Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Now Voyager

- Picture a deserted street in Beverly Hills. 2:30 in the morning. Fairy lights in the trees. An empty cafe terrace. I sit alone with my computer. Hearing footsteps, I turn to see a pretty young woman standing still, looking at me. She asks:
- Do you know when they open?
- Not for a couple hours.
- Do you have any money? Or food? Or marijuana?
- No. There's a little Scotch left in my bike bottle. Should I get it?
- Yeah.
- Sit down.
I fill for her the small plastic sample cup I had in my pocket. She asks if I mind her smoking. I notice her deeply stained hands as she lights up. You know the feeling of being floored by life delivering to you what maybe decades ago you'd told yourself would be just about the best thing you could imagine happening?
- I haven't yet been so lucky.
- Well, here before my very eyes was being recreated my favorite scene from my favorite movie, Jean-Luc Godard's Living Her Life. A young woman, after losing her job and place to live, both out of need for money and contempt for society slips nonchalantly into prostitution. She strikes up a conversation with the man reading a book in the next booth at a late night Parisian cafe. She asks if he'll buy her a drink. She asks him, if I remember correctly, why he's reading so late. He says it's his job. He's a philosopher. Though this cafe I'm at is closed and this is LA not Paris, and though no one in his right mind would ever give me a job as a philosopher and I'd be very surprised if she's an existentialist and not crazy or a drug addict, or both, this is my chance to play philosopher to a pretty woman mysteriously appearing out of the night. I ask her what's brought her here. Where is she coming from? She answers:
- Now, or in general?
- Either.
- Now, from the beach, Santa Monica.
- How long have you been in LA?
- Two, three days.
- And before LA?
- In Mexico.
- Where were you born, raised?
- Up North.
- Where up North? Seattle? You don't want to say. What were you doing in Mexico?
- Being a medium of communication.
- Communicating what?
- Solutions to the people's social problems.
- Do you have the solutions to their social problems?
- Not to put into words; but through my being there I express what needs to be done.
- Will you do the same here back in the US? What needs to be done?
- My generation is lost. Things will get better with this president I think.
She asks if she can play some music from YouTube on my computer. She calls up a video with lyrics of a rap song, words grunted out to a simple rhythm with the usual jerky violence, expressing the deep truth of the singer's own story, which is before he was weak and poor and now, look at him! He's rich and has what everyone else only dreams of, money, music, cars, and bitches, bitches meaning prostitutes, bitches being the generally accepted term for women in this art form. Why did she like this, I ask her. A generational thing, she answers. Sex, drugs, rock and roll: like the song, that's what's she's about. I tell her I don't miss a chance to interrogate anyone who admits  to liking our president. Last time was a wealthy woman in her late sixties, only hours before at Bristol Farms Market, the supermarket the cup she's drinking from comes from. I ask her how she knew the president was the great, heroic person she said he was, and she answered it was her intuition. What, I asked the pretty young woman, did she think of this rich old woman also sending and receiving communications by intuition? She doesn't answer; asks for another drink of whisky. I oblige, and ask if she'd like me to tell her about what I've been thinking about. Usually at this time I'd be reading, but tonight like she had I'd gone to YouTube and was watching a lecture by an historian of the Holocaust. His latest book argues that both our president and Russia's president operate on an assumption that history has ended or going nowhere. Progress was an impossibility. Not something new, rather what is the order of the day is to clear away the enemies to the perfectly good arrangements of the past. For us history has ended with the establishment of capitalism and democracy. For Russia history never should have begun, history should be done away with. Any society no matter what kind must be corrupt. Any society, Russia included, is the product of a fallen world. Only Russia as a spiritual entity was pure, and must be defended by using to the limit expertise in corrupt practice in battle against corrupt enemies both internal and external and their corrupt practices. An earlier book by this same historian,* a book I had actually read, explains how the majority of the killing of the Holocaust occurred in stateless places, in countries where through successive occupations national institutions had collapsed, leaving citizens without a nationality. People without nationality, stateless, were easily murdered. My guess would be this was because personal progress requires society. To understand others, in my own experience, I first had to understand myself, and to understand myself I needed to see myself reflected in the eyes of others. If the historian is right, depriving someone of participation in social institutions raises doubts of having a personal life, thus making that person a non-person, as easily killed as animals that are likewise non-persons. Easier, in fact, when the killing is done in the rehearsal of ritual, in which the killer, under attack from the existence of the non-person, who is an infection, part of an invasion, is an adulteration of the society; the killer loses himself in cleansing violence, and in the end his enemies are eradicated and he is reborn in strength. No actual murder is required to achieve the result of restored strength. Passively listening or remembering a story suffices. Merely imagining the story told in the company of like minded people works. The certainty of the greatness of their leader-story teller, presidents of the United States and Russia, seems to have been proven to the ritualist without need for them to point out a single actual deed or characteristic. Knowledge is ascribed to intuition. A sense that time cannot take us anywhere. There is no progress, only return to the purity of the nation or the perfection of achieved institutions, with the act of return justifying taking on any power and using any amount of violence. Claims made by totalitarian states about the nature of time, and ritual consciousness of the individual - that particular time consciousness, a timelessness from forgetting in rebirth - are closely related. So too is related the physics of our times - that however is being more and more challenged - in which the passage of time is said to be an illusion: the sense of now, of flow, of there being a one-way direction to movement, past to preset to future, all is a deception. In four dimensional space-time there's no special present, no flow, no direction to history. But when we look to time, and its progress, mysteries abound. What is time? Aristotle said: a counting of change. Every day the sun comes up. The counted repetition is time measured. But what about time itself? How can we be aware of time itself? What counts the moments of time? An Israeli physicist puts it this way:
Ordinary experience notoriously clashes with physical theory with respect to time. We keep feeling that time “goes by,” that there is a special “Now” moving from past to future, and that future events are born anew out of the present. These characteristics of reality are referred to as “Becoming.” Yet theoretical physics dismisses this so-natural impression as mere illusion, and for good reasons. Time is the parameter of all motion and change; ascribing motion or change to time itself is bound to run into absurdities. For example, if time flows, or if the “Now” moves, how fast is this motion? To apply such terms to time would entail a higher time parameter, which would in turn necessitate a yet higher time and so on ad infinitum.** 
Aristotle's full definition of time in the Physics is 'the number of motion in respect of before and after.' Time counts motion. What I was thinking this evening was that there was a natural sort of counting to consciousness itself: moving from action to thought, creative uncertainty to contemplation, from naming of the world, where each name was a repeated perception of the world that finally resulted in a habit of perception, to stopping of movement in the perception in the world of the thing named. In physics, a direction to time, progress requires causal determinism to overcome the tendency to disorder, that is, to entropy. But the determinism which takes the form of the search for knowledge is exercised on a world not yet of named things, a world where qualities are seen as flowing. When we speak, we begin in the unique moment now, unaware of how our sentence will conclude. We listen passively to each word seemingly being dictated to us, while the words spoken one after another with no assured grammatical connection or ending seem to flow into each other, and when the sentence is completed, progress has been made, action is complete, a meaning new to us expressed. If the consciousness of a no-history ritualist's, of someone whose sense of time has become fixed, is of intuition of communication, is the product of rehearsed passionate action or imagination, those who allow time to progress have an entirely different consciousness, one that gives them a sense of an unique now, of experiencing the flow of experience, of seeking understanding in the progress in knowledge towards an open future. I think it's possible to recognize right off people like this who are counting out time in its various phases of now, flow, and direction. Being aware of time's passage comes with the wish to seek the aid of others to make progress in the knowledge of life. Time's passage, knowledge, society all together;  a philosopher, a lover of talk, ready to learn from the company of the passing moment, at a cafe late at night with a lost young woman.

Further Reading:
The United States & Totalitarianism

Further Viewing:
A Speech To Europe
* Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder.
** Consciousness Makes A Difference: A Reluctant Dualist's Confession, Avshalom C. Elitzur

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Second As Farce

Image result for karl marx wiki
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
― Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
- Wouldn't it be nice if it were so.
- That history had a direction. 
- And a simple, repeating mechanism, like the tick of a clock. 
- This particular claim of direction to history is exceptionally wrongheaded. Satire following tragedy, as a technique of art, was first practiced in the tetralogies of ancient Greek theater: three serious plays followed by a comedy. Concluding with comedy had a specific function: to allow the audience to learn from the preceding tragedies without getting stuck seeing the world itself as tragic.
- Leaving the world undefined, their own individual actions unconfined.
- Yes. And if the nature of the world, not of a man-made art, is tragedy followed by comedy, openness goes out the window. Openness can go out a window if the window's open.
- Why not? This weekend I had the chance to relive a scene that the first time was, not by any means tragic, but let's say somewhat serious, and the second time...
- Farce.
- I had returned from years wandering Europe to a Los Angeles where I was born and raised but where I knew no one, was a complete stranger. I had ten dollars. What to do? A girl sitting next to me at Starbucks suggested, I was Jewish, right? Try the rabbis. I could start with the one at her temple, she knew him, and she wrote down on a paper napkin the name of the temple. I immediately went to see the rabbi, the first of a half dozen or so visits to temples and rabbis. 
- What did he say?
- If I wasn't a member of his congregation he couldn't get involved.
- Involved in your life?
- Yes.
- Nice guy.
- The next two rabbis, believe it or not, said the same. Resources were scarce. 
- Lifeboat morality. Load on too many people and the boat sinks.
- At one particularly rich temple the rabbi takes a closer look at me, says: you're still young. The rabbis at Jewish center in Century City are young too. He goes off for a minute, returns telling me to wait: he's called the rabbis, they're coming there to see me. 
- Do they come?
- Yes, a couple of them, wearing wide brimmed hats and black suits. They tell me to go to the Jewish Center when it closes around midnight. 
- I remember this story.*
- At about one in the morning I was led into a room where five rabbis sat. I was asked about my life, ending with the question, Was I a child molester?
- So that story is really true?
- Mostly.
- And did they have any ideas about what you should do, other than look somewhere else for children to molest?
- One of them asked me for a member of my family they could call. They'd try arbitration. Call if you like my brother in New Jersey, I said, but don't blame me. For what? You'll see.
- And your brother told him he was 'tired of you'.
- Yes. The rabbi said, that's that. Good luck. Oh, yes, there was something more he could do for me.
- What was that?
- He had a sleeping bag I could use, sleeping outside the religious club on the sidewalk, or any place of my choice I elected to sleep.
- As our president would say, Sad! But better than nothing.
- Do you think? Now earlier this week, waiting on my bike at the corner of Wilshire and Doheny for the light to change, a tall man came up to me and asked if I was Jewish. 
- Yes, I am.
- Both parents?
- Yes.
- What are you doing? Where are you coming from?
- I'm riding my bike, as you see, coming from Starbucks.
- Where are you going?
- I haven't decided. What about you? Where are you going?
- That's something I think a lot about.
- What is your profession?
- I'm an investment baker. But my real job is collecting souls.
- I see. Is there a special place, some kind of vault, you store your collection of souls?
- What do you do?
- Nothing much. I write on the internet.
- Where on the internet? Your own site?
- Yes.
- You're a blogger.
- If you like.
- What do you write about? What are you doing Friday?
- Nothing.
- Come to my temple.
- You won't be able to do any rituals on me.
- Come to dinner after temple. 
He writes down the address. My soul, I warn him, is a slippery thing hard to take hold of. There's no chance of him catching it. Come, he says. 
- And this guy was from the same organization, that group of rabbis that asked you if you were a child molester, called your brother, and offered you the sleeping bag so they or others could walk over your warm sleeping body in some doorway as they arrived to work the next morning.
- Yes. Proselyting Jews. Their newest temple was down the street from where he'd stopped me to talk.
- You went to the dinner. And?
- I acquiesced to undergoing the ritual hand washing before meals, which however I botched by reaching for the soap - not allowed! - and had to start over again. The man who invited me hadn't arrived yet. I was shown to a seat at table, one of many arranged in a large 'U'. I try to start conversations with the men to my left and right: on the right, my guide to hand-washing, a man my age with a deeply lined face, wearing a tailored light blue suit, untypically lean for this crowd serious about their food. On my left, a retired used car dealer. Neither wants to talk. Across sits a row of silent old women. A prayer is said by a rabbi, and the meal begins. 
- I'm sorry, but what's so funny about this meal?
- Wait. The investment banker arrives. He makes a speech advising good deeds. In the bank of god there is no better investment. You'll be paid back with interest in good fortune. A self described Kentucky Hill-Billy Jew stands and makes a speech telling the story of his conversion and travels to Jerusalem. Then another rabbi, the head rabbi present, stands to tell the story of what he personally was up to lately: a great good deed, navigating complex government bureaucracies, helping to get to a famous Jewish financial criminal sentenced to twenty-two years in jail the equipment he needs to perform his rituals. 
- This guy is the one who operated the pyramid scheme that made tens of billions of dollars disappear? You must have been remembering the sleeping bag.
- I was. It seems some good deeds banked with god bring a greater return than others.

