‘No Speed Limit’ – Accelerate

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Great quick overview of accelerationism. Terrifying, but hugely relevant. 

‘For decades longer than more orthodox contemporary thinkers, accelerationists have been focused on many of the central questions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the rise of China; the rise of artificial intelligence; what it means to be human in an era of addictive, intrusive electronic devices; the seemingly uncontrollable flows of global markets; the power of capitalism as a network of desires; the increasingly blurred boundary between the imaginary and the factual; the resetting of our minds and bodies by ever-faster music and films; and the complicity, revulsion and excitement so many of us feel about the speed of modern life.’


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Mark Fisher

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Fisher

Not sure how I missed this in January, but genuinely saddened to hear that Mark Fisher has died. Very open about his struggles with mental health, he took his own life.

There’s a fantastic summary of his huge influence on cultural theory here, and also here. On a more personal level, I was hugely impressed by his seminal work Capitalist Realism, which, in his profoundly honest writing on his work as a teacher as well as theorist and music-lover, opened up new connections and permissions for me as a writer and thinker.

I had been mulling the last few days about how depression is in many ways a completely rational response to the environmental, political and socio-economic times we now live in. When things are this messed up in so many varied dimensions, it seems entirely appropriate to experience an existential gloom; it’s only on going back through Fisher’s book that I’m reminded that this is his own thought: capitalism creates the very conditions in which the pathogens of depression thrive. Suicide is always a very particular kind of tragedy. To have not survived a powerful, virulent strain of the necrotic dis-ease of our times brings no shame. Like many whose work it is to study these things closely, they run high risk of exposure, and often suffer infection.

One of the core themes of Fisher’s work was the idea that so many of the young people he taught considered the future to be exhausted. The opposite of exhaustion is inspiration, and as I think about a great thinker breathing his last, unable able to see any future, I want to move air and say too late to him that he did inspire so many, breathed breath into so many, and though these are doubtless dark times, while there is still oxygen to respire, I want to hold on to hope for life, and thank you for yours.

You lived refusing to say ‘peace, peace,’ when there was no peace. Sincerely, I hope you have now found your rest.


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Trump vs The Prince

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‘It is not reasonable that they know how to rule, having always lived as private citizens… the first bad weather kills them.’

Reaching for something to read before bed the other day, I pulled down Machiavelli’s classic book on the dark art of state-craft, The Prince.

Chapter VII begins thus:

TrumpMac

500 years before Trump, it seems that Machiavelli had his number.


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The Cloud of All-Knowing | Democracy and Demagogues in the Age of Data

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“True power is not the strength to force someone into slavery, but to make them happily lock their own manacles, as if chains were adding to their liberty.” 

Yesterday The Observer published a long and detailed piece that attempted to join (some of) the dots between the ‘big data’ socio-political technology firm Cambridge Analytica, and the recent Brexit and Trump votes.

To cut to the disturbing conclusion:

This is Britain in 2017: a Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us.

The military angle is, I think, an incredibly powerful one. From earlier in the article:

This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. [Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University] has researched the US military’s funding and use of psychological research for use in torture. “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them,” she says. “It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.

What a military does is to command the most cutting edge, powerful – and most likely censured – technologies that a society can muster, and use it to defend and sustain a regime. What is so shocking about the digital micro-managing of mass psychology is that these bleeding edge weapons (for that is what they are) are being turned, without their knowledge, onto civilians, by billionaire corporate figures who don’t serve in any government, but are driven by an extreme ideology.

The Geneva Convention was established to frame some kind of decency in theatres of war. Feels like it’s high time we had a digital version, because the civilian casualties here are potentially huge.

The Military-Industrial Complex…

For a military to work, the ‘sell’ to a society – which we buy into by volunteering our taxes – is that we remain safe from tyrants, and enjoy our liberty. This is rarely the whole story, and when a society begins to question whom the military is really serving and whether the price is worth paying, things can get tasty. Hence, one of the things a government tries to do is work hard to sustain the narrative: our military and its powerful technologies are out there doing good, and you are all benefiting.

