“Not True [Platonic Archetype]!”

I am aware of the tired No True Scotsman trope. But if you extract it down to its core Platonic essence you really do have something worth talking about.

We have all heard it before when a low-knowledge person with extremely strong ideological attachments feels backed into a corner: the exhortation that actual historical examples that show that their attachments are not so simple in practical outcome are not representative of what they believe but aberrations. The militarized expansions of various supposedly peaceful ideologies? Clearly this must be the misunderstandings or willful interpretations of doctrine! The collapse in living standards caused by various economic experiments? Corruption! The takeover of causes by sociopathic personalities? It must be infiltration!

Plato was the philosopher of the ideal. Of reaching for the most perfect form of what something could be. Of always striving for perfection. This is contrary to observable reality and philosophical materialism and pragmatism implies that this ideal is a chimera. A false promise. What matters is circumstantial, situational, and results oriented. Therefore, the calls of ‘not true Islam’ and ‘not true capitalism’ and ‘not true communism’ can all be dismissed out of hand by those who do not claim to be idealists.

Let me take it a step further. Whatever belief or result is the majority viewpoint in any given camp *is* that camp, because what they have done and are likely to do matters far more than than what they intend. Organizations are made up of people, and groups of people have trends. This is likely to vary with time and place, of course, because in the end all things are local and temporal. Yet further reasons to distrust claims of the eternal and transcendent. If social justice, for instance, is dominated by an alliance of corporate HR and younger clones of Tipper Gore, than that is what social justice is right now. If MAGA is dominated by Q Anon and Stop the Steal, than MAGA is a front for those groups first and foremost. The true essence of a thing is the power of who commands it, not some ethereal and idealized promise of something to come. It reminds me of how the Book of Revelation was clearly written in the expectation that the End Times would come within decades of its compilation, and that the thousands-year-ongoing Christian meltdown we are still living through is a failure to come terms with the failure of this promise time and time again. ‘But surely this time..!’ they say each time assumptions are overturned, only to be proven wrong again. It is easy to believe oneself the protagonist of the culminating act of the story and harder to accept most individuals are merely background characters in a story that began far before they were born and either will never end or will only end long after they die. More importantly, it is easy to imagine oneself as just on the cusp of some breakthrough that will justify prior belief no matter how many times it has failed before.

Of course, one does not have to do this. One could simply acknowledge that the chaos of events do not move in any particular direction and so picking a tribe is just that: a tribal preference rather than a quest for universal truth. This, of course, requires giving up belief in some true eternal form of good ideology. It takes a certain amount of courage to admit that one supports a real-world messy compromise of a policy platform, contingent as it is on fate and historical circumstance. But I think if everyone was honest about merely trying to push greater forces in generalist directions rather than achieving some totalizing and ideal program it would be easier to talk with people who are from different backgrounds and forge new coalitions. Good diplomats are situationalists and opportunists. Ineffective diplomats take their cues from Woodrow Wilson.

If you declare yourself to be in support of any particular movement, you have to accept who dominates it. This means you can say ‘I really don’t like current trends in my faction, but I think the cost is worth it for the following reasons…’ This is fine. Cost/benefit calculations are really the only rational way to think about principles and they are far superior to Platonic idealism. Even better, though rarer for the thinking person, is when you are totally ambivalent and/or supportive of what others might consider a group’s flaws. In this case you don’t downplay them or apologize, you own them. This serves as a reminder than morality is not and can never be universal. So, when critics of political realism accuse me of belonging to a group known for seeing people as pawns being moved about on a great amoral game of Go who behave more along the lines of instinct than freedom of will, I answer with ‘Yes! Yes!’

Black Metal Epicureanism: a review of ‘Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind’

The Birth of the Fifth Sun. Artwork from Chicome Itzquintli and the Mexica Heart site.

‘Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind’ by Miguel Leon-Portilla is a circa 1990 attempt to extrapolate the metaphysics of Nahuatl-dominated Mesoamerica based off of what surviving sources are available. Much was lost, destroyed, and hidden in the Spanish conquest, not so much due to the war itself as much as the subsequent invasions of priests and missionaries who insisted on demolishing, ISIS-style, as much of previously existing culture as they could. This has left us with imperfect records to work with, yet the Mesoamericans were an incredibly literate people and some had the foresight to safeguard many things until later and less fanatical eras.

Leon-Portilla has an interesting way of approaching this anthropology-meets-philosophy overview. He likes to let primary sources speak for themselves. Only after listing the excerpt he wishes to reference does he then move on to repeating it but while deconstructing each line or paragraph in turn with modern interpretation. This is an atypical way of conducting this kind of analysis, and it takes some getting used to. However, it works extremely well and made me wonder why this method is not used more often.

The author is interested in figuring out the rise of philosophy independent of mythology and religion as much as he can (in many cultures there is not a clear line of division between the two and such is the case here as well). Nevertheless, we must begin with the cultural context of Mexica myth. We get a breakdown of religious beliefs and cosmology but also see that many scholars doubted these accounts going back to the start of what in today is known as the Aztec Empire (actually a triple alliance of three city-states in the Nahuatl culture complex dominated by the Mexica people). Most importantly, there is a summary of how the Mexica people saw their right to rule in the origin of the present Fifth Sun Era. All previous suns had been specific to past eras that had all ended in cataclysm. This current era would be no different, however, its ending could be delayed by honoring the covenant of sacrifice that had made it possible in the first place. For, after the initial creator duality-god/god couple created the other gods, those gods had in turn brought about this new era through the self-sacrifice of two of their own members, Tecuciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. The first showed hesitation thus could only become the moon. The second who jumped right into ‘the God Oven’ became the sun. In order to keep this new and most beneficent sun going, Nanahuatzin/the sun must be periodically recharged with human blood, which holds power when shed due to it having a link with the gods as well. As gods sacrificed themselves to make the world livable for men, so too should men return the favor if they wish these conditions to continue.

Naturally, this also gave the expansionistic Aztecs a great ideological foil to pursue an empire. As the prestige of taking captives for sacrifice fueled war, so too could war fuel growth. Growth, in turn, was tied to a special pact of their empire with the maintenance of divine order. It upheld the cosmos for the Aztecs to expand. If they stopped expanding their world would end.

It becomes apparent that skepticism of religious literalism was quite common in that society for a long time. This put many ‘wise men’ on a different path than that of the religious establishment. Fittingly, since the Mexica saw the most important creator god as one of duality, a core dualism emerges in Aztec thought. There was the priests and the warriors going out and growing the empire through war and sacrifice, but there were also highly respected wise men who taught of empathy in a world of constant entropy, and the utility to practical Epicurean-like pleasures through harm reduction at home. This led to a philosophical emphasis on what we might now call universal primary schooling, with an enormous percentage of children literate and learned for a pre-modern society.

This example also, along with that of, say, the British, pretty firmly puts to bed the idea that educated societies become more peaceful.

