Monday, December 31, 2007

III. Two Individualisms – The Noetic Dangers of the Digital-Only World-View

The exclusively digital approach to aesthetics, ethics, and politics is better known as postmodernism, pluralism, and multiculturalism. While this approach has been a necessary corrective to the analogical world view, if we take the digital view to its logical conclusion, and reject the analogical as a constituent part of the world, all it can do is create alienation – among different races, different cultures, between men and women, and, if we take Quine’s view that we never actually understand one another, among each and every individual. If we take what Quine says in a very limited way, he has a point, but an extreme view makes the mistake of thinking that if there is any noise – ambiguity – in communication, we cannot communicate; whereas information theory says we need noise if we are going to have any communication at all. An analogical view may lead us to collectivism, including communism, but an exclusively digital view leads to the alienation found in postmodern radical individualism. The consequence of this digital world view is postmodernists telling us we cannot understand one another. Men cannot understand women, and vice versa. Different races and cultures cannot understand each other, we cannot understand anything that happened in the past (this anti-historicism is related to the idea of breaking with the past, the consequences of which we have already investigated in our analysis of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), and there is the suggestion that we cannot really understand each other. The consequence of this is an increasing fragmentation of society, creating warring factions (men vs. women, minorities vs. majorities, secular vs. religion), and increasing distrust among people. Many postmodern theorists have observed that one of the features of modern Western culture is its increasing fragmentation and alienation, a favorite theme of many Marxists. It is ironic that some of these same critics are the very people making the problem worse. If we cannot understand one another, we are incapable of projecting ourselves into another’s situation. While this is literally true in a factual sense, it is in another sense not true at all. We can and do have empathy for others, basing that empathy on related experiences. While I may not understand perfectly an intellectual woman’s complaint that most men do not take her seriously as a thinker, I do understand the sting of not being taken seriously, especially when I know I know more about a subject than the person who is not taking me seriously as a thinker. Only if we can place ourselves in another person’s situation can we develop the empathy needed to effect any sort of positive social change. Though most postmodernists would consider themselves Leftists – even Marxists – this rejection of empathy makes postmodernism act what they would typically characterize as extremely Right-wing, since they typically see the Right as being against free speech.

Studies have been done which show orangutans, a distant cousin, are capable of putting themselves into the minds of others. If food is placed out of reach of a caged orangutan, and a person is brought in with a bucket on his head and placed near the orangutan’s cage, without hesitation the orangutan will take the bucket off the person’s head, then physically point the person in the direction of the food. This shows the orangutan knows the person cannot see the food if the person has a bucket on his head. How could the orangutan know this if it could not project itself into the mind of the person with the bucket on his head? This is a cognitive feature only of the great apes, including humans, whose ability to do this developed even more with the advent of language. “One of the common ancestor species of all the living great apes and humans was the first in which individuals realized that others had viewpoints and knowledge different from their own, and could build up novel sequences of actions” (Richard W. Byrne, Tree of Origin, 169). This ability is why were are capable of telling stories – including fiction. To say we cannot (or should not) do this is to say we are (or should be) cognitively less complex than the other great apes. It is to place us on the cognitive level of monkeys. This attitude goes beyond being merely anti-human, to being anti-great ape. It is anti-language insofar as “Evolution of language would be impossible in a species in which individuals could not imagine that other individuals know things that they do not know themselves” (Byrne, 172). The consequence of this anti-theory of mind view for literature has been the creation of a shallow sort of minimalism that avoids letting the reader know about anything more than the actions of the characters, on this theory that we cannot know what others think – so the author should not bother to tell us what his characters think, since he cannot know what they think. If they think at all.

Postmodernism creates social ruptures, which means it is anti-social in nature. Barriers are put up between men and women. The radical individualism of postmodernism says there is an abyss of difference between men and women, while the collectivism inherent in the Franco-German individualist tradition, whose egalitarian individualism attempts to eliminate all difference, suggests there is no difference between men and women. Specifically, women have been told they should try to be more like men. This has created an identity crisis in many women. They are told by their culture (which has been influenced by the pro-masculinizing gender feminists) they should be one thing, and by their biology and psychology they should be something else. I fear American women will soon face a tragic crisis, one which can only be headed off if women are allowed by this culture to be women in the fullest sense, and not made into either men or relegated into some sort of submissive role, as we had in the past, and as we still find in many cultures around the world. Postmodernism, far from being a solution to this potential crisis, is only making the problem worse, in its own particular way. And gender feminism, by insisting that there are no fundamental differences in behavior between men and women, is only working to reinforce the prejudice that differences are inherently unequal – if not bad. Ironically, it is those feminists who perpetuate the belief that femininity is inferior. Despite what they think, it is not. American culture in particular is sorely lacking in femininity – not the cultural myths we once held about how women should act, but natural femininity, which can come about in a more inclusive, open culture – and this lack is primarily the fault of the gender feminists, who insist that men and women are fundamentally identical in behavior, that our genetic differences make no difference. This is creating the groundwork for a tragic situation, where women are pushed by culture to go beyond their own physis wihtout even trying to understand their physis (versus what we are told is their physis). One hopes we learn the outcome through works of literature, including plays and film, rather than within society itself.

