Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Opulences of Reality

“My dear Arjuna, O son of Prtha, behold now My opulences”
The Bhagavad Gita, 11: 5

Stuart Kauffman has been engineering a new scientific paradigm which promises to wed biology and culture as well as explain the origins of life in such a way that we may eventually repair the schism that currently separates the spiritually from the rationally or materially minded.  You can find a neat summary of his ideas, more expansively treated in his book, Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred, in this article on the Edge blog

The terms of the debate are as follows: on the one hand, we have theology and metaphysics, which are concerned with notions of Intelligent Design, a benign Creator or Author of Existence, and the “fear that the very foundations of Western society will tumble if faith in a transcendent God is not upheld.”  These belief systems envision an order that is anthropomorphic, harmonious, and spiritual.  On the other hand, we have science and secular humanism, the former of which is concerned with natural law and tends toward what is called “reductionism,” a mechanistic or materialist causality, which in turn has led some to opine that “The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears,” in the words of Stephen Weinberg.  The secular humanists, meanwhile, argue that what science tells us is real and “find values in their love for their families and friends, a general sense of fairness and a morality that needs no basis in God's word.”  But, as Kauffman points out, the humanists have had a hard time accommodating notions of spirituality, and their moral philosophy has no scientific basis, which leads to relativism and the nihilistic excesses of postmodernism.  We are reduced to notions of the individual as Free Market entrepreneur or Democratic citizen, which are indeed two of the main strands of individualism in the West.  The poetic and spiritual values of the artist get short shrift.

On the basis of his explorations of Complexity Theory, Self Organization, and certain revisions of Darwinian ideas of natural selection, Kauffman has argued against the reductionism of science in order to explain how agency and accident, or as he more precisely defines it, “adjacent possibility,” function in ways that mitigate mechanistic determinism and allow for spontaneous creative possibilities.  The implications of this theory are huge and have already been implemented in the sphere of economics as well as biology and physics.  There is nothing meek about his approach:

I would like to begin a discussion about the first glimmerings of a new scientific world view — beyond reductionism to emergence and radical creativity in the biosphere and human world. This emerging view finds a natural scientific place for value and ethics, and places us as co-creators of the enormous web of emerging complexity that is the evolving biosphere and human economics and culture. In this scientific world view, we can ask: Is it more astonishing that a God created all that exists in six days, or that the natural processes of the creative universe have yielded galaxies, chemistry, life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, culture without a Creator. In my mind and heart, the overwhelming answer is that the truth as best we know it, that all arose with no Creator agent, all on its wondrous own, is so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind.

Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet — it expands our consciousness and naturally seems to lead to an enhanced potential global ethic of wonder, awe, responsibility within the bounded limits of our capacity, for all of life and its home, the Earth, and beyond as we explore the Solar System.

We know intuitively that spontaneity exists, that inspiration is a phenomenon which obliges us to speak of demonic possession and duendes, of muses and magic, if we try to describe the experience of sudden, inexplicable illumination that seizes the mind, and that accident and agency collude in the creation of new orders of existence.  Now scientists are coming to understand in their own terms what the poets have always known in theirs, that life as well as art is not a process merely of probability and necessity, but possibility and potential.

As D. H. Lawrence once observed, the opulence of a flower cannot be explained solely in terms of natural selection.  Beauty, meaning and value have no place in a utilitarian scheme.  But Kauffman presents us with the means of integrating what artificial disciplinary boundaries have sundered. The superfluities of natural selection are the ground of new realities and all of them are intrinsic to the universe. 

Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes. It was all wondrous. The form was decorated with divine, dazzling ornaments and arrayed in many garbs. He was garlanded gloriously, and there were many scents smeared over His body. All was magnificent, all-expanding, unlimited. This was seen by Arjuna.

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.

At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.
Bhagavad Gita 11: 10-13

Friday, November 2, 2012

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire.  Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind.  Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication.
America, Jean Baudrillard

The culture of modernity idolizes speed and convenience above all other values.  Whatever the thing may be, it must be quick and easy.  An effortless instantaneity is our raison d’être and the ultimate selling point for all commodities.  The corrosive effect that this has on our material as well as ideological existence is inestimable and pervasive.  These idols are worshipped and observed more faithfully than any of the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, personal salvation is merely a matter of proclaiming one’s faith in the “true God,” a form of intellectual and moral laziness that is disguised by the celerity with which one shouts “I am saved!”  There is no need to study a Bible; its meaning is given the moment you declare your faith.