The purpose of this new Mesoamerican society was to cultivate a ‘face and heart’, a personality in our terms, that understood the temporary nature of things and the necessary fatalism to cope with it while also building themselves up as distinctly useful for society as a whole. The author emphasizes that while Aztec political culture was collective (hence both public education and public sacrifice spectacle) its concept of personal life was in fact more individualist. Only in a well running collective could things work to allow the arts and philosophy, and only through the arts and philosophy could individuals differentiate themselves from each other in order to better contribute to society by meeting their true potential. While societies with similar civic bargains to this have existed elsewhere, few I know of were so specific in making this their intention. There quite literally is no self/society divide because the self is in service to society and vice-versa.

Mexica intellectual pursuits were dominated by an understanding that all things pass in time. They were also enormous weebs for the previous Toltec culture, using the term ‘Toltec’ to describe things that were well made in a material sense. Much like the Japanese concept of mono no aware, it was the fact that the Toltecs has passed into history but still left moving monuments that inspired the Aztecs to make art. The temporary nature of things was inevitable but beautiful. It was part of nature and life. And it was a reason to build a society with a highly cultivated aesthetic sense. What these thinkers thought when it came to the necessity of blood sacrifice to prolong the apotheosis of the now, it is unknown. I suspect many were skeptical.

Yet, strip the symbolism aside and you really see a society far more honest with itself than that of the moderns. Expansionist orders are founded and maintained by blood. The Aztecs tied a frank openness about this to their very being and even promised a higher destination in the afterlife for those sacrificed than those who died naturally. Compared to our high culture, which lives in total disavowal and denial that our empires are much the same in effect towards other people, and which rigorously seeks to hide our bloodletting far away from view, the honesty of the Aztec tableau is a bracing comparison. For many in the contemporary world, our ritualistic bloodletting goes towards no less a mythical edifice than theirs, as the constant laments from our priestly class for ‘upholding the values of the liberal world order’ imply. At least the Aztecs got a great show for their efforts. We just get to be on ‘the right side of history.’

It also shows us the limits of absolute duality. For it is not that high culture exists despite its gruesome elements, but often in total tandem with them. The lake city of Tenochtitlan was larger than any in Europe at the time of its height. It was remarked upon by the very people who conquered it and enslaved its inhabitants that it was a place of remarkable cleanliness, order, and urbanity. Another water-based city, Venice, exists as an admired tourist attraction to this day not in spite but because it experienced its first golden age as a result of rampant piracy and the looting of Constantinople.

The Aztecs were very fatalistic towards the forces of nature, and the caprice of their gods reflected this. While you would be judged in life by how you lived, you were still going to the afterlife designated for you based off of the method of your death regardless of conscious action. Yet their obsession with self improvement shows that fatalism is not mere passivity. Fatalism can be the call to self-improvement. Being unable to remold the world, one can remold one’s reactions to it. And if enough people do this together- albeit in their own particular ways-this changed response creates its own impetus to not just live life for what its worth, but to contribute to it through the arts. To quote directly from the book’s conclusion:

‘Nahuatl philosophic thought thus resolved about an aesthetic conception of the universe and life, for art, ‘made things divine’ and only the divine was true. To know the truth was to understand the hidden meanings of things through ‘flower and song’, a power emanating from the deified heart.’

Anyway, on the subject of art, have some OC content:

Priest of Xipe Totec, the flayed god of agriculture, warfare, and renewal, also called ‘The Night Drinker’. At certain sacrificial events these guys would cut the hearts out of victims, flay the flesh, and create a skin suit out of it to then dance around for a few days. At the end of the ceremony they would strip off the rotting human pelt and bury them under the main temple in jars. This represented Xipe Totec’s shedding of his own skin of foliage with the seasons and bringing about the renewal of the next corn crop.
Some sources I’ve seen say they painted themselves pink or red under the pelt to really get that raw muscle look peeking out from under the hide, hence the skin coloration here.

Hanging Out With Spinoza and The Coof

Excommunicated Spinoza by Samuel Hirszenberg

This is going to be a brief and unstructured post as I have a vaccine-breakthrough case of Covid-19 and thus am not at the height of my mental faculties.

But while I linger here in inglorious self-isolation, I have been reading the collected philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. I am not finished yet and I do not mean to give a comprehensive take, but it is worth mentioning that I came to this task via a book I recently read for work that compared and contrasted various historical definitions of the concept of sovereignty. I knew Spinoza by some philosophical concepts but had no idea that he was a thinker on such relevant (to my interest) political concepts. The ideas that I read about in that book made me want to know more.

Spinoza is most famous today for his metaphysics and his radically materialist concept of a pantheistic god, rather than a spiritualist and religious one. This interests me much less than his politics here, but serves as a fascinating example of materialist thinking in a deeply spiritual age. He comes across as similar to an early Tantric thinker with elements of Vedanta philosophy but in a 17th Century Dutch context. His god, such as it can be called such, is really a combination of the will of energy serving as the connective force for all of matter. To Spinoza, this matter is the same everywhere and thus the creative energy may as well be ‘god’ because this is the only way things may happen by forcing change and interaction. Of course, we know now through the hard sciences that matter can indeed change its nature in many circumstances and that it can be converted into energy. This punctures his need for the god language, but was information that was unavailable to him in the time of his life. Therefore, we get an interesting example of a fully materialist god with the characteristics of the theology of the Dharmic religions. Good and evil are pointless, as is faith. The majesty of being leaves no use for the simple moralism of man. And it is the simple moralism of man that the Abrahamic faiths, of course, hold as supreme.

No wonder Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam excommunicated him. Then so did the Protestant Dutch municipals of that city. After death, his writings would be banned by the Catholic Church. Cancelled by three different religions, now that’s a guy I can respect! He would never end up joining any faith community again and lived the rest of his life as a private tutor and lens grinder, apparently content and with his own circle of friends from many outlier communities. Honestly, he sounds like a cool dude.

While his attack on the specifics of the Abrahamic God, (a being much more like Miura’s Idea of Evil than Spinoza’s omni-nature) and his creation of a deterministic world view of moderation and autonomy in service of living with nature while also exploring it would be his most famous contribution, what I really find interesting in his political philosophy.

Spinoza is an extremely interesting contemporary and counter-point to Thomas Hobbes. Both believed in the ultimate sovereignty of the state as the enabler of human thriving, particularly in societies that had grown large enough to have dense populations. Both sought state control over religion to quash sectarianism and outside societies interfering in domestic affairs. Both looked down on violent rebellion but left themselves each specific escape clauses when the situation became dire. Both, most interesting to me, upheld the right of different countries to have different political systems based in their own culture and untampered with by the designs of others…even if their personal preferences were for different kinds of systems. Both were aware of one another and Spinoza at least read Hobbes’ work.