This anti-social element is found not only in relations among men and women, but among races and cultures too. While I welcome the emphasis on multiculturalism, as it creates the potential for a much richer, more complex American (and world) culture, the way postmodernism practices it creates a number of problems. What, for example, are we to do with a culture that practices clitorectomy? Or oppresses women? Or practices genocide? Are we to just consider these a legitimate part of the rich tapestry of humanity? Postmodernism’s insistence that we cannot judge anyone – particularly other cultures – puts us in a serious dilemma in considering these situations. I think there are few out there who support genocide, but how can one come to say genocide is wrong if one does not make some sort of judgement, or insist there is some sort of universal we should be guided by? I asked Cynthia Haynes (a self-identified postmodernist) this question, and she told me the only thing she does not tolerate is intolerance. But isn’t the intolerance of intolerance itself a universalizing view? One assumes she (and other postmodernists) wishes everyone was intolerant of intolerance. But if one wishes for such an overarching view, one’s entire postmodern world view would collapse (of course, the very fact that postmodernism is a world view and, thus, a grand narrative, makes it collapse, imploded by its own hypocrisy). So it seems postmodern multiculturalism will not work. But I do not think we should return to a “melting pot” view either. Why could there not be a mixture of the two, maintaining cultural identity while at the same time integrating everyone into, for example, the American (or, better, world) culture? This view presumes, though, that there are more than two levels to society – the individual and the culture/state – which goes against the Franco-German philosophical tradition that has culminated in postmodernism. It is possible – I would go so far as to say preferable – that there be more than just the individual and her culture. Why can’t a person simultaneously be an individual, a member of a family (nuclear and extended), a member of a community, a member of a subculture, a member of some sort of organization (if not several), including churches, clubs, schools, etc., a member of an overarching culture, a citizen of a state, a citizen of a country, and a citizen of the world? If there are this many levels between an individual and the government, the government’s power over that individual is greatly weakened, and the influence of that government (and of any who wish to influence that government, the culture of a country through their influence on the government, etc.), is greatly weakened – which may explain why many pro-statist postmodernists oppose this view.

Aside from this, postmodernism’s anti-social view of humanity makes it very anti-human. Humans are a social species, as are all the species of great apes (even the apparently solitary orangutan will socialize when food is abundant), most monkeys, lions, elephants, dolphins, and wolves. A social species is different from a herd or schooling species, like antelope, sheep, or sardines, in that there is little to no bonding among the members of the herd. Individual members are less likely to come to the aid of unrelated or distantly related members of the herd, like social animals will. Social animals engage in much more complex behavior than herd animals. It seems postmodernists wish to make us less human by making us act more like herd than social animals.

In Individualism and Economic Order, F. A. Hayek points out the dangers found in the exclusively digital view – showing that it can and usually does lead to the analogical view (too fine a texture looks like a solid color). Hayek shows that taking the exclusively digital view leads to bad games (social systems, economic systems, government), since no information can be shared among players. A good game-system is one where communication – and, thus, community – is possible. Hayek suggests that there are two kinds of individualism, one based on rational philosophy, which started with Descartes and was further developed by Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and by the existentialists, including Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir (though I am sure the last three would object to being considered in the “rationalist” tradition, their ideas did not really deviate much from those of Kant), and which I will call Cartesian Individualism (which is also the digital-exclusive view), and the other based on the Scottish philosophical tradition of David Hume, Bernard Mandeville, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and John Locke, and further developed by Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton (which is the digital-analog agonal view). Cartesian Individualism is based on the idea that man is rational, while the Scottish tradition does not see man as being fully rational, but also, perhaps primarily, influenced by his drives and wants and needs of the moment. These quite different views give rise to quite different forms of individualism. Perhaps the best way of explaining the differences would be to put the two traditions of individualism side by side in a table showing what Hayek sees as the difference between the two traditions, and the consequences of each of these traditions:

* Scottish (Digital-Analog) Individualism

the individual is found within the social, leading to free markets

man is not always rational, or even capable of always being rational – man also has impulses and instincts

since man is not rational, he cannot design or plan something like a society or economy

the individual participates in the social (cooperates) through being selfish

“If left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee” (11).

