Self-determination, as mentioned earlier, is the overall principle of the Enlightenment. On a personal level the principle manifests itself in the will and practice of individuals to shape and live their lives according to their own insights and conclusions. Enlightened individuals are autonomous or “self-directed.” Like Socrates they do not blindly follow what mainstream, tradition, or established powers may decree, but try to determine through their own critical questioning and investigations what may be best for themselves and their fellows. And like Kant they would not allow themselves to simply trust hallowed doctrines, accepted authorities, or actual laws, but would carefully consult their own conscience to determine the soundness and validity of any convictions and courses of actions.

Enlightened individuals think that they themselves can and ought to decide how to live and what to live for, and that ultimately there is no other authority than their own reason when it comes to deciding what is good and bad. They will, to be sure, give fair consideration to the opinions and interests of other people; their individualism is not inconsiderate selfishness or closed-minded pigheadedness. They also make sure that their opinions are as informed as rational people can expect them to be. Cocksure self-righteousness or obstinate dogmatism are incompatible with their philosophical outlook The ultimate basis of their decisions and stances, however, is understood to be their own thinking, and the ultimate purpose of their endeavors is an existence that is free of tutelage and any other form of external domination.

On a social level the principle of self-determination manifests itself foremost in democratic self-government and independence from external hegemonic powers. Such institutions as absolute monarchies, dictatorships, protectorates, or colonial rule obviously contradict the Enlightenment’s basic principle. In judging social relations from the viewpoint of self-determination, however, it is not enough to focus on political and military matters alone: economic conditions, too, play a decisive role in determining the degree of people’s actual self-determination and liberty. Former colonies may be granted political independence, for example, but they can be kept in thorough dependency by the external control of their basic economy. Countries can also have functioning democratic constitutions as far as political processes are concerned, while maintaining at the same time such lopsided distributions of income and wealth that real power ends up in the hands of undemocratic minorities. “The ritual of the ballot box” by itself does not mean that the citizens of a country actually govern themselves. At their workplaces, furthermore, people often experience degrees of coercion and regimentation that they would hardly tolerate in the political sphere. The Enlightenment principle of self-determination, in other words, has a social relevance that goes far beyond political matters in the narrow sense.

On the level of physical survival it is the idea of taking control of the forces and resources of nature for the benefit of human beings that represents the ideal of self-determination. In the past nature was experienced as a power above and beyond human control. Droughts, floods, epidemics, pests, harsh environments, and other natural conditions and events had rendered earlier humanity more or less helpless in the face of nature. As science and technology proceeded to change conditions on the planet on an ever-increasing scale, human beings began to feel and rejoice in their palpably growing power. As nature was progressively reduced to a reservoir of resources and materials that could be exploited at will, ever more people felt that human beings might eventually be in total control of everything that was essential for their well being, and that they had finally reached the threshold of their ultimate emancipation. Science and technology, according to these expectations, would not just be the tools for taking advantage of available resources here and there, but would essentially lead to the replacement of the natural cosmos with a human-made world—the wholesale subjugation of wild and raw nature to a civilization of enlightened reason.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment reflects the main tendencies and aspirations of much of Western civilization. It is, however, also a stern measure of its own failure to become real. Much progress has been made since the 18th century with respect to individual autonomy, democratic self-government, and the harnessing of the forces of nature through scientific rationality and modern technology. For this reason many writers have tended to think of Western civilization as basically a story of human progress and continuing improvements. It has only been in recent decades that more pessimistic visions of the modern world have come to the fore, visions that received their inspiration from the realization that the rapidly growing world population and its acculturation into Western patterns of mass production and consumption would put unmanageable strains on the limited resources and vulnerable condition of the planet. Instead of a future consumer paradise for all, writers now contemplate scenarios of resource wars, masses of environmental refugees, culture clashes, uncontrollable pandemics, and far-reaching social disintegration. The very factors that Enlightenment thinking once advanced as tools of progress and human self-determination—science, technology, capitalism, and the massive productivity that they unleashed—are now seen as the forces that threaten the well-being and survival of humanity and the biosphere of the planet. The modern world, it appears, may be about to self-destruct--obliterating in the process all the forms of self-determination for the purpose of which it was once conceived. The Enlightenment may well have turned into its opposite.

