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  • Writer's pictureJ. W. Barlament

The Mistake That Is History

I know I’m not the only one who feels like the overload of information available to us now, especially when it comes to our own history, is more a detriment than anything in the way most of us interact with it. Our collective knowledge feels no longer like a lived-in cultural memory bank. It feels like a static, hollow, chaotic, and non-specific thing, alien to all of ourselves and inspiring to only a dwindling few. Our knowledge is so vast, and its access so easy, that it loses the same quality we’d lose if we were all to become immortal; that is, being treasured for finiteness. It is everywhere, all of the time; why bother with it now?

The non-specificity (or really, the hopelessly neutral) nature of modern record-keeping is ironic in that it arose as a direct result of the violent conquest of the rest of the world by a militantly homogenizing political force in the European colonial empires. But it also, as philosophical revolution over intellectual overturning has found out, doesn’t work; it can never be truly neutral, and its end, being infinite data collection, takes us nowhere. And so, for the first time in history, really, most people in the world are living their lives under systems — governments, social orders, religious, ideologies and the like — that they feel they have absolutely zero faith, stake, alignment, or tradition with.

Well, we are alienated from everything, yeah, and no shit knowledge, data, history, and institutions are no different. And yet it goes deeper than that. Because what the European conquests did for most of the rest of the world, and what the feudal system or Christianity or Rome or whatever else you want to blame beforehand did for Europe, was not only force this bad relationship with history and society that results in bland hot takes about political events but also to completely delete all records of, record keepers of, or record keeping methods of, Indigenous histories.

Within just a few hundred years, at least 3 of 7 continents were completely pillaged and traditional knowledge was systematically replaced with what was all propaganda in the end. So that, now, we live in the unprecedented historical circumstance of most people not believing any, in any sort of way, of their own cultural narratives anymore, and of those people having nowhere new to turn to. Western culture — its militaries, certainly, its philosophies, its histories, its stories, its myths, its essence — pathologically conquered all the mystery, guesswork, wonder and humility out of the world in an effort largely to inflate individual egos.

Okay, and we know that individualism and imperialism go hand in hand. But is this really due to a fault in the spirits or the psyches of the individualists, though, or was the utterly self-destructive track the world is on today just a result of historical inevitability? Is anybody other than time really to blame? Could this ever have been avoided? Or was this the way things were always going to be?

Well, personally, I think it’s a personal fault of the dominant culture; a global pathology caused by the intellectual stunting done by the dominance of Plato in antiquity, the stunting of thought in the European Middle Ages by Aristotleans, and their more vague but no less felt presence ever since. And so the particularly vicious brand of Western culture which is American capitalism which rules the day today, too, no less, at least, and probably scarily more, simply cannot allow for the continuous creation of culture under its watch. It vampirizes, genocides, and profits off culture; it does not create it. Naturally, then, it seems to be going stale. And this process of going stale which has gripped global society so tightly is, when the house of cards collapses, going to ultimately be just as much a culprit as CO2 and sea levels.

I don’t think it’s all really the fault of what can be called an inevitable Industrial Revolution, or even capitalism either, necessarily, that everything seems to suck. The argument can be and has been made perfectly justly for both, but what perhaps explains best our collective inability to do anything about the problems these things have called can also largely be said to be the result of the influence of Socratic philosophy. So that, yes, I am, in fact, arguing that Socrates, or maybe rather Plato, is the culprit for a large swath of today’s most pervasive pathologies, because they fundamentally handicapped their successors — their successors being just about everyone in the Western “philosophical canon”, if we want to call that a thing — by separating logical investigation of the world from we can call, in the broadest sense, devotional world-wonder.

That isn’t to say “religion”, really, because I think from what fragments we have of the Pre-Socratics, such as the Eleatic, Ephesian, Milesian and Pythagorean Schools, what we see is more or less always a metaphysics of how the earth and the universe work, a cosmogony of how the world began and what it’s fundamentally made of, some other additional theories of the workings of physical phenomena, and an instruction to treat the bases and the ends of existence with reverence and live in harmony with what is natural and right, and all through a frustrating but immortalizing veil of poetry.

