An Experiment with Timings

Prolegomena to Any Future Manifesto

Prolegomena (nicoroc) If dramatic change requires a brazen statement as its motivation, how can any movement avoid falling into dogmatic excess?

An arcane title such as this is off-putting; it reduces the chances of anyone deciding to look into it further. Yet on this occasion, I have nothing to gain by pulling in those nomads of the internet who click mindlessly through to 'fifty things you didn't know about whatever' or 'such-and-such is dead' or any of the other rhetorical traps I have set as honeypots to drive attention towards my own thoughts. Driving attention has become part of the problem: we have consented to be distracted, to be entertained. And part of my problem is that I do not think this is wrong so much as I think it is out of hand, and I do not yet know what a reasonable response would look like. I doubt anyone does.

The title is not, however, constructed at random: it is a very precise reference to our situation, combining as it does an archaic term used in Kant's précis of his Critique of Pure Reason – the very architecture of the 'modern' mythos, as Latour and others attest – and Alain Badiou's use of 'manifesto' in his short books that summarise his major works. I recently finished Badiou's Second Manifesto for Philosophy, and it has left me wondering more than anything: can I even conceive of a manifesto? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I couldn't commit to a manifesto that had me as its author. The thought of getting my point of view across succinctly appeals; casting down anything authoritative, well, you can understand my hesitation!

The problem with manifestos, movements, and indeed with taking action in general, is that which Hannah Arendt beautifully appreciated: you can never be sure, when you commit to a course of action, what the outcome will ultimately be. Look at that other famous Marx, and his Communist Manifesto: setting off for laudable ideals of equality released the most horrific violence our planet has ever witnessed. The worst, that is, unless we count those extinctions that have left such a permanent mark upon our planet that even sober scientists deign to call them 'events'. We are going through one right now. If I were to commit to action at this time, would it not have to be towards a direction that minimized the eventual loss of life and diversity our catastrophic mishandling of the Enlightenment has unleashed?

Yet at the same time, my 'platform' (as they say in media circles) is in games – and increasingly invested within the aesthetics of play at that! There are many more people willing to talk to me in this context than any other, and here we are back at the problem of distraction: games have succeeded beyond anyone's dreams as a commercial medium, but they are still marginal as an art form. Do I feel – can I allow myself the luxury of feeling – that a movement in art is worthy of a manifesto at this time? And even if it was, would I be the one to pursue it? Here, I seem better suited to a role as intellectual cheerleader, which perhaps is more helpful than it might first appear.

Where then, to manifest a manifesto? I should look to my influences for guidance, and my first port of call (historically, at least) must be Kant. His original 1781 critique, and the 1783 Prolegemena to Any Future Metaphysics that summarized it, set up the presumed requirements for any scientific metaphysics (or mythology, if you will) and this approach eventually dominated thought, even until now. It spread, via the sciences, to every nation plausibly reading this. Kant had the most honourable reasons for establishing this perspective, but he could not have anticipated its consequences, as Arendt warned in more general terms. Nonetheless, his split into subjective and objective has led us into making measurement the foundation of reality, and creating an era that, as Einstein warned, perfects its means while muddling its ends.

The comforting idea of severing circumstances from general patterns that Kant skillfully reasoned has gone on to become the core principle of our age – the wellspring of the asserted authority of the sciences. Someone willing to speak in that name is always available as a portable expert, provided research funds are available. But this a sad substitute for democracy, let alone some equal form of governance, were something like that to prove both possible and desirable. We have mangled what is valuable in both politics and the sciences, and this part of our mythology needs substantial re-writing if we have any hope of living together for any significant further length of time.

