Friday, September 28, 2018

The Superlative Horse

'The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on this earth.'  
- I've prepared three question for you. Ready?
- Ready.
- Is it true that once the world is defined it becomes a danger? Is there a way of living in an undefined, or at least differently defined world? Is there a connection between the Buddhist's calling the world an illusion, and the risk that whenever you picture a utopia, the perfect state, you'll treat people as means to the end of achieving that state, up to and including murder, even mass murder. Can you answer these questions?
- Do you really need me to? Isn't the answer all around us?
- You mean because I'm asking questions of the world, the whole world answers?
- Because there's something fundamental here. Why else would I always be encountering one form of answer or another? From movie watching today: So you'd make the world a utopia? Then 'get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not.'* In fact, it would make it easier to answer your questions if you'd allow me the help of a series of quotes. Alright?
- Fine.
- If you see the world as fixed, describable, defined, you'll tend to either run away from it or want to keep it that way. And if you want to keep it that way, you'll tend to treat people as means to the that end, up to and including murder, even mass murder. In politics we see on a larger scale the danger of living in a described world. Think about how the world looks when you take a walk. The changing sight is directly related to your continuous movement. You share responsibility for how the world is presented to you. There is nothing there of a fixed nature to establish a power relation to, wanting to keep it or be rid of it. But stop and continue to look, the world becomes legible, its form clearly defined. From last week's reading, the anthropologist Scott:
Compared to Haussmann’s retrofitting of the physical geography of Paris to make it legible and to facilitate state domination, the Bolsheviks’ retrofitting of rural Russia was far more thoroughgoing. In place of an opaque and often obstinate mir [world], it had fashioned a legible kolkhoz [collective farm]. In place of myriad small farms, it had created a single, local economic unit. With the establishment of hierarchical state farms, a quasi-autonomous petite bourgeoisie was replaced with dependent employees. In place, therefore, of an agriculture in which planting, harvesting, and marketing decisions were in the hands of individual households, the party-state had built a rural economy where all these decisions would be made centrally. In place of a peasantry that was technically independent, it had created a peasantry that was directly dependent on the state for combines and tractors, fertilizer, and seeds. In place of a peasant economy whose harvests, income, and profits were well-nigh indecipherable, it had created units that were ideal for simple and direct appropriation. In place of a variety of social units with their own unique histories and practises, it had created homologous units of accounting that could all be fitted into a national administrative grid. The logic was not unlike the management scheme at McDonald’s: modular, similarly designed units producing similar products, according to a common formula and work routine. Units can easily be duplicated across the landscape, and the inspectors coming to assess their operations enter legible domains which they can evaluate with a single checklist.
In yesterday's reading, the zen tale included by J.D. Salinger in his story Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters tells of not paying attention to the legible world:
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: "You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?" Po Lo replied: "A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him." Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. "It is now in Shach'iu" he added. "What kind of a horse is it?" asked the Duke. "Oh, it is a dun-colored mare," was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. "That friend of yours," he said, "whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast's color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?" Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. "Has he really got as far as that?" he cried. "Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses." When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.
And from listening a few minutes ago to Bob Dylan:
There's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all.
We want protection from seeing a legible world. We also want to find the superlative horse. How do we do it? We want to improve our lives.
- Well, how?
- Two ways: when we're at rest, when we're in motion. At rest: when we see something as beautiful we see it immersed in the world as a whole and no longer legible to power relations. And in motion, when, for example, in our walks, we keep a sense of unreality, impermanence of what we see that is reaffirmed continually by our awareness of our own movement's participation in what we see. Follow?
- No. I don't follow.
- Let's take a step back. Each sight of the world is a kind of knowledge of the world. Agreed?
- Agreed.
- I'm taking a walk and as it were I say to myself, that is a tree.
- The sight you see you've put into the category of tree.
- Yes.
- You know it is a tree.
- Yes. Now we have two basic ways of knowing the world: with probability, and with laws. Social roles are probabilities: what we can expect from persons of our type. But we can also know what we see by understanding its laws: how a tree branches out from the seed, and the different organs of leaf, fruit, flower.
- There's a regularity of form to what we see.
- That we've learned to see as it were by our walking our eyes over objects of this kind repeatedly. According to the linguist Noam Chomsky (recently checked in with) lawful knowledge is achieved in practice like this: when you’re studying vision you first ask what kind of computational task - what input, what output - is the visual system carrying out? And then you look for an algorithm that might carry out that task. And finally you search for mechanisms of the kind that would make the algorithm work. He sees three levels to our understanding of the world: computational task, algorithm to perform the task, and an organic, instinctual process or mechanical relation to the world: how the child knows to pick out the sounds that are language from those that are not, how in physics some molecules take on a spherical shape rather than cubic.
- How our eyes are made disposes to what in the world they can see.
- Yes. Obvious, when you think about it. There's the task of seeing a tree, how our eyes do it (identify the laws of what makes a tree a tree) and the physical mechanism - cells of nerves, eyes, brain - that we do the seeing with. How does identifying these computational operations help us avoid seeing the world as fixed, legible and then using people as means to achieving a preferable fixed state? If we know people statistically, how someone their age, sex, income, appearance, health is likely to act in these particular circumstances, the types of person state action is to be taken on is soon determined. In Chairman Mao's Cultural revolution, intellectuals were probable counter-revolutionaries, and were accordingly exiled into peasant life in the countryside. But let's say for our political rules we look at not probabilities but knowledge based on laws. At the bottom, foundational level, it may be for example that the part time slavery of employment by another and hoarding interfere with the natural social functioning; if we make a veto of them foundational to our social choices, we don't have to worry that a leader will identify us a potential hoarder or employer and exile us accordingly. Like a foundational theory in the natural sciences, such a politics could be said to underlie, but cannot be made a variable, an element of calculation of political action: the physical relation of our eyes to the world exists on a level not accessible to the ways of moving our eyes we learn in our coming to see the world.**
- With the difference that we can update our political foundation if we come up with a better foundation.
- Yes. At the foundational level the mechanism of our relation to the world is always engaged, we are always walking, consequently always protected from utopias and passions.

Further Reading:
Sick Of Art
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things
*King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6
** 'In theory, though we don’t know how, you can talk about the neurophysiological level, nobody knows how, but there’s no real algorithmic level. Because there’s no calculation of knowledge, it’s just a system of knowledge. To find out the nature of the system of knowledge, there is no algorithm, because there is no process. Using the system of knowledge, that’ll have a process, but that’s something different.' -  Noam Chomsky, interview in The Atlantic Magazine, 2012.