Further Reading:
Beverly Hills Jews
* Back In L.A.

Saturday, July 27, 2019


- The 26 percent of the electorate who voted for our president, a man who last night the television comedian Steven Colbert called 'the worst man in the world', about 63 million people, apparently don't see his bad character.
- Advertising has taught people to associate consumer products with emotion, and to seek only good feeling in making their choice of politicians. The presidents uses ritual, telling his supporters they are weak and suffer from the attacks of an enemy hidden within, but together they will eradicate the enemy and once again be strong. The president's supporters don't care to listen to anyone but him, believing him when he says journalists are liars and his enemies, so are not aware he is one of the elites he promised to save them from.
- But the novelty of the campaign product they bought should have long ago worn off, and ritual rallies don't happen every day. Why aren't they experiencing buyer's remorse? Why don't they wake up to the president's astonishingly bad character? Why don't they wake up to his lying, bullying, sexual assaults, his cheating, his ignorance? It's true these 63 million Americans have been deceived by a con artist, their attention diverted from noticing his bad character, but must not they have had bad character themselves long before not to have woken up to him by now? Only a person with bad character can fail to notice bad behavior in others when no attempt is made to hide it, it is out in the open.
- Seems to me we've been through all this before.
- I want to look at it from another angle, that of research into artificial intelligence. And yes, we've been a little into this too.* Experts claimed, some of them, that studying how computers work will help us understand how human beings think. Other experts claimed the reverse: studying how people think will help us make smarter computers.
- And?
- Those who wanted to make computers work in ways like it was supposed we think were ignored, while those who wanted to see people in terms of a computer's logic, symbols, models predominated. The logic, symbols and model's camp failed to make much progress and ultimately were forced to admit defeat and went over to the other side. The other side used what's called an intuitive approach, in which numerous attempts were made in many different situations, and the success or failure taken into account to adapt the subsequent attempts. Success if it came did not bring with it any model of how that success was achieved: you learn to ride a bike by practice, without having a model, without being able to say what posture, leanings, pedal force was required in which circumstances. The ideas of the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, a phenomenologist, were used to successfully teach a robot to locate its position in relation to objects it was to manipulate by the programmer taking physically hold of the robot's arm and guiding it through the motions required. Dreyfus warned the logic, symbols and models camp they wouldn't get far. He was ostracized. Most prominent among the symbols, logic and models camp was Marvin Minsky at MIT. He is said to have single-handedly been responsible for more than a decade's delay in progress in AI. In his book Society of Mind he wrote that we are made up of thousand of little minds, that is, little programs arranged in hierarchies, with the top level supervisory programs - programs like play, sleep, speak -  competing with each other for precedence. And supervising these top level programs or minds were models unconsciously acquired from authority figures in our childhood who laid down the law about when and how much to work, play, speak. These outside imposed programs also didn't always succeed in holding control, for though top level they are only a few programs to be executed among thousands.
- Who is executing all these programs?
- Programs are turned on and off by other programs.
- No one is in charge?
- No one. For Marvin Minsky the self is an illusion. A person doesn't have a self any more than a computer does. And further: emotions are faulty thoughts. Love is not something special about human beings, distinguishing life from mechanism. Love is merely a thinking that has been deprived of critical sense. Since love can be defined as a kind of thought process it is not different in kind than the thought process a computer has. If you said to Minsky, as many people did, that being a kind of thought didn't stop an emotion from also being more than a thought, to have other qualities, he missed the point, couldn't see it. If you said love often involves fear of loss, how is that fear a thought? He would reply that fear is a recognition that a thought would likely be interrupted, that tasks would not easily be completed.
- He didn't have much choice. He couldn't very well believe in the reality of emotion and have those thousands of little minds or computer programs making emotional demands on each other.
- Take away from this bit of AI history a dominant view that human beings have no self and no emotions, and let's return to our president. His supporters are bored with their presidential good feeling choice, and campaign rituals are not everyday things. But the supporters have modeled themselves on computers, or rather, been educated by popular culture to model themselves on computers. They have emotions, but emotions mean less than nothing, mean defective thinking and shouldn't be allowed to have consequence in the competition between minds going on within themselves subject also to outside demands which themselves are only partially in control: demands to get a job, make money, find a mate. In the course of meeting those top level demands coming from outside and all the inside ones too, thousands of them, how could anyone keep to the truth, be consistent in life, have principles, show discipline, encourage one's better feelings and restrain the worse?
- So you think the president's 63 million supporters think of themselves as fundamentally incoherent, a collection of selves competing for command and obscurely guided from without, which is to say they have no character, and couldn't care less that the president has also no character.
- Yes.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Odyssey

- We're not meeting as often as we used to. Is something happening with you?
- What would you like to talk about?
- Stories.
- You think my problem, if I have a problem, is that I'm in the wrong kind of story?
- I'm not accusing you of anything. I know you've given some thought to stories, we've gone into it together, and I want to tell you what I think now.
- I'll tell you what's going on in my life: a bad example of a good story.
- What makes a story bad?
- It doesn't mean enough.
- Of Christopher Booker's seven basic plots - rebirth, tragedy, comedy, voyage and return, the quest, rags to riches, the monster - which would your story be?
- Voyage and Return, but the long drawn out type, as in the ten year journey of return home in the Odyssey, stuck in the middle with many episodes of capture and escape, over and over again, capture and escape; I'm equally far now from memories of being at home and from hopes of return.
- And that is a bad story to live through. Though departure and return is good?
- Not exactly bad, say rather a hard story to live through. 
- And a hard story does not necessarily mean more meaningful.
- Correct. Are we done?
- We've just begun, be patient. You don't see any value in the numerous episodes of capture and escape? Is it that you want to get back home, for you value is in being home, you don't care at all about the stories themselves of you attempting to get there, you don't pride yourself on the ordeals passed through.
- No, I don't. 
- There are others who place value in stories exactly opposite to the way you do, others who value the stories of departure and return more than the life left behind and returned to.
- Who, for example?
- Joseph Campbell. I'm sure you know him and his theory of one basic form to all the world's myths. His books have sold more than a million copies.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day to a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. 'The hero's journey' begins in the ordinary world. He must depart from the ordinary world, when he receives a call to adventure. With the help of a mentor, the hero will cross a guarded threshold, leading him to a supernatural world, where familiar laws and order do not apply. There, the hero will embark on a road of trials, where he is tested along the way. The archetypal hero is sometimes assisted by allies. As the hero faces the ordeal, he encounters the greatest challenge of the journey. Upon rising to the challenge, the hero will receive a reward, or boon. Campbell's theory of the monomyth continues with the inclusion of a metaphorical death and resurrection. The hero must then decide to return with this boon to the ordinary world. The hero then faces more trials on the road back. Upon the hero's return, the boon or gift may be used to improve the hero's ordinary world, in what Campbell calls, the application of the boon.*
What you find hard to take, the repeated episodes of capture and escape all while far from home, for Campbell is one heroic journey after another, is the life story of a hero repeatedly daring to seek his bliss. In Campbell's words:
Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives. [...] The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero's journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss.
Why do you think what depresses you is for Campbell an ideal life? He talks of daring, a  strong will to pass through ordeals, to test oneself. He talks of ordinary life voluntarily left behind to seek one's bliss, he talks of gaining power. Whereas you see yourself as having involuntarily been ejected from, not ordinary life, but a life of love, of having been betrayed and having no choice but to go through your Odyssey-like repeated captures and escapes. Is that a correct summary?
- Yes.
- I'll tell you about my intellectual journey in the last weeks I've been deprived of your company. I'd been thinking about what kind of life would teach one to be willing to admit one's mistakes, and make one prefer to be corrected than be left uncorrected and wrong about the world. Was there, I wondered, one kind of life story that would have that result?
- And?
- And this was in the back of my mind as I came across on YouTube the six hours of TV interviews Campbell gave near the end of his life. Strangely, he reminded me of our president, Donald Trump. 
- Stunned by my betrayal, you spent that time in the strange world, mythic world of a Trump-like Joseph Campbell.
- Like you're something of a joker, Campbell's something of a bully, an authoritarian. I checked the Internet for articles about him. Indeed, there were accusations of antisemitism, of his being in sympathy with Fascists and Nazis during the war.
- And what did you make of that?
- It raises the question whether Campbell's monomyth, the one basic story to life which gives structure to life, had the same kind of story that Fascism had, and of which you have given a definition: individuals who each separately feel weak join together in a group to follow a leader who tells them of the necessary task: expel the enemy hidden within responsible for all their troubles and be then strong again.
- Campbell would say that his hero was not today's isolated man, overspecialized by his work and distracted by his entertainments, but a strong and independent hero.
- But consider the form of the story: from ordinary life, to strange supernatural, back to a more powerful ordinary life. Campbell's hero begins isolated, ends with the power to be even more isolated, but passes through an unfamiliar world in which he loses himself and his independence, is forced to undergo what all must undergo or lose self respect. Whereas in the kind of story you advocate we start in the social world of love, pass through a strange world in which we individually, experimentally disguise ourselves, with no commitment to following any one path or to being one sort of person or another - which lack of commitment includes being or not being the kind of person who is right all the time. In Campbell's story the self is not much. It is not free to duck out of supposedly universal ordeals; the self is a thing to be seen through to reach a higher consciousness, gained by force of will passing through ordeals and achieving new power. Which of the two kinds of story can we imagine a fascist leader tells to assemble a mass of followers around him? Obviously he tells Campbell's, where uniformity in following the same story comes easy to people who believe they are compelled to participate in ritual, who are interested not in facts, in things themselves, but seeing through them to attain power, higher consciousness, and bliss.
- And all of whom must follow the same script, stick to the same story, any story, if they are to achieve the security that group ritual practice provides.
- Hannah Arendt wrote: 'What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.'
- The truth of the story doesn't matter, because truth and falsity are extraneous to what is wanted and delivered by participation in the ritual performing crowd. And so you have an answer to your question, what kind of story teaches people to be willing to admit to being wrong, and what kind teaches not to admit to being in the wrong.
- Those who won't admit to being wrong are those who must follow the ritual script, be in agreement with the others doing so, who start from isolation and weakness, achieve a higher consciousness in seeing through the things of life that is the hero's journey, and who end back in isolation but newly strengthened. 
- Yes.
- And now too is your own intellectual journey over without even having to admit you've been wrong, the practice you claim to have discovered the training for.
- Almost over. I found this just published study about the effects of divergent political views upon the group editing of Wikipedia:
As political polarization in the United States continues to rise, the question of whether polarized individuals can fruitfully cooperate becomes pressing. Although diverse perspectives typically lead to superior team performance on complex tasks, strong political perspectives have been associated with conflict, misinformation and a reluctance to engage with people and ideas beyond one’s echo chamber. Here, we explore the effect of ideological composition on team performance by analyzing millions of edits to Wikipedia’s political, social issues and science articles. We measure editors’ online ideological preferences by how much they contribute to conservative versus liberal articles. Editor surveys suggest that online contributions associate with offline political party affiliation and ideological self-identity. Our analysis reveals that polarized teams consisting of a balanced set of ideologically diverse editors produce articles of a higher quality than homogeneous teams. The effect is most clearly seen in Wikipedia’s political articles, but also in social issues and even science articles. Analysis of article ‘talk pages’ reveals that ideologically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than teams of ideological moderates. More intense use of Wikipedia policies by ideologically diverse teams suggests institutional design principles to help unleash the power of polarization.**
Look at the journey of the group editing like this: In the beginning, the community of editors are at home with each other, proud of their group undertaking. Then, especially in political articles, they fall out with each other. But in the give and take of the supernatural would of disagreement they in the end reach homecoming in the production of a superior article all can be proud of participating in the making of, some giving up part of their positions, some not, but this of no importance compared to a peaceful homecoming. Ok, that's all. Have I cheered you up any by my storytelling?
- I think you have. And what about you? Have you been following your bliss, have you caught up to it in the art-work like beauty of the story of your search, the story bringing you to a heightened consciousness, which you've been kind enough to put on display to me? Or is that not you?
- It's not me. Maybe I'd say, if I didn't think you'd make a joke of it, how relieved I am to be able to leave that whole story behind and simply be happy we're talking again.

