A Heresy for the 21st Century

Jerusalem-William Blake
Jerusalem-William Blake

Increasingly in the Western democracies there has been a polarisation between the ‘progressive’ left and the emboldened hard right that has resulted in a decay of political discourse. As they hold diametrically opposing views regarding almost everything it seems that no compromise is possible, especially as the one aspect they have in common means each side views the other as deluded at best, if not actively in league with evil. The shared trait that can be gleaned through all the glaring differences is a general Gnostic worldview and a belief in gnosis. Reading writers with progressive views one regularly encounters the term woke and a discussion on a given persons degree of wokeness. A central tenet of Western Esotericism (one directly borrowed from Gnosticism) is to wake up to the true nature of the world, beyond the reality directly perceived by the senses. To be woke means you have been roused from sleep and become aware of the power structures that oppress the vast majority of humanity while controlling all aspects of existence on earth. Conversely the alt-right often speak of being ‘red-pilled’, a term taken from The Matrix, a film of pure gnosticism. Take the blue pill and you stay safe in an ersatz world that is little more that a hologram created by malevolent entities; take the red-pill and you see the world as the prison it really is.

To trace how the progressive left and the hard right came to the same conclusion (though with markedly conflicting proposals for solutions) we are going to have to trace the history of Gnostic thought from 2nd Century AD Alexandria via Northern Italy and Southern France in the 12th-14th Century, detouring to take in the Jewish mystics of the Iberian peninsula during Muslim rule and onto the outpourings of a solitary English genius till we reach the 20th Century when a Swiss psychologist, an American science fiction writer, a French Marxist theorist, the Godfathers of Rap and various occultists, confidence tricksters and cult leaders, amongst others, along with a spectacular discovery in the desert laid the ground for the revival of the most perennial of heresies; Gnosticism. All of which to follow shortly.

The Ultimate Spectacle

guy-debord_hurlements-21 Guy Debord-Howling for De Sade 1952[/caption]

“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?”  Raoul Vaneigem,The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967

“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 1967

In 1967 the French film-maker, writer and head theorist of the Situationist International (Moving ImagesThe Hacienda Must Be Built), Guy Debord published an influential book of Marxist critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, consisting of 221 thesis. Within its elegantly written and rigorously argued pages Debord advanced the theory of the Spectacle. The Spectacle has degraded authentic life and replaced it with mere representation, a decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The Spectacle has supplanted relationships between people with relationships between commodities and we passively identify with the Spectacle. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,”  Debord notes,  “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”  The Spectacle obliterates the past and annihilates the future so that we live in an never-ending present. In this affect-less neuter-time there has been a systematic degradation of knowledge and we are incapable of critical thought, unaware that we are living in a moment in history.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, announced that Western neo-liberalism was the final point in human evolution; it wasn’t going to get better than this and that we were living in a post-historical period: the Spectacle had won.

But of course the statement by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem quoted above holds true, and after a period when the Spectacle lacked a certain zest and an inability to hold our complete and undivided attention, the world has really turned upside down again. The true is a moment of the false. And we watch and wait with bated breath, in a rapt trance, with a horrified fascination as to what comes next. Maybe this time it will be the Ultimate Spectacle?

Moving Images

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The Situationist International was the bastard child of Dada and Surrealism. Determined to resolve the contradiction that was at the heart of those movements, namely that though they were resolutely anti-art they ended up (through the process of recuperation) being a chapter in art history, they jettisoned art altogether to concentrate on ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life‘. Oh, and Liberation Marxist theory, a lot of Liberation Marxist theory.

But as its members all started as artists in various avant-garde micro movements (the movement was formed by the coalition of the Lettrist International, an offshoot of the Lettrist movement, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, an offshoot of COBRA and the London Psychogeographical Association, I kid you not), talents had to be put to use. Guy Debord, top theoretician and de facto leader of the Situationists developed the practise of detournement (examples of detourned art above and below) which consisted of ‘turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself’. Personally I find these comic strips with their earnest Marxist dialectic speech and thought bubbles very funny, though I am not sure that is their main intention.

The Situationist International and Enrages (whom they influenced) played an important part in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. The walls were daubed with Situationist and Surrealist slogans, Luis Bunuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh comments on his shock of seeing painted everywhere ‘All power to the imagination’ and ‘It is forbidden to forbid’.

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