Things Hidden from the Beginning of the World: Between Ozymandias and Gaia

Statue of Isis by Auguste Puttemans (1866–1927). The statue was given to Herbert Hoover by the people of Belgium in 1922 and was originally displayed at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. Since 1939 it has been located at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa.

The Veil of Isis is said to hide all the secrets of nature, secrets that remain forever beyond the reach of mortals. Legend has it that the words, “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil.”are inscribed on Isis’ original statue.

These days we’re more familiar with a different veil, the one that hides the bride’s face, which is lifted in a marriage ceremony by the groom as a symbolic gesture that uncovers the reproductive, life-giving mystery found in a woman’s body. It is an ancient Jewish tradition, this marital veil.

Veil’s are enigmatic. Veils opaquely reveal mysteries by pointing beyond themselves into a hinterland that we cannot see. This is why veils must both be seen and yet transparent and this creates a presence/absence mysterious phenomena generating a desire not for the thing-itself — the veil — but for that to which it point, the unseen. This unseen phenomena towards which the veil point creates a desire in us to traverse beyond the veil.

The logic of the veil is the opposite of a magic trick. The magic trick, which according to Christopher Priest, the author of the 1995 fantasy novel, The Prestige has three acts. The first is “The Pledge” where the magician shows you some ordinary object, like a deck of cards. This ordinary object is then turned into something extraordinary, perhaps the object disappears. This is the second act called, “The Turn”. And, finally, the final act is when the object reappears and this is called, “The Prestige”. What Priest is clever in pointing out is a dual even conflicting desire that drives you to both want to know the secret and yet at the same time want to enjoy the magic that cannot be explained.

In the first place, the veil is no ordinary object, but is already both an object and non-object –it’s absence. It is both the object and “the turn” in the same moment. And the veil never reappears in the same way twice, because what it points too, beyond itself is more than a “Prestige” it is the mystery itself, which is at the same time, the desire for the unknown.

In many ways, the history of human life on Earth can be described as a quest. It is a quest or desire to want to know and discover the unknown. The birth of philosophy is like that: an act to want to know–to uncover the veil that hides the secrets of the universe from us. Religion is similar, but with one exception. Religion, like philosophy, is a quest for the unknowable, but unlike philosophy, claims to possess thesacred key that unlocks the mysterious doors of ultimate meaning once and for all. If religion claims the key that unlocks the universe’s mysteries, philosophy more modestly claims only the search itself as way into the unknown that is never fully disclosed. Recall Socrates’ claim, “I know that I do not know.”

Apart from philosophy and religion, there is of course, science, which like philosophy, figures out different ways to know the unknown and hidden truths of our existence, only again, like religion but unlike philosophy, science claims to possess thekey that uncovering truths absolutely. And so our journey unfolds whose destiny is yet unwritten.

By contract to philosophy, religion, and science, whose destinies are in some sense bound up together even if their specific paths and methods vary, there are spheres of life that are apathetic to Isis’ veil– to the search itself.

Philosophy is faithful to the veil as it seeks what’s behind the veil knowing there is never an absolute final answer, only the quest. The logic of the veil is thus not an ordinary object, but a process, a way, even a journey that never ends. Again, by contract, religion and science, in the final analysis, finally claim to know the unknown that turns the process and journey into a reified object: God for religion, the Scientific Method, for science.

Art, insofar as it uncovers and reveals mysteries, is like philosophy in that the object of art reveals something beyond itself as more than an object, that is until the art object is commodified into a thing whose value is turned from a process of unveiling into a dogmatic value (money) that enslaves the object so it can be sold like a slave on the auction-block in New York or other financial hubs around the globe. It’s similar with music and mathematics.

The lesson of the Isis’ veil, I suggest, is to remain faithful to its own logic as a infinitely unfolding process that never comes to rest in the solidification of a commodified object — God, a method, the ego, or an unquestionable dogma or guru, or worse money. And yet, it is all too easy to give into the temptation to want to seize the power contained in an authoritarian object that finally dissolves the unknown into the known. We have a name of this logic that through sheer brute power turns a mystery into an authoritarian object — in political terms it is called, fascism. Examples abound of the act of idolizing and reifying an object into an absolute dogma — political power, economic power, military power, religious power, scientific-corporate power, Wall Street are just a few easily named.

