Scaling Yuval Noah Harari, and his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

By Dray Agha

9781787330870

For familiar friends, Harari is on his usual, brilliant form. If you have yet to hear of Yuval Noah Harari, his latest book is an excellent introduction. With an eclectic array of topics in 21 Lessons (2018) (1), Harari has presented a volume that geographers can dip in and out of for insight on politics, climate change, and economics.

His previous books first traced the consequences of humankind’s abrupt evolution in cognitive abilities (Sapiens, 2014) (2), and second how technology will be woven with the human body in a number of ways, creating mechanical-organic cyborgs with extended lifetimes (History of Tomorrow, 2017) (3).

His latest, 21 Lessons, does not disappoint the following Harari has gained from his previous works. Harari surveys our current global political situation and does something rather interesting; from a geopolitical perspective, he scales it right back down to the body. He places focus on the individual body and reminds us we are more than our pigment, flesh, or clothing but we are a biological machine of neuro-chemical-hormone interactions. Simply put, one of the things I find that Harari wants to talk about is emotion and affect.

Emotion

Sara Ahmed articulates best how emotions, affect, and the body are relevant to politics(4). Her discussion circulates around pain and fear particularly but nonetheless Ahmed puts forward that feminist theory can appreciate that emotion is contagious; a way to link individual bodies to a collective (5). Affect is something pre-cognitive, but emotion is something intentional. Ahmed and Harari, in each of their works, underline exactly how important individual emotions are in decision making: if something or someone can influence your pre-cognitive affective state they can influence how you make decisions.

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Our individual affective reactions to ‘9/11’ were carefully managed into collective emotions like national anger, to justify the War on Terror (Source: collectiveevolution.com)

The introduction and final chapter of 21 Lessons best highlights what Harari has to say about emotion. To Harari, there are so many big issues, big governments, and big companies actively trying to get beneath your skin and forge the neurological pathways in your mind. This is most effective, however, when one is disorientated. Disorientation, he finds, comes intentionally from Power. When disorientated, when scared, when confused, we do what we are told; we let companies have our data, we let governments surveil us, and we let nightmares of cataclysmic climate change rule our imaginations.

Power

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Anxieties surrounding terrorism are used by powers to have us participate in our own surveillance (Source: gov.uk)

Foucault spoke a lot about Power. He warned us about apparatus’ that consist of governments, companies, institutions, laws, words and more(6). Foucault warned us these powers want to get at our minds, de-moralise us, re-build us, and make us easier to govern(7). It is unclear if Harari frequents Foucault’s work within his book, but I do think it an excellent idea to read the two as companions. Both discuss how different organisations are making us the target of their power, whether to profit at our expense or control at our expense. Foucault, however, is criticised for not offering many remarks on how we might regain control over our lives. Harari, however, offers a solution.

All the while dominant powers are throwing all sorts of fears, anxieties, and insecurities at us, the mind takes a battering. Eventually – if these powers win – they have control of our pre-cognitive affective thoughts; control of our minds. Harari doesn’t take this to mean a battle of the souls (though Foucault would have) (8), instead Harari gives us everyday examples where our emotions are preyed upon for exploitative purposes. The fear of terrorism, for example, hands greater control of our minds to both small terrorist groups and domestic governments than they otherwise really deserve. The confusion over truth and post-truth, he finds, is the media offering the options of being brainwashed or being disorientated; you will either follow the narrative, or cognitive dissonance will disorientate you, but either way you will be too weak and confused to resist in any meaningful way.

Harari does not end his conversation with you left in despair, however. Throughout his book Harari hints at a point of resistance that we can take against these dominant powers. It is his final chapter though where Harari puts forward something takes geopolitical affect in a whole new direction: Harari tells us to meditate.

Resistance

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Mr Yuval Noah Harari practices Vipassana Meditation (source: medium.com)

Geopolitics is increasingly concerned with the everyday and the ways in which it is intensely political. Ahmedrecognised our body as the container in which we experience the everyday, but also as something that shapes our experience. Harari offers numerous instances where global politics, ecologies, and economies reach down and put stumbling blocks in our everyday lives. Yet through meditation,Harari locates an act of resistance. Building on what Harari suggests, I cannot help but feel like he is charting new ground for the individual to resist power and its affective influence. Foucault’s discussion on care-of-the-self resonates with this, however I find Harari neatly articulates his form of resistance.

Meditation is what connects us to the ‘real’ reality, according to Harari. In his three books, Harari makes it clear that life is an interplay between fiction and reality. We work in very real jobs, with very real hours, and receive very real bits of paper. And yet our ‘role’ is totally made up, our companies do not actually exist beyond the logo at the top of the paper, and we ascribe value to the bits of people by putting important national heroes on them. Meditation, on the other hand, is Harari’s call for us to ignore the ‘fiction’ part of reality for a few hours. Ignore all the influences of power, ignore politics, ignore economics, ignore climate change – but for an hour or two. Reconnect with what is the most real thing we can call real. Meditation recalibrates our reality to the container which experiences the fictional-real world. How does your body feel? What’s your breathing like? How long can you focus on just your body and its sensations? Harari does not tell us to ignore the world forever – just for a while. With so many different powers attacking our minds, meditation is therefore Harari’s way for us to ‘raise our defences’ and cleanse powers’ influences.

The Real Lesson?

More absurd political events, more breath-taking technologies, and more devastating climatic events are inevitable in the coming decades. Harari leads us through his chapters at a breathless pace, offering topic after topic but coming back to the same point: if we don’t take the time to care for our bodies, our minds, our souls, we will fall victim to the insidious mechanisms of power. We cannot care for our families, we cannot write our books or work our hours, and we cannot solve the problems of tomorrow if we do not scale our priorities back to the layers beneath our skin.

I, for one, am inspired to take Harari’s 21 Lessons advice to meditate and see if I am any more insulated from powers’ ambitions to influence my mind.


References

  1. HARARI, Y., 2018. 21 Lessons for the 21st London: Johnathon Cape.
  2. HARARI, Y.N., 2014. London: Harvill Secker.
  3. HARARI, Y., 2017. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.
  4. AHMED, S., Living a Feminist Life. North Carolina: Duke University Press.
  5. AHMED, S., 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Second edition. edn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  6. FOUCAULT, M., 2011. The government of self and others; Lectures 1982-1983. publ. edn. Basingstoke [u.a.]: Palgrave Macmillan.
  7. FOUCAULT, M., 2003. Abnormal, Lectures 1974-75. London: Verso.
  8. FOUCAULT, M., 1977. Discipline and punish. New York: Pantheon Books.

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Dray Agha is a PhD student at RHUL. He keenly reads up all things cyber, ideas of State power, and how to action a peaceful, cooperative future. You can find him on Twitter @DrayRafA.

 

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