07 January 2007

Barbarians Inside The Gates

The sun finally came out in Sydney, producing a reasonable semblance of full-on summer beach weather, so if any of you have been wondering what's become of me, that's what.

Checked out a couple of North Shore beaches, and even though they weren't shark-netted and were beset by annoying selfish people in big, ostentatious boats who insisted on dropping anchor in precisely the spot where people might like to swim, it was still pretty nice. There's a bit of science involved to swimming/beaching in Sydney Harbour, which involves ascertaining which direction the winds are blowing (and which direction they'll be likely to be coming from by the time you actually get to the beach), and then knowing which beaches will be in a sheltered position. With literally hundreds of beaches to choose from (okay, maybe I'm being liberal with the "literally," which annoys me no end when other people do it, but seriously, there's a lot of beaches), the devoted layabout needs to have considerable knowledge stored in his or her noggin, and that's before you start factoring in low and high tide times.

All right, by now I'm starting to feel a little like the old Doonesbury character (does anyone still read Doonesbury? is there any reason apart from inertia that it continues to exist?) Zonker Harris, whose entire life was devoted to suntanning, but just to show that I'm not completely shallow (something Sydneysiders are regularly accused of by jealous residents of less pleasant Australian capitals), I, um, had a discussion about philosophy the other day. Two, actually. Oh, and I went to a movie, too, so there.

The philosophy discussion was triggered by an offhand comment I made a few months ago about the general worthlessness of the post-modernists and post-structuralists, which elicited a rather poignant cri de coeur from a university student in Chicago (formerly of Humboldt County, however, itself well noted for its deep philosophical roots, and yes, I'll always have a soft spot for Humboldt, hippies, marijuana and endless reggae notwithstanding).

"Why are you being so closed-minded?" was the gist of his query, and this not being the first time I'd been accused of that particular defect of character, I gave careful consideration to my reply. It was hardly as knowledgeable as that of my young interlocutor, but handicapped by the fact that I haven't actually plowed through much in the way of Derrida or Foucault, I had to fall back on two main points: a) that most of what they wrote was unnecessarily dense gobbledegook (why, I contended, was Plato able to couch his ideas in far more clear prose?) that barely failed to mask the fact that they mostly consisted of nihilism and hippie-dippie "nothing is real" 60s rhetoric; and b) that such theories had a corrosive effect on both thought and morality, in that they could be used to negate or contradict virtually anything.

As I said, not a particularly learned analysis, probably more visceral than intellectual, but hey, I'm a shallow Aussie beach bum, what do you expect. Anyway, now my correspondent (whose name is Nathan Shepard, by the way) has written back with a very cogent argument, much more readable and understandable than that of the philosophers and theorists he's defending, and while I'm not sophisticated enough to summarise it here (perhaps later, when I've decided whether I'm capable of arguing back at him or will have to capitulate utterly and completely), my estimation is that Nathan Shepard is a figure to reckon with in the world of philosophy. And I don't say that lightly, as I actually know at least one professional philosopher (that would be Dave 327) and a fair few amateur ones.

One of the latter would be my Aussie friend Michael, who's actually qualified as an attorney, but who, I learned last night, did his undergraduate degree in philosophy (and at a proper college in London, not at the University of Surf Australia, you snide bastards). I mentioned this discussion to him last night as we were on our way to the movies, and he, a Wittgenstein fancier, sniffed that he hadn't found time to read the post-modernists/structuralists, and didn't anticipate finding such time in the foreseeable future. So I felt temporarily reassured in my blithe ignorance, but Nathan's letter may yet goad me into doing some difficult reading. If I can find a waterproof edition suitable for taking to the beach.

The film we saw was Blood Diamond, and it was a real rip-snorter, with copious amounts of explosions, beheadings and amputations, not to mention some stunning cinematography (to be honest, I'm not even sure what that word means, but it sounds knowledgeable, doesn't it?) that gave me a real sense of what West Africa must look like. Well, as real as it's likely to get for someone who's never been there. True, there were cheesy aspects, such as when Leonardo di Caprio did his Titanic-style dying swan act, this time into the red African earth rather than the icy waters of the North Atlantic (I half expected Celine Dion to come in warbling as he breathed his last), but hey, life is cheesy at times, too. Overall, di Caprio turned in a great performance, even delivering a creditable African accent, but the real star was Africa itself.

The plot revolves around the civil wars and struggles for control of the diamond fields that rages in West Africa around the turn of the century (the most recent one, that is), which I'd followed fairly closely when they were actually happening, and been suitably horrified by. In case you don't remember or don't live in an area served by the BBC, among the features of those wars were wholesale amputations, usually of hands but sometimes of feet as well, and the kidnapping of young children for purposes of turning them into drugged and brainwashed killers.