In this way, The Veil of Isis poses a direct threat to power because it’s a sign that that power, unlike the quest for knowledge and life, will invariably fade away like dust in the wind.

It is the difference between Isis and Ozymandias. The one with the veil reveals the endless, undogmatic journey of knowledge, whereas the Egyptian Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world in 1200’s BCE, is transformed into bare sand by idolizing power as such.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the last lines in Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias penned in 1818. Far from Isis’s Veil revealing the unrevealable, what it actually does is create the desire to know the unknown, and in that act of remaining committed to the process and not an absolute, intrinsically threatens power that pretends to know as the refusal of limits in the face of the all-devouring and destructive force of time (Chronus–the god of time).

The sphere of idolatrize power is the business person who refuses any limits to his money, houses, stocks and bonds, and brute material force. Milton Friedman’s summarized this power, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The problem with this statement is that the statement itself commits an act of fraud against the universe itself. Let me explain.

It is little wonder why the business world has pushed for “free” and “unregulated” power and that anything in the wake of brute force is deemed an enemy– the state, the law, the educated, society in general, even philosophy.

The latest manifestation of this expression of veil-less, brute power is the ideology of neoliberalism, which in fact has undermined liberal democracies “the nation-state” as a means to their strategic ends of ultimate global domination, like Ozymandias. To the neoliberal power-obsessed wealthy-class, the Nation-State is rhetorically the enemy but practically it is used as a necessary and tactical means through which all threats to it’s wealth and power are neutralized through the state itself. Of course, Chronus–the god of time, has other plans despite the unsavory efforts of plastic surgeons.

Interestingly enough, Pankaj Mishra quotes Quinn Slobodian who says, “Neoliberals are people who believe that ‘the market does not and cannot take care of itself,’ and indeed neoliberalism is a form of regulation — one that insulates the markets from vagaries of mass democracy and economic nationalism.”  In other words, neoliberals ignore Isis’ Veil to their own peril and to the destruction of life itself.

Between Ozymandias & Gaia

It was the 19th century Prussian war theorist, Carl von Clausewitz who said in his book, On War, to win a war you must fold your opponent’s will to your will and the means of winning a war must include neutralizing your enemy’s ability to resist your power.

Examined from this perspective, taxes are a means to continue resisting the power of the brutal ideology of the rich. Taxes help fund education, public infrastructure, keeping air safe to breathe, and water clean to drink. To the diehard neoliberal, all abilities to resist their power must be destroyed, taxes included. Or, to put it in terms of Steve Forbes, “The tax code is a monstrosity and there’s only one thing to do with it. Scrap it, kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people.”

The state has become an arm to the Franco-esq, neoliberal war machine as policy and political parties are largely controlled by powerful interest groups that represent the wealthy to the detriment of the people themselves, to the peril of life as such.  And yet, despite the roar of the neoliberal machine, we have reached the historical apex when Chronus is joined by the goddess, Gaia –the mother of all life. The Veil of Isis alights.

Since WW2 the biggest threat to humanity was fascism and nuclear weaponry and both of these threats remain so, but now, seven decades later, new and much more ominous threats have emerged including increased greenhouse effects, polluted air and water that jeopardize basic life-sustainable support. These new threats are a direct result of human activities including fossil fuel burning (oil and coal), “the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture and manure management associated with domestic livestock”[1] that release Methane (CH4) which together with (C02) and (N2O) work together to create warming greenhouse effects. These effects heat our atmosphere that increasingly destabilizes the environment and ecosystems on which life is dependent. The vicious cycle accelerates exponentially overtime to the point where the planetary ecosystem will no longer be able to re-establish stabilization. This is the point of no return. It is a point in history that must be stopped or else we will all vanish.

In this way, it is not too unfair to compose the struggle of our time as the struggle over Isis’ Veil — that is, between two interpretations of her veil: Ozymandias (who ignores it altogether) and Gaia (who submits to the logic of life).

The Ozymandiasian’s reading of the Veil of Isis believes that forces must seize and solidify the object for themselves (wealth, materialism, power, ego, ideology etc.)

