Tag: possible futures

Origins and Possible Futures

Origins and Possible Futures

There has been quite a firestorm about a new SAS airlines ad, which says “What’s Scandinavian?”, and answers it with “Absolutely nothing. Everything is copied.”[i] Then it goes into all kinds of things and ideas that are imported, even though those are considered “Scandinavian,” such as democracy from Greece, windmills from Persia etc. Much of the attack has been driven by the cultural Right and those with Right-leaning politics. But the person who showed it to me was struck that I was not at all impressed as someone who genuinely believes in the strength of multiculturalism. The long and short of it is that it is an airline ad, so it tries to sell the message that Scandinavian travellers travel, bring ideas home. Things can have their origins anywhere, but they are at home in Scandinavia.

The ad conflates genuine achievement that might have been invented in any part of the world, whether in Scandinavia or elsewhere, with the facile facts about origins of Swedish meatballs and Danish pastries. I live in Norway, and every single banana pack in the supermarket says where it was grown, every box of tea carries country of origin. I don’t think any Scandinavian would claim a banana or tea while enjoying it. The biggest visibility of China is in that tiny string of words in almost everything we use: “Made in China.” This is just how the world is. Perhaps every person who has some elementary civic education knows about democracy having one of its important origin points in Ancient Greece (Grecian democracy was undemocratic by today’s standards – and Norwegian democracy is probably one of the best in the world at present).[ii] But does that trivia tell us anything useful about democracy today? Technology-wise, I’m fairly certain that there are many technologies invented or innovated in the Scandinavian region, because that is true for every place. Technology and knowledge transfer is precisely what helps us grow as a species. I genuinely think the Danish LEGO is one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, since it trains in and accelerates modular thinking. Scale that up and one can turn to everything from everyday furniture from IKEA, the principles of programming, Minecraft, to millions of kids around the world who grow up with a spectacular method for problem solving and learning basic engineering skills (I want to go into games and education in another blog post soon, so won’t press the point here). But is LEGO Scandinavian culture? What would that even mean?

Not that there isn’t a genuine problem of conflation: people think yoga poses are Indian or spiritual or some such shit,[iii] for instance, and love or hate it for that reason,[iv] instead of going after Swedish turn of the century gym routines, where they originate. And many people think the Arabic numerals and the number system we use are Arabic and have something to do with Islam so shouldn’t be taught in schools.[v] The ad tells us that Scandinavia was brought here piece by piece – and makes no reference whatsoever for instance to the Sami populations. It often becomes necessary to question origins when those origins are tied to questions of violent nationalism. In wartime nationalism serves a different purpose, including promoting a mindset geared towards freedom, community values, and individuality. But only in peacetime can it be questioned enough to prevent war to begin with. Humanities especially and all its wings whether in academia or in any other field have to deal with this fact if they are to be objective and critical, which is why humanities is often the first target of governments when nationalism grows in peacetime. But one must question stupidity in all its forms, including replacing one centre with another. The ad expects us to be mind-blown by the trivia it digs up, couching it in provocative language of “What’s Scandinavian?” and saying “Absolutely nothing”, but the looseness of terms means we can just as easily say, “Everything.” And it would be equally pointless. The ad seeks to be provocative and succeeds, but it also pretends to be historical without an understanding of history, and thus fails.

Perhaps a much better question is: what allows/allowed the development of certain technologies and their transfer, rather than others, and, for the future, how can we learn and make better, faster, and smoother processes of technology and knowledge transfer that do not rely on epistemic or other violence? The first one takes us into the domain of historical enquiry, a pathway that is essentially turned towards the past as a mechanism for understanding the present. The other takes us in the domain of the future and speculation for working on strategies for the present, or, in CoFutures terms, pathways to possible presents. The two are not mutually exclusive, and they depend on each other, but the two are not to be conflated in terms of their goals. For the former, an enquiry into origins is often important, and invaluable. A historical enquiry can put things into perspective, including the conditions under which knowledge is produced, technology created, innovations made and so on. It can lead us to questions such as the treatment of the working classes, labour, slavery, capitalism etc. After all, modern day industrial production, whether technology or food, is built on top of exploitative structures, and a historical enquiry can indeed get us to the origins of these structures. There is also the clear question of disproportionality in innovation and in visibility of innovation, and the money to generate new technologies and to disseminate them is also tied to different kinds of exploitative structures. But then how far do we go with all of it? Which historical era or eras do these enquires lead to? What time? Whose time? Where does it begin? History is not metaphysics, but the quest for origins is a metaphysical one. Ultimately, it only reveals the origins and sources of the problem, and knowledge correction – filling in gaps in what we know about the past – is useful but only part of the solution.

The second one takes us towards a different track, where origin is the nightmare. The second seeks to go beyond those futile quests in order to find some other way of being. This other way of being is not ahistorical, but decidedly transhistorical – where scale is transformed so completely that we are no longer reliant on the limitations of ancestry, blood, or origin, to feel like we belong. The more flexible the scale the more the abundance. The other reason for the second is that if the problems we are facing are global, then the solutions must come from everywhere. If the world is burning no place, no country, no people can escape it. The rich might hold out longer and have greater capacities for survival, but it will eventually destroy everyone. That’s the nature of catastrophe and violence, including climate violence. Point of origin becomes irrelevant in this view. It doesn’t matter if windmills came from Persia – is the region today a primarily oil economy? Yes! And that’s a far more important issue to raise.

