LONG READ: The Sleep of Reason II | Cassandra Voices

LONG READ: The Sleep of Reason II


Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an extended essay by Irish artist Terence O’Connell but can be read as a stand alone piece.

Rationalism is a psychosis; a dissociation of intellect and feeling; the suppression of our intuitive, emotional, and sensual being (the heart’s domain). Enlightenment thinkers wished to replace the credulity of religious compliance with reason. They put their faith in human progress and an expansive intellect – and some, it should be said, in a deeper and more natural spirituality.

They thought they could reform society, but radical social reform has rarely, if ever, been generated by external pressure. It arises when an established worldview reaches the limit of its credibility and its possibilities.

For all the fine words and egalitarian instincts, what emerged was a restricted and abstracted rationality, blinkered by the narrow focus of scientific empiricism: a civilization devoid of core significance that was to become a kind of megalomania. Mathematical abstraction, reductionist precision and the crushing urgency of capital  accumulation could never have generated a benign culture.

Without consent to meaning and an imaginative response to the innate feelings that evoke a deeper sense of being, Western civilization will continue its fragmentation and decline until it succumbs to incompetence, overreach, and inner contradiction.

At this point, Goya’s Capricho 43 comes to mind once more. There he sits, Goya himself, slumped over a table, looking like he has the whole world on his shoulders and wishing it would all go away.

However, the words on the panel are stark: “The sleep of reason produces  monsters”. And the owls, bats and lynx are generally presumed to symbolize a resurgent irrationality always watching for reason to lower its guard – a clear expression of Enlightenment values. It is balanced somewhat by the caption for the print: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders”.

This is fine so far as it goes, but it ultimately amounts to the same thing. It implies that you can’t trust imagination without reason to almost police it. But in art – so in life generally – the imaginative impulse is primary. It is not going to lead you down the road to ruin as in some Victorian morality tale.

Imagination is the indispensable quality, a benign compulsion in an unfolding life. A creative leap, the capacity to conceive the new, is essential if life is to evolve rather than merely repeat.

Even mathematics, the very rock on which the rational world is built, is itself a brilliant act of imagination; an original, symbolic system, independent of life as lived, and that may in turn be applied to our practical engagement with its process.

Reason elaborates the idea in a kind of inner dialectic that bridges the gap between inspiration and cultural expression, between the imaginative realm and the everyday. In practice, this is an indivisible, spontaneous process – not linear and mechanical – and its accomplishment is a sensitive art.

However, we can’t really be sure what Goya meant. He was unhealthy, overworked and disillusioned. But the sleep of reason is not loss of control; the sleep of reason is rationalism, reason without heart.

Looking at Capricho 43 with the Covid pandemic at its height, the bats were insistent. Their association with the new disease was a topic of speculation. A global panic was underway; the threat index was rising, and we were at war with a virus. The response to this “existential” threat (yet another) was employing the standard rhetoric of the war machine. Civil liberties were suspended; a crusade was launched; “trust the science” was on the banners; and facts and figures were deployed like heavy artillery.

If your attitude to the world is purely rational, your actions – both the action itself and the manner of its effect – will reflect the sense of separability and isolation that characterizes it.

Notwithstanding the fact that we humans have co-evolved with viruses, that their presence is vital, even if some are potentially harmful, a program of total suppression was begun. At least until a vaccine (a “magic bullet” that would stop Covid dead in its tracks) could be developed, we were told.

Since the time of Edward Jenner in the late eighteenth century it has been known that a small piece of a virus or bacterium can stimulate an immune response. The technique has been used to prevent many common diseases ever since.

A corona virus tends to generate variants liberally and is not so susceptible to a traditional vaccine. For the biotech industry, which had struggled after the financial expectations of The Human Genome Project were not realized, and the difficulty of meeting regulatory requirements, its moment had come. They were now cast as world saviours and the whole force of a global pandemic was behind them.

To put it very simply, gene-based vaccines cause your own cells to produce a spike protein – essentially a piece of the virus – which, like a traditional vaccine should then provoke an immune response. All very well if you “trust the science”.

