Accelerationism

16 June 2017

Friday


Salvador Dali, ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’

In the Salvador Dali painting “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” (1943) we see a prophetic figure (sometimes identified as the old world) indicating to the Geopoliticus Child the emergence of a new order, represented by the New Man. Here the Earth is an egg, from which new life emerges, and the Geopoliticus Child, already itself new life, watches from safety the struggle of the New Man to be born. If one could place oneself in this archetypal context (perhaps, as a thought experiment, inhabiting the person of the Geopoliticus Child), there are at least three possibilities as to how one might respond:

one might passively observe the birth of a New Man while taking no action
one might actively seek to facilitate the birth of the New Man
one might actively seek to prevent the New Man from being born

The second of these possibilities represents what I will here term “accelerationism,” which is the conscious and purposeful effort to expedite an historical process so that the process in question will be more rapidly brought to its end or fulfillment.

The terms “accelerationism” and “accelerationist” are sometimes employed to discuss accelerating technological change, especially exponentially accelerating technological change (which is sometimes called “exponentialism”). That is not how I will use the term in this context. In the present discussion, I will use “accelerationism” to refer to the view that certain events or processes could or should “speed up” the collapse of existing political institutions, which can be understood as a good thing if one believes that the ground must be cleared in order to frame new institutions de novo.

Accelerationism in the sense of accelerating the collapse of a decaying and doomed social order is a species of contemporary apocalypticism. I have touched on apocalypticism in several posts, most recently in Vernacular Declensionism focusing on contemporary “preppers” (who were formerly called “survivalists”). There is both a vernacular apocalypticism (such as I wrote about in my “vernacular declensionism” post), which appears to be independent of political orientation, and a high-culture apocalypticism expressed in academic and scholarly terms. It has been my intention for some years to write more generally about apocalypticism, since it has become so widespread, and is rarely challenged on principle. This is a project that still remains in the offing.

It is of some interest to me that contemporary apocalypticism has become prevalent on both the left and the right, including being prevalent among the emerging political permutations that go beyond traditional left and right, and these are the social justice ideologues as the transfiguration of the left, and the alt-right and neo-reaction as the transfiguration of the right. (The most famous neoreactionary is Curtis Yarvin, blogging as Mencius Moldbug; the neoreactionary whose work I follow is Youtube vlogger Reactionary Expat, who has touched on accelerationism in some of his posts.) As I noted in my post on Vernacular Declensionism, this form of apocalypticism has mostly represented the political right, and the idea of the collapse of modern civilization easily plays into the narrative of a return to traditional forms of society. Obviously, a traditionalism predicated upon the destruction of existing social institutions is a radical form of traditionalism, but if the intention is to restore traditionalism by eliminating modernity, sooner rather than later (in virtue of accelerationism), then I guess this still counts as some form of traditionalism.

In recent years, the left has joined in vernacular apocalypticism with gusto, especially with scenarios of environmental apocalypse, to which a growing literature of popular fiction is devoted. However, there is little sign of accelerationism on the left; the hints I have glimpsed of accelerationism have been almost exclusively concerned with hastening the demise of corrupt modern society. There is, however, an important exception: anarchism. This will be discussed below. But, more importantly, accelerationism is apocalypticism with a purpose, and not apocalypticism for its own sake.

Accelerationism is not apocalypticism simpliciter, but rather it is a tactical apocalypticism, i.e., an apocalypticism only for the sake of that which will follow after the apocalypse; in other words, the means of social denudation will be justified by the end of the social order that replaces the existing social order of the present. What social order will replace the existing social order that is to be accelerated in its trajectory of self-destruction? Here there is a clear bifurcation of the visions of the future held by left and right.

It is possible that the surviving vestiges of the past will hamper the emergence of a truly new order to supplant the old order, and this could be an argument for a complete and total extirpation of the old order so that a new order can arise in its place. I am not advocating this argument, but I can see how the argument could be made. Many twentieth century communist regimes attempted to follow this line of reasoning, attempting to utterly obliterate traces of the pre-communist past (the entire Cultural Revolution in China could be framed in these terms). These efforts could be understood as an example of leftist accelerationism, attempting to more rapidly bring into being the communist utopia of a classless society.

Anarchic utopians have long held that the realization of a better social order is just around the corner if only we will take the radically appropriate action of extirpating traditional institutions that have held us back from realizing our human potential. This is an idea that goes back at least to Rousseau (for purposes of Enlightenment thought), and probably is much older. I will not, at present, attempt to elucidate a more thorough history of this idea. While utopians who project a peaceful anarchic society in the near future tend to identify with the political left, we cannot fully assimilate them to the traditional left, in the same way that we cannot fully assimilate social justice ideologues to the traditional left. I cannot, however, think of any anarchists on the right, as the right tends to believe in human fallibility (original sin), and so are distrustful of human nature released into the wild, as it were. The Rousseauvian dream is, for the right, a Hobbesian nightmare. And so we usually find the radical right looking not to anarchy, but to a reaffirmation of order, and of the symbols of order. The apocalypticism of the right thus plays into accelerationism; the two go together as tactic and strategy.