My partner is still amused at times by the fact that I love walking around the city so much, and spend so much time at kitchen, hardware, miscellaneous tools stores. I have tried to explain that it’s because these places give me a sense of human imagination, history, and ingenuity. The rolling pin or stone that is in every kitchen connects us across all lands to much of human history. A simple, smooth tool, purely mechanical, timeless. And while knowledge or technology may not save us – human ingenuity is often expressed through that which we make. That human ingenuity may save us yet.

[i] https://onemileatatime.com/controversial-scandinavian-airlines-ad/
[ii] The strength of democracy lies in the simple measure of flexibility: how much difference, dissent, and protest it can tolerate and still be a functioning civil society.
[iii] I use the term EMS (Eastern Mysticism Shit) to call the general tendency to attribute some kind of special mystic wisdom or spiritual values to the so-called East, whether that is seen as positive or negative, and no matter who ascribes these values. The “East” has no special mystical or spiritual knowledge to impart to the rest of the world, even if some of us would like to think so. It is anthropological garbage and a ridiculous way of ascribing difference.
[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-schools-are-banning-yoga/570904/
[v] https://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/56-percent-of-americans-dont-think-we-should-teach-arabic-numerals-in-school/
ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

Today is 26th January. The Indian Republic Day. And I resume my blog in 2020. Before I get to the idea of what it means to be a republic, or indeed, what any of this means to me, I will turn to something that has been a key influence on my life. Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more specifically, Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Picard is now finally here with its global premiere. Patrick Stewart reprises his role of Jean-Luc Picard, now retired Starfleet Admiral. Picard is very much a show of its time, and the best few moments of an all too rapidly paced first episode are in the FNN interview scene where Picard does what Picard does best. Give a short, yet, strong speech about Starfleet’s core values.

Picard: “The Romulans asked for our help. And I believed we had a profound obligation to give it.”

Interviewer: “Many felt there were better uses for our resources than aiding the Federation’s oldest enemy.”

Picard: “Well fortunately the Federation chose to support the rescue effort.”

Interviewer: “Yes. Initially.”

Picard: “I have been known to be persuasive. But the Federation understood there were millions of lives at stake.”

Interviewer: “Romulan lives.”

Picard: “No. Lives.”

The interview continues. Picard mentions that the rescue effort’s historical analogy is not the Pyramids, but Dunkirk. And Picard tells us the real reason for leaving Starfleet: “Because it was no longer Starfleet! We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue, and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal!” He then brings up Dunkirk again, berating the interviewer for her lack of historical knowledge, before his closure: “You are a stranger to history. You are a stranger to war. You just wave your hand, and, pfft, it all goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind.”

For those of us who happen to be migrants, or darker skinned, Dunkirk is a sour note in what should have been a great speech (and it perhaps is for many).[i] But Dunkirk has been in the news not that long ago, due to a grandiose Christopher Nolan film. Dunkirk in this Nolan imaginary is a moment that England, at the time of Brexit, global far-right and nationalist resurgence, can see as uniquely its own, a moment of its stellar heroism. Nolan was accused of whitewashing, raising “Englishness” and English-heroism when the many heroes of WWII narrative included the larger British Empire, which include the many Asians and Africans who were part of the Allied effort. [ii] Dunkirk the film is anti-Nazi in its historical sentiment, and profoundly English in its emotional landscape at the same time. Yet Dunkirk is not a story of Englishness or national exception. It wasn’t and shouldn’t be. It was the story of many multitudes of nations, other European, Asian, and African nations. But to see this one has to look outside the bubbles of nationalist space-time. As Churchill and his racism dictated policies that led to the devastation of the Bengal famine two years after the events of Dunkirk,[iii] soldiers of the “Empire” shed their blood fighting for the future of the planet, under whatever banner they could have had at the time. That Picard brings up Dunkirk is unsurprising. For those whose reference point is the film however, Picard’s reference to Dunkirk serves the opposite purpose. It recreates English exceptionalism in a narrative about the future. It endorses the English identity that stoked and continues to stoke its virulent anti-European, xenophobic, nationalist, sentiments.

But the reference to Dunkirk to me is not a sour note because of the film – although that contributes to it, but because Picard’s speech does something else – it also somehow sullies the very core of what is the best thing about Star Trek to someone who has been a Trekkie and a fan of Picard forever – the core values of Starfleet. Picard’s speech dismisses one example of human endeavour (one from ancient history and slavery) while using another form of human achievement as exemplary (one from modern history and the era of brutal colonialism). What is left behind in the former is the pyramids and the politics of glorified nostalgia, and Picard is right to dismiss it. What is left behind of the latter is nationalist ethnocentric exceptionalism, which has no place as an admirable time inside or outside the ST universe.

