On the consequences of unseeing our inheritance
“A peculiar characteristic of our times is the combination of significant scenes with insignificant actors. … Yet one must concede the zeitgeist an infallible hand in picking out [so many trivial men]—if we consider it in just one of its possible aspects, that of a mighty demolition enterprise. All the expropriations, devaluations, equalizations, liquidations, rationalisations, socialisations, electrifications, land reallocations, redistributions, and pulverisations presuppose neither character nor cultivation, which would both actually impede the automatism.”
Ernst Jünger, The Forest Passage (1951).
Although I have forgotten the story, its setting has stayed with me. China Mieville’s existential thriller The City and The City (2009), which I read shortly after the book came out, takes place in two city-states that occupy the same geographical area. A stranger arriving there who didn’t know any better would say that Besźel and Ul Qoma, the two cities implied by the novel's title, are one and the same place; they seem to be a single city, not two cities. And yet, as Miéville makes clear, they are each different, even incompatible. They have different bureaucracies, police forces, and different public services. They are crosshatchings.
The inhabitants of each of these cities, these territorial metaphors for two different domains of perception, are expected to constantly look away, to unsee or unnotice, the other city and its goings-on. They must consciously erase from their own minds any sighting of the buildings, occupants and events taking place in the other city, even if they are just a few centimetres away. Imagine something happening right in front of your eyes but you have to, you absolutely must, deliberately decide that it is not there; that it is less than irrelevant. The people of each city-state must fail to acknowledge that the other city-state and its goings-on are real. They must unrecognise the other city; they must unacknowledge it.
With this rule in place, residents learn to notice things as belonging to the other city without really seeing them. As far as they’re concerned, the other city is a reified non-thing, perhaps the concretisation of a void. If the abyss stares you in the face, be sure not to stare back, lest you become aware that you are, yourself, an abyss. If a citizen ignores the imperative to unsee, they are deemed guilty of breaching, a crime considered worse than murder in Miéville’s tale. There is nothing worse than noticing a reality that is mentally not supposed to be there. And yet, the consequences of unnoticing may be spiritually worse than any crime. What if the existence of your city is dependent upon the existence of the other city, which is interwoven into yours? What if your city is the present while the other city is the past? Is there a third city there, too, called the future, which we cannot see unless we properly notice the past?
Miéville’s idea still feels fantastical in its own way and yet there are without a doubt things in our world that we’re trained or at least encouraged to unsee. I don’t mean that behind the obvious is always some sinister backstory that requires some or other hermeneutic of suspicion to access. I don’t mean that we need some special gnosis to know what our own experience of the world hides from us as if the truth is always necessarily and entirely disconnected from the apparent. Rather, I mean that there are obviously good things that can become very much like the other city in Miéville’s novel. They are there within our range of perception and yet we have chosen to neglect to dwell on their thereness because they do not properly conform to our expectations.
I also don’t mean, mind you, that there are things we overlook because we all have cognitive blindspots. Indeed, we do all have cognitive blindspots. We naturally overlook some things because we’re not interested in them or perhaps because there is no need to be interested in them. In the stand we take on our lives, we must exclude a great deal from our domain of care. We are finite, after all, and every widening of our circle of concern encouraged by the electrification of the world not only adds to our anxieties but also robs us of meaning. We can’t take everything in. There’s just to much. I mean, following Miéville’s novelistic conceit, something active and willful, where what is unavoidably present is taken as undeniably absent. The absence is included within the domain of care so that it can be repressed and denied. It is possible for all of us to look the obvious in the eye, to intend to look it in the eye, only to announce afterwards to the world that it is not worth our or anyone else’s time.
