right, of course!) I have come to see how hard these kinds of dark paths are to identify in their earliest stages. Calling out something early on risks you being accused at best of foolishness and, at worst, of being necessarily alarmist and unreasonable. But this week, in David Cameron’s Christmas message, I heard some words that I think need to be called out as being something that, if followed through on, lies at the start of a very dark path indeed. I am deeply disturbed by them.

Here’s the relevant paragraph again:

“It is because [our armed forces] face danger that we have peace. And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Firstly I point to his use of the highly-charged theological phrase, “God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace.” Secondly, I point to this phrase’s use in the explicit context of a deepening and increasingly out of control armed conflict with certain groups holding to a particularly extreme, literalist, interpretation of another monotheistic tradition, namely, Islam. 

Although I have my suspicions, I need to be clear that I don’t really have a clue about whether or not Cameron actually believes his own statement in any literal, theological way, but I do know that he’s playing with fire here because, as a politician, these words take him directly into the violence that lies at the heart of monotheism—a violence born out of the belief that "because our god is like no other, our people is like no other" (Sloterdijk, p. 21).

Let me briefly but, I hope, carefully take apart this power-keg I think Cameron is playing with. 

Central to monotheism is a belief in a single, only God. As the Hebrew Scriptures put it in the first of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:1–17, and then at Deuteronomy 5:4–21: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; as Jesus puts it in John 17:3 “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”; as the 112th sura of the Qur’an, “Sūrat al-Tawhīd”, puts it, “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”

It is believed by each of these groups that with this single God they have made some kind of covenant and that this same God has divinely revealed to them certain authoritative eternal laws, texts, practices and people. The primary model for this monotheistic covenantal relationship is, of course, the one found in the Hebrew texts and a primary story within this model is the story of the Golden Calf that we heard earlier in our readings. 

Now let’s note an important dynamic at play in this story. Even though the Hebrew writers have Moses first change God’s mind about wanting to destroy all his people and start over, on going down the mountain and seeing the calf and all his people dancing before it, Moses himself has a change of mind — he finds himself agreeing with God’s original decision. In a single moment he decides that continued loyalty to his people’s single God in fact trumps and breaks all the laws of that same God just given to him — including, as we shall soon horrifically see, the law not to kill. He throws down the tablets of stone upon which God has written them, takes the Golden Calf, this strange and foreign god, burs it with fire, grinds it to powder, scatters it on the water, and makes all his people drink the awful cocktail. Then, when this does not stop the people he calls out, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” 

Only the sons of Levi choose to gather around him and to them he says those awful, genocidal words:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.” 

The story tells us about three thousand of the people fell on that day and that these actions served the Lord and brought a blessing upon themselves.

The German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Soloterdijk (b. 1947) has written about this story in an essay published just this month called “In The Shadow of Mount Sinai”:

“The covenant has the form of a non-mixing contract and a non-translation oath [i.e. a promise is made never to try and see your God in another form, say a golden calf or, another people], [and these are] combined with the highest salvific guarantees. Whoever mixes themselves is eliminated, and whoever translates  falls from grace” (Sloterdijk, p. 23).

And here’s a summary of Sloterdijk’s overall view found in his essay:

“At the core of monotheism is the logic of belonging to a community of confession, of being a true believer — this is what Sloterdijk calls the Sinai Schema. To be a member of a people means that you submit to the beliefs of the community just as you submit to its language. Monotheism is predicated on the logic of one God who demands your utmost loyalty. Hence at the core of monotheism is also the fear of apotheosis, of heresy, of heterodoxy. So monotheism is associated first and foremost with a certain kind of internal violence, namely, a violence against those who violate their membership through a break in loyalty and trust.”

(The story of the massacre of the innocents echoes this schema in that Herod is presented as being frightened of losing the loyalty of his own subjects to this child Jesus, a divine representative of a different god to the one to whom Herod is, we may presume, loyal). 

At this point it’s worth  reminding you of something said by the insightful, if deeply problematic, German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) in his 1922 essay “Political Theology”, namely, that:

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts . . . in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent Cod became the omnipotent lawgiver” ("Political Theology," MIT Press, 1985, p. 36)

The problem is, as I see it anyway, that the religious violence of the Sinai Schema is still encoded in our secularized national political life. Indeed, because of this, Sloterdijk feels it is better to point not so much to monotheism as the problem but to something more general which is any kind of "covenantal singularization project".  I think we may say that it is more helpful to think of monotheism as  a subset of this latter project.

