These days many of us worry that humankind faces an impending crisis of epic proportion. Within the circles I travel, conversation frequently drifts toward financial meltdown, climate catastrophe, mass extinctions and public health pandemics, to name only a few bleakly compelling topics.
No doubt we face unprecedented challenges. Our ancestors may have dreamt up Minotaurs and other chimeras, but the real life consequences of biotechnology were never looming on the horizon. Likewise, while they envisioned angry gods wielding lightning bolts, such fantasies were certainly less terrifying than the threat of incompetent nation states engaging in geoengineering. Never before has our species had to reckon with the existence of something like the Pacific Trash Vortex – where around one hundred million tons of plastic debris have accumulated, covering an area twice the size of Texas – to give just one vivid example of the environmental predicament that embroils us all.
It seems only logical, then, that what we need are radically new ideas to match the bizarre realities and uncertainties of our time. How, common sense seems to say, can old ideas cut it in an era of e-waste, cloning and global warming?
It’s a simple and comforting equation: new realities should yield new concepts. As we stand on the brink of possible disaster someone must be thinking new thoughts, devising new theories, finding a way out of this mess. There must be some innovative way of looking at the world, some state-of-the-art theory that’s about to emerge and help us make sense of everything.
I’ve encountered this assumption time and time again over the last few years. For instance, when I was trying to find support for my latest project, Examined Life, a documentary film and book project focused on contemporary philosophy and featuring thinkers including Cornel West, Judith Butler and Avital Ronell, potential funders would always ask about the “big new ideas” they assumed would be at the center. There has to be something novel, they would say; it has to be cutting edge. They wanted assurance that my subjects would present speculations never before unleashed on the world, grand groundbreaking pronouncements like “human nature is neither good nor bad, it’s purple” or “consciousness is rooted in the pinky finger” or “morality is a jello-like substance.”
They were more than a little bemused when I replied I wasn’t that concerned with intellectual novelty, at least not for its own sake. As I understand it, philosophy is devoted to exploring the power and limits of human knowledge, to pondering basic, intractable questions at the heart of our collective condition. As a discipline it tends to circle around the same terrain over and over again, subtly changing its angle with time, refining age-old ideas in the process. As a result, some basic concepts, like ethics and justice, have never had a bad century where philosophy is concerned. They are not new lines of inquiry by any stretch of the imagination, but hardly exhausted ones either.
Over time I’ve come to believe that our quest for “new ideas” may not be that different from our quest for new cars, new clothes or new entertainment and distraction; just another manifestation of the short-sighted, immediate gratification attitude that created our current dilemma in the first place. It’s a capitalist approach to matters of the mind: That concept is so last season! Out with the old, in with the new! If we’ve encountered a concept before, it’s summarily dismissed as yesterday’s news, as though ideas have a use-by date.
The thing is, many good insights are never put to use, let alone used up. Over the course of history, countless excellent ideas and theories have simply never gotten any traction. Would it be so bad to actually try to put some of the old Enlightenment principles of liberté, égalité et fraternité into practice? Or what about the Marxist maxim of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”? Or Kropotkin’s meditations on the possibilities of mutual aid?
Take some recent books by some of the philosophers I feature in Examined Life. Michael Hardt’s coauthored book Commonwealth continues a discussion that goes back at least as far as the 17th century, when the Diggers announced their intention to “lay hold upon, and as we stand in need, to cut and fell, and make the best advantage we can of the woods and trees that grow upon the commons.” In The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, Peter Singer’s utilitarian approach to ethical quandaries can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The idea of cosmopolitanism – the essence of which is best conveyed by Diogenes of Sinope’s assertion that he was a “citizen of the world” despite the fact he resided in ancient Athens – gets a lucid update for a multicultural, networked era in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Slavoj Žižek’s latest, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, relies as always on Hegel and Marx, continuing his defense of communism while underscoring the violence that sustains global capitalism. The fact that ungodly sums of money were quickly unearthed to shore up the financial sector against meltdown while action has long been stalled on issues like climate change and world poverty confirms capital’s unrelenting stranglehold over us, in Žižek’s view.
I’m not saying these theorists have no original contributions to make or nothing illuminating to say; I obviously think they do. I’m only pointing out that philosophical debate unfolds across eras and continents. It is what Avital Ronell, quoting Maurice Blanchot during one of our interviews, called an “infinite conversation.” A short attention span society doesn’t provide any obvious space for this kind of unbound perspective taking.
We often hear talk of the “marketplace of ideas,” a phrase originally intended to articulate the importance of free expression and exchange. These days, however, the word market conjures not only a site of trade (that is to say, communication), but commerce. The principle of market competition means not that the most profound ideas succeed, but rather the flashiest, the freshest and more often than not, the least offensive. With their inherent antipathy to market logic, concepts like collectivism, interdependence and equality can be tough sells.
But there’s also an element of disavowal at work: maybe we don’t want to acknowledge that the public domain overflows with worthwhile insights and potentially world-saving proposals, ours to benefit from if we would only pause to pay attention. Because to do so would be to take a risk: We may be challenged to act by the ideas we encounter. There’s a chance what we find will challenge our comfortable acquiescence, overturn our sense of entitlement and demand sacrifice and commitment. It may be that it’s easier to bemoan the immensity of the problems we face and decry the lack of solutions – waiting for a silver bullet of a “big new idea” to save us – than actually taking seriously all the good ideas that already exist.
Astra Taylor is the director of two documentaries about philosophy, Zizek! and Examined Life, both distributed by Zeitgeist Films. A companion book, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, is now available from The New Press.