We hear quite a bit about the ‘military industrial complex’ – the shadowy interplay of vested interests between a government working to sustain a growing economy, and an arms industry trying to make money. What is fascinating about this situation is that this is now functioning at a level above the government we elected. When you ‘manage’ a democracy, your democratic leaders are akin to puppets – allowed to be there only as long as they serve the needs of the powers above them. (Ironically, the visible corporate interests were why Hillary was rejected… while the invisible ones were the reason Trump got in.)

The question is why we stand for this, and here is the profoundly clever thing about the succulent web: true power is not the strength to force someone into slavery, but to make them happily lock their own manacles as if chains were adding to their liberty. 

Thinking on this, I was reminded of Zizek’s phrase at the end of Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (still the best thing he’s done) where he says:

“Cinema doesn’t offer us our desires, but tells us what to desire.”

With immersive mass media, the effect is exponentially more powerful. We think that Facebook and our smartphones are giving us what we desire – but it’s the very opposite. We are giving them what they desire… only for us then to be told in laser-guided ads what it is we should be desiring. In other words, we are arming our own weapons that will be used against us.

…And The Military-Religious Complex

But the thing is, none of this is new. If we read the Old Testament with any sense of political tuning, we can see that this is the same shit that religious authorities have pulled since forever. With the power of the Evangelical right and the hugely symbol-heavy idea of ‘those who have served,’ what we see is an explicit military-religious complex. Those who serve… and in this we see that the priestly class are the crack forces of the original 1%. Check the founding text of the Levites, in Exodus 32:

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

‘Perhaps.’ Therein lies the threat: your safety is not guaranteed, but I’ll do my best to stop this violent ‘Other’ from killing more of you…

And this is the justification we hear from governments now as privacy and liberty is eroded. They are protecting us from a great terror, so we’d better behave. And how should we behave? By desiring what we are instructed to desire.

The Cloud of All-Knowing

It’s this long thread that I trace in GETTING HIGH. The technology of religion – used to exert social control in the name of salvation from horror – has become the religion of technology. The 1% are the constant, and the way that they remain so is by feeding us a story that our chains are actually what we need. The serpent in Genesis makes it clear that our ignorance – our lack of knowledge – is the reason we are ourselves gods. And so to the Apple, to us offering our very hearts and souls up to the Cloud of All-Knowing, delivering to us not our promised divinity, but instead offering these snakes a perfect means of control:

“The story we are fed is that we are becoming more knowledgeable, more powerful and more able to be present in more places but, as we upload more and more of our personal and private information into ‘the cloud,’ abdicate more and more responsibility for remembering to the web and sit in shrugged silence while the NSA and GCHQ freely and constantly monitor every digital action we make, it is the technology companies and government security services who are now functionally divine. The more we bind their devices to our wrists and give them permission to know our locations, the more they know the number of our days, the beats of our hearts, the most intimate details of our relationships.

“Critics of [Ray] Kurzweil’s vision talk of a possible future where we will be farmed by higher-intelligence machines, but in the worst excesses of my own over-dependence on technology I know that this is already happening. Logging on to the servers of Facebook, Google and Twitter is free, but I am the one who has been genuflecting, my communications harvested for information that can be used to target products at me with laser-guided accuracy, happy to have my every move tracked in return for the repeated message that it is me who is benefiting, me who is achieving lift. I am told that I am winning my freedom through ever-more-human gadgets, even as they turn me into a well-behaved automata, running like clockwork, obeying pings and reminders, advised to walk more, given updates on how I’m sleeping.

“With serpentine smoothness, sophisticated advertisements convince us that, with each newly purchased device, with each new aspect of our lives that we move online, it is we who are becoming more powerful, we who are climbing Mount Olympus, we who are storming heaven. But, while all along we are being robbed, it is Plato who gets to write the ending. While the rich steal from the poor, the powerful remain in power by offering the illusion of power to the powerless.”