Further Reading:
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things
MyWife Who Throws Me Out
* Wikipedia

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

What You Can Expect At Whole Foods Market Beverly Hills

- You've repeated so many times that in our extreme form of capitalism in each transaction buyer and seller were enemies that I was going to ask you to stop, when this happened.
- What?
- This was in Whole Foods Market in Beverly Hills, now owned by Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world. In the last few months I've been noticing, almost every day, customers, often daily customers like myself, being accosted and accused of stealing and a receipt demanded of them to prove they weren't. Today I had a little talk with the store manager, 'Oscar', on the subject. I asked him first whether it was the store policy to accuse everyone of stealing who holding store products passed out of the store without going first to the cashier, based only on, not probability, but possibility they were stealing. They could have after shopping and paying gone back into the store to get a napkin, a plastic spoon, a teaspoon pack of soy sauce, to eat some of what they bought in the dining room, or to look for a product it turned out the store didn't have. The manager answered:
- We're not accusing anyone. We're only asking for a receipt.
- But you must believe the customer was stealing if you asked for a receipt. After all you're not asking everyone to show a receipt. Don't you think it is wrong to be treating people as thieves who have been customers many hundreds of times?
- We're protecting our stock.
- Without any concern you are acting as enemies to the people who come not to make war on you but to shop? Are you admitting you are accusing regular shoppers?
- They steal too. You'd be surprised. Most people we ask to show receipts are understanding, they don't care like you.
- They're being polite. They're angry, disgusted. I'd guess you won't find in your store for months in the future, or maybe never.
- Why should anyone care about showing a receipt if they aren't stealing?
- Because now entering the store they know they are being watched, suspected of being thieves, by every store employee who it seems you have instructed to spy on the customers, even authorized without further instruction to themselves make the accusation.
- That's it?
- It's not enough? Ok then. This is from you, five years ago:
As you enter you see painted on the floor in giant letters "VALUES: No artificial flavors, additives, preservatives". But maybe your value is no artificial people? Sorry, you'll have to shop someplace else. Look to your left. Behind the counter is the surveillance staff, watching you enter. They watch you as a possible loss of income or a possible gain. They don't know which. They have to watch. You have your values, they have theirs. You value additive free food, they value humanity-free profit and loss. They're allowed. It's a free country. Or no, not so free. Not if you don't want to be hunted while you shop by the surveillance staff. And not if you don't want to be subject to the empty politeness of customer service staff. True, the ritual respect of How are you today, sir? makes for a more efficient shopping experience than being hunted by the surveillance staff. But there is, or was, another kind of experience than shopping? Was there? What was that?
Further Reading:
When We Love

Tuesday, June 18, 2019



- We've already made a couple attempts at this. I'd like to go back to it again.
- Back to what?
- The loss of the ability to sympathize. For years, with some sense of guilt that I must be exaggerating, I've been in the habit of calling Americans killers, and then yesterday I came across this statement from D. H. Lawrence: 'The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.' So it wasn't just me. Maybe I should feel better about myself, I thought, maybe I wasn't exaggerating.
- You don't mean all of us are actual killers, only that if put into a situation where killing can be done in role, as a soldier, policeman, or as a politician directing others to kill, little or nothing in American character restrains us from killing.
- That is one of the two conclusions we came to in our talks about failing to sympathize: people who act in role, we said, have no feeling for, no relation to people who have no role, who have been stripped of their roles.
- Stripped of their roles in preparation to killing them.
- Sometimes. The other conclusion we came to was that the human being is subject to an atrophy of good: like muscles lose strength when not exercised, so our moral capacity weakens with disuse. This is only a metaphor, of course, strength of muscles compared to strength of sympathy. So I wondered, can we do any better? Do you have any idea where we should start?
- Asking ourselves what is special about Americans.
- Our country is the first that was founded as capitalist, with religion excluded from playing a part in government.
- By 'capitalist' you mean laws making property, existing property relations, a sacrosanct first principle, as opposed to treating human life as of more importance than property. Go on.
- Americans were the first to give themselves a constitution they created themselves. They formed for themselves an island of democratic governance in the midst of killings, slavery, wars, in this respect comparable to ancient Athens. Agreed?
- Ok.
- And let's not fail to add: the open frontier.
- Cheap or free land.
- After the people who were there before were cleared away.
- After they were killed.
- American character, in sum, was formed by democracy within limits, easy land ownership allowing economic independence, and laws under which the principles of capitalism were unrestrained by religion.
- Religion was not absent, but relegated to private life.
- Yes. If we listen to our national poet, Walt Whitman, Americans are open, friendly, soulful, exactly the opposite in fact to what D. H. Lawrence wrote about us as being.
- Writing after the passage of a century.
- So what happened in that time?
- Capitalism intensified.
- How exactly?
- The open frontier closed, monopoly and large corporations arose, self-employment began to end, replaced by employment by hire, that is, slavery by the hour.
- Americans must now sell themselves, instead of the product they make.
- Yes. They are given a role, a specialized function; they become defined by their work, they themselves are sold to masters as things useful in their roles.
- In Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment a young man, acting on social principles generating conclusions about who is worth being allowed to live and who not, can't avoid feeling increasing guilt for the killing he has done.
- His guilt arises from out of his private life, life outside of social role. But capitalism of the kind we now see all around us invades private life, demanding that every personal act and alliance be evaluated in terms of investment, profitability, risk, etc.
- The killer who killed with certainty while acting in role but couldn't avoid guilt arising from within private life, is replaced by the killer whose private life has been commodified, been put into the marketplace to be bought and sold, and therefore feels no guilt. We get the phenomenon of the Nazi emigre in South America known as a good family man, who when arrested reveals himself innocent of any remorse.
- You have to have a story, we said in our old discussions, if you are to remain capable of sympathy. Having a story involves something different than a series of roles taken on, trading one slave master for another; having a story is rather what happens when open to the world you make your choices based on your own experience. We sympathize, we said, when we see others in the midst of their own stories. We don't sympathize with people in better roles, that is, with more lenient slave masters, or in worse roles, with more violent slave masters.
- Instead we envy, we are terrified...
- Yes.
- But how did the however limited good aspects of American character atrophy? How did American character change to its opposite? How did the openness that can melt to the world turn to unsympathizing hardness?
- Look to the nation's historical uniqueness: to its giving itself over to capitalism by its own deliberate choice.
- The frontier closes, the continent is more or less settled, land taken, the self-employed become corporate hires and factory workers. Yet these conditions are hardly much different from what was happening in Europe. We haven't accounted for the unique, killer character of the American people.
- What is unique about us Americans is the way private life gave in so quickly and easily, the way we went from being open to the public, friendly, openhearted, curious about and welcoming to strangers, to being the very opposite, veritable killers.
- We were done in, made vulnerable by our openness?
- We were done in by our being self-founded as a capitalist state free of the restraint of religion: by seeing our destiny in doing to our private lives what our ancestors did in the beginnings of our country's history.
- Rape and pillage. With our private lives massacred we take on fully the character of killers.

Further Reading:
* See: Indifference, Indifference RevisitedThe Atrophy Of Good

Thursday, June 13, 2019

In The Mood For Philosophy

East India Trading Company | Villains Wiki | FANDOM ...