In this case it meant trusting a pharmaceutical industry with a long record of disregard, deception and harm and allowing them to manipulate, or ‘program,’ your own cells.

But no scientist can assure the outcome of speculative interference in the elusive and dynamic process at the heart of, and common to, every living system. A cell is a cell: nucleus, cytoplasm, membrane, and the tiny world within continuously generating growth. All cells share the same structure; all life is cellular; and all life is interconnected. What could possibly go wrong?

Just to add that claims for efficacy went all the way from “magic bullet” to balm and Covid is still with us, vaccinated or not. And, I almost forgot, a few more billionaires now grace the earth.

The publication of Los Caprichos marks the opening of the nineteenth century. In Spain, the war with France and years of political upheaval would follow. Goya reflects the disorder in his strikingly expressive work of those years until his death in exile in 1828.

By this time Europe and North America were on the verge of a world that would seem very familiar to us now. Both electrification and the internal combustion engine arrived in the 1880’s, and the subsequent years are known as La Belle Epoque in Europe and The Gilded Age in America.

The conspicuous affluence these terms betray rested on a period of intense industrialization and exploitation, during which the British Empire was the great world power. By the year of Goya’s death economic liberalism was about to reveal its most brutal aspect.

In Britain the new poor laws were enacted to starve masses of the underclass into wage slavery. Without support millions more were plunged into sea of destitution. Included in this purgatory of despair were tens of thousands of women and girls forced into prostitution and an early grave. This was the social catastrophe confronted by Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Across the seas, India and China (and countries in between), two ancient and distinct civilizations – their history, social structures and trading patterns rent – were forcibly conscripted into a global trading and financial system to their utter detriment, and to the enrichment of an elite group of financiers, industrialists and Western powers who controlled it.

Further south, the scramble for Africa would soon open the gates to yet another prolonged exhibition of colonial barbarity.

One appalling outcome: the instability and structural disintegration wrought by this interference in traditional systems of land use, production and trade left them unable to deal with the consequences of a prolonged drought in the 1880’s. (A phenomenon not unknown and provided for by tradition). As in Ireland a few decades earlier, famine ensued. It is estimated that between Asia and Africa perhaps as many as fifty million may have died.

The unspeakable horror of all this is chronicled in detail in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis, in so far as words or even pictures can convey the terrible suffering of fellow human beings on such an immense scale. Its full effect requires an imaginative capacity typically repressed in the cultivated mind by the assumption of superiority.

In the words of Mike Davis, ‘What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century’s final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre.’[i]

For all the achievements of Western civilization in science and the arts the dark side of our history is actual. Moreover, it still resonates around the world in conflict, poverty, migration, and debt.

It is critical that we should acknowledge our defects now that, so we are told, we are once again standing at the edge of fundamental change. The transition to a post-carbon future will not forestall dire predictions without a radical shift in perspective and it remains ‘business as usual’.

Unrestrained capital accumulation, open-ended economic growth, finance capitalism and the rigged marketplace are entrenched. Bacon’s slogan “knowledge is power” still drives and validates the scientific ideology that underlies it all. Together they perpetuate a toxic system to which the question of how it is fuelled is almost incidental.

In addition, the corporate sector now has the ‘sustainable’ technology supposed to save us firmly in its grip; ‘saving the planet’ is a heaven-sent marketing strategy; and the promise of a ‘just transition’ has become a sickly green joke.

A cursory analysis of the crisis we are facing would reveal the dynamic driving it. That it has done so for almost half a millennium is why the crisis is so acute and why its cause should be so obvious.

That there are limits to growth is axiomatic. And it should also be apparent that renewable technologies could never equal the energy potential of fossil fuels. The dispersed energy of wind and solar and the second-hand energy of biofuels, even without the problem of intermittence, could only possibly match the concentrated energy of fossil fuels – discounting the growth imperative – by an expansion of its technologies on such a scale that this factor alone would be problematic.

In any case, highly complex renewable systems present their own difficulties. Every method of energy production requires energy to support it: for mining coal, pumping oil, or the massive resource extraction demand by renewables and the ‘smart’ technology that enables it. This requirement has initiated yet another round of colonial exploitation and despoilation.