The task of Radical Theology – as I’ve seen it, and as I propose in the book – is to offer a counter-technology that works towards the death of these divine structures. Problem is, I’m concerned that Radical Theology is itself morphing into a ‘desiring machine’ that carries the very same dangers. But more about that in another post … 😉


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From Russia, With Chaos

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been re-reading Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing is True and Everything is Possibleeach page pushing me towards the same, slightly counterintuitive conclusion: if you want to understand Trump’s America, you need to look to Putin’s Russia.

I first read the book when a colleague – a history teacher I’d travelled to Russia with in 2014 – passed me a copy 18 months ago. I marked it down as fascinating, a really interesting and expanding read, but not something that had any particular bearing on life in the West. Sure, London house prices were irritatingly inflated by Russian money pouring into the city, and – having travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg – it was interesting to get some background to the national situation… but I didn’t think it mattered so much. Russia was over there. The curtain may have rusted, but it hung heavy still.

I have completely changed my mind. On second reading, I’d go as far as to say that this is possibly one of the most insightful and weirdly prophetic books around. Far from being an exotic, ‘alien’ place, I think Pomerantsev shows us a Russia that is a troubling archetype for the next turbulent wave of politics, one that is tied into strange bondage with mythic nationalism and a post-trust culture.

The lynchpin of much of this appears to be Putin’s ‘political technologist,’ Vladislav Surkov. A one-time theatre director, he is the architect of Putin’s reign. Pomerantsev recounts him describing himself in a lecture:

My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernisation, innovation, foreign relations and… modern art.

He is the ultimate shape-shifter, transforming from liberal moderniser to hard-nosed nationalist, a man who ‘claps once, and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth.’ As Adam Curtis (surely informed by Pomerantsev’s book) has explored in his documentary Hypernormalisation, Surkov’s strategy is simple: to create contradiction at every step, to deliberately kick dust in the eyes of the electorate, so that no one has any clue what is really going on:

It is realpolitik become reality show politics. The aim: ‘no one was sure what was real, or fake, in modern Russia.’ Sound familiar?

One of the things that you quickly become aware of as you begin an even cursory look at Russian history is just how much this country – the largest on earth – has been through in the past 120 years. The violence and upheaval and sheer bloody-minded grit of these people is quite extraordinary. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian people were again sent tumbling, the floor giving way beneath them, wondering where they would next land and who the hell would be in charge. They had nothing when the Tsar ruled them. They had nothing when the Communists took everything into state ownership, and they once again have nothing as a small number of oligarchs have asset-stripped the vast wealth of the nation and syphoned it into Western bank accounts, freshly laundered. Two things become clear from this: firstly that ‘strong men’ like Putin and Stalin are worshipped because what the Russians want above all else is some semblance of security. There is a steely determination about making Russia great again – and yes, this is the language that is used. But secondly, their repeated collapse and reconfiguration has left Russians with a very special kind of psyche, one that is fluently polyglot and shape-shifting as Surkov himself, as Pomerantsev explains as he interviews a group of TV producers:

This ability to constantly morph, to not care about what is ‘real’ or solid or truthful, is shown as a hallmark of the new Russia.

‘This new consciousness could only appear here,’ one popular Russian guru says, ‘in this country which is the graveyard of all ideologies.’ Or, as Pomerantsev puts it:

‘this idea unites all the post-Soviet sects: all the suffering, all the shocks Russia has gone through made it the place where the new man, the new future could be born.’

If Russia is to be great again (and it really is not so great right now), then the myth of greatness needs to be rekindled and fuelled. And we all know that myths don’t feed on what is real, nor need truth to be true. So, after all it has been through, Russia thus becomes a place where, as the title of the book goes, nothing is true, but everything is possible.

