Sunday, May 25, 2008

Culture Future II: Absolutism versus Reducible Complexity

It is easy to believe that we cannot change culture, because it is so large. So we throw our hands up and accept it as fate. But it doesn't have to be.
When I wrote this in the first post, I was speaking mainly of our contemporary American culture. In a way, Americans are still caught in the ancient debate of free will versus predestination. Although for some it is still in the old frame of God versus human free will, there are other outlets for that way of thinking. One place where I see this schism developing, which is a very difficult place to disentangle it, is in the realm of health (mental and physical). Am I the way I am because I made certain choices? Were those choices pre-determined by a combination of my genetic code and my upbringing?

This debate is crucial today because the two different views have two different solutions. If our depression (as a for instance) is caused by a plethora of causes beyond our control--our family, our genetic predisposition--then the best solutions will be medical ones (Prozac or Zoloft or some new experimental treatment). But if it is our choices which cause our depression, then it is our choices which will liberate us from it.
Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.
John F. Kennedy said that. He was not speaking in the realm of health, but in the realm of culture. He was speaking of American politics, of the direction which America wanted to take, of its growing fear in the face of the Soviet Union.

Our culture is man-made, therefore it can be shaped by man. Although, as I said before, we think we cannot change culture because it is so large, Man can be as big as he wants. There is both good and bad in that.

The discovery that man can be scientifically manipulated, and that governments can turn large masses this way or that as they choose, is one of the causes of our misfortunes.
That statement was written twenty years before Kennedy's speech; it was Bertrand Russell in an essay about religion entitled An Outline Of Intellectual Rubbish. 'Our misfortunes,' which he refers to, is the scourge of Nazism, which at the time was even more dangerous than the Soviet Union of Kennedy's day, purely by virtue of the fact that the Soviet Union was as wary of the United States as we were of them.

Russell is correct that scientific manipulation of societies was the well-spring of Nazism, and of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, also the well-spring of American democracy; but Russell is right to highlight the dangers of mass manipulation. Sociology and communication, for instance, are combined to create propaganda. What went wrong for Nazis and for the Soviets was not that culture cannot be controlled--it is that culture cannot be rigidly controlled.

The current model I enjoy for examining culture is that of the conversation. A good conversation requires two people who are interested in the exchange of thoughts and/or feelings. "Interested" means that they are ready to listen; "the exchange" means that they are ready to speak.

The Nazi Party and the Bolsheviks had something to say, clearly--this is clear by how much they wrote at the time. It was very fashionable for them to write tracts and to make speeches. But they were not willing to respond, not willing to interact with the rest of culture as a whole. They wished to substitute Nazi culture for German culture, to substitute Bolshevik culture for Russian culture, and thus, were not ready to listen. If writing tracts and making speeches shows how willing to speak, then the brutal censorship of tracts and speeches (and those who made them) shows how unwilling to speak they are.

In point of fact, this shows that they had failed the 'scientific approach' to culture that many have ascribed to them. They started with the hypothesis of culture, and they performed the experiment. But by refusing to acknowledge the data which returned, and by refusing to engage in active conversation with other cultures, they were stifling that very same intellectual approach to changing society that first led them to embark. After all, Karl Marx was able to write his tracts on the economy because he was a professor at an English university, able to write what he pleased without fear.

Why were they unable to be in conversation? Because they were absolutists. They dreamed of a utopia, but it was an absolutist utopia. There was no room for non-communism in the Communist ideal; the bourgeois had to be brutally crushed. There was no room for the "impure" in the eugenics of Nazis; the impure had to be brutally crushed. It is specifically in the utopian, absolutist execution of these ideals that they were unable to be in conversation with other cultures. Nothing in the universe is perfect, so an ethos which calls for the destruction of the imperfect is by definition destructive; in fact, it targets everything in the universe. In fact, if these absolutist movements could look at themselves with objective eyes, they'd be forced to destroy themselves. How many of the leading Nazis were genetically pure? How many of the Communist leaders were truly equals to the rest of their society?

In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross wonders why intellectuals who formed the artistic elite in Vienna found themselves supporting Nazism during its rise. As an answer, he says,

The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be unrelated to the politics of fascism: both attempt to remake the world in utopian forms.
In fact, it is the cultish absolutism of certain modern artists; many of these same artists purported to hate the support of the people because the people were inferior. Take, for instance, Schoenberg:

If it is Art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.
This sort of bloody-minded absolute extremism is underpinned on a hatred of the imperfect. It is unfortunate, for instance, that this absolutism can sometimes arise from religion. I do not believe, like many of the New Athiests and their intellectual forebears, that everything religion touches is evil. But I do agree that absolutism is in religion is perverse and destructive. If, as some purport, we are all touched by sin and born in sin, and God hates sin, then how can God not hate everything?

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the earlier evangelicals in this country, spoke that in his sermon "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God." Through the hyperbole of the text, it is clear to see that once you accept the philosophy of absolutism, everything which is not absolute is absolutely wrong; the world is black and white--and in fact, mostly black.

