Friday


The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:

Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.

Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane

This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.

Pope Innocent III: something of a pessimist on the human condition.

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.

Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)

The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.

We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.

Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.

In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.

In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:

1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)

3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)

While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.

Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.

Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.

Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.

A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.

We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.

With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.

Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Tuesday


Civilization, like the world itself, is always a work in progress, perpetually under construction.

When we use the word “civilization” we usually think of it as naming a thing. Moreover, it is usually the function of nouns in English to name things, and the Cambridge online dictionary defines the suffix “-ization” as “used to form nouns from some verbs.”

Interestingly, the same Cambridge online dictionary has two definitions of civilization. One is “civilization noun (DEVELOPED SOCIETY)” (the definition: “human society with its well developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society or country at a particular period in time”) and the other is “civilization noun (PROCESS)” (the definition: “the process of educating a society so that its culture becomes more developed”). I will not take the time to criticize dictionary definitions, as these are soft targets, but I will point out that we would do well to think of civilization as much as a process as as a thing.

In the spirit of civilization as a thing, another online dictionary defines the suffix, “-ization” as “the act, process, or result of making or doing” giving “realization” as an example. In this sense, “civilization” may be defined as “the act, process, or result of making civil.” As far as dictionary definitions, this isn’t too bad. It has been said that philosophical inquiry ends with definitions rather than beginning with them, so we shall not take this as a point of departure, but as a signpost along the way of seeking an adequate philosophical definition of civilization.

It is a somewhat similar case with the word “industrialization,” though I am inclined to think (without any opinion research to back it up) that people are more likely to think of industrialization as a process than of civilization as a process. Perhaps part of this tendency (if there is, in fact, any such tendency) is that in the world today we can see the process of industrialization going forward and gradually transforming societies, whereas civilizations seem to be a given, almost a fact of nature.

Perhaps civilization suffers from from Sartre called the spirit of seriousness — the idea that values (in this case, the values that constitute civilization) are ready made, that is to say, already out there in the world for us to seize, but not something we make for ourselves. I would say that we do, in fact, make civilization for ourselves, and we should accustom ourselves to thinking in this mode. Many of Sartre’s most famous deliverances on the human condition could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to address civilization. To whit:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that civilization first of all exists, encounters itself, surges up in the world — and defines itself afterwards.

And…

The genius of civilization is the totality of the works of civilization, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to civilization the capacity to produce yet other works of genius when that is precisely what it did not produce? In history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.

Such Sartrean formulations of civilization could be multiplied with a minimum of effort. It would be both potentially enlightening and amusing to do so, but I will leave such extrapolation to the interested reader.

If you like you could call this an existentialist conception of civilization.

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Sunday


Anxieties of the Sexual Revolution

three sci fi films

as Mirrored in Science Fiction Cinema


Science Fiction Cinema

Three science fiction films of the middle 1970s have long held an interest for me, and part of the interest that they hold is a function of the expression they give to anxieties of the sexual revolution. It is fascinating to see in detail how gender roles are not contested at the same time that gender relations are being profoundly contested. I touched upon this topic previously, both in relation to gender roles and racial stereotypes, in A Tale of Two Films.

Of the three films considered below, I know all of them only as films. I have not read any of the novels or stories upon which the films were based. A film is in no way “superior” to a novel, but it is different from a novel, so much so that to compare a film and a novel is like comparing apples and oranges. A good film has a very different structure than a good novel, and as a result the adaptation of a good novel into a good film involves a substantial change to the structure of the story. Among the changes to a story demanded by the nature of film is that the story be stripped to its bare essentials, eliminating double plots and side plots as well as numerous minor characters. There simply isn’t time enough to show it all, and time is of the essence of film.

A film, like a piece of architecture, is also a social, cooperative endeavor. Someone must write it, someone must direct it, someone must fund it, and many must act in it and fulfill the other roles that make a successful production possible. as a social endeavor, a film better represents the Zeitgeist and the Vox Populi than a novel, which, like as not, may well be written by an isolated artist with little connection to the hurly-burly of the real world. Film making, on the other hand, is the hurly-burly of the real world, and any story that survives the process of filming has proved its “street cred.”

Soylent Green

Based on the 1966 novel by Harry Harrison, Make Room, Make Room, Soylent Green was released in 1973. It deals simultaneously with several ideas, most notably euthanasia, political corruption, over population and environmental degradation (like Silent Running, released the year before in 1972). In the attempt to construct a believable and also intriguing future world, science fiction cinema picks up on cultural themes from the present, inflating and distorting them until they show to us an unrecognizable reflection, as though in a funhouse mirror. Such devices may be incorporated only in order to give style and interest to a production, not counting among the central elements of the plot, or they may be central to the plot itself. This is the former sense in which Soylent Green reflects the anxieties of the sexual revolution.

