Stranger Than We Can Imagine | John Higgs

The cover of Higgs' Stranger Than We Can ImagineThe twentieth century can be understood as the loss of all omphaloi.

What are omphaloi, you might ask? An omphalos is the central hub of something. For ancient Israel, for example, the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Mount Zion was the omphalos of the world. It was the place where heaven connected with earth. The twentieth century is littered with fallen omphaloi.

  • Einstein’s relativity theories destroyed the omphalos of a fixed place.
  • War destroyed the omphalos of national emperors.
  • Freud’s psychology destroyed the omphalos of the rational mind.
  • The sexual revolution destroyed the omphalos of traditional morality.

John Higgs is equally adept at explaining quantum mechanics as he is with evaluating the impact of Super Mario Bros. on Postmodernism—and he does all of this with a great sense of humour. Here’s how he explains the counter-intuitive laws of the quantum world:

The quantum world is like the fun your teenage children and their friends have in their room. You know it exists because you can hear the shrieks and laughter throughout the house, but if you pop your head around the door, it immediately evaporates and leaves only a bunch of silent self-conscious adolescents. A parent cannot see this fun in much the same way that the sun cannot observe a shadow. And yet, it exists. (119)

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is a brilliant analysis of the twentieth century. For me, Higgs only runs into trouble when he gets to the present. With all the traditional omphaloi fallen, we are at the risk of tragic individualism. Higgs views the emerging social networks as a solution that provides social responsibility while not limiting personal freedom. Selfies are not symptoms of narcissism—they are ways to strengthen the nodes of the emerging network.

I don’t think we can live without omphaloi. As a Christian, I hold the Creator of heaven and earth as my centre. Higgs would likely view this as an antiquated hold-over from the twentieth-century, something that will be outmoded by personal freedom expressed in networked society. I see the network, with all of its mixed impact social impact, as yet another type of omphalos in a long line. We will always worship something.

—John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century (Toronto, ON: Signal Books, 2015).

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