Implicit in the accelerationist view is that there are historical changes occurring anyway, albeit gradual and incremental change, and while this change must be accepted, it is nevertheless amenable to being managed. The accelerationist, then, understands that history transcends itself when an old order is replaced by a new order, so that the accelerationist may be characterized as facilitating historical transcendence, and that, moreover, the historical process must be brought to its fulfillment. In true Hegelian form, we cannot skip a step in the historical process, but not skipping a step in historical evolution does not preclude the possibility of accelerating a step so as to reduce the amount of time spent in a suboptimal form of civilization and therefore to maximize the amount of time spent in a preferred mode of civilization.

Accelerationism on the right, which I believe to be the more common form of accelerationism, understands the preferred mode of civilization to be a society dominated by traditional institutions. How are traditional institutions to be brought into being in the wake of accelerated apocalypticism? This, I think, is the nub of the problem, as the traditionalist favoring accelerationism as a means to realizing a traditional society must either hope for new traditionalist institutions to emerge, or for the reconstitution of defunct institutions. Both of these horns of the dilemma are a problem.

Part of Burke’s criticism of the French revolution was the folly of attempting to craft de novo institutions on the basis of abstract and theoretical propositions about human beings and human society, especially in the light of existing institutions that apparently are adequate to their institutional role, and which are, in some sense, the preserved wisdom of our ancestors. (The attempt to frame new institutions de novo was the source of Goya’s famous etching, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” which was a symbolic response to the terror that followed the superficial rationalism of the French revolution; more simply, we can call this an instance of the law of unintended consequences.) Burke wrote before an evolutionary understanding of human beings and human society had been formulated, but in the light of evolutionary psychology and the slow evolution of human society we could easily reframe Burke’s critique so that any nebulous invocation of the wisdom of ancestors can be replaced by traditional institutions being the cumulative result of natural selection. This is far more satisfying from a scientific point of view.

The argument can be made that if an episode of social denudation stripped away existing social institutions, surviving human societies would revert to a model of social organization that is naturally emergent from the kind of beings that we are, that is to say, a social order predicated upon our particular cognitive endowments and cognitive biases (as well as that which I have called less than cognitive biases, which might be called “breaking human”). The traditionalist assumes, or would assume, that these naturally emergent institutions would be traditionalist institutions. In this view there is a hint of a venerable pre-modern idea, that truth lies at the source of things, so that if only we can return to the source of being, the source of our being, we will find the authentic truth that has been hidden from us by the overgrowth of thousands of years of extraneous developments that have led us far from our origins. This view stands in stark contrast to the idea that truth is a distant goal to which we aspire, and which we always approximate more closely, but which we never fully possess.

If, instead of seeking to frame traditionalist institutions de novo (which may be a contradictory idea anyway), the accelerationist seeks the reconstitution of defunct traditional institutions, I am skeptical that this effort would fare any better. There have been many times when regimes have attempted to turn back the clock on developments that did not seem to favor their vision of how things ought to be, but I cannot think of any of these attempts that were successful. Old or traditional institutions transplanted into new circumstances will neither function as these traditional institutions functioned, nor will they remain true to the tradition from which they are drawn. The same logic is to be found in arguments over the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in music: can we ever truly make our instruments and performances sound like those of the past, or must our contemporaneous recreations always be performed with modern instruments in a modern setting? This is an interesting debate, and many books of musicology have been devoted to the HIP controversy. Perhaps the discussion of the accelerationist reconstitution of defunct traditionalist institutions could learn something from this discussion.

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Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

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Tuesday


digital-man

Prior to the advent of civilization, the human condition was defined by nature. Evolutionary biologist call this initial human condition the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA). The biosphere of the Earth, with all its diverse flora and fauna, was the predominant fact of human experience. Very little that human beings did could have an effect on the human condition beyond the most immediate effects an individual might cause in the environment, such as gathering or hunting for food. Nothing was changed by the passage of human beings through an environment that was, for them, their home. Human beings had to conform themselves to this world or die.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

Since the advent of civilization, it has been civilization and not nature that determines the human condition. As one civilization has succeeded another, and, more importantly, as one kind of civilization has succeeded another kind of civilization — which latter happens far less frequently, since like kinds of civilization tend to succeed each other except when this process of civilizational succession is preempted by the emergence of an historical anomaly on the order of the initial emergence of civilization itself — the overwhelming fact of human experience has been shaped by civilization and the products of civilization, rather than by nature. This transformation from being shaped by nature to being shaped by civilization is what makes the passage from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agrarian civilization such a radical discontinuity in human experience.

This transformation has been gradual. In the earliest period of human civilizations, an entire civilization might grow up from nothing, spread regionally, assimilating local peoples not previously included in the project of civilization, and then die out, all without coming into contact with another civilization. The growth of human civilization has meant a gradual and steady increase in the density of human populations. It has already been thousands of years since a civilization could flourish and fail without encountering another civilization. It has been, moreover, hundreds of years since all human communities were bound together through networks of trade and communication.

