A long (and somewhat intellectual) one, this time. But first an art-note. My wife & I once visited one of the artist Christo’s massive (and massively wasteful-but-impressive) installations … the ‘umbrellas’ he erected north of Los Angles around 1991. The posthumous event in Christo’s honor - ‘wrapping’ the Arc de Triumph - looks to be impressive – this time made from recyclable materials, supposedly. Another artist - Stuart Williams - similarly large scale art installations can be viewed here. In some ways better!
Specifically, UCSD Professor Benjamin Bratton - author of Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World - is fighting for us on a front that would seem obscure to 99.9999%, but is actually very important.
One of those fronts is that of philosophical abstraction – for example the campaign waged by 'postmodernist' philosophers against the very notion of verifiable objective reality. I’ll get to that part down below.
But first I want to talk about a new effort that Bratton is heading, that aims at getting modernist civilization to buck up! To restore its confidence and can-do spirit.
== The way to save the world is forward ==
Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error…
For 6000 years, kings and priests suppressed criticism, and thus imposed unquestioned whim-delusions on whole nations, leading to the long litany of horrific errors called history. We only started getting positive-sum outcomes – with progress lifting nearly all human children out of starvation, ignorance and filth – when systems to inherently favor criticism were established. These include not only freedom of speech and mass education and divided power and competitive markets…
… but also a mythic system that encourages each new generation to point and shout at the mistakes of the one in charge. A mythic system that I talk about in Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood.
Alas, no good thing happens without shitty side effects. And so, while our young folks in the West are perfectly right to chide their elders about everything from troglodytic gender assumptions to drug laws, to slowness at ecological action – (we must heed Greta Thunberg and obey!) – one toxic side effect is a demolition of our sense of confidence. Our can-do spirit that the problems they raise can be addressed. Even solved.
This problem seemed crippling to many of us. For example: Whole Earth maven Stewart Brand a decade ago pushed for efforts to develop new, safer forms of nuclear power and was savaged for it… until now Greta T herself has made the topic of nuclear power legitimate in a recent speech. (Assisted by EU concerns over a cold winter and the Ukraine War… and by some research we funded at NASA’s Innovative & Advanced Concepts program – NIAC.)
Another example: any and all discussions of geoengineering - taking assertive steps to ameliorate global warming - were derided as judas-goat distractions from the puritan prescription of only curbing carbon emissions…
...until soot from last year’s Australian fires showed that ocean fertilization can vastly expand fisheries and whale habitats. And till the Biden Administration – with recently earned environmental cred – just this week funded full bore research into ways to reflect stratospheric sunlight enough to cool Earth’s torrid poles.
In other words, solutions to save our world may involve positive-sum combinations. Both breaking those old, polluting habits and taking a hand in guiding the future, technologically. With science. And care. By utilizing Mother Gaia’s only source of science and care and forethought. Her prefrontal lobes.
== Moving forward with Antikythera ==
And so, now, we get back to Benjamin Bratton and his Antikythera Project.
“Instead of reviving ideas of nature, we must reclaim the artificial — not fake, but designed. For this, human-machine intelligence and urban-scale automation become part of an expanded landscape of life, information and labor. They are part of a living ecology, not a substitute for one. Put more specifically: The response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic.”
Readers of my 1990 novel Earth know that I have both been a staunch, Gaia-preaching environmental activist and a champion of pragmatic, science as part of the solution. And while that notion conflicts with the generally self-flagellatory mien of some guilt-addicts, it resonates with one of the most-moving works by the great 1960s poet Richard Brautigan – perhaps the most optimistic future vision of all, until Luc Besson’s film Lucy…
…the Brautigan poem “All watched over by machines of loving grace.”
To advance this idea, the Berggruen Institute has joined with Bratton to incubate a project he calls “Antikythera,” named after the “first computer” used by the ancient Greeks around 200 B.C. as a device to navigate the known world based upon the celestial movement of planets and stars. The project's aim is to discover how today’s “planetary-scale computation” in 2022 A.D. can align with and contribute to the kind of self-regulation of terrestrial space proposed by the late French thinker, Bruno Latour.
(And yes, not every contemporary French philosopher is anti-modernist. The noisy bullies just make it seem that way.)
As explained on the Berggruen magazine site Noēma: “Latour’s project was to dismantle the conceptual division between humans and nature in the modern mind and understand the world as one hybrid “terrestrial” unity that includes animals, plants, topography, climate, the biosphere, human invention and the interactions among them.
I mentioned Stewart Brand, whose new biography by John Markoff is inspiring. Brand's endeavors like the Long Now Foundation have long had similar aims. Also Neal Stephenson has led (I’ve helped) a campaign to promote optimistic, can-do science fiction via the Hieroglyph Project, sponsored by Arizona State’s Center for Science and Imagination. And then – of course – there’s my Out of Time series of novels offering such of can-do spirit to YA readers.
“From this new perspective, he saw that the influence of human endeavor within the terrestrial space had grown to such proportions that it was upsetting the self-regulating natural system of the planet — “Gaia,” so named after the ancient Greek Earth goddess — that had maintained homeostasis for the last 3.5 billion years.
“Bratton’s hope is to one day reach what he calls “planetary sapience” — in essence, the synthetic intelligence of all lifeforms that are part and parcel of one self-regulating system.”
In other words, everything I portrayed in EARTH!
So yeah. Deserving of a closer look and support.
