Sunday, October 10, 2004

Philosophy Sunday: The Introduction of Neo-modernism,

Marcy at BOP-news has an interesting philosophical-ethical argument on post-modernism.

I think the example of Vaclav Havel, probably the person who has been in the best position to do something with post-modern theory, is instructive. Havel was a great and important leader of the dissident movement under communism. His work, most notably his essay "The Power of the Powerless" made the ideas of post-modern theory accessible AND applicable. If you, as a greengrocer, continue to put a sign in your window every day that supports communism (even though you don't support communism), you will be reinforcing that system. But if you stop putting that sign in your window one day, the apparatus of ideology will begin to crumble. And crumble it did.

But there are two problems with Havel's career. First, even at the same time as he was writing Power of the Powerless, Havel had a very academic notion of leaders and followers. He had a well-publicized fight with others in the Charter 77 group in which he insisted that the movement had to be led by a small group of leaders. They were the ones who would do the writing. The majority would come along, but only through reading. Thing is, even while they were having the fight, Ludvik Vaculik circulated their arguments outside of that narrow group of leaders, and--lo and behold--members of the majority started writing. They were acting as Havel imagined only the leaders could!

The other problem with Havel's career is even more apparent. He was brilliant as an opposition figure. But he was mediocre, if honorable, as president. Most notable, to me, is the way he discarded his formerly strident criticism of the United States. When he was a dissident, it was easy for him to point out that the US was led every bit as much by ideology as was the communist world. But he did not manage to translate that belief, as President, into a course of action that might have spared the Czech lands from the shock therapy and consumerism that largely turned the Czech economy into crumbling house of cards, shored up by affluent American tourists.

The failure of post-modern theorists to translate their theory into a plan for action (Foucault's admirable prison work aside) is all the more problematic given that the Right has learned the lesson of post-modern theory AND put it into practice. Some foolish commentator noted (I think on Stirling's Derrida post) that Derrida had long been dismissed, and philosophers like Strauss were, instead, the dominant influence on our time. Look. You can't get Strauss without deconstructing Plato. Straussians are practitioners of Derridian language games rather than theorists of it (but boy do they understand the theory!) And those games have put them in a powerful position where they have, up until recently, succeeded in immunizing their power from efforts to deconstruct them. The left has continued reading while the right has been constructing its own postmodern narrative of power.

As Stirling pointed out however, liberals can't be better post-modernists than the Republican party. What liberals can do however is become neo-modernists. In the frame game, the post-liberal and post-conservative movements cloaked their true activities - a market feudalism and corporate fascism - by applying the label neo when they knew full well that they were a post-modernist movement.

When Kerry debates Bush it is the post-liberal philosophy clashing with the post-conservative philosophy. Both political movements have abandoned their roots. Neither side can muster more than a faux tribute to either state socialism or laizze faire capitalism. Indeed both sides steal as needed in order to support their political power structures.

The post-liberal philosophy called itself the neo-liberal movement and proposed that populist agendas could be met by enacting markets that liberalized - deregulated - markets so that corporations could act more freely. The post-conservative moment which is called the neo-conservative movement proposed that elite agendas could be met by liberalizing government - by removing the inherent checks and balances that prevented government from intruding on the private sphere.

If we examine the Renaissance we find that it is an age of humanism, of anthrocentric rationalism, of essentially at its core artificial aesthetic. This is why the great artistic masters of the age, Da Vinci and all who followed, had as their theme a heightened aesthetic of artificial reproduction. They could imitate all the forms of nature, and their art was in doing it better than nature - by finding and acentuating the order apparent within it such as the Fibbinoci series and sacred geometry. This is the age of Michel Angelo and the Sistine Chapel, of a Europe discovering that the glory of man was in his ability to discover the order within nature and to accentuate it so that it was made visible to all.

The modern age is the age of mass production and of scales of economy. At first as in the victorian age it is centralized. The factory, the centralized means of production requiring the concentration of social capital - financial, labor, and intellectual - is the symbol of this age. It is the age of coal and artists discover surrealism. Pointilism will come of age and so will the delicate visual illusions of Renoir, painting with light to show you can illusion to explore your perceptions of it. It is the age of that guy who cut off his ear and showed the world with his paintings in the very texture and swirling color his emotions.