It is not necessary to find good men to run the society, meaning anyone can play

it is not necessary for us to become better than we already are, making it easy to enter the game to play it

freedom is granted to all

no one group never always wins, which keeps people playing

reason is seen “as an interpersonal process in which anyone’s contribution is tested and corrected by others” (15)

inherently unequal people are treated equally

inherent inequality allows diversity

hierarchical – intermediates encouraged

* Cartesian (Digital-Exclusive) Individualism

radical individualism, leading (ironically (?)) to socialism

man is rational and has no instincts and can always control his impulses

since man is rational, he can create through planning the ideal society or economy

individual vs. the social – i.e., selfishness vs. cooperation – therefore need coercion

“social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual human reason” (10)

only the best can or should run society and make economic decisions – few can play

men need to be improved (presumably made more rational) before a good economy or society can be created – hard to play

freedom granted only to the good and wise

the “good and wise,” “rational” rulers always win – no reason to play the game

reason found in the individual, especially in certain “good and wise” individuals

people are made equal in actuality – thus, have to arbitrarily assign tasks

only State and Individual, thus flattening society – intermediates suppressed

We can see in this comparison that the Scottish form of individualism, by being digital-analogical, provides us with a much broader, more inclusive set of game rules. Anybody can be involved in the social and economic games – making these systems more complex, containing as they do more constituent parts acting in coordination and cooperation. Man does not have to be “improved” for the kinds of systems that would be set up using Scottish principles as he does using Cartesian principles (historical examples of attempts to “improve” man to make him more suitable for “rationally” designed societies include the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Terror of Revolutionary France, and the slaughters of millions in the Marxist states of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Cambodia, just to name a few). In the Cartesian view, there is only one rationality, but in the Scottish view, there are many rationalities, which can often come into conflict. In At War With Time, Craig Eisendrath points out that

The field in which we operate is our democratic society. The ideal democratic system includes, of course, the various levels of government, but it also encompasses every other organized part of society, including the neighborhood, family, workplace, political party, voluntary or nongovermnental organization, transnational corporation, Internet, and a variety of multilateral organizations. Operating within such a spectrum of responsibility progressively demands the most that individuals can give. Instead of requiring full mastery at the outset, this system establishes conditions under which human beings can achieve their full potential, through their participation, their education, and their receipt of the benefits which the system can produce. (277)

One can make a rational decision about an immediate individualistic concern, one about a long-term individualistic concern, one regarding one’s family, one for one’s social organizations (i.e., churches, schools, businesses), one about one’s city, county, state, and/or country, one about one’s friends, one about strangers, etc. – all of which could come into conflict (something could be rational for the individual, but not for the family, etc.). This recognizes that individual decisions can and often do effect and affect others through the different levels of society between the individual and the state.

Scottish philosophy gives us far more complex social game rules than does the (analog-exclusive) rationalist philosophical tradition. One may think the rationalist approach would allow a given individual’s influence to extend throughout a society and create a more interesting game, but what it actually does is flatten out society, making it less complex, less interactive. A digital-exclusive world view leads, ironically, to an analogical outcome. “All unity is unity only as organization and co-operation: no differently than a human community is a unity – as opposed to an atomistic anarchy; it is a pattern of domination that signifies a unity but is not a unity” (Nietzsche WP 561). And Nietzsche’s perspectivism fits well into the Scottish philosophers’ opposition to the Cartesian view of the world, as

Nietzsche tells us that every interpretation and perspective is oriented toward the preservation and enhancement of a specific level of organization in life, from the individual to the group, the species, and life as a whole. Are the “subjects” of perspectivism, then, perhaps just these particular levels of life? In a sense, the answer is yes; for a particular perspective does represent the “point of view” of a particular type, group, culture, people, and so forth. Yet, once again, these perspectives are never encountered in isolation. That is, we never come across these perspectives independent of the individual human beings to whom they are attributed. And each individual cuts across all the various levels of life: human beings are individuals as well as members of communities, cultures, subcultures, races, classes, genders, nationalities, religions, political parties, and other groups. Thus, on the one hand, we always encounter perspectives within individual subjects, while, on the other hand, individual subjects are aggregates of these perspectives and their forms of life. (Christoph Cox, 130)

The postmodernists have taken up Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism to further justify Cartesian individualism – but as we can see here, Nietzsche’s notion of perspectivism (“Insight: all estimation of value involves a certain perspective: that of the maintenance of the individual, a community, a race, a state, a church, a faith, a culture” (WP 259).) is much closer to the Scottish view of individualism than it is to the Cartesian view.