- From our last conversation* I take it you are not a fan of moods in philosophy.
- Moods are general feelings of life we can be certain are not applicable to life in general: moods change, succeed one another unaccountably. If philosophy is the study of life in general, moods are just about the last thing philosophy should be based on.
- What would be the last thing then?
- Power.
- Which is the most common kind of philosophy around!
- Which is enough to put you in a bad mood.
- Philosophy should instead be based on knowledge, knowledge of life in general.
- Yes. Knowledge is the antithesis of power. When you gain power someone else loses power. Power is always power over another. Knowledge given to another increases your ability to act in the world. Another person knowing more helps you to learn more.
- So moods have no place in philosophy?
- Moods reflect the seasonality of our lives, where our individual history and situation require of us to reflect, to rest, to love, to act.
- No philosophy based on moods. But we can have a philosophy of what moods are, we can even be in a mood to philosophize?
- Sure. I'll give you an example. For the second time this year, locking my bike near Jimmies Cafe at the University** and on my way up to the research library I was stopped by two policeman. Being stopped means temporary imprisonment, the disposition of my body and the words I am allowed to say completely under the control of the police: when and how much I can speak, where I am supposed to move to or whether I can move at all - in this case, I'm order to go to a low bench in the glass roofed interior courtyard of Bunch Hall, ominously deserted at this time of the morning. Since this is the second time this year I'm being accused of stealing my own bike by the university police, I'm in the mood to talk, and more importantly, I'm prepared to talk after regretting not saying more last time. Two policeman have become four as two more arrive. They look down upon me crouched on the low bench. I'm told:
- The reason we stopped you is that we've received a report about suspicious activity, possibly a bike theft. Do you have ID?
- I do. But I don't particularly care to show it to you. Do I have to?
- Yes. Why don't you want to if you have nothing to hide? Have you any arrest warrants outstanding?
- No. I don't want to give you what you want because I don't like what you are doing, spreading terror whereever you go, your uniforms broadcasting even from a distance your threat of deadly violence, a very real threat, with the police in this country shooting at least one completely unarmed person every day.
- We have several bicycle thefts every week on campus.
- Obviously then the dozens of university police armed with pistols, rifles, stun guns, gas sprays, and nightsticks that patrol the campus can't stop the drug addicts, alcoholics and schizophrenics sophisticates who sleep on the street from stealing bikes. Even if you could, it would not justify the terror you cause as you repeatedly detain, that is, temporarily imprison people who were trying to go about their ordinary lives. What's so suspicious about me, anyway?
- Nothing. We stopped three other people before we found you.
- So you've imprisoned and made four people fear immediate death from police violence, violence that literally occurs every day, for the reason that you're investigating a possible bike theft, investigating here my suspicious activity, suspicious activity that is the owner of a bike locking his bike at the bike rack.
- You know how this campus is.
- How is it?
- People here are paranoid about security.
- Paranoid meaning irrationally suspicious. The police then go about spreading their terror on the basis of reports that they themselves say are irrational, making themselves knowingly the instrument of mental defect. Even worse.
- Have you ever been in a situation where you get out of your car in your own neighborhood and are surrounded by four menacing armed men? I have.
- I have been in dangerous circumstances, if that is what you mean. But because there is violence occurring in some places doesn't give you the right to place the entire city in a state of war. There is no war going on, on this campus. Do you know the history of the police?
- Started in London by Robert Peel.
- And before that? The police were the private army of the East India company,*** an army for the first time not formed to fight another army but to fight against the people of a colonized state, an army formed to prevent insurrection. The useful functions of the police such as capturing criminals that before the police were handled by agents of the court are completely separate from this historical function of repression. Obviously what's going on here, the second time this year accusing me of, not stealing my own bike, of merely wanting, intending to steal my own bike, with the background of your complete failure to stop bike theft, is not a serious attempt to apprehend criminals.
I reach my hand to my jacket pocket to get my ID, and am immediately ordered, 'Don't move!' 'I'm getting out my ID,' I say, 'as you demanded. Do you want it or not?' While we've been talking more and more police officers are arriving, even a couple of female officers, so many crowded around me now I don't bother to count them. My identification information is radioed in, we wait. I sit, head bowed in thought; I hear the newest police arrivals informed of what's in progress: 'He is obstructing us every step of the way.' ID results come back negative, the police melt away into the background to everyday life they had previously been lurking within. One policeman is going my way. He asks me what I read in the library. 'Sometimes philosophy,' I answer. 'So you know everyone has their own perspective,' he says. 'There are many perspectives on the same world,' I reply, 'some better than others, more accurate than others.' We leave it at that.

Further Reading:
Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police
* Philosophy To A Mood Of Political Distress
** University Of California, Los Angeles
*** According to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her 2018 book 'Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment', American police forces have their origin in Indian fighting militias in existence 'since day one' of the colonies, 1607, and then repurposed as slave patrols, dating from around 1680.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Philosophy To A Mood Of Political Distress

   Meet the brains behind the ‘Trump Baby’ balloon | The Seattle Times
A United States I now barely recognize — one that almost daily distresses me with its xenophobia, its saber-rattling, its theocratic leanings, its denial of facts and science, its tribalism, and its petty and boorish president. (From a column in the Washington Post)
- William James said that there is a mood for every philosophy. Is there a philosophy to this mood of political distress?
- One of James' successors in pragmatism, Richard Rorty claims you can find it in today's postmodernism. Rather than a pragmatic taking action to make a better world, philosophy has taken to discovering how organizations and ideologies intrude on all aspects of life, public and private, setting us the necessary task to bring them to light, freeing ourselves from what he doesn't hesitate to call sin. Two hundred and fifty years earlier, in the very Massachusetts where Rorty gave the lecture* outlining his ideas, another lecture was given:
Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards with great Weight and Pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend &; plunge into the bottomless Gulf, and your healthy Constitution, and your own Care and Prudence, and best Contrivance, and all your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock.**  
Pragmatism instead, according to Rorty, is a philosophy of hope.
- And have you been converted to the philosophy of hope?
- No.
- Why not?
- Pragmatism can be considered the philosophy of capitalism: ideas have 'cash value', what works is true, what makes money is good. There is no limit to the work that can be done, money that can be made. Pragmatism is the philosophy of doing for the sake of doing, restless activity that results in the psycho-pathologies of vanity of power and compulsive repetition, a problem William James attempted to sidestep by recognizing that pragmatism must accept the alien possibility of rest in religious experience:
To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one's word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn,--so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods' acquaintance. This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be so easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis. If the hypothesis were true in all its parts, including this one, then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required. I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule. That for me is the long and short of the formal logic of the situation, no matter what the kinds of truth might materially be.***
But there's still a problem: feeling secure when identifying as a member of a group can produce something like a religious experience, provide rest and relief from the every man for himself at all times of capitalism, therefore shouldn't pragmatism recognize this mood too? Check out the YouTube videos claiming to have scientific proofs of racial inferiorities in studies showing statistical differences in inheritance of intelligence and community cooperation.
- Reliable studies?
- Irrelevant, since environmental effect is not considered, and it can be so large as to completely swamp any difference in inheritance: for example, since the division of Korea, a difference in average height of six inches has arisen between the genetically identical people in the North and South.**** The believers in genetic racial differences in inheritance believe what they believe because it fits in with the pragmatically allowable satisfaction in feeling to be a member of a group. Another philosophy of genetically based group cooperation was recently presented by Thomas Nagle, of "What Is It Like To Be A Bat" fame, who suggests that reason has been selected for by evolution, and consequently following the rules of a group - a form of reason - is genetically determined.
- Then we ought to act in accord with, not fight down as we educate children to do, what we were born to find satisfying, like we were born to find satisfaction in violence and anger? What mood is attached to that philosophy? The mood of German National Socialism?

Further Reading:
In The Mood For Philosophy
* Achieving Our Country, Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies 1997, Harvard University
** In the Hands of an Angry GOD. A sermon preached By Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Pastor of the Church of Christ in Northampton. at Enfield, Mass., July 8th 1741
*** The Will To Believe, An Address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, 1896.
**** 'There are a number of points to consider when interpreting heritability: Heritability measures the proportion of variation in a trait that can be attributed to genes, and not the proportion of a trait caused by genes. Thus, if the environment relevant to a given trait changes in a way that affects all members of the population equally, the mean value of the trait will change without any change in its heritability (because the variation or differences among individuals in the population will stay the same). This has evidently happened for height: the heritability of stature is high, but average heights continue to increase. Thus, even in developed nations, a high heritability of a trait does not necessarily mean that average group differences are due to genes. Some have gone further, and used height as an example in order to argue that "even highly heritable traits can be strongly manipulated by the environment, so heritability has little if anything to do with controllability."' (From Heritability of IQ

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Passion & Reason

Denis Diderot
          Denis Diderot

- 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.'
- Karl Marx* being plain wrong.
- Perhaps both are true, consciousness determines social life, and social life determines consciousness.
- How?
- Aristotle, writing in the Ethics, takes the position that consciousness determines social existence: 'What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful.' Human beings are social animals. Social existence is formed by habits of desire corrected by reason guided by beauty. You're familiar with arguments against blaming the corporate executive for being concerned only about profit?
- Blaming the individual distracts attention from the institution. Whoever has the job must do the job. It's the institution that has to be changed. Same goes for the sadistic policeman. It's the job. Policing has from its inception been about making a show of violence to discourage rebellion.
- But not everyone becomes a corporate executive. Before this choice can be made wrong desire has been allowed to become habit by wrong reason.
- 'To be clever enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.'**
- Yes. If we don't want to become dull ourselves, our consciousness guided not by beauty but by social existence, we must allow ourselves a passionate response to the ugliness of individuals whose consciousness has been formed by institutions. I like Diderot on passion and reason:
People are for ever declaiming against the passions; they attribute to them all the pains that man endures, and forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures. It is an ingredient in man's constitution which cannot sufficiently be blessed and banned. It is considered as an affront to reason if one ventures to say a word in favor of its rivals; yet it is passions alone, and strong passions, that can elevate the soul to great things. Without them, there is no sublime, either in morality or in achievement; the fine arts return to puerility, and virtue becomes a pettifogging thing.***

Further Reading:
* A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx 1859
** "Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be clever enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it." A Miscellany of Men, 
G. K. Chesterton 1912
*** D'Alembert's Dream, Denis Diderot 1769

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Determined To Be Free

Image result for mind

- Put down that worthless novel and talk to me.
- What would you like to talk about?
- Reading books, but not that kind.
- What kind?
- Hermann Hesse's most famous novel Siddhartha, from 1922. I finished a slow, week-long rereading this morning. My first reading was about 45 years ago.
- And how did it strike you?
- I enjoyed it more, but like before I found frustrating, arbitrary, wasteful the necessity for the title character to go through a whole series of different roles before he reaches enlightenment.
- What else was he to do? Remember what he says to the Buddha:
But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands.
The secret being why those hundreds of thousands despite doing their best to follow the Buddha fail to obtain enlightenment.
- Yes. Hesse puts Siddhartha successively through the "no body" of living in the forest with the ascetics, then sends him to the Buddha, to the practice "no self", then sends him on to "all body" taking a courtesan as a lover and becoming a merchant, and then finally to the Ferryman and his "all self". Do you know what I find really strange here?
- What?
- Despite my original complaint of having to follow this apparently meaningless path, exhausting the limited set of possibilities of all or nothing of self or body, my own life has more or less done the same, up to and including living with a courtesan and becoming a merchant.
- And now you're happy.
- A little.
- Lucky you.
- Unlike Siddhartha, no role I took on was without some detachment: this wasn't really what I wanted.
- You wanted the Buddha's enlightenment.
- Yes. Siddhartha differed from the hundreds of thousands of failed students in his going off to learn for himself. But in a sense he lets the whole world be his teacher, forcing on him one role after another. And that's the problem if it is right that self responsibility is essential in getting where we want to go. Following the path of "no body", "no self", "all body", "all self", as if this was a demand of teaching, shouldn't work.
- What would work?
- I'll tell you where my own path took me this afternoon as I was mulling these things over. A notice was posted for a lunch lecture on the subject Creative Cognition: On the Edge of Chaos. This was for me since part of what I was considering was the problem in imagining how freedom can coexist with causality.
- You were thinking that the Buddha's rules were causal, but his state of enlightenment was free?
- That's right. I went, even though most likely it was going to be a comedy of freedom made to vanish into causality,* the professor giving the lecture being a big shot brain scientist. Happiness was to be found in creativity, he said, which was disciplined but imaginative following out a plan to obtain something valuable. Flexibility had to coexist with stability.
- Flexibility in imaginative planning, stability in disciplined following?
- Yes. Flexibility, but not so far that it leads to randomness, which he says leads to madness.
- His rule is not much different from Siddhartha's flexibly throwing himself wholeheartedly into one relation to the world after another.
- With the same problem: where does enlightenment come in, in this obedience to fate? Flexibility in change of role isn't freedom: the chaos of chaos theory the professor refers to in his title isn't randomness, isn't free, but only unpredictable.** He in fact identifies systems in the brain responsible for "flexible" management of other systems of the brain responsible for stability, the whole presumably causally determined. In the professor's brain science jargon: information input from the world is being processed optimally by Siddhartha, who is flexible and stable, having had balanced and exhaustive experience of self and world, and the output is happiness. But such rule following - lack of freedom in the exercise of freedom - should not work, did not work for the other seekers after enlightenment.
- So why do you think the same thing worked for you, worked in whatever degree you're willing to admit?
- Creative people, even the most stable and flexible, don't do any better at happiness than the hundreds of thousands of the Buddha's disciples. What I think can happen, keeping one's eyes open living in the world: I think that every name we give to a thing is an act of freedom, of stepping out of the developing a habit of perception in the world. Repeatedly taking on new roles, and looking down on that passivity from the detachment of the present perception of your immersion drums into your brain, as it were, something we know when we ask where space ends or time begins.
- Because we can always stand back from any of our thoughts, just like when we say space ends here, we know there is more space on the other side of that limit.
- Yes. All can be named and all can make us free.
- And enlightenment is there for you?
- A little.

