Saturday, March 08, 2008

II. Chaos Theory and a Possible Rebirth of Tragedy

Ernst Fisher, after embracing Hutcheson’s definition of beauty as variety within unity, says that “knowledge of the structural principle of fractal images has led successfully to the discovery of uniformity in the variety of appearances, a condition that evokes the sense of beauty” (67). Fractals are the visual representation of chaos theory, and, in showing a finite space contained within an infinite border, “are the visible sign that freedom is possible” (Fisher, 67-8). This notion of variety in uniformity could be seen as having already been attached to tragic theory by Nietzsche, in his idea of tragedy as a combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, in variety and in unity, something he points out are “artistic powers which spring from nature itself, without the mediation of the human artist” (Nietzsche, BT, 18) – in other words, these are “natural artistic impulses” (19), something that makes sense in light of chaos theory. If we understand the tragic as “the conflict felt by creatures who, because of their complex nervous systems, are capable of entertaining notions of infinity and yet who are in some way bounded by finite constraints” (Argyros, 335), we can begin to see the connection between chaos theory and the idea of the tragic. Tragedy is precisely about our inability to be unnatural, despite our best efforts. Any attempt by us to be unnatural will result in nature reasserting itself – tragically, if necessary.

If we have beings who are finite, but who entertain notions of infinity, and who live in a world that is itself fractaline (Fisher, Mandelbrot, et al), which is to say, finite, with the promise of infinity, we would expect to have beings capable of tragic action. We would have someone like Oedipus who thinks there is no end to what he could and should know – not realizing there are some things just too terrible to know. Oedipus has the “genuine confidence that the shortcomings of the present can be overcome in the future” (Argyros, 338), as Oedipus has shown in the past. All he needs is information, and he is confident he can solve the puzzle of what is causing the plague in Thebes. If we understand chaos theory from the consideration of “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions” (Argyros, 340-1), we could find the situation of the innocent, and apparently insignificant, dropping of a handkerchief leading to the tragic deaths of Othello and Desdemona. Tragedies occur on the edge order and chaos, with order threatening to slip into chaos, chaos being created through butterfly effects of small occurrences.

Insofar as chaos theory shows these elements we find in Sophoclean and Shakespearean tragedies to be fundamental features of the world, including our participation in the world, we can see that tragedy still has a strong role to play in contemporary culture – by emphasizing this aspect of nature, showing us that, as Fraser says, no final victory over evil is possible, since it is often difficult to know what the good is. And “even if we assume that it is possible to know what the good is, efforts to realize it are diverted from the agent’s original intentions and end up having evil effects” (Argyros, 343). For the audience, tragedy presents to us “our deep fear that every step we take forward on what we think is the road of progress may really be a step toward a foreordained rendezvous with disaster” (Knox, 133). Romeo and Juliet’s priest certainly did have good intentions in all of his actions – but because of the lateness of a letter, the deaths of the young couple became certain.

If “today’s tragic hero must live with the unresolvable conflict between transcendence and finitude without a sure sense of what transcendence or finitude means or how his or her actions can succeed or fail” (Argyros, 346), then the author of a tragedy must make it clear to the audience that these things are encompassed in the world as a chaotic system – that the heroes, even if not themselves aware they are bounded (and usually, they are not), have to be shown to be bounded by something. In a contemporary tragedy, biology would be a good element. E.O. Wilson envisions human action as bound by a long, stretchy tether to our biological human nature. So long as we act within the bounds of our biological nature, there is no danger of tragedy. But humans are not satisfied with staying within bounds – we feel the need to at least try to break out. We are, if nothing else, the rebellious species. If we consider Oedipus’ situation as his trying to overstep physis through nomos – in his case, physis containing the gods too as physical reality – and reimagine physis as physics/chemistry/biology, with nomos in each case being the human attempt to get beyond physis, we can see how adaptable such an approach to tragedy could be to modern understanding. The view of the world as a chaotic system also shows us how we can have both mystery and certainty (this is best seen in how Hawkins refers to chaos theory as “deterministic chaos”), which, as Camus points out, is necessary to have tragedy, since “If all is mystery, there is no tragedy. If all is reason, the same thing happens. Tragedy is born between light and darkness and rises from the struggle between them” (303).