It has often been said of Islam that it is actually one of the most respectful religions, and that today's fundamentalists are perverting the Koran. But the Koran does have passages within it which support today's fundamentalists, just as the Bible supports today's fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Marxists can use the Manifesto to slaughter Capitalists if they so choose. Each of these ideas, when taken absolutely, are incompatible with other cultures--obviously, because absolute cultures refuse to be in conversation with other cultures.

But the hope for the world is not, as Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush might think, to set up an opposite absolutism and let them battle to the death ("Democracy" versus totalitarianism; Hitchens' anti-theism versus theism, etc.), but rather to create the forum for conversation which refuses to tolerate violence and moderates the conversation as it precedes.

The clear example for this is in the creation of the US Constitution. Reading the Federalist papers by Madison and Hamilton reveal something clear about the Constitution: although the Constitution was founded on certain ideals, the machinery of the Constitution was built not for a utopian, ideal community, but rather for the everyday. Rather than hoping that America would never elect a cruel dictator or greedy, self-serving beaurocrats, the machinery was put into place to keep such people in check. This is the center of the concepts of checks and balances. The machinery continues to need tinkering, especially considering the abuses which the Constitution has weathered over the past eight years, but the concept is still sound.

We still have a culture which allows for conversation, although the state of our conversation is still poor. We have a culture which allows for change. Even cultures which attempt to stifle change and innovation find themselves prey to the human spirit. Consider Vaclav Havel, writing in the frozen Czechoslovakia during the oppression of the Cold War.
I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no moer than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the "human spirit."
But he did not sit and wait for things to happen; nor did he preach some extremist anti-Communist revolution. Rather, he preached the idea of "living in truth," describing in his seminal essay "Power of the Powerless" of a green-grocer who does simply nothing more than stop following the ridiculous laws of the Communist regime. He is not attacking the problem at the center, not trying to topple a powerful and huge regime alone, but rather: he is eroding the ideological and absolutist foundation of the regime. The more people simply stop cooperating, the weaker the regime was. And in fact, that is how the Soviet Union collapsed: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The problem of "solving" culture is a problem of reducible complexity. It is impossible to change all of culture overnight; that path leads to absolutism. The Soviet Union tried, in one act of revolution, to cure every problem of the Industrial Revolution which had been brewing for a full century, and further to cure every problem of the feudal, monarchal Russia which had been brewing for centuries before that.

At the same time, the Western world was addressing the problems one by one. Today, we have ensured a far higher quality of life than the Soviet Union had, and far higher than the time of the Industrial Revolution. We solved each problem slowly, over the course of the 20th Century. There was a brief period, at the beginning of the Soviet Experiment and during the Great Depression, when actually there was a higher quality of life in the Soviet Union. But because of the absolute and rigid ideology that had created it, the Soviet Union never advanced; in fact, it regressed.

Take for instance, Richard Foreman:
If you’re a big person, carrying your big, heavy, important projects and concerns with you into the theater, when you confront my play it will appear to be an amorphous cloud of molecular particles, circulating in a seemingly random pattern, like Brownian motion. Perceiving it like that, the big person that you are measures the play against the heavy projects you carry around in your head, and you think: ... I want help in resolving such weighty problems, and all this play proposes is an amorphous cloud of circulating molecules, incapable of budging those big solid shapes that fill my life. What I need from a play is a shape bigger and heavier than my own in order to reorganize my own massive shapes.

My art proposes, however, that by shifting your attention to the scale on which atomic events discover that your own solid shapes are themselves but clouds of molecules in circulation.
Richard Foreman is talking about tackling personal problems on a quantum scale; the model which he's using (metaphorical) is of reducible complexity.

Our society is having trouble doing this. We expect our President to "fix" the education system. But the problems in the education system today are myriad; problems of race, economics, educational theory, and cultural value of education are among many problems which face the education system. Others, seeing the complexity in their face, would prefer to withdraw; give everyone who can the opportunity to flee to private education.

Foreign policy is the same; on the one side, President Bush wishes to attack every problem with an Insta-Solution: democracy. Iran, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Palestine--all of these problems could theoretically be solved by sweeping aside their leadership, and instituting 'democracy.' This ignores their complex histories, the billions of individual forces which are the swirling and pushing in every different directions. Others, currently led by Ron Paul, have a different approach: withdrawing from the foreign policy sphere. While a movement toward disengagement might be appropriate at the moment, isolationism is not how America can use its considerable position in the world to make it better--for itself as well as for everyone else.

What American politicians lack is the care, attention, and complex conversation with the rest of the world which leads to smart foreign policy. When we discuss foreign policy, we don't reduce the problem; we reduce our approach to it. We approach it in reductive terms; that is to say, reductionist. And reductionist thinking is absolute thinking because what reductionism and absolutism share is an inability to deal with complexity. Complexity is caused by different forces in different directions. Iraq is not just Sunni versus Shiite.

If we attempt to solve the problems facing our culture by reducing complexity into simplicity, and attempting to solve those 'simple' problems with absolute principles, we will fail. If we lump problems together into massive, fear-inducing entities (the War on Terror; the War on Poverty; the War on Drugs), then we will fail. But if we, as a community, break apart these problems into small, workable chunks, then each of us can play a part in solving these problems. We can only solve these many particles of problems if we're in conversation about these problems, but it will no longer be like climbing Darwin's Mount improbable.

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