But what, we must ask, could replace faith in the order of nature, that unacknowledged premise of contemporary 'rationality' quietly critiqued by Alfred North Whitehead at the dawn of the twentieth century? Human experience is not to be trusted, after all, we are tainted with dreaded subjectivity (so the story goes). Mind you, this neglects to mention that we must already have elevated measurement to our sacred value before this could possibly become our credo. As Nietzsche warned, it is the strongest faith we have, far beyond that professed within any religious tradition. Doubt in God, why of course – only a fool had never entertained the scepticism of the masses, even if only briefly. But doubt in the sciences, surely not, since they alone reveals reality – provided we constrain that contested phrase to measurement alone.

No, I cannot write a manifesto because I still lack faith: I cannot match the faith of the rational worshippers of technological saviours; or the servants of blood who can tell who belongs to a nation or who is unquestionably foreign; or the idolaters who place books or rules ahead of the God they claim to serve. But I can no longer rest content with furiously criticising them either. They are all my sisters and brothers, and I love them. But I cannot simply let them destroy all our cousins, those other animals neither cursed nor blessed with the 'divine madness' of mathematics, let alone our own wonderful, miserable kind.

I have to act somehow. But – for now, at least – it must be without a manifesto to guide me. Such a thing could too easily become objective – or worse, an objective! – and thus irretrievably static. What I need is isn't a manifesto, but a practice, a good practice like that found at the heart of impressionist painting, Islam, radio astronomy, tantric yoga, differential calculus - or myriad other things, many of which I haven't even heard of.

And I have one, I suppose – I still have this much faith, at least – one I call virtuous discourse, or the Republic of Bloggers, or letter writing. It is communicating with intelligence and civility, sometimes across metaphysical gulfs so vast it might seem as if we could never understand one another. Yet, nonetheless we do, at least when we make the effort to try. Many worlds trying to live as one, and many voices sharing in this very-old, very-new practice. Together, perhaps there are things we can do that we could not even conceive of alone. At the very least, it is worth the attempt. Any manifesto I might be unfortunate enough to author would have to be built first and foremost upon that.

The opening image is from the album cover for Prolegomena by nicoroc, which is available for free download on Bandcamp. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.


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Dear Chris Bateman,

I am writing in response to your blog post "Prolegomena to Any Future Manifesto".

What you write resonates with me as I used to be actively involved in electoral politics and had my hand in the formation of a provincial political party. Your post captures the human tension found in all modern organized entities, regardless of sector, human intention is captured in the trio of Principles, Policy, and Practice.

I know this trio through my professional line of work in health care where I help families navigate through a complicated, limited system while trying to address an ever-increasing need. My colleagues and I struggle with the interpretation of Policy, how it is resolved through our Practice, and all under the public scrutiny of the Principles set out by our political and executive masters.

A manifesto's nature is to set out Principles, which become a movement's rallying point. Principles, like an artist's broad paint strokes on a canvas, can capture high-level notions of democracy, free markets, and public healthcare. Meanwhile the Policy level becomes the "devil is in details" that is meant to inform us how to live, essentially being the laws of the land. These laws are forever open to the subjective interpretation of a society's Practice. This subjectivity is inescapable, dangerous, and is our burden.

Subjectivity and Practice share a critical quality, being they are the default lens that we all must work from! I have witnessed good Policy being ignored by bad Practice and inversely bad Policy being ignored by good Practice. By my logic, it is with people and their Practice where the proverbial rubber hits the road.

Which brings me to your main point that you do not wish to establish a manifesto or set of Principles, but a Practice. It appears that you want to just do and to see where it takes you. A mind open to possibilities. I approve, but do believe that all Practice is informed by Principles whether they are intentionally established or are instinctual. My question to you is: What Principles inform your Practice of Virtuous Discourse?

Even with a commitment to Practice, we can expect mischief as the Trickster is built into our very fiber. The desire to solidify said Practice into a rallying manifesto will likely creep back. I should know since the political animal that is part of me craves this. But I will at present tame my political animal by retrenching our Republic of Bloggers to become a Band of Bloggers. A Band whose loose, flat hierarchy will carry on the business of blogging ideas through the practice of virtuous discourse. Such a plan is good enough.


Chris Billows

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