So what, if anything, could make contemporary culture receptive to tragedy? Tragedy seems only to arise at certain times – the Age of Tragedy of Greece, the time of Shakespeare. Tragedies seem to arise during a conflict between a traditional view and an emergent view of the world (Argyros, 338). Knox notes that

The fifth century in Athens saw the birth of the historical spirit; the human race awakened for the first time to a consciousness of its past and a tentative confidence in its future. The past came to be seen no longer as a golden age from which there had been a decline if not a fall, but as a steady progress from primitive barbarism to the high civilization of the city-state. (140)

Spariosu notes that this same time period was a move from archaic (Homeric) to median (Platonic, Aristotelean) values. Camus too agrees with this view of tragedy, when he says in “On the Future of Tragedy,” that “great periods of tragic art occur, in history, during centuries of crucial change, at moments when the lives of whole peoples are heavy both with glory and with menace, when the future is uncertain and the present dramatic” (296). In other words, “the tragic age always seems to coincide with an evolution in which man, consciously or not, frees himself from an older form of civilization and finds that he has broken away from it without yet having found a new form that satisfies him” (298). In Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, we see a move from Medieval Man to Modern Man, with Hamlet being the Modern Man, educated, thoughtful, unwilling to act without putting considerable thought into the issue, and Hamlet’s father and uncle both being Medieval Men, unafraid to act to get what they want, without thought. The tragedy occurs when Modern Man Hamlet has to still deal with the Medieval value system, and is forced to act within it. Shakespeare deals with this transition in a different way when MacBeth, who has consulted witches and therefore has been making decisions based on mysticism, is defeated by a man whose very life is owed to medical science, having been born by Caesarean section. Again, we see a similar thing in Euripides’ Bakkhai, where the king, trying to be sensical and even-minded, is faced with the very archaic-value-driven Dionysus. In Bakkhai, archaic values may have won for the moment, but we know median values will win out in the end. In Shakespeare, where the one representing the old value system is a fellow human being, we get the satisfaction of seeing the representative of the old system die at the hand of the representative of the new system, even as we have to witness the tragic death of the hero. All of this being said, we must return to the question of what, if anything, could make the contemporary culture receptive to tragedy? Is our culture in such a transition period?

Since the Renaissance, the West has been in the Modern Era, where man is no longer a man of action, but of thought. One gets Ages of Enlightenment and of Reason only through contemplation. And the Romantics, though advocates of action, actually did a lot more thinking – this is how so many books and poems got written. Even the prime promoter of action, Nietzsche, actually spent most of his time reading, thinking, and writing. And those influenced by him mostly only wrote about the problems of thinking people like themselves: Thomas Mann in A Death in Venice, Gide in The Immoralist, Sartre in Nausea, Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek, and Camus in The Fall. And since “the tragic world is a world of action, and action is the translation of thought into reality” (Bradley, 20), we can see the Modern Era is not an era of tragedy. We further see that Existentialism is really nothing more than a further development of the ideas of the Modern Era, and is just a restatement of Rousseau’s Blank Slate, with Postmodernism just a further development of that. If we are only products of history, language, culture, etc., then changing those things will change our nature. Such is the belief in the blank slate. The gist of Steiner’s argument in The Death of Tragedy is that “the romantic vision of life is non-tragic” (128) – and our world view remains essentially romantic. At the same time, this Romantic rebellion against Newtonian determinism that has characterized our world for so long has recently been challenged on several fronts, particularly through chaos theory – and this is the potential source of a contemporary rebirth of tragedy.