The differences are more interesting, however. Whereas both Spinoza and Hobbes saw a strong state as the most effective way for maximizing human flourishing, Spinoza emphasized the state’s capacity to uphold freedom of thought, religion, and the press whereas Hobbes viewed such things as potential dangers to the state. Hobbes also sought a centralized state whereas Spinoza sought a more decentralized one, where the dynamic tension of regions and their differences sparked an engaged citizen-culture that would, over all, actually strengthen the state against outsiders. Hobbes’ personal preference for monarchy also contrasts with Spinoza’s personal preference for republics. But both, I will re-iterate, did not believe there was one universal best form of government for all places and peoples. In fact, Spinoza was insistent that a political system will always be regionally and situationally unique. He was also even more of a realist than Hobbes when it came to social contracts, finding that power, not safety, was the true ultimate determinator in who got what. And that power came not from ideas, but by living within nature and understanding it enough to get the most out of it.

Here we have a thinker who denies progress, teleology, and idealism for a fully deterministic and materialist world view, yet comes to support freedom of the press and secularism in service of a republican civic virtue. Is Spinoza a liberal with all the stupid bits cut out? Or a realist with a modern sense of nuance lacking in Hobbes? Or both? Nevertheless, you can see why I am interested in him.

To create an artificial binary here, I am probably more personally close to Spinoza’s world view than that of Hobbes. However, I will maintain that so long as certain caveats such as adding economic security to the Hobbesian bargain are done, that Hobbes might still be the more relevant thinker on sovereignty for much of the world. Why? Because the dynamic tension of Spinoza is often preferable but too dangerous to work in fragile or besieged societies. A very strong and secure society can afford a level of decentralized experimentation, but a weak one cannot. Hobbes wrote in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war and its resulting fanaticisms in his home country. Spinoza wrote exposed to fanaticism as all in 17th Century Europe would have been, hence his desire to relocate from region to region to avoid antagonists, but also in a society at its financial and military peak. The Dutch Republic was in a far stronger place than England in that period. It could afford to be experimental. The British would only shift to a more mixed political system once they pulled ahead of the European pack.

We see this today in the world’s conflict zones. Embattled states either fail or become more Hobbesian to avoid failure. And so, as I am want to do, let us bring in Ibn Khaldun to add a third corollary here: the passage of time matters. Personal bonds create a new ruling elite, the ruling elite, if successful, creates a Hobbesian (or Chinese Legalist or whatever) state focused on survival and establishing itself as the dominant force in a territorial unit. Then, the Hobbesian state can (and possibly should) morph into a Spinozan state, strengthening itself by more fully integrating its citizens into its body and allowing dynamism to survive the loss of the original solidarity provided by security needs. The cycle will eventually repeat itself again, of course, but the transition to a Spinozan state could delay the inevitable decline in the final phase, meaning while upheaval is still inevitable, it is less common. This is not to ignore, of course, that a state could go from a Spinozan position to a Hobbesian one as a matter of necessity due to security concerns and internal division. Indeed, this is to be expected as well. But if the state survived the crisis by doing this, it could always pivot back to the Spinozan position once things clamed down.

And now, because that is the most effort I have been able to put into anything for the last couple days, let me leave you with a Spinoza quote that I think sums up both his metaphysical and his political views quite well:

‘Whenever then anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have only a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of the whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; Although in fact what our reason pronounces is bad is not bad in regards to the order of laws of universal nature, but only in regards to the laws of our own nature taken separately.’

Book Review: X-Risk, How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction

Taken from here.

‘I have seen the dark universe yawning. Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge, or lustre, or name.’ ~H.P Lovecraft, Nemesis.

Over 99 % of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. A tiny few died off while leaving radically different descendants much like the birds which came out of the dinosaurs, but most leave no trace but their fossils. Humans may be the first species that we know of to be aware of the concept of extinction itself, but we have only begun to entertain the idea that it could happen to us in relatively recent history.

X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction‘ by Thomas Moynihan, is a history of human mortality as it was experienced on an unfolding basis by thinkers and authors. A work of immense scope and a truly impressive level of research, ‘X-Risk’ shows us that contemplating human extinction is a surprisingly modern idea. Old myths and fables that postulated an end to humanity were not the same as they postulated the greater world would also be ending in supernatural cataclysm. Everything was either going into the twilight all together or being subjected to a hard reboot. Human extinction is a different concept, one that says that the universe will continue on without us, unheeding of our departure. Perhaps, on this planet anyway, even with other species relieved by the passing. Much as we are unbothered by all the lost former species on this world, so too will the greater ecology of Earth not miss our presence as birds and bats colonize the rafters of our empty and fossilizing cities.

This realization began with the Copernican Revolution and the knowledge that neither Earth nor the sun was the center of the universe but rather one star among many in the heavens, dethroning us from our previous assumptions of protagonist syndrome. But an even more important often overlooked revelation came not from the stars, but from the ground beneath us as more details about geology and the fossil record came to be understood in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The planet was undeniably a graveyard. A tectonically active and weather beaten charnel house that was hiding who knows how many bones from a still unknown amount of species that had once called it home.

Moynihan gives us the history of this revelation and the cultural and philosophical reactions to it from thinkers, scientists, and creatives alike. This is the majority of the text of his book, and it is truly a unique a necessary addition to contemporary philosophy. Though he comes out early on the side of the more hopeful revisionists who said we can or should at least try to fight back against our extinction, he gives summaries of the thought of all types of reactions including those who actively embraced the prospect of an end to humanity. In the end, Moynihan pleads with us to embrace expansion into space. Not, thankfully, as part of a unified euphoric destiny like so many mindlessly do, but in order to further diverge our species in different environments. This would make us harder to wipe out by fate as our genetics and what we adapt to carry on the human legacy beyond one world, one lifestyle, and one model which could become obsolete at any moment. His version of space exploration is less like Star Trek or even Foundation and more like Alastair Reynolds (especially the excellent novel House of Suns) or Jack Vance. Diversity and divergence is the key to Darwinian survival. All your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster when it comes to adapting to existential danger. A point that seems uncontroversial today until you realize most contemporaries in academia, media, and government in many societies never include the ideological aspect of diversity when they nod along.

Since the book is both good and informative and I obviously recommend it, I figure it would be more interesting to bring up the points I diverge from it rather than just spend the rest of this review stating the now obvious fact that I enjoyed reading it and outlining the examples that you could read for yourself in the text if you are so inclined. This is what now follows:

The Fermi Paradox Is Not Actually Interesting.

Like many thinkers interested in astronomy or the ethics of the future, Moynihan opens with The Fermi Paradox, the famous thought experiment trying to figure out why with our modern telescopes and hyper sensitive detection tools we have so far failed to find any signs of intelligent life out there in the cosmos. But all discussions of this inevitably (if you are speaking with a sane person anyway) break down to the likelihood of the most mundane explanations. Intelligent life is rare enough that the spaces between them is too great to see the signs. The Lightspeed barrier might be truly unbreakable, and so even the most advanced civilizations are at best confined to a handful of stars in one cluster, and of course, there is not just distance in space but distance in time. We are probably more likely to find planets one day which *could* have advanced life but haven’t evolved to that level yet, or planets that once did and left behind ruins. The threat of extinction is not just for us, after all. As far as I am concerned, The Fermi Paradox is just an interesting college dorm tier discussion framework and nothing more. Hardly a game changer one way or the other.