Soylent Green front

As noted above, in this stage of film making and science fiction, gender roles are not contested — men are men and women are women — but the relation between the sexes is deeply contested. In the world of Soylent Green, women are property that come with an apartment. Women in the film are referred to as “furniture” — presumably intentionally dehumanizing and depersonalizing language. This relationship is shown both to shade over into what we would consider more “normal” human relationships (where the “furniture” arrangement goes well), and to militate against more conventional relationships (when the “furniture” arrangement does not go well).

Soylent Green back

There is nothing radical about man-as-owner and woman-as-possession. On the contrary, this is the subtext of every patriarchal culture, and almost every culture in the history of the world has been patriarchal to one degree or another. What is shocking about Soylent Green is the vulgarity of the arrangement and the dehumanizing way in which it is formulated. The writer evidently wanted to confront us squarely with the commodification of sexuality and human relationships, though this wasn’t the primary function of the film. The directness of this confrontation with our sensibilities sets the stage for a world in which the commodification of human life itself — the systematic dehumanization of human beings — is believable and indeed becomes commonplace.

Soylent Green inside

The characters of the film make it obvious that they are frequently not happy about this social arrangement, and they seem on the verge of committing a grave social faux pas by contravening the established social order of their time and creating human relationships that they viewer might view as “normal.” But the film does not allow this to happen. Human relationships are ultimately peripheral to a film in which industrialized cannibalism is the central theme.

Rollerball

Released in 1975, Rollerball was based not on a novel but on a short story that appeared in Esquire in 1973. The director of the film, Norman Jewison, immediately saw the potential of the story, and pressed to have it developed as a film project. Part of the impact of the film, then, may be credited to its timeliness, moving as it did from conception to story to film in the space of just a few years, making the material fresh and thoroughly of its time by the time it made it to the big screen. (The authenticity of the material was further preserved by the author of the short story, William Harrison, writing the screenplay for the film).

Rollerball front

The film opens on a somber note with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, giving a gothic feel to the darkened Rollerball arena, which makes the transition to the violence of the action of the opening Rollerball game a bit jarring, but it is not entirely out of place. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is majestic, haunting, and not a little menacing: here we are in the presence of what Kant called the terrifying sublime (Schreckhaft Erhabene). And this is exactly what the Rollerball game is intended to be: a spectacle sufficiently terrifying that we can believe that it has replaced war as a surrogate outlet for human aggressiveness.

Rollerball back

In Rollerball the female companions to the male leads are “assignments” rather than “furniture” but the idea is essentially the same. But there is perhaps more continuity with our own world in the world of Rollerball than in the other two films we will consider today. Rollerball follows the classic science fiction formula of taking trends in the contemporary world and extrapolating them. This is often tendentiously interpreted as a form of failed prediction, since such extrapolations almost always diverge from actual historical developments, but the intellectual function of science fiction is not prediction but a changed perspective on the world.

Rollerball insert

The changed perspective on gender relations that we find in Rollerball, as with Soylent Green, leave the characters unsatisfied and desperately at times seeking some kind of oblique human satisfaction within an essentially inhuman social system. The protagonist of Rollerball (James Caan as Jonathan E) is particularly dissatisfied with his “wife” being reassigned to someone else. However, despite his dissatisfaction with the system, he is still very much a part of it, coldly reassigning one of his current partners without telling her first. After an arranged meeting with his former wife, who defends the corporate order he has come to question, and finding that his currently assigned partner is simply a corporate shill, we find that his real dissatisfaction is not so much with the character of the relationships he is able to make for himself within this social system, but the desire to have someone — anyone — on his side.

Logan’s Run

Logan’s Run, released in 1976, presents the most radical vision of society, and also the most conservative response to this radical vision. Based on the 1967 novel Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan’s Run has a conception-to-execution timetable similar to that of Soylent Green. Both novels were written in the mid to late 1960s, and both were brought to the screen in the early to mid 1970s. They span a particularly turbulent period in American social life, and, in a sense, constitute a summation of the anxieties of the period.

Logan's Run front

Logan’s Run is perhaps the most stylish of the films discussed today, with its throbbing soundtrack, the futuristic city under domes, the surreal ascent of the Carousel ritual with its soteriological trial by fire, the abandoned cathedral symbolizing the abandonment of traditional faith, the derelict, ivy-covered capital building, and the eccentric Old Man with his many cats. Moreover, the deeply ambiguous and ambivalent central character, Logan, doesn’t seem to himself know if he is acting the part of a runner in order to defeat the menace to a society in which he is invested, or if he really is changed by having his final years taken away before his time.

Logan's Run back

As with Rollerball, the society depicted is at once both utopian and dystopian. Both depict artificially designed societies in which those who are invested in the institutions believe them to be good, but from the perspective of the outside spectator these societies appear hideous and unnatural. The society of the domed city features casual sex of the most casual kind, with any connection between recreation and procreation eliminated so that children do not know their mothers and fathers. This is the ultimate manifestation of the youth culture, the worship of youth and beauty and the lack of respect for age and tradition, that many saw as the culmination of the generational conflict that raged in the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Logan's Run inside

Near the end of Logan’s Run, when Logan, Jessica, and the Old Man are talking around a camp fire on their journey to return to the domed city, Logan asks the Old Man about his parent’s tomb stones, that had “beloved husband” and “beloved wife” carved on them.

