On the Coming Order

EPIGRAM | February 19, 2010     

epigramLooking for the new century’s Copernicus

The throw of fiction these days is decidedly dystopian. Novels and movies are chock-a-block with images of the Ends of Times, wherein humans scurry about in shadows, while machines run amok, or the Earth heats up or cools down with catastrophic suddenness, or the undead rage in the streets for healthy blood. The future is a Mad Max movie on hyper-drive, and the stupid and brutal shall rule. The dramatic premise of these movies involves a cataclysmic upending of orderly life on Earth – life as we know it – not unlike what has happened in Haiti: it took three days for the looting and lynching to begin after the shock of the earthquake and the breakdown of civil society in Port-au-Prince. Three days is about all we have when things really go south, the smell of dead humans fills the air, water and electricity cease to flow, and the roads are clogged with debris. But there are already places in the world where life as we know it doesn’t exist. It seems like only yesterday that we declared the End of History, and proclaimed a belief in the late arrival of a liberal-democratic utopian world hegemony.

But now we speak guardedly of the Somalia Syndrome and failed states – a phrase that connotes a meltdown of the body politic and community infrastructure, the rise of warlords, young stoned men with RPGs driving around in technicals, and pirates who insouciantly defy the world’s navies. Peak Oil and Global Warming, though hotly debated, are code phrases for the eschatological brick wall toward which free market capitalism is hurtling at warp speed. The Great Recession, just behind us (maybe), burned up trillions of dollars in an instant, suggesting that perhaps our faith in the quasi-divine orderliness of the market might be misplaced. (Atomic bombs and computerized financial markets share a capacity to do very bad things really quickly.) With pornographic dread, we read the economic data and climate reports for deadlines and tipping points; it is no wonder that we dream celluloid dreams of the Ends of Times.

But one can’t escape that suspicion that our present oracles of Apocalypse sound precipitate, impetuously rushing to embrace the dictates of Fate, the revenge of Nature, the end of greed and excess. They bespeak a vast reservoir of bourgeois guilt or Schadenfreude (I may be going down, but so are the rest of you), and a media-driven pop-cultural eagerness to acquiesce to an unexamined metaphysics: what is, must be. But history is not Fate. History is the narrative of the human struggle to subdue Nature and survive. The lesson of history is that what is can be changed. And so, though it is less entertaining to enumerate success than fantasize Doomsday scenarios, consider Europe. In tandem with the creep of failed states (but in the opposite direction), the EU has expanded from six countries in 1957 to 27 today, with more on the welcome mat awaiting entry, and Turkey hovering, the perennial bridesmaid. For hundreds of years, armies marched up and down Europe, but now it is tempting to view the EU as a model for mature expansion, inclusiveness and the practice of responsible cooperation to produce a general rise in ease of life, education and prosperity. A little dull, perhaps (try to imagine a blockbuster movie about butter subsidies) – except for the spanking of Serbia – but orderly. Consider, as well, China, a vast rural backwardness wrenched willy-nilly into the modern capitalist era in about four decades – millions of people shifted off the land into instant mega-cities without too many of them actually dying in the process; population growth not belting ahead as it once was; education a priority; an economy unscathed (mostly) by the recession. Consider, too, the International Criminal Court and the G20 and the Internet, with the latter’s capacity to store and access unfathomable amounts of information and share it among networked human minds around the globe. Science routinely thinks in magnitudes of largeness and smallness undreamed by Galileo.

All around, there are potent synergies – unexpected, little understood, countering the entropic tendency. Confusion, Henry Miller once said, is only an order we haven’t recognized. Prognostication on the fly is always tricky. The dystopian fancies of fiction tell not the future. Rather, they speak to us about the past, our violent history, our million-year struggle to emerge from nature. With any luck, we are on the cusp of a new Copernican revolution of thought, difficult even to enunciate because we can only speak about it in the old way.

bioline


Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

(Photo: Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473 - 1543)

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