Also, known reserves of many essential minerals are deficient. And resource scarcity is insurmountable; what doesn’t occur cannot be conjured into existence. A finite world has bio-physical limits: as its resources are subject to exhaustion, so our ambitions are subject to restraint. Our centuries long escapade is being constricted and the problems of over-development and over-complexity cannot be solved by more of the same – more regulations, more laws, plans, targets, goals, reproof, and penalties.

Image: Aleksandar Pasaric

What use is a carbon-free future if our rapacious civilization continues as is? Biodiversity loss, degradation of soils, deforestation, plunder of the oceans, toxic  pollution of every kind: all these are just as malignant, if not more so. Degradation and degeneracy cannot be ameliorated by new technologies. And it is delusional to hope that ‘sustainability’ can somehow allow us to defy some of the most fundamental realities of being.

All this prowess we’ve engineered over time seems to have convinced too many of us that men are gods. And challenging the Gods never ends well. Hubris is followed by nemesis – inexorably if we can’t break through the bounds of scientific rationalism. And the stimulus for such a profound shift in consciousness cannot be prescribed; it can only arise organically. Whether from disillusionment, decline, crisis, chaos, or common sense remains to be seen.

The ground of this dilemma was prepared during that long period of transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world: when the dominance of capital was extended, scientific inquiry established the mechanical worldview, and the hegemony of humanity over nature began its destructive course in earnest. If only Galileo could have seen the future through his telescope.

It was at that time of change, about the year 1605 – just five years after Giordano Bruno was tied to the stake and the breadth of his perception went up in flames with him – that Don Quixote first set forth. Caught between these worlds, his adventure in a sense exemplifies dilemma. The changing conditions were presenting a choice: between faith and belief – and the new belief; between metaphor and fact; between self-realization and passivity; between the individual subject and the social object; and for Don Quixote himself perhaps – depending how you read it – between the way of a (wise?) fool and the way of conviction.

Adventure is a disorder, a disruption of the everyday. The quest is, in part, a dissatisfaction in the everyday, a compulsion to discover its deeper reality. In the mediaeval epic the hero and the epic plane are coincident, so to speak. “The men of Homer belong to the same world as their desires”, to quote Jose Ortega y Gasset.[ii]

But Don Quixote is at odds with his world. In this he is probably the first hero of the modern age – an anti-hero, if you will – not borne by the established manner of a chivalric tale, but impelled by his own will, along “the trackless way”, in Joseph Campbell’s words,[iii] of his unfolding life; and creating in his wake his own ‘mythology’, by his own heroic self-realization in a world at variance with his inner being and feeling – as individual integrity will be in an abstract world of facts and figures.

Capital and the new science were breaking the world apart. The organism was torn from its environment, but the soul craves reconciliation and unity. The pathology of progress – distraction, addiction, obsession, emotional disorder, and mental distress to the point of psychosis – all those cries of pain and anguish resound because the world is no longer whole.

And when the prevailing culture is a secular, socio-economic state and no more, to which art and philosophy are peripheral (and largely commodified), it cannot set the terms for a necessary transformation.

To be convinced – whether by religious or scientific dogma makes no difference – is to set yourself at naught and passive in a world always active and renewed. Self-realization, the search for meaning within a prison of abstraction and global assent is, in consequence, only possible in the individual psyche and through the daily heroism of each one of us.

The reign of Gods, Goddesses and our own Christian God was over, or coming to an end. If, on the other hand, the cosmic mystery is implicit in every individual existence – plant, animal, or human – then the poetic imagination, art in its broadest sense, out of which the mythic realm was born and which gave form to its cultural expression, could turn its gaze to the metaphysics – indeed the miracle – of being in every one of us.

And would it be too much to hope that it could then transform everyday life through the reconciliation of the spheres of night and day, of the timeless, or momentous, process of creation and its manifestation in time – and so of reason and authority, the heart, and the head.