If the Renaissance gave mankind a kind of glorified artificial reproduction of the natural order then the age of industrialism will explore how mankind can construct perception and compose appearances which are recognizable as forms but are wholly artificial. It is the age when "artificial" comes not to mean being created by artistry but a synonym for "synthetic" which also in an earlier age simply meant to construct by bringing together. The synthetic age allows artists and manufacturers to produce new realities, in the form of machines and art that owe only component raw materials to nature and whose form is completely processed and rendered malleable by human application of insight and force.

The Post-modern age with its post-modern art and literary trends of deconstructionism and historical revisionism however is the story of a jaded and cynical consciousness. Mankind has discovered that he can manufacture on scale his own environment, his own aesthetic experience, and his own political discourse. Tradition has fallen and classical modes of perception in all forms have become broken down. It is the age of analysis, of Freud putting you on the couch, of philosophers breaking down the foundations of thought. In art Jackson and Picasso will take forms and break them down into their fundmamental basic forms. Abstract art is nothing more than the deconstruction of the basic visual units of perception itself. History will be rewritten, reintrepreted, and the reframing of history in literature and academy will become a gun for hire - people will on the left revise retrospectively the entire history of marriage as patriachial rape on an oppressed gender. On the right, reality itself will be revised and reinterpreted - Creationism in all its manifold forms is entirely about trying to fit the square peg in the roudn hole. It is the attempt to reinterpret the natural order into a form that will agree with a few dozen allegorical and mystical metpahors written originally in a small Semetic tribal creation myth, and ignore the parts we don't like because it undermines the exceptionalist narrative we would like to tell about ourselves.

The hyper-exceptionalism of America is the very same anthropocentric view of the previous age, but warped and developed into a form beyond all recognition. Mankind has learned to revise his environment to conform to this wishes, and now he would like to reconstruct his own perceptions to fit into his own wishes. And he will succeed. It is the thinking of exceptionalism that will lead religious leaders of all stripe in order to absorb the metasticizing concepts that our religion must be the only one and correct religion, and fundamentalism and literalism will break out in a rash precisely because elites become adept at manipulative the symbols of reality and using them to control the less sophisticated members of their group bases. However the elites are as much puppets as puppeters, for the constituencies are using them to achieve ends which they cannot articulate and dare not - because the instinctive and base nature of humanity has not changed.

Humans have become clever machiavellian linguistic primates, but their behavior is still premised on drives as primitive as chimpanzees cannibalizing the young of low status members. That is why college students got worried about a draft, because they are the elites and shouldn't have to go to die and why they otherwise don't care about the number of casualties - because those dying in the volunteer army are low social status members. It happened in Vietnam and it is happening again. People can talk quite cleverly but they rarely think for themselves. They have intelligence but it is narrow and shallow, a mere trickle instead of a deep surging wave of awareness.

The reason why conservatives have succeeded around the world is that liberals have failed. Liberals attempted to construct a better society upon formal and explicit rules of engagement, attempting to idealize and optimize collective outcomes. This failed simply because while people could say stuff they hardly ever meant it. The gap between deeds and words was simply too large to bridge by a mere narrative or linguistic argument.

They found that they could seize power by analyzing - literally breaking information down into component parts - and by analyzing things in terms of the base concepts and paradigms that appealed to the baser nature of voters. By baser I do not mean violent, though violence is a part of it. I mean the undeveloped or ignorant parts of human awareness. This ignorance is not a intellectual poverty - but rather a poverty of discriminatory ontological experience run rampant modern philosophy and politics either right or left. Ironically by constructing his own experience, mankind had cut himself off from experience of reality. By learning to shape his interactions with it, mankind fell prey to the delusion that what he believed must be the reality because he could order events to accord with his beliefs. People are so in love with words that they can arrange as they wish and so impressed by how they can arrange the world as they wish that they have neglected how the feedback from the world itself can be a valuable lesson about the relative merits of various methodologies.

So the liberals in the form of socialists could break down by analysis and revolution traditional society, but they could not replace it with anything better. That should have told them something.

