Splinters: November – short essays on the here & now

This month: Beyond Descartes... The Devils Work (in 3 parts) ... Spectres... The unravelling of the Reithian BBC

Splinters collective
1 November 2019
Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

Celestial spheres
Geocentric celestial spheres, Cosmographia. (Antwerp, 1539). | Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Beyond Descartes

by Christos Tombras

“You know what was most fascinating about Galileo?”, said G. the other day. We were discussing the beginnings of modern science. I looked up. “He had all the necessary observational data, all the evidence”, G. said, “and yet he still insisted that planets move in perfect circles. As if it was a question of faith. Galileo couldn’t get over Aristotle’s celestial spheres. Kepler, on the other hand, did not have such a problem. He saw clearly that planetary orbits are elliptical.”

Faith played quite an important role in the thinking of those early pioneers of modern science. Take Descartes, for example. He was a philosopher, a mathematician and a free spirit. He was also a very pious man who couldn’t come to terms with the various, sometimes arbitrary, theological dogmas that he was expected to accept. He needed certainty.

In order to reach it, Descartes decided to start from absolute doubt. How can I know about truth, he wondered, if dogmatic texts depend on interpretation, and if my senses can be deceived by a malevolent deity? Doubt allowed him to reach solid ground: Even if I can never be certain, he reasoned, even if I doubt about everything, at least I can be certain that it is I who does the doubting. Even in my doubts, I am (here). Cogito ergo sum.

In Descartes’s philosophical system, the world comprises two very distinct domains. One is the domain of “real” or material entities, which can be measured along some dimension of their properties. He described them as “extended”: res extensae. The other was the domain of immaterial or spiritual entities, that can “think” : res cogitantes. Descartes’s dualistic worldview was the result of his attempt to reconcile faith with scientific rationality. The spiritual world is beyond the remit of science. Science can only focus on the material, or “real”, world, and mathematics has something to say here. Accordingly Descartes devised a tool to accurately define and measure distances in three-dimensional space – bringing together the ancient world of geometry with the Arab world of algebra. Singlehandedly, he inaugurated the era of modern science.

Descartes’s new scientific worldview was codified by Galileo into three simple assumptions: (a) The world is uniform, with no difference between the Heavens and the Earth; (b) change is a process and not the result of a disruption or of some attempt to reach perfection; and (c) processes of change are governed by laws that can be written down as mathematical formulas.

We can think of these assumptions as Galileo’s guiding principles or axioms, or, indeed, as his metaphysical assumptions. They still remain central to our understanding, today, of scientific method as the rational study of a knowable and quantifiable world. For example, even when we consider the enigmas at the frontiers of “hard” scientific research – such as the big bang, or dark matter, or the non-locality of quantum entanglement – we invariably see that it all boils down to formulating, clarifying and co-ordinating the requirements, restrictions and results of sundry highly abstract mathematical formulations, thought of as reflecting some aspect of reality.

This might be less the case when it comes to interpretative sciences, such as sociology, or history; but the guiding assumptions of “borderline” sciences such as psychiatry or clinical psychology are no different. I choose the term “borderline” (pun intended) in order to emphasise their unclarified nature. Are the phenomena studied by psychiatry or clinical psychology quantifiable or non-quantifiable? Would Descartes think of them as “real” or not?

Take, for example, a process such as the reuptake of a neurotransmitter, say serotonin, across brain synapses. This is indeed a quantifiable phenomenon. It is thought to be related to depression. What about depression itself? Is depression quantifiable? No, it is not. At least not in the same way. Depression is not a “thing”. It is not a res extensa. We can only measure it indirectly, say with questionnaires. And we can influence it – or rather we can influence these indirect measurements – by selectively inhibiting the reuptake of, say, serotonin. (Incidentally this is what SSRIs do.)

You see the trap? We wanted to study depression, but because depression is not directly quantifiable, we end up studying reuptake of neurotransmitters. And while the two indeed seem to be not unrelated, we fail to remember that we are still using an approximation, and a very crude one at that.