Civilization is now continuous across the surface of the planet. The world-city — Doxiadis’ Ecumenopolis, which I discussed in Civilization and the Technium — is already an accomplished fact (though it is called by another name, or no name at all). We retain our green spaces and our nature reserves, but all human communities ultimately are contiguous with each other, and there is no direction that you can go on the surface of the Earth without encountering another human community.

The civilization of the present, which I call industrial-technological civilization, is as distinct from the agricultural civilization (which I call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) that preceded it as agricultural civilization was distinct from the nomadic hunter-gatherer paradigm that preceded it in turn. In other words, the emergence of industrialization interpolated a discontinuity in the human condition on the order of the emergence of civilization itself. One of the aspects of industrial-technological civilization that distinguishes it from earlier agricultural civilization is the effective regimentation and indeed rigorization of the human condition.

The emergence of organized human activity, which corresponds to the emergence of the species itself, and which is therefore to be found in hunter-gatherer nomadism as much as in agrarian or industrial civilization, meant the emergence of institutions. At first, these institutions were as unsystematic and implicit as everything else in human experience. When civilizations began to abut each other in the agrarian era, it became necessary to make these institutions explicit and to formulate them in codes of law and regulation. At first, this codification itself was unsystematic. It was the emergence of industrialization that forced human civilizations to make its institutions not only explicit, but also systematic.

This process of systematization and rigorization is most clearly seen in the most abstract realms of thought. In the nineteenth century, when industrialization was beginning to transform the world, we see at the same time a revolution in mathematics that went beyond all the earlier history of mathematics. While Euclid famously systematized geometry in classical antiquity, it was not until the nineteenth century that mathematical thought grew to a point of sophistication that outstripped and exceeded Euclid.

From classical antiquity up to industrialization, it was frequently thought, and frequently asserted, that Euclid was the perfection of human reason in mathematics and that Aristotle was the perfection of human reason in logic, and there was simply nothing more to be done in the these fields beyond learning to repeat the lessons of the masters of antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during the period of rapid industrialization, people began to think about mathematics and logic in a way that was more sophisticated and subtle than even the great achievements of Euclid and Aristotle. Separately, yet almost simultaneously, three different mathematicians (Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann) formulated systems of non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly revolutionary work transformed logic from its Aristotelian syllogistic origins into what is now called mathematical logic, the result of the work of George Boole, Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, and many others.

At the same time that geometry and logic were being transformed, the rest of mathematics was also being profoundly transformed. Many of these transformational forces have roots that go back hundreds of years in history. This is also true of the industrial revolution itself. The growth of European society as a result of state competition within the European peninsula, the explicit formulation of legal codes and the gradual departure from a strictly peasant subsistence economy, the similarly gradual yet steady spread of technology in the form of windmills and watermills, ready to be powered by steam when the steam engine was invented, are all developments that anticipate and point to the industrial revolution. But the point here is that the anticipations did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century.

And so with mathematics. Newton and Leibniz independently invented the calculus, but it was left on unsure foundations for centuries, and Descartes had made the calculus possible by the earlier innovation of analytical geometry. These developments anticipated and pointed to the rigorization of mathematics, but the development did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century. The fruition is sometimes called the arithmetization of analysis, and involved the substitution of the limit method for fluxions in Newton and infinitesimals in Leibniz. This rigorous formulation of the calculus made possible engineering in its contemporary form, and rigorous engineering made it possible to bring the most advanced science of the day to the practical problems of industry. Intrinsically arithmetical realities could now be given a rigorous mathematical exposition.

Historians of mathematics and industrialization would probably cringe at my potted sketch of history, but here it is in sententious outline:

● Rigorization of mathematics also called the arithmetization of analysis

● Mathematization of science

● Scientific systematization of technology

● Technological rationalization of industry

I have discussed part of this cycle in my writings on industrial-technological civilization and the disruption of the industrial-technological cycle. The origins of this cycle involve the additional steps that made the cycle possible, and much of the additional steps are those that made logic, mathematics, and science rigorous in the nineteenth century.

The reader should also keep in mind the parallel rigorization of social institutions that occurred, including the transformation of the social sciences after the model of the hard sciences. Economics, which is particularly central to the considerations of industrial-technological civilization, has been completely transformed into a technical, mathematicized science.

With the rigorization of social institutions, and especially the economic institutions that shape human life from cradle to grave, it has been inevitable that the human condition itself should be made rigorous. Foucault was instrumental in pointing out salient aspects of this, which he called biopower, and which, I suggest, will eventually issues in technopower.

I am not suggesting this this has been a desirable, pleasant, or welcome development. On the contrary, industrial-technological civilization is beset in its most advanced quarters by a persistent apocalypticism and declensionism as industrialized populations fantasize about the end of the social regime that has come to control almost every aspect of life.

I wrote about the social dissatisfaction that issues in apocalypticism in Fear of the Future. I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and I hope to return to this theme when I can formulate my thoughts with the appropriate degree of rigor. I am seeking a definitive formulation of apocalypticism and how it is related to industrialization.

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Thursday


Edmund Husserl saw the imperative of humanity taking responsibility for itself.