But now the giants are on the march again; thousands of them ranged across land and sea. Transformed into windmills, not now by the necromancer, Freston, as Don Quixote once suspected, but by vicissitude and the main chance. Aloof, pristine, impertinent, enormous, their alien presence and baleful monotony is an affront to the vibrant landscape – each one a great counter calculating a return. For every turn another dollar.

The old gods would be in turmoil: the wind harnessed to the strategic avarice of a corporate machine. For what? To ‘save’ a world that the Megamachine (to borrow Fabian Scheidler’s term) has itself constructed and put at risk?

And so also the sun: once raised variously to the status of God or Goddess, powerful mythological symbol, the vivid nucleus of a living cycle that would every dawn dispel the dark. It, too, is to be committed to the same end. That their potential falls short I have already discussed; that even the most critical demands of our current over-consumption can be met is doubtful. But it must now also power the banal syllabus of cyber mania.

Socially destructive global monopolies are eager for every megawatt to propel their program of corporate dominance. The digitalization of the world is an imperial project of unprecedented ambition. A counterfeit world is being prepared. Uniformity of thought, action, experience, and expectation is promoted – autonomy would disturb the shallow manner of digital exchange.

The pioneers of science would be amazed. After all their hard work the earth is becoming flat again. The individual is fading away. Apparently, our lives are to be run by corporate favour and AI. Wow! Our common heritage, from the production of food to our very biology, is to be appropriated by an affected concern and handed over to ‘experts’.

Thankfully, an authentic humanity will not easily be overcome by technocratic pedantry, and we should all have enough experience of bureaucratic and executive stupidity to expect the project is delusional and self-defeating. After all, if they kill the goose, what then?

Unfortunately, it has the potential to further the cause of technocratic governance by a coterie of corporate behemoths who have made no secret of their anti-democratic and anti-social resolve, even as they cloak it in the sweet-sounding words of beneficial intent. And there appears to be no limit to their field of operation, or the level of enforcement through sophisticated systems of surveillance and control.

The intemperate pushing of AI omnipotence has some of the characteristics of mania about it. With any luck it may be destined for the same fate as other notable examples of this recurrent phenomenon. In the meantime, let’s be clear: artificial intelligence is what it says on the tin. It is fake in the same way that artificial flowers are fake. In other words, it is no more than an imitation of intelligence; or rather it purports to be since its proponents have a much- reduced understanding of intelligence in the first place.

The only way a digital system could seem analogous to intelligence is if human beings have been persuaded that they themselves are analogous to machines.

For all the accomplishments of computer science, computers still lack resolve. No computer can make an autonomous decision and no idea can arise unbidden in its electronic circuitry. The data it contains has been handed to it and its operative rules are pre-programmed in algorithms and codes. So-called ‘generative’ AI, so far as I understand it, is simply an intensification of the basic on-off electronics and the yes-no, if not this-that, and, or, both, neither, binary mathematics of existing systems.

To assert that the voluntary and boundless nature of mind and intelligence can be fully represented by a symbolic mathematical system of 1’s and 0’s is absurd – to any thoughtful person. But, of course, if in the first instance you define ‘intelligence’ by what can be contained in its restrictive code then you have AI.

The computer is an ingenious machine, without doubt, a remarkable tool as it stands, but for some reason its potential has been dressed in vainglorious exaggeration from the outset. The haughty claims for AI are no different today than fifty years ago, although confident prophecies of omnipotence still await fulfilment.

That more and more aspects of living and our thought processes can be formulated digitally, and that the programs (the preset rules of the game) are run at breakneck speed is what makes it so impressive. But whereas endless variation and repetition are possible, and answers (largely based on past conclusions) can appear as if by magic, without a non-material imagination, new ideas cannot emerge from old data.

There has been much excitement over the ‘existential’ threat of AI. Indeed, in the hands of the corporate sector, it is busy constructing its own reality with the callous logic of the machine. But there is nothing new here either: apocalyptic alarms have always been associated with the disruption of custom and loss of confidence. If it comes to it, wild forecasts of digital conquest can be countered by simply pulling the plug. The real worry is what on earth has humanity come to that it can so easily imagine subordination to its own technology, to the extent of its own obsolescence – that some would even welcome its approach.

