Krishna’s Polycrisis

Polycrisis, permacrisis, omnicrisis…new words are emerging at the moment to try and capture the sense that the crises we’re facing are connected – symptoms of a deeper imbalance.

In Hindu thought, this is nothing new. In February, after Russia invaded Ukraine, my philosophy teacher Dr Kavitha Chinnaiyan (who practises and teaches in a non-dual Hindu lineage), convened a gathering to consider the crisis from within this tradition.

I’ll never forget the first thing Kavitha said on the call: ‘There will always be crisis’. She went on to say that crisis is woven into the very fabric of reality itself. Without crisis, there can be no creation, no manifestation. Reality is perma-crisis.

Wait what? would be the reaction from a more Western perspective. Doesn’t this normalise crises that are fundamentally wrong, like social inequality or climate collapse? Doesn’t it naturalise what should be seen as an outrage, an aberration?

Rather than normalising crisis, I’d say that Hindu thought allows for a certain intimacy with it. In this tradition, crisis and creation are one and the same, which puts a different spin on things. In the blink of an eye, one world is destroyed and another is born. We breathe in a new world and breathe out an old one. Individual birth and death, the rise and fall of civilisations, the creation and dissolution of whole universes are simply the same cyclical process, operating on different planes.

So perma-crisis is natural. It is part of reality. But so is perma-creation. At every point we are at a juncture between the old and the new, between destruction and creation. Every moment offers a chance to start again.

This tradition isn’t about sitting in lotus position while watching universes emerge and dissolve. On the contrary – it’s about seeing that perma-crisis is the deeper rhythm of reality: catch it at the right moment and we can begin again.

Doubling down on doubling down

Doubling down – everyone seems to be doing it. As Putin doubles down on his war and Truss on her dogma, writers too seem to be doubling down on using doubling down. It’s bound to become one of those words of the year for 2022, perfectly capturing the grim spirit of our times.

Doubling down: say it and feel the doom. The repetition of the ‘d’ makes us feel stuck – just as the doubler-downs themselves are, trapped inside ever-narrowing positions of their own making.

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Muggle or Magical? Disney decides…

Disney is quick to pick up on the emergent themes shaping culture today – but equally quick to lapse back into its comfort zone of dominant liberal humanism.
In a couple of recent films, Frozen 2 and Encanto, Disney starts to engage with the idea of indigenous culture and magic (keeping up with nascent attempts from the Global North to engage with indigenous voices, particularly from the Amazon).
In Frozen 2, Elsa is repositioned from a typically white Disney princess to a Shaman of a Nordic indigenous tribe called the Northuldra. In Encanto, a Colombian family fleeing civil conflict are given a gift of magic from the jungle.
But what happens in both these films reveals how hard it is for Disney to truly accept and centre these ideas. In Frozen 2, Elsa, as Shaman, must give up her worldly power. She becomes sidelined in the mountains, while her non-magical, Muggle sister Anna takes over the worldly Queendom of Arendelle.
In Encanto, it’s another Muggle, hero Mirabel, who challenges the other characters’ fixation with magic. A non-magical being (lacking the magical gifts of her family), she uses her humanity to heal her relatives from their fetishisation of magic.
The message we take away from Encanto is that ‘you don’t need magic to be a hero’. It’s a powerful theme which has a deep truth in it.
But at the same time, Disney is slipping and sliding all over the place in its treatment of indigenous magic. On the one hand, Disney wants it (just like the Global North generally wants it). On the other hand, it can’t quite give up its deep roots in secular liberal humanism. So the Muggles win and the Magicals eventually get sidelined (or corrected in some way). Power doesn’t fundamentally move.
Watch these two films and you’ll get a sense of how far Disney remains entrenched in secular humanism, dipping a big toe into today’s emergent post-secular waters, but then quickly running back to safer shores.

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Branding beyond the corporation

The world’s mega-brands are no longer owned by corporations. They are social movements. Extinction Rebellion, Pride and BLM are today’s true blockbuster brands in the sense that their iconography is everywhere. They are household names, visually ubiquitous and mythologically massive, taking up imaginary and physical space in the way Nike and Apple once did.

