Thursday, February 28, 2008

III. Beauty: Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

“There can be neither society nor culture without untruth. The tragic conflict. Everything which is good and beautiful depends upon illusion: truth kills – it even kills itself (insofar as it realizes that error is its foundation).” (Nietzsche, PT, 176)

Everything we (think we) know and understand is an illusion. A chair has the appearance of being unchanging – a stone more so. However, these objects are made of atoms, which vibrate and whose electrons orbit; and there are chemical reactions going on – surface oxidation at the very least. In order to maintain a chair in its best condition, it requires constant maintenance. It must be cleaned and polished – changed – in order for it to appear to remain unchanged.

Art and culture are artificial creations of the minds of humans and, in the case of culture, the great apes in general. They are illusions. “Art. Necessary lies and voluntary lies” (Nietzsche, PT, 813). The mind itself is an illusion of the complex brain – in a sense, the “mind” or “minding function of the brain” is nothing more than a system of firing neurons. It is neurons in action, in their interactions with the rest of the body, with its interactions with the environment. Life too is an illusion of certain kinds of organic chemistry, as one could literally understand every single aspect of biology as a series of chemical reactions. And atoms are illusions of energy strings. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the universe as a whole is nothing but a hologram (Jacob D. Bekenstein, “Information in the Holographic Universe” Scientific American, Aug. 2003), an idea supported in part by information theory. Emergent properties are the illusions (perhaps holograms would be a good metaphor overall) of the interacting systems that underlie the emergent systems.

Much has been made of the dissolution of the subject-object distinction. And Sartre shows the dissolution of the object-quality (noun-adjective) distinction in Nausea when Roquentin realizes that “the tree’s root is black” is not a statement of essence, but of quality. We must now dissolve the noun-verb distinction. Only then can we break out of the problem of eternal conceptual categories (Ideas, Forms, essences, and other metaphysical ideas). When we speak of culture, society, or even of art and literature, we are speaking of these things as if they are unchanging categories. When we speak of people, places, things, or ideas as nouns, we are seeing them as unchanging categories. While this may be a useful fiction at times, we must not allow ourselves to believe in the permanency of categories – something we are always in danger of. Culture is not a thing. It is the action of various human minds. As many human minds work together, act together, co-operate, we get the emergence of culture – a culture, not perpetual and unchanging, but itself transient and changing. It has momentary, temporary characteristics we can identify and discuss – remembering those characteristics have passed into the past as soon as we have observed them. This does not preclude repetition – ritual, the arts – but even the styles of the rituals and the arts pass into the past. And the minds too change, are mind-ing, not minds, no objects per se, but emergent of the work done by the neurons in the brain (and the brain itself is the collection of neurons at work). The neurons and all other calls (the body is the body-ing of the cells) are the cell-ing of biochemistry. Chemistry is the chemistry-ing of atoms; atoms are the atom-ing of particle-waves; particle-waves are the particle-waving of energy. And energy is en-ergon, in work, pure object-less action, without essence. Every noun can be understood more properly as verbs, as the actions of other entities, which are themselves actions of other entities, all reducible to object-less, essence-less action, energy, work. With this (deconstructionist) approach, everything becomes reduced to object-less, essence-less action, or becoming.

The opposite approach to deconstruction is emergence – whcih leads to the appearance of objects (we get the nouning of verbs). Dissipative structures theory shows us how actions give us the appearance of objects (object-appearance). It also shows these objects to be the appearance created by action. We have to understand each object is action, in action – object-action (also subject-action, or subject-object-action, as we are in action ourselves). In a sense, to merely verb the noun (to exchange minding for mind, as Fraser has suggested, and I have adopted) is not enough. It would be better to have a combination word for each noun that expresses both the appearance and the action. Instead of mind or minding, a third, mind(ing). An intervention which works well when written, but hardly workable when spoken. And there is always the danger that old metaphysical habits die hard, and that we will try to turn the new words, or constructions, into their own columbaria (to use Nietzsche’s metaphor). In the meantime, allow me to suggest that the universe as it becomes has so far appeared to have become as: Energy particle-wave(ing)s atom(ing)s chemistry(ing)s cell(ing)s body(ing)s-brain(ing)s mind(ing)s culture(ing)s. This embedded noun-verb grammatical construction may help us see object emergence from actions, but realistically it is impractical (impracticeable) in everyday writing and speech. In order to have this understanding enter and deconstruct our metaphysics of language, it will be up to those artists who understand the world this way to nudge the language toward this understanding, and nudge it in a way where it can easily and understandably enter the way we speak of and about the world. The type of intervention I have done is clearly insufficient for the job at hand. Other ways of speaking this understanding will have to be uncovered by the language arts – in works people will want to read. This is how literature will be able to speak the truth of appearance in action. We need a language which enacts emergence from action, which enacts dissipative structure. Or maybe we cannot, due to the grammatical structure of our language, and we will continue to always forget.