Anyway, over the last century this schema/project has been reasonably well sublimated by us within liberal democratic states, i.e. the socially unacceptable impulse to do violence to those outside your own, immediate, particular national or religious group has been transformed (often unconsciously) into a more open-hearted, understanding and tolerant way of dealing with difference. 

But this shadow of the Sinai Schema means that, under certain circumstances, our politics and poorly educated politicians (at least in terms of religion and theology) are highly susceptible to becoming re-theologised and a group like ISIS seem to have realised this. They are, I think, intuitively alert to the violence that is implicit within the monotheistic, Sinai schema and they seem to be increasingly successfully in being able to lure some of our politicians into fighting them by reviving in our own countries some kind of Christian monotheism as an antidote to, in this case, “Islam”—to encourage a revival of the idea that "because our god is like no other, our people will be like no other."

I think that this has, in truth, been going on covertly for a while now (at least since the attacks in September 11, 2001 and Tony Blair's Prime Ministership) but Cameron’s explicit claim in this message that this is a Christian country (i.e. not a secular and multi-faith one) and that, at Christmas, we are centred on “God’s only son, Jesus Christ” and that this only son is, “the Prince of Peace”, i.e. not a prince of violence as (presumably) our current enemy's major religious figures are, just reeks to me of a revival of the Sinai Schema.

(As a member of the congregation perspicaciously noted, the way Cameron presents his Christmas message can easily make it look as if he thinks the British Armed Forces are acting under "the banner of Christ".)

The problem is that the One God ISIS and Cameron are messing with is the kind of genie who, once out of the bottle and back in the world of politics, is not at all easy to get back in again; a fact that was noted at a conference I chaired a few years ago with both great sadness and anger by a senior NATO General who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, I don’t know whether we can do much about this right at the moment but I am asking you to keep an eye on this tendency during the coming year and, in the spirit of Alan Bullock, to have the courage to call it out as a very dangerous thing. 

The very least we can do in a liberal free-religious setting (such as the one in which this address is being given) is to draw people’s attention to this matter and, although we may not be able to put out the fire ourselves, we can usefully shout loudly “Fire!” and have at least half a chance of getting a group of effective firefighters on the scene in time to save the building that is any genuinely tolerant, secular, democratic state.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day 2015: Staying close to the bloom and magic of things that are nearest

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church last night after the service
Readings: Luke 2:1-20

From “History” by R. W. Emerson. Used as the epigraph to the first edition of Nietzsche’s “Gay Science” (1879):

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. 

Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1886 preface to “Human, All-Too-Human” (1879):

A step further in convalescence: and the free spirit again draws near to life—slowly, to be sure, almost reluctantly, almost mistrustfully. It again grows warmer around him, yellower, as it were; feeling and feeling for others acquire depth, warm breezes of all kinds blow across him. It seems to him as if his eyes are only now open to what is close at hand. He is astonished and sits silent: where had he been? These close and closest things: how changed they seemed! what bloom and magic they have acquired! He looks back gratefully—grateful to his wandering, to his hardness and self-alienation, to his viewing of far distances and bird-like flights in cold heights. What a good thing he had not always stayed “at home,” stayed “under his own roof” like a delicate apathetic loafer! He had been beside himself: no doubt of that. Only now does he see himself—and what surprises he experiences as he does so! What unprecedented shudders! What happiness even in the weariness, the old sickness, the relapses of the convalescent! How he loves to sit sadly still, to spin out patience, to lie in the sun! Who understands as he does the happiness that comes in winter, the spots of sunlight on the wall! They are the most grateful animals in the world, also the most modest, these convalescents and lizards again half turned towards life:—there are some among them who allow no day to pass without hanging a little song of praise on the hem of its departing robe. And, speaking seriously, it is a radical cure for all pessimism (the well-known disease of old idealists and falsehood-mongers) to become ill after the manner of these free spirits, to remain ill a good while, and then grow well (I mean “better”) for a still longer period. It is wisdom, practical wisdom, to prescribe even health for oneself for a long time only in small doses.

