Archive for August, 2015

At last, getting to my much, much delayed final book blogs (three parts) on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The book came out in 2010, I picked it up in 2012 (as memory serves), and it took me nearly two years to read its entirety, during which time I blogged my observations. I knew at the time of my previous post on the book that there would be more to say, and it’s taken considerable time to get back to it.

McGilchrist ends with a withering criticism of the Modern and Postmodern (PoMo) Eras, which I characterized as an account of how the world went mad. That still seems accurate to me: the madness that overtook us in the Modern Era led to world wars, genocides, and systematic reduction of humanity to mere material and mechanism, what Ortega y Gasset called Mass Man. Reduction of the rest of the living world to resources to be harvested and exploited by us is a worldview often called instrumental reality. From my armchair, I sense that our societal madness has shape-shifted a few times since the fin de siècle 1880s and 90s. Let’s start with quotes from McGilchrist before I extend into my own analysis. Here is one of his many descriptions of the left-hemisphere paradigm under which we now operate:

In his book on the subject, Modernity and Self-identity, Anthony Giddens describes the characteristic disruption of space and time required by globalisation, itself the necessary consequence of industrial capitalism, which destroys the sense of belonging, and ultimately of individual identity. He refers to what he calls ‘disembedding mechanisms’, the effect of which is to separate things from their context, and ourselves from the uniqueness of place, what he calls ‘locale’. Real things and experiences are replaced by symbolic tokens; ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralised process dependent on rules. He sees a dangerous form of positive feedback, whereby theoretical positions, once promulgated, dictate the reality that comes about, since they are then fed back to us through the media, which form, as much as reflect, reality. The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’, another aspect of decontextualisation in modern life adding to loss of meaning in the experienced world. [p. 390]

Reliance on abstract, decontextualized tokens having only figurative, nonintrinsic power and meaning is a specific sort of distancing, isolation, and reduction that describes much of modern life and shares many characteristics with schizophrenia, as McGilchrist points out throughout the chapter. That was the first shape-shift of our madness: full-blown mechanization borne out of reductionism and materialism, perspectives bequeathed to us by science. The slow process had been underway since the invention of the mechanical clock and discovery of heliocentrism, but it gained steam (pun intended) as the Industrial Revolution matured in the late 19th century.

The PoMo Era is recognized as having begun just after the middle of the 20th century, though its attributes are questionably defined or understood. That said, the most damning criticism leveled at PoMo is its hall-of-mirrors effect that renders objects in the mirrors meaningless because the original reference point is obscured or lost. McGilchrist also refers repeatedly to loss of meaning resulting from the ironizing effect of left-brain dominance. The corresponding academic fad was PoMo literary criticism (deconstruction) in the 1970s, but it had antecedents in quantum theory. Here is McGilchrist on PoMo:

With post-modernism, meaning drains away. Art becomes a game in which the emptiness of a wholly insubstantial world, in which there is nothing beyond the set of terms we have in vain used to ‘construct’ mean, is allowed to speak for its own vacuity. The set of terms are now seen simply to refer to themselves. They have lost transparency; and all conditions that would yield meaning have been ironized out of existence. [pp. 422–423]

This was the second shape-shift: loss of meaning in the middle of the 20th century as purely theoretical formulations, which is to say, abstraction, gained adherents. He goes on:

Over-awareness … alienates us from the world and leads to a belief that only we, or our thought processes, are real … The detached, unmoving, unmoved observer feels that the world loses reality, becomes merely ‘things seen’. Attention is focussed on the field of consciousness itself, not on the world beyond, and we seem to experience experience … [In hyperconsciousness, elements] of the self and of experience which normally remain, and need to remain, intuitive, unconscious, become the objects of a detached, alienating attention, the levels of consciousness multiply, so that there is an awareness of one’s own awareness, and so on. The result of this is a sort of paralysis, in which even everyday ‘automatic’ actions such as moving one leg in front of another in order to walk can become problematic … The effect of hyperconsciousness is to produce a flight from the body and from its attendant emotions. [pp. 394–396]

Having devoted a fair amount of my intellectual life to trying to understand consciousness, I immediately recognized the discussion of hyperconsciousness (derived from Louis Sass) as what I often call recursion error, where consciousness becomes the object of its own contemplation, with obvious consequences. Modern, first-world people all suffer from this effect to varying degrees because that is how modern consciousness is warped shaped.