Extinction, Like Death, Is Hardly To Be Feared.

While I love reading pessimistic authors because they offer such a welcome break from our relentlessly euphoric public culture, I am in the end an indifferentist rather than a pessimist. And while there are things I fear like becoming paralyzed or imprisonment or declining living standards, I have never been afraid to die. Maybe this makes me an outlier for my species, but I find the concept of every story coming to an end not only inevitably true but also good. What value could something eternal possibly have? Lingering past ones time has always struck me as not only boring, but malignant on the future for others. Sure, no one loves old stuff more than me, but that old stuff would lack value if it was omnipresent and everywhere. It would just be more of the mundane rather than the special places and objects that allow us to remember there were once different peoples and eras. This has the effect of making me remarkably indifferent to the fate of humanity long past my own demise. In a time when I won’t be there and neither will anyone I will ever know around today, what care I? It is fun to speculate about, of course. But that is about it. I guess it is for this reason that I never saw the appeal of the concept of an afterlife or life extension biotechnology either. Even your favorite movie would get boring if it never ended. The temporary nature of things, mono no aware, if you will, is what makes the burden of human consciousness bearable.

Moynihan gets very concerned with these questions of inevitable endings to the point that I find quite hard to fathom. Though his instinct is obviously correct that the species as a whole has a survival drive, and he is right to point out constructive ways for us to harness this as a policy recommendation, he is also far to quick to jump on planning for the far future when it would be much more efficient to plan for the short term future. Here we are, on Earth, suffering from climate change. If you want to get to point C you must first cross point B. And that includes listening to what the pessimists have to say about humanity. It is better to be prepared for worst-case scenarios than to not be.

We know now that the universe will most likely either die or face a hard re-set. Not unlike ragnarok after all. Be it the cyclic model of a big crunch or rebirth through the extremely mind-bending conformal cyclic cosmology, or the path of heat death or tearing apart that dark energy unchecked might well be leading us to, our perpetuation does not transcend the end of the stage our play is acted out on. All things around now will one day be unrecognizable, whether we survive long term or not. And this brings me to my final point of divergence.

Consciousness Conflation?

Moynihan is very into the idea that people are happy to accept the concept of extinction so long as they can believe that somewhere out there in space or time other beings are conscious too. This means that he implies that as long as we can only prove ourselves to be such beings, we must tend this fire as it could very well be unique in the universe.

Since we have no data of other life elsewhere in one way or the other, but know for a fact it arose here, I find this a strange conclusion to jump to. Other forms of consciousness might be utterly alien and unrecognizable to us, even horrifying. Or they might be comically similar to the point where we have to confront that consciousness itself is just a biochemical adaptation mechanism like any other behavior (my personal suspicion).

But this isn’t my main criticism. Perhaps its the international relations scholar in me, but my main critique of this point is actually that humanity would find aliens threatening whether they were mundane and caused us to question our specialness or if they were radically different. We wouldn’t be happy to share the universe with such beings so much as on become guard, threatened, and whatnot. Sure, there would be an initial euphoria, but we tend to react negatively when our position at the center of existence gets dethroned. While thinkers may feel some reassurance others elsewhere are thinking about them, for most people I would say that they are not reassured by this. Our species comes first, its in our genes. Our willingness to accept extinction or not will come down to our own survival drive no matter what else is out there. Therefore, this will not be a factor in either making us complacent or fueling a death drive.

Additionally, in order to make this point of our apparent specialness, the author disavows the possibility that conscious life has arisen before and could do so after us on Earth as unhelpful. As a person who recently finished a graphic novel script on humans finding dinosaur civilizations out in space on one side and being threatened by the rise of sadistic sentient dolphins back on Earth, I tend to find the opposite is true…not because I fear being a lone conscious entity, but because the questions of how to use consciousness are far more interesting if we demystify it and remove anthropocentrism for the equation of our hypothetical thought experiments.

My Own Conclusion

All species have survival drives. I do not worry, like Moynihan, that we will end ourselves intentionally (accidentally is a very different proposition). The author is correct to advocate for his position and in turn give us a wonderful history of humanity’s surprisingly modern engagement with thoughts of its own demise. But there is a reason some ancient cultures divided up people based on their engagement with greater society into renunciates and householders. Householders have something at stake in all of this, renunciates are less interested in merging with the mass and more interested in detached observation. I am, myself, certainly part of this other group.

This may seem surprising since I work in the field of policy advocacy and strategic re-alignment. And I am not about to claim that I am fully detached or even want to be. But I have found that it helps ones ability to critically appraise or offer more usefully unique analysis if one is at least somewhat removed from investment in the ‘normie’ world. Even going back to childhood I never wanted to have children because it seemed like too much of an anchor in the rest of humanity (not to mention an invasion into my treasured solitude). Once I got over the hormone rush of puberty I also realized I never wanted a spouse either for similar reasons. It is for reasons like this I think I make a better analyst than many of my contemporaries, as I have little attachments to things than ruin observing the present as fully integrated into the past and the future as one moment full of fads like any other. I can advocate positions to make life better for lots of people, indeed, I view having a sense of civic duty quite highly, but I still do so with the knowledge that these moments in crisis will fade in time. We are managing problems in the relative short term only.

I love ruins. I love to wander amongst them. Possibly the coolest place I have ever been are the ruins of Pagan, in Myanmar. Once it was a thriving temple-riddled city and capitol of an empire whose ground water was inadequate for continual occupation and who never survived its sacking by the Mongols. What it left us is an entirely unpopulated city of stone and brick buildings. Wandering amongst such a place, which, at that time, was almost totally undiscovered by foreign tourists (it is different now, I hear) gives one a true sense of cosmic wonder and connection with Graveyard Earth. Moving this same sublime sensation forward into the future, imagine even our most terrifying ruins and the effect on legend and travel experience for future entropic Epicures.

I feel connection with cultures and peoples lost not because it was a tragedy they are gone but because they remind us that all our current struggles too will one day be lost too. This is what makes life not terrifying, but bearable. Perhaps Moynihan would admonish me in the words of a Clark Ashton Smith poem for becoming a ‘phantom among phantoms‘ who is lost in the space between ruins, but not all of us have to be on the same boat here. It is our cultural and psychological divergences that serve as a check on the whole species following just one rigid path after all. In the ideal space-expansion future both he and I seem to want, that of endless divergence in the stars, there will be planets of renunciates as well as euphoric strivers and many different balances in between too. The strives will no doubt have more numbers, but the renunciates won’t care.

And one of those planets, perhaps, will be Earth herself. Where eccentric curators wander the halls of an emptied out planet turned over to be part museum and part nature reserve, archiving data and giving tours to visitors.

It sounds like a fun place to live to me.

