The ocean in Fife is black, thick with dense silt. The waves push up gently against the rock walls and piles of seaweed that line the bay. Adam Smith, economist who wrote the classic work Wealth of Nations, used to walk along this bay. The thoughts that came to him as he passed these rolling black waves became the transformative work that allowed ‘the invisible hand of capitalism’ into the modern lexicon.
I was not well inclined towards Smith at first. I first encountered mentions of him through Adbusters, the Canadian based anti-corporate lefty magazine. The magazine tended to heap all sorts of criticism on Smith, mocking his ‘invisible hand’ mercilessly. Smith became, in those pages, a representation of the irrationality of capitalism.
I reconciled with Smith some years later. An iPod bought for me as a university graduation present sent me off onto a free classics frenzy. The Wealth of Nations was one of the first that I downloaded.
I was amazed at Smith’s eloquence and liberal attitude. Rather than the face of unrestrained irrational capitalism, his understanding of sytems and the function of capitalism seemed profound. The invisible hand, at least before others began to hijack that concept as an almost faith-based endorsement of complete deregultion of everything everywhere, was a shorthand way of saying one thing; governments do not have to step in to make capitalism profitable. The market wants to be profitable – let it. Of course, profitable is not a euphimism for socially or environmentally responsible, for which governments arguably do have to intervine, a fact commonly lost of those screeching ‘invisible hand’ when appealing to Smith’s much abused authority.
Of course Smith was well dead by the time I or Adbusters were around to be influenced by him, and yet it still makes sense to talk of ‘our relationship’ in terms of an adversary now reconciled. Smith is gone but the idea of Smith remains. It’s easier to talk in these terms about a relationship with an absent person than to talk about a relationship between a person and an idea, because we know what a ‘real’ relationship between two people looks like. Likewise we understand a relationship between a writer and their readers, even if, such as in the case of Bill Watterson and JD Salinger, the relationship is characterized by an almost complete disconnect between the two. However we shall begin to explore that latter category- human and concept- from here.
I did not end up in Fife by accident. It was October, 2013, and I was collecting stories for my work Chasing Eris, which was to explore the lives and lifestyles of Discordians. Discordianism is a parody religion started in the late 1950s by two young Californian kids called Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley. They emphasized the value of disorder, and in order to do so, they elevated Eris, Greek Goddess, much reviled by the Greeks themselves, to the head Deity of their new religion.
It is disingenuous though, to call Discordia a ‘joke religion’ and leave it as that. I met Discordians who were as sincere in their religion as a Christian or Jew might be. Many worshiped the Goddess with sincerity. In Brazil I saw an apple given as an offering to the Goddess, and groups I met in California performed yearly rituals of devotion to Eris. While some of these people I met regarded Eris as a (in-some-sense) literal deity, many did not, yet their worship was no less sincere for it.
I can have a relationship with Adam Smith, and readers have relationships with absent authors, in terms of our attitudes, thought feelings and values, though not to any great extent our actions. If I think of some people I’ve met I might say they have a problem with authority. Not any particular authority – no one police person or teacher that I could name. But in their attitude, in their views, their feelings, they seem to have an antagonistic relationship with the very concept of authority. And unlike the relationships we form with the absent people of our world, the relationships we develop with pure concepts become encoded into our actions, often at a deep, unconscious level. If we feel antagonistic towards authority, we may disregard instructions, take sides in conflicts where we reasonably assess the situation or avoid working within certain types of roles. The same of course is true of the equal opposite scenario.
While some phrases like ‘problem with authority’ are used frequently to the point where one knows intuitively the spirit of the saying, it can still be easier to talk about relationships with other people that with deep ideas; morality, equality, dependence and so on. Perhaps through this frame we can begin to understand one way ‘atheistic’ or ‘agnostic’ religions treat their deities.
To wrap up a concept, or a complex set of concepts in such a wrapper as a human, or humanoid form, helps us to think of our attitudes, values and beliefs to such, in the way we’d think about a relationship with another person. Eris may not be a ‘real’ flesh and blood woman, but she is as real to many Discordians as the intangible concepts she represents; randomness, chance, uncertainty, strife, chaos, and perhaps others, always depending on the observer. One only has to spend some short time on a Discordian community to see drama unfold if somebody dares to refer to Eris as a ‘bitch’. Despite being an entirely and explicitly subjective metaphor, you will frequently see emotionally charged disagreements between Discordians on this topic in particular. Such a comment for many may be an assault on the very structure of their deeply personal relationship with these ideas of uncertainty and disorder and so on.
We live in a world of intangible symbols and concepts. Sometimes to navigate this idea space (called sometimes memespace or noosphere) it can help to wrap up concept sets into new metaphors and engage in a way that mimics interactions with tangible things.