Thursday, June 25, 2015

On the Opposition between Reason and Energy: First Tragedy, Then Farce

How should we understand Karl Marx’s formulation: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”?

Zizek gives the example of the brutal working conditions of 19th century factories, followed by “capitalism with a human face” of today. Largely thanks to Roderick Tweady's book The God of the Left Hemisphere, I see what Marx and Zizek are saying now, and the insight is worth the time invested in seeing it.

One of the many insights I’ve gotten from Tweady's book is that Reason is dialectically opposed to Energy (rather than to emotion as has been assumed since Romanticism up to pop psychology today. Emotion is better conceived as the gateway for bodily energy to the mind, but it is still up in the head.) Interestingly, William Blake identified this opposition in his work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) when energy was still primarily a religious concept, over a decade before Thomas Young formulated it as scientific concept in 1802. (“Force” an “vis viva” were the scientific terms used to describe an object’s potential for motion at this time.)

I think the dialectical opposition between Reason and Energy is an important one, perhaps the driving force within human culture. The primary thesis of Tweady's book is that beginning 8,000 years ago, human tools and social institutions have favored the left-hemisphere of the brain, effectively handicapping the right-hemisphere’s rightful place as an equal partner in mental activity. Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor provides an account of this handicapping in her TED talk where she describes a stroke that temporarily shut down her left-hemisphere, allowing her, for the first time, to see the world through the right hemisphere’s perspective.

Reason is the marshalling of real existing energies.
When these energies are left unidentified, reason becomes rationalization, most often used to justify unspoken ego drives.

Marx’s formula “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” I think is a profound example of the relationship between reason and energy.

Psychoanalyst Wolfgang Giegerich, begins his book “The Soul’s Logical Life” with an analogy for the relationship between logic and energy:

There is an Old Icelandic saga about a young man who was a stay-at-home. His mother could not stand this and tried to rouse him with biting remarks. Finally she was successful. The young man got up from behind the stove where he had been sitting and, taking his spear, left the house. Outside, he threw his spear as far as he could and then ran up to the place where it had landed in order to retrieve it. At this new point, he again threw the spear as far ahead as possible and then followed it, and so on. In this way, with these literal "projections" that he then had to catch up with, he made a way for himself from the comfort of home into the outside world.(

Logic, like a spear thrown into the Arctic snow, is the creation of “projections” which it is then up to our life energies to catch up to. I think this process is what “First as Tragedy, then as Farce” is describing. When a new projection is “thrown out” into culture, its potential brilliance and beauty is never fully realized. Then, within market cultures, the original visionary potential will necessarily be capitalized on in superficial ways. Andy Warhol is a farce of Van Gogh's mode of existence, in the same way that neoliberalism is a farce of communism.

The point is: always be aware of the energies being marshalled by various rational systems!

Tweady's book also insightfully explores the significance of all of this for science, especially in the context of the careerist political maneuverings that scientists today must make to thrive within the university system.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

"All Work and No Play" and the Philosophy of Feeling Bored

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. - 17th century European proverb

The most politically significant question we face day-to-day is perhaps “How do we spend our surplus leisure time?” that is “the time when waiting to go back to work.”

Zizek covers the concept of “surplus”, but only in regard to commodities. A key property about "surplus" is that it lacks a sense of purpose. In Zizek's example, it is hard to rationally explain what the attraction of coca-cola, as opposed to simply drinking chilled sugar-water, is, but the attraction is undeniable. The cause of this attraction is the "surplus" quality of Coke. The surplus that comes with commodities is important, yes, but surplus leisure time even more so defines our labor-market-driven society. The idea of "surplus time" develops alongside "wage labor." Surplus leisure time does not exist in agricultural societies, because all work was self-directed. Self-sufficient farmers work for themselves--if a task is on their mind, they can always work on it, without any waiting involved. The idea of "surplus" a.k.a. "vacation" time is only possible when workers no longer feel in control over their time management. Like the attraction of Coke, vacation time is similarly undirected. We feel that we have to "enjoy it properly" or that we will have missed out on something essential within our culture. Purposeful, productive use of vacation time holds the risk of having yourself written off as a bore--someone who works all the time and doesn't know how to have fun. We have little control over it, so when surplus time is there, it ought to be "spent" wisely.

