Monday, December 28, 2009
Well, I have a little something to say about that. If you don't overstep boundaries, if you don't offend, you will never bring down any government or social system. It doesn't matter how many punk records you listen to, how many shirts advertising your anarchist ideas you own, how often you draw a circle A somewhere... Unless you are ready to break through boundaries, to offend and take offense without crying like a baby for your "safe space", unless you are ready to mercilessly mock, insult and blaspheme even the sacred cows of your own so-called comrades, you aren't going to have what it takes to challenge an entire system of authority that rests on the general acceptance of the sacred cows it has set up.
I recently read Best of The Realist, an anthology of articles taken from Paul Krassner's magazine of "free thought, criticism and satire". The Realist (declared on the book's cover to have been "the 60s' most outrageously irreverent magazine") was not an anarchist publication at all. When it began in the late 1950s, it seemed to represent a humorous version of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots populist radicalism. Starting in the early to mid=60s, some counter-cultural concepts got thrown into the mix, with Krassner joining forces with the Yippies for a time in the last half of the 1960s. But throughout most of its history, the magazine offered no-holds-barred satire and humor aimed not just at the institutional structures of this society, but also at the ways our every day activities upheld the most absurd values. Despite the limits of its critique, it had a forceful bite.
Of course, it got started before political correctitude had really kicked in (though this unfortunate ideological tendency was in its embryonic beginnings by the mid-60s). Thus, its editor and those who wrote for it had no hesitation about expressing themselves with a fierce and hilarious straightforwardness, a willingness to call bullshit bullshit, a cunt a cunt, a cock a cock, and not try to hide which of these they found most attractive.
Nowadays, it seems, we've cut off our balls or cut out our ovaries. No one has the guts to really mock with full force, because we're all afraid that we'll offend someone. I don't recall who said it, but one of the better comedians of a few decades ago said: "Comedy is not pretty", and the same surely goes for all forms of humor, sarcasm and satire. There is no place for a gentle hand or tongue in humor; you can save that for sex... depending on what you're into. Humor isn't therapy; it's not supposed to make you comfortable. Laughter farmore often springs from being unnerved for a moment than from joy (and even joyful laughter most likely springs from the fact that the intensity of joy can be unnerving). I mean, what's funny about therapy? (Okay, quite a bit... but none of it intentional) Even Freud's book on jokes (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) wasn't funny! In fact, my attempt to read it left me unconscious.
It's true enough that we need to do away with the structures and institutions of this society, but we also need to destroy all of the cops, the priests, the moralists, the parents in our own heads. One of our most potent weapons for doing this is a relentless, unbridled, mocking sense of humor that has no respect for anything, and that is what I found throughout most of this anthology. Sadly, toward the end, Krassner and some of his contributors fell for that all too humorless trap of the leftist version of conspiracy theory, but that only made up a tiny portion of the book and can be attributed to the weakness of the analysis behind the magazine. Or, then again, it may be part of that centuries old conspiracy to fool radicals into thinking everything can be understood as conspiracies so that they never make a deeper analysis of the social order and the role played by the daily activity of every single person in reproducing it.
But mostly this book made me realize how anarchists who, at least potentially, have a far deeper critique than Krassner ever had, could use humor to marvelous effect, but only if we break from certain political baggage that has come to cling to our anti-political project. Can we rid ourselves of the stupidity of political correctitude, overcome our fear of offending the idiots among us, move beyond our fetish for boundaries* and rediscover the force of humor and mockery unchained? If not, I'm heading down to the leather bar. If I have to be chained, I want it to be hot and sexy...
* Don't get me wrong. I got nothing against this fetish in the right place--an S&M bondage club, for instance.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
a review of The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton
The book is said to portray anarchists in an extremely negative light. This might be true if it actually portrayed anarchists. But, despite appearances, there is only one genuinely anarchist character in the book. While it is true that his anarchism is somewhat of a caricature, toward the end of the book, when he presents his accusation against Sunday (the "president" of the "Central Anarchist Council"), it is fairly well-argued. But this character plays a minor role in the book, appearing only at the beginning and end. Every other anarchist in the book, spouting rhetoric of random violence and destruction, turns out, in fact, to be a cop working on a special anti-anarchist force. Unknown to each other, these six cops make up the "Central Anarchist Council" under the leadership of Sunday.
Sunday is himself an ambiguous character. This ambiguity has led some to interpret the book theologically and identify Sunday with God. This is not mere whimsy on the part of these interpreters. Chesterton was a christian, and toward the end of the book he brings in some explicitly biblical imagery. But the edition of the book I read follows the story with an excerpt from an article Chesterton wrote, in which he states explicitly that this was not his meaning, that he was not attempting to "describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was". He emphasizes that he had subtitled the book "A Nightmare". And it is as such that it should be read. Nonetheless, Chesterton was an "orthodox" christian (as he liked to put it), and noting his use of biblical imagery toward the end of the book, I am convinced that he was making some sort of commentary about a particular view of god, perhaps the view held within what he called "the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt..." He did, wrongly, identify anarchists with these pessimists, when certain reactionaries of the time may have been closer to those views.
In any case, flinging away all the theological garb from Sunday, throughout most of the book, but especially when the six cops who were on the "Central Anarchist Council" confront him and he decides to give them a run for their money, this more than merely human character proves to be an exuberant, prankish lover of life and the absurd, a sort of dadaist joker. In fact, perhaps the greatest failing of the book is the pompous ending with its biblical imagery. It didn't quite ring true after the dadaist exploits of the Sunday of the chase, evading the cops, while sending them mocking, absurd messages. This Sunday is a portrayal of an anarchist prankster to whom I could relate. How does he become the pompous apologists for order at the end of the book? Perhaps that is something only a christian could understand.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
"In all these species, the bright colour-patterns concerned could not have developed without the species having a colour sense. But why do Little Owls have a colour sense? I think the solution is probably that in birds the power of colour-discrimination is a rather old acquisition, of which the species makes use or not. In other words, the colour sense was evolved first, and coloured structures with signal functions have developed as adaptations to various needs. If so, we may reasonably expect most birds to be able to distinguish between colours." (emphasis added).