The new traditional view of the world is that of the blank slate, which has been tied in with the thinking man of the Modern Era. Throughout this period, emphasis on the Other, particularly in the German tradition, has resulted in increasing fragmentation, leading to fragmented, pluralist, multicultural postmodernism’s collage-montage approach to the world. This modernist world view resulted in the fragmentation – the splitting in two – of tragedy in Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, with the tension between freedom and necessity (determinism) being split into the Romantic story The Wild Palms and the Naturalist story Old Man. The tragic world view is shown, in this strange, bifurcated novel, to have been split asunder – it is only through bringing these two elements together again that we can get a return to tragedy. Chaos theory shows us how this is possible, by showing us the world is both free and determined, both certain and uncertain at the same time. But “fragmentary” is precisely how Doczi defines knowledge. Thus, one could classify the Modern Era as the Era of Knowledge – at the expense of wisdom, which Doczi defines as seeing the world as holistic. By seeing the world as both varied (fragmented, something that can be known), and as holistic, one, we can see the world as beautiful once again – and as tragic. This suggests that to view the world as tragic is to view the world as beautiful, as we see in Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as unifying (in an agonal way) variety and unity through the Apollonian and Dionysian – the beautiful being affirmative. Though a part of the Modern Era, Nietzsche is one of the first to act as the answer to it, including the Modernist and Postmodernist variations of that world view (who both misread Nietzsche because of their reading him through Cartesian and Rousseauean lenses).

I believe that the understanding of the world through chaos theory, as well as our understanding of ourselves and our basic human nature through sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, both of which show that human nature meets the requirements of chaos theory in being both bounded and free within those bounds – something game theory is increasingly showing us, by helping us understand that many good rules create far more freedom (chess, which has a nearly infinite number of possible games) than no rules, or very few (checkers, which has a small, calculable number of games that can be played) – can be the preliminary developments of a new world view that will take us beyond the Modern Era, just as the Renaissance took us into the Modern Era from the Medieval Era. In The Modern Era, Rousseau managed to introduce to us the idea of the Golden Age of the past in the idea of the Noble Savage – anthropology is still trying to recover from this idea (Fox). We are beginning to see the suggestion of a view of history as improving, similar to the one Knox claims happened in Greece – only this time, people like Robert Wright are using game theory to show how there has been cultural, moral, and technological progress in a global sense. This contradicts the postmodern world view of progress being impossible (even in understanding progress as an increase in complexity, and capable of tragically slipping back into less complex states), seeing instead only change.

Considering the postmodernists’ tendency to be anti-science and anti-technology (the two things that most clearly do show progress), instead concentrating more on art, literature, and philosophy (where I would have to agree that notions of “progress” are entirely nonsensical), we should not be surprised. In fact, both world views are true – human culture both progresses and does not progress, but only changes. It depends on which aspect of the culture one is looking at. But this situation, too, is a ripe one for tragedy, since a tragedy could be written showing an agonal conflict between the forces of “progress” and the forces of “change,” of science and the arts. As one who believes the sciences and the arts and humanities should be brought together, so that the knowledge of science informs the wisdom of the arts and humanities, just as this wisdom informs scientific knowledge, I find this idea of unification exciting – while realizing too the potential tragic consequences. Steiner points out that “Instead of altering or diminishing their tragic condition, the increase in scientific resource and material power leaves men even more vulnerable” (6). The one with the view of infinity will necessarily, at some point, get reined in by the finite one. There is no end to the minutiae science can investigate – and to the changes that can happen over time. Thus scientific knowledge can progress infinitely. But art and philosophy only uncover aspects of existence we have forgotten – thus, wisdom in this sense is finite. Thus, we get the apparently ironic situation of (scientific) knowledge actually being the infinite one, and (artistic) wisdom being the finite one, with wisdom keeping knowledge in check, just as the finite space of a fractal holds in place its infinite border. Chaos theory helps us to see the finite-infinite tension in wisdom and knowledge, and thus shows us a tragic possibility.