I believe we can observe now two more characteristic extensions or variations of our madness, probably overlapping, not discrete, following closely on each other: the Ironic and Post-Ironic. The characteristics are these:

  • Modern — reductive, mechanistic, instrumental interpretation of reality
  • Postmodern — self-referential (recursive) and meaningless reality
  • Ironic — reversed reality
  • Post-Ironic — multiplicity of competing meanings/narratives, multiple realities

All this is quite enough to the chew on for a start. I plan to continue in pts. 2 and 3 with description of the Ironic and Post-Ironic.

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Updates to my blogroll are infrequent. I only add blogs that present interesting ideas (with which I don’t always agree) and/or admirable writing. Deletions are typically the result of a change of focus at the linked blog, or regrettably, the result of a blogger becoming abusive or self-absorbed. This time, it’s latter. So alas, another one bites the dust. Dropping off my blogroll — no loss since almost no one reads my blog — is On an Overgrown Path (no link), which is about classical music.

My indignation isn’t about disagreements (we’ve had a few); it’s about inviting discussion in bad faith. I’m very interested in contributing to discussion and don’t mind moderated comments to contend with trolls. However, my comments drive at ideas, not authors, and I’m scarcely a troll. Here’s the disingenuously titled blog post, “Let’s Start a Conversation about Concert Hall Sound,” where the blogger declined to publish my comment, handily blocking conversation. So for maybe the second time in the nearly 10-year history of this blog, I am reproducing the entirety of another’s blog post (minus the profusion of links, since that blogger tends to create link mazes, defying readers to actually explore) followed by my unpublished comment, and then I’ll expound and perhaps rant a bit. Apologies for the uncharacteristic length. (more…)

Everyone knows how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, which typically comes up as a quick means of settling some minor negotiation with the caveat that the winner is entirely arbitrary. The notion of a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament is therefore a non sequitur, since the winner by no means possesses skill, or strategic combinations of throws devised to reliably defeat opponents. Rather, winners are the unfortunate recipients of a blind but lucky sequence, an algorithm, that produces an eventual winner yet is indifferent to the outcome. I can’t say quite why, exactly, but I’ve been puzzling over how three-way conflicts might be decided were the categories instead Strong, Stupid, and Smart, respectively.

Rock is Strong, obviously, because it’s blunt force, whereas Paper is Stupid because it’s blank, and Scissors is Smart because it’s the only one that has any design or sophistication. For reassignments to work, however, the circle of what beats what would have to be reversed: Strong beats Stupid, Stupid beats Smart, and Smart beats Strong. One could argue that Strong and Stupid are equally dense, but arguendo, let’s grant Strong supremacy in that contest. Interestingly, Stupid always beats Smart because Smart’s advantage is handily nullified by Stupid. Finally, Smart beats Strong because the David and Goliath parable has some merit. Superhero fanboys are making similar arguments with respect to the hotly anticipated Superman v. Batman (v. Wonder Woman) film to be released in 2016. The Strong argument is that Superman need land only one punch to take out Batman (a mere human with gadgets and bad-ass attitude), but the Smart argument is that Batman will outwit Superman by, say, deploying kryptonite or exploiting Superman’s inherent good guyness to defeat him.

A further puzzle is how the game Strong, Stupid, Smart works out in geopolitics. The U.S. is clearly Strong, the last remaining world superpower (though still dense as a board — new revelations keep reinforcing that judgment), and uses its strength to bully Stupids into submission. Numerous countries have shifted categories from Strong to Stupid over time — quite a few in fact if one surveys more than a few decades of world history. Stupids have also fought each other to effective stalemate in most of the world, though not without a few wins and losses chalked up. What remains, however, is for a truly Smart regime to emerge to take down Strong. The parody version of such a match-up is told in the book The Mouse That Roared (also a movie with Peter Sellars). But since Smart is vanquished by Stupid, and the world has an overabundance of Stupids, it is unlikely that Smart can ever do better than momentary victory.

Our current slate of presidential candidates is a mostly a field of Stupids with a couple Strongs thrown in (remember: still equally dense as Stupid). Then there are a couple insanely Stupids who distort the circle into an out-of-kilter bizarro obloid. As with geopolitics, a Smart candidate is yet to emerge, but such a candidate would only defeat Strongs, clearing the way for a Stupid victory. This should be obvious to any strategist, and indeed, no truly Smart candidates have declared, knowing full well that they would gain no traction with the half-literate, mouth-breathing public composed largely of Stupids who predictably fall in love with the most insanely Stupid candidate out there. An engaged Smart candidate would thus hand the victory to the insanely Stupid, who should be unelectable from the outset, but go figger. So then the deep strategy (gawd, how I hate this) would be to go with the devil you know, since a saint could never prevail against all the demons.