Darwin and Darwinians have tended to make survival the central force moving evolution. This is what Nietzche critiqued in Darwin. Now if this passage from Tinbergen is correct, it implies that color sense in birds did not originally develop as a survival necessity, but as an extravagance, which only later developed a usefulness for survival, and this only in some of the species that had the trait. And if we get rid of the ideological content of Darwin's theory and look at its basic premise--that chance changes in living beings bring about the evolution of species--then such extravagance is to be expected (I would argue it is absolutely necessary). The changes brought about by chance processes may be harmful, indifferent or useful. Only the harmful ones would be definitively weeded out. The indifferent ones would be extravagances, excesses, things of wonder. Undoubtedly, over time, in new environments, in conjunction with other changes, these extravagances may become useful, but in the meantime, they are signs of the flourishing luxury of life, signs of the fact that the "struggle for survival" is not the norm, but an extremity. Extravagance, exuberance, excess are what provide the basis for the ever-changing interweaving of life.
On a broader level, this same point comes out in Loren Eiseley's beautiful book, The Immense Journey. The book is a poetic look at the marvelous meaninglessness of the evolution of life. Like Tinbergen, Eiseley makes it evident that the evolution of life must operate through extravagance, exuberant squandering, through excess of life. Only in this way can we explain the wide and marvelous variations of traits that allow adaptations to new environments--traits that must have developed before the journey to the new environment (otherwise the creature would not have survived their)--which thus may well have been useless when they were developing. Perhaps if science would detach itself from the utilitarian ideology that dominates our times, and particularly the science of our age, it might be able to see this more clearly, and so embrace the surreal marvel that is life...
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Academics are quite skillful at twisting, muddling and blurring meanings. This seems to be particularly true if they specialize in the humanities, the so-called liberal arts. Having earned a degree in this arena, suddenly one becaomes an expert in babbling the most absurd nonsense about anything and everything. Barry Sanders' book Sudden Glory: Laughter as subversive History is a prime example. Its title promises something subversive, more specifically, the treatment of laughter as something subversive. And in the preface, there are moments when that promise almost peeps out with its clownish face spewing bits of delightful poetic nonsense. But there the delight and the poetry seem to end.
Very early in the introduction, some questions arise about just what Sanders means by subversion. In fact, it becomes difficult not to think that perhaps the only thing he truly hopes to subvert is precisely whatever may be subversive in laughter. He immediately tries to link laughter--that most joyful expression of freedom from belief--with religion. In fact, he implies that laughter has its origins in religion (though, happily, being an academic of our times at one of the hipper private colleges, he is too immersed in the muddle of post-modern thought not to contradict himself repeatedly). Such a claim is certainly one way to undermine everything that is truly subversive in laughter. Simply link it to the institution that has acted throughout history the central ideological support for all the institutions of power. Sanders forgets (or perhaps ignores) that one of the central strategies of religion in enforcing the ruling order has been to lay claim precisely to those human traits that have the most potential--if left free--to lead to self-determination, refusal of authority, insubordination, for a spiritual realm, thus defanging them and transforming them into tools for upholding the ruling order. But Sanders is apparently among those who choose to ignore the obvious institutional and controlling nature of religion. Not that this is surprising since, as an academicm his world is the institutional world, and this book gives no evidence that he wants to defy it.
In this light, it is not at all surprising that he turns to academic feminism as an additional prop for his recuperative meanderings. Here we find that particularly awful form of feminism, based on sloppy anthropology, speculative history and a sort of cultural quasi-essentialism, that sees certain ways of acting in the world as having specifically feminine or masculine traits, particularly connecting it with a fairly religious idealization of Motherhood... That bizarre twist where after years of radical women fighting to free themselves from the limits of the institution of the family, this institution gets brought back in the name of feminism....
Thus, in a book supposedly about "laughter as subversive history", we find laughter--thatmost delightful outburst of joyful disdain--being chained to religion, gender roles, even the idea of the family... Indeed, the only thing that seems to be getting subverted so far is precisely the subversive potential of laughter as a joyous outburst against the sacred, the institutionalized, the expected,
In fact, in the first and second chapters after the introduction--"The Hebrews: Sacred Discontent" and "The Ancient World: Divine Origins of Laughter"--Sanders is quite explicit about his belief in the religious origins of laughter. Even though later, in the third chapter, he recognizes that philosopher tries to tame laughter, he seems unaware that before this, religion (when it didn't forbid laughter) was doing the same thing. It was not creating laughter, but seeking to rein it in, so that its destructive force, capable of killing gods, would never achieve this end, but rather gets turned towards upholding all authority by mocking non-conformity.
But Sanders continually contradicts himself on this matter. He himself keeps on stating that laughter is basically anti-authoritarian in nature, and this would inevitably make it blasphemous. And he repeatedly quotes those who speak of laughter as having a specifically anti-religious origin. Outstanding along these lines is the story he cites from Milan Kundera. Kundera attributes the origins of laughter to the Devil, laughing at the meaninglessness of the universe. The servant of divinity try to imitate the Devil in order to drive back his laughter. Here Kundera gives laughter a specifically diabolical, anti-theistic origin. Religion (the angel) takes hold of it to bring it under control. Kundera's (and Sanders') weakness is in not pointing out that the Devil's laughter was not merely derisive, but also joyful. I have frequently laughed at the meaninglessness of the universe, as if it is laughter at the greatest of jokes, it is also a joyful laughter, for it is precisely this meaninglessness, this godlessness, that proclaims that each of us has the freedom to create his or her own meanings... And that is what is subversive in laughter.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Anarchists in the United States have had a rather slim portion of situationist literature available to them, and this has created a skewed view of of the actual thinking of this unorthodox marxist group. Even the most comprehensive collection in English (Ken Knabb's Situationist International Anthology), is fairly limited in what early material it presents. This is what made Theory of the Derive and Other Situationist Writings on the City an interesting read.