But the news accounts and video footage I'd seen at the time barely prepared me for what it looked like on the big screen: truckloads of what can only be described as savages, tearing into villages and towns swathed in marijuana smoke and bouncing to an urban American rap sound track, and cutting loose with their automatic weapons at any and all. Then came the rapes, kidnappings and ritual amputations, much of which served little purpose other than to provide the maruaders with some sort of twisted kicks. From everything I've read on the subject, the movie didn't exaggerate or sensationalise at all. In fact, Michael thought that it had rather downplayed the full extent of the violence.

Before going further, I should delineate my theoretical continuum of savagery/barbarism/civilisation, which I hasten to point out flies directly in the face of most contemporary historical theory. Nowadays it's very unfashionable to use terms like "barbarian," as my history lecturer friend Bella often and with some patience points out to me. It's a relative term, used by the dominant civilisation to diminish other societies that are not necessarily inferior, just "different" (thanks, Foucault et al.).

Well, fie upon this, I say. I need only wander from the British Museum's rooms of Roman artifacts into those housing the shoddy and inferior imitations produced by the Saxons to see that there is a qualitative difference between the two societies, and to know beyond a doubt which I'd prefer to live in. Anyway, my theory goes like this: savages are people who have no conception of the relative worth or significance of the instruments or institutions of civilisation. Give them a gold coin and they might hang it around their neck; they might just as well try using it as fish bait or seeing how far into the forest they could throw it. Barbarians, on the other hand, know the value of things, understand the desirability of tools and luxuries produced by civilisation, but are not capable of maintaining the institutions capable of producing those items, so therefore must resort to stealing them. Civilisation, which, despite continuing evidence to the contrary, happens to be where we live, is capable of sustaining and reproducing itself, based not so much on individuals but on collective knowledge and institutions.

Simplistic? A bit, perhaps, but all theories risk that. It doesn't mean we shouldn't stop trying to have them. Anyway, by my own definition, the marauding maniacs of West Africa should probably be called barbarians rather than savages, since they were sufficiently sophisticated to loot things of value and there was some rhyme or reason to what they were doing (i.e., control of the diamond fields and a continued supply of civilisation's desired artifacts). It was only their behaviour that was savage, not its rationale.

But the most disturbing image was how closely these particular barbarians/savages/as you will resembled similar gangs that can be found in urban capitals around the world. The difference is only one of degree, not of substance. Whether hailing from Brazilian favelas, the banlieue of Paris, or any number of gritty council estates and housing projects across Britain and America, the sound track (angry gangsta rap) and the chemical enhancement (marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy) is the same, and only the more evolved and heavily armed policing structures of the First World stand between the same savage results.

Mobs of gangsters in Rio and Sao Paolo have recently been attacking and destroying buses and engaging in full-scale armed warfare with the local police. Not in pursuit of any particular cause, just to gain ascendancy and prevent the police from interfering with their criminal activities. Although somewhat cloaked in the rhetoric of race and religion, the ongoing civil insurgency in the suburbs of Paris and most other major French cities consists of the same thing: criminals, barbarians, if you will, saying to the police: "You no longer control this territory, and soon you will no longer control the city itself." It's no secret that the same sort of mindlessly violent yet at the same time insurrectionary spirit has been brewing in black ghettoes across the USA, to the point where police in many cities (particularly the more effete ones like San Francisco and Oakland, or the hopeless ones like Detroit) have all but admitted that there is little they can do about it.

The trailer for Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto, which hasn't opened here yet, played before Blood Diamond, and featured a tagline to the effect of "This is what it's like when a civilisation ends." Although Mel was ostensibly referring to the Maya, even without having seen the film I think it's safe to assume that he was/is trying to make a Spenglerian point about the decline of the West. I'm not sure he's too far off the mark, either. I know it's a hallmark of aging ditherers since time immemorial to proclaim, "We're going the way of the ancient Romans," but I'm willing to take the risk of being so branded. When we no longer see the value of what civilisation has given us, and when we're no longer willing to state unequivocally that with all its obvious faults, civilisation is still preferable to barbarism and thus worth defending (and once again, thanks a lot, Foucault), then yes, trouble just might ensue.

That being said, I enjoyed the movie immensely and it had a mostly happy ending, so hooray for Hollywood, I guess. Perhaps we'll still find a way to live happily ever after, and if not, Leonardo di Caprio will no doubt turn up to save us. Meanwhile, here's hoping the sun comes out tomorrow so I can go back to the beach.

1 comment:

Anna Louise said...

In my geography class last week we watched Hotel Rwanda and saw some of the horrors that millions faced in the 1994 genocide. the film ended with a few words about what happened (in real life) to the main characters in the film. It was good. They had escaped and help save hundred of people but that doesnt detract from the other million people who died. A happy ending? Maybe for individuals but the main bulk of people, i'm not so sure.

Talking of philosophy my french teacher told us this the other day: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! meaning the more things change the more they stay the same.