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.’

 

Interstate Anarchy and the Befuddled Monotheist

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When the subject of International Relations is taught in universities, it often opens up with a discussion of the concept of ‘anarchy’. In this specific subject’s domain, anarchy neither denotes the political philosophy nor one of the rightly less-talked about Batman villains, but rather the classic definition of realm without governance. This may seem a strange topic for a subject/major which is ostensibly about state to state interaction, but what it effectively means is that there is no over-arching governing structure above that of states.

Protestations that this is not the case because of the UN or ‘values and norms’ should always be met with derision. After all, big states don’t have to do anything the UN tells them too, little ones often do depending on their relations with bigger powers.

Despite being an important introductory concept, I tend to find it is one that many people, not just entry-level students, struggle with. In earlier posts I have mentioned how common place but also delusional the Anglo-American view of a progressive international realm moving in a linear direction is, but I have yet to articulate why this is often the case. I can put it simply, believing in one ultimate power is akin to committing intellectual and suicide for the person seeking to understand strategy.

Even before the world was integrated and largely aware of, well, the rest of everyone outside of a particular region’s existence, where a single dominant power form of unipolarity could often rise a la Rome at its height or the Chinese Han or Tang Dynasties, such arrangements were not assumed to be perpetual perfections of humanity. Rather, the security they provided was a fragile construct worth defending…until it wasn’t anymore because the consensus upholding it had broken down. The Han were aware of the Qin before them, the Tang would be aware of the Han, and so on. Confucianism, often a boring conservative philosophy on so many issues, rightly predicted that no order, no matter how perfect, could last forever or be immune to change. The Byzantine Empire certainly recalled its glory days by never giving up the title of Romans even if they had long since left Rome itself behind.

Such unipolar arrangements are rare. Since 1991 we have seen arguably the only one to ever span the entire planet. It will not last forever. It once was taken for granted that it would by the complacent chattering classes of liberalism and conservatism alike, but now enough reality has set in that we face something just as bad-denial giving way to impotent rage and divisive fury. Where did America go wrong? Who is to blame?

Well, America is to blame. Just as the Cold War gave it the spending priorities and mobilization to build a space program and first class infrastructure, so too did unipolarity give it lazy navel-gazing narcissism. This is a process that happens to all powers (sorry, exceptionalists) but can either be delayed or accelerated by a variety of factors. One of them is buying into your own mythology. When your advertising brand becomes your very existential core of existence believed by the governing class itself, you have a problem.

The United States, like Britain before it and other spectacularly insecure powers, viewed itself as apart of history. A moral titan reshaping the world with the righteous energy of Christian values and liberal politics. But as is usual in politics, righteousness is really a code word for ‘strategically toxic and anti-intellectual while still being just as coercive as any other order.’ Herein lies the problem: cultures who believe (either actually or symbolically) in one absolute higher power suffer from massive handicaps to much of the population when it comes to getting the inter-state system and the ever-present anarchy that is an inevitable part of it.

The United States may be the most powerful state which has ever existed in all of human history. For all we know it might continue to be so for decades or even a century if one is being generous. It still does not rule the world. Nor could it. It merely can get away with more for less. That is what power really is in the end, the ability to shift the world’s various circumstances in one way rather than another through intention. It is why it is an invaluable, if incalculable, resource. An invisible resource created only by very real material ones.

And it matters because there is no authority. There is no God here. This is international relations- a realm of little highly specific gods whose fickle natures and epic, tragic feuds are the stuff of legend. As fortune weaves out fate their various importance in the hierarchy rise and fall accordingly. They uphold no values but that which geography and history gave to them, much like representative deities of specific regions, lifestyles, and careers. Or like packs of social and competitive animals. Much like the illusion of order is given by the United Nations, Mount Olympus is an imposing location of projected celestial unity which under closer scrutiny gives way to the back-halls of scheming and backstabbing. Comedy and tragedy abound in equal and intertwined measure.