This anthology, published as part of an exhibit at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, emphasizes SI and pre-SI writings on architecture and urbanism. All of the writing is provocative. Some of it may disturb those who think of the situationists as libertarian in their outlook. The book clearly undermines the idea of a split between an artistic side of the SI on the one hand and a radical political side on the other. In fact, the writings of the most artistic members (and their attitudes toward their art projects) is drenched as much in marxism as in artisitc avant-gardism. In fact, I would argue that the latter was an outgrowth of the former for the artists of the SI. Though it is true that their marxism wasn't orthodox, it was certainly crude at times, and often not even faintly libertarian. The cruder marxism was most evident in their unequivocal adulation of technological developments. Their ideas verged on a positive sort of technological determinism: industrial and post-industrial technology was supposed to provide the basis for human liberation. This led to science-fictionesque conceptions of vast, completely denatured urban landscapes with mobile, high-tech parts that could undergo perpetual transformations. These were to be environments where "the masses" would be able to exercise their collective creativity while "professional situationists" prepared the ambiences. Within these visions. living, breathing individuals seemed to get lost completely. There were only masses and machines. There is no questioning at all of technology or of the city as such. In fact, in the earliest writings, there isn't even any deep questioning of expertise (hence the "professional situationists").
With the ejection of Constant and friends, and various encounters and new members, the SI critique did seem to deepen. Aspects of Constant's ideas were rejcted, particular that of "professional situationists". In addition, the SI developed a critique of "the masses". In addition, the anti-individualist attitude, expressed in crude marxist terms in the early writings, was toned down, and certain situationists (Vaneigem in particular) even began to recognize subjectivity as lying in the individual. But their vision remained essentially marxist, with a basis in urban society and technology.
Nonetheless, there are ideas worth looting from the situationists: the drift (derive*), psychogeography, misappropriation/cultural highjacking (detournement*), the revolution of everyday life, the spectacle,creative encounter with the spaces we pass through, the refusal of the static with its implication of constant transformation. Along this line, Vaneigem points out in his essay "Commentaries Against Urbanism" (in my opinion, one of the best essays in the book) that the shantytown dweller, with no professional training whatsoever, has more real knowledge of how to build the space in which he or she lives than any architect or urban planner, and to do so in a temporary fashion. No need for the vast mechanized urban landscapes imagined by Constant and friends. No need for the professional situationists. What the imagination already does among people on the margins now could only expand in surprising and beautiful directions in a world with no state, no economy, no experts and no abstract masses to squelch the imagination.
* At this point, regardless of how inexact English translations of these words may be, I prefer to use an English equivalent to the pretension of insisting on sticking to the French. Thus I use "drift" for "derive" and "misappropriation" or "cultural highjacking" for "detournement". I made these choices, however imprecise, after consulting a French/English dictionary. The only thing I added was the word "cultural" to clarify the type of highjacking I am referring to. As I translator, I know that exact translation is always impossible. If you want the piece you are translating to be understood, you choose words in the language you are translating into that come as close to the feeling and intended meaning of the original as possible. If, on the other hand, you want to create a specialized code language for your little group, you do what English speaking pro-situs did, and refuse to even attempt to translate certain terms.
P.S. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get a hold of this book. Used copies seem to range from $100 to $450, even though the original cover price was (a still too expensive) $22. I took the copy I read out on inter-library loan.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Once again, I have taken up a book of Stephen Jay Gould's essays. There is no doubt that he was one of the best essayists of our times, writing with humor, intelligence and feeling, But there is one theme that comes up far too often in his later essays to be ignored. This theme is best summarized in his own words: "these two great tools of human understanding [science and religion] operate in a complementary (not contrary) fashion in their totally separate realms: science as an inquiry about the factual state of the natural world, religion as a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values." (p. 214)
I am not interested in going to my critique of science just yet, but I do want to mention one of its central themes, since it has some relevance to my present argument. The early developers of modern science in the West (Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Newton, ...) were all christians. They founded their scientific endeavor on a religious basis: the idea that, since the universe was created by god, it must operate on universal natural laws. It would require another long essay to even began to examine all the implications of this assumption that underlies modern science.
What I want to examine right now are the false premises by which Gould's liberal tolerance led him to uphold an institution that has long since proved itself to be a tool ofdomination, oppression and forced ignorance as a source of spiritual and ethical guidance.
First of all, Gould simply accepts compartmentalization, specialization and the division of social life and knowledge into separate spheres as a given. He doesn't show any sign of recognizing the historical nature of this division. If certain social divisions can be traced back to the origins of civilizations, the compartmentalization of knowledge is a modern phenomenon--as mentioned above, at the time modern science arose, religious concepts were integral to its birth. Though Gould doesn't recognize the religious nature of the concept of universal natural laws, he does recognize this concept as the assumed foundation upon which modern science operates. Even starting from this foundation, modern science has undermined the necessity for god. But once god is gone, there is no more basis for assuming that there are universal natural laws. Thus, modern science, by undermining the foundations of religion, has brought its own foundations into question.