I take the title for today’s post from Appendix X to Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which appendix was an attempt by Eugen Fink to provide an outline for the completion of Husserl’s last book. The last line of this proposed plan reads simply: “The indispensable task of philosophy: humanity’s responsibility for itself.” Fink showed his outline to Husserl in 1936, and although no systematic effort was made to expand Fink’s outline into a complete text, I think that Fink did capture Husserl’s outlook and intention. Given a thorough knowledge of Husserl, the text writes itself.

We cannot yet say that humanity has taken responsibility for itself, for its fate, for its continued existence in the world, but we can come to an understanding of how this might be possible. This is a visionary exercise, however, and there is more than one vision for a future of humanity in which mankind has taken responsibility for himself. I have written elsewhere on several occasions that there are many ways to divide up history, and that the work of historical periodization is never finished (e.g., in The Space Age). So too for the future: there are many ways to envision the future, and the work of such envisioning is never finished.

While there are many potential futures for our species, and even many distinct futures in which humanity takes responsibility for itself, one thing we can say about any and all of these scenarios is that, if we do attain to true self-responsibility as a species, this will merit a major turning point in human history, a point of transition equal to being counted as a shift in integral history.

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization's level of technological advancement... first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev... a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy. (from Wikipedia)

On at least one occasion I have mentioned the Kardashev scale (in
A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology), which would measure human civilizations by the energy of which they are capable of harnessing. This is a very practical way, and an industrial-technological way, of measuring and classifying civilizations. According to the Kardashev scale, we have not yet achieved the status of being a Type I on the Kardashev scale, and I think that we can safely say that if and when we do pass that technological mark, it would constitute a shift in integral history and the advent of a new historical period. We should keep this kind of easily quantified periodization in mind when we consider more subtle and less easily quantified bases for historical periodizations. (Note added 06 December 2014: I no longer agree with some of the ideas expressed in this paragraph; I have written more in depth about Kardashev in What Kardeshev Really Said.)

Historians and anthropologists sometimes speak of a “Neolithic Moral Revolution” to indicate the emergence of social hierarchy and stratification, which emerges more or less coincident with settled civilization and urbanization. Settled societies that grow beyond the size of a hunter-gatherer band based on the extended family come to require socio-political organization, and this in turn begets social hierarchy. This is a shift in integral history of a very different kind than that which would be recorded by the Kardashev scale.

If and when it comes to pass that we do take responsibility for ourselves, this too would mark a shift in integral history like that of the emergence of culture and social structures in the Neolithic. We cannot pin down such a transition with the kind of precision that can be brought to the quantification of technology and energy use, but we can still recognize the significance of a periodization based on such a division.

In a couple of recent posts — Three Conceptions of History and Revolution and Human Agency — I outlined a conception of history that I called the cataclysmic, such that we understand “the cataclysmic conception of history to be predicated upon a presumption of the lack of human agency in the world (i.e., human non-agency).” I primarily developed this idea in relation to revolutions understood as dramatic changes in socio-political structures: we can understand our role in such events as being active agents in the accomplishment of a goal, or as passive sufferers to whom such events happen.

It has since occurred to me to think about the Industrial Revolution in this context, and I also thought in this connection about some posts I have written about the attempts by contemporary society to come to some kind of social consensus for living in an industrialized society. In Fear of the Future I wrote that, “Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization.” I also wrote that, “Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life.”

Societies can supply the materials, and individuals can invent things like the steam engine, but as of yet no one can control the consequences of their inventions.

Without realizing it at the time, I had formulated a cataclysmic conception of the Industrial Revolution as something that happens to us but which we do not control, except for some details. In hindsight, I see that I still agree with this conception, now explicitly understood as a cataclysmic conception. While the individual actions of human beings brought the Industrial Revolution to fruition (Watt’s invention of the steam engine would be an example of this), once begun the Industrial Revolution has wrought changes to society that neither individual nor society has the power to stop or to change.

There being entire societies around the world at the mercy of a transformation as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution has had profound consequences for individuals and societies alike. Both experience something like dissociation from extreme exposure to their own lack of control and helplessness. This has in turn led to the desire for the recovery of self-efficacy, which is sometimes imagined in surprising ways. Our film industry has created countless explicitly depicted apocalyptic scenarios, which in Fear of the Future I recognized thus: “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided,” and that, “While such images are threatening, they are also liberating.” (I have also discussed apocalyptic scenarios in Imaging a Worse World and Expanding on a Comment)

Thus an attitude of nihilism directed at industrialized civilization becomes both a form of protest and a gesture toward an ideal in which individual and social self-efficacy is restored through the elimination of a social force that has transformed our lives in a way that lies beyond our control. In the midst of our comfortable lives in industrialized civilization we forget the degree to which our ancestors were at the even greater cataclysmic mercy of the weather; one storm could mean starvation in the following season. But I think that these scenarios of self-efficacy through the extirpation of civilization appeal to something even deeper, perhaps to a Rousseau-like imagination of the noble savage. Indeed, it is the noble savage seen through the prism of democracy and Enlightenment universalism: every man a noble savage. It is bizarre, I admit, but that’s not my fault.

Charlton Heston as The Omega Man: Everyman a noble savage in the urban jungles of our post-apocalyptic future.