The Gaian reading of the Veil is that we must remain faithful and humble participants in the process of life itself so that our search for knowledge does not fall into the trap of solidifying knowledge into an absolute dogma.

Our historic life-struggle, in sum, is one between dogma (that results in violence and brutality) and life that shares in the diversity and pluralization of ideas without claiming a dogma that dominates others.

From the Nuclear to Wall Street

If the drive to create and deploying nuclear bombs was the expression of an ideology of domination, so too the driving engine for wealth creation “market fundamentalism” is the expression of an ideology of domination that threatens and neutralizes our life on Earth not to mention the foundations of social life altogether. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s famous line, “There is no such thing as society”.  Like taxes, society, is a threat to the ideology of neoliberalism because society is that which enables a resistance to the neoliberal war machine.

The reality that we can identify and characterize this threat to our life together both as its root cause as well as its destructive effects, makes it theglobal challenge of our historic epoch. It is a challenge that we mustn’t shy away from, but confront head-on with sober strategies, assemble and distribute resources, as well as deploying tactics that run the gamut from our personal daily habits to forging global alliances.

In the context of WW2’s domestic front, people’s lives were changed dramatically. Food was rationed, rubber, newspapers, steel were collected, people in many countries starved to death. Untrained factory workers, especially women, entered assembly lines en mass for the first time in history. To the degree that the nation-state has been exploited by the political and economic platform of “irrational exuberance”, framed in rhetorical terms as “trickle-down” and peddled by corporate media, the time it takes to wait and recover the nation-state in democratic terms may have already passed. What is needed in the short term is the creation of new ventures that circumvent the logic of economic fundamentalism in order to form different modes of production on the bases of which new resilient life-sustaining habits can be forms and reproducted. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t struggle to reclaim the nation-state and liberal democracy in order to arrest the virus of Wall Street greed and predatory debt-creators that only enslave us all the more. We must reclaim our democratic voices and power as a people, but given that at least in my country (USA) both major parties essentially work for the same or similar corporations within an identically perilous ideological outlook, a completely different strategy must be imagined and implemented. The Green New Deal may be one such way that seeks to reform liberal representative democracy back to its post WW2 days but there is already significant doubt about this even if it’s a worthy attempt.

And the principles that drive us into creating new and different modes of production must be focused on the implementation of life-sustaining actions that are able to repeat themselves without harming the environment, while at the same time, empowering and protecting people from the Ozymandias axis. This way must therefore be committed to hopeful futures, collaboration (P2P) and not a future in which people are put into financial enslavement (debt) on the bases of which the Nation-State (under neoliberalism) can activate it’s policing power levers against tens of millions of citizens. Additionally, this different “Gaian” strategy must be committed to searching for knowledge, healthy social interactions, and a hope that tomorrow will be better than today–it is the way of Gaia that is humbled by the Veil of Isis.

Education, An Example of a Venture: GCAS College Dublin

Education inherently poses a threat to the rulers in power, if it’s education committed to thinking and action for the betterment of our world. From the birth of western philosophy in the humble olive groves outside the city of Athens, thinking was always the gadfly to the salivating mouths of the greedy and power-trippers who refused to see Isis’ Veil.

The threat can be located in a life-stance, a worldview. To the thinker devoted to where knowledge leads, a great reserve of humility is required. The thinker–knowledge seeker, must stand under knowledge — to understand. By contract, to the ruling class, humility is considered a weakness because otherwise their power is threatened by what is unknown and thus, uncontrollable. Instead of understanding, the materialist ruler, must stand-over and not under knowledge. This act of closing off knowledge (and it’s path) is dangerous not just to society but eventually, as we are starting to see in the 21st century, to life itself.

One way to maintain power is to control knowledge acquisition, which is to say, controlling how a society is educated.  Those in power must control what it’s subjects can and cannot think, what can be done and what can’t be done. When the 1960s generation began to question the basic foundations of the USA, from the war in Vietnam, to how women and minorities were treated and how religion functioned to reproduce social inequality, this was seen as a great threat especially because much of the strength of protestors against the status quo emerged out of the university. This threat was strategically identified by the wealthy class in many ways, but one famous way was articulated as through what became known as the Lewis Powell Memo.[2]

Powell’s confidential memo was entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System” and it’s framed like a war strategy whose enemy is identified as the intellectual coming from the university campus, which Powell is quick to point out, is funded by US tax dollars. There are other enemies too like the preacher, the media, the literary journals, the arts and sciences profession and even politicians. In essence, this memo lays out the war-plans to not just neutralize all opposition to “free enterprise” system backed by the wealthy business-class, but to deploy and implement a full-scale coup d’etat of democracy itself. Now this may sound too radical, but if we just focus on the facts and not get distracted by rhetoric and misinformation, it’s very straightforward to demonstrate Powell’s position.