From its origins until the beginning of the modern era, religion has not been a separate sphere within social life, but rather the system of beliefs essential for upholding a society and its institutions in the minds of those who make up that society. As such, it has never been a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values, but rather the imposition of a spiritual and moral conception of the world that upholds the values of the rulers of a society. Etymologically, religion refers to a joining back together of things that have been separated. A lot of silly things have been said about this, but I think that it is best understood if we look at the social divisions that occurred at about the time religion arose. This was when society divided into classes, wealth and power getting concentrated into the hands of a few who lorded it over the rest. In such a situation, conflict was inevitable. The task of religion was to create social unity through the imposition of a concept of life that justified existing social relationships and a morality that supported submission to one's social superiors. It reunited society precisely by naturalizing its divisions. Thus, it originated as a tool for justifying domination, exploitation and oppression, and for keeping the exploited classes in ignorance. As an imposed answer, it left no place for searching.
In fact, the association of religion with a search for spiritual meaning is a phenomenon of the modern era. In earlier times, where such a search has arisen, it has been a questioning of or a rebellion against religion--in the form of heresy, philosophy, sorcery, alchemy, poetry... As such, the search was an ongoing process that was able to free ethics from the set rules of morality. But the linking of the search for spiritual meaning to religion that began with the protestant Reformation was not an equation of the two. Rather, protestantism individualized religious conversion, making it a personal, voluntary decision. Thus, religion was not itself a spiritual search, but was rather the answer to be found at the end of one's spiritual search. It brought the search to an end. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is a literary description of this process.
Religion was never intended to be a "separate realm" among specializations. It was meant to be a total worldview, encompassing all knowledge. We know that it has failed completely in providing an understanding of "the factual state of the natural world". This is because it is by its nature a closed system of understanding, a final answer. How can we think that it would do any better as a guide in the "search for spiritual meaning and ethical values". Gould should have been able to see that in places where religious thought continues to be strong, a nuanced approach to meaning and an open exploration of ethical questions get suppressed along with the free exploration of the natural world. The acceptance of evolution in Europe has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in religiosity and with an exploration of other sources of meaning and ethical values. Where religion is having a resurgence in Europe, it is generally tied to a resurgence of racism, sexism. national chauvinism and frequently even blatant fascism. Put bluntly, religion has repeatedly proven itself to be as worthless in the search for spiritual meaning and ethical values as it is in inquiries about the ways that the natural world functions. How could it be otherwise when it originated as a tool of the ruling class for suppressing free exploration. I can't help but wonder how someone as erudite as Gould, with a broad knowledge of cultural and creative phenomena, could have failed to notice a delightfully open-ended realm for exploring what he calls "spiritual values".* I am speaking of the realm of poetic wonder.
As far as anyone can tell, human beings have never encountered the world around them in a purely utilitarian way. There is a basic human interaction with "nature" that has been called the marvelous, poetic wonder, etc. Religion and myth spring out of social necessity and are, thus, utilitarian in nature, Poetic wonder is evoked by the encounter of the unique indiviudal with external and internal nature. It is the process of making the world one's own. The origin of poetic wonder in the individual and her specific, unique encounters guarantees its openness . Once it gets transformed into a closed system, the poetry and the wonder wither. But its openness, its basis in the unique individual and its relational quality make it an ideal basis for an ever-changing, expanding, exploratory and experimental source of meaning and values, a true terrain for an ongoing search, always satisfying, but never satisfied.
Unlike religion, poetic wonder is grounded in the material world. It does not push wonder, joy and ecstasy into an invisible realm but rather bases them in concrete relationships that we develop here. Certainly, these relationships can spark imagination, the capacity to see beyond what is here, but this "beyond" is not a separate realm, but rather an expression of possibilities, whether those of the world or of our own minds. William Blake said it well in "Auguries of Innocence":
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."
This relationship has also been describes like this: "We can term a relationship with (external or internal) nature one of 'wonder' if it does not reproduce nature or the individuals who are involved in it". Here we see the non-utilitarian nature of this relationship. The description continues: "By integrating nature as an element of their unique individuality, individuals make another reality appear, one which is not a social reality, but rather their own reality. Constantly hidden behind the former, the latter reality cannot appear when the realistic criteria inherent in every society are in place, but only as a sense of wonder that is more or less poetic." This essentially individual nature of poetic wonder, its opposition to social realism, is of major importance in terms of the question of the creation of meaning and, consequently of ethical values.
There is no evidence that the universe or life have any inherent, universal meaning. Rather it seems that all existence is contingent, an accident. Thus, any meaning that exists is created by accidental beings; it is contingent. Socially created meaning will direct itself toward maintaining the society from which it springs. Thus, it will tend to present itself as universal and constant, as inherent in the structure of nature, rather than as contigent and historical. This is religion, and obviously it tends toward dogma and the perception of ethical values as absolute and universal moral laws. On the other hand, when individuals take the creation of meaning into their own hands, its contigent and relational nature becomes evident. This creation is never completed, but is a continual search, an ongoing journey. It doesn't rest upon belief, upon faith, but rather on exploration, experimentation and questioning.
Social meaning, in the form of religion or, in modern times, ideology, demands absolute acceptance. But it is not capable of satisfying. This is why it must be accepted by faith, as a belief. Its promise will be fulfilled in the future--perhaps of an afterlife, perhaps in a future "realization" of history....
The search for meaning on the individual level, in poetic wonder, makes no promise of ultimate satisfaction, of providing a final answer. Paradoxically, precisely for this reason, it is immediately satisfying, encompassing a fullness of the moment that transforms that moment into an eternity. When I taste the minty iciness of the full moon, drink the warm, golden sweetness of the sun, feel soaring, wild freedom of the hawk running through my veins, in that moment I feel an overflowing fullness, an expansive generosity that needs no tomorrow. And yet, I gladly embrace tomorrow, precisely because it allows me to express my generosity, to empty myself and fill myself back up again...