There’s a lot in our world that seems to nudge our attention towards unseeing our own inheritance. The roots of this go way back, resting in an all-too-inhuman tendency to be slothful, which is often manifest in various political and economic schemes. We live in a world shaped by modernity which, by definition, rested and still rests on a denial of the past and an inhumane desire for the ever-accelerating movements of some mythical monster called progress. The modern frame has meant and still means that everything must be subject to rationalisation, no matter how shoddy that rationalising is and no matter that things get fragmented and not integrated as a result. Things must, apparently, be re-created from scratch, even if badly and haphazardly. The modern frame is Lego-esque, minus any obvious telos. Progress is a relative term but precisely what it is relative to is not something the typical modern decides. Things merely ‘evolve’ and existential dinosaurs go extinct in the process. And yet this so-called evolution is often just a euphemism for a particularly nihilistic will to power. There is something willful in the denial of any inheritance. There is something malevolent in it too.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke takes aim at the attitude of mind that takes issue with the fact that everything good we have is an inheritance. Burke writes of French revolutionaries who, in the name of an anorexic philosophy and gluttonous resentment, sought not to fix problems within society but to destroy the entire social fabric within which those problems existed. This is the mode that transforms the given-as-gift into the given-as-taken-for-granted. Modern blank-slatism is one of the most obvious philosophical consequences of this mindset; it quickly renders human reality a thing entirely constructed and disregards it as a thing emerging from a network of natural relations and experiences and metaphysical foundations. If our reality is merely constructed then it can be torn down and reconstructed. If it is built in a way the blank-slatist doesn’t like, why not send in the demolition crew?
Another example is the Marxian attack on property. Property and the ownership of anything are considered in this frame of mind as a kind of thievery. If you have your own stuff, you are, the Marxist would say, stealing. As I return to below, this idea has taken on a new life in this strange age of ours, in which the very idea that parents ought to have authority over their children can be regarded as a sort of moral problem. Marx, who was by no standards a virtuous man and by consequence also a terrible family man, actively opposed the family as a structure; and, sadly, something of his thinking has survived despite it being so utterly drenched in Marx’s most toxic traits. “You will own nothing,” says the World Economic Forum (I almost wrote World E-Communist Forum), “and you will be happy.” Does that mean that we’re heading into a world in which even the claim of parenthood will be nullified? It takes a few conditions to make such a premise and possibility conceivable, even though mere conceivability should not be a criterion for what makes a thing true in any ultimate sense.
If all problems are perceived to be reducible to society as a whole, which to be believed requires a rather severe form of unreason, then all of it must be torn down and remade from scratch. There is another option though: by means of the power of a revolution from above, all personal concerns can be subsumed into and thus erased by the dialectical force of a new totalising system, meaning the state and its various bureaucratic tentacles. It is the very same mindset that sees things in sweeping, always-negative terms like systemic oppression that also wants to solve a society's problems by means of some new but also vague totality like social justice or equity. All of this is bound up, to my mind, in a poor sense of the importance of inheritance, which looks at particulars in the context of universals like goodness and beauty and not false universals like social justice and equity. Inheritance is historically situated, too, meaning that it is rooted in a sense of the local and not in some abstraction like the national or global social system as a whole.
In any and all cases, for an inheritance to be negated or neglected is to deny something obvious. We owe everything good that we have to that which is not us: to God, to nature, to culture, to our ancestors, to those we have not met who perform work that sustains our own lives, and so on. Burke saw long ago that those early rough sketches for the modern left showed not just a dismissal of but an utter contempt for heritage, and it seems to me that this contempt has leaked even into the consciousness of many conservatives today. Burke knew that the result of this would be barbarism; in fact, some of the most barbaric acts committed on the slaughter-bench of history. But there is another consequence in something that looks tame and ordinary, and which we now all have to deal with as it metastasizes beyond all proportion. I mean the presence of excessive bureaucracy. Why does the unseeing of our inheritance lead so naturally to the endless expansion of policies and the ballooning of administrative procedures?
Burke suggests that the great negators, those self-styled revolutionaries, consider what they’re doing as innovation. They will bask in the artificial neon light of their progressivism under the assumption that they are on the side of the new. But this novelty-seeking, which frequently amounts to an addiction to novelty for novelty’s sake, tends to happen out of a selfish spirit and in keeping with alarmingly confined views. “People will not look forward to posterity,” writes Burke, “who never look backwards to their ancestors.”