First, it’s important to point out that less than two-years after Powell’s memo was composed, the USA backed the militant, General Augusto Pinochet in illegally overthrowing a democratically elected president, Salvador Allende in Chile on 11 September, 1973. Before Allende was elected, President Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in Chile to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” Here is the recording of Nixon telling his press secretary Ron Ziegler to directly intervene into Chile’s democracy.

Second, the connection from Powell’s memo to the military dictatorship and the economy on which it was based, is made through Milton Friedman who is named in the memo. It was Milton Friedman (a professor at the University of Chicago whose school became known as “The Chicago Boys”) who spearheaded the neoliberal “free enterprise” agenda in Chile in the wake of the coup, as Naomi Klein points out,

“After the coup and the death of Allende, Pinochet and his Chicago Boys did their best to dismantle Chile’s public sphere, auctioning off state enterprises and slashing financial and trade regulations. Enormous wealth was created in this period but at a terrible cost: by the early 80s, Pinochet’s Friedman-prescribed policies had caused rapid de-industrialisation, a tenfold increase in unemployment and an explosion of distinctly unstable shantytowns. They also led to a crisis of corruption and debt so severe that, in 1982, Pinochet was forced to fire his key Chicago Boy advisers and nationalise several of the large deregulated financial institutions. (Sound familiar?)”[3]

In other words, this neoliberal “free enterprise” approach requires the use of a military dictatorship in order for it to be implemented. In other words, within the context of engaging with Isis’ Veil, the “free enterprise” warrior falls into the hubris trap of reifying the object by dominating life by the sheer use of brute force.

By contrast, a true form of education, resists solidifying a process into an object. This is the locus of a true education that stands under the process of life as opposed to dominating life in the name of wealth and power.

As mentioned above, the need for alternative ventures is necessary not just to resist neoliberalism– the “Ozymandiasian axis” of death, but to provide a different way to live altogether. This is precisely what The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and GCAS College has done. We have created a means of education production submits to Isis’ Veil to a life giving process that is able to reproduce itself because it doesn’t operate within the logic of corporate power and domination, but rather remains open to the process of life. Moreover, GCAS College has emerged from different locations around the world (Sydney, Santiago, New York, in France, Dublin etc) in a way that allows for a network to grow together while at the same time remain local.

The main threat to the “free enterprise” strategic ideological plan, as Powell identifies, is a process that remains open to the unknown unfolding of life as such. This process is both intellectual and practical. The university system in the USA and increasingly elsewhere (in the UK, Canada and elsewhere) from the early 1980s to today, has been replaced by a mode of production dominated by a corporate “for-profit” outlook–an Ozymandiasian encounter to life. It is for this reason why thinking in education has been supplanted by vocational desires. And this is why the university has lost its most essential resource. GCAS College Dublin reclaims this resource to follow life whereever it may lead us.


[1]NASA Climate Change December 29, 2018.

[2]Powell, Lewis F. Jr., “The Memo” (1971). Powell Memorandum: Attack On American Free Enterprise System. 1.

[3]Klein, Naomi: The GuardianMarch 3, 2010: Dec 29, 2018).

Creston Davis is the Founder and Director of GCAS. Along with Slavoj Zizek, Clayton Crockett, and Jeffrey Robbins, Creston currently co-edits Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics & Culture (an academic book series published by Columbia University Press). He has published several books including Paul’s New Moment (with Slavoj Zizek & John Milbank), The Monstrosity of ChristHegel & the Infinite (with Zizek and Clayton Crockett), Theology & the Political (with Zizek and Milbank), Theology after Lacan: A Passion for the Real (with Marcus Pound and Crockett), and Contradiction & America (with Alain Badiou) forthcoming.