Strange Exiles: A journey into ideaspace
An investigation into ideas, ideology and identity, my new podcast Strange Exiles is an idea that has been in the back of my mind for 10 years or so. I’ve always been interested in these things, but like most people, I have never been an expert in them. Strange Exiles will be an exploration, not a field guide.
Back when I was writing for a Scottish arts and culture magazine in 2010, I interviewed the comics writer Alan Moore. The interview was about his contribution to a book on psychogeography, but there was so much more to unpack – his comics work, his occult practice, and fascinating concepts like his ‘Ideaspace’, which expands on the notion of the Jungian unconscious. This concept in particular was intriguing to me – I could have spent the entire interview just asking him to unpack it.
After an enthralling hour on the phone with Moore, I produced a short magazine piece touching briefly on ideaspace. But in the back of my mind, I knew that our conversation could have been bigger. And I wanted people to be able to not just read the words, but to hear Moore’s earthy Northampton baritone. At its simplest, ideaspace is the place where ideas live. A place where our language, our archetypes, our beliefs and even our gods exist, as Moore would say: “in all their grandeur and monstrosity.” Moore’s theory is simple – ideas are real.
I put the idea of doing something different with my interview audio aside for several years, but about a year ago, the concept raised its head again. What would these conversations sound like if I recorded them today? If I was no longer a music journalist, who would I be interested to talk to, and about what?
I spent much of 2014 and 2015 researching my spoken word show for the Edinburgh Fringe, exploring the philosophical school of nihilism. Inspired by writers like John Gray, Mark Fisher, Stuart Hall, Slavoj Žižek, and particularly Peter Sjöstedt-H, I began to construct my own reading of contemporary nihilism, in complete contrast to the popular brand of nihilistic thought found everywhere from the black flag of the so-called Islamic State to the moneyed cynicism of Boris Johnson; or in the bleak misogyny of incels and men’s rights activists and the ‘fuck everything’ attitudes of meme culture and online message boards.
My nihilism looks a bit different. If nothing is true, and nothing can be viewed from a point of complete objectivity, then anything is possible – no matter how unlikely it may seem, or how skeptically we choose to approach it. If traditional ideas about nihilism are about the rejection of thoughts and ideas (particularly Judaeo-Christian ones) and the negation of concepts, my nihilism would instead be a way of approaching any topic with an open mind, and an equal degree of cynicism.
Strange Exiles began as an effort to inform and challenge my own developing framework for ‘the ideology of no ideology’. I would speak to interesting people from different fields, backgrounds, disciplines and approaches about their life, work and ideas. I would use the podcast to challenge my own beliefs, and even my lack of them. I have some knowledge of the territory, hopefully just enough to ask interesting questions. Along the way, I would learn more – even if it was just about the gaps in my knowledge.
In the first few episodes, my guests help me explore ideas with long cultural and philosophical legacies, like the Dutch philosopher Peter Sas, an expert on nondualism – an approach which sees consciousness as a pre-existing field into which all living beings are born, but where they remain indivisibly linked. With roots going back as far as the Vedic texts of the Upanishads, which originate nearly 3,000 years ago in the Indian spiritual tradition, such an idea challenges the basic assumptions we make about what it means to live, think, and be.
Other guests have helped me explore the key ideologies we are still dealing with in the wake of the twentieth century, such as revolutionary communism. I was able to gain a new understanding from poet David Lee Morgan about what the writings of Lenin and Mao mean to someone who witnessed the political turbulence of the 1960s first-hand – and that reading of socialist history is very different to the one popularised among the left and centre-left in our politics today.
Fortean Times writer Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent opened the door to the life of an identity that has always existed on the fringes of modern societies – that of the mystic, the shaman, the magician. Our rational worldview might not countenance the existence of magic, let alone practicing magicians or shamans, and yet they exist nonetheless, operating in a liminal space informed by symbols, ideas and rituals that go back farther than many of the religions and ideologies that underpin the very idea of what is and is not ‘rational’ in our own, more conventional belief systems.
Spiritual leaders, philosophers, teachers, writers – these are often the people we turn to to find meaning in an otherwise confusing and contradictory life. Each conversation has led me to more interesting questions, more challenging lines of enquiry. In today’s broadcast-only media ecosystem, everyone wants to be seen and heard. That can lead to a narrow set of moral coordinates, a party line that must be toed, and a debate that is often hemmed in and proscribed in terms of its scope, and its ability to reach people.
We live in echo chambers, and rarely listen for anything but the dim roar of approval as we parrot talking points from one ideological or moral standpoint or another. But to listen… to really attempt to listen to and engage with ideas that are beyond our field of knowledge or interest; to engage with them critically, but without confrontation – this is much harder. Especially when the consequence of perceived moral failure is often exile.
The podcast’s name comes from a quote by George Santayana:
“The whole natural world will be removed to a distance. It will have become foreign. It will touch us, and exist morally for us, only as the scene of our strange exile.”
– George Santayana, ‘Realms of Being’
New York, Cooper Square, 1972, p.741
Perhaps this is the condition we all exist in now, especially in the heavily mediated virtual spaces where we participate in discourse of one kind or another. Morality and ideology can too often become confused in our thinking and our speech – I know they do in mine.
Strange Exiles has become a place where I go to listen, hopefully to learn, and more often than not, to be surprised. I hope you will find these conversations as fascinating as I have – and I hope you’ll join me as I seek out more of them.
Strange Exiles – Season 1 begins on Friday 11 December on all streaming platforms.
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