Tag Archives: philosophy

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

[…]

The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

[…]

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)

The (exchange) value of education

This is not special pleading for philosophy. The same argument holds for innumerable other subjects which don’t have any direct economic benefit. I always cringe when people quote Socrates’s line “the unexamined life is not worth living” as though it were an argument uniquely for philosophy. All the humanities, arts and social sciences have a role in helping us to live examined lives. If we cannot find spaces for them in our universities, education becomes nothing more than professional training, churning out people who can help run society efficiently but none who routinely and thoroughly ask what all that efficiency is in the service of.

Julian Baggini on Hull Uni’s decision to axe its philosophy undergrad offer.

Ravens, reductionism and consciousness

We’ll never find proof for the existence of consciousness by picking the animal apart, or by looking at its parts in isolation. That’s like trying to understand the caching behavior of ravens by grinding them up, examining ever smaller parts down to the molecules, and studying them through the laws of physics or chemistry. That’s backwards. To the biologists life is made of matter, but the nature of every living thing in the cosmos is time-bound. Every living thing is, like a book, more than ink and paper. It is a record of history spanning over two billion years. The more we dissect and look at the parts disconnected, the more we destroy what we are trying to find—the more we destroy what took millions of years to make. Mind, like life or liveness, is an emergent property that is a historical phenomenon, though also still a wholly physical one. It reveals itself far above and beyond its component parts, in this case, primarily the nerve cells with their infinite interconnections that cannot and will not ever be unraveled one and all. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a continuum without boundaries. We can most readily see its presence or absence in the extremes.

Excerpt from Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heirrich (1999), p339.

Been enjoying this book about late-20th-Century studies of the birds that are my family namesake, my picking up of which had absolutely nothing to do with a rapidly developing Odin complex, no sirree.

The most remarkable thing about it, besides the insights into the complex (and quite probably conscious) behaviours of ravens, are the descriptions of Heinrich’s experimental methods, which involve a great deal of living out in the woods of Maine and dragging around animal carcasses of assorted sizes and origins; guy scrapes up a whole lotta roadkill. Lab-coat-and-test-tube biology, this is not; I believe one of the labels for this sort of work is behavioural ecology, but even that seems a little too restrictive. A lucid (if sometimes pedestrian) writer, cautious and careful in his descriptions of experimental processes but, as indicated above, not afraid to share his philosophies and theories when they go beyond the boundaries of what peer reviewers will accept (which is quite often).

A threshold phenomenon

This whole fake news phenomenon is hugely important and historically significant. At the moment I’m completely captivated by the strength of an analogy between the Gutenberg era and the internet era, this rhythmic force coming out of the connection between them. Radical reality destruction went on with the emergence of [the] printing press. In Europe this self-propelling process began, and the consensus system of reality description, the attribution of authorities, criteria for any kind of philosophical or ontological statements, were all thrown into chaos. Massive processes of disorder followed that were eventually kind of settled in this new framework, which had to acknowledge a greater degree of pluralism than had previously existed. I think we’re in the same kind of early stage of a process of absolute shattering ontological chaos that has come from the fact that the epistemological authorities have been blasted apart by the internet. Whether it’s the university system, the media, financial authorities, the publishing industry, all the basic gatekeepers and crediting agencies and systems that have maintained the epistemological hierarchies of the modern world are just coming to pieces at a speed that no one had imagined was possible. The near-term, near-future consequences are bound to be messy and unpredictable and perhaps inevitably horrible in various ways. It is a threshold phenomenon. The notion that there is a return to the previous regime of ontological stabilization seems utterly deluded. There’s an escape that’s strictly analogous to the way in which modernity escaped the ancien régime.

Also:

My tendency is not to draw a huge distinction between [scientists and artists]. In all cases one’s dealing with the formulation or floatation of certain hypothesis. I am assuming that every scientist has an implicit science fiction. We all have a default of what we think the world is going to be in five years time, even if it’s blurry or not very explicit. If we haven’t tried to do science fiction, it probably means we have a damagingly conservative, inert, unrealistic implicit future scenario. In most cases a scientist is just a bad science fiction writer and an artist, hopefully, is a better one. There is, obviously, a lot of nonlinear dynamism, in that science fiction writers learned masses from scientists, how to hone their scenarios better, and also the other way around. Science fiction has shaped the sense of the future so much that everyone has that as background noise. The best version of the near future you have has been adopted from some science fiction writer. It has to be that science is to some extent guided by this. Science fiction provides its testing ground.