Do you feel bored when don’t have any money to spend, and have nothing scheduled to do? You too might be afflicted with what psychologist Erich Fromm, building off of Marx's theory of alienation, refers to as "compensated boredom":
Chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological [because] most people are bored, and a shared pathology--the “pathology of normalcy”--is not experienced as pathology... One may state that one of the main goals of [humanity] today is “escape from boredom.”
The cause of this condition, according to Fromm is “insufficient inner productivity.” “[Sufferers]”, he explains, “are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple stimuli.”

“Surplus leisure time” separates our emotions from self-creativity and expression. As Marx put it:
“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working, he is not at home.”
Instead, the only cultural experiences left for emotional engagement are our reactions to the creations and expressions of others. Think about how Facebook has dramatically decreased its emphasis on users’ “notes” and “about me” sections, while increasing its emphasis on its “like button” feature. The move is away from user-created content and towards user reaction to (primarily consumerist) cultural products.

Can we break out of this utter dependence on the market values for meaningful emotional engagement?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Privilege, Racism, and Fear

On Jan. 4th, Fox News co-hosts Peter Johnson Jr. and Tucker Carlson bashed Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal for daring to mention white privilege in a Twitter post, claiming she is “perpetuating the race war that she announced in November” (Johnson) and that “she’s a race hater. She attacks people based on the color of their skin” (Carlson).

Carlson is displaying a text-book example of the big lie propaganda technique. This technique works so well for him, that he uses it twice. The first, obvious lie is Carlson’s claim that Chappelle-Nadal is attacking anyone. This lie is here only to distract. The second, more subtle lie is in Carlson’s phrase “based on the color of their skin.” If Chappelle-Nadal were literally "attacking people based on the color of their skin", yes that would be hateful. But that is not the case here. Our minds make race-based judgements about a person all the time, whether we intend to or not, simply because race is one of the first things we notice about a person. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, a big lie is encoded in the doublespeak word “blackwhite.” In today’s neoconservative America, the words are “post-racial” and “colorblind.” “Racism” is then defined as any challenge to the idea we live in such a society. (By this definition, every sociology department in America is racist.) The lie here is that assertions that whites enjoy socially-constructed privileges in today’s America are analogous to assertions that blacks are biologically inferiority (and therefore must be kept separate from the rest of society) in pre-Civil Rights Era America. Just think about that for a minute.

White privilege and racism are both very real. Our society conditions us to feel comfortable around white, male decision-makers, and threatened by the image of black men (and to ignore everyone else completely). This is the implicit message of our government, our media, our movies, and especially our economic institutions, where as of August 2013, corporate boards are still 87.7% white and 84.5% male.

We should be aware that the race-based issues in today’s media are about more than the surface issues--effective policing, the science behind humanity’s genetic differences, or the sociological history of racism. Tucker’s comments are part of a fear-based ideology of control.

We are living out an ideological struggle between love and fear. Television, unquestionably the most powerful technology of social control in human history, beams these fear-based images and soundbytes into tens of millions of homes each and every day. This is what scares me the most today--not the black guy walking down the sidewalk--the threat of living in a society where perfectly decent people never learn to trust each other because they are indoctrinated with fear-based ideologies.

Fear is not always bad. Our survival instincts depend on it to assure us of safety. But our media is constantly playing up our fears of each other in order to get higher ratings and manipulate voters’ choices. To fear ghosts--to fear when there is really no threat--is a sad way to live.
Are we to live in an economy of fear, in which we distrust our neighbor and maintain a safe psychological detachment from the outside world?

Racism today operates precisely in how we respond to questions like this. In contrast to the explicitly racist policies of our country’s past, today’s racism is in the margins of our decision-making within socially-complex contexts. Author Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how what he calls “racism without racists” functions: "Instead of saying that they do not want [minorities] as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as 'I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’” Racism is not directly explicitly verbalized, but the end result is still the same: our neighborhoods become largely segregated, and stereotypical, race-based associations are reinforced. All other considerations being equal, whites are more likely than blacks to be called back for job interviews, approved for a bank loan, and put on probation instead of being incarcerated for a crime.

