Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
Thus wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, ironically enough in 1836. I will take that irony as a positive addition to the intrinsic value of the quote, however. Placed now, 176 years later, it represents both poles of the longings and hardships faced by my own generation — on one side, the very human impulse to create out of a state of complete purity, to unravel the world anew through our own eyes and nobody else’s. On the other side, the very vivid presence of doubts and deeds experienced centuries ago, by souls not so different from ours. Can we learn from them? Should we learn from them?
I want to state as clearly as possible — yes, of course we should. But only as a means to move forward, and not as an end in itself. The unquestionable Present, this magical moment where all the possibilities lay, must make itself felt in every book that is opened, every song that is played and every story that is told. The past is fuel, to keep us moving ever closer towards a future that shall always remain unknown.
Children of the Revolution
Of course the present is never as easy to navigate through as the past or the idealized future. It is in the present that our flaws and internal contradictions are brought into play, and become impossible to run away from. The past always seems more polished, and it is easier to keep on building the present as a perfected replica of the past — or as an eternal anticipation of the future. It is easier to simply insert ourselves into pre-tested roles, “for” something and “against” something, anything that can give us some sense of back-and-forth continuity, clear old paradigms to break and clear new paradigms to adopt, all external to ourselves and to our individual needs. It is easier to just pick a side.
For us young people of a generation that seems to be essentially post-everything, however, it becomes impossible to pick a side without attributing to it elements of theatrics and self-mockery, as it implies giving up being your true, wildly confused self to indulge in a plastically manufactured identity that no one could possibly take seriously. And yet, the other option isn’t much better. To come to terms with our state of drifting in a rapidly changing world suddenly puts us in a position we have not at all been prepared for — we are suddenly the Children of the Revolution, a revolution that hasn’t happened yet, but that manifests itself in the ongoing deterioration of all symbols and institutions of the past. And yet without any alternatives being presented, we are left not with a bright new world, but with a disconcerting void to be filled.
Where Do We Go Now?
I still dream of feeling that precious sparkle of “NOW!” screaming at my face, which I have read about in books only, the creative abandon of the beatniks, the hippies, the punks, the whatevers — but most importantly, the somethings. And while having transcended all these labels is good, the feeling it has left is not of positive detachment and freedom to create something truly new, but of sheer abandonment. Ideology has abandoned us. We have too much history to carry on our backs, too many lessons learned with disappointments, none of which we got to experience ourselves. By presenting us the world through negative space our parents and teachers think they have given us answers. They haven’t. Education has taught us everything we shouldn’t do, only to immediately after demand that we made the same mistakes as those before us — the system got only broad enough to encompass the collective discontentment towards it, but not for people to effectively break through it and start building a different reality.
Under these conditions, educated people are cursed, overly self-conscious of their own contradictions but incapable of doing anything for real change. The educational system represents a paradox: it is designed to form critical individuals, but at the same time to insert them into the very system they are taught to despise. The academic community seems to me more like a playground for those too smart to easily abide, a place for them to throw hypotheses and ideas and even possible solutions at each other to no end, creating and refuting theories until they become old enough to retire and succumb to a comfortable and futile existence accompanied by books and cats in the countryside. As if constantly commentating on reality somehow made you less responsible for it.
I might appear one-sided and judgmental, but I am not trying to prove anything here. Instead, I hope that through presenting my own fears and concerns, be they justifiable or not, I can somehow illustrate the general lack of perspective I can see affecting even those who are supposedly on the privileged side of society. That is because everything the past generations could hold so fondly onto has now been almost completely deconstructed. They too went through crisis, even an incredibly severe crisis, but crisis was then seen as part of a system that could still bear the promise of a better future — a future filled with all clearly good things: money, jobs, better schools, bigger markets. Values that seemed so unquestionably positive then today strike us as almost artificial, and definitely not the solutions to all our problems. The crisis we face today has an element of weariness to it, to the point that it becomes hard to even believe in any sort of real “overcoming”. Our only two options from now on seem to be downright nihilism or downright utopianism; all faith in the present world of facts and things is now gone for good.