The very fact that we can recognize ourselves as being at the mercy of the forces of the Industrial Revolution and powerless to change what happens on a large scale points to a conception of social efficacy beyond any that has been instantiated in history to date. In some early posts to this forum I wrote about the possibility of intelligent institutions (in It Takes All Kinds to Make a World and Intelligent and Insightful Institutions, inter alia). There I made a rough distinction between unintelligent institutions that cannot cope with change, intelligent institutions can that can cope with external change, acute institutions that can cope with internal change, and ultimately insightful institutions that can proactively anticipate changes not in order to prevent them but in order to adapt all the more successfully to them.

Once seen in this perspective, we can imagine a world in which human self-efficacy has reached the point at which massive historical events like the Industrial Revolution could be managed intelligently, putting us in control of events rather than leaving us at their mercy. This conception allows us to define the kind of moral revolution mentioned above that would mark a shift in integral history:

Human beings and human civilization will have achieved maturity when they can take control of historical events that they themselves have set in motion.

The very idea of human beings taking control of their own destiny has been the basis of a great deal of apocalyptic and dystopian literature and film, as well as being the idea behind such movements as “transhumanism,” which probably has far more critics than advocates. Thus I expect the advent of human self-responsibility, thus also human maturity, not only to be difficult to bring about for the obvious reasons of human finitude and moral failings, but I expect that such developments that aim at ultimate human self-responsibility will be actively if not bitterly opposed, and that they will indeed be opposed on moral grounds.

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Caspar David Friedrich 'Sunrise Over the Sea': the dawning of human self-responsibility is as bright as a sunrise.

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Cooley aphorism

Both in Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and in Fear of the Future I addressed the dread of automatonism manifested in contemporary culture, especially in science fiction films and television. In the latter I suggested that the prevalence of apocalyptic themes suggests the overthrow of the socio-economic order that threatens the uniqueness of the individual through the pervasive regimentation of life.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II, Chap. XVIII, The Romantic Movement: "If anything in the country was admired by Rousseau's predecessors, it was a scene of fertility, with rich pastures and lowing kine."

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II, Chap. XVIII, The Romantic Movement: "If anything in the country was admired by Rousseau's predecessors, it was a scene of fertility, with rich pastures and lowing kine."

I think that many people today, without explicitly thinking about it (or thinking deeply about it), tend to self-identify with their inner emotional lives. Part of this may be an historical hangover from the romantic era of the nineteenth century, which in some ways is still very much with us. Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy cites as an example the interest in dramatic scenery such as mountains or storms at sea. Prior to the romantic era, he claimed, scenic interest (say, during the Enlightenment) was primarily a picturesque concern with landscape and its quaintness or its rural economic character. And indeed we find that in the eighteenth century there is a great interest in the aesthetic of the picturesque. Several aesthetic treatises of the time were devoted to the picturesque.

Title page of the first edition of Uvedale Price's An Essay on the Picturesque, one of these wonderful Enlightenment era treatises on aesthetic taste.

Title page of the first edition of Uvedale Price's An Essay on the Picturesque, one of these wonderful Enlightenment era treatises on aesthetic taste.

Another possible source of self-identification with inner emotional life may simply be the impoverishment of public philosophical discourse in our time. Again, during the Enlightenment, educated men could have cited many theories of personal identity and may well have had an opinion as to which they thought best described their own experience. The superficial intellectual culture of our day has eliminated this sort of thing from the public sphere, so people simply don’t have any idea as to what they might be other than the sum total of their strong emotional reactions to the world around them. The pervasive mid-twentieth century influence of Freud also plays into this.

A few years ago when Margaret Boden, a philosopher of artificial intelligence, came to Oregon for a lecture series (I believe she appeared as part of Portland Arts and Lectures series, though I saw her talk in Astoria at the performing arts center for Clatsop Community College), one member of the audience, after hearing the presentation, asked what role the emotions have in her scheme of mind, she responded with a thoroughly reductivist account that might have come straight out of 1950s logical positivism. One could hear in the discontented murmur of the crowd the collective disbelief that such an account could be adequate. And the crowd, at least this time, was right. A reductivist account of the emotions that makes them epiphenomenal to human experience is inadequate; but an inflated account of emotion that makes it the central feature of human experience is also inadequate. However, most people today do not know how to express this inadequacy, and don’t know the possible alternative positions.

As a result of the over-estimation of and exclusive focus on emotion in human experience, I can think of times when, in observing the behavior of others, I have had the clear impression that the person I was observing was pretending to be emotional with the intent of producing a particular intended result. And I don’t think that it is usual for people to pretend to feel particular feelings for purely rational and self-interested reasons. I recall that when I was in South America in 1993 and I had problems with my travel arrangements, I was told by someone assisting me to “put on my face.” I honestly did not understand until later that I was being asked to pretend that I was very angry so that my problem would be given the appropriate attention.

No one wants to be thought of as predictable, and no one wants to be thought of as following some kind of formula in life (whether that be the pursuit of self-interest or anything else); no one wants to be a robot or a zombie, without emotion or awareness. Authentic emotion does possess the quality of spontaneity, and so those wishing to appear emotional and therefore spontaneous will calculate an outburst that seems believably emotional.

