Friday, 5 April 2013

John Issitt tries to talk sense

First published in the Backbencher 8th March 2013


We are hard wired with the assumption that the world and the people in it can be understood.  The belief that there are causal, probably simple, underlying explanations that we can find and live our lives by, is fundamental to the human psyche. Surely the world is coherent, surely we can make sense of it, we just have to find the right keys to unlock it. The eighteenth century Enlightenment and the beliefs in science and reason that flowed from it, has structured the western mind with an ironically religious faith that world will yield to sense.

Yet we get the Holocaust, the insanity of wars, the perpetual fact of inequalities reproduced again and again by a system of market capitalism through which there is seemingly no alternative. Our aspirations, our life energies are driven towards sense and coherence, but reality confounds us at every step. And its not just the big questions and dilemmas that contradict sense. What was going on with that fashion for young men to wear their trousers so the gusset was round their knees? Why is Boris Johnson the Mayor of London? I haven’t found anybody who can make sense of these delirious features of the human condition.

Many of the confusions here are due to slippery semantics which serve to put us off the track. Smokescreen delusions comfort us with the implication that actually there really is a sense – we just haven’t found it yet. For example there is what analysts might call a ‘category slippage’ in the movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’. Was the decision to drop the atom bomb ‘being sensible’ Yes at one level – it saved lives in the long run but it was hardly sensible if you were underneath it. Did it make sense? Yes at one level but no at another. But it is in that movement – that ideological and rhetorically fuzzy movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’ that humans are lead from a strictly cerebral demand for understanding to the world of action. The problems have beguiled us over the centuries and leave us floundering and struggling with the dilemma. In the Hindu religious tract the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna is on the battlefield. Should he act to take arms against his brothers? He acts but not through the determinations of sense.

Looked at closely it is very often difficult to discern sense either in the world or in the actions of people. Consider the current UK weather patterns – arctic conditions at Easter? The spring buds on the trees that were just appearing 10 days ago are in a state of utter confusion – should they grow? No but their DNA driven reproductive cycle is telling them they must. Consider the panic over the euro and the problems in Cyprus. What sense will all those be-suited bankers, politicians and publics make of that? You will find a localized kind of sense – a sense made by particular people and particular conditions but German, Brussels, Russian and Cypriot ‘sense’ is starkly, and in that case ominously, different. At least it won’t be any sort of universal sense that sorts out a solution – it will only be raw power and self preservation that will do that and the end result will not make much sense if its not you being preserved.

Yet the assumption that somebody or something will be able to make sense of it all is written in the sub strata of our being. Surely we are merely temporarily confused? What are the candidates for a source of sense? God? Well I leave that to you. A super computer? Possibly but I doubt that the multiple processing of zeros and ones will do the trick. The progress of science? Doesn’t look likely given the current state of physics. Aliens? Err.

What about taking a different approach and accepting that we just don’t know -accept that we cannot make sense of it? One of the insights of the normality confounding philosopher Jean Baudrillard, was that that there is nothing more profound than the absence of sense.

Food for thought?


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