In many ways people still consider the past to have been more moral than the present. People are constantly talking about how much better things were when they were children, when their parents were children, etc., and that things appear to just be getting worse and worse. But Wright notes that the philosopher Peter Singer has suggested that things could be getting better. This is an idea I myself had developed independently, and have only recently discovered that my great new idea was previously suggested by not only Peter Singer, but by Charles Darwin – it is the notion of the expanding tribe. Humans have two contradictory ways of viewing people: through the eyes of xenophobia, and through the eyes of xenophilia. We simultaneously fear and are attracted to the exotic, the unknown. This attraction is very often realized in sexual attraction. In tribal warfare, we want to kill all the men, but we want to take all the woman back as wives (think of the rape of the Sabines). Xenophobia makes perfectly good sense if you are a tribal hunter-gatherer. Those who saw new people and then ran out to joyously greet them typically got a spear through the body, while those who saw a new person, and then killed them, lived to reproduce. At the same time, attraction to the exotic is good, as it creates greater genetic diversity. Further, there are good political reasons to make friends with neighboring tribes – often to do battle with other tribes you hate more. But if we start befriending other tribes, strengthening that bond through trade, etc., we soon have a confederation. And with a strong enough leader from one, a chiefdom. Soon you have large cities and nations, which are so large one cannot possibly know everyone in the city or nation. And with enough expansion, one cannot recognize tribal (and, eventually, racial) differences. It makes little sense, if you are an American, to hate someone on account of their race, since this country has no real racial foundations (this does not prevent people from trying, though). With increasing global trade and interdependence, hatred of someone because of their race and/or nationality will increasingly make less and less sense. As such, our xenophilia (and plain old selfishness in wanting to make money from trade) will override, over the long term, our xenophobia. This will result in an increase in moral behavior. For example, murder is considered immoral in all cultures. What differs is what is considered murder. But it is always murder to kill someone of your own tribe who is not otherwise doing something wrong. And it is never murder to kill your foreign enemies. But what happens when we collapse the idea of “foreign”? What happens when people who look very different from you are people you consider to be in your own tribe? It becomes increasingly difficult to go to war, to kill people who do not look, act, or dress like you. Now, this does not mean such things will not happen. The 20th Century is filled with examples of people killing people in other “tribes,” including people we would consider to be within a “tribe.” But at the same time, how else does one explain the fervent outrage we have seen in the 20th Century at such things as the Holocaust, when it was considered the height of morality to slaughter Jews during the Inquisition? The “problem” with an expansionist view of morality is precisely its tragic aspect. A Holocaust now would be a more terrible thing than was the one during WWII, which was itself far, far more terrible than the one during the Inquisition. The problem with climbing high is that the fall is much farther – and far more terrible. And the very notion of progress contains within it the idea of regress. If we can go forward, we can fall back too. And the farther forward we push, the farther back we can fall – and the more tragic the consequences. If we see history and morality both as progressing, we have a world where tragedy is increasingly possible. Turner goes so far as to say that

true hope necessarily implies tragedy, and true tragedy implies hope. Tragic loss would not be tragic if what was lost were not worth having in the first place – so valuable that even if we knew in advance that it would be lost, we would choose to have it anyway. And hope would not be hope it if did not necessarily project itself into a future world of uncertainty, even one in which evil may well triumph (259)

If we understand the world as getting better, “The world that is to come will be the more tragic, for being the more beautiful and free and wise and holy, and the more these good things for being the more tragic” (Turner, 260). This view is supported by Camus in his essay “On Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée”: “Life can be magnificent and overwhelming – that is its whole tragedy. Without beauty, love or danger it would be almost easy to live” (201). But who would want to live in such a world? And who would not want to live in a world more beautiful, hopeful, magnificent, and full of love than is the one we live in? But to desire such a world is to precisely desire a world ripe for tragedy.