The belief in the mathematical description of the knowable world helped bring about the era of modern science. What we need now is to see that our tools of quantification fail to properly describe at least some of the phenomena. We need a new scientific revolution, one that would reach beyond our quasi-religious faith in Descartes’ dualism. Just as Galileo needed to reach beyond his faith in Aristotle’s perfect circles.


by Leonie Rushforth

“And it’s as good as if it never happened,” which comes from Goethe at a crucial passage in Faust, is uttered by the devil in order to reveal his innermost principle, the destruction of memory.
The Meaning of Working Through The Past: Adorno (1959)


Leonie's beach

Last summer at least one beachful of bathers in the south of France was invited to take part as audience in a piece of theatre: 4 soldiers in full combat gear and armed with sub-machine guns standing on a small rise behind the beach maybe 100m away from the nearest holiday maker. They stayed, silhouetted against the bright blue sky like statues, for 10-15 minutes and then sank away behind the rise and it was as if they had never been there.

During those 15 minutes people turned to have a look at what others had caught sight of accidentally and had paused to take in; some turned more than once but no one looked for very long. No one stood up. No one took photographs. Everyone bore witness briefly to the staging of the French state protecting its citizens from terrorist attack.

People didn’t exchange comments or even looks, keeping themselves and their relation to the spectacle to themselves. Before the guns appeared, the beach had had an informal sense of a shared space about it but for a while that civil arrangement dimmed as each person separately made of this protection what they would or could. Some will have felt safer perhaps; others will have felt considerably less safe. All will have understood at some level that if they were not to feel like a potential target, others must.

Armed soldiers patrolling the beaches in France is not new. People adjusted to seeing the army there and on the streets during the 2-year state of emergency that followed the 2015 Paris attacks – and when that came to an end the Vigipirate patrols simply carried on. Civilian permission had been secured.

But what form of consent was this? What has been imposed and what has been taken away? It’s almost impossible to register a successful theft. In small increments, everyone forgets what it was like not to see men with guns looking through them or how to understand their various forms of discomfort. There is just another peculiar gap, an amnesia, and the devil’s work is done.

The soldiers on patrol look through the people they pass as if they’re looking for something that exists alongside us in a different dimension, a look we know from the faces of serious men with enhanced powers in science fiction and horror films – special people trained to recognize evil and on whom our continued existence depends. The main thing is not to get in the way of them getting on with it and we don’t.

By the time and by whatever means we recall and name the wrong done to us, we risk finding the counters for reporting wrongs have already been closed.

When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain

Like one who brings an important letter to the counter after office
hours: the counter is already closed.
Like one who seeks to warn the city of an impending flood, but speaks
another language. They do not understand him.
Like a beggar who knocks for the fifth time at a door where he has four
times been given something: the fifth time he is hungry.
Like one whose blood flows from a wound and who awaits the doctor:
his blood goes on flowing.
So do we come forward and report that evil has been done us.

The first time it was reported that our friends were butchered there was a cry
of horror.
Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was
no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread.

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become
endurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Bertolt Brecht, c 1935 trans. John Willett



by Samir Gandesha

Rather than witnessing the return of fascism, as many have suggested, what we see today is the spectre or, better, “spectres of fascism” in the plural. The word “spectre” suggests the figure of the phantom, both as Geist (spirit) and Gespenst (ghost) that in turn suggests the uncanny (das Unheimliche) or the unhomely, which as Freud reminds us is itself in part signified by the word homely (das Heimliche). It is tempting to say that it is this ghost of fascism that is quickly becoming the spirit of our times.

We speak of spectres because it is not simply in the original domicile of fascism, which is to say Europe, that fascism is returning to public life, but rather it has become a truly global phenomenon, in India, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and the Philippines.

For Freud, the uncanny is strangely familiar because it suggests that which having undergone repression, returns later as something discordantly strange. In fascism Europe (and North America) confronts its own strangely familiar colonial image. If twenty-first century fascism is uncanny in transcending the seemingly original birthplace of fascism, that location was itself unhomely, insofar as its real origins were also located elsewhere, namely in Europe’s African colonies; the original laboratories for Italian and German forms of fascism.