This selfish spirit assumes that the political order can be contained within a single mind, organised within a profoundly constrained consciousness, and then imposed on a large scale by some sort of total administration system. But the political, at its very best, is the achievement of people who live and work together in keeping with their inheritance. It emerges somewhat organically, on a human and personal scale, out of the natural and complex ways that people negotiate their relationships and make compromises for the sake of the common good. It emerges over time, often beyond any single lifetime, and is given its constitutional value in thoughtful laws and a reasonable social order, including punishments for crimes where necessary. Ambiguities and complexities in our relationships do not have to be dissolved or resolved in each and every case because our inheritance is not reducible to what we find comfortable, pleasant, perfectly rationalisable and administrable. A political order rooted in a sense of inheritance does not mean everyone agrees but that everyone is capable of living together and even serving each other’s needs, even when they disagree. Human imperfections can be accounted for, and just systems are possible.
But the shrunken spirit of the negators, those haters of inheritance, requires unseeing all of this. If the principle they adopt is that of liberty, in the sense of being only free from constraints, they cannot allow themselves to see the good of given constraints drawn from a long history that they had no say over. However, this selfish spirit means something worse, too, namely the fostering of a spirit of ingratitude. The various prideful permutations of blank-slatism rely on metaphysical boredom or acedia. It is a failure to love, a failure to appreciate, and a failure to be grateful. It does not dwell and so it gives rise to the ressentiment that denigrates what is good in the name of what is second-rate or worse.
In contrast to this, to really see our inheritance is to be thankful for it. “The aim of life is appreciation,” writes G. K. Chesterton; “there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.” Chesterton also suggests that while it is possible and advisable to say grace before meals, it is also worth our time to say grace before other things as well. “I say grace before the concert and the opera,” he says, “and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Life itself is grace and we would do well not to look a gift universe in the mouth.
This is not mere sentimentality, saccharine and irrelevant. To be thankful does not in the least mean gleefully prancing about the world oblivious to hardship and suffering. It does not mean living in La La Land. To really be grateful means to be often painfully aware of the sheer fragility of the many gifts we receive. Everything is tenuous in its temporality and delicate in its contingency, ourselves included. To be grateful for anything is to know how easily it may be lost. Indeed, we sometimes feel gratitude most deeply after experiencing loss or simply noticing it.
Often I feel that civilisation is this very thin crust covering the world that at any moment may crack and break to be overtaken by a turbulent volcanic torrent. This sense I have of the fragility of civilisation—what’s left of it, at least—does not mean that I am less grateful for all that I have been given; it means the opposite. My gratitude for these gifts deepens. Civilisation is an inheritance. Certainly, something of this is evident in Burke’s reflections on the subtle order that took ages to build to govern human affairs in his place and time. But what takes a long time to build can be torn down in a moment. It may be torn down in a defiant revolutionary act or, as it happens, with something as simple as a bureaucratic process.
I have seen, in obviously different circumstances to Burke, what it means when a sense of inheritance is absent. The result is always bleak and impersonal. When reality is denied in the name of the simulacrum, we do not end up with a more colourful world but with a duller, greyer one. You have only to look at Disney’s latest ideologically-possessed movies to see the truth of this. You may see bright lights shining in your eyes through screens but the truth is disastrously monotonous, monitored by undead managerial types whose lingo fits the politically correct expectations of the latest kind of friendly nihilism. The simulacrum is sustained by boring things like computer code and circuit boards. But what sort of tiresome thing feeds the simulacrum that is this world of metastatic bureaucracy? The answer to this is also the answer to why unseeing our inheritance gives rise to bureaucratic monsters. I asked that question a while ago but it’s time I got to an answer.
The answer is distrust, manifest often as fear, sometimes as paranoia. This is the condition of mind that narrows down to a univocal literalism; that is, to the denial of the polyphonies of human conversation in the name of technique. In fact, distrust is both the factory and the product. This should be obvious. It’s the scepticism of Descartes that so neatly symbolises modernity’s inception, together with the simple idea that everything must be subjected to the test of the unworlded cogito has splintered into the myriad permutations we still live with now. Already we are some historical distance from the earliest negative spirit and the negation of inheritance that first drove the modern project, and since distrust has been its foundation, it should not surprise us that distrust has been its net result.