It’s no surprise that commercial brands all want a social purpose – because it’s in social purpose that branding now lives (symbol creation, myth-making, imagination-capturing). Just as social movements once wanted to become more commercial, so commercial movements now want to keep up with their social counterparts. So fascinating to watch the shifting play between social and commercial, public and private.

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Fusions, sensations, inspirations, expressions

Yesterday I bought a bar of Galaxy Fusions for the first time. I’m not sure exactly what was being fused with what here – but I can never resist the allure of the Latinate Plural in product naming.

The Latinate Plural is basically any kind of aspirational Latinate word, rendered in the indefinite plural, to convey a vague sense of premium-ness and innovation. Sensations, Expressions, Inspirations, Fusions, Infusions, Impressions, Explorations…you can find them across almost every category.

The Latinity brings aspiration; the indefinite plural a sense of reverie. Combining them takes us above the mundane to somewhere a little more elevated and poetic. I love to collect Latinate Plurals on trips around the supermarket – if you spot a new one, please let me know!

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What is revolution today?

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition on Tantra — subtitled ‘Enlightenment to Revolution’. It sparked some thoughts on how revolution is typically presented in culture, and how these meanings could be expanded.

Tantra is revolutionary — that much is clear. It comes from early medieval India, where insight grew into the energetic and vibrational generativity of the universe. This creative energy came to be seen metaphorically as feminine (Devi or Shakti), and then refracted through a multiplicity of goddesses, with abundant names, forms and aspects.

Devi’s forms are traditionally organised into two main categories — the raudra (fierce, radical, violent) and the saumya (sweet, beautiful, playful). What struck me about the British Museum’s exhibition was that it was all raudra, and no saumya.

Why? My hunch is that it’s something to do with the way we see revolution — and the exhibition was intended to be about this theme. Revolution from modernity onwards is about transgression, chaos, and explosive, emancipatory energy. So the frenzied energy of Kali was rocket fuel to the anti-colonial movement in Bengal. And again, later in the 20th century, to Western feminism and other counter-cultural movements seeking liberation from oppressive systems and conventions.

The saumya aspects of the Goddess possibly seemd a bit too sweet and unchallenging for the Museum to really explore — given it wanted to talk ‘revolution’. So the exhibition gave a lot of space to the fierce aspects of Devi — self-decapitating Chinnamasta, tusked, boar-headed Varahi, and of course bloodied, skull-bearing Kali herself.

But is this too narrow an understanding? Today, we’re not fighting systems and structures. We’re suffering from chaos, disorganisation and imbalance. In this context, the sweetness and harmony of Devi’s saumya forms come to assume a new revolutionary potential.

Take Lakshmi. She is traditionally seen as delighting in good household management: balancing the budget, keeping the home sparkling-clean and shining with auspicious energy. I’m not surprised the British Museum didn’t really want to talk about her — she doesn’t sound very revolutionary or feminist, according to the paradigm the exhibition was working with.

But on a planetary level, aren’t these qualities exactly the revolution we need? We haven’t balanced the budget, nurtured our resources, or kept our home clean . We haven’t adored beauty, pursued harmony or tended what we have.

So this could be precisely the time to recognise that stewardship, nurturing, balancing and tending can also be revolutionary qualities. Enough has been burnt up in a frenzy of destruction. This no longer signifies revolution — it signifies what we need a revolution against.

I wish there could have been a room devoted to saumya at the British Museum’s exhibition — a room beautifully lit and fragranced, with shining yantras and glowing murtis, pervaded with the breathtaking, mind-blowing beauty of the goddess in her sweet forms. Beauty and care, balance and symmetry, can be revolutionary too — especially now.

Thank you to Sally Kempton for teaching the current value of a devotion to Lakshmi amidst planetary destruction. As she spoke on Zoom from her home in California, she described how she could see smoke from forest fires coming into view – so this was no abstract or academic teaching. 

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What happened to the holistic left?

