I have two departure points for this new year’s ramble in the bleak mid-winter. The first is the big feature of the time of year itself, when traditionally millions of people - if you believe the media hype - will be making resolutions. The common feature of these resolutions will be that in some way the resolvers will be indulging the idea that they are going to make their lives better in some way (or even of those around them).
The second departure point is a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian in which he reflected with due horror on the not-so-new story that people in the advertising industry (with assistance from their servants in academia) are trying to manipulate us with ever more sophisticated techniques.
First off then. New Year’s resolutions. These could be very basic expressions of existentialism in my simplistic definition of the term, which is to say that we should try to define ourselves and not assume our destiny has to be defined by others (frequently represented in the form of institutions it has to be said). A common feature of these new year resolutions will be the result of at least some self-reflection, and self-reflection is essential for anyone who wants to take control of their own life. I know in many cases the ‘big’ resolution will follow a pattern (stop drinking, lose weight, earn more, quit smoking, etc.) which fits snugly into society’s perceived expectations, but any self-reflection is better than none, even if it only lasts for a couple days. And who knows, perhaps the mindfulness trend may follow in these tentative brief moments of self-reflection and generate longer periods of self-awareness?
So far, so painless. These days, what is mindfulness but a bit of day dreaming wrapped around a nugget of hygge? (I am pleased to see that spell checker hasn’t caught up with that one yet.) But as Frankie Howerd might say, ‘twitter (sic) ye not!’ After all it was only last week when to be vegan was to be as mad as an early Christian and look where they are now! So I can detect serious if as yet still marginalised signs that consciousness raising with a bit of effort could be a growth industry.
This is where our companion with his anti-shepherd’s mitre, George Monbiot joins us, with his latest discovery of a new breed of mind manipulators who are shamefully and shamelessly ensconced in the redoubt of The Enlightenment – our universities! We should be taking a lead from academia and NOT being led by them in the way Monbiot rightly decries – working as they are for corporate mind-benders (Monbiot, by the way is our latter day Dante, guiding us gently by the hand around the rings of Hell). Beholden to corporate interests, many academics are seeking to destroy all possibility of self-reflection and individual autonomy. Self-awareness will be subjugated to algorithms which ivory tower laboratories of learning create. Talk about false consciousness? In this new age, the possibilities are endless! (Digression: Is this shift in our seats of learning a result of the commodification of higher education? Silly me.) False consciousness, aka cognitive dissonance, is essential to economic growth – how else might we overcome the limits of our environment? False consciousness is now being developed as never before. In Marx’s day it was a kind of accidental happenstance. Now it’s an industry in itself, part of the twenty first century’s silent industrial revolution.
Our path shows signs of wear. It is being worn down by the competing boots of the seekers of truth and the makers of truth. The latter camp wear the path down faster (I’ve noticed this on my walks) because they drive literally and metaphorically four wheel drives and quad bikes over everything worth preserving and generally couldn’t give a fuck about silly people like me clutching our hiking sticks, we who follow old paths which are often too narrow and ill-defined for them to get their fucking machines down (I have a gripe you may have noticed – it’s the sound of carbon in the countryside). But having aired my rambler’s discontent, I know that an accommodation has to be struck between us and them, because this is their land and they cannot be dispossessed with a mere flick of the switch. If we tried that we’d be put down (defenceless veggie ramblers I mean).
But a digression. Rambles are good opportunities for ranting. Back in the 1990s I once or twice organised (with the assistance of the Ford Maguire Society) rambles in the footsteps of the Luddites in West Yorkshire – how those paths resonated. Marvellous! (And who knows, in the not too distant future the route of the A2 into Dover may resonate with the memory of smashed looms – sorry lorries – from the great Brexit struggle.) In terms of longevity, most of our history is marked by the still extant, ancient thin slivers of paths and packhorse trails that criss-cross our moors and plains. Between the Romans’ departure and the first toll roads of the 1700s, roads were little more than glorified paths. Thinking about it, many Roman roads probably outlived the empire by a thousand years. But I’ve drifted off down a sheep track. That’s one of the joys of rambling, always provided you can rediscover the correct route marked on your OS map, hopefully without the cloud closing in.
Where was I? Something to do with competing definitions of truth, the great dialectic of our day. What I’m coming to is the nature of existential truth, which in philosophical terms led to a whole post-modernist misunderstanding of what is to be understood as reality, and led into an age when relativism suggested we could all possess our own truth. The philosophy of Existentialism is partly to blame for this, but then so is science per se – the Uncertainty Principle, the counter-intuitive non-determinism of evolution, the continuing realisation of our diminishing significance in the universe. Ironically in these circumstances our leading post-Truther Trump needs neither God nor science to proclaim that the Sun rotates around his Imperial Arse. He is an arch existentialist, and brings out the nihilism which gets existentialism a bad name.
So. I think I’m coming to the end, with a bit of a sweat on, and despite the vicissitudes of a lack of beer ‘on the tops’ I’m in good cheer and ready for the next little ascent and all importantly the last descent of this meander. Then to the pub (which always follows a descent). What I’m looking for is a true path – a true existential path – and I’m thinking this is not about some profound theory of Being and Nothingness (I’ve got the book but never read it. Sartre’s novels were a better intro) but it’s about the quality of actuality, the quality of Being. Being which could be represented by self-resolution - or destroyed by Monbiot's devils.
I remember I had another introduction to this sense of beingness – perhaps a sideways introduction to this concept – doing an Open University course in the late 1970s (Art and the Environment, known to supplicants with the revered code TAD 292) Our tutor at our summer school held at Sussex University in 1977 was none other than Captain Reality, who has left no trace on Google (how real is that?). We studied the concept of reality by turning ordinary situations into uber-real situations. Our then unprecedented living sculptures and frozen tableaux actually made some passers-by nervous, even paranoid. An exposure to over-real reality can be unnerving, especially when there’s no explanation, when there’s no question and no answer. This can lead to aggression. Better then to give ‘em tuppence and a lick of ice cream to assuage their fears. Which of course is today’s prescription – climate change? What? When you’ve still got ice cream for gawdsakes! (And will need more of it.)
I know that in the later stages of a good ramble it’s possible that one can be imbued with a feeling of satisfaction and with it that enervated yet energised sense of harmony which encourages one to say anything generally optimistic as soon as the pub veers into sight. The best rambles and rants always end with a pint, a pleasant substitution for anything conclusive. As long as the beer's on form of course.