Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound (including The Great Humbling)
The Great Humbling S5E8: 'State of the Humbling'

The Great Humbling S5E8: 'State of the Humbling'

Brian Eno & choir (Photograph: Jamie Lowe)

The end of this fifth series of The Great Humbling finds us looking back over the loose ends from earlier episodes, exploring the wider field of “Humility Studies” and asking who exactly we think we’re talking to, anyway?

We start with Ed reporting back from The Fête of Britain, the inaugural festival of the Hard Art collective, which took place in Manchester last week, where he found himself hosting a gameshow whose panellists included Clare Farrell, Lee Jasper and the folk singer Jennifer Reid, who specialises in singing broadside ballads to reconnect audiences with the working class tradition of the northwest of England. Other goings-on included our friend

of the Unitarian Church leading a “Sunday Service” which included a choir conducted by Brian Eno and a “sermon” from Jarvis Cocker. Ed also describes his late-night outreach in a Salford bar, where “Psychedelic Pete” thanked Hard Art members for bringing this chaos to the city.

Among all these adventures, there’s a serious question that we take with us on into this episode, one that’s been put to us by our friend Jamie Kelsey Fry: who do you think you are talking to? In any of the work we’re doing, are we preaching to the choir, or talking a language that can bridge across boundaries and invite all kinds of other voices into the conversation? And does this matter? Our first answer is: there’s room for each of these kinds of talk, but it’s good to know which you’re actually doing.

Dougald chases up a few other loose ends from this episode. He and Alfie have reached the ninth instalment of The Bagthorpe Saga, but despite the efforts of listeners, the elusive tenth book is still out there, so the search continues! (And a reward awaits the finder of a copy of Bagthorpes Battered.)

Talk of “burning a million quid” – from our early episodes on the KLF (S5E3, S5E4) – gets woven into the earlier thread of Making Good Ruins (S5E1), because Drummond and Caughtie’s ritual on the Isle of Jura anticipates the project of using economic resources in ways that make no sense according to the logic within which our economic system imagines them. During a conversation with

and Christopher Brewster, Dougald finds himself scrawling “Let’s burn a billion dollars!” across a page in his notebook. But as Ed suggests, what’s at stake might be not so much burning money as composting it, or ploughing it into the soil.

Ed introduces us to the concept of “zombie leadership”, drawing on a paper about the “Dead ideas that still walk among us”, brought to his attention by professor of leadership, Jonathan Gosling. (We’re also introduced to the word “demulcent”, which sounds like something you might use on your skin.) And we learn about the US Department of Defense Strategic Command paper on “Counter-Zombie Dominance”, which reminds Dougald of the hugely popular study circle run by Sweden’s Workers Learning Association around Zombie Apocalypse Survival. Turns out that zombies are – as the anthropologists say – good to think with. [Insert joke about brains here—Ed.]

We discuss Donald Trump as an exemplar of zombie leadership – but Dougald points out that Trump also capitalises on alienation from expert-ocracy, which itself has aspects of zombie leadership. There’s zombies everywhere! (US election 2024: “vote for the least worst zombie”?)

The serious point here is a connection to the “problem” vs “predicament” distinction from John Michael Greer which Dougald drew on in At Work in the Ruins. A problem is something that has a solution (a way to fix it that returns you to a situation resembling the previously existing state of affairs); if something doesn’t have a solution, it’s not a problem, though it may well be a predicament. When you have a problem, it’s a good idea to get the best group of experts in a room to come up with a solution; but in the face of a predicament, what’s needed is a far more distributed (and democratic) approach, in which many different groups follow different strategies, without attempting to reason our way to what will work in advance. Expert-ocracy is the state of affairs in which the world is seen not only as containing problems (among other things), but as made up of problems, and therefore best served by being put into the hands of experts.

From here, we come to what is apparently the emerging field of Humility Studies, brought to our attention by this post from

, in which he quotes a paper from Pelin Kesebir, “A Quiet Ego Quiets Death Anxiety: Humility as an Existential Anxiety Buffer” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

Since 2014, the empirical research about humility has exploded. Much of this research has shown that humility functions as a regulating virtue upon which many other virtues depend.