 

This morning, on the first day masks became mandatory for shopping in the UK, I went into a plastic-free, sustainable grocery shop in Brighton.  While paying at the till, I asked the sales assistant how the first day of mandatory mask-wearing was going,

Bearing in mind this was around 11am (only a couple of hours into the first day), I was surprised when she said that it had been really difficult. Lots of customers had made a real fuss about wearing their masks, she said. Many of them were heavily influenced by conspiracy theories and saw Covid (and by extension, mask wearing) as a way for the powers-that-be to ramp up social control.

Now this shop is at the very heartland of lefty, liberal Brighton. Everything is organic or Fairtrade. Shoppers there wear babies in slings, home-school, practise yoga, grown their own veg – I probably need say no more to capture the typical demographic. In this past, we might have assumed they’d be avid mask wearers, keen to signal their social conscience and community spirit.

But these labels and assumptions no longer work. What’s striking now is how the whole idea of ‘organic’ lefty liberalism is fading in relevance. Many of these erstwhile holistic liberals are moving towards forms of conspiracy-theory thinking and libertarianism that we’d be more likely to associate with the US alt-right.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a sense of this happening in Brighton. Last year, I went to a climate protest. We ended up in a park where I saw an acquaintance – a forest school facilitator. She ticked all the boxes you might expect from a traditional Brighton organic liberal – home-schooling, anti-vax, organic veg growing, and so on. I made a quick assumption that these characteristics meant she’d likely be on the protest. But no. She regarded the climate movement as a George Soros-instigated conspiracy designed to sow fear, control and distract the populace, and so on.

I was shocked at the time. But now the shift is plain to see. The idea of the holistic, organic liberalism (beautifully described by the Guardian as the ‘esoteric left’) is on its way out. This section of what used to be the left is moving towards the radical right.

Zooming out from Brighton anecdotes to the wider context, we can see some key themes propelling this shift. In the UK, it’s the anti-vax movement that has pulled a large section of the esoteric left rightwards. And that’s likely to be in part because of US influence. In the US, to be anti-vax is far more likely to align you with a radical, sceptical libertarianism than it is with holistic, pro-social, progressive liberalism.

At the same time, wellness more generally in the US is moving rightwards, and has been for a while.

For a long time, the wellness industry was dominated by the image of the ‘skinny white girl’ with impeccable (if superficial) liberal credentials, downing green juices and meditating in her warehouse apartment.

But then something happened to this feminine, liberal code: masculinisation. Male personalities such as Joe Rogan, Sayer Ji, JP Sears (pictured, in a typical yoga satire) and Charles Eisenstein began to rise to guru status in the wellness field – bringing with them a new discourse rooted in personal sovereignty, medical libertarianism, and a combative, sceptical approach to wellness. When Joe Rogan describes yoga as a ‘martial art you practise against yourself’, we get a clear view of the de-coding and re-coding taking place.

While this evolution has been most pronounced in the US, it’s happening in the UK too. The ‘esoteric left’ seems to be easy prey for the conspiracy theories of the alt right. The reasons for that are probably beyond the scope of this post. But what is really important to note – progressive holistic liberalism is uncovering new ideological affinities with the American radical right. In the process, a new appetite for conspiracy theory and a more hard-edged scepticism is emerging in the heartlands of middle-class liberalism.

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Let heaven and nature sing

Thinking beyond European rationalism – might not sound like a fun theme for a Christmas post but maybe it is, if we look a bit closer.

I wanted to write about this subject as it feels like a major challenge currently. The need for a fair redistribution of ‘voice’ globally has become a pressing theme in climate action. Culture is starting to look harder at who is speaking, and who is listening – at whose voices, perspectives and agendas are being represented and platformed.

It’s possible that the redistribution of ‘voice’ (of the people and cultures doing the talking) could produce major shifts in our understanding of the natural world and of the urgency of its preservation.

We can take an example referenced by Donna Haraway in her recent work of fiction-theory Staying with the Trouble. To the Mazahua people of Mexico, the Monarca butterflies which migrate from North America in the winter are the souls of their ancestors.