Further Reading:
The Messiah
Life Is A Machine For Creating Freedom
* See: Creative cognition and systems biology on the edge of chaos, Robert M. Bilder and Kendra S. Knudsen, 2014: "The Edge of Chaos theory can be applied to cognitive processes and brain activation states important for creative cognition. Considering the diversity of possible cognitive states, we can differentiate the highly predictable and orderly from the unpredictable and chaotic. In more chaotic regimes, network states are more disconnected from those in the ordered regime. But “at the edge of chaos,” the states are maximally novel while still connected to states in the ordered regime, and thus are most likely to manifest the combination of novelty and utility that is the hallmark of creativity." ... "The theory of evolutionary cytoarchitectonic trends may provide an anatomic and neuropsychopharmacologic substrate for these cognitive dimensions, with complementary systems that increase the stability or flexibility of cognitive states via the archicortical and paleocortical trends, respectively. Local cortical networks employ the complementary actions of tonic and phasic dopamine signaling, which putatively mediate stability and flexibility, respectively; similarly, D1- and D2-like dopamine transmission may mediate persistence or updating within cell assemblies."
** A failure of knowledge, not lack of causality.

Sunday, April 7, 2019


The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.*

- I miss your stories, our chats. What's happening there? Where are you now?
- Starbucks on Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, as usual at this time of night. I can tell you, not a story, more like an argument. Sitting a few yards from me is that movie producer I told you about who'd actually produced a well known movie, who was spending some nights sitting outside the cafe, others flopping down at Chabad, the Jewish cult that runs the youth center down the street. He doesn't always get along with the rabbis because they extort from him the names and phone numbers of his former associates in the movie business they can call up and beg money from.
- That was months ago. Last year.
- Yes. He said he was waiting for money to be paid him. I guess he's still waiting.
- So what's the story with him now?
- The story's not about him, but another movie producer I met last night with nowhere to go.
- Was he a real producer too?
- Seems so. I was riding past on my bike, three in the morning, when I saw him standing waiting to cross the street the Century City Shopping Center, paper shopping bag at his feet. I stopped, asked him what he was doing on this corner at this time of night. He was not bothering anyone, he said, sleeping on the ground in the shopping center, when a guard and a L.A. policeman rudely woke him up and ordered him to get out. He was the producer of an Academy Award Winning movie, he said, and these guys waking him probably never finished high school.
- I told him I was on my way to the 24 hours open Macdonalds. If he wanted he could join me and we'd talk.
- Did he come?
- Yes. He convincingly described his involvement in two films. The first, the Academy Award winner, a big success. The other a big failure. He told me he'd been 3 months with no place to live. He was 78. He too was waiting for money to arrive. I asked him:

- Don't you have any friends?
- Not in L.A.
- Where then?
- Pennsylvania. My producing partner lives there.
- Can't you go to him? Don't you get along?
- I can. We get along great.
- Does he have room for you?
- Yes. He has a big house. His kids love me like an uncle.
- So why don't you go there?
- He's very liberal.
- His politics?
- Yes. He's like a hippy.
- What does that matter?
- His house is far from anything.
- What are you doing here that keeps you here?
- I want to produce another film.
- While sleeping on the street? How long do you think, at your age, your health can take it? I'd put your life expectancy at no more than a few months.
- Why? I feel alright.
- You'll have a heart attack. You'll develop circulatory problems, contract infections, suffer mood swings and general weakness from sleep deprivation. You'll suffer from strangers' fear and contempt. What keeps you in L.A.?
- I like L.A. I like the weather.
- You're willing to die on the street here for the weather? Isn't it hard wandering from place to place all night, killing time until morning?
- It's an adventure.
- Working out how to keep yourself alive. Is it an adventure worth dying for?
- You keep saying that. Are you afraid of dying? Can I buy you something to eat?
- No thanks. Do you want to know what I think?
- What?
- You're obviously not insane, not a schizophrenic, but maybe you are leading what philosophers call a schizophrenic life. I'll get a quote for you from the internet. Just a second. Here, this will do:
'The failure of the infant to accede fully into the realm of speech and language'. Schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. According to Jameson, the schizophrenic lacks a personal identity, is unable to differentiate between self and world, and is incapable of experiencing continuity through time."**
- I know who I am.
- Do you? Thought and language are different from each other. Thought is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers, which float in a sea of grammars - alternative senses to be made of them - that language fixes thought into as sentences are produced. The philosopher Jameson says schizophrenia is the culture of our capitalist times: we are pushed to take on one unstable image after another, each associated with consuming a product or service, each unstable because dependent upon outside suggestion. Other philosophers say that a protection from this assault on human nature can be had by deliberately taking on disposable images of our own making. Your hippy friend might recognize this idea as existentialist. A clinical schizophrenic lives on the level of language, producing language in response to his circumstances, without any rooting in his own thought. The thoughts expressed in his language seem to be in the control of what is outside himself, a terrifying prospect.
- I'm not a schizophrenic.
- And obviously you're not a capitalist consumer, seeing yourself in products you buy. But your adventure sounds like the other philosopher's schizophrenia cure, proposing your own image of yourself against those assigned to you by others.
- Then I'm healthy and not going to die.
- Well, no, you're aren't going to be let off so easily. It's a painful, terrifying experience to live on the level of language, disconnected entirely from, without ownership of the thought it's built out of. Remember what I said about language and thought? How thought, before settling down to speech bathes in a sea of alternative grammars? This is the source of both our sense of freedom, and of personal continuity: continuity in the constantly increasing memories of experience that compose our thought, freedom in the cloud of alternative grammars thought builds itself into language with. Deliberately taking on one image after another, if not actually insane, entirely un-rooted in personal thought, remains schizophrenic in being personally discontinuous, each new role composed out of a unique selection of experience, and unfree, in being required to fit in with the descriptions of themselves others make for themselves. In your adventure, are you not protecting yourself rather than expressing yourself, substituting a performance, an act, imitation, a role more to your liking than the one's demanded of you by your situation, with no continuity between roles? What do you think of what I'm saying? You're nodding off.

- He fell asleep while you were talking?
- Yes.
- Did he wake up? He didn't die there at Macdonalds?
- No, he didn't die.
- Maybe he'll go to his partner's house.
- And leave the great self image marketplace of L.A.?
* G. K. Chesterton
** Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Technology Of Magic

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There is yet another way of regarding this strange history of the Renaissance Hermetic tradition in its relation to science. We may ask whether the seventeenth century discarded notions from the earlier tradition which may have been actually nearer to the views of the universe unfolded by the science of today than the movement which superseded it. Was the magically animated universe of Bruno, so close to the magnetic universe of Gilbert, a better guess about the nature of reality than those seemingly so much more rational universes of the mechanistic philosophers? It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An inquiry into both phases and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of approach to the problems raised by the science of to-day than the line which concentrates solely on the seventeenth-century triumph.*
- How are we to take this? An animated universe may be a better fit these days of subatomic particles than a mathematical universe, but does anyone really believe magic actually works in the world like we know mechanism does?
- Mechanism to the Magi was itself a kind of magic. Putting one thing in contact with another thing produces, when done right, the "magic" result a mechanism is intended to produce: telling time, or the life-like movements of the automaton beetle Bruno famously made. Mechanism is of the lower world. In the middle, astrological world of the planets and stars and the upper or god's world of the empyrean our human movements can be put in relation that would likewise produce a desired result.
- Getting order in our lives or ourselves in right with god. But in the upper worlds, putting ourselves in relation meant performing a ritual, saying a spell. How can speaking worlds actually change the world so as to affect our fortune or relation to god?
- In the way religion does in general, by modelling our relations to the world, helping us keep in mind the varying results of better and worse practises.
- But that is not magic.
- It is a tool used for the magic of getting out of this world and into the world of god.
- Magic protects against human life being seen in mechanistic terms. Ok. But if as you say, this is only model making, where does magic come in?
- In what the model making teaches the Renaissance Magus to do.
- Do in reality, not ritual?
- Yes.
- And what is that?
- Bruno justified his heliocentric view by arguing that all the planets including the Earth must move because only things that move remain uncorrupted. In its continuous response to the world a material thing retains its shape. A living thing, keeping its shape, also moves bodily from place to place, and some living things in addition move in thought. That is, a living thing has something in it that directs it on top of that which simply maintains shape.
- Or in our social existence, we are motivated by something in addition to playing our role in relation to others playing theirs. Our behavior is self-motivated, in addition to its regular responses that keep it what it is.
- Yes. What we have to look for the Magus doing is determining what in his actual life is dragging him down to mere maintaining behavior of a material object, and what in his life partakes of the self-directed behavior of a god.
- How?
- By doing experimentally the opposite of what today's social media companies do to their users unconscious of what is happening to them.**
- And that is?
- Recommendations and filters herd them into tribes, primitive behavior based on fear of other tribes is promoted. Users are made into interchangeable parts of a mechanism for producing profits from selling advertisers predictions of their behavior optimized by uniformity. A Renaissance Magus, like a social media company, works to operate on social relations, but in the opposite direction: exiting from all relations that are mechanical rather than self-originated.
- But how?
- By experiments, turning on and off behavior and seeing what happens.*** We observe a mechanism: when the sun rises, birds sing. But there is a difference here between the two elements placed in mechanical relation. Being a bird involves the response 'sing at sunrise'. If no sunrise, no singing. The movement of the sun however is not in response to the bird's singing and will continue even if the bird does not sing.
- The sun is acting at a higher level.
- Yes. We can say the sun caused the bird to sing, but the bird's singing was only correlate with the sun's rise, not a cause of it rising. Maybe you ask yourself, was your relation to your lover really a love, or only playing a part? If your loved's behavior is blocked, or yours, are either of you like the bird who won't sing if the sun doesn't rise? Is your relation merely correlate, only a response, not arising from motive deep within?
- But the Renaissance Magi played with models, you said, they did not do what you are talking about, how could they?
- At least one renaissance Magus did do this and offered his lessons how to do it to the world.
- Who?
- The Magus William Shakespeare.**** If Facebook et al. pruned social relations into correlation, how do you prod them out into that of self-moved gods? Shakespeare...
- He wasn't a magician.
- His plays show characters ejected from ordinary life into an altered world of magic, a world in which they and others were not themselves, or were taken for or pretended to be others than themselves.
- And they could see whether this turning off revealed a causal relation to another or merely correlate? Whether your lover caused your love, whether the two of you were together as part of an intimate whole, or you played your role and she hers, more of less independently, whether you belonged together as a matter of statistics, of your type and her type meshing more or less frictionlessly?
- Or in mundane terms: Is the relation of the corporate executive to stockholders in which he undertakes to do business and they to demand the maximum profit, no matter the cost to the environment, merely correlate, role to role? Would a direct appeal by the executive to stockholders succeed, asking them whether they'd be willing to accept less profit, thus revealing the unacted upon possibility of a causal relation? Is the corporate executive's behavior locked in the correlates of institutions, or is he merely immoral, a lesser sort of man, role playing, neglecting the causality of better, self-directed human relations?
- Shakespeare's characters act on what they learn experimenting with counterfactuals to try to return to the familiar world they'd found themselves ejected from. The actual magical elements in the plays, magic performed by or on characters, or magical characters, are there as hints or cues to attend to the lesson in magic he was giving.
- That's the argument. As fixed-role, technological social relations in ancient states existed centuries before mechanical technology developed, so in Shakespeare the technology of magic in social relations arose centuries before its extension to mechanical use in the Internet.