Speed and convenience have completely altered food production, resulting in the degradation of our foodstuffs and the alienation of the mass of mankind from the brute realities of procuring it, which in turn creates a false innocence among those who consume without having to kill or labor in the fields.  Speed and convenience have altered our landscape, turning it into a network of roads and highways and malls and parking lots.  Sex is increasingly virtual, instantly available with a mere click of the mouse (no wonder there is a societal preoccupation with premature ejaculation).  The life of the mind is jacked on Speed.  Knowledge is a package deal.  Universities now streamline education as if degrees were a product assembled on a factory floor and ideas were added features.  Degrees are offered online purely for the sake of easy accreditation.  These Siamese twins have shaped whole professions, which now must incessantly prove their value on the basis of swift results and easy access.  This is most apparent in the sphere of photography, which since the advent of digital has become ever more a slave to the editorial requirement that the imagery be instantly obtainable and reproducible, thus minimizing the value, and even the possibility, of painstaking, thoughtful image making.  The Arts have likewise been compelled to kowtow before these idols.  Writing is becoming ever more telegraphic with the new media, and the time needed to read or write a novel – that “time as depth” mentioned by Baudrillard – has been expunged from the imperious Schedule that rules our workaday lives.

These Imps have invaded the sphere of political discourse and wrought great damage there, with the result that Democracy is almost pure specularity. The sound bite takes precedence over the reasoned argument.  Emotional jibes supercede sound logic.  Repetition of slogans and simplistic “message” prevails over critical analysis and the formation of ideas.  What could be quicker and easier than the Spin?  Government is a simulacrum tricked out with a neat set of “Like” buttons and Comment fields whereby citizens can indulge the illusion that a genuine discourse exists, even though it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Speed and Convenience conjure enchanting illusions to dupe the citizenry.  Wars are now fought with this model in mind – drone warfare is just one instance of an attempt to facilitate aggression in ways that putatively do not inconvenience those who wage it.  Human beings need not be engaged at all except via the computer console.  We are sold on the notion that it is more efficient, more convenient, swifter and cleaner.  But the hype conceals the lie at the heart of the agenda.  Convenience does not cut war short; it prolongs it and covers up its true costs in order that the profiteers may more easily profit from it.  We are now engaged in wars that last longer than any of the major conflicts of the 20th century, and we are locked into a syndrome of perpetual warmaking.

These facets of a market society are not new; they are just more pervasive.  John Stuart Mill once wrote that the civilizing process is essentially effete; that is, it removes people from the brute realities of life and makes them more sensitive, more refined, more prone to a dainty aversion to what he called the “heroic.”  The terms of his argument and his Victorian High Seriousness will provoke chuckles today, but there is a thread woven therein which ties up with these features of modernity that I have distinguished.  He argues that

One of the effects of a high state of civilization upon character, is a relaxation of individual energy: or rather, the concentration of it within the narrow sphere of the individual’s money-getting pursuits. As civilization advances, every person becomes dependent, for more and more of what most nearly concerns him, not upon his own exertions, but upon the general arrangements of society. In a rude state, each man’s personal security, the protection of his family, his property, his liberty itself, depend greatly upon his bodily strength and his mental energy or cunning: in a civilized state, all this is secured to him by causes extrinsic to himself. The growing mildness of manners is a protection to him against much that he was before exposed to, while for the remainder he may rely with constantly increasing assurance upon the soldier, the policeman, and the judge, and (where the efficiency or purity of those instruments, as is usually the case, lags behind the general march of civilization) upon the advancing strength of public opinion.

The relaxation of individual energy is nothing more than what I have called Convenience – and the circumscription of individual energy to the sphere of money getting is a convenience, certainly, for the capitalist system.  Hence the market comes to dominate life.  Mill goes on to argue that the result of social evolution is a kind of displacement or repression of distasteful realities and an aversion to struggle:

One of the effects of civilization (not to say one of the ingredients in it) is, that the spectacle, and even the very idea, of pain, is kept more and more out of the sight of those classes who enjoy in their fulness the benefits of civilization. . . . To most people in easy circumstances, any pain, except that inflicted upon the body by accident or disease, and upon the mind by the inevitable sorrows of life, is rather a thing known of than actually experienced. This is much more emphatically true in the more refined classes, and as refinement advances; for it is in avoiding the presence not only of actual pain, but of whatever suggests offensive or disagreeable ideas, that a great part of refinement consists. . . . The consequence is that, compared with former times, there is in the more opulent classes of modern civilized communities much more of the amiable and humane, and much less of the heroic. The heroic essentially consists in being ready, for a worthy object, to do and to suffer, but especially to do, what is painful or disagreeable; and whoever does not early learn to be capable of this, will never be a great character. There has crept over the refined classes, over the whole class of gentlemen in England, a moral effeminacy, an inaptitude for every kind of struggle. . . . This torpidity and cowardice, as a general characteristic, is new in the world; but (modified by the different temperaments of different nations) it is a natural consequence of the progress of civilization, and will continue until met by a system of cultivation adapted to counteract it.