In saying this though, I don't want to be misunderstood as denying the existence of an objective realm. The relational nature of poetic wonder has its basis in the fact that it is an encounter with an outside.** This outside has traits about which human beings can develop a shared understanding--if they can overcome the social biases that assume "universality" for a specific society. This is the realm of that which Gould calls "the factual state of the natural world"--the realm he grants to science.
As I pointed out above, modern science has its foundations in an essentially religious concept: the idea of universal natural laws. This idea has its origins in the belief that a divine person created the universe and inscribed such laws into it. It was made the basis of modern science, because the early modern scientists of the Renaissance were good christians, and the methods of science had to have some assumed foundation from which to operate if they were going to be able to create a usable understanding of the world. The transformation of god into universal Reason in the Enlightenment was simply a secularization of the christian concept, not its eradication.
Despite the fact that modern science has its foundation in an assumption that originates in the closed system of religion, its method of operation, at least ideally,***--observation and experimentation--is supposed to be open-ended, encouraging ongoing exploration. But its grounding in a basically closed conception of how the universe operates (and its dependence upon funding from the state and corporations) keeps this exploration within specific boundaries, preventing scientists from seeing certain uncomfortable realities.
This leaves me to wonder how one might explore the objective realm, the external reality that we all encounter, developing methods of observation and experimentation that operate from a different basis, an open, poetic and relational basis.
The most essential change this would make is that it would do away with the concept of universal, rational natural laws, and with it the essentially quantified, mechanistic view of the world. This does not throw the universe into a state of absolute contingency, of total randomness, but it does significantly increase the importance of contigency, of the element of chance, in the world we encounter. But as in human relationships, in the relationships that make up the universe in which we live, there are habits, general tendencies, ways things usually go, and there are qualities inherent to certain beings and relationships--qualities that define them. But these are not laws; they are traits, characteristics, relational forms that belong to the beings involved in the particular relationships, not to the universe. We can certainly come to understand such qualities through observation and experimentation, but through a different sort of observation and experimentation: one in which we make no pretense of being objective, of being an external spectator, but rather passionately encounter the beings of this world, immersing ourselves fully into the life of our world, which would then appear to us as a Wonderland.
* I am not convinced that there is any reason to use the term "spiritual" in any positive sense anymore. It is no longer necessary, if it ever was, to turn to god or a spiritual realm to explain any reality we encounter. If we continue to use to speak of "spirituality" or "spiritual meaning' in any positive sense,it is necessary to create clear, new meanings for these terms that wrench them from their religious significance with its assumption of a separate spiritual realm. I personal prefer to find other words that don't have such implications. Like the marvelous, the poetic, wonder....
** This opens questions relating to the nature of the external and the internal, and of consciousness as the place where the two meet.
***Thomas Kuhn and other recent philosophers of science have shown how science generally operates as a closed system, requiring ruptures to create openings for new ideas and information to get in.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Reading books like this, popularizations of theoretical physics, I feel like I am reading a rather bizarre, abstract mythology, a metaphysical tale with no connection to the concrete world. And apparently this isn't just my ignorance. As Stephen Hawking put it: "I take the positivist viewpoint that physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it conforms to reality." (emphases added)
But even in its most abstract form, theoretical physics has very concrete effects on the material world. Without even looking at the technological applications that have already come out of physics where the theory is made concrete enough, one need only consider the technology needed to achieve this level of concreteness. First of all, most of the theoretical work, "observations" and "experiments" in advanced physics take place on computers. This is not surprising in light of Hawkings statement above. But beyond the computer, comparing equations to observations requires technological devices capable of observation on the quantum level, on the one hand, and on the intergalactic level, on the other.
For quantum observations, physicists require particle accelerators and colliders that cover vast areas. In 1999, in The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene was placing his hope in the construction of a gigantic particle accelerator in the Alps to test superstring theory. This monstrosity now exists. It is called the Large Hadron Collider. It lies in a tunnel with a 27 kilometer (17 mile) circumference, dug into the Alps along the French/Swiss border. It is scheduled to begin operation in November 2009.
On the other end, Kip Thorne, in his essay "Spacetime Warps and the Quantum World: Speculations About the Future", in The Future of Spacetime (2003), describes Laser Interferometer technologies for for measuring gravitational waves. At the time he wrote, three of these machines already existed on earth, and one was scheduled to be launched into space in 2010. In describing these technologies, Kip Thorne gives no thought either to their social dimensions (costs that are then not available for other purposes, the role of the military in all such endeavors, the specialization such technologies require, etc.) or their environmental consequences. In fact, Thorne, with the nonchalant arrogance of one who know his real power as scientists in a technocratic society, simply assumes that, of course, these gargantuan technological structures should exist and will exist, because scientific enquiry demands it. He informs us that LIGO (the earth-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) is likely to exhibit quantum behavior on the macroscopic level, bringing the uncertainty principle, according to which it is impossible to know both a particle's location and its velocity at the same time, onto the human scale. (It is currently believed to operate only on the atomic and sub-atomic levels to any significant degree). But he is confident that new "quantum non-demolition technology" will be able to prevent the "fuzzballs" (areas of quantum uncertainty) from expanding. It is difficult to comprehend precisely what all this might mean on a practical level, but knowing the nonchalance that physicists have shown far too often with regard to the possible consequences of the technological outgrowths of their activities, it is hard for me not ot feel a bit apprehensive.
After all, we have already seen some of the consequences of the practical applications of theoretical physics. Nuclear weapons in all their forms (atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs, and the "conventional" offshoot, the depleted uranium bombs that have contaminated parts of the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) are the most blatant examples, but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl show that the so-called "peaceful atom" can be just as devastating. But perhaps the ecological devastation of Central Asia and the Great Basin of the American southwest, Caused by military nuclear testing, most clearly illustrates what the practical application of modern physics has to offer us.
While Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking and their scientific compatriots sit in their ivory towers making wagers about naked singularities, exotic matter and wormholes, they are also, at least indirectly, working for the state's military apparatus. Science does not exist in some pure state free of any social context. It always acts in the service of the existing ruling order, depending on the good will of that order while providing it with the technology it requires to maintain control. Except that sometimes this technology itself gets out of control, resulting in disaster. Or more accurately, at this point , the global technological system is beyond any control, and a series of disaster after disaster isinevitable; it's just a question of when and where the next one will strike.
I have called this essay "A Rather Bizarre Mythology". Although this was specifically in reference to theoretical physics, I would argue that modern science (science as it has been practiced since the time of Francis Bacon) acts as the mythology of the present social order. This description does not reflect on whether specific theories of science are literally true or not, but rather on the social function of science. A mythology is the interwoven fabric of stories by which a particular social order explains reality in such a way as to justify and maintain the roles and relationships that create that social order. The dominant mythology of a given society defines truth for those who make up that society. Surpassed mythologies get defined as superstitions. Heresies may take the form of alternative mythologies or of the rejection of all mythologies.
If we look at western society, we can see that as the Roman Empire aged, pagan mythology and the cult of the empire ceased to be able to provide sufficient social cohesion. They were replaced by christianity. But christianity also ultimately proved unable to keep the empire together. It did, however, create a network of power throughout a fragmented Europe that was able to both exploit the fragmentation to increase its own wealth and to provide a tenuous unity in Europe. As cities began to grow and feudal fiefdoms coalesced into states, trade routes came to dominate as the network for unifying Europe--one that promoted a flow of wealth rather than its accumulation into a single institution. In the late Middle Ages, reform movements within the church and heresies (including millenarian movements of revolt) began to proliferate alongside increasing explorations of alchemy and similar proto-sciences. This culminated in the Renaissance and the Reformation. The intellectual ferment of the former opened the door to the birth of modern science, while the latter shattered the unity of the christian mythology. The nascent capitalist social system needed to move toward a systematic technological development in order to maintain itself, and science as theorized by Francis Bacon provided a conceptual framework that could make this possible.
In its early days, modern science still had to try to justify itself in the eyes of the fading, but still dominant, christian authorities, but this role was eventually reversed. The thoroughness of this reversal is evident in the attempts present-day christians make to use an often deformed sort of scientific evidence to support the alleged truth of their beliefs--whether it takes the form of trying to dig up historical evidence to support the reality of the gospel myth or the development of the "intelligent design" hypothesis. As badly as these christians may use science, they still now feel obliged to justify themselves on its terms rather than vice versa, and that is strong evidence that science is the dominant mythology of the present social order.
In light of this, it is particularly important to develop an analysis of the nature of science as a social tool. Inevitably, such an analysis calls into question the objective nature of science and demands that every one of the claims put forth in the name of science has to be examined in terms of how it serves the ruling order. But this has to be done with care in order to avoid over-simplifying (as in those critiques of Darwinism that base themselves on the ridiculous misuse of his perspective by the so-called social Darwinists). In addition, the social and environmental costs of specific scientific projects have to be exposed. If projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory seem like extravagant wastes of money from a certain perspective, obviously the institutions involved in funding them recognize how quickly abstract theoretical physics can turn into concrete technologies for maintaining and increasing institutional power. What seems like harmless speculation about the underlying structure of the universe becomes atom bombs or Chernobyls. Herein lies the real social cost, beyond any waste of money for extravagant laboratories and experimental tools.
There can be little doubt that intelligent observation and experimentation guided by critical thinking are useful and necessary for creating our lives in the freest and most enjoyable way in this world. But this has never been the whole definition of science. Otherwise, it would have remained a mere tool. Rather, for modern science, there is an underlying assumption that is to be the basis for observation, experimentation and critical thinking: the idea that reality operates in a framework of universal, essentially rational natural laws. It is this faith that has allowed science to become the dominant mythology of this social order. But those of us who seek the destruction of the present social order need to use our capacity for critical thinking to shatter this mythological framework as well. Once science as a myth is shattered, its unity destroyed, perhaps there will be pieces we will find useful or enjoyable to play with. And perhaps those metaphysical endeavors that disguise themselves as science under the names of quantum physics, relativity physics, superstring theory, etc. can give a few people pleasure as what they are--metaphysical speculations--which have no need for expensive and environmentally damaging technological structures to test their hypotheses and will not lead to the creation of devastating bombs and disasters. But for now the point is to shatter the myth.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Of course, ultimately I want to do away with the city. It represents the values of civilization which boil down to alienated and centralized power and wealth. Yet there are aspects of the city that I enjoy, particularly the opportunity for chance encounters with stimulating strangers. Where human beings do not congregate in large numbers, the opportunities for such encounters are much reduced or even disappear. But contemporary cities are built to serve the needs of capitalism and the state. And they have always served the interests of the ruling powers who had them built: priesthoods, military elites, those who stole the wealth and creative energy of others in order to set themselves up as rulers.
In her otherwise interesting book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs forgets this aspect of the city, its role as symbol and tool of the ruling class. This is not so surprising since at a certain point cities become too large and chaotic for the rulers to keep them in hand. So Jane Jacobs tries to look at cities in terms of how they actually function as relationships among human beings and between the human being and this particular artificial environment. What I find most interesting in Jacobs’ book is her assessment that the city functions best as an environment for human life when it is diverse and vibrant with a wide variety of people and activities interweaving with each other. This parallels what comprises a healthy wild environment – it needs a wide variety of different life forms carrying out a variety of different activities that weave themselves together. The destruction of such diversity indicates a moribund situation.