Building on Hannah Arendt’s Luxemburgian analysis of the connection between imperialism and Nazism, and Foucault’s understanding of bio-power, Enzo Traverso has argued that fascism represented the application of colonial techniques of violence hitherto applied with little comment to European colonies, now to Europe itself.

* * *

This deep connection between imperialism and fascism was already recognized in 1950 by Aimé Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism in which he condemns the hypocrisy of certain self-righteous forms of European anti-fascism:

" …before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it has been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack."

Fascism entails, then, a social, psychological and political condition in which previous, historical traumas – not just psychological or institutional but also deeply social – were not worked through or, if they were, then only in a partial and one-sided way. “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing,” as T. W. Adorno put it in a key lecture in post-war Bundesrepublik, “than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”

Fascism haunts us still because liberal-democracy was and remains constitutionally unable to address the fundamental contradiction bequeathed to it by the bourgeois revolution in which it was born. This is the basic contradiction between a democratic polity and a liberal economy, constituting the subject as inherently divided between universal citoyen, on the one hand, and particularistic homo economicus, on the other. Fascism would always continue to figure as a ghostly presence within this order, occasionally taking material form.

We might, then, suggest that the roots of fascism lie in the serial failure of the proletariat to complete the bourgeois revolution, the most important episode of which, after the Haitian Revolution (1791-1805) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, was the debacle of 1848. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” as Marx put it.

The failed Revolution of 1848 was an especially consequential moment for Europe, particularly the German principalities, as this was the precise moment at which nationalism veered from its republican course in an increasingly authoritarian direction as personified in the particular trajectories of such former veterans of the barricades in the Vormärz period as Richard Wagner and Bruno Bauer. The end of this cycle of revolutionary activity in France at this time produced the Bonapartism that would in many ways anticipate twentieth century fascism. Indeed, it came to be seen as a transitional way-station between parliamentarism and fascism.

Other failures, no doubt brought about by capital’s not inconsiderable political and military efforts, were the dissolution of the Paris Commune in 1871, the ossification of the Russian Revolution with the death of Lenin, if not earlier with the crushing of Kronstadt, and the aforementioned destruction of the Bavarian Council Republic in 1918. One could add to this list the revolutionary moment of 1968, the main battles of which were fought out in the Global South. This in part would help explain the global dimensions of the authoritarian resurgence there today.

This text is drawn from the Introduction to the author's forthcoming Spectres of Fascism (Pluto).

The unravelling of the Reithian BBC, Part 1

by Rosemary Bechler

I have been twice reminded recently of a remark I made en passant in 2018, while placing Brexit in the context of rising new nationalisms in Europe and beyond. I was commenting on the fragility of two very British icons, the BBC and the NHS:

“ There is no accident that the NHS shares with the BBC, that other icon of Britishness, the intention to provide universal and equal access across the huge diversity of a nation. Here is Tony Ageh… on Auntie’s early promise, “ to Inform, Educate and Entertain EVERYONE, equally and without systemic privilege or favour. No matter who you were, or where you lived, or how rich you were.” Now, both institutions are in crisis. In the case of the BBC, universal relevance has become an etiolated impartiality that is gradually foundering on the rocks of Us and Them. For the NHS, a fundamental economic solidarity is being hived off by privatisation.”

The first reminder came on September 30, when BBC Director Tony Hall reversed the decision to discipline Breakfast host Naga Munchetty, singled out for criticising the US president’s racist rhetoric. The outcry greeting the Corporation’s initial decision was surely a key foundering moment. Even without Simon Albury’s indefatigable commentary on the gathering crisis, it became glaringly obvious overnight, as Anjum Peerbacos pointed out, that BBC rules of impartiality and balance turn out to be “made by white men who do not apply them even-handedly”; just like the Booker judges’ decision to flout the organisers’ instructions and award the 2019 prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo, suddenly seemed long overdue.

