Published January 26, 2010
As I said last issue: To understand anything, you must understand everything.
In early 2009, I went to an exhibition at the Norwegian National Gallery. The exhibit was devoted to Munch’s painting Det Syke Barn (The Sick Child). Not only did they show various versions of the picture, but they also exhibited other works from the 1880s in general, other paintings by Munch that dealt with the artist’s fascination with sickness and death, and other works that portrayed the dying. A whole room was devoted to the history of medicine during the period. The point was clear: the only way to truly understand a work of art is to understand everything around it, the whole world view of the times at the time of its creation.
Once you start looking for something, you find evidence of it everywhere. A review of The Oxford History of Western Music in The Economist reads: “We are presented not with a miraculous chain of great composers producing timeless masterpieces from nowhere. Rather, musical works and stylistic movements are presented in context so that, for example, the origins of the dynamic style of Mozart and Haydn are shown to lie in Italian opera buffa rather than in the architecturally static idiom of Bach and Handel.”
Acknowledging a master’s influences is not exactly a groundbreaking idea. The notion that the artist is impacted by everything, including politics, social issues, even the medical science of his day is, in the current climate, almost revolutionary.
What I am getting at owes more than a little to chaos theory. Let’s recap.
The most popular illustration of Chaos Theory is what is known as The Butterfly Effect. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will put in action a tiny current that eventually becomes a tornado in Texas. Locally, we might say that a pebble falling thrown off a mountain could spur an avalanche.
This might be hard to live with, but this is actually how we live our lives. There are moments, such as starting a new job, graduating or getting married, where we realise that nothing will be the same from now on. But every day is filled with little decisions that determine the course of the rest of our lives. The most obvious example is going out on a Friday night, where we may meet someone who will change everyday thereafter. Icelandic bars might be seen as one big drunken example of chaos theory, much more so than for example dating sites, where everything is at least intentional.
There is no master plan. When set in motion, things are often propelled by various unintended forces and have unforeseen consequences. There is no one directing anything, but that doesn’t mean no one is responsible. Quite the opposite. Everything impacts everything else, so the people who make the biggest decisions affect the whole game, whether they intend to or not.
For Icelanders today, such a theory makes sense. Many refer to a “kerfisvilla,” a systemic failure, in Iceland’s economy. Wherever we localise the initial cause as Milton Friedman’s lecture in 1984, Davíð Oddsson coming to power in 1991, the privatisation of the banks after 1999, it is obvious that the results have been far reaching. They altered not just the course of the economy, but even how almost the entire nation thought and acted. It should be equally obvious that none of this was inevitable, that things could have gone in a myriad of different directions. As, indeed, they can today.
Freedom, from the communes to the banks
The implications of this are far reaching, especially in a small society. How we act every day has potentially far-reaching consequences. Someone who runs a company sets the game rules for a large number of people, who in turn influence friends and relatives. People were constantly asked to overstep their moral boundaries, until these eventually faded away. In this way, the free market ideology reached everywhere in the space of two decades and eventually led to collapse.
The core ideal of libertarianism was the idea of personal freedom, something they borrowed from the hippies while shedding all the tiresome peace and love business. The idea of freedom was eventually taken to mean that nobody had to take any responsibility for their actions. You could, say, advertise unhealthy food to children, but the children, or their parents, were responsible if they bought it. You could advertise bogus accounts, but responsibility for putting money into it lay with the consumer. Eventually, this meant you could lie, but if someone believed you, the fault was entirely theirs. Chaos theory takes the opposite view. Since everything is influenced by everything else, the responsibility must lie with the liar.
So, we move from nothing matters, to everything matters. Post-modernism has run its course. It took a hit on 9/11, and eventually collapsed completely with the banks. We need new ideas for a new age.