To have one’s behavior summed up in another’s formula intended to pigeonhole us is to have social expectations of us reduced to the identity that others ascribe to us. To assert our emotional lives in the social sphere is to insist upon a self-ascribed identity, and in this way to insist upon one’s autonomy, one’s freedom, one’s liberty — especially in the face of the dehumanizing and depersonalizing forces of industrialized society.

It is not uncommon when people today first encounter the idea of homo economicus in an economics textbook or maybe a humanism survey course that they strongly reject the very idea. This is partially the fault of those presenting the idea, who usually fail to give a proper appreciation for abstract thought and its need for models that capture some aspects of the world while completely neglecting other aspects, but it is also the result of people objecting to the possibility of their predictability according to an overly simplistic formula.

In my experience, when I have heard people insist upon their emotional motives and describe their lives in non-economic terms I can appreciate the superficial plausibility of their self-interpretation of their life. But, at the same time, I can also interpret their lives according to the classic model of homo economicus, as someone seeking their own interests to the best of their abilities. There is no reason that a single life might not have more than one interpretation, and that each interpretation might have a certain validity (even if not an absolute validity).

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Fear of the Future

21 March 2009


During the second half of the twentieth century apocalyptic visions most frequently took the form of nuclear war.

During the second half of the twentieth century apocalyptic visions most frequently took the form of nuclear war.

The Role of Apocalypse in Dystopia

In Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia I wrote, “…there must be some kind of deep and inscrutable relationship between the failed predictions of techno-futurists, the fulfilled predictions of aesthetic futurists, and the dystopian vision of science fiction films.” I made a few suggestions in that posting in regard to this complex intersection of ideas, but there is a great deal more that could be said on this head.

For one thing, in my previous post I failed to mention the role of apocalypticism, which is no small part of the intersection of futurism and dystopia. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction books and films (not to mention games) that deal with the topic of some sort of apocalypse, whether as it is happening or long after it has happened. It is a common theme to explore dystopian societies that emerge in the aftermath of catastrophic change. The Omega Man, for example, considers a dystopian future in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic change, whereas, for example, Logan’s Run considers a dystopian society in the distant future following catastrophic change. The Time Machine shows us an even farther distant future, in which evolution has done its work and has separated human beings into two distinct species.

I rather liked how the morlocks were treated in the 2002 version of The Time Machine. Not only had human beings bifurcated into two species, the eloi and the morlocks, but the morlocks themselves had arrived at an insect-like specialization with castes of distinct phenotypes.

I rather liked how the morlocks were treated in the 2002 version of The Time Machine. Not only had human beings bifurcated into two species, the eloi and the morlocks, but the morlocks themselves had arrived at an insect-like specialization with castes of distinct phenotypes.

Before science fiction, there were the visions of mystics to excite our wonder and incredulity. What could be more dystopic than the reign of the Antichrist? Due to its present usage, it is little known that “apocalypse” is simply the Greek word that has been translated into Latinate languages as “revelation,” thus The Apocalypse of St. John is the same thing as saying The Revelation of St. John. Thus, in an etymological sense, to be apocalyptic is to be revelatory, an unveiling of truths: it is to be shown something. And certainly the science fiction films of apocalyptic futures seek to show us something. One could even argue, on the basis of Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, for the necessity of a cinematic revelation of contemporary visions of apocalypse and dystopia.

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 13. The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm; Dürer made a total of 15 woodcuts to illustrate the bizarre images of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine.

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 13. The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm; Dürer made a total of 15 woodcuts to illustrate the bizarre images of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine.

An apocalypse (in the contemporary meaning of the term) or a catastrophe, is a selection event. A selection event may select for a species or population (which is sometimes called proselection) or it can select against a species or population (called deselection). There is as yet no consensus within evolutionary theory as to whether natural selection works exclusively through one mechanism or the other, or by a combination of both. As commonly portrayed in contemporary science fiction, apocalyptic events are usually deselections of human beings, threatening our extinction.

Two franchises not previously discussed are of particular interest in regard to the intersection of dystopia and apocalypse: The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica.

The Matrix

The Matrix films depict a many-layered dystopia following from a many-layered catastrophe. Here we have we have apocalypse and dystopia raised to a higher order of magnitude. There was a war between man and machines — several of them in fact — and subsequent machine extirpation of the remnants of independent human civilization. Here human beings are not threatened with extinction, but with absolute industrial regimentation and subordination. Human bodies are actually used to produce the electricity required by machines; to that end, human minds are utterly and completely controlled by the machines. It would be difficult to imagine a more oppressive and dehumanizing industrial regime than this.

The Morpheus interrogation scene shows that the machines are in control now.

The Morpheus interrogation scene shows that the machines are in control now.

The Matrix films also are bound up with the fear of automatonism previously discussed in Technical Ecstasy. The Enemy is the machine. Unlike the Borg of Star Trek, the machines of The Matrix are purely machines and make no pretense to either being human or having human values or wanting to become human beings.

In The Matrix the machines offer their own interpretation of natural history and indeed offer a new eschatological history in which machines replace human beings.