That’s a proposition that makes their preservation extremely urgent (and they are nearly extinct). If they stop coming to Mexico in the winter, the ancestors have stopped coming back – and that’s an unthinkable tear in the existential, narrative fabric that holds this world together.

But what happens when European secular thinking encounters a proposition like this? How do people steeped in a culture of secular thinking respond and feel?

Donna Haraway rightly says that a common response will be to see it as a ‘metaphor’. For the Mazahua, the butterflies are a metaphor for the ancestors – a symbolic substitute.

That probably sounds completely reasonable. But if we look closer at what happens when secular thinking says ‘it’s a metaphor’, we meet buried, historically-entrenched workings of power and denial. Often, the phrase ‘it’s a metaphor’ contains an implicit ‘just’. ‘It’s just a metaphor’ Similarly, we says ‘it’s just a story’. Or, to a child having a nightmare: ‘it’s just a dream’.

In the thinking of rational, secular modernity, the imagination is always implicitly subordinated, contained and neutralised. It’s always ‘just’. Even in Romanticism, it may have been fetishized – but also pathologised and side-lined.

To decolonise Western thinking, and understanding the desperate literalness of our rapidly-disappearing connections with nature, we need to drop this ‘just’. And drop the whole idea of metaphor, narrative and dream as being implicitly subordinate to the measurable and empirically accessible world (however much marketing and academia pedestalise ‘storytelling’, it’s still not seen as life-or-death, it’s not existential – it’s still ‘recreational’.

Donna Haraway sees the colonial move at work in the idea of ‘metaphor’- the implicit neutralisation and dismissal that takes place when we say ‘[just] a metaphor’, from the vantage point of secular assumptions.

Her response is a radically materialist literalism: the monarca butterflies are the ancestors because their physical existence depends ultimately on the decomposition of human and other bodies.

But doesn’t this radical materialism still belong to a European legacy? Is it fully decolonised?

Donna Haraway’s radical materialism makes her very suspicious of anything that is ‘other’ to the earth. Astral or non-physical realms are deeply suspect. They are the domain of the ‘sky gods’ that she associates with patriarchy, hierarchy, and ultimately with an arid, abstract monotheism (even lesser sky gods are only minions of the One).

But there is another suppression at work here – that of ontological diversity, metaphysical multiplicity and the existence of plural realms, dimensions and connections.

It seems popular culture is doing a better job of driving this ontological expansion – this opening-up of reality into multiple connected fields and expressions. The unicorns and mermaids of Instagram culture aren’t going away – they represent the overlapping and interweaving of different dimensions that’s another way European secularism is being challenged.  And the emerging re-legitimation of psychedelics in healthcare and beyond may well take further this process of expansion.

But what’s the connection between ontological diversity and bio-diversity – between metaphysical multiplicity and the flourishing of worms and beetles? Many argue that unicorns and mermaids are no more than mythological bypassing – feel-good entertainment to distract us from the world’s real challenges.

There’s definitely truth in that. But I’d also like to suggest that onto-diversity and bio-diversity are entwined. That we need diverse expression, flourishing and expansion on every level – from the earthworm to the angel. Maybe this can be boiled down to two reasons for now:

  1. Diversity isn’t a liberal fantasy that gets foisted onto reality – it is the driving force of creativity itself in all its forms. Generativity is diversity – it is expansion into multiple forms, whether they be unicorns or cockroaches. So unleashing, cultivating and fertilising this generative diversity is to promote life in the most fundamental sense.
  2. The hyper-connectedness and semiotic complexity that connects all realms means that the more expressions, beings and forms that surround us, the more information, knowledge and insight we have.
  3. Onto-diversity and bio-diversity are ways to undo the mechanisms of power and control that have subdued the majority of the world’s voices and expressions – aligning them to singular narratives of rationality and use-value.

 

To de-colonise European thinking, a vital first step is to ask who owns definitions of what’s real and what’s [just] a story?  And why is this a good theme for a Christmas post? Elves, angels, donkeys, sheep, stars, deities – the multiplicity of realms, beings, and forms couldn’t be more prolific. Happy Christmas – I hope you get inspiration from all of it.

