Ideas today are encrypted in talk of facts and figures, and hidden in screen-size images of objects of desire. We have seen these image-objects on TV or the net, and we carry them around in our heads as unbidden thoughts, as automatic reactions and received postures.
Ideas are taken out of our hands in this process of encryption. We let these images do our thinking for us. ‘Technological advances’, ‘single mothers’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘budget shortfalls’, ‘celebrity lifestyles’ – all ideas that are captured now as images. We struggle to explain them but feel them to be real.
Consumer culture is urging us to dumb down, to narcotise on the private pleasures of spending and watching, and not to do anything too hard unless we have to – certainly ‘don’t think too much’.
Ideas are received as fragments of the ‘24-hour news cycle’, the ‘sound bite’, the head line and the slogan. They occur as deceptively self-explanatory. Double-speak is everywhere: ‘voluntary redundancy’, ‘everyday low prices’, ‘adult literature’ etc. Things are ‘new and improved’, bureaucrats are ‘serving the people’, things are done ‘in the public interest’ (in the past, were things old and unimproved, politicians self-serving and the public interest not observed?).
We know we are being conned, but because it is the same wherever we look, we accept this suspicion as our private judgement and consume their prescriptions anyway – along with the travel the clothes the family the ‘lifestyle’, all the superficial freedoms of birds in gilded cages …
In consequence, the running of our own lives is surrendered; to ‘red tape’, by-laws, regulations, bureaucracy. We are forced into passivity by every thing from traffic fines and license fees to customer help lines, health care claim forms, finance applications and insurance assessments. We live inside a fine mesh of prohibitions nudging us back into those gilded cages.
It’s as though we inhabit whole aviaries of convention and acceptability, headspaces just large enough for an ordinary life, but in which our freedom of movement is subtly attenuated. Freedom of choice is imperceptibly constrained by market forces, and freedom of speech is surreptitiously governed by anxieties, including the fear of being thought ignorant and the ignominy of not being heard.
Philosophy was born of democracy. ‘Everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ The rise of democracy, the promotion of mass literacy, the development of free choice ought to mean we can all now can discern exactly what is going on around us.
And yet, has there ever been a period of such deception in the authorised view of things versus the actual experience of life? The 21st century seems to be shaping up to be the century of greatest illusions, where we are urged to live and aspire to things – like freedom, prosperity, peace and self-expression – that are nothing like the realities we encounter pursuing them.
It is as an era in which we are trained in self-deception. From instant gratification to equal opportunity to happy marriages, fulfilling careers, beautiful bodies, amazing sex and health and wellbeing throughout our increased life spans … we are trained to deny the realities, to overlook the inequities and to understand our own discontent, where it breaks through, as pain for which we medicate rather than adjust real circumstances.
The increasing redundancy of thinking for oneself, the continuing temptation to outsource our dealing with big ideas is not in our interest. The strong methods and vigorous techniques of a kind of philosophy are needed more than ever today. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Plato. Philosophy is the oldest search for truth, and its name means love of wisdom. But just when it is most needed, philosophy as it is taught now has passed up its responsibility to truth-telling.
The ordinary person would be hard-pressed to specify how philosophy has anything to do with their lives. Despite its reputation as a repository of human wisdom, philosophy is now just a soothing word for nothing vital, an antique practice for gentlemen along the same lines as polo.
Philosophy has thrown in the towel on the subject of wisdom – it embarrasses professional philosophers to even use this word. Instead they create an esoteric vocabulary through which they joust with each other in academic cloisters far from the madding crowd.
There is in feral philosophy a strong streak of rebelling against the proper, the official and the academic. It reclaims the place of thinking as everyone’s birthright, thinking as what comes naturally, as something that shouldn’t be taken from ordinary people and locked up in a glass case in an ivory tower where only a certain kind of grandee can have access to it.
The history of philosophy is full of protest, of people asserting their independent thought in the face of tyranny and ostracism. They have done so because of the realisation that life isn’t worth living without it.
It’s in philosophy’s nature to be oppositional; it’s in its history. The consolation of philosophy was written by Boethius from his prison cell. Foucault was thinking through the history of sexuality in the gay bathhouses of San Francisco. Socrates declares his love for the law as he swallows the hemlock he has been condemned to drink as his death sentence. Agamben writes of what would be ‘bare life’, in the shadow of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Philosophy goes feral in response to the disenfranchising of ideas. Philosophy going feral involves going beyond the ordinary forms of truth offered us today – the scientific facts, the economic figures, the sales data, the polls, the medical research, the political spin and the self-help gurus – to understand the stranger contradictions of twenty first century first world life.
In feral philosophy, aesthetics – the creation of beauty, desire and judgment (its traditional subjects) – would be taken into shopping malls, museum cafes and media outlets where today we find value produced as a commodity for purchase.
Ethics, the place of ideas about living the good life, would be taken up in our relations to romantic love, the family and among democratic citizens. Our ideas about how to live are dictated by what’s possible in the Real World; what’s ‘normal’ according to sociological research, and what we’re worth, as outlined in self-help books. The global village is a large place, but it’s where we now get to speak about our duties to others.
Metaphysics, traditionally the space for discernment of reality, would be found in evaluating the science that makes us who we are – from biology to medicine, psychiatry to anthropology to technology. The area is dominated by discussions of the relation of body and mind, especially as science now reduces the mind to the brain as a special case of the body, while abstracting what were uniquely human capacities into the virtual space of artificial intelligence.
And logic, perhaps the least understood of all the philosophical branches, would become the place to analyse the thought-systems that make our world make sense. Things become intelligible today through information, the market and bureaucracy. These central principles organise everyday life, as the world wide web catches us all up in its nets.
The practice of a feral philosophy would look at the big ideas as they happen to us in the real world, which is itself one of the most potent of the big ideas we live with. It would explore why it is that things are not as they seem, and how to bring the difference between truth and illusion into focus.
This is the first of many posts on this trajectory. Look for the category ‘feral philosophy’, and follow it under the rubrics of aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics and logic.
[A version of this piece will appear in the next issue of Unlikely: journal of creative arts]