That it is already secondary, to some extent, has nothing to do with the superiority of AI, but is entirely due to our significant distance from the profound coherence of being.

But with so much money at play, the industry is oblivious to either temporal limits or harm. And the next step in the construction of an omniscient computer system – always a goal – follows sensibly enough in the reasoning of scientific materialism.

If the mind has been reduced to the brain, and the brain itself is analogous to a data-processing, memory storage device, then why not build a ‘cognitive’ system that exceeds the intellectual capacity of any human; that would, in turn, design a new improved machine and so on. An “intelligence explosion”, until hey presto! the Singularity is reached – ultra intelligence, omniscience, omnipotence, virtual Godhood!

As fantastical as all this might seem to anyone with their feet still on the ground, there’s more. The geeks among us don’t rest easy. If you’re interested in fantasy, it’s all gathered under the acronym Tescreal. Just be aware that the principal actors here are over-exalted, self-regarding white males in the main, and a forceful eugenicist agenda (a ‘more enlightened eugenics’ apparently) runs through it.

Image: Pixabay.

If partisans of AI infallibility were left to stew in the juice of these absurdities within the techno-utopian compound of Silicon Valley, and certain university departments, they needn’t trouble the lives of ordinary decent people. But unfortunately, they command limitless capital and the insatiable dreams of monopolists. Ah, but their intent is to save the world. It’s more likely that an unholy pairing with messianic pretensions will pave the road to hell.

And not only do they appear to be living on another planet, they actually think we can. In this respect, it is a point worth making that no man ever set foot on the moon, and no man or woman ever will, unless they want to bring their life to a painful conclusion. Man reached the moon by bringing his earth environment with him in a spacecraft. An ingenious accomplishment, undoubtedly, but a miss is as good as a mile. And because what is contained in the spacesuit, spacecraft, or space colony for that matter, is clearly partial rather than whole, prolonged existence in it is simply impossible, either physically or psychologically – unless, of course, you’re a machine, or a posthuman!

Given the wonder of existence in the first place, the greatest marvels of being are mind and consciousness, memory and ideas. Any degree of self-awareness should open us to the profound mystery from which they arise. That anyone could make of this ineffable experience nothing more than a mechanical process to be downloaded into a plastic ‘chrysalis’ full of semi-conductors, switches, and silicon chips; and to then emerge as a kind of super-intelligent, posthuman immortal shows just how far from any real sense of our creative presence some of us have drifted.

Image: Tomas Ryant.

Every day now, it seems, we are subject to reproof. Signs of crisis are insistent and portents of doom pressure us in a seemingly chaotic world. This essay has attempted to set a wider context; to highlight the critical issues; and to point to the  obvious fact that if the corporate/political/ideological covenant responsible for our present state is being relied upon to provide solutions we are going nowhere.

For all its achievements to date, it is now becoming clear that scientific materialism and the single-minded logic of its methodology is reaching the limits of its efficacy; even as materialist anticipation is reaching for its apotheosis in the extravagant representations of AI – the ultimate expression of its reductionist worldview.

And it is possible to see on the wildest shores of this ‘promised land’ a kind of hysteria in the face of diminishing returns, and the desperate resuscitation of a fading ideology.

But the piling on of the past will not work. With increasing complexity every solution begets more problems. It’s a vicious circle, such that at this point many of us might be beginning to feel Sancho Panza’s reproach – windmills in the head is right! How to step off the treadmill is the crux of the problem, although it is also all too clearly the solution. And in the absence of another world to step on to we are hooked by a kind of compulsion neurosis.

A more benign world will require a new morality in its broadest sense; it will not arrive ‘off the peg’, so to speak. ‘Smart’, ‘sustainable’, ‘clean’, ‘green’, the defining terms of our post-carbon future, are a cruel deception if their only purpose is to keep the machine in gear.

Strangely, the very ideology that defines the world will not recognize its material constraint. It still relies on the illusion of superabundance and the invocation of  technological superiority in a world struggling for breath.

And where – is it ever asked – is our humanity in this brave new world? The whole drama of a single life, a sort of flourish upon the oceanic well of time and creation; and the billions of us marooned in an abstract world of facts and figures. How do we dignify our lives in a world in which fire has been quenched?

Corbusier’s ‘machine to live in’ is realized in the technological dependence and the spick and span aspect of the all-electric house. But there was a time when the hearth was symbolic of the Navel of the Earth; when fire, the Goddess of the hearth, symbolized the presence of the divine. The hearth and its home were explicit symbols of implicit unity: the invisible or immaterial realm made visible in the material culture.

Such sensibilities are long gone, of course, and unity and meaning must be sought in the human heart – as they should be at this stage of our cultural evolution. But what if the heart itself is cold?  What if the material culture is destructive or merely bland?

We now live in a manner without discernment or reserve, informed by opinion and  the ubiquity of the market. Jesus drove the moneylenders from the temple; a second coming would be welcome in the face of an ill-considered, commercial culture of unprecedented shallowness. Its dominance and its demands, and its impression  upon all is turning hearts to stone and our world into a wasteland.

It is true that most people’s lives are enriched and gain meaning in the ordinary communion of family, friends and community; and perhaps in the practicalities of daily life. But there is a wider world, and in the minds of capitalists the end always justifies the means. In their calculations you don’t count – the phenomenon of your being, that is, not your efficiency in the economy of capital accumulation.

In the everyday language of economics. the economy appears to be an almost perfect mathematical system independent of human history – an abstraction isolated from reality as a whole. In the extremism of neo-liberalism its jurisdiction has neither moral, social, or cultural bounds and it now regulates the global like a detached and senseless Victorian viceroy. To the extent that our lives are decided by it, the social context will be inhumane, and inadequate to our potential and imaginative capacity.

Life in the shallows of economic determinism soon exhausts itself. There is an emptiness at the heart of contemporary culture that will not be filled by the ‘green agenda’. The post-carbon future, as currently outlined, exemplifies the metaphor of the machine no less than its antecedent. Technological solutions will only perpetuate our insulation from the vibrant process of creation. And ‘smart’ technology, let us be clear, does not run on fresh air. On the contrary the magnitude of its energy demand may be unprecedented in industrial history.

The real world arises organically as a self-organizing system, whole and complete at every step of its evolution. That is to say, it is incomparable – it’s what it is and what we are – and may be benign or destructive as we might inhabit it. A bio-physical system is ‘limited’ by the very interdependence of its diverse elements, such that individual behaviour is always governed by a superior context.

Scientific materialism and the pathology of dissociation have led us astray. “For there is in the universe neither centre nor circumference”, wrote Giordano Bruno, “but if you will, the whole is central, and every point may also be regarded as part of a circumference in respect to some other central point”.

Each one of us, then, is centre; each one of us manifests the whole, to put it another way. It follows that every identity is ‘I’; and in this sense there is no ‘you’, no other.

In the face of this reality, capitalism rewards one at the expense of another, the few at the expense of the many. In the interest of accumulation, it externalizes costs – to the individual, society, and the environment. It is dehumanizing, anti-social, toxic,  ultimately self-destructive, and now global.

We are preoccupied with solutions; but the critical choice is not between fossil fuels and renewables, but between a narrow rationalism and an expanded consciousness, between the sleep of reason and integrity. The crisis we are facing is not, in the first instance, a problem to be solved, but a failure to clearly perceive its cause.

In the words of Jose Ortega y Gasset, “we do not know what is happening to us, and that is precisely the thing that is happening to us – the fact of not knowing what is happening to us”.[iv]

[i] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, London, 2001, p 8

[ii] Jose Ortega y Gasset. Meditations on Don Quixote, quoted in Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Penguin, London, 1976

[iii]op. cit.

[iv] Jose Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis, Norton, New York, 1962, p.119


About Author

Terence O'Connell is a professional artist using traditional methods and materials. He lives in the beautiful Lakeland area of north Co. Westmeath in the Irish midlands. Though not exclusively, his work is mainly concerned with the landscape and wildlife of this special area. www.terenceoconnell.ie

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