But conservatives have also failed, but they failed in a different way. They attempted to game human nature, to be the political confidence men cynically manipulating the crowd. The forefather of the post-conservative movement was PT Barnum and the legions of grifters that became rampant in the modern age. Through Madison avenue they realized they could sell politics as a brand and a consumer product just as easily as they could sell religion through televangelizing or skin care products. However they in their success became failures, because they could not in the end actually produce. They had become so much the parasites that they could not "get real" when needed.
The headlines weren't helping. A steady hail of bad news rained down on Bush—from the Duelfer report (which concluded that Saddam possessed no WMD for a full decade before the Iraq invasion), to the admission by the former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer that there weren't enough troops on the ground to secure the country, to a lackluster jobs report. For a time it seemed as though reality itself had suited up and joined the Kerry team...

As Hillary Clinton put it, Kerry may sometimes change his positions to fit the facts. But Bush changes the facts to fit his positionsAs Hillary Clinton put it, Kerry may sometimes change his positions to fit the facts. But Bush changes the facts to fit his positions. Yet Bush, ever the competitor, was not going gently into Friday night.

It is not that reality has chosen sides, it is that both sides have abandoned reality. When both sides traded power back and forth or uneasily shared it, they would always blame the other for obstructionism. Now that the post-conservative political movement has taken power over all three branches of government the bankruptcy of their world-view becomes immediately clear. These are guys that couldn't run a lemonade stand much less rebuild a ruined country from scratch. The United States is more or less running on autopilot and these people are just scamming from the top. However the bad news is that Democrats are only marginally more competent as post-liberals than the post-conservatives.

What we're talking about is "spin" of course, and this is the elephant in the room for "neo-liberal" or rather post-liberal economists and policy wonks. It is that George W. Bush is a President of catastrophism - his great error is that he took the myths and lies that were spun about America's power and took them literally. Because they were not real, because they were based upon a foundation of sand and debt, they shattered catastrophically. George W. Bush was simply too stupid to understand that like the Wizard of Oz, that it was all a scam and that he was about to break the suspension of disbelief it operated within.

The great illusionist William Clinton knew better. He understood the glass-jaw of American power and its fragile nature, and he perpetuated it by using it sparingly even as the overall conditions deteriorated. What George W. Bush did was tear away the illusion of the Clinton years, that we were getting richer instead of just pumping out a lot of inflationary dollars - that we were getting a "new economy" instead of just discretely using our military force to depress artificially the price of the key commodity of oil - that we were getting better jobs to replace our old jobs instead of actually progressively exporting our capital investment and economic growth overseas in return for cheap consumer products and credit to finance them

What do we get in a world of relative subjectivism and arbitrary perceptual analysis? "Spin" wars - battles of biased and epistemologically unrooted world views, because epistemology and its sibling ontology has been the big loser in the world of Neitzchean aesthetic ethics.

What is a neo-mordernistic philosophy? It is a philosophy where epistemology and ontology are given equal footing with aesthetics and ethics. It is a philosophy where the content of the philosophy is purposely sourced so that at least part of it is not linguistic. It is a philosophy that approaches self-contradictions by accepting frameworks that allow these to be tested against the outside world - the inhuman and nonhuman organic and inorganic world. It can not be called a realist doctrine because it recognizes mankinds power to construct realities both subjectively and through artificial manufacture. Instead it addresses a question how should we construct our realities by introducing a pragmatic metaphysics - where pragmatism is defined as a view that choices must be weighed with the thought of consequences to all domains of experience. A neo-modernistic philosophy is one that recognizes the power and limits of human interaction in order to dominate reality, and accepts that meaningful choices can be made over tradeoffs between different consequences over all domains of experience.

In other words it asks the individual to wed power and consequence by being consciously responsible for choice of metaphysical valuation of impacts over various perspectives.

This introduces a way to break the "equality of spin". Not all paradigms and not all methods are equal over all environments and with regard to all consequences. By forcing the individual to recognize and be responsible for ennunciating the trade-offs between various consequences, and by forcing them to consciously choose which ones to promote over others, it introduces a gradient upon which a new epistemology and ethic can be introduced - an epistemology and ethic of sentient culpability.

Conjectures and theories must be tested against the feedback one recieves in implementation, that is the essential meaning of consequence. An idea can not be judged except in its operationalized form. While the musings of communist ideals may seem great to socialists who claim "It has never been tried," all we can judge is the form that has been tried. Until someone comes up with a different form that can be tried and yield different consequence all we can know is that which has been proffered. In the same way, post-conservatism has offered us the "better and better" war of Iraq. Let us cede for a moment the linguistic argument that things are going "better and better".