== Bratton’s Abstractions ==
In his life as a philosophy prof, Ben takes on another battleground, one whose airless heights would deter all but the best-trained and most dedicated warriors. I refer to the ongoing effort by 'postmodernist' philosophers (especially on French and US campuses) to denounce and discredit science, democracy, so-called 'facts,' or indeed the very concept of objective reality. I recommend his article for those who would blink in amazement over Ben's depiction of the rage-howls that fulminate from elite subjectivity spinners, who demand that their incantations get paramountcy over the evidence and models we laboriously build out of a clay called 'reality.'
I was only familiar with a fraction of the names he cites… though utterly enmeshed in the same overall fight. At times I was reduced to amazed blinking over Bratton’s eloquent descriptions of how deeply mad that clade of physics-envious intelligentsia has gone.
(Decades of sampling postmodernist anti-science jeremiads prepared me as I stumbled through his essay… the same weekend that I attended a zoom-festschrifft for recent nobelist Roger Penrose, proud that I was able to follow notions at the fringes of physics. Talk about a challenging weekend!)
I love many of Ben’s zinger turns of phrase, e.g. “Even so, the reckoning with legacies of his and other related projects is long overdue. His mode of biopolitical critique blithely ventures that science, data, observation and modeling are intrinsically and ultimately forms of domination and games of power relations. Numbers are unjust, words are beautiful.”
== daylight romanticism? ==
Okay, then. At risk of extending this post too long, may I explain why I call the cult of spite toward objective reality “daylight romanticism?”
A major schism in the West has long been between two powerful currents. One of them - historically-rare, though provisionally dominant today - is evidence-based rationality, rooted in contingent and perpetually evolving models of objective reality. Models that are always assumed to be at least partly wrong or incomplete - a system that has long ago proved not only its explanatory power and spectacular productivity at addressing human needs…
…but also encouraging an egalitarian openness and - yes - utility at improving overall justice, by allowing long-held social prejudices to be challenged by devastatingly convincing counter examples. (e.g. the way just the existence of a person like Frederick Douglas shattered every incantation that supported Confederate slavery.)
Impudently, this system transfers the locus of better humanity from its long held throne in some purported past golden age to a series of future times when our wisdom will be greater than it is now, then greater still, and hence all current incantations will at-best be recalled with indulgent smiles.
It is hard to overstate how disturbing this reversal of the depicted time flow of wisdom has been to the other, much older set of ideation/incantation reflexes. Even if one seldom sees it discussed the way I just put it.
In sharp contrast, Romanticism in varied forms dominated most tribal and agrarian and feudal societies and seems to be a human default. It is, as Bratton describes, often a wallow in nostalgia and the paramountcy of emotion over rationality. “Will” triumphing over mere evidence. There were no more romantic movements than Naziism, Stalinism and the Confederacy… you have only to listen to their music and read their favorite stories. (Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on the novels of Sir Walter Scott!)
Side note: you all know that a lot of Eastern Mysticism chidings proclaim that these two parts styles of thought - rationality and romanticism - should be blended… but they should NOT! Nor should one extinguish the other! I’ll explain.
== Romanticism has its place… after dark ==
Given how I just polemically put my thumb on the scales, in favor of rational contingent-pragmatism, I will now surprise you by saying I would never root-out or expel the romantic side, even if I had that power!
Indeed, a wholly-imagined plot by rationalists to do just that - and turn humans into robots - is one of the top, raging plaints one finds in romantic screeds like "The Gernsback Continuum" -a 1981 science fiction short story by William Gibson, and in Iain Pears’s novel “The Dream of Scipio,” which I reviewed and compiled in Through Stranger Eyes.
The notion that one must kill one side of ourselves, in order for the other to flourish, is zero-sum (or even negative-sum) thinking at its very worst.
Very few scientists I know want that! In fact, many are devoted to artistic pastimes! Indeed, I believe it is their polymath breadth that most daunts the postmodernist incantation-weavers, knowing we can do their thing, while they cannot do ours.
As you know, I make plenty of use of my romantic side… mostly at night, when I get down to pounding out some story filled with emotion or terror, things that we’d forsake only at peril of ceasing to be human!
So yes, I revere romanticism as the most deeply human part of us.
But I also know where I stand if/when I must choose. Because romanticism can be deadly and spectacularly unjust. It has long been the paramount source of rationalized injustice.
Romantics controlled policy for 6000 years, used incantations to justify every power-abuse, and wrought only hell-on-Earth for the peoples and nations of those benighted centuries. Indeed, it is their desperation not to look at that dismal track record at governance that most disqualifies these fanatics from prescribing to us now.
Sure, Romanticism gives us great art! And we need that! But romanticism deserves no part in our ‘daytime work’ of striving to treat each other fairly, arguing decently, negotiating, experimenting, improving our models of the world, discarding the untrue and coming up with incrementally improved policy!
As Benjamin Bratton so eloquently expresses, it is the ‘daytime’ realm of fact-informed exploration of the contingent that led to our modern projects in expansion of horizons of inclusion! Indeed, the meme-generating system that is arguably the vanguard of this entire endeavor is science fiction - a genre dedicated to gedankenexperiment ponderings of "How might we change? or “What might it feel like to be the other? Or even more other?”
Alas, those who would bring romanticism back into command over the daytime activities of fact-adjudication and negotiation and justice and policy include nearly all of today’s mad right, of course, as well as elements of the left that you all know very well, if you pause and strive for honesty.
These are champions of an old, old zeitgeist that will only bring us all crashing down in desperate pain…
...while they sing about how glorious it is to feel!
And of course, in order to feel, there must be vast amounts of pain. Right?