Out Here in the Void
And yet the world keeps on turning, and as we grow we try our best to find delight in a universe made out of space left empty. There is nothing anymore that can determine what we are going to be “raised to become”. Our daily lives grow more and more into becoming a kaleidoscope of infinite possibilities, infinite ways to see reality and to position ourselves within it. We can now fully embrace drifting, or we can rot away trying to play the ridiculous game of stability, of twitching ourselves to fit within pre-designed models that become ever more unsustainable and absurd. All cycles have been broken; we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Where do we go from here? What could possibly help us prepare for what is to come? Yes, I think studying is crucial in times like these — studying is, in essence, the practice of active discovery, of intentionally delving into the delicate code that shapes everything around us. The world is shaped by information, which is naturally greatly affected by the behavior of us humans. When we realize that, it becomes crystal clear that to study is to take the shaping of the world into our own hands — in other words, to assume responsibility for the present. We must jump, fly over the abyss that has been opened between theory and practice.
Aldous Huxley pointed out in his introduction to The Perennial Philosophy that “Knowledge is a function of being. When there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing.” I would say the opposite is just as true. What we know is who we are — when we learn, we change. The act of studying is thus to be considered an experience as unique and personal as any other, and not just some sort of passive downloading of data. I propose an education that no longer shuns and ignores the constant and uninterrupted contact to the immediate reality, but that is designed to actually put information forward to the world, to create reality anew through promoting concrete life experiences.
The whole “teacher-pupil” hierarchy, based on the notion that knowledge is something to be put forward unchanged generation after generation by so-called “carriers”, must disappear. Knowledge can no longer be seen as some kind of good to be kept, something that might serve to make you more distinguished socially or to get a better job. Knowledge is fluid. It shouldn’t serve for mere accumulation; it is meant to be transformed, put forward under new shapes and interpretations. Every relationship formed for teaching purposes should take place in the manner of a collaborative investigation of the conditions and needs of the present moment. I believe this would be the first step to be taken in order to start diluting the separation between formal education and active innovation.
Research can’t be seen as an endeavor belonging exclusively to those “qualified” enough to make a name for themselves in the academic field. Research is the natural expression of the thinking and acting of any healthy human being that hasn’t yet been crushed by the unspeakably oppressive notion that his individuality exists separate from the whole, that he alone is in no position to change anything that is not confined to the most private and secluded sectors of his life. The fundamental shift of perception that is capable of turning knowledge into an empowering tool rather than a burden is the awareness that, no matter how it configures itself, society will always be a reflection of individual human processes, of human desires and fears. How different would our daily routines look if we didn’t see the world as something we have to abide to, but as our canvas, composed by every little thing we do? What would be the things we would then have to be aware of, instead of how good our nails look during a job interview?
Studying the Unwritten Future
Fukuyama’s “end of history”, the theory that the fall of communism would represent “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and that Western liberal democracy would be “the final form of human government” strikes us today as the description of the apocalypse itself. But there is a flipside to it. As capitalism seems to be the only option nowadays, it strips itself bare from all moral values that were attached to it during the Cold War in order to oppose communism. And without the make-believe game of liberal ideology to justify spending eight hours at work daily, the feeling of utter and inescapable meaningless that is slowly taking over every single instance of modern life is bound to, sooner or later, catalyze the dawn of a new cycle in history, just like feudalism was slowly overcome in the 16th century not through an angry insurrection, but simply by the progressive rotting away of the dogmas it was based upon.
I plead for an education that serves this emerging state of consciousness, instead of suffocating it. The whole world is in a state of alertness, looking out for what is to come. The only thing we need now in order to become completely free is the final, definitive and irreversible realization and acceptance of our freedom! May our precious knowledge be what pushes us onto this miraculous void called the future. And may we never stop quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the beauty of words and thoughts is eternal and echoes across the centuries, on coffee tables, under bedsheets, on board on buses and trains, reminding us, over and over again, of the infinite mystery that is contained within every single moment.
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