Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Modernism thought in gestation

Still too swamped for detailed posting on the topic at hand. Sorry. I am trying to write a review of Robert O'Harrow's new book for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist... for the pay of a mug and a T Shirt. Heh.

I did find one older item that I'll share this week, that is relevant to both recent topics... modernism and bad sci fi. It doesn't use the word "modernism" yet. WARNING: this will seem a bit repetitious so those of you who are impatient with that sort of thing should give this one a pass. But it shows how my ideas were evolving a couple of years ago.

The 18th vs 19th Centuries...

It’s been said that western civilization has spent the last hundred years trying to resolve a deep cleavage in our culture -- a continuing struggle between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries... between prescriptions offered by the Enlightenment and those of the later Romantic Movement.

For generations, a vast majority of writers, artists and academics have sided with romanticism. From Keats and Shelley to nearly all modern musicians or movie stars. Seizing every opportunity to extol emotion and put down “cold” reason has become as natural as breathing. George Lucas expressed this reflex. “I’d say the primary word for me is romantic. I like the esthetics of the Victorian age.”

With nearly all of society’s most expressive and persuasive voices raised on the romantic side of this old struggle, it is a wonder that notions of cooperative progress and confident pragmatism survive at all. Even science fiction has grown much more cynical. Noir cyberpunk images push aside much of the can-do spirit seen in earlier times. Speculation about alien life is replaced by introspection about alienation.

Scholar and author Judith Berman, in a much-discussed 2001 study, showed how this trend has penetrated the very center of Science Fiction. Focusing on the flagship Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, once a daring journal devoted to ideas. Her landmark analysis revealed that a profound change had occurred. Almost none of the stories published during a year-long period had anything to do with exploring interesting futures. Even plausible “dark warnings” were avoided in favor of pieces about nostalgia, alternate pasts or presents, or featured characters who wallowed in loathing toward technology or progress.

And, mind you, this is in science fiction. Clearly the campaign against the future must have progressed even farther, elsewhere.

There is nothing new in this, of course. Cynicism has many advantages over enthusiasm. (And make no mistake. Romanticism is not the polar opposite of cynicism. Romanticism and cynicism are deeply connected, even Janus twin faces of the same personality. Every generation of romantics, since Shelley, has believed that they invented the studded-black-leather look. The howl of rage. A poetical worship of despair. It is an easy crutch, especially for people with more verbal talent than useful skill. We can all recall from the schoolyard how easily a sneer overcomes and defeats any gushing expression of enthusiasm.

What is so amazing is how they even manage, while doing this, to portray themselves as the underdogs!

In how many popular films does a skillful nerd prevail over the romantic loner? Values like competence and egalitarian advancement are seldom defended in media...

...and yet they remain popular at a deep level -- perhaps out of gratitude for the real life-improvements wrought by people like Franklin, Edison or Salk... and in part because citizens sense the underlying themes of inequality and egotism that drive so much of the Romantic Movement.

Individualism is fine. Both enlightenment and romanticism prescribe it. This link goes back to when they were allies against feudalism and monolithic religion. This is why our great modern propaganda campaign -- Suspicion of Authority -- accompanied by memes of tolerance of difference and acceptance of eccentricity, appears to be a consensus product of BOTH enlightenment and romantic impulses.

But many of us realize a stark truth -- that not everyone can be a king or rock star or handsome loner. The rest of us need fairness more than we need egomania. We rely daily on the amiable skill of countless strangers, rich in craft and diversity, who are fellow citizens of a civilization. They are more important to us than any Leader... or any Rebel.

This contrast is distilled when George Lucas says: “...there's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.”

Lucas has a point. I concede the great attraction of the image that his Star Wars universe offers, while opposing it with all my power. (Especially the most evil elf ever depicted, that nasty, uncooperative, smarmy, patronizing, sourpuss, unhelpful, oppressively-secretive and cynically manipulative oven mitt... Yoda.)

