on Gods & Campervans
May 05, 2018

If we characterize ‘culture’ as the gestures (rhetorical, occupational, infrastructural) that Man invents to make an environment wholly livable, its is clear that such gestures will be subject to Man’s historical particularity at any given moment. One normative gesture in the plans of our present cultural architecture is Science. Science’s pragmatism substitutes the need and often desire for other religiosities, as its explanatory thrust is more epistemologically compelling than its misbegotten alternatives: myths, legends, and other fanciful fictions.

We no longer have need of deities to euphemise a complex set of processes. We know how any why the sun rises. We know how and why the monsoons come, I think. In secular society, gods have no currency: science is where people can get funding. Maui, the trickster demigod who fished New Zealand out of the ocean with a magic hook, which his brothers then greedily ate to form the many valleys, mountains, lakes, and rocky coastlines of the North Island, is now only a company that sells and rents camper vans.

There are no longer conflicts amongst the gods. A storm is not Poseidon’s anger, nor is winter Persephone’s absence. They are processual protuberances whose oracle is data; and preferably big data. Life is a laboratory of uncontrolled experiments—not of the gods’ temperaments, but of particles, atoms, and bits.

Yet science, like many other soothsayers, has not yet proven to explain everything. It continues an impressive epistemological career, from its zealous preamble as mechanical philosophy in the 17th century (see Steven Shapin) to its trusted management and regulation of the Earth’s sensitivities in the 21st. At times it is egotistical, forecasting more than it has license to understand. At these times we are tasked to note, as Thomas Hardy did for the fishes in poetic eulogy of the Titanic: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

Science does not have to be fashioned in opposition to nature, but in its practicalizations it often is. It can be a heady bastard, loathe to accept there are problems it cannot synthesize. Though I trust its good intention, its actions often read as susceptible to the destructive caprices of egocentrism. If it could live with roles that are not so clearly coded ‘black,’ or ‘white,’ it might come to the conclusion that the neighborhood does not need saving. Gotham is a fictional city, as is Metropolis. The dichotomy of hero and villain are never so resolutely coded in real life. Gods can be kind and they can be cruel.

author Lachlan Kermode

lives and works in London.
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