After COVID-19, only a “middle way” can save us
If you visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Palermo, Italy, located in the eighteenth-century Palace Belmonte Riso, in the ancient Corso Vittorio Emanuele in the city centre, a simple work of art, a painting in the stairs that lead you from the first floor to the second, reads “In the middle of” — Nel Mezzo di. It is written three times in big capital letters, in both Italian and English.
Until the end of February, before the country-wide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first floor of the museum was dedicated to the beautiful paintings of the self-made Sicilian artist Paolo Madonia and his “Burnt Art.” The paintings reflect normal scenes of life and nature which turn out to be blurred, since they are burnt in the combustion process. Still, the reader can easily build a clear image or images out of the burnt paintings.
In retrospect, one can read that message — “In the middle of” — as if it were a reading of time, and not only of space. The intent at first, most probably, was to be a reflection of the place of Sicily and Italy as being geographically situated in the “middle of” the world, if the Mediterranean were its middle, as D.H. Lawrence would write in his poem, “Middle of the World.” Now that we are experiencing the calamity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Italy as its major victim so far, one can say that we are truly “in the middle of” this quagmire as well! Good or bad, you are always “in the middle.” Nevertheless, maybe only a “middle way” can save us.
Philosophers, theologians, thinkers, politicians, scientists, ordinary men and women are all talking about COVID-19. Who among us will forget it? It is a biological war the whole world is experiencing. It is not the first, nor will it be the last. Many now say that a new world will emerge, since history tells us, they tell us, that after past pandemics, new powers and realities came into being. Some pandemics have taken the name of the emperors of the time, like the Antonine Plague (165–180 CE), which is said to have devastated one third of the Roman population and the Roman army, and the Justinian Plague (540–542 CE), which contributed to the weakening of the rival empires, the Byzantines and the Sasanians. And then there is the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, considered the most devastating in human history, even when compared to the 1918 (“Spanish”) flu, which claimed some 120 million lives worldwide just as the world began to breathe a sigh of relief over the end of First World War.
Human beings tend to forget their miseries at all levels — individual, national, international and cosmic. The Arabs used to say, “the wise is he who learns from the lessons (experienced or taught) of the other”; but the modern age is not the age of wisdom, a quality considered naïve and traditional.
Major episodes in human history, and in one’s personal experience, are supposed to enrich us, and enlighten us to the strengths of the cosmos beyond our capacities, and to our own strengths. Such events are supposed to teach us epistemological modesty, and alert us to ontological mysteries. However, our savagely capitalist age leaves little time for ordinary people to think; the time they have left barely allows them to find a living, secure it (if possible) and enjoy some time with family and friends. Big historical events do not ‘speak’ to ordinary human beings, alas; rather, they speak to the governing elite — be they cultural, economic or political. And now there is a new elite that will shape the future: the technological elite. This is the elite that will influence, and ultimately govern, all the others.
“Only a god can save us”
On 23 September 1966, the philosopher Martin Heidegger conducted an interview with Der Spiegel. He requested that the interview be published ten years after his death; instead, it was published on 31 May 1976, just five days after he died. In that interview, Heidegger again underscored his conviction that over-technologisation is leading to nihilism. He also stressed his belief that the arts cannot save us, we moderns, from this technological future — ultimately, “only a god can save us.”
By “god” Heidegger probably meant a certain idea from the future; and since the future is the reproduction of the past, this “god/idea” is somewhere in the past. I often wonder: will the over-technologisation we are now experiencing allow us time for sufficient reflection to find this “god/idea”? Capitalism is, we now know, illiberal, anti-humanist, nihilistic — it cannot be the road to salvation.
Though we are aware of this — those of us who claim to be “free” academics, the bearers of the learning that can save the world — we keep hurtling down the very road our over-technologised, savage capitalism has paved for us. Do we think that, in the nick of time, we can turn the tide, and bend the power to technology to our “side”: the side of the poor, the oppressed, to ordinary human beings, non-human animals, nature? Is it not more likely that our future will be even more divided by technology? Two internet services — one American, and one Chinese — and thus two political worlds, as well as two virtual worlds, each governed by their own ideology.
Reclaiming the university
Perhaps my greatest fear relates to the field in which I am immersed: research and academia. In fact, these are two discreet fields. Academia has become a job market, and less free as a space of free thinking and writing, since it is financially less independent. We all know of the budget cuts the humanities have been experiencing for at least the last two decades, and the clientelism and nepotism that has followed in its wake. As for research, it should be a vocation, a pursuit fuelled by passion, energy, ideas. Academia broadly now appears to produce graduates who find themselves increasingly working in contexts where they have to follow predetermined research projects or lines of thought. Of course, academia has always been constrained in one way or another, but the intellectual impoverishment of academia has turned the academic into a mere worker, and not a thinker, not a researcher.
The death of academia, I can’t help but think, will precipitate the demise of the humanities and social sciences, the end of critical thinking, and the rise of forms of populism, ignorance, fear, hatred. The “end of history and the last man” can thus become a reality, but in the opposite sense that Francis Fukuyama intended. Plutocracies and enlightened despotism can come back at any moment; history turns and returns — this is precisely what Ibn Khaldun warned.
The university must reclaim its role as a citadel of free academic research, sustained by independent (or, at least, semi-independent) research funding, and nurtured by a critical spirit. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852) is more relevant than ever, and should spur us on to find better solutions to our mounting predicaments. We mustn’t permit the technological elites to seize this moment of pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate the performance of research and teaching from home. Even if some of these experiments succeed in some research fields or in certain countries, overall, this is contrary to what the university is, what the humanities are, all about. Academia needs human beings to come together, to meet, to talk, to exchange ideas. The more we discuss ideas only virtually, the more the ideas become only virtual, without human substance. While smart working can work in exceptional cases and for certain fields, turning it into the future way of doing things can prove to be just another road to high-tech capitalism.
While the merits might be many, the dire consequences could prove immeasurable — especially for the lower classes, the unemployed, the majority of the world lagging behind. The far future looks like a fully digital world. But if we are to avoid a future of the kinds of disparity anticipated in films like Joker and Parasite, what is needed is critical thinking and a minimum of an economic standard of living.
I am by inclination an optimist; but intellectually I have become a pessimist. Antonio Gramsci’s description the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the intellect reflects my attitude. But what best expresses my hopes is the words of the great thirteenth-century mystic and poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī: “Be melting snow, wash yourself by yourself.” The middle requires a balanced reason.
What comes next?
We all know what the world looked like before the COVID-19 pandemic: it was replete with civil wars; fuelled by industrial machinery, the exploitation of the poor and ‘natural resources’; characterised increasingly by brain drain, consumerism, populism and ethnic divisions; marked by low-paying or precarious employment for highly educated graduates, the rise of nihilism among young people, rising heat-levels and increasingly common extreme weather events due to climate change.
After COVID-19, will it be a world in which all these phenomena have accelerated — albeit, with one significant addition: the digitalisation of those few remaining areas of life that were not digitalised yet; and thus the consolidation of state and corporate surveillance, extending now to workers’ homes; the normalisation of social distancing; the loss of contact with nature? The more we distance ourselves from nature, the more we will become slaves to high-tech machines. We need a middle way.
We are “in the middle of” a difficult situation, and I hope we can solve it through a “middle” way — which is neither one of over-digitalisation nor one of the dehumanisation of human relations. The middle is not easy; it requires, as I said, a balanced reason that can still defend the values of human liberty, equality, fraternity, dignity and the rule of law.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC Religion and Ethics, 21 April 2020.