Indeed, the Twentieth Century has been a battleground between these two occidental visions of human life. Two great utopian idealisms that continue to wrestle over the heart of the West. Marxism and Naziism were both deeply romantic. So was the Southern Confederacy. So are the leftist postmodernists and the right wing neoconservatives. Most ideologies are, because ideology is a phenomenon fundamentally based on a romantic need to encompass all of humanity within a single, simple and compelling worldview, replete with perfect heroes and perfectly detestable villains. Given the incredible harm that’s been done in the name of dogmas, monarchs and ideologues, their absence from a progressive 21st Century will be no great loss.

With so many enemies, coming from so many directions, should we marvel that the Enlightenment achieved anything at all? That fact, alone, attests to the incredible power of science.

(The landscape can get more complicated if you step back. Intellectuals of the Confucian East and Pious South despise both Romanticism and Enlightenment as expressions of crazy euro-american-individualist egoism. Moreover there are splits within, as well. The French wing of ‘enlightenment’ - rooted in Platonism - is fundamentally different than the Scots-American wing with its fixation on pragmatism. But these complications can await another time.)

Out of this welter and confusion, I don’t know which zeitgeist will prevail. Perhaps even a synthesis?

Pragmatism would be comfortable with that notion.

Here is another way of posing the issue. A great science fiction author once said -- “Keep asking questions! The more irksome the better!”

Now who do you think would be more comfortable with that notion? Percy Shelley or Ben Franklin? Star Wars or Star Trek? A world filled with black-and-white certainties? Or one where openminded people devote their passion to finding out what works?

---

Okay... fire away. I hope to get back to the main serialized train of thought soon.

--See the next part: The Propaganda of Enlightenment--

Or return to Part 1 of this series...

16 comments:

Mark said...

I think you hit on the main issue when you said:

Lucas has a point. I concede the great attraction of the image that his Star Wars universe offers, while opposing it with all my power.

and

With so many enemies, coming from so many directions, should we marvel that the Enlightenment achieved anything at all?

The fact is we are all romantics, down to our bones. At least I know I am, despite my own opposition to that point of view.

So how does Enlightenment win out? You credit science, but I believe it is more than that. Though not quite historically accurate, I think of Enlightenment as having three children: Science, Democracy and Capitalism. All three depend on the same basic evolutionary principle of autonomous agents competing, interacting and debating. There is a power to this model that we are only beginning to understand with complexity theory.

But here is the real reason Enlightenment wins out: diversity. You see, Romanticism, like Conservatism, is always specific. My romantic ideal isn't the same as yours. My conservative, unyielding church doctrine is different than yours. As long as the Romantics and Conservatives are splintered from each other, we can still have a strong, Enlightened environment.

Would a benevolent dictator be the best form of government? Sure. But who gets to decide the definition of 'benevolent'? And how do we know he or she really is benevolent? As long as my romantic ideal is different from yours, we can't go that route; democracy wins.

reason said...

Mark,
I think you are correct, but then there remains the danger that one romantic idealism (be it marxism, islamism or catholicism) could win out and a new dark age would ensue. Don't take the current situation for granted, there are storm clouds of theocracy brewing.
But in general the answer to the threat that one can take from your post is: DIVIDE AND CONQUER. We need to emphasize the divisions amongst the theocrats in order to defeat them.

Mario said...

Hello David,

Just discovered your blog. Delighted to see it! Will comment directly on this post after I digest it properly.

In the meantime, I thought I would introduce you to Takkata-Jim's great-great grandmother, if you haven't met her already.

http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/04/15/wholphin.birth.ap/

Funny that the first post of yours I read is about Lucas. I just finished "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina" and have just started "Kiln People".

Best from Boston,

Mario

Mark A. Rayner said...

Hi David,

I've been reading the series on modernism with some interest, and some discomfort. It appears I have some strong romantic impulses, even though I believe the only way forward for humanity is through the modernism you've been describing.

I think today's post has been the first where I've identified WHY romantic ideals still hold so much sway -- it all goes back to our basic egoism as human beings. We WANT to believe we're special, and so, subscribe to the philosophy that exorts that.