In The Matrix the machines offer their own interpretation of natural history and indeed offer a new eschatological history in which machines replace human beings.

In The Matrix there is a scene in which Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus (the god of sleep, for are we not all dreaming while we are in the matrix?). The monologue delivered by Agent Smith is explicitly evolutionary in character, describing human beings in thoroughly naturalistic terms, but with the twist that human behavior requires their classification as a virus rather than a mammal. Machines are presented as the cure to the human disease.

Agent Smith demonstrates a contempt for the human condition that will later be reiterated by Cavil in Battlestar Galactica.

Agent Smith demonstrates a contempt for the human condition that will later be reiterated by Cavil in Battlestar Galactica.

The interrogation scene with Agent Smith and Morpheus also also features an exposition of the eschatological hopes of machines to replace human beings — a quasi-Oedipal theme that, like machine contempt for the feebleness of the human condition, will be reiterated in Battlestar Galactica. (The same theme also appears in Star Trek Borg episodes in which the Borg Queen speaks contemptuously of those who choose to remain “small.”)

Battlestar Galactica

In Battlestar Galactica we have an explicit extinction scenario. The number of human beings is reduced to about fifty thousand, and these numbers decline as the series develops. Under relentless attack, human beings turn on each other and seem unable to cooperate even when it is necessary to our survival.

The enemy in Battlestar Galactica, as in The Matrix, and as with The Borg, is the machine. The machine adversary of Battlestar Galactica represents something of a halfway point between the pure machines of The Matrix, who make a pretense to humanity or organicism, and the mechanized half-organic, half-machine Borg. The Battlestar Galactica machines (i.e., the Cylons, a name that comes from ancient Greek history, by the way) constitute a stratified society of insect-like specialization (as noted above in the case of the morlocks in The Time Machine), with some models being obviously mechanical, others faithful facsimiles of human beings, and still others, hybrids, somewhere in between.

Moreover, the Cylons hold out the hope of hybridizing with human beings. This is one of the central themes of Battlestar Galactica, and it is especially interesting from an evolutionary point of view. If Cylons and human beings can produce viable offspring, this would demonstrate that they are not in fact separate species according to most scientific definitions of what a species is.

The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica undergo self-driven adaptive radiation, apparently motivated by their grand strategy of dominating the known universe, also known as "The Plan."

The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica undergo self-driven adaptive radiation, apparently motivated by their grand strategy of dominating the known universe, also known as "The Plan."

In a recent episode of Battlestar Galactica (“No Exit,” named after the famous play by Sartre) there is a confrontation between Cavil and a resurrected Ellen Tigh. The whole episode is rather talky and violates the screenwriter’s basic imperative to “show it, don’t say it,” but there is a lot of ground to cover and it would take several episodes at, say, the pace of the first season, to give an adequate exposition of the backstory and dilemma. The dialogue between Cavil and Ellen develops throughout the episode and constitutes one long conversation and confrontation.

A talky and jargon-filled confrontation between Cavil and Ellen that tries to explain a lot of Cylon backstory. A frame-tale narrrative over several episodes would have been better, but they apparently didn't have the time, the money, or the inclination.

A talky and jargon-filled confrontation between Cavil and Ellen that tries to explain a lot of Cylon backstory. A frame-tale narrative over several episodes would have been better, but they apparently didn't have the time, the money, or the inclination.

The most interesting part of this confrontation is not the Cylon backstory but the exposition of the machine point of view and in some ways covers much of the same ground as the interrogation of Morpheus by Agent Smith discussed above. Indeed, there are more parallelisms between these two scenes than can be dealt with in any brief compass. One assumes that the writers of Battlestar Galactica must have had the Morpheus interrogation scene in mind, whether implicitly or explicitly, when they wrote this face off between Ellen, representing something of the human point of view, and Cavil, representing the machine point of view.

Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a well-known and influential paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” and we might see this scene with Cavil and Ellen, as well as the Morpheus interrogation scene, as an exercise in the attempt to answer the question, “What is it like to be a machine?” Nagel wrote, “the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat…” The parallel formulation for the present instance would be that the essence of the belief that conscious machines would have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a machine. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that, because Cavil is a machine who wants to be the best machine that he can be, and he is deeply resentful of being embodied in a facsimile of a human body, with all its attendant limitations.

It emerges in this exposition of backstory that Cavil has arranged the embodiment of his creators into ordinary human lives (albeit lives engineered to give them front row seats to a holocaust) so that his creators might experience how awful human life is and thus repent of creating him in their human image. It is apparently the hope of Cavil that the inadequacies and limitations of human life foisted upon him might be made good if only he can bring his errant and misguided creators to realize the folly of their ways.

Industrialization and Disaffection

The fears of the future so dramatically illustrated by these tales of machine dominance have an obvious source, and that is the claim since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that the industrialization and mechanization of life was leading to dehumanization. This protest has taken many forms over the past hundred and fifty years: economic, social, political, cultural, and so forth.

The city transformed by industrialization became the focus of the Industrial Revolution (L.S. Lowry, Industrial City, 1948).

