World-Makers, World-Owners

Charles Mudede’s explanation for why the slave becomes the thesis of the next order dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is surprisingly straightforward and elegant (“Marxism and Insects: Slave-Making Ants,” SLOG, The Stranger, 13 May 2010):

Hegel argues that because the world is more and more made and shaped by slave labor — serving, building, putting “all to rights” — the world makes more and more sense to slaves and less and less sense to the masters (“so utterly helpless are the masters”). The masters only know how to destroy; the slaves know how to create.

If you follow the link and read the entire post, know that it is the latest installment in Mr. Mudede’s recent ant phase. His explanation of Hegel quoted above is a takeoff from a description of slavery amidst the ants found in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. For the slave revolt among the ants, definitely read the article that commenter @10 recommends (Rodríguez, Álvaro, “Enslaved Ants Revolt, Slaughter Their Captors’ Children,” DiscoBlog, Discover, 18 August 2008).

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The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

Reconstructing Hegelianism

Here’s why Charles Mudede has become one of my most closely followed blogger-thinkers: because his project is my project (“The End of Internalism,” SLOG, The Stranger, 9 June 2009):

I’m quietly building a case for the importance of Hegel in an age that cares neither for him or his direct descendant, Marx. A part of the case will, one, link Hegel’s concept of geist and its movement in time (world history) with the idea of the evolution of noosphere in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man; and, two, link Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit with the ideas expressed in Alva Noë’s new book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness — some of these ideas can be heard on the Brain Science Podcast.

I am very interested in using contemporary information economy concepts such as the noosphere or general systems theory to reconstruct the Hegelian system. I’m less sure where Mr. Mudede is going with the second part of this, but Out of Our Heads is on my list now.

A Cyberpunk Rereading of German Idealism

Pattie Maes's TED talk demonstrating an enhanced reality device, February 2009

Over at SLOG there is a bit of a conversation is going on about Pattie Maes’s recent TED talk in which she demonstrated what she calls “sixth sense,” but that I would call “augmented reality” (with Pranav Mistry, “Unveiling the ‘Sixth Sense,’ Game-Changing Wearable Tech,” TED, February 2009; Hecht, Anthony, “Holy Freaking Crap,” SLOG, The Stranger, 3 April 2009).

Today Charles Mudede, one of the thinkers to whom I consider myself most close, comments on the significance of Ms. Maes’s innovations along a line similar to my own project (“The Near Future,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 April 2008):

It’s as if Hegel’s geist in his grand narrative of the history of consciousness, Phenomenology of the Spirit, actually came true. We can laugh at Hegel and his impossible absolute spirit, but we cannot laugh at Pattie Maes and her wearable tech.

For some time now I have been thinking that a cyberpunk rereading of the German Idealists is necessary. I have made a number of posts along this line (see Related Posts below). One of the themes of this blog — one that has emerged accidentally — is of the hard materiality of that which we call “ideal”; the degree to which mind is in the world; and not just statically so, but the degree to which the balance of matter and information is giving ground to information, processes of reification, the “imperialism of information”; that tool for rendering the study of ideology a material science, the meme; of those twain machines which bridge the gap: brains and computers.

My contributions to the project to date:

The Deus ex Machina of Economic Crisis,” 25 March 2009
The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009
Emergence and Aufhebung (Hegel and the Swarm),” 5 December 2008
The Day I Became a Hegelian,” 18 August 2008
Imagination Unmoored,” 8 August 2008

“What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational”!

Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

Emergence and Aufhebung (Hegel and the Swarm)

I like Charles Mudede’s scaled down explanation of emergence (“Interlace in Dubai,” SLOG, 3 December 2008):

In the theory of emergence it is understood that complexity has a limit. For example, when the population of an ant colony reaches a certain point, 80,000 or so, changes begin to happen. Army ants swarm another colony or lots of ants move out and wander or start a new colony. What is clear is one behavior ends and another one begins.

One controlling logic relinquishes to a subsequent controlling logic. Emergence is a discontinuity in growth.

I don’t know that he is right to characterize this as “complexity having a limit.” An emergent property is an aufhebung: a simultaneous preservation and transformation. The emergent property doesn’t sweep aside all previous behavior, but preserves the original behavior and builds a new layer or interpretive characteristics on top of it. I think of “the invisible hand” of capitalist markets here. People don’t stop bargaining when market clearing happens. People continue to negotiate, clip coupons, shop around, seek out sales, innovate, invest and compete. Market clearing is a second order interpretation of the ground level behavior that persists just under this interpretive overlay. Or in the example of the prisoners’ dilemma, the participants don’t cease to be rational outcome maximizes when the logic of suboptimum outcomes takes over. Their goals and reasoning stay the same. If anything, by preserving all the original complexity and adding a superstructure of new behavior, emergence is complexity unbound from its first order confines.

Note on a Leftist Apologia for Military Studies

I’m a leftist, though sufficiently idiosyncratic of one that many others so identifying look askance at such a claim on my part. One factor in my intellectual homelessness is that one of my primary concerns is the martial.