You're right that at some point we may realize that we're not going to be a rock star or king, but at a level that many of us would be afraid to admit to, we still WANT to be. Our egos demand it, like the toxic elf you describe in Yoda:

"Mmm. Yes. Be king you will."

And of course, the irony is that modernism depends on individuality too -- without it, we don't get Franklin, Edison or Salk.

Thanks for interesting posts!

NoOne said...

Dr. Brin said "Out of this welter and confusion, I don’t know which zeitgeist will prevail. Perhaps even a synthesis? "

The very best simultaneous exultation and criticism of the enlightnment tht I have read is in Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. Quoting from it (pages 435 and 442, first edition)

Exultation:

"And at its best, the Enlightenment committed itself to exposing these power relations and to dismantling the dominator hierarchies that had formed the core of the social, cultural, and religious institutions of the entire mythic and mythic-rational epochs. ..."No more myths!" meant "No more dominator hierarchies!," and the Age of Reason and Revolution set out to prove just that."

Criticism:

"In other words, the "sciences of man" and the new "dehumanizing humanism" did not just study the objective (and monological) aspects of human beings (which would be fine), they reduced human beings to their merely objective and empirical components (which was the crime). Humans were not "subjects in communication" but merely "objects of information." And because that reduction is not supported by the Kosmos,...,then it must be driven by something other than truth: it must be driven in large measure by self-aggrandizing power..."

Ask yourself if science has explained consciousness. Do we have an objective theory of subjectivity? No, we don't. And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview. Or we try and cover the hole with bandaid by using terms such as epiphenomenalism, complexity theory etc. And then we (the ones connected to science) wonder why there's so much hostility toward us.

Mark said...

Reason,

Divide and Conquer, yes, but I meant more than that. Even if every single player is a conservative or romantic, liberal enlightenment can still thrive once the correct environment is created; such as we have now.

I remember a few years back reading about a Florida case where an animal rights group was trying to prevent a pagan cult from performing animal sacrifices. The Catholic church came to the defense of the pagan cult because they wanted to protect the right of religious freedom. Three romantic players solving a problem in pure, enlightened fashion. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.

Frank said...

@ mark:

The evolutionary principle is such a beautiful thing - if you don't mind going extinct. That wouldn't be good for diversity would it?

@ reason:

Divide and Conquer? Hm, seems like such a manipulative and evil plan. Could we perhaps use the thruth to do this?

@ NoOne:

If people feel hostile towards scientists it's not because they haven't explained consciousness but because they may explain it. It's what science will allow people to do that's frightning them (and it is fear that is making them feel hostile (credit: Yoda?) ), not what science may prove to be impossible to understand.

@ David Brin:

"Seizing every opportunity to extol emotion and put down “cold” reason has become as natural as breathing."

And your motto is: "moderation in everything" ? Or are you secretly a Vulcan disguised as a human ?

"In how many popular films does a skillful nerd prevail over the romantic loner?"

In my experience the skillful nerds *are* the romantic loners.

"Intellectuals of the Confucian East and Pious South despise both Romanticism and Enlightenment as expressions of crazy euro
-american-individualist egoism."

And they are right. But, so what? It works - within certain parameters.

"A great science fiction author once said -- “Keep asking questions! The more irksome the better!” "

When are you going to drop that modernism bombshell of yours ? You do have one ? :)

Willey Nelson said...

Mark said...
"The fact is we are all romantics, down to our bones. At least I know I am, despite my own opposition to that point of view. "

Mark A. Rayner said:
"I think today's post has been the first where I've identified WHY romantic ideals still hold so much sway -- it all goes back to our basic egoism as human beings. We WANT to believe we're special, and so, subscribe to the philosophy that exorts that."