The films discussed in this book document much of such a precarious—if not dismal--state of affairs. “Network,” for example, is very explicit about the failure of modern individuals to become rational, autonomous beings. The average television consumer, according to the film, is not an alert, informed, thoughtful, and self-critical citizen, but a passive object of manipulation that reacts to sound-bites, slogans, and visual stimulants in predictable and exploitable ways, and that seeks refuge from truth and reality in dumb and escapist entertainment. In Howard Beale’s words:

What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods. … The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren't. … The whole world's people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, wired, insensate things, useful only to produce and consume other mass-produced things, all of them as unnecessary and useless as we are.

To the extent that people resemble this description of television consumers as mass-produced humanoids that can be exploited by manipulative politicians and industries, genuine democracy is impossible, even if certain democratic institutions should be in place. Genuine democracies need competent and alert citizens, not just democratic constitutions. They need individuals who know what is happening in the world, who really understand the factors that shape their lives, and who know how to take organized action when measures are called for. Competent and empowered citizens would be quite unlike the beleaguered and pushed around protagonist of “Modern Times,” a victimized individual who is essentially lost in the country that is his, but the forces and dynamics of which are as alien to him as unexplained conditions in some utterly strange land.

The general alienation of human beings from their own human-made world, the far-reaching loss of control over their own creation, is the dominant theme of “Koyaanisqatsi.” The film shows what at first seems to be the realization of the ultimate ambition of the Enlightenment, the replacement of nature by a human-made world, and the establishment of humanity as the sovereign controllers of their lives and the planet. But it soon becomes clear that the human-made world that we see in the film is a far cry from the optimistic expectations of Enlightenment thinkers.

The situation portrayed in "Koyaanisqatsi," as pointed out earlier, does not show human beings as masters of their fate, but as creatures at a loss—victimized by their own gigantic and overpowering productions. They are not the promethean and autonomous race that can look with confidence and satisfaction on what they have accomplished, but endangered and oppressed beings that are wedged in and dragged along by developments and forces that they seem to design and direct, but which in truth have gone massively awry and are running dangerously out of control. The manic and ever increasing speed that characterizes much of the city footage in the film, speed footage that has to be seen in contrast to the repose and slow motion of the earlier landscape shots, indicates the instability and insanely driven nature of human life under modern conditions. And the shots of people who stare mesmerized at flickering television sets remind us to what degree it is not only the world that is out of control, but the people themselves—unconscious and dragged along as they are by primitive impulses and manipulative signals. “Koyaanisqatsi” is the visual presentation of the Enlightenment turned into its opposite.

The resounding failure of the Enlightenment suggested by the films brings to mind the writers and philosophers who have always disparaged that movement as a superficial foolishness that was inexcusably blind to the real darkness of life and the profoundly irrational nature of human beings. To them only shallow minds would think of history as progress toward ever more reasonable, peaceful, and happy conditions. History, in their minds, was no meaningful, goal-oriented process aiming at some ideal end-time, but at best a succession of “one damn thing after another.” The reality of history, as they see it, is dominated by power struggles, agonies, crazy ambitions, contorted emotions, uncontrolled drives, and unredeemed pain. Most ambitious figures, as “Barton Fink” suggests, are dim-witted, power-crazed clowns—ridiculous ones in the world of culture and entertainment, and viciously bloody ones on the grand world stage of politics. In “Network” Howard Beale refers to our historical reality as a “demented slaughterhouse,” and to humanistic Enlightenment ideals as so much ridiculous “bullshit”:

If you don't like the God bullshit, how about the man bullshit? Man is a noble creature that can order his own world. Who needs God? Well, if there's anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of bullshit.

The quest to find one’s self is an attempt to find a world and a meaningful place it. The world, however, is too vast and complex to permit any summarizing description. Religions, philosophers, and think tanks are offering organized visions, but their projections fall short of covering everything. At this point in history it is quite plausible to describe the world as on its way to some sort of ruin, but it may also turn out that humanity is somehow muddling through. With respect to such overall questions the world cannot be known.

Sartre advises that we “act without hope.” (1) I make my decisions and I commit myself, but “beyond that I can count upon nothing.” Sartre is passionately committed to the principle of self-determination, but he reminds us that we cannot base the meaning of our existence on the assumption that there will actually be a world of freedom or some other ideal state of affairs that one could consider the fulfillment of one’s life. All such hopes and expectations may fail; the commitments and projects that one chooses have to be meaningful in themselves--even when all plans come to naught. What I have and control is my self, and it alone is what has to hold up. It has to hold up in a world that has become uncannily unpredictable and essentially strange.


From: Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies