By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Here is a partial list of some of the things I do not know much about.
These are all outside my field, but if there were something about one of these that could impact on another, if vaccines could impact on genetics, for instance, or toxins on bee orientation, then I would be cautious about implementing any new product or technology until very certain that no such impact was going to be detrimental to any subject.
The trouble is, the more the need for investment into research into any subject, the more likely it is that the experts in that field are under the financial thumb of some powerful lobby. The more universal the institution, the more likely it is to be biassed in favour of its brokers, usually the key players in industries that concern that institution.
Throughout history, the official view has proven to be either erroneous or contrived, and the rogue voice has, more often not, proved correct. Now however, we are drowning in information, and what has that brought about? A cacophony of rogue voices! Meanwhile the scientists still ‘in the loop’ of institutions are so underfunded that they have to sell themselves to capital in order to continue their research.
All the more reason to implement change with considerable caution. At this point in time, humankind needs to inch forward, and possibly even go back. The larger the potential profit, the slower we should go.
This requires a new concept of time, or rather an old one. We need to replace progressive time with Boustrophedon time. Boustrophedon time is the time a plough takes to plough each furrow of a field, back and forth across the surface from the first furrow to the last. It could be seen as the longest distance between two points. Ezra Pound’s maxim, ‘Make it new!’ was the clarion call of progress at the start of the twentieth century, but it no longer sounds appropriate for a new century.
‘Make it thorough,’ I say now. In my field, the arts, homeostasis is what one is looking for: an authentic, true balance of essential parts to make a whole larger than those parts, a discovered whole, and one which resonates; not a pre-ordained product or message. This requires patience, craftsmanship as well as artistry, and genius — a breakthrough, yes, but a tried and tested one. And whether we work in the arts or in the sciences, now we should be cautious before announcing a breakthrough as such. Put no faith in swift responses.
Meanwhile, be curious. Explore all seeming side-tracks. Reject nothing out-of-hand. This last injunction is anathema to common-sensers. Common-sense can easily lead to censorship, because common-sense prefers to be hasty. It denounces all alternative hypotheses to some promoted view as conspiracy theories. Its favoured mode is the dismissive. But common-sense is reliant on experts, whose endorsement by authority ‘sensers’ see no reason to question, since the subject lies outside their field. Fair enough, but the fields which lie outside our own are nevertheless vital for our own well-being, so we cannot simply swallow the media view, the expert view, the party view. Common-sensers are intolerant of doubt. They have a certain trenchant machismo, even if they happen to be female. But their dismissive outlook can render them content to move forward at the official speed.
People embrace decisiveness. Look at the appeal of ‘Get Brexit done!’ But when I suffered from an epileptic episode, the specialist who impressed me most was the one who admitted his own ignorance. In my field, I am constantly being brought up against my own ignorance, and I’m obliged to realise how little I am in control. But we now have the power to bring about fundamental changes to our bio-chemistry and to our existence. It is for this precise reason that we should be hesitant. And in a hesitant time, we should accept the need for a thorough, meticulously slow and methodical approach, funded from the public purse, where ignorance is admitted and failure announced, however hard that may be to swallow; for this is an approach which may also need to effect a retreat.
Can a civilization retire gracefully? Empires increase in intolerance as they fail, indeed their intolerance abets their overthrow. Change overwhelms us, one way or another. But history reveals a growth of civilisation and a die-off, which is a sort of constant. In recent times, it is undeniable that certain innovative technologies achieved vertical take-off. This is a cause for concern rather than celebration. The vertical take-off associated with 3D printers, mobile phones and the internet has made a few intolerably wealthy and innumerable others unable to earn a living. Further progress is likely to make this hiatus even more obscene. On the fields in my youth, we used a killer for Ragwort that made it grow excessively tall excessively fast. The speed of its growth is what killed it.
What seems to underlie existence? I note an ebb and a flow to many aspects of our planet, waves, winds, seasons. ‘Make it new!’ seems too one-way, related, in art at least, to the Fascism of the Vorticists. Can we ebb or must we forever flow, at a faster and faster rate? Retreat is not extinction. Progress might be, if its acceleration exceeds precaution.
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin…’ The line from Eliot’s Waste Land seems a riposte to Pound’s dictum. Shiva is destroyer and creator, and Eliot foresaw that all construction involves destruction of what was there before.
A few centuries ago, people lived much as people had lived for centuries before them. But, make no mistake, I do want the vital breakthrough, and the safe vaccine, and I also want a sustainable system that protects bees as well as humans, for the humans are the bees. I am not a Luddite or an Amish, but still, I want the innovation that is thoroughly won. I would like our relentless pace to change, and for us to be able to ease back, and then to move slowly, but confidently, forward. Humanity must rediscover patience.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).