But nothing grows and flourishes when distrust is constantly tearing at the roots of everything. Perhaps that’s the point: to reify the bureaucratic principle that no one should be happy so long as some people are miserable. No wonder we need to create a fake trust in the form of forms, terms and conditions, clauses, sub-clauses, and the like. When all values have been denied permanence, how can we agree but by artificial means and memes? Since all ancient systems of morals and virtues are now treated with contempt, and many of them are now long forgotten, new so-called moral systems have to step up to replace them. This is nonsense, of course, and it’s precisely why Nietzsche feared the rise of moralism as the substitute for morality. Destroy virtue, as ontologically grounded, and all you get is its counterfeit epistemological double: morality as a form to fill out, with extra check-boxes to tick. What you get is a whole string of fake rules of conduct, terms and conditions, and diversity, equity and inclusion seminars. It all seems so banal but it can only lead to evil as anything natural and organic is treated as something that can be orchestrated and controlled on the basis of policy documents and made-up theories by perverted anti-phenomenologists. I’ve seen this close-up in university systems, which are quicker than most to become little constrictive microstates. But it is by no means limited to the realm in which scholarship is so often replaced by Newspeak.
Recently, Wired published an article with the title, Preferring Biological Children Is Immoral. The blurb of the article reads, “Most people say they want their kids to be their own genetic offspring—but such a desire is in conflict with other evolving values around parenting and family.” There is a lot to say about this article with its clickbaity title and its bio-Leninist blurb. It is an abysmal piece of propaganda that tries to smuggle the idea of evolving values into the mind of the reader as if no one really gets to make a decision about how deviance is spreading. But I mentioned it because the article itself is reflective of the very anti-inheritance mindset I have been discussing here, couched in talk about the so-called ethical. It is a mindset that cannot trust even the most obvious of gifts: the gift of a child who becomes an extension of your own ensouled and embodied inheritance. As with all machine-like thinking, it is really a blatant attack on both nomos and ethos. In the Aeon magazine, a relatedly cynical-technical proposition, this thankfully more speculative and less forceful, has been put forward that perhaps “all the babies born each day” could be “randomly redistributed among the biological parents” to ‘end racism’—as if an artificially constructed system could possibly eradicate problems in the ethos.
The Wired-mindset is possessed by the spirit of technique, which regards all natural relations with deep suspicion and so wants to remake the world according to a malicious desire for absolute artificiality. In fact, without trust, such a stance seems inevitable. You might say no one will go so far as to destroy the natural link between children and their parents but this is already happening. It’s happening where surrogacy tears children away from their mothers, consenting donors trapped in the logic of the machine, and hands them over to others as if they are mere property. It’s happened where states have determined, against the will of the parents, that their children must be vaccinated even if they are not at risk of serious illness and the vaccines in question have not been tested properly. It’s happened and is still happening where a father or two or more can be imprisoned for resisting having his child turned by medical industrialists into a slave and proof-of-concept of confused Rainbowlsheviks.
The sheer complexity of the bureaucracy that makes all of this happen is quite something to consider. And even though it is built on an antagonism to trust, the fact that all the bureaucratic tick boxes are checked renders everything evil palatable. All kinds of opportunities exist for Eichmans in service of bio-Nazis. Various state officials and social workers and educators and medical practitioners get involved and the paperwork is enough to destroy a small rainforest and a large cosmos. All of this can intervene between children and parents as if the task of the state is to mediate our relationships with others. And it all looks so legal even though it is so plainly evil.
Is this an all-pervasive tragedy on a mass scale? Thankfully, for now, no. But already the conditions have been set up to make certain fringe-happenings more universal. To look at the anomalies and shrug them off as if they aren’t there and don’t have the potential to become normal, therefore, and to unsee such happenings even as we unsee our inheritance would require an alarming level of naivety. Burke’s words ring true. Those who neglect their inheritance will care little for posterity. It is for the sane to reverse this, to attend to our inheritance for the sake of preserving what is good and ensuring that it can continue into the future.