Essentially Mill is arguing that with civilization comes a kind of intellectual and moral laziness or torpor as a result of a dissociation from pain.  One cannot help but laugh at this uptight hetero Victorian’s fear of “moral effeminacy”; but Mill still has something to teach us, and not just because this line of argument led directly to Freud’s more famous Civilization and Its Discontents.  Mill could not have foreseen that the titanic struggles of the 20th century, against fascism, colonialism, racism and sexism would compel people to heroic endeavor and produce many heroes such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Frantz Fanon, Emma Goldman, bell hooks, and innumerable anonymous strivers for a better world.  Heroism doesn’t seem to be in shorter supply, despite the march of civilization (and perhaps we should discard this loaded term and talk simply of “development”); but the notion that torpor may have a pervasive cultural effect is not to be discounted, so long as we recognize that it works in a paradoxical manner.  Because while convenience and speed command our thinking and our energies, and the machinery of life takes on an ever greater presence so that the everything in the world is viewed as a machine, and everything, including ourselves, is a function of instrumentality, we become the proverbial cog, endlessly turning without getting anywhere.   

Very few people today raise and slaughter their own chickens or grow their own food.  Very few people today can build a house or sew their own clothes or build a go-cart or tree fort for the kids.  Who has time for all that?  Or so we tell ourselves.  We delegate these and other duties to other people – the experts, those with the necessary skills.  Or we just buy what we need.  Thus we deprive ourselves of a range of skills we might otherwise profit by and enjoy while exercising them.  But the real irony is that all this convenience and speed have not liberated us from toil.  They have merely made life less “painful.”  They have relieved us of the need to think and act for ourselves.  The modern worker puts in more hours at the office or factory, under mind-numbing conditions, than ever before in the history of humanity.  So called “primitives” are far more advanced than we are in the enjoyment of a life of ease.  The life of leisure which was the Roman ideal (otium) is beyond our reach.  Instead, we slave until we can afford a seat in Eternity’s Waiting Room, those retirement colonies where leisure consists of golf and planned “social activities” and the aged are rendered entirely irrelevant to society.  The middle class retiree is a voluntary inmate in a plush concentration camp.

Mill goes on in his essay to discuss literature, politics, the sciences and other fields of endeavor.  He argues for example that “The world reads too much and too quickly to read well.”  (He was thinking of those wordy Victorian novels and ponderous scientific treatises which everyone read in numerous periodicals; imagine what he would have thought of all the webpages we obsessively click through now!)  Abundance is not necessarily wealth, properly understood, and speed, as Baudrillard points out, is a skimming of the surface.  To conclude that convenience and speed are inherently bad things is obviously an oversimplification.  One can even argue that they help to make knowledge more easily accessible to a greater number of people.  That is certainly true.  The web is the greatest Alexandrian library of all time.  But when these twin virtues endlessly promoted by capitalism and technology come to supplant all other values, we may learn regretfully that being faster than a speeding bullet is not such an admirable super power after all.  Rather than the Man of Steel, we should look to the Nietzschean “übermensch” or superman who, in the void once occupied by God and Progress, will implant new values that “shall be the meaning of the earth.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Entertainment, Learning, and Sex

I just read Michael Chabon’s well known essay in defense of genre fiction, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” Aside from his refreshing discussion of genres that have fallen into disrepute, the most interesting aspect of the essay is its assertion of the value of entertainment, defined in a broader sense that we need to reclaim: “we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve” – a debased, mass produced and very predictable, formulaic, and soporific diversion.

Whatever you may think of Chabon and his attempt to play like the Trickster he extols with different genres, the point he makes about entertainment per se is worth consideration. Literature – as with any art, and in a sense, science too – is a form of entertainment, in the fullest sense of the word. And as Chabon points out, the word is rooted in the idea of intertwining things, like a reader and a writer, or a host and a guest, in pleasurable acts. The Victorians invoked a ready formula: literature both entertains and edifies, and the Arnoldian apostles of High Seriousness tended to emphasize the latter while merely tolerating the former. This led to a bifurcation of the two, and mass manufacture further exacerbated the gap, so on the one hand we have “pop culture” and on the other “literary culture.” It was a bad move. As Chabon argues, the problem lies in our accepting this debased notion of entertainment.