“But look at who’s President! Doesn’t the progress we have made deserve recognition, too?” (I can hear the corporate news anchor now.) Perhaps so, but before we give ourselves that collective pat on the back, we should be aware that racism has taken different forms throughout human history.

The idea that worth as a human being is specifically tied to skin color, rather than upbringing, was intentionally developed and perpetuated in order to justify the routine cruelty within the Atlantic slave trade. Pre-slave-trade racism consists of a more generalized fear of the unknown. Racism in this era was not defined in a specific way.  Foreigners, or those who are different, were simply distrusted at face-value. But as civilizations evolved, people began to find this simplistic fear of cultural difference unsatisfactory.

In medieval Europe, the idea of human slavery began to seem at odds with Christian values. Also, during the 17th century, it became common knowledge that other cultures have made beautiful art, scientific advances, advanced architectural procedures, etc. Other cultures became seen as interesting and worthy of respect after all.
At this same time, however, the conquest of extremely-fertile land in the Americas had created an overwhelming demand for slaves to work on the fields. Racism based strictly on skin color solved this ethical dilemma quite nicely for the white power-structure of the time. “Black people are born inferior. Slavery allows their life to contribute to a higher purpose. The enslavement of blacks is the natural order of things.” As a white person, I cannot imagine being subjected to such barbarity, the reminders of which are still all around us to this day.

The exact history and definition of racism is not as important as the fact that racism always plays off of our natural fear of uncertainty and the unknown.

Humans are the most visually-dependent mammal. We take in more visual data than our intentional, decision-making process has time to sift through. Numerous psychological studies have shown again and again that most contemporary Americans make many racial judgments every day without even realizing they are doing so. One famous study showed that Americans, black as well as white, associate the image of a black male with the threat of violence. Another study demonstrated that in the NBA, white referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Most participants in these
studies are not racist on a personal, individual level. Racism today is broader than that. It is a structural, institutional problem as well.

White privilege and racism against blacks are both quite real in America today. They are not so much about our individual intentional value systems as about the cumulative effect of our fear-based, everyday biases, which are constantly being reinforced by the structural racism all around us. The effects of racism are just as real as ever, and clearly signifies that we as a society need to wake up and stand up against the fear-based biases that the current system conditions into us.

At various times in human history, someone has proposed that an ideology of love can overcome our fear of the other. In Christianity, this is called Agape. For Islam, in the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” In Judaism, this concept is called Ahava; in Buddhism, metta; and in Hinduism, prema. Authentic love is not just a mental state. It is the daring risk of self to engage the other. British literary theorist Terry Eagleton wonderfully translates the concept of Agape love as "political love.” Politicizing our love is the only way I see to overcome the fear-based ideologies that currently inundate our culture.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On the Dialectical vs. the Mechanical

All dialectics means is “competing consciousnesses”.

For an overly simplistic visualization, picture an ascending spiral contrasted with a straight line. Pursuit of a single conscious desire moves in a straight line, but as it acquires the perspectives of more and more constrasting desires, picture the straight-line motion transforming into an ascending spiral. That ascending transformation ("aufheben" in German) is the key to understanding dialectics.

Dialectical processes are necessarily more complex than mechanical ones. This is necessarily true, because there is no mechanical explanation for consciousness, so when two or more consciousnesses (or, even, two or more strains of the same consciousness) are in opposition, there is no linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what occurs.

Many of our interactions with the world are purely mechanical, for example, feeding your dog. There is no competing consciousness as both you and your dog share the same desire, that is, for the dog to be fed. We can truthfully say pet and owner are of the same consciousness.

The same can be said of groups of humans. All traditions are mechanical on their surface. This can be true of business, religion, schooling, or parenting. Anytime the reasoning of a group stops at “because it’s always been done this way” or “because I said so”, that group is acting in a mechanical way. Dialectics applies only when goals and procedures are either:
a) explicitly up for discussion, or
b) implicitly resisted by those assigned to carry them out.