And yet we treat the act of wishing this away for supernatural or philosophical paternalism as one of principle and heroism. It is anything but. It is in fact cowardice. The fear of the unknown, the fear of not being the good guy. But what we need is exactly people who are willing and able to see themselves as the villains in someone else’s story, and still be willing to carry one regardless. Maybe even revel in it a bit.

This is not a world of universal morality or high ideals. It never could be. It is a state of anarchy, and it is also a state of philosophical and circumstantial polytheism. This means that as far as an intellectual understanding goes, some cultures are better equipped than others to understand the fundamental principles of IR in both theory and practice. Obviously, many great strategists exist in all literate cultures, so its not a supressive effect. We do have Cardinal Richelieu after all. But in the Muslim and especially Christian worlds, those strategists were thinking against the currents of their time and often regarded as highly scandalous, whereas in non-monotheistic cultures such strategists were a utilitarian novelty. This is less an issue about strategists themselves than one of non-strategists learning about or from them. I do not find it a pure accident that the only sane person on foreign policy issues in the US congress right now is a Hindu.

In a world where the public (and often times even more the private) educational system emphasizes the inherited baggage of monotheism and its secular surrogates it risks creating a population of people with absolute opinions and no practical way to achieve them. As it is, most internet political culture in countries like America and those of Western Europe has become one where the greatest posturer is regarded as the default winner, rather than people who actually accomplish things. Specifically on foreign policy it creates a right wing addicted to war and a left wing addicted to war-like things which are not claimed to be wars but rather ‘interventions.’ This is because paying homage to some nonexistent order is regarded as more important than the more morally ambiguous and complicating of simply living the life of a hypersocial and tribal animal. ‘We have to do something’, they say, ‘it is our responsibility to uphold this order.’ They ignore that in domestic politics the state serves as the final arbiter, and their moralism can be translated into legalese and upheld. It is not so in the international realm.

I often make jokes at the expense of conservatives overfond of America/Rome analogies. The two societies are really nothing alike and its mostly a way for BHB’s to pretend to be educated about the past. But if you are going to make one, here it is: It is telling that the Roman Empire adopted Christianity most likely in an attempt to shore up a declining state by having a uniform religion. What actually happened though was that the need for uniform views itself led to internal strife unlike that ever seen in the pagan days, with theologians at each others throats and various factions only happy enough to jump right in, eventually expanding their disputes to competing foreign peoples. It was a conversion whose only real strategic effect was a massive amount of irony. Monotheism cannot even make itself true in a unipolar order. In fact, one could make the case that unipolarity increases the need for a more ‘polytheistic’ approach to strategic thought, as to acknowledge a state of nature beyond human ideals and aspirations is to be on guard against complacency.

And yes, I know about Niebuhr. And yes, I am unimpressed. Because you are still just kicking the can down the road ineffectually if your argument is ‘humanity is just so rotten we can’t see the glorious unity of order and can’t take part in it until we die.’ Because there is nothing rotten about any of this. It is just how it is. People may call my views cynical, but the fact is I accept humanity as it is and don’t pretend it can or even should be something else, here or postmortem. It is what it is, get used to it. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with a multi-polar world, and there is everything right with one when it comes to debate, discussion, and diversity of ideas. But, the unipolar world only works when it acknowledges itself as a freak occurrence or a product of circumstance, not as a harbinger of world order and morality (also somehow conflated with economics by 20th century powers to ridiculous degrees). The more unipolar the world, the greater the necessity for a more diversified understanding of values and politics. It is worth remembering that at the end of the Finnish epic ‘The Kalevala’, Vainamoinen is being banished from the world by the arrival of magical baby (the Christian religion), yet he swears one day his people will need him and he will return.

After all, the trickster, the theme element of this blog, could not exist in a world of black and white and universal order. It would be an irrelevant concept. And yet the people who stand the test of time as thinkers were often those who stood against their own era’s received wisdom. But look around you in both folk legend and real life and you will see tricksters everywhere. Probably having a pretty good time too. And if not, making some over serious person have a bad time, which is just as good. There is a reason the myths and legends from cultures with many gods are always more fun to read anyway, it speaks to our actual multi-faceted experience in the real world.