New Adventures in Exile
Of all the new and awful forms of exile made available by the 21st century one stands out as more generalized and lethal than the others. I speak of the exile from meaning. It is an uncanny, un-timely and insidious process 'arriving' perhaps in the early 20th century and still arriving: a generalised nothingness which, like anaesthesia, never truly 'arrives'. Philosophers might call it nihilism. Traditional theologians might call it secular materialism. Right-wing politicians might call it moral decay. Names and diagnoses differ, but it seems generally agreed that unlike the wars and genocides and oppressions of earlier centuries, this is a non-localisable, accelerating, and open-ended catastrophe.
It hardly matters if we are atheists, Abrahamic faith-keepers or neo-Pagans. Our 'choice' of belief makes little difference to the basic form of our exile. As the n-th generation children of monotheism we have all been driven out of our neuro-linguistic histories and homelands. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre commented: we have 'largely if not entirely' lost the ability to make meaningful distinctions concerning moral values or even rational arguments concerning value: 'We continue to use many of the key expressions' which made sense in the 'old world' of Christendom, claims MacIntyre: but the epistemic and social ground has been pulled from under us (After Virtue, 1981). Pragmatic pseudo-virtues such as efficiency and profitability have turned moral concepts such as charity, chastity, and mercy into empty shells. This is not a case of one set of moral values being replaced by another. It is the wholesale destruction of the qualities of meaningful human interactions, unless they can be quantified to capital.
Ironically, this expulsion from meaning has been characterised as a rational evolution, the replacement of superstition by science and secular efficiency. But this 'freeing up' of individuals from the feudal and dogmatic structures of a mere twenty generations ago is not a Hegelian triumph. Our collective technological ability to make more and more affordable things – communications systems, medicines, weapons, abstract financial services and so on – outpaced our ability to make a meaningful world in which things would serve humanity, rather than vice versa. The physical and abstract technologies of the 20th century demanded a certain kind of human being: an internally exiled one who self-identifies as an autonomous selective agent. Mass production requires mass consumption. And to make 'capitalist competition' at least superficially and temporarily effective, the right kind of consumers had to be mass-produced. People like you and me.
Despite existential and neo-liberal myths of 'the sovereign individual' our stories and bodies do not start with nor belong to us. The languages, values and cognitive structures which were embedded for many centuries in entire societies - which is to say embodied in flesh - have claims on us. Yes, we can be considered as 'social atoms'. But we are atoms in a massive vehicle which has momentum, inertia, and direction. While the idea of 'our' bodies and thoughts 'belonging to us' is of huge value in leveraging debates on reproductive rights, medical ethics and sex-work, the concept of 'owning a body' remains welded to capitalist individual property rights. These 'rights' were not created from nothing – they grew from concepts of one soul per body and all souls as equivalent units in God's economy. A soul has ''debt'' (sin) or ''credit'' (virtue). The balance-sheet of a King might be quantitatively different from that of peasant girl, but not qualitatively different. Capitalism never suffered a decisive break from monotheism: it merely commuted the locus of 'ultimate judgement' from a transcendent God to the abstraction (exile) of value into its most generalisable form – capital. The global institution of 'personal credit ratings' is the grand-child of the Judeao-Christian 'recording angel' taking stock of our deeds. Late capitalism has remarkably similar universalising functions to monotheistic religions: but without any of the humanising counter-weight. Market mechanisms can create joy, prosperity, and innovation as well as their share of misery. But market mechanisms can not gnerate new moralities, poetry, justice, or hope: they can not provide meaning. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the businessman knows the cost of things but has little sense of their value.
It seems neither possible nor desirable to return to the cosmic model from which we are exiled and in which the deep structure of our language and thought made full sense and sure meaning. The Earth is the centre of the universe under the dish of the firmament? No. Time began six thousand years ago with Adam and Eve, and will soon be ended by a divine imposition of perfect justice? No. Do the tales of that 'little world' have any more epistemological weight than the Vedas, the Upanishads, or Tolkien? No. We have a million versions of 'no' and a shrinking supply of 'yes'. This makes us 'free from' a certain world, free from a dogmatic cosmology, of course. But as Nietzsche saw clearly enough, the 'freedom' afforded by the loss of long-established values is like that of a bird which thinks it might fly further and faster without the resistance of the air around it: but remove the resistance of the air, and it can not fly at all. If we are to move beyond the old moral and theological values, Nietzsche notes, 'we will require, at some point, new values'. If we cannot find these, or make them, we die in exile.
It is noteworthy that while all previous socio-economic hierarchies have had no problem making the 'lower orders' truly miserable, only late capitalism has the distinction of making its 'winners' disgusted with life. Consider individuals like Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, and Heath Ledger who, despite high social status, creativity, good looks, youth, and huge sums of money could find no reason to live. It might be said these are 'outliers' because of their drug use and mental health issues. To this I would say this hardly makes them 'individual' cases. Just high-profile cases who serve as magnifiers for a truly collective problem. The appalling figures for the generality of drug abuse, self-harm, and depression can be found on any search engine. Instead I appeal to the lived experience of the reader: how many of your colleagues and family and friends are afflicted with mental health issues and legal or illegal drug use? This is clearly not about individual pathology. This is about the mass-production of humans exiled from meaningful relationships with other people, from immediate nature, and from the immensity of the cosmos. You know these victims of meaninglessness: they live close to you.
These exiles are not often 'the wretched of the Earth' in material terms. Far from it. Most of them are mass-produced ordinary citizens, drowning in material things while gasping in an existential vacuum. Last month, June 2021, a friend of my daughter had a cousin. He was fourteen years old. He commuted from the present to the past tense by hanging himself, in what orthodox market capitalism would describe as a free choice. Perhaps as a society we are beginning to understand what we are free from. But we are in lethal territory: we can not find any convincing answers to the question - What are we free for? Exile made sense in the Judeao-Christian tradition. The Exile from Eden, the Babylonian Exile, the forced diaspora were painful and punitive, of course: that was the point of the exercise. But they were also transformative and infused with a sense of a people going somewhere. The key elements of a punishment deserved and a transformative ordeal gave the pain of Exile a very high quality of meaning and direction. This is not the case for the millions who are exiled from meaning. In the words of Mark Fisher, who also killed himself by hanging:
'The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations […] In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate anymore.' (Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life, 2014)
(Price, M. D. July 2021)