Friday, August 1, 2008

Atlantis revisited

Ever since the Ancient Greeks lamented the loss of the mythical state of Atlantis, humans have been looking to the past with rosy tinted glasses and indeed "harping back to a golden age". Current discussions of the "broken society" (as Mark Lawson points out in todays Guardian) are riddled with this kind of nostalgia for a utopian past that never actually existed. Much modern sociology and political discourse is permeated with this notion that society and community is declining as we lose contact with the essential values of this perfect past.

It is not just Tory thinking that is riddled with this nostalgia for purity or "community". Michael Young's descriptions of the East End of London are a prime example of this tendency. Far from being a forward looking and emancipatory approach to society his approach harbours a deeply conservative ideology (or even theology) similar to that commonly expressed in the Tory hatred of the "permissive society of the 60s". This approach can easily descend into a disdain for all aspects of modernity and a desire whether in Christianity or Islam for a return to the fundamentals.

At its worst this essentialist yearning for a pure and perfect past becomes the engine driving racism and xenophobia. Indeed it is arguable that in Michael Young's last book, the New East End (which I criticise earlier in the blog) this tendency to blame the new-comer is manifest even in a book which purports to come from a liberal left position.

The notion that there is something inherently modern about current issues like knife or gang crime or "social breakdown" (as it is often called) is arrant nonsense. The notion that poor parenting has only suddenly and recently created a generation of children without moral boundaries shouldn't be able to survive even a cursory reading of Dickens or Dostoeyevsky. Were it not for this desire to decry the hard and contingent facts of the present and to prettify and idealise the past we might actually begin to see more of what is actually going on in the world now. Instead politicians and pundits are busy creating a fantasy world where even nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

The notion set out in Maggie Jackson's book "Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age" is as Mark Lawson points out riddled with this "invocation of a lost, and by insinuation better, society". The internet, emails, iPods and other convenience tools are just this - tools. They can be used do a huge range of things, some positive, some negative, some neutral. The notion that it is these tools that are robbing us of the ability to think, converse, concentrate and create is a confusion of the tools themselves and how we use or abuse them. After all, the Catholic Church said exactly the same about the early printing press. Rather it is how we use them and what we use them for - how we organise and understand their (and our own roles) in society that really matters.

I wonder whether the point of this nostalgia, this lament for "community" is that it is a superbly effective way of diverting our attention. It stops us addressing the real relations of power and privilege that provide a rather more sensible explanation for the way in which different societies actually evolve and develop, whether in positive or negative directions.