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...


  1. I think your blog might be exactly what I've been looking for. Amazing reads, and will be coming back for more!

  2. Update to my thoughts on Dialectics:

    Language is the problem. Variations exist. Patterns exist. We recognise patterns. We assign a label to the pattern. Then we begin to see the label instead of the pattern.

    Marx is not wrong when he writes, “In its rational form [Dialectics] is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps transient aspect as well”...
    But with his following extension, “and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary”, I must disagree.
    With this statement, the label has becomes reality for Marx. Dialectics identifies the map-territory problem--the pattern of believing language to be more real than the material world. When Marx claims Dialectics is revolutionary in essence, the pattern is forgotten.

    As a revolutionary tool, Marx’s dialectics moves in the wrong direction. It tries to reform traditional logic by going further into rational analysis of language. There is value to this, but it is not fundamentally revolutionary. William Blake labels the map-territory problem our “fall into Division.” Blake identifies a dialectical opposition (my analysis is not revolutionary and stuck in this “fall” as well) between Reason and Energy. In proper harmony, reason channels energy in useful directions, towards the accomplishment of purposive tasks. But with the fall into division, reason abstracts itself from this state of harmony. Instead of channeling energy, abstract reason simply negates it, colonizing the human mind and turning humans into the passive followers of Reason’s laws.

    Marx’s use of dialectics negates traditional logic but ultimately remains caught in the same abstract rationalizations. Marx’s dialectics tries to reform language from within language. A revolutionary language must start from a “Resurrection to Unity” [Blake], and, like Shakespeare, Blake and Shelley, create a new vision for language from the ground up.