Now, as if the tragic possibilities of a more progressivist view of history and of morality (which is not necessarily an always optimistic view, in the same way that Marxism and Christianity are optimistic, since for each of them, there is an absolute certainty of a particular world to come, while this progressivist view I am suggesting is progress as increasing complexity, not leading to any sort of utopia, but instead to a world that is better, but much less definably better, since we often do not know what “better” really is until we get there and see it – this is why Steiner says “the metaphysics of Christianity and Marxism are anti-tragic” (324), and thus identifies them as the world views that brought about the death of tragedy – though one could equally argue that something like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a tragedy in the same sense that Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus is a tragedy insofar as both end with redemption, suggesting that there could be a Christian tragic metaphysics), and the suggested new tragic relationship between knowledge and wisdom, and the understanding of the world as a chaotic system were not enough to create a new tragic milieu, the new fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have provided us with an understanding of human nature that allows us to see human action as tragic. This has already been suggested above in my brief discussion of physis and nomos in ancient Greek tragedy. This new view of the biological basis for human nature provides us with a new physis with which to put our contemporary nomos in conflict. One could imagine any number of scenarios where a person’s understanding of their basic nature – perhaps because they continue to believe in the blank slate world view – comes into conflict with their biological nature. What else is the overprescription of behavior-altering drugs such as Ritalin in the United States (in western Europe it is prescribed at 10% of the rate it is in the United States) but an overzealous application of the view that human nature is infinitely malleable – even if that malleability is now seen as achievable through drugs? This can result in a tragic situation precisely because drugs such as these do have their appropriate uses – when properly used, in conjunction with a proper understanding of our biology. At the same time, we do not know the long-term effects of using behavior-altering drugs, especially on those who do not actually need the drugs. Certainly it is the potential for misuse in the direction of prescribing them to people who do not need them that can have tragic results. But why would anyone want to prescribe such a drug to someone who does not need it? Precisely because there are those out there who think we can and should mold behavior beyond its natural tendencies. And drugs is not the only possibility. One could imagine a story of someone using Skinnerian techniques to create any number of tragic situations in their attempt to force people beyond the limits dictated by their basic human nature. At the same time, this is not to say that just because it is in our nature to do something that it is good. This falls into the fallacy of believing that everything natural is necessarily good (we can thank Rousseau for this idea too). One can also have tragic situations created precisely because of our human natures – particularly, the conflict that can arise from different aspects of our human nature. I previously noted that humans have a tendency both towards xenophobia and xenophilia. Is this not precisely the conflict Shakespeare shows us in Romeo and Juliet? Certainly the 20th Century is full of precisely these kinds of tragic situations.

Another aspect of the world that makes it conducive to tragedy (as if the above were not enough) is the fact that we seem to be at a crossroads Camus recognizes as necessary to give birth to tragedy, in that periods of tragic art “mark a transition from forms of cosmic thought impregnated with the notion of divinity and holiness to forms inspired by individualistic and rationalist concepts” (297). Eagleton agrees with this idea, saying we see tragedy “emerging from a tension between old religio-mythical ways of thought and new politico-legal ones which still remain cloudy and contested” (143). It may appear strange to suggest we are now at a similar historical crossroad, since religion certainly does not appear to have the power it did during, say, ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, but a religious view of the world is precisely what we are abandoning in abandoning the Rousseauean Romanticism that has characterized the last half of the Modern Era. Pinker argues that the Blank Slate view of human nature is taken on faith by many, particularly those on the Left. And it is certainly defended by them with a religious fervor. The same has been true of Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage. And, in the form of Marxism, Romantic politics has a religiousity to it too – creating the same kinds of hermeneutic circles as religion (I know God exists because the Bible says he does, and I know the Bible is true because it is the word of God, and the idea that you cannot see this truth because the Devil is blinding you to it, vs. claiming the bourgeoisie cannot see the truth of Marxism because they are bourgeoisie, and if they were proletarians, then it would be clear to them – it is the same argument that you are being blinded by the Devil). We have ended up with a plethora of secular religions, that are no less religions for being secular. They are designed to provide Truth, to provide The Answer(s). If postmodernism is good for anything, it is that it did work to do away with many such secular-religious notions (while also retaining the religious belief in the blank slate). But science, which does not claim to provide Truth, but only facts – and these facts only work to raise more questions, while claiming it does not and cannot have The Answer – is precisely, for these reasons, not religious, though there are a few secular-religious beliefs surrounding it. One cannot precisely predict what the new rational world view will be, as it is the purpose of tragedy to move us toward it (though I am imagining an affirmation of the evolutionary, chaos-theory world view). But one thing I think we can say is with the rise of a contemporary tragic art, we would see the final death of Rousseauean Romanticism, and its Marxist and postmodernist offspring.