If we take the Scottish view that a person’s knowledge and interests are limited, making our actions limited to a tiny sphere of influence – our family and friends, our churches and schools and businesses, the intermediate social groups the rationalists suppress and the Scottish encourage – we see a highly complex society emerging, with the individual influencing the small social groups, the small social groups influencing the individual, and both interacting to influence larger social groups, which themselves feed back to the smaller groups. We have a series of nested hierarchies where each person acts as a digital element, acting in a digital-analogical way through the communication of information to other digital elements to create smaller cultural subsystems – the digital elements – of the larger culture. The same individual can have an effect on a school, a church, a business, and a local government, each of which will have larger effects on society at large. More people have more influence over society. And man does not have to be “improved” because the worst among us can be canceled out by the best. In what other country than the United States and other Western-style democratic republics does it really not matter who the President or Prime Minister is, since any mischief the American President may want to make is more often than not counterbalanced by two houses of Congress, a Supreme Court, and the voters’ opinions (these same voters who can vote the President out after four years if worse comes to worse, or vote in a different party during midterm elections)? These principles, upon which the free market is based, are “an effective way of making man take part in a process more complex and extended than he could comprehend” (Hayek, 14-5). One does not have to have perfect knowledge to participate. One can participate while having a considerable amount of uncertainty, and still do well. Which is good, since no man is omniscient. We can reduce uncertainty through education, increasing our own individual knowledge, but we will still be left with a plethora of things which we will never have the time to learn.

There needs to be a way for individuals, with their limited information, knowledge, etc., to enter into a highly complex game, to be able to participate in the game itself. The way to allow someone into a highly complex game is by simply not having barriers to their entering and playing the game in the first place. And, if you do choose to play, and to take large risks while playing, you should be able to reap a correspondingly larger reward. To have a good game,

any workable individualist order must be so framed not only so that the relative remunerations the individual can expect from the different uses of his abilities and resources correspond to the relative utility of the result of his efforts to others but also that these remunerations correspond to the objective results of his efforts rather than to their subjective merits. (21)

And the game must not be constructed of iron-clad laws, but of more flexible rules (though not too flexible, as those of pragmatism, nor too rigid, such as those of absolute principles, both of which, as opposed to the idea of general principles, would be unable to create a system, since principles are the strange attractors, and neither pragmatism nor iron-clad absolutes provide any sort of attractor). These are also good guidelines for creating works of art and literature, and for writing works of philosophy, theory, and criticism.

An example of good game rules are our “traditions and conventions . . . [which] evolve in a free society and . . . , without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally deserved rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree” (Hayek, 23). Most social rules should be those agreed upon and practiced by most of the people most of the time, enforced by subtle social pressures, not the use and threat of physical force. “In the social sciences the things are what people think they are. Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are” (Hayek 60). They are rules because we agree they are – they are socially constructed. With these kinds of rules, those we find in the free market, we have various choices – while with orders or iron-clad laws, we get no real choices. This is what Nietzsche is getting at in “On Truth and Lies” when he says words are metaphors we have forgotten are metaphors, not Truth (words are not congruent with things – they are not attached to things through iron clad laws). Any choice is better than none. “It is better to have a choice between several unpleasant alternatives than being coerced into one” (Hayek 24).

A word of caution: just because the world has a socially constructed element, it does not follow that all the world is socially constructed. To claim it is brings us to the problems with pragmatism, where no system at all can be constructed. Hayek says pragmatism is “the preference for proceeding from particular instance to particular instance,” where the rule-maker “decides each question “on its merits””(1). With pragmatism, expediency and compromise lead us “to a system in which order is created by direct commands” (1). “Without principles we drift,” and we are led “to a state of affairs which nobody wanted” (2). Pragmatism makes it possible to change the rules with each move in the game – one could imagine some game master watching a game being played between two people, and changing the rules whenever he wished. This would lead to the game players in each move trying to gain the game master’s favor. They would end up trying to bribe the game master rather than paying attention to playing the game at hand. If this sounds like how too much business is conducted, with the government as the game master, we can see why. How much money do businesses waste trying to influence “pragmatic” government officials? With the use of basic principles, everyone is clear what the rules are and that they cannot – or, at the very least, are very difficult to – change. The game players concentrate on the playing of the game itself rather than coming up with strategies to influence some game master. With the use of general principles, the game master can all but be done away with.

As I have shown throughout this work, there are a set of “basic principles” as such that are not socially constructed, a reality that exists even if we are not around to observe it which we have to deal with (though our attitude toward it, meaning our perspectives on it, are certainly socially constructed and thus inherited and modified based upon that inheritance). This is physis. On this world we have increasingly superimposed, with the introduction of such technologies as money and writing, a socially constructed reality. This is nomos. This social reality, these social facts “are accessible to us only because we can understand what other people tell us and can be understood only by interpreting other peoples’ intentions and plans. They are not physical facts, but the elements from which we reproduce them are always familiar categories of our own mind” (75). We have this socially constructed reality because “we all constantly act on the assumption that we can . . . interpret other people’s actions on the analogy of our own mind and that in the great majority of instances this procedure works. The trouble is that we can never be sure” (64). Which is what makes it all a game in the first place. But if we want this socially-constructed reality to work best, we need to structure it scalarly as the rest of the world is structured – as a complex, dynamic emergent system. Physis, logos, nomos unified, self-similar, in agon.

