Tyranny, Hubris, Garbage

May 6, 2009

Earlier this month I tried, perhaps lamely, to argument that modern reason’s primary failing is not its tyrannical character but its hubris.  The more I’ve thought about it though, the more inclined I am to see these two features as intertwined.  At times modern reason is tyrannical precisely because this is the only way it can mitigate the consequences of its overreach, at other times its hubris grounds its demonic domination of its objects.  We can see both of these at play in the twentieth century’s great political failures: communism’s attempt to prove itself as a scientific fact and its subsequent inability to actually tame human thought entailed a tyrannical suppression of dissent, while in a reverse sense, fascism grounded its genocidal project on the absolute correctness of race science and the medical establishment.  Ignorance of human nature, both in its irrational and knowing aspects, and a willingness to bend that nature were the foundation on which both totalitarianisms were constructed. And that foundation, built on overreach and the ungrounded, was bound to eventually implode.

If we take seriously the notion that American democracy in its present form carries with it some vestiges of tyranny, albeit of a softer mode, then we should equally take seriously the ignorance that likely underlies that tyrannical mode.  There are things which our mode of life under Reason must obscure, and those things can take many forms. The gentle erosion of the home and place is one, global warming another.  Or if neither of these seems concrete enough, consider the Texas-sized wad of plastic now spinning in the middle of the Pacific:

It’s official: the plastic trash that our technologically advanced society produces has generated…. a new continent. It’s twice the size of Texas, and it floats in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean. As reported by the London Times, the massive trash dump consists of six million tons of plastic bags, bottles and other synthetic throwaways in various stages of degradation. This is actually only one-third of the estimated 18 million tons of plastic junk floating in the world’s oceans.

The tyranny, in this case, is levered against human life only by implication; the first target for its tyranny is the bare object of nature, an object whose exploitation covers up the fact of that exploitation, which creates entire classes and cultures, and that will ultimately circle around to challenge us again, just as communism’s choice to ignore economic realities did.

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