The city transformed by industrialization became the focus of the Industrial Revolution (L.S. Lowry, Industrial City, 1948).

Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life. Communist revolutions (which, from the perspective of the Industrial Revolution, are counter-revolutionary reactionary movements) sought to overturn the newly emergent industrial order, but only succeeded in replacing one group of elites with another. Nothing about industrial society was transformed by communist management of the process. If anything, industrialization under communist regimes was more brutal than elsewhere (cf. The Credibility Paradox).

One form of release (what Freud called "discharge" in his Selected Papers on Hysteria) from the anomie, alienation, and - of life in industrialized society.

One form of release (what Freud called "discharge" in his Selected Papers on Hysteria) from the anomie, alienation, disaffection, and dehumanization of life in industrialized society.

In the complexity, busyness, and bureaucracy of the modern world it is difficult for individuals to maintain a sense of personal importance. Everything in industrialized society makes individuals anonymous. One is treated like a number, an interchangeable cog in an enormous and indifferent machine. With the failure of social movements seeking to redress the grievances of industrialization, there remains only personal protest and the personal quest for self-aggrandizement. For example, the character of Tony Manero in the film “Saturday Night Fever” expresses dissatisfaction with the anonymity of his life, and finds his satisfaction in dancing, for which he receives the approbation of his friends and thus a temporary sense of importance.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back, lit glowing red from below like Hell or a blast furnace.

Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. Fears of dehumanization manifested themselves early in the history of cinema, most notably in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The film is perhaps best remembered in science fiction annals for its elegant female robot (and we note, in reference to above examples, that the robot is evil), but just as central are the relentless images of mechanized and industrialized dehumanization. There are not only dark and looming cities, a Stygian labyrinth in which the unwary are consumed by the beast that is industrialization, but we are also shown industrial workers who are literally crucified on time clocks, sacrificed to mind-numbing labor.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Thus the connection between apocalypse and dystopia finally becomes clear: apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided. The science fiction films we have discussed are replete with such dramatic images: an abandoned and ivy-covered Washington DC in Logan’s Run (which latter also includes another evil robot), the dark, forbidding ruined cities of The Matrix, the nuclear annihilation of the Colonies in Battlestar Galactica, and the empty metropolis of The Omega Man. While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.

The Technological Frontier

In contradistinction to this marked strain of anxiety over the mechanization of human life in industrial society, there is also a tradition of futurism that celebrates all that industrialization promises. For industrial society emerged simultaneously with modern science and technology, each historical development driving the other. Futurism focuses not on the dehumanizing forces of industrial society, but on the triumphs and promises of the science and technology that emerge in co-evolution with industrialization.

Beside the aesthetic expression of fascination with the future and machines celebrated by the Futurists, what I have previously called techno-futurism explicitly celebrates the technological aspects of a futurity in which human life is augmented by its union with the machine — precisely the horror envisioned in the Borg and in human-Cylon hybridism, but here not perceived as any kind of horror at all. This is the so-called technological singularity, of which we have previously dealt with.

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

There has long been more generalized optimism in North America than elsewhere in the world. This in itself is a complex and difficult question that we will not investigate critically here. Rather, I will make several (admittedly problematic) assumptions. One of the sources of this optimism, of this welcoming attitude to the future, is the frontier. North America presented western civilization with a unique frontier experience. South America was less of a frontier experience since it was settled inward from the coast, like a noose tightening around the continent. North America presented the spectacle of relentless westward expansion in order to fulfill the promise of European civilization in the New World (also known as “manifest destiny”). The frontier experience was further punctuated with events like the gold rush of 1849, further fueling the dreams of those willing to take the risks to head out west.

The gold rush of 1849 constituted a frontier experience combined with American optimism and the idea of manifest destiny.

The gold rush of 1849 constituted a frontier experience combined with American optimism and the idea of manifest destiny.

Technology, in the minds of its enthusiasts (the most enthusiastic among them being singulatarians), is a frontier. It is the new frontier, and it promises wonderful rewards to its adepts, such as frontiers have always promised. In the Frontier, any man can be an explorer and an adventurer. Indeed, Everyman can be an explorer and adventurer. One need only place oneself within the frontier in order to become a part of a select society of pathfinders in a new world. This is a possibility that is foreclosed in a fully formed, fully known, and fully mature world.

Everyman is an adventurer in the frontier (William Henry Jackson, North from Berthoud Pass, 1871).

Everyman is an adventurer and explorer in the frontier (William Henry Jackson, North from Berthoud Pass, 1871).

I am well aware of the criticism of the concept of the frontier by the “New Western History” and especially in the work of Patricia Limerick. While I cannot disagree that the frontier is a place of “Conquest, Convergence, Continuity, and Complexity,” I think that the critics of the concept of the frontier have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I think it is high time to re-examine the “frontier thesis” for what remains valuable in it. And one value that it may have for us is an explication of the technological frontier.

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The railroad as a form of "conquest": the unity of western frontier and technological frontier (Frances Flora Palmer, for Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way, 1868).

The railroad as a form of "conquest": the unity of the western frontier and the technological frontier (Frances Flora Palmer, for Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way, 1868).

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