Further Reading:
Cannibals & Capitalists
It Just Happens
* The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science, Frances Yates, 1968
** See: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff, 2019
*** See: The Book of Why, Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie, 2018: "The Ladder of Causation, with representative organisms at each level: Most animals, as well as present-day learning machines, are on the first rung, learning from association. Tool users, such as early humans, are on the second rung if they act by planning and not merely by imitation. We can also use experiments to learn the effects of interventions, and presumably this is how babies acquire much of their causal knowledge. Counterfactual learners, on the top rung, can imagine worlds that do not exist and infer reasons for observed phenomena."..."You cannot claim that Eve caused you to eat from the tree unless you can imagine a world in which, counter to facts, she did not hand you the apple."  
**** My Wife Who Throws Me Out

First Quarto title page of The Taming of the Shrew, image available through Creative Commons


- I wasn't sure what you meant by magic, whether it was really magic.
- And you'd like me to tell you?
- No, don't. I took you at your word and went to Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew.
- And did Petruchio do his magic taming of Katherina to your satisfaction?
- It's a wonder satisfaction is possible in a world of so much ugliness and brutality.
- 'Seeing too much sadness hath congeal'd your blood, and melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.'
- From the play. Yes, I have a tendency when hearing how love gives meaning to life otherwise meaningless to protest that it's all a trick, a bad deal to have to suffer so much for love that doesn't last, love that may even be riddled with meaninglessness. But love alone isn't what gives meaning to life. At least that isn't how I've lived my life.
- How have you lived?
- Satisfied despite myself with the practice of a skill, what you're giving the name magic to, something active, taking or attempting to take control when in the midst of illusion, that aims at a return to love and re-connection with the world, but more than mere means, mere technology, participates in advance in what it aims at achieving, don't ask me how: stepping out of and standing above the cycle of love and loss while in its midst confident it can be managed? In the first scene proper of The Taming of the Shrew is a speech proposing that even the most abstract studies be brought into life, where 'no profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en',* and the play ends not with love as you'd expect but past love in more magic, with Katherina's astonishing out of character paean to wifely submission to husband, that is, with her simulating being the opposite of what she was, with her taking up the magic that had been used on her. The absence of closing frame of the drunken, identity deceived tinker Sly watching the play the audience watches with him puts the audience in his position, and suggests that it is being trained or practiced upon like Katherina is too and to take control as she has. The last line of the play is (to Petruchio, about Katherina): "'Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so." In the earlier Quarto text the frame is in fact closed with Sly going home to his wife and comically failing in his attempt to tame her.
* "Mi perdonato, gentle master mine / I am in all affected as yourself; / Glad that you thus continue your resolve / To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy. / Only, good master, while we do admire / This virtue and this moral discipline, / Let's be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray; / Or so devote to Aristotle's cheques / As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured: / Balk logic with acquaintance that you have / And practise rhetoric in your common talk; / Music and poesy use to quicken you; / The mathematics and the metaphysics, / Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you; / No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en: / In brief, sir, study what you most affect." 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hannah Arendt, A Lecture, 1966-67

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My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical. Revolutions have become everyday occurrences since, with the liquidation of imperialism, so many peoples have risen “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.” Just as the most lasting result of imperialist expansion was the export of the idea of the nation-state to the four corners of the earth, so the end of imperialism under the pressure of nationalism has led to the dissemination of the idea of revolution all over the globe.

All these revolutions, no matter how violently anti-Western their rhetoric may be, stand under the sign of traditional Western revolutions. The current state of affairs was preceded by the series of revolutions after the First World War in Europe itself. Since then, and more markedly after the Second World War, nothing seems more certain than that a revolutionary change of the form of government, in distinction to an alteration of administration, will follow defeat in a war between the remaining powers—short, that is, of total annihilation. But it is important to note that even before technological developments made wars between the great powers literally a life and death struggle, hence self-defeating, politically speaking wars had already become a matter of life and death. This was by no means a matter of course, but signifies that the protagonists of national wars had begun to act as though they were involved in civil wars. And the small wars of the last 20 years—Korea, Algeria, Vietnam—have clearly been civil wars, in which the great powers became involved, either because revolution threatened their rule or had created a dangerous power vacuum. In these instances it was no longer war that precipitated revolution; the initiative shifted from war to revolution, which in some cases, but by no means all, was followed by military intervention. It is as if we were suddenly back in the 18th century, when the American Revolution was followed by a war against England, and the French Revolution by a war against the allied royal powers of Europe.

And again, despite the enormously different circumstances—technological and otherwise—military interventions appear relatively helpless in the face of the phenomenon. A large number of revolutions during the last two hundred years went to their doom, but relatively few were dissipated by superiority in the application of the means of violence. Conversely, military interventions, even when they were successful, have often proved remarkably inefficient in restoring stability and filling the power vacuum. Even victory seems unable to substitute stability for chaos, honesty for corruption, authority and trust in government for decay and disintegration.

Restoration, the consequence of an interrupted revolution, usually provides not much more than a thin and quite obviously provisional cover under which the processes of disintegration continue unchecked. But there is, on the other hand, a great potential future stability inherent in consciously formed new political bodies, of which the American Republic is the prime example; the principal problem, of course, is the rarity of successful revolutions. Still, in the world’s present configuration where, for better or worse, revolutions have become the most significant and frequent events—and this will most likely continue for decades to come—it would not only be wiser but also more relevant if, instead of boasting that we are the mightiest power on earth, we would say that we have enjoyed an extraordinary stability since the founding of our republic, and that this stability was the direct outgrowth of revolution. For, since it can no longer be decided by war, the contestation of the great powers may well be decided, in the long run, by which side better understands what revolutions are and what is at stake in them.

It is, I believe, a secret from nobody, at least not since the Bay of Pigs incident, that the foreign policy of this country has shown itself hardly expert or even knowledgeable in judging revolutionary situations or in understanding the momentum of revolutionary movements. Although the Bay of Pigs incident is often blamed on faulty information and malfunctioning secret services, the failure actually lies much deeper. The failure was in misunderstanding what it means when a poverty stricken people in a backward country, in which corruption has reached the point of rottenness, are suddenly released, not from their poverty, but from the obscurity and hence incomprehensibility of their misery; what it means when they hear for the first time their condition being discussed in the open and find themselves invited to participate in that discussion; and what it means when they are brought to their capital, which they have never seen before, and told: these streets and these buildings and these squares, all these are yours, your possessions, and hence your pride. This, or something of the same sort, happened for the first time during the French Revolution.

Curiously, it was an old man in East Prussia who never left his hometown of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, a philosopher and lover of freedom hardly famous for rebellious thoughts, who at once did understand. He said that “such a phenomenon in human history will never be forgotten,” and indeed, it has not been forgotten but, on the contrary, has played a major role in world history ever since it occurred. And though many revolutions have ended in tyranny, it has also always been remembered that, in the words of Condorcet, “The word ‘revolutionary’ can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom.”

Revolution, like any other term of our political vocabulary, can be used in a generic sense without taking into account either the word’s origin or the temporal moment when the term was first applied to a particular political phenomenon. The assumption of such usage is that no matter when and why the term itself appeared, the phenomenon to which it refers is coeval with human memory. The temptation to use the word generically is particularly strong when we speak of “wars and revolutions” together, for wars, indeed, are as old as the recorded history of mankind. It may be difficult to use the word “war” in any other than a generic sense, if only because its first appearance cannot be dated in time or localized in space, but no such excuse exists for the indiscriminate usage of the term revolution.

Prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the 18th century and the specific sense it then acquired, the word “revolution” was hardly prominent in the vocabulary of political thought or practice. When the term occurs in the 17th century, for example, it clings strictly to its original astronomical meaning, which signified the eternal, irresistible, ever-recurring motion of the heavenly bodies; its political usage was metaphorical, describing a movement back into some pre-established point, and hence a motion, a swinging back to a pre-ordained order. The word was first used not when what we are apt to call a revolution broke out in England and Cromwell rose up as a sort of dictator, but on the contrary, in 1660, on the occasion of the reestablishment of the monarchy, after the overthrow of the Rump Parliament. But even the Glorious Revolution, the event through which, rather paradoxically, the term found its place in historical-political language, was not thought of as a revolution but as the restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory. The actual meaning of revolution, prior to the events of the late 18th century, is perhaps most clearly indicated in the inscription on the Great Seal of England of 1651, according to which the first transformation of monarchy into a republic meant: “Freedom by God’s blessing restored.”

The fact that the word “revolution” originally meant restoration is more than a mere oddity of semantics. Even the 18th-century revolutions cannot be understood without realizing that revolutions first broke out when restoration had been their aim, and that the content of such restoration was freedom. In America, in the words of John Adams, the men of the revolution had been “called without expectation and compelled without previous inclination”; the same is true for France where, in Tocqueville’s words, “one might have believed the aim of the coming revolution was the restoration of the ancien régime rather than its overthrow.” And in the course of both revolutions, when the actors became aware that they were embarking upon an entirely new enterprise rather than revolving back to anything preceding it, when the word “revolution” consequently was acquiring its new meaning, it was Thomas Paine, of all people, who, still true to the spirit of the bygone age, proposed in all seriousness to call the American and French revolutions “counter-revolutions.” He wanted to save the extraordinary events from the suspicion that an entirely new beginning had been made, and from the odium of violence with which these events were inevitably linked.

We are likely to overlook the almost instinctive horror manifest in the mentality of these first revolutionists before the entirely new. In part this is because we are so well acquainted with the eagerness of scientists and philosophers of the Modern Age for “things never seen before and thoughts never thought before.” And in part it is because nothing in the course of these revolutions is as conspicuous and striking as the emphatic stress on novelty, repeated over and over by actors and spectators alike, in their insistence that nothing comparable in significance and grandeur had ever happened before. The crucial and difficult point is that the enormous pathos of the new era, the Novus Ordo Seclorum, which is still inscribed on our dollar bills, came to the fore only after the actors, much against their will, had reached a point of no return.