One of the great things about being connected to great people is that they offer distillations of a wider context than one person could achieve on a full teaching timetable. So, having read one book, I’m thankful to Tad Delay for posting a quote from another – Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 – that would appear to be a source for Pomerantsev’s thinking:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true…The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

And so to America.

The communications between Putin’s Kremlin and Trump’s White House that are slowly emerging will – perhaps – show that there has been some conscious political connection between these two power-bases. Perhaps Trump is Putin’s puppet. Perhaps the Kremlin deliberately applied leverage to get Trump elected (and also funded Brexit too). Perhaps they do hold compromising information about him. Perhaps – as this fascinating ‘tweet storm’ by Eric Garland proposes (and discussed in depth here) – Russia simply played a speculative hand, and events played massively in their favour.

But, behind all of this context, what I think is more interesting is the hypothesis that Trump is fascinated by Putin because he sees in him a guy who has figured out how to do power politics in a new era. This era is defined by huge wealth concentrated in the hands of very few, a large disenfranchised and impoverished section of the population who see globalisation and liberal values as the problem, and a powerful media machine that has tentacles into every shirt pocket and living room in the nation, a machine that thrives on confusion and contradiction, on viral spectacle as a way of bedazzling the masses, of kicking sand into our faces.

If we look at Bernie Sanders and Trump, they both essentially diagnosed the same problems within American society. The reason we have Trump in power is because he correctly interpreted the zeitgeist. The lesson from Russia – a country that has already been through it – is that people no longer want a socialist revolution. They aren’t interested in the left – even if the projections make it clear that voting that way would be materially better for them. Or, more accurately, the powerful forces of corporatism have told them that they should not be interested in the left, that it won’t serve them well.

In a sense, this is what we see in Brexit and Trump: a disenfranchised, impoverished, poorly informed section of society who are manipulated by a ‘strong man’ who promises to return them to greatness. This is precisely the function Putin plays in Russia, and he sustains it with a dizzying performance of myth-making that makes even Farage look normal.

The question that the left faces is how to counter this. Certainly, it won’t be an easy task, and nor is it one for a counter myth-maker like Corbyn and his Momentum gang. As the profoundly well-qualified Hillary Clinton found out, it’s going to take a quite extraordinary effort, overcoming forces that are well-hidden, and very very connected.


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S-Town vs S-World: Hot Air and the Climate Change Problem (No Spoilers)

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Note: no spoilers

Being something of a fan of the This American Life and Serial podcasts, I caught word that S-Town was coming out last week, and found myself pretty much binging the 7 episodes on my walks to and from work. Expecting something much more Serialesque, at one point I began to wonder when the hell the gold was going to be found, or when another body might turn up. But this is a show that is stranger than that. Stranger, and better.

This story of ‘a man who made an insurmountable challenge out of living’ – a phrase that will live with me for a long time – is an extraordinary maze of riches to mull over. And one of the things I’ve been mulling is John B McLemore’s obsession with climate change.

Here is a guy – and this gives nothing away – who obsessively quotes climate data, and paints a doom-and-gloom scenario for the future of the planet. He rails against oil companies and the damage that is being done, and yet we hear regularly about the gas-guzzling Ford truck that he drives.

Much later, another character remembers an argument he had with McLemore, telling him he was pretty fed-up with this constant research and quoting of climate data, and saying:

I’ve switched my light bulbs to energy-saving ones. I’m doing my bit. What more can someone do?

Listening to this last week coincided with the news that Trump is rolling back all the legislative work that Obama had put in place to aim at a lower-carbon economy, and it made me wonder how screwed the climate debate is in the US. If a man who is obsessive about it – and wealthy – can’t change his truck, if changing light bulbs is the full extent of action that people consider they need to take, we really are in more trouble than I thought.

In short: S-World.


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Theology and Fiction: Telling Stories of Order Amidst The Chaos

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IntoTheWoods

I just this week finished John Yorke’s book Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. It was recommended by a good friend who’s a director in theatre and is also now writing for television. She insisted that I read it before I began any more writing.