Going back to the city as Jacobs conceives it, we see the need for an active street life. This is where the interweaving diversity manifests itself most clearly. According to Jacobs, for this to function most effectively, wide sidewalks where various activities could take place would have to combine with a mixture of different sorts of uses of space in the neighborhood. Consider, for example, how a café with outdoor tables on the sidewalk in a neighborhood that also included people’s homes and public spaces for other purposes could encourage regular interaction and discussion of experiences among those who live in the neighborhood.
All in all, Jacobs’ conception points out the necessity for a wide variety of different levels of relationship as necessary for making cities livable human environments.
I think Jacobs is wrong in considering the various suggestions of city planners that undermine this diversity and empty the streets to be well-intentioned mistakes. She is giving these well-paid servants of power too much credit. As I pointed out above, cities emerge with centralized power and wealth and have always been meant to serve the purposes of the rulers who hold these. As industrialism congregated greater and greater numbers of those in the exploited class into cities, they began to turn the environment to their own purposes, and the ruling class had to take action to counter this. City planning as a recognized specialization can be traced back to Hausmann whose changes in Paris were intended to limit the possibility of insurrection by making it easier for the state’s troops to maneuver through the streets. This should make it clear that the aim of city planning has always been control in the ruling class’s interest. If, in times of “social peace”, the vibrant and varying activity on the streets prevents the petty unpleasantness that might otherwise mar people’s daily lives, it also provides a network of relationships that can form the basis for self-organization among the poor and exploited in times of social unrest, with the potential of pushing that unrest in the direction of insurrection. The “surveillance” that Jacobs says the eyes of those active on the street provide for preventing undesirable activities goes hand in hand with the existence of active networks of communication among people that can be turned to much more interesting purposes – such as keeping an eye out for the cops – in situations like riots and other forms of collective unrest. It is in the interest of the ruling class to do all that it can to hinder the formation of such networks of communication even if it means losing this form of “surveillance”. And the forms of city planning she describes and attacks in her book do precisely that. At this point, police, security guards, surveillance cameras and other forms of surveillance technology are used in the place of active street life. The division of cities into zones for different purposes – downtown shopping areas, more specialized shopping areas for “bohemian” tastes, arts districts, residential areas, industrial areas, while rarely having strict boundaries, nonetheless, indicate the specialization of space in cities which affects the nature of foot traffic.
I mentioned my enjoyment of stimulating chance encounters as one of the things I like about cities. If I dealt with some less than pleasant realities when I lived in New Orleans in 1991, I also discovered a vibrant, active street life that offered me a wide variety of interesting encounters and led to the discovery of such wonderful secrets as the number of bars that offered free red beans and rice on different evenings of the week. Of course, New Orleans has changed drastically since then. And the devastation that Katrina caused has opened the door to building the city completely in the service of capital.
Portland, on the other hand, already has its divisions. It is not as bad as some places, but increasingly the only public spaces that exist are those dedicated to commerce in some form and these are being more and more concentrated into malls, strips and other areas devoted almost exclusively to commercial interaction. So these become the areas of activity while residential sidewalks are mostly deserted. Thus, public gathering is, for the most part, specifically attached to commodity consumption. Nonetheless, in some of the poorer neighborhoods, the streets are more active with playing children, adults hanging out on their porches, at bus stops, etc. But it is not the vital street life Jacobs describes from fifty years ago.
So the question arises, where will we find the networks of communication we will need in times of social unrest? This is particularly important now in the US where class reality is often hidden under racial tension. In a riot provoked by another cop killing another black person, how are black people on the street to know who their “white” accomplices are when day-to-day interaction is so minimal? This is not a minor problem.
In the context of industrial civilization, the desire for chance encounters with strangers is more readily fulfilled in cities than in any other human environment. But this comes about purely by accident due to the gathering together of large numbers of people who end up concentrating in these artificial environments for much less desirable reasons. (Cities have generally been formed for purposes of control and commerce – having military, religious and/or economic origins.) Over the last several decades, city planners, obviously working in the interest of the ruling order, have been doing all they can to reduce the possibilities for such encounters, keeping them confined to locales where they are easily controlled and are generally connected to commodity consumption – bars, cafes, malls, etc. And these environments are less and less conducive to such encounters. This combines with the reification and commodification of social identities and relationships that has made it harder for people to reach out beyond their own cliques and subcultures and the underlying everyday fear of the other that has insinuated its way into our minds from a variety of media scare stories to transform cities into wastelands of overcrowded desolation.
There are people who are content to stick with their cliques or retreat to small town or rural provincialism with only the expected and known relationships. But this is indisputably a recipe for stagnation. The desire for chance encounters is a reflection of a desire to be stimulated and challenged in new ways, to be provoked to explore the unknown, to act and think outside one’s usual habits. The people that one knows too well, that one sees and interacts with regularly, cannot provide such stimulation. These known relationships are necessary for providing intimacy, comfort, trust, complicity, affinity and the support necessary for exploring the unknown. But it is the encounter with the unknown, the stranger, the encounter with difference, that keeps life vibrant and lush.
But this brings up another way in which this society has been undermining the joy of chance encounters. The reification of social identities into defined categories, particularly in this age when mass media guarantees an increasing standardization of these identities, undermines the capacity for individuals to express their uniqueness. It is increasingly difficult for many people to break out of a character that is simply a collage of social identities to express anything deeper. So most “chance” encounters now have a ritualized style similar to those sorts of encounters this society imposes. This raises an immediately practical question: what can we do to break through these standardized rituals? Here the ideas of creating situations, detournement and subversion take on a significant personal meaning in the context of daily life.