Kundera and Hayek have given us strong evidence against taking an analog-exclusive (unity-only) or a digital-exclusive (pluralist-only) view. Hayek gives an alternative in his argument for a combination of digital and analog, of individual and social – and even of a naturalistic and a socially constructed reality – that create a hierarchy of social interactions. What he argues for is a social-economic system that is in fact a system – a dissipative-structure system scalarly similar to every other system found in the universe, with the principles/game rules as the strange attractors of that system. It is a social system that reflects Hutcheson’s definition of beauty – which should not be surprising. “Unity in plurality is a cultural outlook that fosters friendship and avoids wars and armed conflicts. It is an essentially peaceful worldview” (Fuchs, 45).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

II. Angels and Demons – The Noetic Dangers of the Analog-Only World-View

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera gives an excellent explanation of the tragic aesthetic-ethical-political ramifications of having an analogical view of the world, seeing the world as either continuous meaning or continuous nihilism, in his discussion of the different forms of laughter, demonic and angelic, in “Part 3 – The Angels, Chapter 4 (On Two Kinds of Laughter)”, which simply must be quoted at length to be fully understood:

To see the devil as a partisan of Evil and an angel as a warrior on the side of Good is to accept the demagogy of the angels. Things are of course more complicated than that.
Angels are partisans not of Good but of divine creation. The devil, on the other hand, is the one who refuses to grant any rational meaning to that divinely created world.
Dominion over the world, as we know, is divided between angels and devils. The good of the world, however, implies not that the angels have the advantage over the devils . . . but that the powers of the two sides are nearly in equilibrium. If there were too much incontestable meaning in the world (the angels’ power), man would succumb under its weight. If the world were to lose all its meaning (the devils’ reign), we could not live either.
Things deprived suddenly of their supposed meaning, of the place assigned to them in the so-called order of things . . ., make us laugh. In origin, laughter is thus of the devil’s domain. It has something malicious about it (things suddenly turning out different from what they pretended to be), but to some extent also a beneficent relief (things are less weighty than they appeared to be, letting us live more freely, no longer oppressing us with their austere seriousness).
The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter, he was dumbfounded. That happened at a feast in a crowded room, where the devil’s laughter, which is terribly contagious, spread from one person to another. The angel clearly understood that such laughter was directed against God and against the dignity of his works. He knew that he must react swiftly somehow, but felt weak and defenseless. Unable to come up with anything of his own, he aped his adversary. Opening his mouth, he emitted broken, spasmodic sounds in the higher reaches of his vocal range . . . , but giving them an opposite meaning: whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good, and meaningful everything here below was.
Thus the angel and the devil faced each other and, mouths wide open, emitted nearly the same sounds, but each one’s noise expressed the absolute opposite of the other’s. And seeing the angel laugh, the devil laughed all the more, all the harder, and all the more blatantly, because the laughing angel was infinitely comical.
Laughable laughter is disastrous. Even so, the angels have gained something from it. They have tricked us with a semantic imposture. Their imitation of laughter and (the devil’s) original laughter are both called by the same name. Nowadays we don’t even realize that the same external display serves two absolutely opposed internal attitudes. There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other (85-87).

Refer to “angel” as “Apollo” and “devil” as “Dionysus,” and one can see (if one did not already see) the connection between this idea and Nietzsche’s idea of physis being an agonal combination of Apollonian form and Dionysian formlessness. To be more accurate, the angelic are those who give preference to the Apollonian, neglecting the Dionysian, while the demonic are those who give preference to the Dionysian at the expense of the Apollonian. Each is trying to create an analogical world – the angels are trying to create a world of pure, featureless meaning, while the demons are trying to create a world of pure, featureless nihilism. Please note Kundera speaks of angels and the devil – not of God. A careful study of the Hebrew of Job shows that God and the adversary are referred to as being the same (God actually inquirers of himself about why Job loves Him). Perhaps, then, God is both Apollonian and Dionysian – physis, or Heraclitus’ logos, which is nomos as physis, the two mapped on each other without nomos extending itself beyond physis (In the beginning was the Logos – John 1:1).

In Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Eagleton has a chapter titled “Demons,” where he discusses Kundera’s idea of the demonic. Eagleton is a Marxist, which should put him on the side of the Marxist ethical-analogical Angels, but we find him criticizing the left’s “revolt against . . . brutal hierarchies by keeling spectacularly over into nihilism. The liberal belief in the sympathetic self, pressed too far, becomes an ‘Oriental’ scepticism of the very concept of selfhood. Leveling of this kind . . . is akin to what Milan Kundera calls the demonic” (198). We again hear echos of the Dionysian in Eagleton’s reference to the ‘Oriental,’ since Dionysus came to Greece from the East. “The demonic, or annihilating desire, is indifferent to the sensuous particular, which it seizes upon only to hollow out and surge on to the next” (247) – which one can see in Nietszche’s Twilight of the Idols, or, Doing Philosophy With a Hammer, – doing philosophy with a tuning fork, showing the hollowness of received ideas. But one does not leave the world hollowed-out. The Dionysian is only half of physis – or, if we accept that the Apollonian is itself divided up as we divided it up in chapter 2, the Dionysian is only the lowest fourth of physis.

Echoing Kundera, Eagleton points out that, “revolted by the over-stuffed meaning of the angelic, the demonic keels over into nihilism, leveling all values to an amorphous shit” (261). If the angels go too far with meaning, creating a shitless world of kitsch (which Kundera discusses at length in both The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Art of the Novel), the demons go too far in insisting that everything is nothing but shit.

In much of his fiction, Milan Kundera sees the angelic as a bland, ‘shitless’ discourse of wide-eyed idealism and high-sounding sentiment. The angelic is full of moralistic rhetoric and edifying kitsch, allergic to doubt or irony. The angelic for Kundera are those who troop merrily forward into the future shouting ‘Long live life!’, all grins and cheers, beaming and cart-wheeling. (Eagleton, 258)

The angels are, for Kundera, those who would create utopia – the Communists in particular. “Throughout the world the angels had occupied all positions of authority, all the general staffs, had taken over the left and the right, the Arabs and the Jews, and Russian generals and the Russian dissidents” (Kundera, BLF, 99-100), whose “hygienic disavowal of the unacceptable,” things that are “negative, ironic, debunking or unhygienic” (Schmidt, 259), lead directly to the gulag, especially among those who have within them a bit of demonic laughter, meaning those who wish to be in the world as a child playing. For the angelic, meaning is everywhere, in every thing. Eagleton points out that

Kundera also sees the angelic as a sphere in which there is too much meaning rather than too little. The kingdom of the angels is one in which everything is instantly, oppressively meaningful, in which no shadow of ambiguity can be tolerated. It is the up-beat world of official ideology, in which language comes to assume an authoritarian over-ripeness and everything is drearily legible and transparent. Kundera is thinking here mostly of the neo-Stalinism with which he grew up. Yet this world in which everything is glaringly on view, flattened and two-dimensional, is also one awash with rumour and innuendo, tell-tale traces, whispered treacheries. Nothing is ever quite what it appears to be, and calls for a constant labour of decipherment. (259)

The overly-angelic, by being overly ethical and thus purely analogical, manages to turn itself into the demonic. This is why angelic laughter is indistinguishable from demonic laughter.

In life, as in art, one can have so much fine detail that what you end up with is seeing nothing. It is this nothing that the demonic is about: “If the angelic is too solemn about meaning, the demonic is too cynical” (Eagleton, 259). We can see this historically if we accept Kundera’s premise that the Communists were angelic, and Eagleton’s premise in the chapter on Demons that the Nazis were demonic, insofar as both were utopian and socialistic, albeit one international, the other national, and in Eagleton’s suggestion that the capitalist United States is angelic (I do think Eagleton is overstating things more than a bit here, but I would agree to include most conservative culture critics, such as former New York mayor Giuliani, in this category), and the postmodernists/poststructuralists (including most leftist/avant garde artists and critics – the demonic is about seeing the world as shit, and much postmodern art reflects this view) are demonic, while both encourage rapid change. Both sides, the angelic and the demonic, are far too serious for the playful, novelistic Kundera. Not everything can have meaning – we cannot remember everything. Nor does nothing have meaning – we cannot (and should not) constantly forget everything. We have to forget the small things so we can remember those things that should have meaning for it. In order to have any meaning at all, not everything can have meaning.