As if on cue, on October 2, a passage in Boris Johnson’s speech to Conservative Party conference – his first as PM – invoked his mother’s wisdom:

“I am going to quote that supreme authority in my family - my mother

(and by the way for keen students of the divisions in my family you might know that I have kept the ace up my sleeve - my mother voted leave)

and my mother taught me to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet

and that may sound banal but it is not

and there is one institution that sums up that idea

The NHS is holy to the people of this country because of the simple beauty of its principle

that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from

but when you are sick the whole country figuratively gathers at your bedside”

Again, the chasm between words and deeds is glaring, even without reading NHS expert Caroline Molloy’s excellent anticipatory debunk. Only note the discrepancy between notions of universal inclusion and equal worth and Johnson’s tribally aggressive approach to ‘leave’ (not to mention the weirdness, reminiscent of the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympics NHS showcase, of the ‘whole country’ gathered at one’s sickbed.) Why take the risk? Why expose himself to yet more incredulity?

* * *

You can read all about the construction of the Reithian BBC in “Serving the Nation”, the marvellous first volume of A Social History of British Broadcasting (1922-1939) by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff. Three chapters – ‘Public Service Broadcasting’, ‘The Containment of Controversy’ and ‘The National Culture’ – emphasise that this was first and foremost a project for promoting social unity.

As a national service, broadcasting might bring together all classes of the population, not least through its ‘calendrical role’ – the live relay of national ceremonies, regular rituals and celebrations that marked the unfolding of the broadcasting year. Reith boasted proudly of the pilot for what becomes the monarch’s Christmas Day speech – King George V on radio for the first time, opening the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 – for “making the nation as one man”.

John Reith – Company Director from 1923 to 1926, and first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1927 to 1938 – had a reputation for religious zeal, high-mindedness and authoritarianism. But he chose a very particular binding mechanism for bringing into the greatest possible number of homes, all that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement. We might call it a ‘concealed authoritarianism’, a way of directly connecting the state and the individual, which could bypass such potential hornet’s nests as class and other major conflicts of interest, and yet balance sufficient views to give listeners the impression that they were making up their own minds, and not the unwitting victims of the formation of public opinion in the era of the General Strike.

If you detect echoes of Matthew Arnold’s “best that was thought and said” (1875 preface to Culture and Anarchy) – this is because it was indeed Arnold’s mechanism for avoiding a French Revolution that Reith borrowed and adapted for radio. Dig a little further into this Conservative palimpsest and up pops Edmund Burke’s direct response to French regicide in the ‘little platoons’ ordered to bind every British family into a loving allegiance to the royal one. This too was an essential part of Reith’s mechanism.

The Speech on Christmas day on BBC radio.
The Speech on Christmas day on BBC radio. | Screenshot: Punch, 28 April, 1937.

Could the inherited wisdom of centuries about how to manage the rising working classes of capitalism be finally unravelling today? If Johnson, like Theresa May before him, is still invoking this ‘vision’ in its zombie category dotage, when the last thing their party can do is to honour such promises – is it because they simply have nothing else to offer?

Will COVID break up the UK?

Support for Scottish independence is at record levels. Support for a united Ireland is at record levels. Support for Welsh independence is at record levels.

The British state's management of the COVID crisis has widely been seen as disastrous. Will the pandemic accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom?

Join us on Thursday 6 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET for a live discussion.

Hear from:

Anthony Barnett Founder of openDemocracy, he has often written about the need for a progressive England to emerge from the shadow of Britain.

Allison Morris Security correspondent and columnist with the Irish News, and an analyst of politics in Northern Ireland.

Harriet Protheroe-Soltani Trade union organiser for Wales and the south-west, vice chair of the campaign group Momentum, and has written about rising support for Welsh independence on the Left.

Chair: Adam Ramsay Editor at openDemocracy and frequent writer about Scottish independence, most recently in The Guardian.

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