Of course, art does speak truth in the form of lies in a different way, in the way our language works. It works to speak human truth in the form of artistic lies. And this works in other ways of knowing as well. Consider an example from biology. The following is an extremely shortened and imprecise explanation of what would happen in the following situation. Suppose we have some mobile bacteria in solution and we put a drop of toxin into the solution on one side of the container. What would happen in purely chemical terms is the following:

The chemical would dissipate from the point of origin through the liquid. Several toxin molecules would bind to areas on folded polypeptide molecules embedded in a phospholipid bubble. This would generate a change in the geometrical configuration of the polypeptide, resulting in a chemical reaction on the inside of the bubble (let us say, for the sake of argument, that the specific chemical reaction is the addition of water to guanosine triphosphate (GTP) – which is a composite molecule consisting of the purine guanine, which is attached to the 1'-carbon of a ribose molecule, which has a chain of three phosphates attached to its 5'-carbon – to create the molecule cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), and a diphosphate). The product of this reaction would build up so long as the toxin kept the polypeptide properly configured, until there was enough of the product (cGMP) to bind another polypeptide to create another chemical reaction. This chain of reactions would culminate in a configuration change in a polypeptide close to the highest concentration of the toxin, so the chemicals adenosine triphosphate and water could attach to it and react together to create adenosine diphosphate and a phosphoric acid molecule, along with a change in the geometry of the polypeptide, which makes it rotate a polypeptide connected to a chain of polypeptides. Continued chemical reactions of ATP and water result in more rotations of the chain of polypeptides. This entire chain of chemical-physical events continues until the toxin is at low enough concentrations to decouple from the initial polypeptide and thus interrupt the cascade at its origin.

And now for a biological explanation:

The bacterium senses the toxin, and swims away to a safe distance.

One will notice that the purely biological explanation is much simpler than the chemical one. That simple biological explanation is an illusion masking the chemical complexity (and I gave a shortened version of that) underlying what happens biologically. Does the fact that this is a lie make it any less real (or “true”) because what happens can be explained in chemical terms alone? The biological lie of organic chemistry becomes a new truth. And this new truth is good (it promotes life – in this case, is life) and beautiful (as a unification of the diversity of chemistry). We can then see what Nietzsche means by “truth kills – it even kills itself”: if we consider the truth (the constituent parts) as more important than, or superseding the lie (the emergent system), then we will increasingly see the world as meaningless, as the underlying truths (which are themselves lies) become increasingly meaningless. By focusing on these “lower” truths, we miss the “higher” truths. This is why and how truth kills itself – through deconstruction (in leaving the world only deconstructed).

One gets out of this trap through affirming the lies. At the human level, that means culture and art. “Art treats illusion as illusion; therefore it does not wish to deceive; it is true” (Nietzsche, PT 184). If we recall the differentiation I made between truth and facts in chapter 1, we can see that facts are the truths underlying lies, while what we call truths are those lies themselves. In other words, from strings to humans, we speak of facts – while art, religion, and culture are the lies we make to tell us truths about ourselves. This is why Nietzsche says

The truest things in this world are love, religion, and art. The former sees through all dissimulations and masquerades; it penetrates to the core, to the suffering individual, suffers with him, pities him; the latter, as practical love, consoles the sufferer for his sufferings by telling him about another world order and teaching him to disdain this one. These are the three illogical powers, which acknowledge themselves as such. (PT, 177)

The truest things are love, religion, and art – these are the realms of truth, not of facts. The correspondence theory of truth is only applicable to umwelts below humans, to things knowable through science – or, facts. Facts which are lies covering other facts, etc. Love, religion, and art are the emergent properties-lies-products of humans which speak the truth. “When truth sets itself into the work, it appears. Appearance – as this being of truth in the work and as work – is beauty. Thus the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth, truth’s taking of its place” (Heidegger, PLT, 81). The pleasure we find in beauty (the unifying lie of pluralistic truth) is the pleasure of lying: “The pleasure of lying is an artistic pleasure; otherwise, only truth would possess any pleasure in itself. Artistic pleasure is the greatest kind of pleasure, because it speaks the truth quite generally in the form of lies” (Nietzsche, PT, 183). The bright colors of the goby are a lie – no goby has ever been as healthy as the male goby advertises itself to be. Which is itself a lie – since the goby obviously was fit enough to sport such colors and thus mate successfully. And each work of great art or literature is a lie – insofar as the work is better and more intelligent and wiser than the artist could ever be. Does this in any way denigrate the artist? Of course not:

man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true, or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king. So long as it is able to deceive without injuring, that master of deception, the intellect, is free; it is released from its former slavery and celebrates its Saturnalia. It is never more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more clever and more daring. With creative pleasure it throws metaphors into confusion and displaces the boundary stones of abstractions. (Nietzsche, PT, “TCNS” 2)

We wish to be lied to. And the artist, because (s)he can create things better, smarter, and wiser than (s)he is, is able to best lie to us and for us.