I’m really glad I did, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is excellent. Yorke is the creator of a number of very well known and highly respected TV series, and knows his topic inside out. I read Christopher Booker’s seminal tome The Seven Basic Plots some years ago; Yorke references it quite a bit, but his own book is more about application: why do we tell stories, and how should we go about creating great story-craft?

This is where the book became doubly interesting for me. As you may have read here recently, I have been awarded a grant by Arts Council England to write my next book. It was quite an arduous application process, with lots of stuff about proving artistic merit etc. etc., and there has been part of me that still felt out of place in it all, moving from – albeit tangential – works of theology to literary fiction.

So it was hugely reassuring to read Yorke arguing that the two projects I have been labouring at are really one and the same thing:

“Once upon a time ‘God’ was the story we told to make sense of our terror in the light of existence. Storytelling has that same fundamentally religious function – it fuses the disparate, gives us shape, and in doing so instils in us quiet.”

“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves. A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape and – if we’re lucky – some kind of sense. Every tale is an attempt to lasso a terrifying reality, tame it and bring it to heel.”

“Whether psychological, sexual or societal, each of our storytelling definitions is built around the same principle: an inciting incident blows a seemingly ordered reality into a thousand fragments, then a detective arrives to hunt down the culprits and restore things to their rightful place.”

Seen this way, religion – and theo-logy as a narration of it – is a very ancient, primal and vital form of storytelling. Each religion has inciting incidents – the fall, the exodus, the incarnation, Paul’s conversion, Mohammed’s visions – and the struggle to reorder the world in the aftermath of them is the task of a community that inhabits this story, a story that is examined and expanded in enormous detail, a little like a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game, by theologians.

However, for anyone who has followed my writing for a while will know, I’ve come to doubt whether ‘terrifying reality’ can be lassoed, tamed or brought to heel. Radical Theology, as it has become known, is an attempt to re-narrate religion as a force that is perhaps an ‘unhelpful fiction’ in that it purports to have the power to do this taming, when actually it not only can’t do it, but often adds to the fragmentation. Far from being infallible sources of divine revelation, theologians and priests have always been unreliable narrators.

This, to be clear, is not a rejection of religion in the style of Dawkins or other New Atheists. Rather, it is a reinstating of religion to its original, primal form: a telling of a story to make order out of chaos. It is the hyper-elevation of religious stories to the level of unimpeachable, universal truth that has precipitated huge violence – both psychological and physical – as tribe and cultures and individuals have fought to impose their ordering of things. (Perhaps ISIS is no more than a group of people insisting that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not only true, but REALLY TRUE, and woe-betide anyone who doesn’t believe it.)

What I love about fiction is that, in being upfront about the fact that the story that follows isn’t true, it can get on with the job of being true. The power in Hamlet is not in the fact of it being true, but in the enduring truth that lies in its being fictional. The order it attempts is more limited, and temporary. It doesn’t pretend to be able to perfect the world.

It is perhaps then unsurprising that – like the Bible itself – Radical Theology has evolved a huge amount of story. Peter Rollins’ parables are an excellent example of this: they are true because they fictional. The order they attempt isn’t universal, but more local… even though their localised settings (a jungle, a bar in rural Northern Ireland) resonate with universal themes.

Yorke again:

In a godless universe, the abject horror of meaningless existence is too much for any individual to bear. The idea that we are here and then we die, that all circumstances are random and all achievements are finally futile, is too overwhelming to contemplate. [Yet] staring into the abyss, we find we are incapable of not ordering the world… 

I suppose what I want to bring from Radical Theology into the fiction work I’m going to be launching into shortly is exactly what I explored in the final chapter of Getting High: that a godless universe doesn’t have to mean abject horror or meaninglessness.