Tabletop RPGs and Understanding Chaotic Probability

The gamemaster screen for the excellent Mörk Borg

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood by those who have never actually looked at it to be the simple triumph of randomness over order. It is in fact the natural replication of order, but in an imperfect and ever-evolving way whose specifics are unpredictable but its patterns recognizable. Outlier events dominate when they occur, but are rare. Nothing is certain but patterns exist. A humanities equivalent might be ‘History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’

It has become increasingly apparent to me that explaining the deficiencies in how dominant ideologies of the present day process events needs a simple and readily accessible analogue for the general populace. Sure, my habit of blaming the extreme and (supposedly) opposite wings of monotheism and postmodernism for being the partners of maintaining an obsolete neoliberal order in our present age of global stupidity and breakdown is something I maintain is correct, but its also inaccessible to many. To get why I have this opinion requires an explanation of historical events and materialist philosophy that most people would not be interested in, if they even have the time for it. People know something is wrong, and they know that most of the people hired to explain these concerns away are lying to them or out of touch. They also know that many of the people proposing alternatives are very intense and extreme. Thoughtful but not formally educated people generally find the extremism of wingnut rhetoric and the hollow rear guard denials of unhinged centrism equally alienating. Surely, there is no panacea for our problems. Likewise, we clearly have to start looking further afield than the presently acceptable and ascribed solutions. Absolutism and relativism both are failures when taken to be universal principles. Abraham and Derrida both have much to answer for in their own special ways. Philosophy, politics, even the ways people communicate are hobbled. As do those with money and power who patroned them for their own ends. Probability, not certainty is the most important thing that must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to have a sensible opinion.

So how do you introduce the idea of a pragmatic probability to a general audience? By talking about real life places where it applies. Where both chance and skill interact together to create a situation where preparing and improving oneself is rewarded, but always under the knowledge that the roll of the die or the shuffle of the cards has final say. You can improve your odds always, but you cannot achieve certainty even a you do so. This can be analogized in many ways. Gambling, sculpture, game theory, the study of active volcanoes, traditional wargaming, your grandma playing Bejeweled. The way it should be talked about is determined by the nature of your own audience as well as what you know best on your own terms.

For me that is tabletop role playing games. At least, outside of geopolitics. But once again, more people are likely to be familiar with the former than the latter-especially when it comes to the fundamentals of practice. These are games where someone sets up a story and other players go through it not unlike a multiplayer computer game, but with the final determinator being not a software program but the actual game master, a human as capable of dynamic response as the players are.

I was introduced to tabletop RPGs as a kid in the mid-90s with Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Call of Cthulhu. By my early teens around Y2K I was already running Call of Cthulhu games as a ‘Keeper’, better known as a Dungeon Master (from DnD terminology) and henceforth referred to as a Game Master to include all potential games. I have played, and most often ran, games ever since in a variety of systems. Call of Cthulhu remaining my constant favorite with many others jockeying for my affection right below it. I tend to prefer more tone and story driven games to ‘crunchy’ rules-heavy ones, but as my Edinburgh-based former Pathfinder team can attest, I am also capable of running the more war-gamey ones as well. But even with my less complex preferences, it is important to me to run a game where dice rolls and chance play a major part so that the experiences transcends mere interactive storytelling and predictability.

Dice go beyond just pass/fail and enter into a new realm where there are multiple kinds of successes and failures and varieties of responses. The non-mathematical storytelling element that responds to roll results allows both the game master and the player to think far more creatively than any computer game could allow. At the same time, the random element means that no one is fully in control. What emerges from this interaction between fate and human input is something neither entirely determined nor entirely free. One in which dice might doom the best prepared players and spare the most incompetent, but only as outlier events. You can never achieve certainty, but you can increase your odds through smart builds and smart play. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Over time, the proportion of players who play wisely (as well as creatively) will be the ones more rewarded. Not only in enjoyment of the game, but in material benefits to their character in the game-world.

Even games where the players are pretty much guaranteed to be doomed the longer they play, such as Mörk Borg or Call of Cthulhu, this can serve as a kind of death analogy. We are all going to die one day so why try to maximize performance? Well, because you make gains along the way anyway-at least for a time. You’ll think back on your story of how you got there as you die, most likely. Its not about the destination but the people you met along the way. Sure, the knowledge gained in Call of Cthulhu will drive your character stark raving mad, but it is still knowledge. And knowledge can be many things from power, to a greater appreciation of the arts, to a lessening of the fear of failure. Having a character that survived long enough in that famously lethal game to become a stark raving mad and phobia-riddled savant of occult lore with an impressive library of forbidden tomes is one of my greatest accomplishments as a player.

But for most people who don’t share my pseudo-tantric black metal world view this might not be so effective. That is fine, as most tabletop rpgs aren’t like the examples above. In traditional fantasy or science fiction games one gains power and riches the longer they survive and keep adventuring. From the many Old School Renaissance games up through present day DnD Fifth Edition (the best and most accessible DnD version hence its surging popularity right now), there is enough danger and reversal to keep you on the your toes but the rewards are worth the attempt by any standard. Perhaps most interestingly, there also exists a variety of games between these poles that do a good job modeling both the power fantasy element of traditionally popular games with the more morally ambiguous and complication-riddled side of the darker ones. Here I am thinking about Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and other World of Darkness settings), Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and The Dying Earth RPG. These are games that specifically work into the gameplay immense ups and downs to create a roller coaster of experiences where the character is always growing, but not necessarily in a linear fashion or through constant victory.

The Conan game, in a great nod to its source material, actually has specific mechanics for both incentivizing winning gold and fame and also having to use these acquired resources to recover mental and physical health through debauchery and carousing. If you want to keep gaining stats you have to keep adventuring, but if you want to keep adventuring you have to recover through squandering your ill-gotten gains. On top of this is the momentum/doom system where successes lead to more die for rolls and failures compound into more counter-die for the game master to use against the players. The players and game master end up trading literal dice to increase their probabilities in rolls they want to fudge up, turning near misses to near hits (or vice versa). Fate can be played with, but only temporarily as somewhere down the line ones accumulated dice-karma will come back for them. The Dying Earth RPG takes an even more direct approach, with all rolls being based around six sided die with 1 being an critical fail and six being a stunning success, greatly increasing the odds of a ridiculous outcome in any direction. The game is built specifically so that epic failure is as entertaining and almost as desirable as epic success. The GM rewards players who play into their extreme results with a sense of panache with experience points, regardless of if those results are a failure or a success.

Even traditional games on the ends of the tone spectrum have variants that fudge the line. DnD has the Planescape and Dark Sun settings to create a darker and more surreal or survivalistic tone to its normally high fantasy system. Call of Cthulhu has Pulp Cthulhu, which adds an bit of Indiana Jones style punching out cultists and traveling the world for treasure to the staples of madness and unspeakable horrors lurking under the surface. Interwar dungeon delving with a cosmic horror tone.

