Monday, November 17, 2014
Mythology and Failure
Many policymakers in Zambia, and I can safely generalize this, in fact many African leaders, have little time for “technical” details. They prefer instead a rhetorical approach with high-sounding and fashionable clichés in common political parlance that appeals to a short-lived emotional sensibility of the public. And yet, political rhetoric is so often devoid of real explanation of social ills, their causation or opportunities and, consequently of their popular understanding. The “image” that Korten refers to is based upon a common sense view of the “big picture” if it is to be a liberating one.
The big picture in nature is often anchored onto very simple concepts. Because they are simple to many, they become invisible and a search for more complex formulations of the problem and goals is embarked upon. If we succeeded in inspiring our people to aspire to achieve quality use of leisure time; enrich the quality of our family lives; develop a hunger for continuous learning across the lifespan and structure opportunities for productive and interesting work, would we not move the boundaries of our images of suffering somewhat further away from us? These aspirations are simple. If not these aspirations, what should our politics really be about? I sincerely believe that our leadership must be about helping our societies overcome debilitating images, which dis-empower and disembody them into an existence of nothingness.
If we understand Korten’s argument about the power of images, let us examine the following story about images. Golem, is an old Jewish thought that refers to that state of existence only found in a form of a potential and nothing beyond. It is un-realizable form of “being-ness”. It also refers to the yearnings of a legendary human-like life form that the Jewish Cabal says could be created, but could never quite achieve full humanity, as we know it. In other words, it behaves human-like but is essentially a dependent thing, controlled and rather robotic. A somewhat similar concept of a “Jinn” is found in Islam. In our own African myths including Zambia’s, there are such images. In Zambia, “Ilomba” refers to a human-like contraption secretly kept and controlled by people believed to have powers of witchcraft.
The Biblical Adam, according to some Jewish thinkers, was a golem until God put breath into him and gave him the freedom of choice between right and wrong. Other Rabbis contend that Adam and Eve were still golems until there was a break between the Creator and the creatures. Adam and Eve only assumed a conscience after breaking loose from the Creator. In other words, humanity as we know it today is only made possible as an act of rebellion.
Accordingly, Adam and Eve realised their true identity as humans, their extracted images of a greater Being, only after they were chased out of the ordered world of the Garden of Eden. They imagined a different relationship with God, challenged their carefully arranged and comfortable dependence, breaking loose from the predetermined destiny. Rebellion and independence in this case, appear somewhat interrelated. And so is independence and struggle for survival or inventiveness. Adam and Eve, following their new independence, begun to sweat it out into the stark realities of self-affirmation, a nakedness of real life, a life that is mortal and has to be “survived” or lived in all its dimensions, both in terms of quality and quantity.
It is perhaps a fact that while the Holy Books, written or unwritten (in the case of native folklore such as the story depicted in the Imprisonment of Obatala by a Nigeria writer, Obatunde Ijimere, in most religions refer to this rebellion or failure to perform a task critical to the survival of a race, it almost sounds sacrilegious to confirm the view that without it, we would perhaps be golems and not humans in the sense we understand ourselves. Further, there is the notion that this act of rebellion is the cause of human suffering. In other words, in this epoch phenomenon of freeing ourselves through an act of rebellion against the Creator, humanity comes out as a product of ingratitude. We commit a mortal sin that explains the genesis of human misery. If this is the case, the disturbing question for the ordinary believer is in understanding the true purpose of the Creator’s need for our chronic self-prostration in gestures that express our gratitude. Was the Creator in the business of creating people after his own image so that they would, in an ego-centric way, sit all day singing His praises in gratitude? This point becomes thinkable only when we accept that there was an alternative being-ness to humanity that the Creator could have conceived for his creatures that could be less than pleasant such as a golem.
An alternative thesis is to assume that creation in fact presupposes a moment of liberation. Once an artist paints the image formed in his head, puts it on canvas or leaves it standing as a sculpture, it becomes apart from himself. While associated with him, it is nevertheless, a thing unto itself and not him. We can assume that a painter takes pride in his painting particularly when it is an object of appreciation by “others”. That is, a painter enjoys his product when it is beautiful to the eyes of independent judges. I am aware of the fact that some artists argue that they care less about what “others” think of their artwork. As artists, they are fulfilled by the sheer fact that the form of a thing that they conceived in their heads now exists outside of them. Some thinkers question this view and propose that such an artist is simply ring-fencing himself or herself from the act of popular or informed judgment that necessarily follow from a display of ones inner self through acts of creation. If we accept this view, the artist is judged as equally as his product. But to be sure, that individual painting cannot define the totality of the artist even when it represents a part of his inner perception of certain forms that may appear real or imaginary to the judge. It is simply an aspect of his self-expression.