If meaning is found everywhere, in every little thing, then the very word “meaning” itself loses meaning – the overly angelic leads us once again into the demonic. An analog world is featureless. But “things are more complicated than that.” And works of art and literature should be. To be able to see the details in something, there has to be space between the details, between the objects, for there to be any kind of individuality at all. To have Apollonian individuality (the “something” in Heidegger’s question in Introduction to Metaphysics, or the digital world I have been discussing), one has to simultaneously agonally have the Dionysian, or “nothing,” allowing things to be separated out, to dissolve into and emerge out of. This continuous flux, between meaning and meaninglessness, nonetheless allows us to keep laughing, since things we thought were meaningful can still turn out to be meaningless (this is demonic laughter), while at the same time, we can take apparently meaningless things or experiences, and fill them with meaning (bringing us angelic laughter). The former is what we get with comedy – the latter is what we get with satire. Of course, what brings laughter to some can be tragic for others – especially if something once considered extremely valuable and meaningful turns out to have no value or meaning whatsoever. It very much depends on your attitude toward the Apollonian element of physis, whether or not you are one of the angelic (where dissolving any of Apollonian physis into the Dionysian is tragic), or, instead, of a more novelistic, playful mindset (Kundera himself provides an example of this world view), where the Appolonian dissolves into and emerges from the Dionysian in tragic-comic art, such as the novel.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera investigates the tragic situation created by those who take the most extreme sides regarding the “true nature” of physis, the angelic and the demonic, further expanding on this idea first formulated by Nietzsche. Kundera, being a novelist, does not come to any sort of “conclusion” regarding the tragic nature of physis and our relations with it any more than Nietzsche had – he instead, and in Nietzsche’s spirit, only deepened the discussion in ways exemplified by his characters and the fictional and historical situations he develops. The Dionysian is problematized as much as is the Apollonian. The angelic may impose meaning on too many things, but Kundera’s complaints in his novel about the perpetual presence of music wherever one goes – when shopping, eating out, etc. – show that the Dionysian is also beginning to make itself felt a little too strongly. We remain under the constant and more immediate threat of dissolution into the Dionysian – and this can be just as dangerous (as Eagleton points out with the Nazi’s insistence on the exclusively Dionysian) as perpetually insisting on the Apollonian – of insisting that the world is exclusively analog. These are the ramifications of the old view of “universalism,” a view I oppose on the grounds that it is not an accurate view of the world, and that it was never really properly universal in the first place – since not everyone in the world should act like Europeans of the Modern Era.

The universal is contained in the particular just as the particular is contained in the universal. We are all human beings but the fact of our being human does not manifest itself in its abstraction but in the particularity of real living human beings of different climes and races. We can talk of the human capacity for languages but that capacity manifests itself in real concrete languages as spoken by different peoples of the earth. In other words, we realise language as a universal human phenomenon not in its abstract universality but in its particularity as the different languages of the earth. (Ngg Wa Thiong’o, 26)
If we are going to adopt a universalism, it should be something more like a natural classicism, founded in what is universal in every culture, past and present.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Chapter 3: A Digital-Analog Universe: I. A Likely Story II – Through A Glass, Darkly

Complex dynamic dissipative systems consist of discrete elements acting in a continuous fashion through parallel processing. As systems containing discrete elements, they are digital (from the Latin digitus, for finger – that is, countable and separable, connected to the idea of a digit as a number). As continuous systems, they are analog (from “analogous,” alike; Greek ana, “complete” and logos “explanation”, “collection”, “discourse”, or “account”). We again have an agonal unity of opposites, a complete account simultaneously explainable only as parts, giving rise to greater complexity in the dynamic system arising out of their interaction. It is important to understand that the world is neither merely digital/fragmented nor merely analog/continuous in order to both have a clearer, more accurate understanding of the scientifically explainable parts of the world, and for aesthetic, ethical, and political reasons. There are important consequences for our aesthetics, ethics, and politics if we hold to this (or any) particular (meta)physical view.

If the world is merely digital, the parts cannot interact. If the world is merely analog, it is completely indistinct. If it is both simultaneously – analog-unified and digital-plural – it has communication, coordination, cooperation, and co-action among its parts. It has unity in variety, and is thus beautiful. But the question still remains as to whether or not the world really is beautiful in this way. So let us reconsider our likely story in these terms, ending this chapter by expanding it into the noetic realm of the arts and humanities.

Complex dynamic dissipative systems have the following features: they consist of discrete components which provide information to each other to communicate as they engage in Boolean (on/off, and/or) parallel processing, continually updating each other, creating a continuous system with more complex emergent properties than are discernable from understanding the parts of the system alone (S. Kauffman). On the level of quantum physics, packets of energy densify to high frequencies to interact with each other in more complex ways. Every interaction with its environment is a calculation – the packets of energy process the information in parallel (they do not merely take turns, as that would definitely take too long, considering the amount of matter and energy in the universe). Energy-matter would act Boolean – on/off, and/or – to give rise to atoms and other particles. One could imagine matter as being “on” and energy as being “off” – with every interaction, matter and matter, energy and energy, and matter and energy, having their own binomial choices (attraction/repulsion, amplification/dampening, etc.).