Socrates, in his method of investigation, changed that, essentially by rationalizing away any and all poetic interpretations more in line with the intents of his predecessors. The Socratic method, in its aim of essentializing everything discussed within its framework to its most irrefutably true bits, which necessarily and intentionally leaves no room up for vague statements which accept mystery and the fundamentally unknowable nature of the world. Whether the success of Socrates’, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s philosophies can be attributed to their superior qualities or their historical fortune can be debated (it’s the later), but what cannot is that, though perhaps in fields of formal logic their central method does well, as a stupendously dominant force essentially defining most people’s idea of what Western culture means, it shows its faults.

How, exactly? By, I’d charge, reducing the accessibility and severing the tradition of open world-wonder to the extent that it has completely reframed the perspective of most people around the world to seeing things as a dialectic between them, the individual, and everything else, as a collective, which has endless times over proved itself a pathology when applied beyond abstract philosophy into practical action.

Now, it has to be addressed that traditional methods of history-keeping put priority on the teaching of culturally significant stories, moral tales, and important ancestors’ biographies, and they twisted facts and poetically interpreted details as opposed to working toward a comprehensive view of history as we do now. But this was because their perspectives on themselves were aimed at promoting their inherited way of right action, and our priorities are pathologies, anyway, rooted in the insecurity of a supremely individualistic world.

So, sure, storytellers around the world used to stretch the truth all the time. However, that was in service of creating stronger narratives for their communities to use as inspiration and give people a sense of security in knowing that their descendants would remember them favorably so long as they did what was right, whilst we today spend our entire lives fighting for scraps of temporary recognition in a world both unnaturally interconnected and ruthlessly competitive.

And is our modern derision of traditional interpretive record keeping even defensible in the first place? I’m sure it wasn’t long after humans learned how to talk that they learned how to lie. Hell, maybe the latter even predated the former and the invention of language only opened up a new front of fronting. We all have our own anecdotes about parents or grandparents making stuff up about themselves to look better to their progeny, and we all kind of collectively shrug our shoulders because we know that, for the most part, it’s a harmless image-fixing that’s been going on since the dawn of time. And we’re right to do so, too, no matter how much it irks the sensibilities of the Information Age.

Because how else do you get culture but by stretching the truth a little about the things that happened in the past? How else do all of our most revered stories about old heroes, gods, monsters and the like come about — and even more whimsical and beautiful of us as humans, how do people actually get into believing in these beings and erecting great monuments, into writing civilization-defining works of literature centered around their exploits and beginning elaborate rituals and extensive festivals to venerate them? We have to stretch the truth about ourselves a little to stay sane.

I do think that the modern obsession with recording absolutely everything has done us some good, as even though it emerged along with modernity, it at least tried at the tail end to record what histories modernity was quickly wiping into oblivion. And I don’t think excess access has really ever been a problem until recently, really, when everyone is an avid recorder of everything and our problem goes from not having enough information to having so much that we don’t know what to do with it. We clearly haven’t benefited, mentally or physical, by any stretch of the imagination. Mental health crises like never seen before and microplastics in newborn babies? Still think your smart refrigerator and your smart retro radio toasters are worth it?

These are scary times to be alive. The world is in a free-for-all. Because everything is possible, everything is happening, and anyone can know about any of it, anytime, anything goes. Because everything is up to you, if anyone is there to help, it’s only because you got lucky, and if you don’t get lucky, you’ll have to scream and claw at the void so long and so hard that someone notices and something comes of it. Is it really such an entitled thing to lament?

The point of a story is not always in its truth, but often in its ability to bring people together in communities of shared values, and knowledge, like happiness, is only real when shared. The problem, when everything is always shared, whether we want it to be or not, is that everything becomes data when nothing is left aside to be made by trusted hands into a story.

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