After all, it does not take much imagination to consider a scenario in which the state, any state governed by the liberal logic of progressive modernity, takes total control over all family life by assuming that, whatever family life should be, it should not be natural. It does not take much to imagine that the World E-Communist Forum’s desire to maximise artificiality is realised. We see so many signs already of ways that totalitarianism has crept back into fashion recently, giving various states a degree of power to intervene in private affairs that should alarm everybody. It has happened before and it may very well happen again that states succeed in eliminating all practical resistance to its ideological drives by rendering whole aspects of natural and mental reality invisible; that is, unseeable.
But there is another way of unseeing that may rescue us from unseeing our inheritance. I mean a way that restores gratitude and trust, for starters, and escapes the acedia that would have us be complacent about the many gifts we are given. Interestingly, this requires recovering a sense of the preciousness of invisibility; a sense of what cannot and should not be seen and reduced to conscious conceptions. We should unsee the private worlds of people, for starters; we should unsee their inner lives. We should unsee the mystery, which means to recognise without reductionism, being always aware that it is the mystery that lurks behind all apparent divine interventions. We should unsee God, in the sense of unnaming him and holding on to the mystical aspects of faith as the ground for all knowing. We should lean, in other words, into the practice of relinquishing any and all desires for controlling reality for the sake of participating in it. I have in mind that Platonist methexis: participation as that which roots us in the ultimate.
This is beautifully and subtly, if surprisingly, demonstrated in Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet (2020), a strange James-Bondish story with temporal pincers and the like included. The organisation in that film, also called Tenet, to better fight the algorithmic control and destruction of the past, regards trust as a thing to be guarded. This trust requires not insisting that everything be perfectly transparent, since total transparency means, as Byung-Chul Han has argued in The Transparency Society (2012) opening everything up to manipulation and thus opening it up to the destruction of the mysteries behind genuine friendships. Not everything needs to be disclosed. Not everything dialogical needs to be reduced to monolithic paranoia. This sort of unseeing, which keeps even the mysteries of our inheritance in play, is what ultimately ensures the success of the organisation in Tenet and it presents a helpful counter-statement to the prevailing insistence on transparency, which inevitably gives way to bureaucratic reductionism and the denial of the real.
What we inherit is, in fact, not entirely reducible to visible technique. It is only utilitarians, who think that technique can cover each and every facet of being, who believe it is. But they are wrong. And they would know they are wrong just by paying close attention to their own experience, to the way that the invisible and the visible play together. What is disclosed reveals to us that the mysteries of existence are deeper than we know.
So, yes, it is possible to unsee our inheritance, and in doing so we can only end up maximising the control of clauses and subclauses and policies and legalities that place trust nowhere as fine print is plastered over the entire face of the cosmos. But it is also possible to unsee; that is, to intentionally downplay and hide those aspects that should remain hidden for the sake of preserving that which is most valuable. What is present can be excluded so that it can be affirmed for being what it is and not merely what we make it. Hide your identity if you like. Retain some sense of your own anonymity even if you make something of yourself known publically. Hide the details of your family life. Protect your privacy. The fact that politics has been reduced to the question of flat identity—screamed from the rooftops as loudly as possible—is, in my view, one of the best pieces of evidence of the fact that we live in a faithless society, a society of ingratitude and distrust, at odds with the genuinely political. But real politics is full of faith and full of gratitude; it leaves room not only for ambiguity but for laughter and mirth. And, because of this, real politics prizes honour, chivalry, modesty, and love; it allows dialogue to keep fear in perspective even if fear cannot be completely erased. Arguably, it is not desirable or good to attempt to eradicate fear completely. Real politics operates on a human scale.
Yes, I know that trust in institutions is at an all-time low now. Faith in the big things and the ultimately meaningful things is down. But it is not entirely gone. Even a small amount of faith, together with a desire to restore to the world an intimate connection with the ultimate, can be like light breaking through the dull facade of the simulacrum that is the bureaucratic world. In this light, we may begin to learn again what it means to trust people who are not merely there to serve some impersonal machine.