The Christians who move on by Cliff Reed, written for an ICUU Executive Committee meeting, Weston, MA, April 2002:

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving behind what cannot be retained:
the creeds written to cement a long dead empire;
the justification for slavery, genocide and witch-burning; the refusal to hear other people’s truth;
an idolised book, a man diminished to a god.

We leave these behind and move on,
not in arrogance, not unaware of tradition’s worth, not creating new bigotries as bad as the old ones,
or so we hope!

We move on,
carrying with us the free and timeless heart of Jesus,
faithful to what was said and done in love for liberty by him, by those who follow him, by those who give his spirit voice and flesh in every time and place.

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving even the name behind, maybe,
a name that Jesus never knew.

We are the Christians who move on,
Seeking and sharing the divine heart in everyone,
as Jesus did.


Address: Staying close to the bloom and magic of things that are nearest

As our opening meditation by the Unitarian minister Cliff Reed (the single most important, personal,  Unitarian influence on me) revealed, for the most part we are a community made up primarily (but not exclusively) of Christians who have moved on.

But there has always been the vexing question how we might best undertake this moving on and being tomorrow what we are not today? As most of you know I strongly resist any attempts to overcome our past by engaging in a process of überwindung, one which seeks to replace Christianity with some new, strong religious structure of whatever kind. This would be simply to stand our old strong religion “on its head” and attempt to lay another strong foundation for yet one more problematic religious structure. May we be saved from this folly.

And so, instead, I have long advocated that we engage in a process of verwindung, that is to say a process of weakening, twisting and reinterpreting our inherited religion so that, eventually, we will come out in a radically different place and, we hope, as gentle and open-hearted and minded free spirits.

To engage in this process of weakening, twisting and reinterpreting is, as Gianni Vattimo said, to be a convalescent from our “metaphysical malady” (cf. Vattimo “Dialogue with Nietzsche”, trans. William McCuaig, New York, Columbia University Press 2006, p. 151).

So, at the beginning of Advent, I introduced you to Nietzsche’s schema of convalescence from our metaphysical malady. This process should be, I think, the primary religious discipline on offer in a free church like this and this means that, as your minister, I am not in the business of helping you to become idealists, pragmatists, existentialists, Christians, sceptics, agnostics, atheists or even Unitarians (whatever that might be) but, instead, only free spirits who dare to encounter (and come to love) reality without mediator or veil.

It seems to me that on Christmas Day we have a perfect opportunity to engage creatively and joyfully in a little bit of verwindung that can greatly help our convalescence and move us just a little closer to the great health of the free spirit.

The Nativity at Night
To do this we’re going to weaken, twist and reinterpret our use of a five-hundred and thirty year-old devotional painting called “The Nativity at Night” (c.1490) by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (click on the picture to enlarge it). It seems that the picture was deliberately painted with a space in the foreground so the observer — today that's you as a convalescent from your “metaphysical malady” — may join the holy family, the angels, shepherds and animals by the crib-side on this happy morn. And it’s to that crib-side that we’ll soon be heading.

But first, let us recall the stages through which Nietzsche’s thinks we must travel before we can become free-spirits.

Remember, Nietzsche thought the journey started with “the hearth health” of our old inherited religious tradition which, even though it once gifted us with things we thought were of the highest value, we have come to know that it “fetters us the fastest”, it keep us captive to old ways and beliefs that simply no longer work for us in this post-modern world.

As we look at this nativity scene this morning most of us here today will be acutely aware we can never again stand before it with the hearth health of either our forebears or that of our naive, childhood years. But, as we look at the picture, most of us will still be capable of feeling some kind of emotional sentimental desire to hold on in some way to the old faith that inspired this painting. We can, perhaps, still feel how easily the old faith might come to fetter us the fastest, indeed, how it still fetters fast so many people in the world today.

But it is the recognition of our own loss of faith in the old hearth health that — whenever it comes — brings on the second phase, one in which we enter a time of profound sickness, the dreadful sickness of nihilism in which there is “the hateful assault on everything that had seemed so comforting.” It's a time when nothing counts, everything seems utterly meaningless and there is only anomie and emptiness. Recalling the depths of our own sickness perhaps there will have been many times when you yourself might have looked upon this depiction of the nativity with a species of disgust, seeing in it merely one more example of the sentimental and coercive propaganda produced by a corrupt and wholly false religion. In this sickness we find ourselves living the kind of life Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) thought most people lived, one of quiet desperation.