Yorke’s book will, I hope, be an excellent guide in that process, because it so beautifully shows how the classic 5-act structure takes characters – and readers – on a journey from imagined order, to exploding of that order, through crisis and into a more mature sense of imperfect order. These are the woods we enter, daily – woods that contain our monsters, and yet – we find to our amazement – the understanding we need to be able to shrink them.

‘Faced with the ultimate crisis,’ Yorke writes, ‘the structure asks of the protagonist one simple question: will you revert to your old self and die, or change and live?’ This will be the ancient skeleton on which I too hope to build a drama.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying that, for now, I’m changing form: non-fiction to fiction. Always onwards. Change and live. Hope you’ll enjoy the journey too.


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Atheist Prayers – When ‘Thoughts’ Are Not Enough

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2017-03-25-1490468844-9321320-PennyRed.png
As the events of the horrible attack on Westminster unfolded, the journalist and activist Laurie Penny sent a tweet that read, ‘thoughts and atheist prayers with everyone in Westminster right now. What a horrifying situation.’ And with that, the twittersphere erupted. Atheist prayers?! Atheists and prayers united in a vicious chorus of righteous indignation at Penny’s turn of phrase. Vitriol was liberally poured, acidic comments hurled in her direction.

Twitter is the first, often unrehearsed, draft of what we are trying to get at. Immediate and curt, that it springs from the unconscious is why it can be both wonderful and maddening. I felt great sympathy for Penny, but more than that: in her irrational, fumbling attempt to reach for the right words to express the right things, I think she hit on something rather profound.
When something awful happens, what is the correct phrase to use when you don’t believe in God? It wouldn’t have been right to say that she was praying, but in the face of such horror, ‘thoughts’ alone seem so horribly inadequate. When people are in mortal danger, what possible good can it do if I am thinking of them?

As someone who used to pray a great deal, but now has no belief in God, I absolutely understand what ‘atheist prayer’ is trying to reach for. It is essentially about hope. Refusing any claim that there is a transcendent force that could – or should – intervene, there remains a very human part of us that longs for some force outside of our limited material selves to act. It hopes for a miracle: the miracle of action-at-a-distance, of someone stepping into a situation to help when we have no power to do so ourselves.

In so many of the prayer meetings I sat through there were a lot more of these ‘atheist miracles’ than many were prepared to admit. To exaggerate only a little, there was much beseeching the Lord to fix a sink when we knew there was a plumber in the room. To have asked for help outright might have been awkward; to ask ‘God’ and then have the plumber feel good about being an answer to prayer created a rather delicious kind of gift-cycle… but woe-betide anyone who questioned God’s primary place in all of this.

My hunch is that Penny’s hastily tweeted ‘atheist prayer’ perhaps betrayed more honesty than many of the atheists or the prayers would be willing to offer themselves. Prayer is really no more than focused hope; the real question is, on what does that hope focus?

For the true believers, to hope that God will step in is too often an abdication of any responsibility for action. We pray for the hungry, but refuse to offer them bread from our own loaded plates. When hope is located in the heavens, the earth is left to perish.

Seen this way, the atheist’s prayer is perhaps the only genuine prayer we have: it is sustained by hope, but a hope that understands that it is only human agency that can effect change in the world. In this sense, in the Westminster attacks all our prayers were answered: horrific though the injury and loss of life has been, what could have been a far more terrible situation was brought to a halt relatively quickly by some very brave individuals. Having been incapacitated, the attacker was then tended by NHS medics who tried to save his life. Emergency services showed great courage entering a theatre of conflict where no one could be sure if the last act had been played out.

We don’t have God to thank for that, but nor do most of us have our own actions to thank for it either. We put our hope in others. This was our prayer, and in praying it we commit to this creed: one day we might have to gather our courage, put our own lives on the line, and be the answer where others cannot.

So yes, last Wednesday an atheist activist prayed. I, for one, am good with that.


