Wednesday, 24 February 2016

PEPPER'S GHOST IN PLATO'S CAVE: DISTRACTING THE MASSES



 

All the world’s a stage.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It

 
The reality of course is exactly the other way around.
Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class

 

As the narrator in Withnail & I reminds us, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. And so, although Jeremy Corbyn has said nothing beyond the ‘vaguely aspirational’ class of political non-statements, he did on one recent occasion accurately describe David Cameron’s supposed negotiations with the monolithic European superstate as ‘a theatrical sideshow’.

Mr. Corbyn is, of course, being somewhat slippery. Almost all political events in the West are now theatre, intended to distract from the dark clouds massing on the economic and social horizons. The political class and the media excel in this type of obfuscation by distraction. They also show a fascination with the acting profession, which is the reason the media rarely ask Roger Scruton or Thomas Sowell for comments on matters political, but are happy to broadcast the wisdom of Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Thompson. It sometimes seems that, were the Western economies unanimously to fail tomorrow, the newspapers would turn to the cast of Downton Abbey for their opinion and advice.
And the failure of Western economies is, as politicians like to say, on the table. The West feels like one of those marked men in the gangster movies where any one of half-a-dozen players might take him out at any moment. Guillaume Faye, French theorist of the so-called ‘New Right’, wrote about a ‘convergence of catastrophes’.  Faye writes that

‘A series of “dramatic lines” are approaching one another and converging like a river’s tributaries with perfect accord (between 2010 and 2020) towards a breaking point and a descent into chaos.’ [Convergence of Catastrophes]

Simply because the media no longer mention Greece except in the context of the ‘migration crisis’ (itself a bit of political theatre) does not mean the European financial crisis is over. Italy, by some accounts, is the next economy likely to fail because of some piece of chicanery known to the alchemists of economics as ‘Non-performing loans’, or NPLs. This is accrued debt which is not going to be paid back. In what sense do you need a technocratic class to tell you this suspension of reality cannot last? I once attended a theatrical production in which a piece of scenery fell from the wall of the set during the play. The actors carried on without blinking, while there was a ripple of mild shock in the audience. Reality had come calling in its obdurate way, and while the actors remained calm, the crowd were uneasy. How like the West, where reality is about to put in an unscheduled appearance of its own.

If Faye’s convergence takes place, it will be entirely the fault of the political class and their twin obsessions with both technocratic political control and an illusory reality for which the media are their provisional wing. A good image for this is the old music-hall illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost.

In this classic illusion, two rooms are required. One is visible to an audience (usually a stage) and one is not. With strategic lighting and an intermediary pane of glass, a figure in the concealed room can be projected in ‘ghostly’ form on the stage. This image of using technological means to produce something which appears to exist but does not seems to have been tailor-made for the political class.

It is difficult to see what the political elites and their various scene-shifters and set-designers are trying to achieve, and it often appears that the desire to produce apparent alternative realities has metamorphosed into a mania, a genuine psychopathology which we must all follow whether we want to or not. The production of political theatre has become an end in itself. The play is now the thing.

It is no coincidence but a structural necessity that the shadowy figures in the cave of Plato’s Republic, the ones who hold the shapes which produce the flickering silhouettes on the cave wall the prisoners take for reality, are described by Plato as ‘actors’. Perhaps if our political elites could tear themselves away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd – a roar whose tone that same class should pay close attention to – we may pull ourselves back from the abyss these people are steering us towards.

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