Note: This is a re-post of something I wrote here several years ago but it feels like a good time to share it again.
The strangeness of life is so close to us, so intimate that we can not see it nor recognise the novelty and peculiarity of human existence and consciousness for what it is. Like some exotic fish swimming laps in a tank of water: embedded, immersed in it’s context and oblivious to the improbability and sheer randomness of existential facts that have led it to be in this place, at this time and assuming this particular form. We swim in laps, surviving, feeding, breeding and only occasionally wondering what lies above the bubbling waters of our liquid atmosphere, what lies outside of the partially reflective glassed parameters of our collective context.
Technology, logic and science have gifted us with the tools and aggregated knowledge of ten thousand years of civilisation, of recorded history and collaborative creativity. We now know how vast our ultimate context really appears to be, from the thin and fragile Terrestrial biosphere which supports us, on to the impersonal terror of interplanetary (then – interstellar) spaces, through a local galaxy populated by impossibly many uncountable stars and on into the devastating emptiness and immensity of intergalactic space, galaxy clusters and Cosmology at such a scale that if you are not simultaneously filled with both dread and awe when considering it, you have clearly not understood the contemporary scientific message concerning the grandest of Universal scales, time-frames and energies.
Yet, for all this immensity and the sheer implausibility and infinitesimal unlikelihood of our (either individual or collective) existence, we are nevertheless and for now a physical, living and sentient presence in the Cosmos. Notwithstanding the genuinely disturbing and positively insane possibility of bringing upon ourselves an insecurity-induced collective self-extinguishing calamity (itself possible upon potentially widely varying time-scales), the ongoing absurdity and essential non-meaning of this life and technological, cultural Fact of Human Being never ceases to leave me reeling with dizzy apprehension, fear and excitement about where we have come from, where we are, and where we may (or may not) be ultimately going.
Of course the Fact of the world and our existence in it is wide-open for interpretation and translation. The Void of meaning is clearly amorphous and easily shaped to suit whatever purpose, mythology, ideology or teleological end-game you may choose to follow or fabricate. The majority of such narratives and ideologies appear to capture a certain self-interested ethos, perhaps as an inevitable and emergent evolutionary consequence of the existential requirements for self-perpetuation in a competitive environment populated with limited shared resources. It is also perhaps unsurprising that those human beings who by luck or skill should excel at obtaining and stockpiling resources and wealth will tend to act as ideological gravitational centers towards which others will inevitably drift. The embryonic political schism between individual and collective undergoes many permutations, iterations and instantiations across time, place and culture but remains the essential defining feature of human ideological self-identity and belief.
The core of this individual/collective dichotomy also forms a framework upon which are built notions of familiarity and difference, of known and unknown, of normality and peculiarity, and of self and other. That which might be perceived to be beyond the individual or collective self-identity can lead to insecurity and conflict through the political generalisations and psychological projections which may be cast upon the “other”. It remains a striking irony that the “other” or notional “outsider” may be persecuted for their alleged strangeness or perceived threat when everyone is an “other” and “outsider” to someone else, when the assertions of normality (of individual or group) are really very relative to a specific time and place, and when all life and human activity is strange and ultimately exotic in the Cosmos.
The totality of all political systems and ideologies can be constructed in some sense from the various permutations and iterations of the individual/collective dichotomy. One of the most powerful features of human social and technological development is our ability to aggregate previous information and ideas and to extract useful technologies, social ideologies and strategies from them. A feature of this constructive reconcatenation is that it relies on taking certain assumptions for granted and this allows for a certain degree of compression or energy-saving required to be able to progress further. A significant problem with the requirement for attributing reliability to the ideas and conclusions of others is that in a global information environment such as the current human context, not all information or interpretations of facts are equal in veracity or social and technological efficacy. Being able to discern who is a reliable source of information (and who is not) and might speak with authentic, genuine authority on any particular topic is becoming a significant information-jungle survival skill.
Many people are outsourcing their own ideas and rational thinking to other people, to ideologies and political movements which appear to have all the answers and which in large measure are only demonstrating a desire to self-perpetuate themselves. All manner of reprehensible conclusions are being drawn by people who should know better, or who should at least possess the intellect to understand the consequences of their privileged public statements and actions.
It is quite clear that, other than the strangeness and peculiarity of human existence being totally unrecognised by most of us, the majority of people, politicians and ideological movements are really just improvising, “winging-it”. No one really knows what is going on – the majority of assertions of certainty and political or ideological convictions of belief in “self-evident” truths are really just attention-seeking, self-promotion and self-aggrandisement . We are born into a world in which the wheels are already turning very rapidly indeed. We are then required to attempt to rapidly adjust and adapt, to learn and assimilate for a brief number of years before then returning our mortal coil to the Universe from which it came.
Swimming as we are in a thick soup of signs, symbols, memes, abstractions, images and necessary communicative generalisations – we don’t tend to see the most obvious features of the cultural peculiarity of the world around us. Not traditionally being a tie-wearer, I am always somewhat bemused by the cultural norm which requires business attire to include voluntarily wearing a small decorative hangman’s noose. On a more banal level, consider the degree to which the clothing, music and general aesthetic sense of a previous generation or other culture begin to appear alien or strange and in proportion to it’s distance to us in time or place. We are able to recognise the strangeness, the uniqueness and bizarre beauty of other times and places but not of our own time and place and even when we live in such a time as this when culture, technology and (arguably also) history is accelerating exponentially.
In the post-truth information economy, it doesn’t really matter if you believe that life is strange, random and beautiful or if you believe that it was purposefully created by a Divinity (or even, a Pasta Pastor) because all opinions and ideologies have become potentially equally true. If a belief or opinion makes someone feel more comfortable, they will posit it as true and then they can quite easily find information to support their position, sans rational justification or analytical thought. The strangeness and fragility of this all-too-human world is profound but we have become fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly, desensitised to it. The world is diverse and beautiful, it is strange and rare and we would all do much better to stop taking it all for granted.