One final element that suggests the time is ripe for a new birth of tragedy is the development of a new view of time – I am particularly speaking of the umwelt theory of time (also, the evolutionary theory of time, and the theory of time as conflict) of J. T. Fraser. Schmidt says tragedy is the “poetics of time” (149), and that “the crisis which the tragedy unfolds is a crisis of time and, as such needs to be understood as opening me to the final meaning of time, namely, my death” (148). This is why he says rhythmical language has typically been used in tragedies, since “rhythm mimes the course of life” (149) by drawing our attention to time, to ourselves as time, to the passing of time, and therefore to our awareness of death. With Fraser’s understanding of time, we have time itself emerging from “randomness” into “order” – or, at least, human order. Fraser calls his theory of time both “the hierarchical theory of time and the theory of time as conflict” – the latter because “in its dynamic features it is a general theory of conflicts” (TCHV, 21). As a hierarchical theory, it has a fractal depth, and its fractal geometry shows how the deterministic world has elements of probability and of randomness, as recent work in chaos theory has shown. Lower levels of reality bleed through to higher levels, pure energy through to the quantum world, both through to the macrophysical world, all of these through to the biological world, and all of these through to the human (minding) world. Each of the lower levels are able to be experienced by the levels above. When this happens on the level of physics, we get fractal images. The world is shown to be both free and determined. When this happens with people, we get dreams and art – and, sometimes, madness.

For Fraser, tragedy arises because we feel our inbetweenness. “The unfolding of tragedy demands uninterrupted reflections upon the past, the future, and upon the choice among different paths of action thinkable in the present. These elements, skillfully combined, create what has been called the tragic present” (Time, 294). Time is literally of the essence of tragedy. “The moods of time are ceaselessly evoked and are intricately mixed: we feel the terror of chaos, the call of continuity, the demands, pain, and satisfaction of being alive, and the predicament of being able to think in terms of noetic time” (294). And tragedy is precisely the lot of humans, because “only humans can make a series of deliberate choices in support of an idea, a symbol they created by distilling what they judged permanent in their experience of time” (295). This is why,

when it comes to time-knowing humans with a single life and death, the appropriate drama is not heroic comedy but tragedy, because it must involve the decisions a person must make in terms of his assets – life and limb, love and hatred, freedom and duty – and in full awareness of the finity of his life. (TCHV, 160)

Our decisions and actions will have consequences – and one of the consequences could be death. This is tragic for each person, we being the species aware of our own deaths. And in a theory of time as conflict, tragedy is precisely the art form one would expect to see – and not just because Nietzsche sees the world, too, as agonal, since:

Tragedy describes a world where conflict is endemic, resolvable only in transient fashion, and where men and women, to be able to live with their dreams of a better world, must make present sacrifices for very chancy future returns. The tragic is a form of unresolvable conflict in the nested hierarchy of such conflicts: it is native to the nootemporal and sociotemporal worlds. In this it joins the lower-order unresolvable creative conflicts: those of life (between growth and decay) and those of matter (between forms of permanence and the ever-present chaos). (TCHV, 162)

This final comment brings us back to the issue of chaos theory and its relationship to tragedy. The time seems ripe for the creation of new tragic art. And this new view of time as conflict, and nature as deterministic chaos, show us a world where tragedy is possible – and, indeed, likely. We are at what seems to be the end of the Modern Era, and the chaos we have seen through the 20th Century, with the demise of the various experiments in Marxism, and, even now, in the final throes of the conflicts of the 20th Century in the current War on Terrorism (brought about in part by the way the United States and the USSR fought each other) seems on the order of that which, in a Prigoginian manner, will give rise to a new, higher social order, as we saw developing after the Renaissance (though much of the political realization has unfolded only slowly). Perhaps the current War on Terrorism is precisely that transitional element from the old into the new, and the beginning of something new. This past century has come about precisely because of the Rousseauean rejection of tragedy and the belief it fostered of our “perfectability” through social engineering. It failed – precisely because it did not understand the tragic situation of man. Insofar as postmodernism has embraced such Rousseauean beliefs as the blank slate (even if it does reject the idea of the perfectability of man), it too is incapable of creating a tragic art. To have a tragic art, one must be at the same time Romantic and Naturalistic, pluralist and unified, knowledgeable and wise, deterministic and chaotic – in other words, one can only have tragedy in a non-linear environment, and one can only create a tragedy if one views the world in this way. To create a tragedy, one must be able to see the world as beautiful.

1 comment:

Michael "Kearnsey" Kearns said...

This is huge mate... I'm digesting. But I think it's a lynchpin to my own research on the language of "leadership theory," a $50+ Billion / year enterprize in America today. "" Michael Kearns, Pnoenix, AZ.