The fact is that tabletop gaming still does what its more popular computer based descendants cannot do in both randomness and in player input. (There is one possible almost-exception to this rule, however). Anyone who has played-and especially ran-these games enough knows no plan for a module, be it the module itself from the game master or the player’s tactics at tackling it, ever survives fully intact upon contact with the random elements. But at the same time, a well designed module or player tactical plan is going to work far more often than a poorly thought out approach. Much like navigating life, politics, the sciences, metaphysics, the stock market, or even the overall span of societies, tabletop rpgs show in a clearly communicable way to a general audience the interplay of forces both outside and within a person’s control and how those come together to create a probability-dominated world where nothing ever turns out as you plan it. This unpredictability is part of the intrinsic nature of the game and usually makes perfect sense of even outlier events in hindsight. Dice results may disappoint or elate you, but they don’t lie. And how you respond to those stark numbers rolled out on the table can be everything. There is always an excuse for failure at something challenging, but never one for not being prepared as much as possible before the challenge roll.

A Speculative Realist Review of ‘History of the Tantric Religion’

chinnamasta

Those who have followed this blog since its inception in late 2015/early 2016 know that while it is mostly an international relations, politics, and history blog it has also gradually become a place to explore my journey into the new philosophical school of speculative realism. I have been gradually working my way through constructing a geopolitical take on speculative realism. In so doing I have also been inspired to engage with philosophical positions that come from South and East Asia as I have seen some obvious parallels between some of those schools of thoughts and the rebirth of metaphysical materialism in some sectors of ‘western’ philosophy. Above all, the worldviews with a Tantric side seem to offer the most interesting overlap.

Tantra is not in fact what most westerners who hear the term believe it to be. According to the school of Californian Buddtology, Tantra is feeling all mystical about having sex in weird postures. While it is certainly true that contemporary Tantra has some optional sex practices as part of its ritual culture, I have a feeling your average Cilantro-Botoxian from the Hollywood Hills would find little in common with the philosophy behind the movement if they ever actually bothered to read about it.

As an atheist and hard materialist myself, I naturally wanted to read about Tantra from as secular and scholarly a source as I could find. Fortunately, I was able to locate the second revised edition of N.N. Bhattacharyya’s ‘History of the Tantric Religion.’ I am not interesting in converting, after all, but rather understanding more fully this school of thought that presaged speculative realism by thousands of years. And this book delivered.

It is both a history of the thought trend and also an exploration into its themes. Many of these themes have been diluted or merged with more mainstream thought over time, leading Tantra today to have the reputation of something that is more about technique rather than a distinct world view on its own.

In its beginning, Bhattacharyya shows us that Tantra was an anti-establishment impulse that came from women and the lower castes of society. In direct opposition to Brahmannical divorce from the real world to follow abstract ideology (insert joke about woke neoliberal overlords here) an organic take on Hinduism and Buddhism arose which centered not the abstract goals of a priestly caste but rather the physical, real, and material. This was most evident in the relationship between physical objects-especially that of the human body, the natural world, and substances both foul and delightful- what could be consumed (meat, alcohol, bodily fluids, etc). Many Tantra-aligned schools of thought dabbled in atheism, skepticism, and controlled ritualistic hedonism. The violation of preexisting social taboos was important to challenge complacent thinking and transcend the rote wisdom we are saddled with that stops us from seeing the flow of nature as it really is. All of these schools were interested in the natural world and how the human body and the gods reflected this material existence. When gods were used they were explicitly stated to be symbols of natural forces to which we are only separated from by the illusion of human difference.

Sadly, over time most of these traditions would end up weakening and merging with the greater normie culture of medieval and early modern India. Others, such as Vajrayana Buddhism (who longtime followers of this blog know I have an obsession with the aesthetic of) effectively came to rule entire regions in the Himalayas. But having become the establishment those too largely lost the contrarian and material nature of the original school of thought as they degenerated into Llamaist theocracy.

Still, several core elements of this rebellious and wonderfully base philosophy still survive in many various deity cults and practices in South and Himalayan Asia today. These could be summed up (my own take here, be warned) as ‘the only way out is through.’ In other words, the way for a human to recognize their place as part of an unfolding natural process is to de-emphasize socially constructed protocol (caste, class, moralism, absolute idealism) for confronting the base nature of everything head on. Afraid of death? Spend time meditating upon the charnel grounds. Afraid of becoming a slave to the passions? Indulge in all of the passions in a disciplined manner so that you eventually grow tired of excess and regulate them in a rational manner. Afraid of violence and strife? Adopt the iconography and terms of war and slaughter in the form of wrathful deities, whose fearsome aspect is then turned from something shocking potentially directed against you into something powerful that is now on your own side. The practice of focusing on ones personal selection of deities is often a major part of this, as the gods most associated with Tantric practice (such as Chinnamasta, pictured above) are often grotesque, their power overflowing in fountains of gore, limbs, bones worn as decorations, and yet dancing through it all. They show that the most terrifying things can be internalized into something powerful and helpful, and turning fear from something to avoid into something to co-opt into bravery and critical thinking.

When I think of people around the speculative realist movement who do this Graham Harman and Ray Brassier come to mind, if in different ways. Harman wants to rub the fact that you are an object, and therefore that ‘objectification’ is not only not a bad thing but an honest and true claim, in your face. Brassier wants to bring philosophical nihilism out from the edgy teenager/depressive persons territory and claim it as simply objective truth to be confronted directly as fact before moving on to anything else.

In a way we all do this to some level without realizing it. People enjoy horror movies for cathartic or thrill seeking reasons even if (and sometimes especially if) they are the kinds of people who shrink from conflict and danger. I professionally advocate for tearing down the perpetual war state for strategic reasons but love military history and war movies. I can also speak from personal experience that the most effective means I ever came across for confronting and managing my situational depression when it flares up was to indulge it critically. This meant  treating it more like an annoying acquaintance than an enemy, indulging it just enough to integrate myself with the experience before realizing it didn’t really matter because it was just systems responding irrationally. Interestingly, the most effective way of speeding up this process is very Tantric…I watch as many depressing movies and read as many depressing books as possible. Eventually, by charging directly through you end up punching right past being stuck. It becomes a challenge of a sorts, ‘oh you think that is bad? I’ll show you worse!’ By the end of it you sort of win the game or you get sick of playing. Either way, crisis averted because now you are thinking entirely differently from when you started. In the process you learn self-discipline so the potential for even gaining knowledge is there too.

In an era where shrinking violets control the discourse and seek to avoid uncomfortable topics is a moralizing version of anti-intellectualism, I can think of no better way of thought to counteract this Tipper Gore-ish trend than that of subversive Tantric methods of thinking.

Guess that explains my love of black metal. If there is one genre of music that could fit this topic, its surely that.

 

Facts Don’t Care About Your Grifters

Grifters

Its been a bad couple of months for the grifter. Hot on the heels of the implosion of the Russiagate spy thriller industrial complex and the sudden flailing about of its most shrill and conspiratorial partisans we have also been the witness to two utterly unsurprising and overdue reckonings with the more traditional conservative grifter.

First came the much vaunted Peterson vs Zizek debate, which you can watch here. While I have little invested in either of these two famous commentators I was curious as to how an obvious carnival barker such as Peterson would perform against an actual intellectual like Zizek. Zizek, it must be noted, is not a philosopher I consider myself a huge fan of in many ways. I am firmly on a realist and he on the idealist. He loves Hegel, who I cannot stand, and is part of a long-running unfortunate trend of left-wing thinkers who are aligned first and foremost with anthropocentrism. That being said, he is undeniably a philosopher and an intellectual, words that Peterson aspires to be but has always come up short on attaining.