Theoretically, alienation of that which is created from its creator, in other words, its independent expression of the creator, cannot be the cause of evil or suffering. This maturation through the process of formation, seen from our human condition, is an act that is mutually liberating both for the parent as it is for the grown up child. A parent relishes a moment when his children will be able to provide for themselves. He nurtures the children through an exit strategy that affirms their mutual identity while processing their separation. This is different from a slave-owner versus slave relationship. Because it is in fact anticipated that once the work of formation is completed, that which was created will be “spaced” away from the creator, we may therefore think of the Biblical story of rebellion as a beginning of a new journey, new space, in which man begins to discover the beautiful things that the Creator has endowed within the environment that surrounds us. In this human condition, we carry the values, intuitive logic and common senses embedded in the nature of our relationship with the Creator. We seek to deconstruct the turbulence that is fomented by our inappropriate actions in our environment, to define and chose right from wrong, to strive for joy and overcome suffering, overcome many poverties that are intrinsic in our failure not to discover the power of our existence as self-affirming, thinking and feeling beings.
The image of a golem, this story, provides us with an insight into our socio-political and economic experience in our country and, more generally, in Africa in the 21st century. The romantic image of our traditional African past speaks of communities of mutual support systems, care and generally, self-sufficiency. An Africa that was providing for all was made possible because of a complete balance in the relationships within communities, between communities and the ecosphere. That is the story of colonial anthropology. But Africa today shares no romantic images with its anthropological past.
In Zambia as in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, political, social and economic changes that have taken place before, during and after colonial rule, have emphasised the growing awareness of the turbulent environment within which public life has to flourish or falter and systems of governance have to be developed and implemented. The question objective analysis must face is not whether pre-colonial Africa was the romantic garden of Eden but rather, how at various points of history, “bifurcation” and consequently, turbulence was fomented and manifested itself, and how societies have coped with it. Here we have some lessons from students of chaos theory.
As for today, whether we call it globalisation, neo-colonialism or something else, the turbulence that the world has witnessed has been characterised by certain general features. Increasingly, we have come to witness that a single event in one part of the world can catapult major global dislocations. Two planes plunging into the World Trade Centre and another into the Pentagon, estimated cost of this terrorist suicide bombing strategy, at $500,000, enacted on September 11, 2001 has completely transformed our global culture of air travel. Even more noteworthy is the fact that our entire way of life including some fundamental values of privacy, relations between nation-states have radically changed. Our banking industry cannot pride itself as a secret custodian in the management of our private savings. Above all, we appear uncertain whether we can ask questions about the moral authority or identity of those, if any, who may be in full control of this gigantic social, political, and economic engineering. The balance of accounts between what is being gained against what is being sacrificed or simply lost is not at all clear. We learn of just and unjust wars. Worse still, we are mired in apparent deception regarding purposes of overt use of awesome military might against perceived enemies of “global interests”. Even the global institutions we have given ourselves are rendered impotent on some occasions. Life is always after the fact. What about the story of false intelligence about Iraq weapons of mass destructions (WMDs). Now, we hear of the doctrine of regime change. Saddam Hussein had to go! The fact that there has been more loss of life after Saddam is of no immediate interest to global forces of revenge against Saddam.
Turbulence, with its non-linear characteristics, weaves false certainty by layering various problems into one big digital experience, which is named such as globalisation, terrorism, or good governance. Perhaps because of its non-linearity, we secure ourselves cognitively by giving a new name to our apparently new experience. What is named must have shape; we can visualize it, even as “virtual reality” and argue about its substantive form. This imagination, this weaving of reality creates at the same time, a sort of collective social amnesia about the totality of processes and antecedent events. We accept as a given that a new world is born and the past must be forgotten. A new World Order, meaning new rules of relating whether it be at the institutional, nation-state, or personal levels have come into existence and must be obeyed. Everyone must take the new definitions of our experiences for granted. Either you are with us or against us. Nations must choose and the United Nations is the grand theatre where all the drama is acted.
Underlying this process are experiences similar to those described by students of chaos theory on one hand and of religious conversion on the other. These apparently polarized fields of thought share much in common in evolving new “paradigms”. Chaos theory is the study of non-linear dynamic systems. A dynamic system includes a collection of all possible states whose coordinates are able to define the system at any one point. According to this thinking, this system can be described with a simple initial value problem. Dynamical systems can be “deterministic “or “stochastic”. When they are deterministic, there is only one solution for every state. However, when they are stochastic there are many possible solutions that can be chosen from a probability distribution. Chaotic systems are deterministic, and yet unpredictable. The reason for this is that they are sensitively dependent on initial conditions. This means that seemingly insignificant adjustments to the system will be compounded over a time and can dramatically change the overall behaviour of a system. This is the process sometimes referred to as bifurcation. It can lead to either greater complexity in order or the behaviour of the system or degeneration to primordial forms.