If the current observed consequences of "better and better" are like this, then I reject better and better as sufficient. That is pragmatic metaphysics at work. It takes the idea and notes that while democracy in the middle-east sounds great, all we can judge is the operationalized form that we can perceive. Additionally, while it considers inconsequential enough any linguistic appellation - it judges based upon an accounting of choice for consequences. Therefore if this is "better and better" I having examined the consequence choose to reject as satisfactory "better and better" even if things are "getting better".

Linguistic norms of conversation or their perversion cannot be the standards of perception and judgement. We cannot say things are "getting better" and accept that, because in a neo-modernistic perspective we are responsible for whatever impacts in experience "getting better" implies. And being conscious of those impacts and culpable for choosing them, we cannot accept classifications that offer consequences that we cannot ourselves embrace.

This is a hard path to walk. It means I cannot look at my chocolate powder or bars and say "This was legally produced. I do nothing wrong by eating this." Full recognition of culpability of impact requires that I account that my act of purchasing these candy bars and powder acts as consumer demand for a product manufactured using physically and sometimes sexually abused abducted child labor. It does not however require that I condemn it or condone it, but it requires any ethical perspective I take must take into account the fact that my hot cocoa is produced by the tears and lashed backs of little children.

This is a harsh standard to live up to, but it must be aspired to. Only in a world of neo-modernistic philosophy and perception can mankind find a way to live thoughtfully without hyprocrisy and without destroying itself. Humanity has reached a point where if it does not practice neo-modernism, which is the philosophy of mankind being responsible for the world it chooses to live in, that irresponsible and unconscious impacts of mankind's collective behavior will end its civilization or reduce it to a steady-state stagnation of tyranny and poverty.

The myth of Freud which is the myth of the modern world is the myth of Oedipus - he who did what he wanted, who was a product of his environment, who then discovered his origins and his crime against nature - and who put his eyes out rather than deal with it. What mankind must become is the Oedipus who discovers the horrific truth of his own life and then turns to his wife and says "Honey, I have to get some anger-management classes in. Would you get the phone book and help me look for a counselour- and this is going to change our relationship maybe some marriage counseling would be good.".

The past is the past. We can learn from it, and we must be wary of attempts to redefine it conveniently by others, but it cannot be changed to suit our convenience and that is the ultimate lesson we must learn from it. Neo-modernism is the philosophy that takes as its starting point the full horrific state that is each person's life - the whole big messy and unfair history of how we got to where we are today - and takes charge of it by asserting the necessity of each person to understand that whatever they are given to work with they are responsible for how they work with it.

41 Comments:

At October 10, 2004 at 11:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Oldman,

From what I understand in your post is that both parties essentially fell in love with their linguistic wizardry and maps of reality and forgot that the map is not the territory or reality itself and the word is not the thing.

Your take on the draft is a good one too. I agree that the fratkiddies in college tend to see themselves as part of the elite not the "supporting class" or as soldiers doing the dirty work of their masters.

If they weren't a possible target for the draft I doubt the fratkiddies would give a hoot how the Iraq war was going or foreign policy in general.

Your analysis on the failure of liberalism is also spot on. Over the decades liberalism IMO was getting progressively disconnected from reality in a major way, so much so people who would normally vote democrat just stopped or went independent. They confused words and ideologies with reality and fell into the same trap Lysenko did.

BTW the last four paragraphs about our situation are the most poignant I've read in some time. In the spirit of Dorothy Sayers or Jacob Needleman.

Rodger

 
At October 11, 2004 at 3:20 PM, Blogger Grand Moff Texan said...

Even though you're working in the natural sciences, you're an academic. The kind of refereed approach you're talking about is second-nature to us, not that it's foolproof.

I work in history, which was both the end and the beginning of my politics. What I thought I knew turned out to be crap, and a whole new, higher standard of observation, clarity, and forebearance (where one could not be certain) became my baseline epistemology. I was not just disabused of falsehoods, I was no longer allowed to be an intellectual slob.

After soaking my head in this a while, I emerged to find "both sides" not only ignorant, in terms of fact, but intellectually malfunctioning, i.e., unable to reason even when not deluded. While liberal ideologues made little sense to me, conservative ideologues were the ones who'd already declared war on me. I could argue with the liberals, and at worst they'd think me insufficiently useful. For conservatives, my default scepticism was not only a positive threat, it was THE problem with society. It was, moreover, "liberal," at which point I realized conservatives were barking, not talking; the words had lost all meaning.

