Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs

This review appears here on and here (update when it appears) on If it puts the omph in your omphalos, please do pop over there and click the like button.

An Exquisitely Crafted Perspective on the C20th

The scale and scope of what Higgs presents us with in this book is belied by its easy reading.

It reminded me a little of Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' in that Higgs's writing manages to combine breadth and depth without being heavy or obtuse. Key to this, is his choice of motif. As well as the recurrent theme of perspectivism (or what readers of Higgs's brilliant KLF book might prefer to call multiple-model agnosticism), the motif of 'the omphalos' acts for the book as it did in the ancient world, as the 'axis mundi' (or, centre of the world). Higgs's history of the C20th revolves around several often interrelated and seemingly solid and concrete ideas; certainties of science, belief, social order, and culture which bedrocked our conception of the world at particular points in the C20th. As the narrative seamlessly morphs from the destruction of one omphalos to the creation of another, the reader perceives a sense of a movement between certainty and uncertainty, order and chaos. That perception of movement acts to challenge the polarizing dynamic of dualism so inherent to our Western thought. This appreciation of the meaning of the movement itself, rather than a blinkered and functional view of where the movement takes us, also serves to help Higgs avoid the awful phrase that I most dread seeing in any historical treatment of the currents of thought, science and culture ; 'We now know'.

That Higgs considers his subjects contextually, with an empathy for the contemporary perspectives - and because of his tacit challenge to dualism - any quibbles one has with him, over the details and points of focus of his historical gaze, tend fizzle out. With such a huge landscape to map out, there are bound to be moments where his perspective will not coincide with your own [for me it was his general treatment of Money and the specific chapter on Sex]. But that your own and Higgs's ideas differ, does not make them incompatible within the larger framework. This isn't to say that anything goes. The reader still gets a sense of who Higgs is, what he believes, and a feeling for his moral compass, his sense of humour and his humanity. But rather, it says that our models of the world are always and necessarily limited. Some are better than others, of course. The real danger lies though, in straitjacketing ourselves within one particular set of ideas, rather than in those ideas being right or wrong. Over time, it seems pretty likely that actually they will be regarded as wrong at some point.

Fans of Higgs's KLF book, and those persuaded to the book by Alan Moore's endorsement, might wonder quite how much magical thinking permeates it. The only overt passage that springs to mind is very near the end where Higgs applies a concept from Alchemy to explain some ideas about reductionism and holism, and how it is that the isolating drive to individualism can conclude in its counterpoint - the creation of a network society. I think though, the influences of Chaos Magic and Robert Anton Wilson run throughout the book all the same. By not being laid bare within the body of the text they are perhaps, presented in their best light - that is, hidden in the shadows. I think this is actually helpful for general reader. The exigencies of offering an overt explanation of magical thinking would've created too much dissonance, especially for readers with a bent towards materialism and techno-scientific explanations of reality. And I expect, there will be many such readers. Higgs explanations of relativity, chaos theory and in particular his brilliant metaphor for quantum mechanics (the imagined media reaction to Vladimir Putin punching a kangaroo) will really appeal to this audience. But I also expect those alternative ways of thinking that have influenced Higgs himself, will take seed quietly within the mind of every reader.

In a way, this book is a bit like an Adam Curtis documentary - but whereas Curtis has sounds and pictures to get across more complex ideas than are expressed in his simple narrative, Higgs somehow manages to do that trick with words only and still made it read easy. It's a truly impressive book. And I can't think of anyone I know who wouldn't thoroughly enjoy it.

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