This approach can be applied to the level of chemistry, with each atom as parallel-processor and binomial (ions are either positive or negative, van der Waals forces act in and/or fashion). And Stuart Kauffman, in The Origins of Order, goes into great detail on the level of biology. Each biochemical is a parallel processor communicating with other biochemicals acting in parallel to create biochemical systems/cycles, which act in communicative parallel to keep each cell alive, which act in communicative parallel in multicellular organisms to create tissues and organs, which act in communicative parallel to keep the organism as a whole alive, which acts in communicative parallel with other organisms to create ecosystems. And each obeys the rules of its own emergent games. Thinking – and the minding function of the brain – is the consequence of the communicative parallel processing of the neurons of the brain. The more neurons, and the more complex the interactions and interconnections of those neurons, the more complex the minding of that brain will be. Human brains act in communicative parallel to create culture, technology, and the arts and humanities. Each level consists of distinct, discrete parts less complex than the emergent system they are a part of, and each system is the continuous processing of those parts in communicative parallel. If this were not the case, we would either have an analogical perfect symmetry, or a digital discrete world incapable of creating systems. “The impact, the influence of one atom upon another is likewise something which presupposes sensation. Something which is intrinsically alien can have no effect upon anything else. . . . Whether larger of smaller, these sensation complexes would be called “will”” (Nietzsche, “The Philosopher”, PT 96). Nietzsche’s “will” is what we would now call “strange attractors.” The consequences of this digital-analog view are not just profound for a scientific view of the world. As Nietzsche pointed out,

Individuals are the bridges upon which becoming depends. All qualities are originally only solitary activities, which are then frequently repeated in similar situations and finally become habits. The entire being of an individual takes part in every activity. Everything in an individual, right down to the smallest cells, is individual – which means that it has a part in all the individual’s experiences and past. Hence the possibility of procreation. (“The Philosopher,” PT 153)

Because the world is scalar, this applies to noetic concerns too. Politically this means we should be both communitarian and libertarian – personally communitarian and politically libertarian, desiring and working for community without wanting or trying to force people to do things.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

V. Afterword

Fraser’s theory of time shows us just to what extent TSZ is about time. And we can now see that the eternal return is the experience of time one has as one descends and ascends through the umwelts of time – a fractaline experience of time – leading Nietzsche to see the world as fractal, a world of strange attractors (will to power), dissipative structures, and butterfly effects nearly a century before chaos theory gave (other) words and images to what Nietzsche was trying-to-say in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This, the eternal return, the fractal nature of the world, where things like good and evil and truth and goals are seen to be strange attractors that cannot be reached (and also cannot be reconciled with one another, but must remain in continual conflict), but which must be affirmed for our world to exist (the result of which is tragic morals, since the bad must be affirmed with the good for the good to exist at all), but which make us try-to-say them, is also the image of the creator creating – new art, new metaphors, new ideas, new goals and values (the children of deep eternity) – forced to create by the pull of the strange attractor, the thing, the nothing, the creator – and Nietzsche among them – saw in the abyss, the place where one descends, not to empty oneself, as Zarathustra mistakenly believes one can at the beginning of TSZ, but to get oneself filled. We have suggested, through feeding what we learned about the eternal return’s tragic understanding of time back into our scientific understandings of time, possible explanations for the nature of strange attractors and how quantum entities can give rise to a world of solid-state physics.

We can also now see that TSZ is a work about what a person must go through, what one must undergo, in order to become a creator of new values. That is the eternal return – the image of the creator creating (procreating, recreating). One has to recognize the tragic, fractal dimensions of the world to create in this way. It is important to clarify what one means by creator here, too. One is not talking about a mere craftsman, someone who has technical ability to paint or to write a story. This is the Apollonian (perhaps the Socratic) element of art – techne is important, but hardly enough. This is the technical, the scholarly, the scientific (as technicians) aspect of art and of our experience of the world. It is the part that can be taught, the part Universities are for, since the University can only give skills (the Socratic) – it cannot give insight. TSZ is about that part of existence which cannot be taught, but which can only be experienced in order to be known. It is about the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian especially is precisely that aspect of art and the experience of the world which cannot be taught, because it cannot be said. It is the unteachable and the unsayable. It can only be shown, and poorly. It can only be tried-to-be-said or tried-to-be-shown, but cannot be said or shown (physis loves to hide), for if it could be said or shown, the creators would just say or show it with clarity and finally find relief and contentment (as would the world). But they cannot find contentment, for “the hidden attunement [harmonie] is better than the obvious one” (Heraclitus, K LXXX) – and they are among the most noetic of us all. It is the element present in the great artists and creators, the thing that makes Picasso a great artist, and the hordes of high school art students lost to history.