I am a hedonist, a devotee of Epicurus. I believe in the virtues of what the Romans called “otium” or the life of leisure. It is very healthy. As Vonnegut once wrote, “we are here on this earth to fart around.” It’s not a waste of time. Pleasure is edifying. Pleasure is magnifying. Aristotle saw this very clearly, which is why he felt it was important to analyze mimesis, since “representation” is a pleasurable act through which we master our world. That is why we go to the movies or to a play even though the hero is going to tear out his eyes. We crave the twin pleasures of revelation and kathartic release.

And herein lies the problem with formal education and the onus placed on so called higher learning. If educators would recognize the simple fact that education is good TO us rather than good FOR us, then they would stop dosing our children with it as though it were remedial and start doling it out like coke or junk because learning is such good dope. It’s not a medicine that needs sugar to help it go down; it’s that oh so sweet opiate that keeps you coming back for more. Because learning is addictive. Once the habit of learning is instilled, it never leaves you. It’s a monkey on your back. The drive to learn is every bit as exigent as the sex drive. In fact, I would argue that what drives sex is curiosity, which after all is the drive behind learning. Which is why, by nature, we are all polygamists. What is more exciting than the act of getting to know a new lover? What is flirtation but a form of interrogation? Why is seduction so powerful if not for the gradual discovery of the fleshly delights of a new body? We are all Magellans seeing adventure and navigating new worlds, mapping new geographies. We are explorers by nature, so we are compelled to seek out new partners just as we seek out new ideas. Pornographers know something that our educators (and by extension our pastors and priests and politicians and all the rest of the moralizers) seem to have forgotten: that even the most banal and repetitive pleasures renew themselves and thus exercise an irresistible allure through inciting curiosity, which is to say, the desire to learn.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


When the Spanish assaulted the New World they made use of the indios who troubled to learn the language of these strangers in a strange land and worked as their translators. The Spanish called them lenguas, "tongues," thus reducing them by synecdoche to the status of the organ which gave them value. Among them were Guacaraganix of Hispaniola, Juan de Betanzos of the Incas, Malinche in Mexico, and Pocahontas among the English up north.

They existed in a no man’s land between their original people and the invaders, their facility with tongues the thing that bound them to two worlds. But they were condemned to live in the fissure between those worlds, intimate with both, welcome in neither. Insider and outsider all at once, they were the estranged native and the naturalized stranger. They were sought out and repudiated. They were confidants, yet they were mistrusted. They drew others together, while they remained wholly other themselves. In the Dominican Republic the people still talk of a “complejo de Guacaraganix,” whereby individuals are disparaged for favoring foreign interests or foreign manners over Dominican ones.

Unlike those lenguas, I was born a citizen of an imperial power, but I forfeited that identity a long time ago. Spellbound by the music of foreign tongues and foreign manners, I slipped my moorings and wandered haphazardly in search of things that could not be found here, nor possessed when I found them elsewhere. I don’t belong where I came from, and I have lost sight of where I was heading, and now all I have is this capricious tongue to wag and tell stories. All travelers eventually exist only for the tale. Odysseus, it is said, wandered the sea in search of home, but the homecoming does not dispel or redeem the journey. The perils and marvels of that passage exercised its charms on him as well. Odysseus is forever the seafarer, the wanderer, not the husband and lord of the manor. It is fashionable today to condemn a love for the exotic, but it is not only conquistadors and Victorian explorers who are blinded by it. Were not the lenguas themselves inspired by the exotic when they first clapped eyes on the bearded Europeans? Did they not yearn for something different? From that fatal attraction was born a new mongrel race.

Pocahontas, as she is known to history, married an Englishman and settled in Middlesex, where she was apparently well treated but remained a curiosity, a freak. She died at the age of twenty-two at Gravesend, after suffering from a European disease, perhaps smallpox, pneumonia or tuberculosis, and thus having been compelled to disembark from a vessel bound for Virginia, where she would never arrive. Her life and her death were a kind of suspension between those two destinations, neither of which for her could become synonymous with destiny.

“Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” The woman from Tsenacommacah had many names. Her original name was Mataoka or Matoax, and it was kept secret for a while from the English for fear that, on learning of her true name, they would be able to do her harm. She was later called Amonute, and then Rebecca, for the mother of two nations, of Esau and Jacob. But most people then and now know her by her nickname, Pocahontas, the “little wanton,” perhaps the most apt name of all since it is used to describe those who would recklessly violate cultural boundaries and flirt with disaster. In any case, the proliferation of names is a sign of anxiety on the part of those who would name what cannot be named, know what cannot be known, control what cannot be controlled, because once Pocahontas set foot on the path that led away from her settlement, she ceased to exist.

There is only the journey, and what matters is not the destination but the road. Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más, . . . se hace el camino al andar.