Hence, what actually happened at the end of the 18th century was that an attempt at restoration and recovery of old rights and privileges resulted in its exact opposite: a progressing development and the opening up of a future which defied all further attempts at acting or thinking in terms of a circular or revolving motion. And while the term “revolution” was radically transformed in the revolutionary process, something similar, but infinitely more complex, happened to the word “freedom.” As long as nothing more was meant by it than freedom “by God’s blessing restored,” it remained a matter of those rights and liberties we today associate with constitutional government, which properly are called civil rights. What was not included in them was the political right to participate in public affairs. None of those other rights, including the right to be represented for purposes of taxation, were either in theory or practice the result of revolution. Not “life, liberty, and property,” but the claim that they were inalienable rights of all human creatures, no matter where they lived or what kind of government they enjoyed, was revolutionary. And even in this new and revolutionary extension to all mankind, liberty meant no more than freedom from unjustifiable restraint, that is, something essentially negative.

Liberties in the sense of civil rights are the results of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, whose essence is admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs. Had the revolutions aimed only at the guarantee of civil rights, liberation from regimes that had overstepped their powers and infringed upon well-established rights would have been enough. And it is true that the revolutions of the 18th century began by claiming those old rights. The complexity comes when revolution is concerned with both liberation and freedom, and, since liberation is indeed a condition of freedom—though freedom is by no means a necessary result of liberation—it is difficult to see and say where the desire for liberation, to be free from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom, to live a political life, begins. The point of the matter is that liberation from oppression could very well have been fulfilled under monarchical though not tyrannical government, whereas the freedom of a political way of life required a new, or rather rediscovered, form of government. It demanded the constitution of a republic. Nothing, indeed, is more clearly borne out by the facts than Jefferson’s retrospective claim “that the contests of that day were contests of principle between the advocates of republican and those of kingly government.” The equation of a republican government with freedom, and the conviction that monarchy is a criminal government fit for slaves—though it became commonplace almost as soon as the revolutions began—had been quite absent from the minds of the revolutionaries themselves. Still, though this was a new freedom they were aiming at, it would be hard to maintain they had no prior notion of it. On the contrary, it was a passion for this new political freedom, though not yet equated with a republican form of government, which inspired and prepared those to enact a revolution without fully knowing what they were doing.

No revolution, no matter how wide it opened its gates to the masses and the downtrodden—les malheureux, les misérables, les damnés de la terre, as we know them from the grand rhetoric of the French Revolution—was ever started by them. And no revolution was ever the result of conspiracies, secret societies, or openly revolutionary parties. Speaking generally, no revolution is even possible where the authority of the body politic is intact, which, under modern conditions, means where the armed forces can be trusted to obey the civil authorities. Revolutions are not necessary but possible answers to the devolution of a regime, not the cause but the consequence of the downfall of political authority. Wherever these disintegrative processes have been allowed to develop unchecked, usually over a prolonged period, revolutions may occur under the condition that a sufficient number of the populace exists which is prepared for a regime’s collapse and is willing to assume power. Revolutions always appear to succeed with amazing ease in their initial stages, and the reason is that those who supposedly “make” revolutions do not “seize power” but rather pick it up where it lies in the streets.

If the men of the American and French revolutions had anything in common prior to the events which were to determine their lives, shape their convictions, and eventually draw them apart, it was a passionate longing to participate in public affairs, and a no less passionate disgust with the hypocrisy and foolishness of “good society”—to which must be added a restlessness and more or less outspoken contempt for the pettiness of merely private affairs. In the sense of the formation of this very special mentality, John Adams was entirely right when he said that “the revolution was effected before the war commenced,” not because of a specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit, but because the inhabitants of the colonies were “formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic” with the “right to assemble . . . in their own town halls, there to deliberate upon public affairs,” for it was indeed “in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place.”

To be sure, nothing comparable to the political institutions in the colonies existed in France, but the mentality was still the same; what Tocqueville called a “passion” and “taste” in France was in America an experience manifest from the earliest times of colonization, in fact ever since the Mayflower Compact had been a veritable school of public spirit and public freedom. Prior to the revolutions, these men on both sides of the Atlantic were called hommes de lettres, and it is characteristic of them that they spent their leisure time “ransacking the archives of antiquity,” that is, turning to Roman history, not because they were romantically enamored of the past as such but with the purpose of recovering the spiritual as well as institutional political lessons that had been lost or half-forgotten during the centuries of a strictly Christian tradition. “The world has been empty since the Romans, and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom,” exclaimed Saint Just, as before him Thomas Paine had predicted “what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.”

To understand the role of antiquity in the history of revolutions we would have to recall the enthusiasm for “ancient prudence” with which Harrington and Milton greeted Cromwell’s dictatorship, and how this enthusiasm had been revived in the 18th century by Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and the Decadence of the Romans. Without the classical example of what politics could be and participation in public affairs could mean for the happiness of man, none of the men of the revolutions would have possessed the courage for what would appear as unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as if the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity was suddenly granted a new lease on life, as if the republican fervor of the short-lived Italian city-states, foredoomed by the advent of the nation-state, had only lain dormant, so to speak, to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects and, strictly speaking, no rulers. This is the reason why discussions of the forms of government, in sharp contrast to later ideologies, played such an enormous role in the thinking and writing of the first revolutionaries.

No doubt, it is obvious and of great consequence that this passion for freedom for its own sake awoke in and was nourished by men of leisure, by the hommes de lettres who had no masters and were not always busy making a living. In other words, they enjoyed the privileges of Athenian and Roman citizens without taking part in those affairs of state that so occupied the freemen of antiquity. Needless to add, where men live in truly miserable conditions this passion for freedom is unknown. And if we need additional proof of the absence of such conditions in the colonies, the “lovely equality” in America where, as Jefferson put it, “the most conspicuously wretched individual” was better off than 19 out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, we need only remember that John Adams ascribed this love of freedom to “poor and rich, high and low, ignorant and learned.” It is the chief, perhaps the only reason, why the principles that inspired the men of the first revolutions were triumphantly victorious in America and failed tragically in France. Seen with American eyes, a republican government in France was “as unnatural, irrational, and impracticable as it would be over elephants, lions, tigers, panthers, wolves, and bears in the royal menagerie at Versailles” (John Adams). The reason why the attempt was made nevertheless is that those who made it, les hommes de lettres, were not much different from their American colleagues; it was only in the course of the French Revolution that they learned they were acting under radically different circumstances.

The circumstances differed in political as well as social respects. Even the rule of King and Parliament in England was “mild government” in comparison with French absolutism. Under its auspices, England developed an intricate and well-functioning regime of self-government, which needed only the explicit foundation of a republic to confirm its existence. Still, these political differences, though important enough, were negligible compared with the formidable obstacle to the constitution of freedom inherent in the social conditions of Europe. The men of the first revolutions, though they knew well enough that liberation had to precede freedom, were still unaware of the fact that such liberation means more than political liberation from absolute and despotic power; that to be free for freedom meant first of all to be free not only from fear but also from want. And the condition of desperate poverty of the masses of the people, those who for the first time burst into the open when they streamed into the streets of Paris, could not be overcome with political means; the mighty power of the constraint under which they labored did not crumble before the onslaught of the revolution as did the royal power of the king.

The American Revolution was fortunate that it did not have to face this obstacle to freedom and, in fact, owed a good measure of its success to the absence of desperate poverty among the freemen, and to the invisibility of slaves, in the colonies of the New World. To be sure, there was poverty and misery in America, which was comparable to the conditions of the European “laboring poor.” If, in William Penn’s words, “America was a good poor Man’s country” and remained the dream of a promised land for Europe’s impoverished up to the beginning of the 20th century, it is no less true that this goodness depended to a considerable degree on black misery. In the middle of the 18th century, there lived roughly 400,000 blacks along with approximately 1,850,00 whites in America, and, despite the absence of reliable statistical information, it may be doubted that at the time the percentage of complete destitution was higher in the countries of the Old World (though it would become considerably higher during the 19th century). The difference, then, was that the American Revolution—because of the institution of slavery and the belief that slaves belonged to a different “race”—overlooked the existence of the miserable, and with it the formidable task of liberating those who were not so much constrained by political oppression as the sheer necessities of life. Les malheureux, the wretched, who play such a tremendous role in the course of the French Revolution, which identified them with le peuple, either did not exist or remained in complete obscurity in America.

One of the principal consequences of the revolution in France was, for the first time in history, to bring le peuple into the streets and make them visible. When this happened it turned out that not just freedom but the freedom to be free had always been the privilege of the few. By the same token, however, the American Revolution has remained without much consequence for the historical understanding of revolutions, while the French Revolution, which ended in resounding failure, has determined and is still determining what now we call the revolutionary tradition.

What then happened in Paris in 1789? First, freedom from fear is a privilege that even the few have enjoyed in only relatively short periods of history, but freedom from want has been the great privilege that has distinguished a very small percentage of mankind throughout the centuries. What we tend to call the recorded history of mankind is, for the most part, the history of those privileged few. Only those who know freedom from want can appreciate fully the meaning of freedom from fear, and only those who are free from both want and fear are in a position to conceive a passion for public freedom, to develop within themselves that goût or taste for liberté and the peculiar taste for égalité or equality that liberté carries within it.

Speaking schematically, it may be said that each revolution goes first through the stage of liberation before it can attain to freedom, the second and decisive stage of the foundation of a new form of government and a new body politic. In the course of the American Revolution, the stage of liberation meant liberation from political restraint, from tyranny or monarchy or whatever word may have been used. The first stage was characterized by violence, but the second stage was a matter of deliberation, discussion, and persuasion, in short, of applying “political science” as the Founders understood the term.

But in France something altogether different happened. The first stage of the revolution is much better characterized by disintegration rather than by violence, and when the second stage was reached and the National Convention had declared France to be a republic, power already had shifted to the streets. The men who had gathered in Paris to represent la nation rather than le peuple, whose chief concern—whether their name was Mirabeau or Robespierre, Danton or Saint-Just—had been government, the reformation of monarchy and later the foundation of a republic, saw themselves suddenly confronted with yet another task of liberation, that is, liberating the people at large from wretchedness: to free them to be free.

This was not yet what both Marx and Tocqueville would see as the entirely new feature of the revolution of 1848, the switch from changing the form of government to the attempt to alter the order of society by means of class struggle. Only after February 1848, after “the first great battle . . . between the two classes that split society,” Marx noted that revolution now meant “the overthrow of bourgeois society, whereas before it had meant the overthrow of the form of state.” The French Revolution of 1789 was the prelude to this, and though it ended in dismal failure, it remained decisive for all later revolutions. It showed that what the new formula, namely, all men are created equal, meant in practice. And it was this equality that Robespierre had in mind when he said that revolution pits the grandeur of man against the pettiness of the great; and Hamilton as well, when he spoke of the revolution having vindicated the honor of the human race; and also Kant, taught by Rousseau and the French Revolution, when he conceived of a new dignity of man. Whatever the French Revolution did and did not achieve—and it did not achieve human equality—it liberated the poor from obscurity, from non-visibility. What has seemed irrevocable ever since is that those who were devoted to freedom could remain reconciled to a state of affairs in which freedom from want—the freedom to be free—was a privilege of the few.

Apropos of the original constellation of the revolutionaries and the masses of the poor they happened to bring into the open, let me quote Lord Acton’s interpretive description of the women’s march to Versailles, among the most prominent turning points of the French Revolution. The marchers, he said, “played the genuine part of mothers whose children were starving in squalid homes, and they thereby afforded to motives, which they neither shared nor understood [i.e., concern with government] the aid of a diamond point that nothing could withstand.” What le peuple, as the French understood it, brought to the revolution and which was altogether absent from the course of events in America, was the irresistibility of a movement that human power was no longer able to control. This elementary experience of irresistibility—as irresistible as the motions of stars—brought forth an entirely new imagery, which still today we almost automatically associate in our thoughts of revolutionary events.