The more I looked at the political rhetoric, I did not recognize a history Christianity, a historical western civilization, a historical America. It was a cargo cult. Much of what was supposed to be eternal, or at least ancient, was in fact modern. It seemed odd that I was often accused, as an academic and non-conservative, of being a person who believed nothing and who could abuse language to say anything, and that I was being accused of this by those who were actually doing it themselves. Tom DeLay is his own worst nightmare, he just doesn't know it. Rush Limbaugh is utterly unmoored, which is not only why he needs his fantasy world in which everyone else has that problem, it is why his listeners need him.

The one thing I think is missing from your analysis is what I think of as mediation and entitlement. They go together, because they are simply two aspects of the consumer identity. People know less, because they expect to be entertained. They are self-satisfied, because they expect to be humored. They need to blame everything on everyone else because they are the customer, and they are always right. These people are easy to use. The program of surplus-extraction, being perfected since the 16th century, is now complete, with each cell in total isolation, fed their knowledge of anything else, egos continually stroked, fears continually stoked. The exploitation of their meaninglessness is no longer an art, it is science. Left and right, people merely accessorize their socio-economic identities with specious ideologies which, in actual political application, are as void and violent as identity-politics.

The think tanks that made possible the manufacture of memes you describe as the method of neo-conservatism were made possible by academics leaving the refereed processes that determine our professional fates as academics. They went off to huddle for warmth with their co-religionists, safe in the knowledge that no one would even challenge them, just so long as they kept telling their sugar-daddy whatever he'd paid to hear. Many on the left rejoiced when they finally acquired their own benefactor. I saw a missed opportunity (and a cheaper solution to feral capital's dominance in the form of "conservatism") to simply raise epistemological standards, thus rendering every penny spent on pandering to superstition, ignorance, and fear a penny wasted.

What I saw in the rush to war and its poor planning was merely a very expensive solipsism. The right has finally bought its own, delusional feed-back loop, the one they had used to rationalize an "I've got mine, go rot" ethic into something Christian and American and capitalist even while the resulting policy is increasingly none of these things. And the more they fail, the more dependent upon it they become. We continue to throw good money after bad because those in charge can always afford another hit on the crack pipe. Not enough other people want to come down, either.

I don't think positing a philosophy is that answer, for several reasons, but first and foremost because the core of your proposal is simply epistemological. Scepticism, of the systematic kind, and necessarily including a cautiousness about the limitations of language, is something you have to have under your belt before you can do history. I teach history not only to teach facts (which they so desperately need), but also to teach method. Since history can include anything, it also follows that historical thinking can be applied to just about any human process. Even if they never have to think about my research again, they have another analytical tool at their disposal, and the questions it raises tend to create chain-reactions of doubt and reevaluation, something no ideology can survive.

Thus equipped, several individuals (in both the modern and early modern sense of the word 'several') can constitute the social mechanism you describe, triangulating on the verifiable, holding the rest as contingent.

There is no other way responsibly to approach policy formation.

 
At October 11, 2004 at 3:52 PM, Blogger Oldman said...

Thanks for the great comment! However I am not only process oriented, but for a general audience I felt that this was the best way to initially approach the issue. I am going to as I go along make philosophically positive arguments about ontology, and I want to begin to make these arguments using inferences based upon the consequential metaphysics that I am attempting to build. Epistemology is an important part of it, but by necessity I'm sort of working backwards. In the future it will become apparent that the choice of epistemology is not invariant, and there is consequential choice in epistemology - right now I'm just making the epistemological choices and leaving unsaid the consequential metaphysics perspective used to select them.

I am not selecting an epistemology and building from that, but because I need to work in the realm of what people can see I need to show the epistemology, work backwards through the metaphysics, and then infer the desired ontological argument before showing that the ontological is decisive and that the metaphysics and decision of epistemology flow from this.

 
At October 12, 2004 at 9:19 AM, Blogger Grand Moff Texan said...

Without irony, I didn't really understand what you meant 'till I saw you apply it, above on economic theory. It seems you['re trying to short-circuit the disconnect.
Ok, that was ironic.

 
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