As many of us are aware, our own age as a whole still seems dangerously and deeply mired in this nihilistic mood.  But for those of us who come to understand this sickness as necessary (because it so effectively breaks the fetters that once bound us and is, therefore, radically freeing and transformative) then we are able slowly to begin to enter into a period of real convalescence which has two phases — one cool, one warm.

The first, cool phase, is one of detachment where:

“Everything is small. Everything is flat. Nothing matters. This is the mood equally of a scientist sure ours is a world of valueless facts and [also] of those literary characters who float through a world from which they have been estranged and which they look on with a species of tender contempt” (Bearn, p. 8).

And not the mood of the (convalescent) scientist only, but also that of the (convalescent) art critic, historical, critical theologian, philosopher and social anthropologist. We no longer hate the picture but can lnow ook upon it cooly, as if from a great and chilly height, seeing it a fine example of, say, Early Netherlandish painting. We can admire from a distance the painter’s technique and his imaginative use of an old legend about the mystic Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373) who “saw the child in [the Virgin’s] womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it.”

In this cool phase of convalescence we do not, of course  believe this story for one minute, indeed we look upon it with a species of tender contempt, but the point is we can begin to look upon once more.

The warm, second phase, is one in which we recognise that if our convalescence is to continue then we must find ways to come back to earth “where the sun warms.” In our readings you heard once again how Nietzsche in his book, “Human, All-Too Human”, beautifully puts this descent to earth.

Warming up, you can now stand before the picture in a very different way. Yes, you remain grateful for the important and vital insights gained in your earlier chillier phase of convalescence but, as you look again at the faces in the painting, feeling and feeling for others acquires depth, and warm breezes of all kinds blow across you. It seems to you as if your eyes are only now open to what is close at hand. You are astonished and sit silent: where had you been? “These close and closest things: how changed they seemed! what bloom and magic they have acquired!”

But is this warmth, this bloom and magic, not merely an indication of a return to the old hearth heath? Not at all because you cannot undo the transformative sickness of nihilism you have gone through; neither can you throw away the chilly detached knowledge you gained in the first period of your convalescence. You are a changed creature, one only just beginning to warm up to life and health again.  

These moments of warmth before the painting are, at first, short lived. Chilly but tender contempt will from time to time assuredly return. It may also be that, like malaria, the hateful sickness of nihilism will return now and then, laying you low for weeks at a time. However, you are genuinely convalescing now and you notice that the occasional moments of warm sunlight come more frequently than they used to. This gives you real hope that, in time, you may slowly be led into the “great health”, a state in which, as Emerson put it (and which Nietzsche quoted on the title page of the first edition of “The Gay Science”):

“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine” (Emerson: History).

You also begin to see on your best days you are now able to live “as neighbour to precisely the things that the metaphysical tradition only found valuable as indictors of another metaphysical world” (Bearn: “Awakening to Wonder”, p. 32).

And with this insight in mind, we are finally ready to come today, to this crib side.

The tragedy of Christianity is that around its old hearth the Christ-child became precisely this, a mere “indictor of another metaphysical world.” Our old religion still encourages us, not to rest our eyes upon the face of that real, little human child nearest to us in the crib, but only to see through the child’s surface to what we were told was a more valuable kind of being than our own, namely God, and through to a more valuable world than our own, namely heaven. But you are now cured — or at least very nearly cured — of this metaphysical malady.

You, a free spirit in the making, can now see something different because you no longer feel the need to look through the child to an imaginary being and world but are able to stop on the child’s beautiful human surface and rest in the warm bloom and the magic of its simple, yet astonishing presence before you. You begin to understand that the rays of light emanating from Jesus are not from another world but are the natural rays of light which help us see, not another world, but this world seen differently, one in which we are able to recognise warm bloom and the magic, not only of the child, but of the countless other little things that are nearest to us today: human friendship and companionship, a shared look, touch, word and song, a shared meal and drink. As a free spirit in the making all these things also become simple, yet utterly astonishing presences for which one is almost overcome with astonishment and gratitude — the astonishment and gratitude that there is something not nothing.

We begin to see, as Heidegger saw, that “When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: the world holds forth” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8). And this in turn reveals to us a startling and hopeful truth, beautifully summed up by Thomas Sheehan, that “there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning” (ibid. p. 8).