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Monsters vs Aliens | Immigration, Space Travel and Becoming Syrian

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Through a discussion club I run at school I got to thinking about the coincidence of two recent major news threads: immigration and space travel. I know, never a dull day in teaching.

In the back of my mind were good friends in a sea-side village about 200 miles from London who have been getting real stick from a vocal minority in their community. They are up in arms about my friends arranging for a Syrian refugee family to come and live in the village. The usual fears about terror and violence… all wrapped up in the core existential horror of all Daily Mail readers: THE EFFECT ON HOUSE PRICES.

One small story in an ocean of political wrangling and shifting seas of opinion about the movement of people. And here’s the absurdity: isn’t the anxiety about house prices connected to the right to move your family to an improved situation? Up the road to where it’s quieter. Into the next town where the schools are better. Closer to the city so I can get that better paid job. Away from Aleppo to save the lives of my children. To the UK where my economic outlook will be brighter. The right to move home is hailed as a cast iron principle of a free society… but this same right is then despised by the same people when applied to ‘others.’ We don’t want monsters moving in next door. No Blacks. No Foreigners. No Aliens.

And so to space travel. Next year Elon Musk will be flying people round the moon, and there are already plans underway to get us to Mars, and then onwards. The discovery of 7 potentially habitable exo-planets orbiting a ‘near-by’ dwarf star has led to great excitement about the possibility of a) alien life on these planets and b) us travelling to them as our own earth careers towards catastrophe. But, as we discussed in my classroom, if we travelled to those planets and found intelligent life there, we would be the aliens. We would be the ones making a perilous journey with no certainty of success, putting our very existence at risk as our home was destroyed to try to sustain a better life elsewhere. We, to put it differently, would be the Syrians.

What hope of welcome would we have? We surely would say that we ‘come in peace,’ simply looking for a place to thrive and – eventually – call home. But we would be foreign, and strange, and struggle with language and culture. We would doubtless feel nervous, even though those of us who had been fit enough and wealthy enough to make the trip would be some of our finest specimens. In the canon of science fiction, the plot tends to two poles: us encountering monstrous aliens, or us being encountered as monstrous aliens. Harmony rarely results.

My thought is this: our struggles with ‘otherness’ are still very very far from being resolved. The heated issue of the movement of peoples and the way in which we quickly brand others as ‘aliens’ tells us this. But something about the revealed unconscious in cinematic science fiction suggests that this runs very deep. Aliens are mostly monsters. They are either coming to colonise earth and destroy us, or we are going to colonise their planets – and we have to destroy them or make them subservient.

All of this has been resonating as I’ve read Charlie Fox’s book This Young Monster. His exploration of the culturally monstrous – from Buster Keaton to Leigh Bowery – forces the reader to come to terms with the root issue: the real monster lies within.

Our fear of the alien is really a fear of our own strangeness, a fear that we might not fit in, that we might be excluded. The monstrous within art helps us – in often uncomfortable ways – to confront this anxiety in ourselves. Because art should always be experienced within a cultural milieu, and thus within relationship to a community, this confrontation with our anxiety of exclusion can – one hopes – become part of the experience of our being accepted despite all our supposed imperfections and our differences. This, it seems to me, is the gift that all that is Queer brings, and why figures like Bowery have been important.

The aggression and violence of much of Sci-Fi – where the alien must be killed, or we must kill it – only feeds narratives of persecution of otherness, which can only lead to a strangling of our own fears, and thus to violence built up within ourselves.

Interestingly, last year’s film Arrival was a good corrective on this, one that gives hope that – as the prospect rises of us achieving long-distance space travel and becoming aliens ourselves – the cultural subconscious might be beginning to generate art that hints at a better understanding of what it means to be alien. District 9 is another example, and was inspired by the real events that took place under South Africa’s apartheid regime where ‘zoning’ of people was brutally enforced.

Perhaps subversive screenings of these might help a troubled minority within one village come to terms – not with the aliens coming to them – but with their own fear of what is alien.


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