America is popularly perceived as supporting the “free market of ideas”, but, when it comes to theories of knowledge, we don’t have a free market at all. We have one perspective, that of upholding traditional structures. Most of Academia today currently rejects dialectics in favor of mechanistic approaches to science, to business, to democracy, etc, although art criticism, the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution, certain strands of information theory, and chaos theory in mathematics are notable exceptions.

Analogies helpful in understanding Dialectics
internal agent
external agent
Dialectical Materialism
material base
Punctuated Equilibrium model of evolution
structural constraints of the environment
Information Theory (i.e. audio feedback)
extraneous noise, resulting in negative feedback
(in a mic-speaker system, most noise emitted from speakers cancels out with other extraneous sounds, and so is not strong enough to re-enter the mic)
mic or electric guitar directly in front of speakers, resulting in positive feedback
(occurs when a sound emitted from the speaker is strong enough to re-enter the mic, which immediately puts it through the speaker again, creating a cycle that results in the high-pitched screeching sound.)

Dialectics shares similarities with the evolutionary biological idea of “punctuated equilibrium,” “a model for discontinuous tempos of change in the process of speciation... where a new quality emerges in a leap as the slow accumulation of quantitative changes, long resisted by a stable system, finally forces it rapidly from one state into another.” The only difference is that the external agent within dialectics is consciousness, while the external agent within the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution is the environment.

I finally udnerstand the ridiculousness of Dawkins' claim that memes are “the fundamental unit of culture” just as genes are the fundamental unit of biology.
Genetics is a mechanical explanation for how traits are transmitted from one organism to its offspring, while memes provide no mechanical explanation of anything.
Evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould speaks of an analogous situation with the antler size of elks. "Natural selection seems to have favored larger deer, and exceptionally large antlers came along as a byproduct of increased body size, not because they had any adaptive significance themselves."
Memes are "exceptionally large antlers" that have come about as a result of a change in technology resulting in a change of the expression of information. They provide no sort of fundamental explanations for anything. If the structural constraints of media change, of course the expression of stories will change also! To say memes are "fundamental units" is nonsense.
To Dawkins credit, dialectical situations are always complex. There are definite mechanical rules that govern how the people of any one culture behave, and thus a meme such as Beanie Babies or The Secret can successfully catch on and sell products to millions of consumers. Likewise theories such as “meme theory” can catch on within Academia within a society as conformist and consumerist as our own. Having said that, I'd like to cite Lord Grimcock's UrbanDictionary definition of meme:, which is tragically currently ranked #2:
Used to give a bit of pseudo-academic gravitas to stupid viral shit.

A 'meme' doesn't have to be funny, provocative or even make sense. Most memes fall into one of three categories:
- 'Quirky' stuff that isn't funny.
- Pathetic stuff that fills you with vicarious despair.
- Revolting pictures that could be presented to some alien jury as evidence that humanity is cancer.

There are a couple more quotes I wish to include here, which helped me in forming my understanding:


Identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

Trotsky, explaining why language is inherently dialectical:
The dialectic… is not limited to the daily problems of life, but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn out processes.

Start with the proposition ‘A’ is equal to ‘A.’ This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalizations. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A.’ This is easy to to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens--they are quite different from eachother. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar—a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true—all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself “at any given moment”.
Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this “axiom”, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitable changes. Or is the “moment” a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.…
Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion… Hegel in his
Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

Thomas Altizer on Hegel:
Full dialectical thinking is inseparable from an absolute Yes and an absolute No.

my poem about the equivalence of the concept of god with the dialectic (which, appropriately, came to me stoned driving to the store):
God spoke to me tonight,
"the Me that is Not me."
Your gospel laid bare,
now I know you're there!
I never thought this night could be...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Theological Highpoetry

[Jesus] said unto them, 'Whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.' - Mark 9:36-37

It is you, O God, who is being sought in various religions in various ways, and named with various names. For you remain as you are, to all incomprehensible and inexpressible. - Nicolas Cusanus

God spoke to me tonight,
"the Me that is Not me."
Your gospel laid bare,
now I know you're there!
I never thought this night could be...