A good example of this desire to be deceived – and thus the desire to deceive – can be seen in the way we dress and act to sexually attract someone. A person who dresses fashionably rather than comfortably (or how they would prefer to dress when not trying to attract or keep someone’s interest) will attract far more (wo)men. They are in a sense lying with their clothes about who they are (regarding style, money, etc.). But it is an effective lie – as all advertising must be – and insofar as it serves life, it is beautiful. Someone who is well-dressed is in a sense beautiful – certainly more beautiful than a slob. A more extreme example could be used to illustrate this point. The most effective way to be so attractive to someone they would have sex with you right away (sooner rather than later) is to expand the lies beyond the clothes. A person who extensively (and confidently) lies about themselves will attract more people more strongly than someone who gives an honest portrayal of themselves. It is far more difficult to attract someone without lies – and one wonders exactly what kind of person one could attract without them, if one were honest (if that were possible) about the different masks one wears. At the same time, lies tend to fall apart over the long term. It is initial attraction which depends on lies – or exterior forms of beauty. However, if one wants to maintain a long-term relationship, one has to transition those we are attracted to into accepting the truths about ourselves our lies have covered. It seems those who are most effective at maintaining long-term relationships would be those who could create the lies that tell the truth about themselves, so the transition to their truths is built into their lies. This is part of the connection between acting and action. To “act” is to both do something, and to pretend to do something. So, if we act a certain way, after a while those actions can become actual. As Hamlet said to his mother, we should

“Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on. Refrain [to-]night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence, the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [curse?] the devil or throw him out
With wondrous potency.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

The same can be applied to the realm of art. Works of art and literature which only “tell the truth” (if that were even possible) would be inferior insofar as such works would be overly-detailed and thus not interesting – or they would show the utter meaninglessness underlying everything. No painting could ever tell the truth in this way, as the only way such detail could be achieved would be to fully recreate the object to be represented (but that too is impossible, since each object is in its full materiality unique). A fully “truthful” work of art is impossible. “Truth, as the clearing and concealing of what is, happens in being composed, as a poet composes a poem” (Heidegger, PLT, 72). Heidegger is here saying that truth is the lie that conceals (while simultaneously exposes) what is (the facts). In other words, art covers up what is. It adds an extra layer of lies over the lies of the original system, insofar as art represents something. In doing so, it uncovers truth. The uncovering of truths covers other truths – each unmasking is a masking. “The setting-into-work of truth thrusts up the unfamiliar and extraordinary and at the same time thrusts down the ordinary and what we believe to be such. The truth that discloses itself in the work can never be proved or derived from what went before. What went before is refuted in its exclusive reality by the work” (Heidegger, 75). On the other hand, the lie that is only a lie is also impossible. “Art is: the creative preserving of truth in the work. Art then is the becoming and happening of truth” (Heidegger, 71). We have tried to get at it with various forms of abstract art, which are attempts to create in paint “pure” concepts of abstractions (lies), but in the end such abstract works end up representing something to us.

What we have in the great work of art or literature is the lie that tells the truth. There are several ways in which lies can tell the truth, from “photorealism” to surrealism to various kinds of abstractions – and everything in between and among them. In literature, we see some of the biggest failures in beginning writing students when they try to tell a story the way it “really happened.” These stories are failures because they attempt to tell the truth as truth, or fact. There is no art – no artifice – to the stories. The most extreme version of this emphasis on multiplicity at the expense of unity is in the so-called Language Poets. These poets too are attempting to get at the truth at the expense of the truth-telling lie. Thus, they fail. Further, one sees similar problems when beginning writers are too abstract. There is unity without multiplicity – there is a lie without truth. And the work, again, collapses. The problem is that each of these kinds of writers do not realize the importance of truth and lies – of multiplicity and unity – to art and literature. They either reject the lies outright as immoral, or reject the truth as inconvenient for the lies they want to believe. The important thing is that the lie serve life. Any lie that does not serve life is an immoral lie. To the extend it does serve life, it is true. This is the role which art must take – to create emergent realities – to create true lies.

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