We begin to understand that we don’t need another metaphysical world properly to celebrate Christmas and for it to be filled with meaning, all that is required is that we see this world differently and have the courage to remain with these close and closest things, things that have acquired for us such bloom and magic.

On this Christmas morn I hope we can all say along with Nietzsche, “Who understands as [we do] the happiness that comes in winter, the spots of sunlight on the wall!” And may we rest together in the warmth of this day as “the most grateful animals in the world” and also “the most modest”, we free-spirits in the making, we “convalescents and lizards”.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Interview

Ben Chacko (l.) with me in the kitchen
Back in June of this year I had the privilege of meeting with the recently appointed editor of The Morning Star, Ben Chacko, who was in Cambridge at the time for a couple of talks. He struck me as good and interesting man and I'm very pleased to see his interview with the current Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the paper's Christmas Eve issue. For those interested in such things you can read the interview at the following link:

Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Interview: Government reversals and the Oldham triumph mean the Labour leader enters 2016 with a spring in his step – but reshaping British politics will be a long hard slog, [Jeremy Corbyn] tells Ben Chacko.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ghostly Communism—An opinion piece

This Sunday I got a day off in the pew as the congregation took the annual Christmas Carol Service. A big thank you to them for that. So, this week, in lieu of a Sunday address, here's an opinion piece entitled Ghostly Communism that I originally wrote for another website. It's very much about my own personal political philosophy so please don't confuse it with one of my weekly addresses given in church!


Ghostly Communism

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” (Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis found in his “Theses on Feuerbach”)

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.” (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala in Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx”, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5)

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” (The Communist Manifesto)


As most of us are aware the “idea of communism” has returned to the cultural and political conversation currently going on across Europe. Perhaps the most high-profile example of this was the conference with the same name held between 13th-15 March 2009 at the Institute of Education, University of London; the papers from this conference have since been published by Verso Books—The Idea of Communism.

I first became interested in the idea of communism at school in my early teens during the mid-1970s (initially by discovering the work and thought of Gerrard Winstanley thanks to the book "The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution" by Christopher Hill) but, for reasons I need not rehearse here, those years were not good ones for the idea and so my interest was forced to remain somewhat theoretical and abstract. But then the 2008 global financial crisis occurred. It was of such a scale and depth that I, along with many others, felt impelled to re-engage in some kind of public, political conversation about how it might be possible to envision better, fairer, more just ways of structuring society than those offered by finance-capitalism and neoliberalism and, in this regard, communism seemed, once again, to be a live option.  This feeling was primarily born out of a careful reading of the "The Idea of Communism" because it helped me see how, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the idea of communism could be played out in many new, creative and exciting ways—ways that, whilst frankly acknowledging the horrors and disasters of the past carried out in the name of communism did not, at the same time, lose sight of its original hopeful and prophetic message—a message I first heard thanks to Winstanley. Anyway, the essay in the book that struck me with the greatest power was the shortest—“Weak Communism” by Gianni Vattimo.

Gianni Vattimo
I already knew and valued Vattimo thanks to his theological and philosophical work and what appealed to me about his approach to communism was his feeling that, were it to have any chance today of contributing to the improvement of world in healing, healthy and creative ways, then it needed to be in the full-time business of weakening all dogmas and ideologies—including, of course, its own.

This idea of weakening all dogmas and ideologies may seem strange to many traditional leftists, but think about it. History has surely taught us that strong totalising ideologies (whether religious, political, economic or financial) are always deeply problematic and ultimately destructive; they are also profoundly anti-revolutionary. All such ideologies—including those held by communists—fail properly to see that the world is always-already way more anomalous, complex, rich and revolutionary than can be dealt with by any single, totalising world-view. As Vattimo says in his highly influential 1983 essay “Weak Thought”, today it is possible to see clearly that:

“. . . the world plays itself out in horizons constructed by a series of echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages coming from the past and from others (others alongside us as well as other cultures)” (“Weak Thought”, eds Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, trans. Peter Carravetta, SUNY Press, New York 2012, pp. 44-45).

In other words, there is never an end to the ongoing complex, multi-layered conversation between people and ideas and, therefore, there is no such thing as ideological purity and certainty. Our world is, through and through, ceaselessly dialectical and this always means that new and revolutionary interpretations and insights are constantly emerging—theses and antitheses may be proposed, yes, but they are never leading us ineluctably towards some final, stable synthesis. To hold with absolute certainty any predetermined ideology or doctrine, to be ideologically pure, is nothing less than to close oneself up to life itself.