What happened in their debate is mostly notable for how unused to being challenged Peterson was on his own talking points. He has based most of his career on conflating Marxism and Postmodernism (two ideologies that really could not be more different) and has never had to confront the fact that his image of Marxism was entirely divergent from its actual real world manifestation-as well as that the cultural feed for the social justice nuts he decries has much more to do with the inherent pathos of the classical liberalism, individualism, and Christianity that is part and parcel of the very ‘west’ conservatives love to champion.

Hardly a surprising result of the debate of course. But then it happened again even more recently. Ben Shapiro, an even more blatant fraud than Peterson (though beloved by the same demographic of alienated and terrified young men and bitter divorced dads who create such spawn) showed how utterly unused to being challenged by critical questions he is on live television.

The similarities between these two and others like them, aside from apparently voiceboxes that approximate various tones of a deflating Kermit the Frog, is the nature of the conservative grift. Conservatism by its very nature often trends towards the anti-intellectual. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ and a reflexive desire to defend entrenched power is hardly conducive to critical thought, even if a conservative position happens to be the more correct one. Naturally, however, said entrenched powers know they need a propaganda wing too, hence the vast amount of astroturf funding that goes out via think tanks and various organizations affiliated with big money to prop up things like Turning Point USA and the like. If you were actually to leave public discourse in its natural state, critics and not defenders would thrive.

This creates a money pit. The grifter may or may not actually believe what they say but senses an opportunity to make bank. No trickster could fault such a tactic, and be sure that I do not. It’s a rough world out there in the post-recession hellscape. The problem is that these artificially buoyed people become both convinced that they themselves are wholly responsible for their success (which jives nicely with the ideology that they expound) and then enter into a feedback loop where they begin to believe their own bullshit-assuming of course that they already didn’t. Such incestuous behavior leads to Peterson inventing his own political theory in a vacuum or Shapiro writing his own articles about himself in the third person and giving them self flattering and hyperbolic titles. Meanwhile, both take immense pride in being expert debators but (until recently) only debated psychologically frail college students and utterly superficial news anchordolls. Much like Uri Geller, the spoons only bend when the spoons have been chosen by the person who claims to be able to bend them.

It is worth noting, however, that this is not new. The last proper conservative intellectual in the English speaking world was Edmund Burke, all the way back in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries-and even he was not recognized as anything near an orthodox conservative in his time. While overly reactive against the (legitimate and inevitable) class basis of the French Revolution, he was still a person of nuanced thought who charted a course rooted in history and against many of the dominant tides of thinking in his day. There hasn’t really been a conservative political thinker of such importance or impact since in Britain, America, or their offshoots. Despite what people try to say (including desperate liberals who like to maintain the facade of the rational conservative as someone to hash out the enlightenment project within the salon, god forbid they have to talk to anyone left of them or of unorthodox persuasion) the entire experience of conservatism has drifted far away from anything properly intellectual since basically the industrial revolution. It is telling that the figure of the last generation most held up as an example of former conservative rationality and class was William F Buckley, himself a Bill O’Reilly style pundit more than any kind of proper thinker with anything of substance to say.

But there is money in it and fools aplenty willing to eat up bargain basement level platitudes and superficial gotcha moments packaged as philosophy. In this way, the mainstream right resembles the hypersensitive and hysterical trends of the moralistic wings of the left. Much like two sectarian branches of the same religion, both despise each other more for their similarities than the differences. Both are also clearly cultural inheritors of the protestant reformation and liberal patrician thought and their respective glorification of virtue signaling intent over action and accomplishment. The irony is that while this world views only work in a vacuum, they can only be disseminated in public forums. With the right challenger, they can be made to look utterly foolish under the disinfectant of exposure. It is important to hold interviewers to a high standard in order to best combat these grifters and their influence lowering public debate to that of the tattletales of the elementary school classroom. If so confronted, as Peterson and Shapiro have been recently, their influence will be undermined.

 

The Universe of Repulsion

 

ravenstealssunboddhisatva

My own depiction of Pacific Northwest Raven as a Tibetan wrathful Bodhisattva, or perhaps anti-Bodhisattva. 

Concurrent with my 3 years of delving into speculative realist philosophy has been a simultaneous exploration of the historical intellectual thought in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I remain as much a materialist and atheist as I have ever been, but find the intellectual journey of these religions far more interesting than that of the Abrahamic faiths I have been surrounded by for most of my life. In some ways I believe they can show glimpses of what intellectual life would be like in the western half of Eurasia (and its descended colonies) were it not for the rise of Christianity. Particularly in Japan, Mongolia, and China, where foreign religions largely integrated with pre-existing polytheism rather than simply replacing or expunging them. The only places in the west where such syncretism occurred is in Afro-Caribbean influenced places, some Native American modern beliefs, and New Orleans voodoo-and those of course are heavily dominated by surrounding Christian cultures.

Hinduism had outright atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, and Buddhism denies the immutable soul and upholds philosophical inquiry as dialectic exchange. Certain concepts, such as ‘Indra’s Web’ (shared by both), a concept of the universe as a web containing droplets where each droplet reflects the others ad infinitum, have a remarkable level of confluence with Whitehead’s process theory or to be much more contemporary Bryant’s ‘democracy of objects’- with the notable exception that the philosophical trends are expressed materialistic, and the religious concepts usually are the opposite. Still, much of this way of thinking effectively did not exist in the west from late antiquity until Shopenhauer and its interesting to follow its trends as thought in parts of the world where it was in effect never interrupted.

This bring me to my main point here with the post, and its a problem I have with both process theory and other adjacent to the new speculative turn schools of thought as well as those eastern religions. The problem is quite simple: sure the universe is all interconnected, but this certainly does not mean that it is all *one*.

One of the reasons I have always been partial to hard polytheistic cosmologies as cultural complex is because while there is the acknowledgement that the pantheon of (I would hold, symbolic) figures all takes place in the same world, they are fundamentally different and sometimes at odds. While many philosophical trends, secular and eastern, are superior to the brute certitude and absolutism of Abrahamism, they still can’t quite bring themselves to see the power of chaos and repulsion. In fact, repulsion seems one of the few universal values that can be said to observably exist.

I generally find metaphysics that are not grounded in actual science or natural philosophy to be nothing but faffing about and New Agey nonsense, and fortunately my background in being an astronomy nerd is in fact much longer and more robust than that of philosophy. Dark Energy, so far considered the dominant force of our universe, immediately comes to mind. If the concept of negative mass can be proven it will contribute to this. The fact that gravity is universal and omnipresent, but also weak compared to the forces of energy (dark or otherwise) also makes a case of interconnections not being enough to overcome repulsion. But this is, first and foremost, a humanities blog and there the immediate effects of repulsion seem most obvious.