NoOne said...
"And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview. Or we try and cover the hole with bandaid by using terms such as epiphenomenalism, complexity theory etc. And then we (the ones connected to science) wonder why there's so much hostility toward us. "

I enjoy this train of thought guys, I agree that on some level we are all romantics. The problem I percieve has become the individualized definition of "romantic". When I think "romantic" I am admitting the fact that I feel, and those feelings have an impact on my thoughts. I want to be my own king so I can feel satisfied. The cynical part of us all is our enlightened, rational minds recognizing someone else's ego, and realizing that their understanding of the world is shaped by their own ego. Therefore I believe that enlightened science is met with hostility when it comes to human consciousness because of egotism's basic nature.

First off, people at some level realize that the thought process that created these explanations were driven by an individuals passion for thought. When not everyone has a passion for thought. The worldly box that each ego creates for itself doesnt welcome an understanding crafted by another ego. As such crafted definitions of consciousness are going to be understood differently by each reader. So it seems that what your left with is a control issue. Adults who have grown up by their own understanding of the world (crafted by an ego) will argue non-stop while trying to come to terms with someone else's definition of consciousness. I guess that so far, nobody has a definition that can explain everyone's passion, pain, and how it is experienced.

P.S. apologies to all, It's a broken thought process of mine here. I had to do this response in multiple sittings at work.

David Brin said...

First off... Mario is right that the dolphin hybrid with a false killer whale is utterly fabulous and SOMEBODY ought to tell Sea Life Park and the press that I predicted it in 1982!

"Reason" and Mark made very very very cogent remarks. The deliberate effort to unify elites and restore feudal-style governance is described at: http://www.davidbrin.com/realculturewar1.html

Mark further added: "So how does Enlightenment win out? You credit science, but I believe it is more than that. Though not quite historically accurate, I think of Enlightenment as having three children: Science, Democracy and Capitalism. All three depend on the same basic evolutionary principle of autonomous agents competing, interacting and debating. There is a power to this model that we are only beginning to understand with complexity theory."

Whaaaaa? You are seriously going to say all this and pretend that you did not crib it from my Disputation Arenas paper at: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html ?????

Just kidding ;-) But seriously, you eerily replicate the core notion that I argue there, only I add one more "accountability arena" to the three you mention, and speculate about a possible fifth... the Web. THAT PAPER is where some of you can go if you are really, really interested in this stuff. It was lead article in an issue of the American Bar Association's Journal of Dispute Resolution.

Mark Rayner said: "I think today's post has been the first where I've identified WHY romantic ideals still hold so much sway -- it all goes back to our basic egoism as human beings. We WANT to believe we're special..."

Dang straight. Every day I wake up in this society I am amazed that it happened at all. Certainly if our opponents, the macho terrorists, the syndical Confucians, and the neo-feudalists, get their way, this experiment will never be tried again. They will prevent it easily, since they have human nature on their side.

Why do you think the works of AE Van Vogt and Orson Scott Card are so popular? Every single one gives the reader a chance to pretend he is a Silkie or a Slan or a demigod who will SHOW all those bullies from school what's up, just as soon as those hidden secret/mystic powers (or midchlorians) kick in.
As I said, the allure is HUGE! I freely admit that much of my own fiction toys with romantic and demigod themes. Transcendence and such. It takes a conscious effort to turn these themes around and extoll... well... sometimes the common man. But it's good enough (I feel) to extoll a hero or heroine who is simply "a whole lot above average."

Finally Re: " are you secretly a Vulcan disguised as a human ?" Interesting notion, since my wife, a beautiful Caltech PhD, had a crush on Spock, who was also a rather hairy rabbinical type. Just about the only thing I like about ENTERPRISE is their exploration of Vulcanism... how they developed a code of logic because NATURALLY they are vastly more emotional and mercurial than humans are!

Mark said...

Crib?? Well, I just went to look at that paper and... sure enough, I'd read it before. But I introduced the romantic notion of The Enlightenment being a women with children! lol

Anonymous said...

I haven't read 'em yet, but Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" (Quicksilver, Confusion, The System of the World) are, well, romances about the beginnings of some of the underpinnings of modernity: Science and capitalism.