 

 

 

 

 

plant-based eating

The Politicisation of Everything: Food

‘The Politicisation of Everything’ is a phrase that has come to me over the past couple of years in light of the culture wars. It’s a benign way of saying ‘the weaponisation of everything’ – but it often amounts to the same thing. The heat is being dialled up around the most seemingly trivial everyday choices, behaviours and practices. Now everything is politics; sometimes, war.

In this post I’ll look at food. Two huge trends – zero-carb carnivory and plant-based eating – are circling each other like hungry beasts or facing each other down like monster plants (to keep the metaphors equitable).

This is how they polarise. If you’re on the carnivorist side (a form of extreme paleo in which intake consists of 100% meat and water), you’re on the libertarian Right. A suite of correlative preferences will line up behind. Hyper-neo-masculinisation, tick. Suspicion of experts and authorities, tick. Bitcoin entrepreneurship, tick.

If you have plant-based predilections, you’re on the liberal Left, likely to be a feminist granola-muncher and sentimental champion of the downtrodden.

My purpose here is to take a deeper dive into the mechanics of this polarisation. What symbolically connects the Right and meat; what symbolically connects the Left and plants?

One thread that is worth picking out concerns aesthetics. The Right likes to claim connections with the Real – the raw struggle that can’t be aestheticised (Hobbes; ‘nature red in tooth and claw’).

And a key component of contemporary and alt-right thinking is a refusal to make things pretty where they are not. Here, liberal beliefs in equality and justice are framed as aesthetic – they are an attempt to prettify the more uncomfortable natural order, premised on fight, hierarchy, earned power.

Now liberal plant-eating performs its own part in this on-going political drama perfectly. Plant-eating is represented as aesthetic – search Instagram for plant-based eating and you’ll find food represented in the form of dazzling rainbow mandalas – hyperbolically aestheticised and fantastical. In the same way, liberals are seen to want to construct and engineer social reality too, creating pretty fictions of equality and kindness.

Meat, on the other hand, can’t be prettified (at least the real meat beloved of Bitcoin carnivorists). It’s torn, ragged and irregular. Hence its symbolic power within right-wing thinking. It’s where nature refuses to be pretty; refuses fantasy and fiction; and reveals itself as hierarchical and intrinsically asymmetrical (unaesthetic).

 

 

 

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It’s got to be gardening

 

I’ve often wondered what the next big hipster fascination will be after artisan food, coffee and cycling.

Sitting in a hipster coffee shop in Brixton, enjoying two of the above, I realised the next is highly likely to be gardening.

We already see many of these cafes turning into semblances of Victorian conservatories bedecked with ferns, palms, cactis, terrariums and so on.

This particular hipster haunt also had gardening tools on display while books on botanicals were available for customers to dip into.

Meanwhile pop-up market, Brixton Botanicals, sells pot plants to people interested in creating ‘home jungles’ – extreme house-plant cultivation which will see your furniture buried in webs of deep green like some ancient, forgotten civilisation.

According to Guardian journalist Simon Osborne, the house jungle is currently a major trend amongst Millennials right now.

One of his interviewees, Annie Dornan-Smith, speculates that her generation need something to nurture as other life options, especially home-buying and having children, seem increasingly out of reach.

Other cultural forces may also be afoot here.

  • Demographics are breaking down. People are experiencing a new freedom to engage in pursuits previously culturally taboo for age-related reasons. Gardening, like knitting before it, is no longer an ‘older person’s thing’. These demarcations are weakening.
  • Beards and cycling tap into a retro Victoriana that finds a natural continuity in the house jungle. The connection between beards and house plants is particularly strong – it’s about organic growth.
  • Gardening requires kit – and hipster trends thrive on kit. Getting the right tools will be a major precoccupation once this passion becomes fully embedded.
  • City dwellers yearn to breathe. Green plants signify a breathable world.

These factors seem to point to one thing: the triumph of the extreme house plant is just around the corner.