Watching this BBC documentary about the Islamic History of Europe I came across the Islamic roots of Convivencia, a term I’ve associated with Ivan Illich, perhaps its most recent heir, himself part of an Hispanic tradition going back to Al Andaluz. This film is a refreshing look at the contributions of Islamic Culture to the Modern World. While both Convivencia and the wider significance of this legacy is poorly understood, what I’d like to focus on here was almost a throwaway observation made by the film’s narrator, Rogeh Omaar. In presenting his personal response to visiting the Alhambra, he noted the sense of impermanence he felt from the use of fragile plaster instead of marble for some of the palace’s decorations. He commented that this gave him a feeling of wistful sadness at what he felt its builder’s must have understood of the impermanence of their situation as Al Andaluz entered its decline.
We look at ancient structures, actually most structures built before the mid nineteenth century, as having been “built for the Ages.” We don’t seem to make much of this. We accept that they have survived for our entertainment as much as for any other purpose. We also fail to connect the meanings attached to an attitude of permanence, and its opposite and corollary, impermanence.
Watching scenes of lasting though ruined splendor in southern Spain, listening to the passages of cultures rising and falling on the Iberian Peninsula, it occurred to me that there has been an acceleration of the speed of decay that goes right back to the earliest civilizations. That if we look at history for signs of stability, relative permanence, we see a record of an almost unbroken acceleration of the rate of decline. Egypt lasting some four thousand years, on down through the empires of the ancient world, and on down to today the rate of impermanence has increased, stability has all but disappeared.
The party line is not interested in looking at the passage of time in that way. We are encouraged to see a rise in Progress through increased innovation. We are led to cherry pick myths of success from out of the vale of tears that marks history and see this erosion of stability as an ultimate good. Standing at this precipice, its hard to maintain an unshakable faith in this view, but it can be even more difficult to shed its influence. In what may seem a fit of ingratitude, I put more energy into critiquing those whose positions might be closest to my own, because of what I see as a failure to break these ultimate taboos. From “Green” technologists to “Social” revolutionaries, I see this inability to free ourselves from the consequences of the myth of progress to be pernicious because they are there not just as traps for the unwary, but as traps for those who’ve made it so far as to begin to reject the dominant paradigm. It’s a false exit that returns them to captivity.
Looking at innovation as a symptom of impermanence, and from there as a consequence of the eroding impulse to remove all “investment” from the present and fritter it away on some fantasy of the Future; is to turn the common reflexive view on its head. It is to say that all the “laws” of progress, of the future’s inevitable surpassing of the present that lies behind a worship of innovation is a locus of corrosive irresponsibility.
We stand as inheritors of thousands of years of recorded history overlaying the 300-400 million year evolutionary “history” of our existence as creatures. We’ve been inclined to see this as a ladder with ourselves at its apex. The only truth to that is that we have put an enormous and potentially successful effort into leaving behind us such a legacy of collapse and extinction so that “our” time may be a pinnacle of sorts for a long time to come! Another way of looking at evolutionary history might be to see it as life’s efforts to maintain stability in ever-changing conditions. It may be counter-intuitive, but geological time is full of disruption, and life has been a force working to bridge disruption and maintain continuity. Life’s diversity, is both a symptom of these eroding forces acting upon genetic material and leading to mutability; and it has provided a mechanism by which the stability of an unbroken lineage of genetic material has come down to us from those first days of life’s existence on earth. We tend to think of this resilience as a product of “innovation” at work when it is really a power of stabilization.
Many who’ve given up on the permanence of modernity maintain a belief in myths of its supreme capability and power. Surrounded by signs of collapse due to sheer and breathtaking incompetence hidden behind an insistence that nothing is fundamentally wrong; these voices would have us continue to believe in hidden forces and centers of absolute competence where technology’s true wonders are even now as we tremble in fear being developed out of sight, in secret covert government laboratories or the bowels of all powerful multinationals. Not only will these super technologies work at solving all our ills, but they will break with the endless cycle of unintended consequences and provide us with a permanent salvation.
These are echoes of the bunker mentality in Berlin 1945, and also of The Confederacy in 1865, and any of an unbroken tradition of millennial apocalyptic moments throughout history. They share a conviction that our sense of ultimate power is the most important thing we have to hold onto at any cost, and they provide nourishment to the continuation of a sense of victim-hood essential and at the heart of any death worshiping cult. The very things that are destroying us will save us, and we deserve it because we are history’s victims.
These I’d like to point out are the parents of the cult of innovation. They are the source of its pernicious tenacity. They are also a sign that there is no longer any vitality within the culture of innovation.
The incompetence and bad feeling that surrounds us, the steepening slope of decline and collapse this leads us towards is there because there is no vitality remaining in a world-view that no one actually believes in any more.
I’ve focused on futility as a guide to action. That a sense of futility is not a sign of “pessimism” – bad – or to be countered by a boost in “confidence” – good – but that it should be taken seriously as a sign that we are entering serious danger. The dread of futility is an instinctive reaction to danger. We ignore it at our mortal peril. But even as we are driven to disregard its warnings it has an effect on us. We disengage from that which we read as futile. We do not give it our all. In this diminished state, under the shadow of futility, we are incapable of giving anything our all. Hence the snowballing epidemic of incompetence and bad faith we see around us. There are no hidden magic solutions. There is no screwing up of our resolve to double-down on our positions that will miraculously take us “back” to some “happier” time. There is no inevitable fount of innovation that will churn Progress back to life. The more we insist on these “answers,” the deeper our sense of futility, the greater our disconnect with reality, and the more certain our downfall will be as complete as it can be.
The greatest sign of an absence of futility is vigor. It is an upwelling of true hope, not sham confidence. In hope we do not pull punches and build “just good enough,” or sacrifice life’s value on an altar of efficiency with an eye on our efforts being automatically trumped by an ever better future. We give our all. We build for the ages. Not because some momentary surplus has made it possible. If that were the case we would see history as gaining in stability over time, the pyramids would be mere ephemera next to the products of our day. If we look for signs of vitality they are not connected with concentrations of riches – usually signs of encroaching decay – we find them at periods when the sense of futility has been pushed aside when there has existed a living bond between a world-view and its effectiveness in engaging with the world.
Instead of chasing innovation over the cliff, what if we stopped forcing ourselves to resist the warnings of futility? Vitality is the reward. This was a lesson of the early Islamic period. This is what led the founders of Al Andaluz to discover the power of Convivencia. While we’ve accepted their contributions as a vessel for the transmission of the “wisdom of the ancients,” we’ve neglected this, perhaps their greatest contribution. That a people in the bosom of a vital belief found hope. They not only cultivated a single way of life, but created a haven with an atmosphere in which anyone could live freely in a shared vitality, in Convivencia.
Such belief cannot be manufactured. It cannot be imposed. It arises out of fortuitous accident perhaps, but accident aided by attention freed from distractions and keen to find and build on the whispers that surround us. We have no chance of finding such a moment if we keep looking in bad faith back towards dead beliefs. The path from futility to vitality is there as a guide. We’ll “know it when we see it.” It will be like a fountain in the desert.