Nick Land.

Postmodernism and “post-truth”

I’ve noticed a revival in a minor but persistent trope of late, namely the habit of blaming postmodernist philosophy for somehow creating the current breakdown of societal consensus (a.k.a. “post-truth politics”). Here’s an example from someone who’s definitely big enough to know better, Daniel Dennett:

Dennett: Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Interviewer: My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…

Dennett: Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.

I’m going to charitably assume that Dennett, like most of postmodernism’s tireless detractors, has simply read little or none of it. I will admit to not having devoured the entire canon myself, but in none of what I have read did I encounter the idea that it was “respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; rather, I encountered numerous early investigations into what was an already-existing phenomenon regarding the normalisation of cynicism about facts, particularly (though far from exclusively) in political discourses. Postmodernism was not dogma but diagnosis; blaming Foucault for post-truth politics is akin to blaming your death on the doctor who tells you you have cancer.

Indeed, without postmodernism posing those very questions, we’d likely have never ended up taking such a close look at cognitive bias — which is, after all, a pretty good psychological model for explaining the postmodern condition. (Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, while postmodernism was having its heyday, research psychology was largely devoted to optimising the science of making people buy shit they didn’t need; in doing so they developed countless strategies for the framing and manipulation of data, and weaponised the rhetorics of persuasion before gleefully offering them up to the highest bidder. None of which contributed to growing cynicism about facts and truth at all, of course. *rollseyes*)

The point of postmodernism is not and was never “there are no facts”, the denial of an objective reality. The point is that facts are unevenly distributed across a metamedium which distributes half-facts and falsehoods with equal facility. The point is that the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth objective reality is by definition inaccessible to the subjective experience of individuals; there is far too much to know for any one individual to know it all.

The point is that he who controls the distribution of stories controls the stories themselves.

Admittedly, there was some celebratory stuff about the smashing of metanarratives, as Dennett’s interviewer bravely brings up. And I suppose he’s kind of right, in that it helped shape a culture wherein it was respectable to question authority (though there’s a linear causality there which, as a card-carrying postmodernist, I find troubling; it seems just as likely that postmodernist thought could have been shaped by a culture of questioning authority).

But there’s nonetheless a vast difference between critiquing the concept of truth and critiquing those who declare themselves truth’s arbiter… and I suspect that Dennett’s identification with the latter role informs his anger. His rejoinder to the interviewer is a collosal tell, in a way: this is supposedly the most influential philosopher in the United States, and he’s reduced to Daddy-knows-besting a journalist with the temerity to ask an informed question about a colossal and complex topic which he’d written off with a brief and flimsy falsehood. He tells us that there is truth and there are lies, and that he can tell the difference, but he will not — perhaps cannot? — tell us how to distinguish them. Indeed, if we struggle to tell the difference, he has no patience with our weakmindedness.

So tell us again, Daniel: where exactly does this deep-seated division and demagoguery in American culture come from, hmm? To borrow from another philosopher: you can’t see the postmodern condition for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

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(I am also amused at the suggestion that postmodernism was ever fashionable or respectable outside the very rarified circles of academic sociology, having never read a positive word about it anywhere outside of the academic literature, with the possible exception of late 80s and early 90s UK music journalism — and it didn’t exactly get an easy ride inside the academic literature, either. But the funny bit is that it’s nonetheless quietly gone and become a huge part of how we understand our world, even if we don’t use the sociological lexicon. Pariser’s interminably successful “filter bubble” concept? It’s just a simplified model of the media mechanics of the postmodern condition… and you can barely spit without hitting an op-ed headline that includes it.

Facts only become truth once they’re packaged in a way we find palatable. You’d think a philosopher who hangs out in Silicon Valley would get that by now.)