With this thought of a life of ever-unfolding conversation we come to the nub of the matter: how we  think we might best go about changing ourselves and the world for the better; how might we be truly true to the revolutionary ideal with all its transformative energy but without getting involved again in strong power structures that so easily lead to oppression and violence?

Marx once famously said that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” As we know most of these grand attempts to change the world were rooted in strong ideologies and doctrines and, without exception, they unfolded in some very, very bad ways. As Vattimo says in “Weak Communism” this means that:

“Thinking about a weak communism means rejecting not only Marx’s message, but also Lenin’s definition of communism as ‘soviet power plus electrification’ (assuming it was ever like this)”. 

In consequence, Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis should be rewritten thus:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala in Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx”, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

Related to this thought, in a 2002 interview Vattimo notes that:

“In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.”

The claim being made here is that the best way to affect change in the world is firstly (and primarily) to change our interpretations of the world and allow the other necessary stuff to emerge from out of these new interpretations.  As Steve Dunsky, a film maker with the U.S. Forest Service, wisely noted in a very recent piece called “Re-storying the World”, “Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.” In “Weak Communism” Vattimo states that to do this

“We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections (who believes in them any longer?). Communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost’ — if it wishes to recuperate an authentic reality.”

A similar idea was expressed by Eric Hobsbawm who, towards the end of his life, suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost

“. . . a critique of capitalism, a critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme.” (E. Hobsbawm, “El comunismo continúa vigente como motivación y como utopía,” interview by Aurora Intxausti, El Pais, April 12, 2003).

Today I’m someone who agrees entirely with Hobsbawm. I also strongly agree with Vattimo that this communism must have the courage consciously to be a ghost, one engaged in “spectral resistance” (a la Giorgio Agamben) and capable of haunting every nook and cranny, not only of Europe, but of the whole of earth which, as Winstanley once put it, is our common treasury and home.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

A black and white day off

On Tuesday I took a walk down by the River Cam, across Coe Fen and on to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden once again. After an hour or two there I walked back into town as the light faded and I also took a few shots of the early evening cityscape.

All the photos here are taken with my IPhone 6+ and the Provoke Camera app. Enjoy.

The River Cam
Coe Fen
The Botanic Garden

Emmanuel United Reformed Church 
Looking towards King's College 
A King's Parade shopfront 
King's College Chapel
A city centre eatery

The bus station
The Memorial (Unitarian) Church from Christ's Pieces

Monday, 14 December 2015

Winter photos on Christ's Pieces, in the Botanic Gardens and on Parker's Piece

Skies above Christ's Pieces
A day off today—and a very much needed one. After a very late breakfast I took a gentle stroll across Christ's Pieces (first photo), down Downing Street and then over to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens where I had a splendid couple of hours slowly wandering around listening to my CD of the moment Otto A. Totland's truly wonderful solo piano set, "Pinô" (out on Sonic Pieces), taking a few photos and stopping for mug of tea in the Garden Café along the way.

On the way back I came via Parker's Piece where there is currently a winter fair. The last four photos were taken there—let's just say it's a place of contrasts at the moment. The lamp you'll see with four lights on it is known to locals as "reality checkpoint". Here's how Wikipedia sum up the reason some people think it was given this name:

It may mark the boundary between the central university area of Cambridge (referred to as the ‘reality bubble’) and the ‘real world’ of non-academic locals living beyond. One is warned to check one’s notions of reality before passing. For students at Cambridge, who walk out to Mill Road across Parker’s piece for an evening in the ‘real world’, usually including a visit to one of Mill Road’s selection of pubs, the lamppost marks the end of the ‘reality holiday’ as they walk back to central Cambridge – back into ‘the bubble’.

By this time the soundtrack was Eric K. Skovdin's 2014 set called "Flame". It seemed highly appropriate to the scene before me as I walked back into "the bubble" of central Cambridge . . .

At the Botanic Garden

The Café in the Botanic Garden
A fun-fair or prison—shelter-skelter or watch-tower? 

Reality Checkpoint
The fun-fair, Reality Checkpoint and the Roman Catholic Church