When Saint-Just exclaimed, under the impact of what he saw before his eyes, “Les malheurueux sont la puissance de la terre,” he meant the great “revolutionary torrent” (Desmoulins) on whose rushing waves the actors were borne and carried away until its undertow sucked them from the surface and they perished together with their foes, the agents of counter-revolution. Or Robespierre’s tempest and mighty current, which was nourished by the crimes of tyranny on one side and by the progress of liberty on the other, constantly increased in rapidity and violence. Or what the spectators reported—a “majestic lava stream which spares nothing and which nobody can arrest,” a spectacle that had fallen under the sign of Saturn, “the revolution devouring its own children” (Vergniaud). The words I am quoting here were all spoken by men deeply involved in the French revolution and testify to things witnessed by them, that is, not to things they had done or set out to do intentionally. This is what happened, and it taught men a lesson that in neither hope nor fear has ever been forgotten. The lesson, as simple as it was new and unexpected, is, as Saint-Just put it, “If you wish to found a republic, you first must pull the people out of a condition of misery that corrupts them. There are no political virtues without pride, and no one can have pride who is wretched.”

This new notion of freedom, resting upon liberation from poverty, changed both the course and goal of revolution. Liberty now had come to mean first of all “dress and food and the reproduction of the species,” as the sans-culottes consciously distinguished their own rights from the lofty and, to them, meaningless language of the proclamation of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Compared to the urgency of their demands, all deliberations about the best form of government suddenly appeared irrelevant and futile. “La République? La Monarchie? Je ne connais que la question sociale,” said Robespierre. And Saint-Just, who had started out with the greatest possible enthusiasm for “republican institutions,” would add, “The freedom of the people is in its private life. Let government be only the force to protect this state of simplicity against force itself.” He might not have known it, but that was precisely the credo of enlightened despots which held, with Charles I of England in his speech from the scaffold, that the people’s “liberty and freedom consists in having the government of those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own; ’tis not for having share in Government, that is nothing pertaining to them.” If it were true, as all participants moved by the misery of the people suddenly agreed, that the goal of revolutions was the happiness of the people—le but de la Révolution est le bonheur du people—then it indeed could be provided by a sufficiently enlightened despotic government rather than a republic.

The French Revolution ended in disaster and became a turning point in world history; the American Revolution was a triumphant success and remained a local affair, partly of course because social conditions in the world at large were far more similar to those in France, and partly because the much praised Anglo-Saxon pragmatic tradition prevented subsequent generations of Americans from thinking about their revolution and adequately conceptualizing its experience. It is therefore not surprising that the despotism, or actually the return to the age of enlightened absolutism, which announced itself clearly in the course of the French Revolution, became the rule for almost all subsequent revolutions, or at least those that did not end in restoration of the status quo ante, and even became dominant in revolutionary theory.

I don’t need to follow this development in detail; it is sufficiently well known, especially from the history of the Bolshevik party and the Russian Revolution. Moreover, it was predictable: in the late summer of 1918—after the promulgation of the Soviet Constitution but prior to the first wave of terror prompted by the attempted assassination of Lenin—Rosa Luxemburg, in a private, later published, and now famous letter, wrote as follows: “With the repression of political life in the land as a whole . . . life dies out in every public institution, becoming a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep. The few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them only a dozen outstanding heads do the ruling, and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where its members are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously. . . A dictatorship, to be sure; not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but of a handful of politicians. . .” Well, that this is how it turned out—except for Stalin’s totalitarian rule, for which it would be difficult to hold either Lenin or the revolutionary tradition responsible—no one is likely to deny. But what is perhaps less obvious is that one would have to change only a few words to obtain a perfect description of the ills of absolutism prior to the revolutions.

A comparison of the two first revolutions, whose beginnings were so similar and whose ends so tremendously different, demonstrates clearly, I think, not only that the conquest of poverty is a prerequisite for the foundation of freedom, but also that liberation from poverty cannot be dealt with in the same way as liberation from political oppression. For if violence pitted against violence leads to war, foreign or civil, violence pitted against social conditions has always led to terror. Terror rather than mere violence, terror let loose after the old regime has been dissolved and the new regime installed, is what either sends revolutions to their doom, or deforms them so decisively that they lapse into tyranny and despotism.

I said before that the revolution’s original goal was freedom in the sense of the abolition of personal rule and of the admission of all to the public realm and participation in the administration of affairs common to all. Rulership itself had its most legitimate source not in a drive to power but in the human wish to emancipate mankind from the necessities of life, the achievement of which required violence, the means of forcing the many to bear the burdens of the few so that at least some could be free. This, and not the accumulation of wealth, was the core of slavery, at least in antiquity, and it is due only to the rise of modern technology, rather than the rise of any modern political notions, including revolutionary ideas, which has changed this human condition at least in some parts of the world.

What America achieved by great good luck, today many other states, though probably not all, may acquire by virtue of calculated effort and organized development. This fact is the measure of our hope. It permits us to take the lessons of the deformed revolutions into account and still hold fast not only to their undeniable grandeur but also to their inherent promise.

Let me, by way of concluding, just indicate one more aspect of freedom which came to the fore during the revolutions, and for which the revolutionaries themselves were least prepared. It is that the idea of freedom and the actual experience of making a new beginning in the historical continuum should coincide. Let me remind you once more of the Novus Ordo Saeclorum. The surprising phrase is taken from Virgil who, in his Fourth Eclogue, speaks of “the great cycle of periods [that] is born anew” in the reign of Augustus: Magnus ab integro seclorum nascitur ordo. Virgil speaks here of a great (magnus) but not a new (novus) order, and it is this change in a line much quoted throughout the centuries that is characteristic of the experiences of the modern age. For Virgil—now in the language of the 17th century—it was a question of founding Rome “anew,” but not of founding a “new Rome.” This way he escaped, in typically Roman fashion, the fearful risks of violence inherent in breaking the tradition of Rome, i.e., the handed down (traditio) story of the founding of the eternal city by suggesting a new beginning.

Now, of course we could argue that the new beginning, which the spectators of the first revolutions thought they were watching, was only the rebirth of something quite old: the renascence of a secular political realm finally arising from Christianity, feudalism, and absolutism. But no matter whether it is a question of birth or rebirth, what is decisive in Virgil’s line is that it is taken from a nativity hymn, not prophesying the birth of a divine child, but in praise of birth as such, the arrival of a new generation, the great saving event or “miracle” which will redeem mankind time and again. In other words, it is the affirmation of the divinity of birth, and the belief that the world’s potential salvation lies in the very fact that the human species regenerates itself constantly and forever.

What made the men of the revolution go back to this particular poem of antiquity, quite apart from their erudition, I would suggest, was that not only the pre-revolutionary idea of freedom but also the experience of being free coincided, or rather was intimately interwoven, with beginning something new, with, metaphorically speaking, the birth of a new era. To be free and to start something new were felt to be the same. And obviously, this mysterious human gift, the ability to start something new, has something to do with the fact that every one of us came into the world as a newcomer through birth. In other words, we can begin something because we are beginnings and hence beginners.

Insofar as the capacity for acting and speaking—and speaking is but another mode of acting—makes us political beings, and since acting always has meant to set something in motion that was not there before, birth, human natality, which corresponds to human mortality, is the ontological condition sine qua non of all politics. This was known in both Greek and Roman antiquity, albeit in an inexplicit manner. It came to the fore in the experiences of revolution, and it has influenced, though again rather inexplicitly, what one may call the revolutionary spirit. At any rate, the chain of revolutions, which for better and worse has become the hallmark of the world we live in, time after time discloses to us the eruption of new beginnings within the temporal and historical continuum.

For us, who owe it to a revolution and the resulting foundation of an entirely new body politic that we can walk in dignity and act in freedom, it would be wise to remember what a revolution means in the life of nations. Whether it ends in success, with the constitution of a public space for freedom, or in disaster, for those who have risked it or participated in it against their inclination and expectation, the meaning of revolution is the actualization of one of the greatest and most elementary human potentialities, the unequaled experience of being free to make a new beginning, from which comes the pride of having opened the world to a Novus Ordo Saeclorum.

To sum up: Niccolò Machiavelli, whom one may well call the “father of revolutions,” most passionately desired a new order of things for Italy, yet could hardly yet speak with any great amount of experience of these matters. Thus he still believed that the “innovators,” i.e., the revolutionists, would encounter their greatest difficulty in the beginning when taking power, and find retaining it far easier. We know from practically all revolutions that the opposite is the case—that it is relatively easy to seize power but infinitely more difficult to keep it—as Lenin, no bad witness in such matters, once remarked. Still, Machiavelli knew enough to say the following: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” With this sentence, I suppose, no one who understands anything at all of the story of the 20th century will quarrel. Moreover, the dangers Machiavelli expected to arise have proved to be quite real up to our own day, despite the fact that he was not yet aware of the greatest danger in modern revolutions—the danger that rises from poverty. He mentions what since the French Revolution has been called counter-revolutionary forces, represented by those “who profit from the old order,” and the “lukewarmness” of those who might profit from the new order because of “the incredulity of mankind, of those who do not truly believe in any new thing until they have experienced it.” However, the point of the matter is that Machiavelli saw the danger only in defeat of the attempt to found a new order of things, that is, in the sheer weakening of the country in which the attempt is made. This too has proved to be the case, for such weakness, i.e., the power vacuum of which I spoke before, may well attract conquerors. Not that this power vacuum did not previously exist, but it can remain hidden for years until some decisive event happens, when the collapse of authority and a revolution make it manifest in dramatic calls into the open where it can be seen and known by all. In addition to all this, we have witnessed the supreme danger that out of the abortive attempt to found the institutions of freedom may grow the most thoroughgoing abolition of freedom and of all liberties.

Precisely because revolutions put the question of political freedom in its truest and most radical form—freedom to participate in public affairs, freedom of action—all other freedoms, political as well as civil liberties, are in jeopardy when revolutions fail. Deformed revolutions, such as the October Revolution in Russia under Lenin, or abortive revolutions, such as the various upheavals among the European central powers after World War I, may have, as we now know, consequences which in sheer horror are well-nigh unprecedented. The point of the matter is that revolutions rarely are reversible, that once they have happened they are not forgettable—as Kant remarked about the French Revolution at a time when terror ruled in France. This cannot possibly mean that therefore the best is to prevent revolutions, for if revolutions are the consequences of regimes in full disintegration, and not the “product” of revolutionaries—be they organized in conspiratorial sects or in parties—then to prevent a revolution means to change the form of government, which itself means to effect a revolution with all the dangers and hazards that entails.

The collapse of authority and power, which as a rule comes with surprising suddenness not only to the readers of newspapers but also to all secret services and their experts who watch such things, becomes a revolution in the full sense of the word only when there are people willing and capable of picking up the power, of moving into and penetrating, so to speak, the power vacuum. What then happens depends upon many circumstances, not least upon the degree of insight of foreign powers into the irreversibility of revolutionary practices. But it depends most of all upon subjective qualities and the moral-political success or failure of those who are willing to assume responsibility. We have little reason to hope that at some time in the not too distant future such men will match in practical and theoretical wisdom the men of the American Revolution, who became the Founders of this country. But that little hope, I fear, is the only one we have that freedom in a political sense will not vanish again from the earth for God knows how many centuries.