Stephenson put an interesting spin on modernism-vs.-romanticism in The Diamond Age. His opinion of the rapid progress and decentralization allowed by nanotechnology seemed to change in the course of the book. He seemed to realize that the book's fictional civilization's basic structures would be in danger of collapse. He suggested that the only cultures that could survive and protect its members against chaos were highly traditional ones. He describes a 21st century version of Victorianism. I found this interesting, insightful, and a bit of a let-down.

Stefan

Tony Fisk said...

The suggestion that romantic yearnings boil down to basic egotism seems fair, but I think there is another aspect to why romanticism is so alluring: reassurance.
The past is a known quantity (or it would be if you went fossicking in the historical archives). The future, on the other hand, is the unknown: an undiscovered country where there be dragons, and into which we are being inexorably pushed without pause.

Small wonder we prefer to seek solace in what we know.

And that's OK. Tradition is a tool to be used with much more confidence than Innovation simply because it is *known* to have worked. The risks of failure are far less.
- Stick with Tradition when the risks of doing otherwise is unnacceptably high
- Be willing to Innovate when the risks are low.
- Be able to choose your strategy according to circumstance.

The danger that David has been warning about is (I think), the assault on choice that framing conflicts as dichotomies creates, and which is the natural outcome of the rise of romanticism. I suspect you would see similar issues if Modernists were in the ascendency.

(Aside: on thinking through this comment, it occurred to me that the phrase 'He who is not with me is against me' is probably one of the most understated and pervasive threats in history!*)

So, if you want to feel more positive about it, think of yourselves as being outed as mature conservatives, able to choose your strategies, rather than as romantics, or as modernists, who can't.

David has expressed amazement that this society exists at all, given our natural stick-in-the-mud ways. It will interesting to speculate on what drives the modernist side of things. (My take, as previously mentioned, is laziness)

* Worthy of the green oven-mitt award?

Frank said...

@ Tony Fisk:

" The risks of failure are far less.
- Stick with Tradition when the risks of doing otherwise is unnacceptably high
- Be willing to Innovate when the risks are low."

Yeah, okay. but...

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

And what about "High Risk, High Gain", "No Balls, No Glory" ?

There's no trick you can learn to being innovative and successful, every step into the future is sparkling and new.

reason said...

Just to clarify my comment about divide and conquer - it is not meant to be devious at all. It is just we need to be aware of the danger inherent in a growing theocratical trend and the logic of Mark's post is that the TACTIC we should use is to play up the differences in our opponents so they will support enlightenment processes for their own purposes. That means, perhaps that we need to be a bit subtler than we have been so we don't end up emphasising to them what they have in common. This is a well known political ploy - it's called wedge politics.

Frank said...

@ reason:

I understand the concept of wedge politics and if properly executed such a strategy may well work. But it still feels like a devious thing to do.

Maybe I'm naive, maybe such methods are necessary. Maybe I'm just not pragmatic enough.

Then again, I've always hated it when politicians play the 'necessity' card. Especially when they combine it with the 'state secrets' card. But that's another issue.

Politics is a tough game and my moral standards concerning it are perhaps unreasonably high.

BTW. 'ploys' are generally associated with deviousness...

Tony Fisk said...

@Frank
...and how about 'Crash through or Crash'?*
... the Pascalian Wager?

I certainly don't mean to say that risks are never worth the potential benefit, but that they should be considered.
And sometimes slow and steady is the the best approach.
... and sometimes it's 'YEE-HAH!!'**

On Reason's comments:

I don't see a problem with wedge politics in the manner described. It simply stems from realising that, just because your opponent insists on standing in a corner hurling vitriol, FUD, and contempt, you don't have to do likewise from the opposite corner.

That's pragmatism: the discovery of the contrast knob.

* the title of a book describing the Whitlam government in Australia: 1972-75

** Such as when you find yourself straddling an armed thermonuclear device in freefall. Or, since we're into SF themes at the moment, consider Spock's actions in the STOS episode: 'The Galileo Seven'