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<nettime> the time of the preacher
Sean Cubitt on Wed, 31 Oct 2001 00:44:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> the time of the preacher

Geert suggested I post to nettime some notes I did for the Australan list
fibreculture, but I had this song buzzing in my head, and I wanted to take
an hour to think it through again, otherwise and elsewhere


it was the time of the preacher, in the year of 01
and the praying is over, and the killing's begun
(Willie Nelson)

Enough of Eurocentric  anti-Eurocentrism. If there is to be a dialogue
between cultures, those of us born to the enlightenment rationalism of
European modernity have to be able to share another premise, that the
revealed word of God redeems, and does so with terrible vengeance on the
Great Sheitan.

Is it possible to think this way without irony or reservation? For every
thousand students who work their way through selected extracts of Said on
Orientalism, one reads the Koran, one enquires into contemporary Islam, one
engages a Muslim classmate in discussion about his or her religious

The pretense of liberalism rests on maintaining difference through a double
disavowal: the  'I know but . . . ' of neo-racism (Balibar's term for
racism built on cultural rather than genetic difference) masks a further
insult: 'I don't know but all the same . . . '. Though Bush is the ugly
archetype, the millionaire's boy who refuses to dialogue, the liberal West
is the same -- unwilling to do the work necessary to understand Islam,
fundamentalism, the power of revelation and the ethics of Shariah. Behind
this yet another sanctimony: 'I do not care to know' about my own culture.
It is now once again unkind, threatening, joyless to suggest that women are
at least as humiliated by fashion in the West as by the chador; or to note
that exclusion from education is enacted on the grounds of race in the West
as actively (but less honestly and explicitly) as it is on grounds of
gender elsewhere.

There exist a minority who suffer from glandular disorders. There are far
more who are obese from over-consumption and lack of exercise. There exist
a minority who for one reason or another have impaired intellectual
faculties. There are far, far more who are wilfully ignorant, because they
could not be bothered to learn. The vast majority of ignorance is
self-inflicted and to that extent scarcely forgiveable. You can only blame
the media so much, just as you can blame the food industry so far and no
further. After a certain point, you have every opportunity to eat better,
cheaper and faster. Beyond a slothful habit, there is no reason to read the
tabloid press or watch the tabloid TV news. Bin all the saccharine novels
about lousy love affairs in failing record shops: it is time to read Robert
Fisk's Pity the Nation.

Peace has an image problem. It's like Talking Heads said about heaven,
where the band plays my favourite song over and over and over again. That
isn't peace: that's FM radio.

Peace will not be easy. It takes an intense effort to understand your own
culture (and most of us misunderstand it in some degree, but then the
misunderstanding, if attempted with enough effort, is the culture).
Understanding another demands more even than that, and the costs of
misunderstanding can be high. Not, however, as high as the cost of refusing
to understand, the effortless acceptance of ignorance, the wilful failure
to even attempt to listen, the dumb and dumber aplication of cowboy
rhetoric a hundred years after Willie Nelson's 'year of oh-one'. Those who
recall the BBC's Troy Kennedy Martin scripted series Edge of darkness --
the last time British TV dared a really political script -- will remember
that the song's preacher was a gun.

There is a theological argument that all peace and all understanding
derives from God. It is not too far from the surface of much Western
philosophy and a great deal of Western popular culture. Without the grounds
of a divinely guaranteed truth, the argument runs, there can be no basis
for dialogue. We only have God's word for it, but it is the word of God.
Kant's premise of a world existing in and for itself beyond human discourse
is a secular variation of the same theme and underpins scientific
rationality. Western science has rarely strayed too far from its drive, in
Hawkings' phrase, to understand the mind of God.

The problem here is that we tend to ascribe to God the attributes of a
human mind: The God my God is a jealous God, the vengeance of the Lord, the
wrath of God. That is understandable, at least. What is less comprehensible
is the belief that human intellect is capable of interpreting the word of
the Lord better than She can do Herself. The problem is not the revealed
word so much as the self-annointed translator. Tradutore tradditore. God,
as the Spanish proverb has it, writes straight with crooked lines. That
unfathomable wisdom is fathomed too often.

Thesis One: certainty is the enemy of peace

I do not mean Cartesian systematic doubt, grounds of the Western scientific
tradition. Descartes erected enough certainty to allow himself to exist.
The criticisms are familiar: what is this 'I' that thinks; what is this
that we call 'thinking'; is it a proof of existence or of some other thing
or process? And where do all these things occur, and when? The answer to
the latter question is 'here and now', of course. That is the precise and
exact problem. Western culture, as pretty much everyone who has been awake
for the last fifty years has spotted, is shrinking in space and time. This
too is a theological drift. God's existence underpins Being (secularists
can reorder the words to get a definition of the godhead). Unchanging and
self-present, it cuts across the shifting, changing mortal world,
Benjamin's messianic time. This is the time occupied by the planes slicing
into the Twin Towers under that impossible tungsten sky. This is why the
images look so much like Hollywood movies: the act of 'terror' is only the
obverse of the sublime event, and both exist to evacuate the present of
anything but the assured presence of God or, in the USA, of Evil.  The
absolute is not communicable. It lies beyond history.

Thesis two: the sublime is the enemy of peace

And the obverse, again: peace is the enemy of the sublime, as it is of
certainty. Peace is unstill. It is unstill because it does not exist, or
more specifically because it does not yet exist, even though the necessary
qualities exist in the world for it to come to being. There is enough
wealth to go round. It has simply been hoarded. We have -- right here in
front of us -- the wherewithal to speak nation unto nation. Only our most
subtle and passionate modes of communication have been usurped by those
beloved of the powerful -- weapons -- and the wealthy -- cash. Guns and
money (and lawyers) speak. They are, of course, all three incapable of
hearing. Very stupid media. Talk about dumb terminals. And yet we let these
sons of millionaires determine the modes of communication available to us.
What else then? Making. Shared materials and shared work on them is the
last best hope. The vast geography of pan-terran art made of the energy and
patterns at our fingertips, among many other modes. Work today is no longer
the mastery of materials. It is surrender to their difference. As we
increasingly recognise in daily dealings with digital media, the
mediasphere and the technosphere are inseparable. We are learning to
dialogue with these machines. All other media increasingly appear to us as
partners rather than slaves, an ecological alertness. Nothing more peaceful
than tinkering with the code, the patterns of energy, the clay, letting it
shape our hands and eyes to conform with it in a mutual loss of certainty,
and mutual appreciation of the time and the effort of making. The sculptor
does not overcome, the architect does not master, the webweaver does not
overthrow the freedom of their materials. Victory over materials is defeat.

Thesis three: peace is the surrender to difference

 . . .  and he cried like a baby, and he screamed like a panther in the
middle of the night
and he saddled his pony, and he went for a ride . . .
(Willie Nelson)

(((To Ephemeral Peace, a different take on similar themes, was posted on
http://lists.myspinach.org/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/fibreculture. A formal
version is coming out early next year in the International Journal of
Cultural Studies, vol 5 n 1. The surrender to difference is developed
there. )))

Sean Cubitt
Screen and Media Studies
Akoranga Whakaata Pürongo
The University of Waikato
Private Bag 3105
New Zealand
T (direct) +64 (0)7 856 2889 extension 8604
T/F (department) +64 (0)7 838 4543
seanc {AT} waikato.ac.nz

Digital Aesthetics
The Dundee Seminars

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