As cities are increasingly designed to enforce the suppression of these encounters, to be stagnant swamps of enslaved humanity capable only of serving the needs of the state and capital, it becomes urgent for everyone who loves these encounters, and particularly those of us who see the need to destroy civilization and, thus, cities to reflect on how we could maintain the possibility for such encounters, both now within (and outside of) increasingly sterilized, prison-like cities, and in the future in world without cities. The purpose of such reflection is not to come up with the solution, the blueprint, the guarantee of an ideal future. Rather it is an area for exploration and experimentation.
In Letters of Insurgents, Jan describes his dream of possibilities in a world without the economy or the state: “We’ll leave the clearing and walk through the forest to the neighboring village and we’ll think we’re dreaming, because the village won’t be there anymore; we’ll find thousands of people building a city like no city that’s ever been built and they’ll welcome us and ask us to help because they’ll all be our friends; there won’t be any policemen or prying old women because they’ll all be to busy building or making love. We’ll stay in our friends’ beautiful city as long as we want and not a minute longer; we’ll be as free as birds; we’ll roam across the entire country; we’ll visit streams and caverns and other cities, and in each city we’ll find only friends; they’ll all beg us to join them in what they’re doing and we won’t know where to turn first because every activity to which we’re invited will seem more gratifying than the rest.” Certainly, the capacity to freely roam will play a significant factor in the opening possibilities for chance encounters, as will experiments in creating different ways that human beings can be together, based upon the active creation of our desires.
I also think of large festivals and gatherings that may last for weeks, based upon the sheer enjoyment of other people rather than on shared ideas – or shared subcultural style. It seems that in certain areas of the world, before permanent trading centers arose, temporary bazaars would be set up in recognized places for trade and other forms of human encounter. Although these bazaars originated in economic exchange, many other sorts of interactions could and did happen there. In addition, Native American powwows are an example of people coming together for larger scale interaction.
In addition, because I don’t have or desire a blueprint for what a decivilized, anarchic society might be like, I would not rule out the possibility of a different sort of large-scale, more permanent gatherings of human beings – something that might still be called a city (for want of a better word), but that would be unlike any city that has ever existed, because it would be free of all economic, political, religious and military aims or constraints that have been the purpose behind every city since the beginning of civilization. The question of how any of this might manifest is an area for creative exploration and the practical application of imagination. There are numerous sources of inspiration: William Blake, the surrealists, the Diggers, various radical millenarian movements, Native American powwows and villages, the wide variety of festivals that have existed throughout human history. This is a realm for creative dreaming, for considering the broad spectrum of human possibilities and what we could create from it to realize our various and conflicting desires.
Along these lines, in the article “What Is Society?” by Alain Ajax, interesting questions are raised about “the importance of the time/space of non-work, which, until the stage of the real domination of society was reached (i.e., before World War II), was one of encounters between individuals as opposed to simply one of recreation. The city represented the space in which the activities of reproducing the labor force were détourned into the streets, cafes, festivals (especially traveling carnivals), dances and music, expressing the existence of individuals who were both unique and separated from their social relationships (i.e., Argentinean tango, American urban blues, Parisian cafes in which popular music is played, etc.)”
Monday, September 7, 2009
Bernard Rudofsky’s picture book, Architecture Without Architects, is a delight to page through. It consists mainly of pictures with brief commentary showing what people who have no university training in the design of buildings actually build. The illustrations are intended to illustrate more than just the buildings themselves. They also illustrate the ideas Rudofsky expresses in words in his preface to the collection of pictures.
In the preface, Rudofsky (himself a trained architect) justifiably belittles professional architects, most of whom “are concerned with problems of business and prestige”. He describes the lessons to be learned from “non-pedigreed architecture” – what people build for their own use and enjoyment when left to themselves. First of all he points out that “The untutored builders in space and time… demonstrate an admirable talent for fitting their buildings into the natural surroundings. Instead of trying to ‘conquer’ nature, as we do, they welcome the vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography.” Certainly, a capacity to create our spaces within the living environments that surround us, to actively participate in these environments rather than battling them, is essential to discovering new ways of living beyond civilization.
I found it particularly interesting when I read these lines: “A town that desires to be a work of art must be as finite as a painting, a book, or a piece of music.” I am not interested in creating towns as such, but when I dream of how the world might be decivilized, I imagine space-times in which large groups of people may come together to share knowledge, stories, gifts and skills, a situation in which chance encounters can easily occur. Not only would the space of these temporary “towns” be finite, but so would the time. In fact, they would be more like festivals, carnivals or powwows. But their creativity and beauty would depend precisely on their finitude.
Rudofsky is no friend of Progress. He recognizes that it has not improved the art of building, because it has suppressed the art of living. This process has occurred as a result of the fragmentation that makes specialization the norm in this society. Fragmented life can only be ugly as it attempts to force its unconnected pieces into an artificial order. The capacity for bricolage (the art of putting a whole together from seemingly random bits and pieces – the art of collage applied to fulfilling the needs and desires of everyday life), which will certainly be needed in the process of decivilizing life, can only grow from a wholeness of life that industrial/post-industrial capitalism perpetually undermines.
This wholeness develops when individuals grasp their lives as creative projects that weave together with the projects of others. It provides the basis for a world in which the “general welfare” as an aspect of the welfare of each individual can put an end to the domination of profit and capitalist Progress. Not that Rudofsky is a radical. Rather he seems to be a utopian liberal. He believes (or at least hopes) that things could be done differently within this society to make it more humane. Still his emphasis on building as the ongoing, spontaneous, collective activity of people creating their lives together is itself a challenge to the atomized, specialist world of the state and capitalism, and so opens the door to broader vistas.
The pictures that make up most of the book illustrate the points Rudofsky makes in his introduction and, furthermore, offer amazing evidence of how beautifully people can build without the help of experts. As a whole, the book illustrates the potential for human creativity that makes the dreams of anarchists seem like real possibilities, even the dreams of those who desire a world beyond civilization.