Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Modernity's fear : not the Wrath of God or Nature, but the Wrath of Neighbours

The claim that the 19th century saw the "Death of God" is so well known that it is easy to overlook that the Victorian Age also came to accept the claim of the "Death of Nature" as well.

Sir Charles Lyell came up with this particular claim, though he was always quick to say that he still believed in God,  despite most of his friends in Science no longer doing so.

Lyell was always a very superior person whenever dealing with 'lesser' beings, so it is little wonder he also took a distant Olympian view of the workings of earthly geological processes.

He dismissed the idea of  geological or cosmic catastrophes, not just in the past ( his best known claim) , but happening ever.

He did this by claiming that if you took a distant enough view of them, even earthquakes and volcanoes are but tiny wiggles in time, in the unending building up and wearing down of the Earth's surface.

Tiny wiggles up and down around a surface central axis that actually varied very little, in measurements of the overall diameter of the entire Earth, if  viewed over the long periods of geological time.

Eventually, he said, every volcano exploding above a city was matched by an earthquake sinking a city below the ground.

Any supposed 'catastrophe' , quote unquote, was thus reduced to being only local, small and short term, geologically speaking.

Humans actually living in the earthquake and volcano zone might dispute the minor-ness of  his august "Uniformitarianism" claims, but Lyell's real audience was those people living in the earthquake/volcano free zones of the Protestant north.

Indirectly, removing the possibility of global natural catastrophes  also reduced the possibility of a wrathful God having a physical means of punishing or rewarding humans, at least in the minds of 19th century Protestants who dismissed the idea of current Miracles but still believed in the workings of Providence.

So in effect, accepting the Death of Nature also eased one to accept the Death of any God capable of intervening in the physical , as opposed to the spiritual, world.

This is because Lyell's catastrophe-denying claim had wide metaphorical power, and moved quickly into many other areas of Science and civilized thought.

So it was that Lyell, the professional scientific expert and Christian,  who worked most successfully to remove the power of God's surrogates, the priests and preachers.

But I wish to argue that he also removed the independent power of those former DIYers, the bog-ordinary parishioners.

For Lyell's other main plank was his claim that all geological change happened exceedingly slowly : 'Gradualism'.

He claimed that while ,yes, earthquakes and volcanic explosions were over in seconds, the forces leading up to that moment developed over millions of years.

So generations of professional, expert, scientists could rest assured they had lifetimes to find modest, gradual, limited area solutions to modest, gradual, limited area problems.

 Nice, steady work with a good pension at the end.

Helping humanity could become a career, a sinecure, a new form of intellectual aristocracy, even !

Catastrophes were no longer massively global and sudden and thus beyond the power of anyone to ameliorate.

By contrast, Lyell's new micro-catastrophes ( local, small and short term and above all, slow developing) could be managed, given 'adequate' funding for long term scientific research : life-long work done by professionals like himself and his friends.

Earthquakes, cosmic collisions and great glacial floods being dismissed from the realms of possibilities , scientists quickly found new micro catastrophes in the ordinary vicissitudes of life, once handled more or less adequately by all of ordinary us, all on our own.

So it came about that today ordinary people (parishioners) are judged incapable, un-aided, of doing much of anything right.

 Even grieving the loss of their own family members. (Universities in the US now offer PhDs in professional grieve-counselling.)

Perhaps one half of us still does physical work ; the other half are professionals,experts, inspectors: those  who neither weave nor spin, but merely second guess the work of others.

And guess who gets better paid, works in better conditions and has higher social prestige ?

Catastrophes are the ultimate in sublimity : a liner dashed on the rocks by an ocean storm being so much more sublime than viewing just the storm itself.

But while God and Nature was no longer capable of supplying sublimity, that didn't reduce humanity's craving for the drug.

So catastrophe and sublimity crept back into life, no longer the work of God or Nature but of other humans.

The wrath of neighbours converted them into the sublime enemies of humanity : no more unearthly cries from jungle beasts, now it was the sound of our neighbour's Panther and Tiger tank treads that made our blood run cold.

It is no coincidence that Lyell's claims pre-heralded the mid 19th century rise of nationalism, with its single-minded group love and multiple group hates.

Even outside of nationalist warfare, catastrophes have had to always have a human cause.

No liner is ever sunk in a One Hundred Year storm as a result of an Act of God.

Now an official inquiry was sure to ask, given radio and radar, just what was the captain doing out on the seas at that time ?

Catastrophe, supposedly banished by Lyell, was back - smaller than ever , but also much more plentiful than ever.....

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