In international relations we find the natural desire for all states, no matter their official ideological inclination, to balance and counter-balance each other so as to maintain the maximum freedom of action in an anarchic inter-state world that is possible. In culture and politics we see competition leading to rivalry which leads to divergence, and unity only possible when a majority is willing to countenance the use of force to keep such unity alive. Societal bonds break down both for oppression from an increasingly alien ruling class as well as in times of immense complacency and opulence. New mergers are often only possible when two groups fear a third group more, in which case unity itself is the product of an even higher level of repulsion. Foreign attack or invasion is the best way to create unity, because the level of general repulsion is often held to be greater than that which occurs naturally within a society when not under existential threat. When things are left to their natural anarchic state, repulsion is the norm. It is unity that is the artificial construct and temporary state, beneficial as it can often be. But repulsion seems to be the baseline all is working from on the macro-scale. As the Arab proverb goes (paraphrasing here): ‘My country against other countries, my region against my country, my town or city against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ What we see here is that unity is only truly reliable when a greater force of repulsion is present. Even those insufferable kinds of people filled universal love show this by the scorn they heap upon those that deny their vision and the hierarchies of condescension they create from those who follow the doctrine they espouse down to ‘the unenlightened’ who do not.

Some schools of thought in speculative realism, especially Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, adopt a view more closely to what I am getting to with repulsion. Despite being more on the process theory side of things (as, I think increasingly, am I), Bryant talks about such issues as well. These thinkers speak not only of withdrawn objects and and the core of objects being inaccessible, but also of the real material basis for divergence between objects in thought. As stated before, I myself am not into the metaphysical side of things enough to bother as much with this aspect, but I do think that one can acknowledge that everything is interconnected through processes while still rejected the idea that ‘all is all one’-unless that one thing is base struggle. Interconnections need not mean monism or uniformity. In fact, rivalry and division are also a form of being connected to things. A kind of connection through repulsion-which is still a type of relationship of course but one of many rather than of one.

All of this is to quibble with semantics of course. But I feel for those of us who study the competition of societies vis-a-vis each other, or the unpredictability of change in any form, it is a useful rhetorical tool to have. It also has the positive value of being able to repel hippies and anti-intellectual ‘its like, all one mannnnn’ type people who deny the very real existence of power struggle and the importance of divergences in thought while still engaging with some concepts common in discourse that are not themselves wrapped up in Platonic forms or absolutism.

Or in other more flippant words, maybe interconnections through repulsion is the true, ahem, ‘middle path.’

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

chuckyjacksoff

Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’

 

In Praise of Objectification

riaze bronzes

The Riace Bronzes, pictured above, were originally made around 450 BCE. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in the 1970s, they are a fantastic example of Greek sculptural talent that has survived in excellent condition.

If you look at them superficially they seem the pinnacle of lifelike form. Artistic realism from a time when it was rare in much of the world. But they are in fact not quite this. A closer look reveals that they are in fact aesthetic exaggerations. The proportion of the limbs is incorrect, the spinal divot is greatly accentuated, the torso too long. If they weren’t beautiful they would be grotesques-a perverse distortion of the human form. And yet it is this accentuation itself that makes them so striking, not for being horrifying, but for being captivating. They are proof of the power of objectification.

We live in a contemporary culture that seeks to deny this power and the positive role that objectification can play. Moralists across the political and social spectrum which have inherited the puritanical drives of monotheism and puritanism seek an artistic world that reflects a reality where nothing can be perfect. Being a (political) realist, I agree that the world can never be perfect and should never be idealized in thought. But being a (speculative) realist I also maintain that there is no harm doing so in the visual arts or in the abstract. So long as we maintain the the difference between ideal and real not only do I not see harm, I see a valuable lesson for rumination by the materialist.

The first and most simple point is entirely subjective, so I will dispense with it quickly. Non-objectified art can be made with less talent and often just leads to edgy pure-interpretative postmodern navel gazing. It is boring and its time is rapidly drawing to a close. Various cultures have created great works of art by not just idealizing the physical forms of people, but animals, plants, mythological creatures, you name it. The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, one of my favorite man made places I have ever been to, objectifies (if using the definition of moralist scolds of left and right) foxes for symbolism. Much of what is great and striking in classical art does something similar for more human like figures. Modern art such as Osprey which merely seeks to recreate historic clothes and armor often does much the same. Propaganda does the same in more abstract form, particularly in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century.

But more substantially and less subjectively as a second point, to the philosophical realist objectification is good in any context because objectification is true. The concern with the moralists of left, right, and center is always the fear that humanity will be reduced to an object. They wish to avoid embracing this, but I would prefer embracing it directly. Humanity is a collection of objects which in turn creates its own cohesive object as the human in turn (See Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology and Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartology in turn, mentioned a few entries ago on this blog in greater detail). Humanity is more than the sum of its parts, sure, but only because the addition of multiple objects creates new ways for assemblages to interact in physical space and thus to create new and larger objects. Your liver is an object, but in meeting with your other object-organs it creates a greater object-assemblage, which is yourself. And yourself, it reasons to assume, is itself a smaller object as part of the assemblage of humanity itself as a species, and Earth itself as an object-planet. Therefore, from a materialist standpoint, you really are an object. And all objects, depending on their use to others, become objectified by living beings in some way.

The third point is that objectification reminds us not to be suckered into anthropocentrism. As humans we constantly objectify everything around us because our relationship with the rest of the world is much more honest than the one we have within our own species. In the era of the anthropocene it is more and more important that we disavow with this artificial separation between how we perceive ourselves and the rest of the natural world. To reduce someone to an ‘object’ is not really an insult, but rather an honest admission as to how we view most people who we do not have a personal acquaintance with. This also overlaps with contemporary culture’s obsession that physical beauty matters more than everything else. If one believes that acknowledging (ever-changing) beauty ideals exist and will always exist in some form, this is viewed as morally bad. But really it is an admission of reality. The actual ideals will change, of course, but not that such ideals in some form will exist. What this means, ironically, is that the woke-burqa alliance is actually stating that they believe, deep down inside, that physical beauty is the only meaningful form of praise.

I disagree. I think a person can be objectified for their body, or for their brain, or for some useful or impressive talent (which most likely involves the manipulation of objects in turn) because it is both consistent and correct to do so. Society does not exist to have numerous atomized individuals all pretending they are all perfect wholes separate from the rest-nor does it exist to pretend that egalitarianism must mean different traits are not exceptional. It exists so that different specializations can be harnessed for a variety of communal outputs. The real objective should not be to ‘make everyone comfortable and modest’ or ‘make everyone beautiful’, which would only make everyone bland and indistinguishable even in the entirely unlikely scenario that it would succeed (not to mention create an underground and illegal beauty and horror market to fill the need being denied) but rather to increase the amount of things we are going to objectify so that more people can be objectified in more fields…and thus elevated.

The cultures that first dove into philosophy were the same ones who made works like the Riace Bronzes. This is not a coincidence. When Christian fanaticism came to power many of these so called idols were smashed. Islam did much the same. Daesh did this just a few years ago in Syria during the occupation of Palmyra.

Maybe its time to bring the idols back.