America abounds in the sort of gear head who revels in military tech divorced of any consideration of the context in which it came to be, or the kind of person who believes in honor and thrills at tales of gory sacrifice. The entire business model of the History Channel is built around bring together these people with endless re-edits of stock footage of the Second and Vietnam wars. I am not a person who so thrills. At this point, I intend to devote myself to issues military, but if I could turn my life into something greater than a few thousand calorie-a-day contribution to the heat death of the universe, it would be the first principle of the Charter of the United Nations, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

But the question remains, why the obsession with war? Why the minutia and the machines and the faux generalship?

The left has eschewed any consideration of the nuts and bolts of military issues in favor of wholesale condemnation, no further consideration required. The outcome of this position is that having nothing to say that resonates with voters is an abdication to the military thoughts of less scrupulous elements of the polity. In the hurly-burly of politics, time is the most scarce commodity. Having a plan at the ready when the moment strikes is the better part of victory in politics. And in those last three principles, operative to the determent of the left, can be found the whole explanation for the present imbroglio of the United States in the Middle East.

To effectively shunt war aside, the left must possess a minimum of military credibility. We must be able to deal with war in its own terms.

I think there is a Hegelian unfolding of the world spirit in the political-military happenings of the world where there is no around, only through (the truth of the flower is as much in the bud as the blossom). War will not halt, it can only be dampened. It is not merely enough to condemn nuclear weapons. It will be a varied and arduous road between world-ending arsenals and total disarmament. It is a road that must be plotted in detail, traversed along the whole of its track. There is no substitute for the compromising and half-measures of disarmament. To hate and fear something so much, one must also love it, revel and writhe in it.

Most consider strategy and military studies an entirely instrumental practice, whether pursued for the ends of national power, or for the excise of war as a scourge of humanity. I think there is more to it than that. There is something, many things, profound in war and violence.

In so far as society and its precepts are not optional, there is a continuity between force and violence and civilization. War is everywhere, even amidst peace. War is the substrate of peace. War is natural and peace an artifice.

What has me thinking in this direction is the excerpting by James Marcus (“Turning a Page,” History News Network, 5 November 2008) of a few lines from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:

It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

Our thoughts on morality and justice, taken amidst the consolations of society, are pat and facile, so unfamiliar with the whole gamut of relevant circumstances of life are the majority of us. It is only from this side of the wall separating civilization from nature that someone could assert something so stupid as a right to life. Forces of the universe assert otherwise. Very few of us have been caused to fundamentally doubt this. And not merely to doubt in the abstract, but in the concrete of concrete: do I have a right to my life?

In the martial is more than machines and terrain and maneuver. There is a weltanschauung to be found there. It ought to be explicated.

The Day I Became a Hegelian

I remember distinctly 14 April 2000, the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 617.78 points, or 5.7 percent, to 10,305.77 (Fuerbringer, Jonathan and Alex Berenson, “Stock Market in Steep Drop as Worried Investors Flee; NASDAQ Has Its Worst Week,” The New York Times, 15 April 2000, p. A1). The company where I worked offered options and stock purchase plan heavy compensation packages and it was the first really precipitous drop in the stock market since the online discount stock brokers like E-Trade went really big. At the office where I worked nothing got done that day: no one could do anything but watch their portfolios plummet. I remember a group of us going out for lunch. This was in Seattle and the Harbor Steps II was still under construction. At that time it was just a reinforced concrete skeleton and a kangaroo crane. As the group of us walked down — I don’t know — probably University Street, I looked up at the concrete stack of Harbor Steps II and the bustle in and around it and it occurred to me that if the stock market were to continue to fall like it was, the development company might halt construction — that building would cease its coming into being. At that moment, I saw that it was primarily a blueprint, an architect’s vision, a developer’s profit and loss projections, investor expectations. It was less matter and more idea and at that moment I first thought that maybe there was something to this Hegel fellow.

Abandoned construction, Bangkok, Thailand, approximately Sukhumvit and Soi 8, 2 December 2006

Similarly, when S. and I were in Thailand, we stayed in a neighborhood a few blocks from an abandoned, half finished concrete skeleton of a building. They were actually fairly common in Bangkok. So quickly had this construction project been abandoned that there were places where the rebar had been put in place and half the concrete had been poured when work had stopped. A pillar ended in a jagged mound of concrete with the remaining half of the uncovered rebar simply jutting skyward. I took one look at that building and said to S., “That’s probably left over from the Asian financial crisis.” That’s how suddenly and ferociously the Asian financial crisis struck: people simply walked away from multi-million dollar building projects. When the beliefs don’t pan out, the rock and the steel cease to fill out their imagined dimensions.

Ten thousand years ago ideas played almost no role in human affairs or history. Today they play a significant role, perhaps already the better part of every artifact and interaction. The Pattern On The Stone as Daniel Hillis called it. The stone is inconsequential: the pattern is everything. It is a part of the direction of history that ideas gradually at first, but with accelerating speed, displace matter as the primary constituent of the human environment.

And that, as I read it, is Hegel’s Absolute