Meanwhile, our fellow traveller

of has also been writing about humility:

In the book Intellectual Humility: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Science [by Ian M. Church and Peter L. Samuelson], intellectual humility is understood as the virtuous mean between intellectual arrogance and intellectual diffidence.

And about “overcoming intellectual servitude”:

While stewarding The Stoa, I sensed greater potential in the attendees than in the galaxy-brains we listened to. I see so much potential being bottled up due to the pervasiveness of this servitude.

The best way to dissuade intellectual arrogance … is to target the source: the narcissistic supply. Once the special-feeling dissipates or is put in its proper place, the overvaluing will also dissipate, and one can put their intelligence to proper use

This thought echoes what Vanessa Andreotti calls “getting to zero”, escaping the game of modernity in which everyone is always either up or down, “plus one” or “minus one”. (See Hospicing Modernity – or this podcast episode.)

All of this sends Ed daydreaming about the professor who starts the Humility Institute, who can truly call himself the world’s leading expert on humility

Another thread around humility leads us to

’s forthcoming book, Fully Alive, which Dougald has been reading. The book is Elizabeth’s attempt to share the treasures of the wisdom tradition of Christianity with those who don’t necessarily share her faith. She structures it around what she admits is the seemingly unpromising framework of the “seven deadly sins”, a list originating with the Desert Fathers and Mothers of 4th and 5th century Egypt. In the version of the list she uses, the seventh sin is Pride, and she reflects on how many of the senses in which we use this word seem to her to describe something good and worthwhile – but in identifying the nature of Pride, in the sense meant by her tradition, she homes in on the kind of belief in our own self-sufficiency, in not needing others, that cuts us off from relationship with each other, with the world and (from a believer’s perspective) with God.

From here, we come back around to the question of who we think we’re talking to, in these episodes. The first answer to who we’re talking to is each other – this podcast started with a conversation, and as a way of letting others listen in on a conversation we had started to have, and underlying it there’s a certain faith in conversation, in the generative potential of ongoing threads of small-scale conversation and the kind of space of conversation that is not just “another talking shop”.

A while ago, the Solarpunk theorist

joked to Dougald that the pattern of semi-regular calls they had fallen into was “catch-up culture”, an antidote to “cancel culture”.

There’s a sense, too, of conversation as a practice, both in the sense of the word used by artists, but also perhaps in the sense in which Alasdair Macintyre uses the term in his account of how virtue is acquired (in After Virtue).

Dougald enthuses about M. R. O’Connor’s book, Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World, as a gripping account of a journey into a “practice”, in this sense – but also because, by the end of her year of training and working as a wildland firefighter and controlled-burn fire-starter, O’Connor describes encountering fire itself as something she is in dialogue. In this sense, conversation as a practice points towards a way of inhabiting the world.

So, after five series, maybe this is the heart of what we’re doing – practicing being in conversation, practicing letting our conversations be overheard, not seeking a huge audience, but trusting that the relationship we have with those of you overhearing these conversations can be consequential.

In this spirit, Dougald makes an invitation to a forthcoming season of “overheard conversations” – details to be announced soon on his own Substack,

– that will take place fortnightly on Sunday evenings (European time), starting with a conversation with of on Sunday 10 March. Paid subscribers to either Dougald’s Substack or that of his guest are invited to join live on Zoom, while a recording of the opening part of the conversation will be made available as a video and audio recording.

Meanwhile, Ed is looking forward to hosting a writing retreat together with Jonathan Gosling and taking his other podcast, The Futurenauts, to the Hay Festival.

We’ll be back with another series of The Great Humbling later in 2024. Meanwhile, thank you for listening in.

Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound (including The Great Humbling)
How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity's road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out? What if our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?
These are the kind of questions which we set out to explore in The Great Humbling. We hope you'll join us and let us know what you think.
Ed Gillespie & Dougald Hine