History is always more complicated. Look at who died, and who was left behind. Look at what is left behind.

Thus when Picard brings us to the question of Starfleet values, in what would be the perfect moment for the return of a long admired figure, all I had was the question: did Starfleet ever actually have those values to begin with? Indeed, Starfleet has been notoriously callous to the rights of other species, which has also been at the heart of some of the best Trek episodes. Picard’s speeches – the best of them, have been in defense of principles that Starfleet has mouthed in principle but been indifferent to in practice. The Prime Directive’s Vietnam War roots are well known. But the reason Star Trek has always been my show – and will continue to be – is something that is in spite of Star Trek perhaps. If on the one side there is Dunkirk, on the other there is the defense of an idea that makes Picard say Lives instead of differentiating between Romulan and Human or Federation lives. If Dunkirk is a political statement, so is this. At a time of geopolitical troubles, where it seems we are all too quick to dismiss some lives over others, or value some lives over others, it is the sole purpose of this statement to challenge any form of exceptionalism. And rightly so, for this exceptionalism is yet again (as it always has) leading to the new aggressive politics of oppression and violence from one corner of the globe to another. One ethnicity over another, one nation over another, one religion over another, one gender over another. The ostensible core ideals of Starfleet, howsoever they may perform, are an attack on this politics. It is also the one that is at the heart of Picard’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe in TNG, and why Picard remains “my captain” and has served as an inspiration for all my life. It’s a form of possible politics, where we are not perfect but where we must always strive to be better than we are, a quest without an endpoint. A form of politics that is needed more than ever at a time when the planet is burning and these exceptionalisms take increasingly more efficient genocidal forms. And these genocides are based on a politics of nostalgia enmeshed in the logic of technocapitalism. We chain many possible futures with the ghosts of pasts. Because, like the mythos of Dunkirk, the empire never ends. Historical details and history are profoundly important. But we must not elevate a politics of nostalgia and instead look upon history as the record of us that is consistently necessary and shameful, as the artefact whose mistakes we must consciously grow beyond.

And this brings us to the Republic Day, 26th January, to the idea of India. To many, the idea of India is always under attack by outside forces as often as by internal ones. But the events of the recent past, countrywide protests seem to have made our fissures and unities visible around the world yet again. I have grown up with this. With the politics of unities, diversities, hatreds, and reconciliations. All descendants of the partition people – the refugees – in the subcontinent have. The politics of nostalgia for another time, before “we” lost our lands and lives, our homes and livelihoods, before the lines between us and them were clearly drawn for the first time shaping the experience of every one of us in the whole subcontinent. But for the partition people our home is never one we can envision ever returning to. Permanent refugees in the world locked in the traumatic birth of nations. Or one might just as easily call it the xenophobic geno/xeno-cidal moment where we decided that our identity was to be imprisoned in the confines of whatever identity our ancestors imprinted on us as that which would be forever ours, for generations, and many generations, to the end of whatever time we could imagine. The exact politics that shapes us to this day.

Like any such national celebration, the Republic Day also celebrates a foundational moment. It is a moment of pride, of independence, of becoming a nation, it is a moment of celebrating the sacrifices of those who came before us. It is also a profoundly nostalgic moment for the absolute beauty of our constitution and the rules, rights, and duties, to which we are bound. Yet the truth is that the Constitution of India is as much an open document as any, it can be changed, amended, and transformed, as time progresses. It is at the mercy of time, and its values and principles are not absolute, but temporary, and we who are the citizens that are bound by it are also the agents of its change. Our populist politics may determine what changes happen to the constitution, including changes that may be profoundly against any idea of peace and happiness and the healthy coexistence of all people that live on a patch of land. When we thus celebrate the Republic Day, and the constitution of India, we are celebrating an interim document. And perhaps we must defend it again and again, its best values, just as we defend the values of Starfleet, and raise it as a slogan and as mantra, but that’s not where we can stop. Our ideas of coexistence must exist beyond the constitution – we must shape the constitution to accommodate more realms of the possible rather than letting the constitution alone determine our possibles. But before we can imagine or make this future constitution, we must shape our politics towards a future that is not based on nostalgia or purity or nationalism. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Brecht wrote these lines sandwiched between the Nazis and Hiroshima. Unless we can see the need to think beyond heroes and heroism (even if the hero is a Picard), beyond the exceptionals to the everyday, whether pyramids or Dunkirk or republics or independence or nations or soldiers or wars, can we ever get there?

I am not sure all this makes any sense to anyone other than me, and this is a personal blog after all. And it is perhaps an all too simple position. It is the kind of position one sees from Don Quixote when he sees the chained criminals and sets them free. Quixote simply believes that it is his duty is to get rid of oppression. That duty extends to one and all, and it does not matter if the oppressed are criminals. In our troubled times it seems to be a ridiculous perspective. And perhaps the most necessary one.

[i] Some of Picard’s best speeches are defenses of the rights of other beings, including Data (“The Measure of a Man”), and this particular speech echoes the famous one from Star Trek: Insurrection (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cXBy1SbPgk)
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill%27s_Secret_War
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