LOGAN
But you mean, I mean, they lived together all their years?

OLD MAN
Yes, oh well, before I came along I don’t know what, but after, oh yeah, they did.

JESSICA
So people stayed together for this feeling of love? They would live and raise children and be remembered?

OLD MAN
Yeah, they raised me didn’t they? …

JESSICA
I think I’d like that, Logan. Don’t you?

LOGAN
Um hmm. Why not?

JESSICA
Beloved husband.

LOGAN
Beloved wife.

Thus the solution to the dissatisfactions of the youth culture and hedonism of the “me decade” and the “me generation” (which are given their most extreme formulation in the utopian-dystopian society of the domed city) is to be found in a reactionary return to the most traditional gender roles and gender relations. This is a denouement that should warm the heart of the sternest and least forgiving reactionary.

A New Direction for Science Fiction Cinema

All of the films above constitute dystopias of one variety or another. We recognize in them something in our world gone horribly wrong. And all the films feature similar departures from traditional gender relationships. The dissatisfaction with gender relations reflect the larger dissatisfaction with a dystopian society that is an exaggeration of trends present in our society today. In Soylent Green, these dissatisfactions are accepted fatalistically. In Rollerball the dissatisfactions are confronted but not resolved. In Logan’s Run, the dystopian society of the future is effectively destroyed in the hope of returning to traditional gender relationships, with the implication that this radical “solution” will address the dissatisfactions of contemporary life.

The year after the release of Logan’s Run, 1977, saw the release of both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Both were influential, and both represented a very different direction for science fiction cinema. Star Wars represented a return to the gee-whiz Buck Rogers serial, although informed by Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and therefore tapping into perennial themes that gave weight to an otherwise vacuous space adventure. Close Encounters of the Third Kind represented something new, and we could in fact trace the burgeoning UFO conspiracy theories of our time to the influence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But this is a large topic in and of itself, and deserving of separate treatment.

By 1979, the first Alien film was released, and the landscape of science fiction cinema was permanently changed. Alien was high tech, with impressive effects, but science fiction was merely a setting, a mise-en-scène, for a thoroughly old-fashioned horror tale. It was also effective and frightening, and not soon forgotten by those who saw it. But with films like Star Wars and Alien, science fiction cinema departed sharply from serious films of social comment. Soylent Green, Rollerball, and Logan’s Run were films of serious social comment, and they represent a side of science fiction sophistication that has become lost in the competing sophistication of special effects. But this is a general trend in the US film industry not confined to science fiction. Visual spectacle is the driver of contemporary cinema, and it has come at the expense of plot, characterization, and other elements once central to film.

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Over the past couple of days in The End of the End of the World and Symbolic Protest I emphasized the dependence of urban populations — which now constitute the bulk of the human population, as we are now an urban species — upon current economic infrastructure.

The fact that a contemporary urban center — or a megalopolis, if you prefer — is dependent upon an economic infrastructure that far exceeds the boundaries of the city does not mean that cities of even the largest size could not be made independent of supply and service chains that extend around the world.

Buckminster Fuller has been quoted as saying, “…the entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” I am in agreement with this claim, but there are a couple important observations that need to be made in this connection:

1. it would be expensive to do so, and…

2. to do so would change the culture (if not the civilization) of a human population so domiciled.

In regard to item 1, we have the technology at present to build food production tower blocks within urban areas, which was discussed in this forum in The Future of Food. This would be a high tech way to go about it, and, if handled properly, it could be done in an aesthetically pleasing manner, retaining the feeling and density of an urban core while also producing local food for local consumption. Furthermore, intensive solar and wind power mounted on the tops of buildings could probably (perhaps with future technological improvements) supply the electrical needs of the population. In extreme circumstances, even the water could be treated and recycled.

All of this is possible, but all of it is expensive. The reason we trade — whether between city and countryside, or between nations — is because it is in everyone’s economic interest to do so. That means, to put it simply, that you get what you want at a cheaper price. It is much cheaper to produce vegetables in rural areas than in a downtown urban core. For starters, in cities land is very expensive. If that land can bring a better return on its investment as an office tower than as a vegetable patch, then the owner of that land is going to get the best return possible by building the office tower.

In regard to item 2, any change in living arrangements that affects everyone or almost everyone is by definition revolutionary. To change the way the vast majority of people live is to come full circle and to start over. Housing everyone one compactly on Haiti or comfortably in the British Islands would mean starting over for most people. That is revolutionary.

The Netherlands houses almost seventeen million people on less than 34 thousand square kilometers of land. The population density works out to about 493 persons per square kilometer. At this rate of population density, the current world population of about six billion could be similarly accommodated in the area comprised by France and the Iberian peninsula. But what would it be like for everyone to be living as people live in the Netherlands? Not everyone is fitted for a society of this kind, while others would take to it like a duck to water. Selection pressures would act, and a future society would exhibit descent with modification.

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