Bifurcation in chaos theory refers to when a complex dynamical chaotic system becomes unstable in its environment. Because of perturbations, disturbances or “stress”, an attractor draws the trajectories of the stress, and at the point of phase transition, the system bifurcates and it is propelled either to a new order through self-organization or to disintegration. The edge of chaos is the place where the parallel processing of the whole system is maximized. The system performs at its greatest potential and is able to carry out the most complex computations. At the bifurcation stage, the system is in a virtual area where choices are made, the system could choose whatever attractor is most compelling, could jump from one attractor to another, but it is here that forward futuristic choices are made: this is deep chaos. The system self-organizes to a higher level of complexity or it disintegrates. The phase transition stage may be called the transient stage, the place where transitory events happen.
Three kinds of bifurcations occur: The subtle smooth one; the catastrophic, abrupt with excessive perturbation and lastly the explosive, sudden and discontinuous factors that wrench the system out of one order into another - a self-organizing criticality. Scientists focusing on chaos have observed these dynamics in traffic flow, weather changes, population dynamics, organizational behaviour, shifts in public opinion, urban development and decay, cardiological arrhythmias, epidemics. It may occur in cell differentiation, immunology, technologies, decision-making, the fracture structures, and turbulence among many others. Complexity can occur in nature and in man-made systems, they may be very large or very small, the system is neither completely deterministic nor completely random, and exhibits both characteristics; the causes and their effects are not proportional; the various parts of a complex system are linked in synergistic manner and there is positive and negative feedback.
The search for meaning according to Victor Frankl, a Jewish Nazi Camp survivor and Professor of Logotherapy is an existential need in all of us. Spiritual meaning is interwoven in much of what we, as human beings do. Many of us are struck by the importance of religious metaphors in many group experiences. It is clear that the more we understand processes involved in ordering religious orders, the better we can perhaps understand our human nature and our search for meaning or new world “order”.
In the spiritual sphere, there is first the definition of the existing system as “chaotic”, “sick”, or “sinful” or formless. Genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition starts with the theory of Chaos. We read of chaos, nothing but void, formless matter, infinite space. A picture emerges where out of chaos emerges life and out of order, we only see habit. The religious description of chaos today starts with a progressive moral decay and a possible scenario of options: hell or heaven is defined in the hereafter, or of a peaceful, rewarding here and now existence is given. The dynamics involves conversion processes, including brainwashing, persuasion, healing, the giving up of one way of life and the taking on of a new way of life; the meaning for a group of believers of a sacred idea or ideal; the importance of the ritual of worship ceremonies (very much like seminars, conferences, and workshops led by the enlightened gurus of a new technological order); and in the normal life cycle, the significance of confession before others (the “free” media exposes all in the secular world); the process of restitution (penance/helping others); the role of charismatic leadership; the emergence of such phenomena as community fellowship groups; interest in the occult, devil worshipping and many such manifestation of religious matter. The unpredictability involved in all these processes is clearly remarkable. Is it only by faith or works or both? Is it just love for a neighbour, visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry etc? Nothing is definite. ( cf Karen Armstrong, History of God)
In political matter, chaos or better still turbulence, invariably forces governments into politico-technocratic responses that are: self‑evidently partial, incoherent, and provisional in nature. And when this becomes evidence of failure of system of government to perform, or outright moral imprudence, public confidence in politics and politicians wane. (Charles Leaderbeater and Geoff Mulgan :Life After politics, 1997)
Many events appear like involutions. The rise of the far-right in European politics, the war on terrorism, the violence in Seattle at the WTO and Prague at the IMF meetings, the suspicious election victory of President George W. Bush, the actions of Milosevich of Serbia, the just or unjustness of the Iraq War against the popular will of global opinion, The Hutton Inquiry into the death of a British Military scientist apparently by suicide, the gunning down of Amadou Diallo by New York Police, Debt cancellation campaigns for highly indebted poor countries, the seemingly counter pressure for good governance in such countries spear-headed by lender nations, El Nino, are these related events in anyway? Who can keep track of such events even if they were related and relevant to understanding the butterfly effect of global events?
Under the current environment of turbulence, political explanations and their solutions have become numb in the face of growing problems whether of poverty, unemployment, AIDS, Ebola, political violence, street children, urban housing standards, ethnic tensions, or the disappearance of the Black Lechwe in the Bangweulu plains of Northern Zambia. These problems stand alone in the minds of policy makers and cannot therefore be fully grasped. If government has lost capacity to deal with the disappearance of the Black Lechwe in the Bangweulu Plains of Northern Zambia, where from can it mobilize its will to deal with street children who in turn may be manifestations of poverty and HIV\AIDS? Under such initial conditions, the form that bifurcation may take becomes unpredictable. A catatonic state of political experience is often felt. Numbness in the Greek meaning of idiocy becomes a popular, even if unacknowledged experience.