Friday, August 11, 2017

"Into the Unknown" at the Barbiican

I went to this exhibition. Some of the exhibits were a bit dull - some old books in glass cases. And quite a lot were editions that I'd actually owned at some point. Displays of old futures, on cigarette cards and advertisements and posters...the sort of thing that would be 'retro-futurist', except that at the time it was made it was just...futurist; it has to be knowing to be retro-futurist, doesn't it?

There were some physical objects...models of Jules Verne things like a Nautilus and a balloon, some maquettes and props from films, none of which really grabbed me, though I rather liked some of the things from eXistenZ, which I've always though was rather under-rated.

The best bit was really the screens displaying clips from films...the mainstream ones like 'Close Encounters' and 'Back to the Future' and 'The Day after Tomorrow', but also some that I'd never heard of, like Afronauts, and Pumzi, the Invisible Cities series...and High Rise and Dark City...and Astro Black. All of these looked really interesting, and some are short and available on YouTube or somewhere else online.

The last item in the exhibition is a showing of 'In the Future they ate from the finest porcelain'. This was striking, but left me feeling uncomfortable. It's a film by a Palestinian woman about archaeology and politics. It doesn't mention Israel or Palestine or Zionism, but it's clearly about the way that Israel uses archaeology as part of an ideological justification for the its version of essentialist Jewish nationalism. It's cleverly made, and beautiful to watch and listen to. But it does explicitly argue that the people it refers to as 'our rulers' have invented their own historic connection to the land, so as to deny that of the suffering indigenous people. There is a school of thought in Palestinian nationalism, and sometimes its supporters, that really does deny that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and so on.

And I think that's unnecessary, and offensive. I'm not an expert on the status of the archaeological evidence one way or another, but it strikes me as a stupid and destructive line of argument, like the dreary debates I remember as to whether Jews constituted a nation - in which Stalin's definition usually cropped up.

I'm quite sympathetic to Shlomo Sand's arguments that the 'Jewish People' and 'The Land of Israel' are historical constructions, as long it's understood that the Jewish people is 'invented' in the same sense that other peoples are. Similarly, it's one thing to refer to the Holocaust as part of the founding 'myth' of the State of Israel, and another to suggest that the Holocaust is a myth in the sense of not being part of actual history. The concept of 'fake news', somehow counterposed to 'real news', belongs here too.

There is a bigger issue here, which someone else is probably thinking about even now. Liberal and progressive intellectuals have spent years picking away at what we might think of as 'realist' epistemology, pointing out the way that all kinds of knowledge - science, history, medicine - are not simply revealed but are constructed. And we've ended up not with a population that engages critically and wisely with knowledge, but with Trump and Farage and Gove, and the climate change deniers...and the Moon landing deniers...Where does this go? It's not sustainable to say that non-realist epistemology is only for us clever people, and the rest have to just trust in the experts.

More to follow about this, I think.

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