Posts Tagged ‘fascism’

What do we want? When do we want it?

December 18, 2007

In response to Clive Thompson’s A War of Words, in which he argues for scientists to begin speaking of theory as law, I write of the fascism in expediting social evolution through authority. I begin by reminding the reader and myself that evolution takes time. I finish with a call for more theory. (While sourcing some of the material, I read the article Thompson based his piece. (At least I think I read the source article.) Helen Quinn is far more measured in her argument and doesn’t make the suggestion Thompson relays. He links Quinn’s argument with evolution, but I think Quinn had in mind “the potential dangers of anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system.” Regardless, the Quinn “controversy” is worth reading.)

At Long Last

“At long last the search of knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!” (Nietzsche)

Darwin held back the publication of On the Origin of Species fourteen years. According to Joseph Carroll (2003) this was a good thing.

“What then, if anything, did Darwin gain through waiting for fourteen years before writing the final version of his work? There are three main forms of gain: (1) vastly more detail both in apt illustration and in considered inference, (2) an extended compositional process that resulted in an extraordinary density, coherence, and clarity in the exposition; and (3) one new idea, or at least a latent idea rendered explicit and available for development.” (p.39)

I mention this first as a sort of mental massage. Seriously, take it easy. Breathe. We’re getting there. What follows, an unfocussed post on theory, most of it anyway, was set in motion by Clive Thompson (2007), but he can’t take all the blame. We live in fast times. Or we think we do. Darwin’s theory, or the theory of evolution bubbled up out of social consciousness over 150 years ago and we’re still dealing with it, and we’ll be dealing with it for a long time to come. There’s no need to get into a panic. Hofstadter’s Law is a law for our times. It states that everything takes longer than expected, even when you take the law into consideration. I’m presenting this as much as self-help as advice. I too, live in a city, drink coffee and move about in a perpetual state of anxiety, a whole lot slower than desire. So to me and you, a little perspective.

Everything is constantly evolving, but evolution is so difficult to understand because the timeline is beyond anything we can easily comprehend. The evolutionary timescale, the universe, or the multiverse, the limits of space, the realization that every star in the night sky is a solar system; you can think these things but they are a little big, a little intimidating. But that doesn’t stop you thinking. Only death stops thinking. The perfect example:

In Jesus Camp there’s a scene, a wavy blond-haired boy is sitting on the stage, (this is how I remember it) he’s surrounded by all the other kids, the camera is on him, and you can see him thinking and he says something like, “Sometimes I don’t know if I believe it.” All the kids look at him, I don’t want to read too much into it, but he stops talking and that’s the end of that scene and line of inquiry. Even in that environment you can’t stop curiosity completely. Even in that environment of conformism and information control there’s variation, and where there’s variation, there’s evolution, or, at the least, divergence. This process takes time.

happy in the knowledge that a constantly changing vision has been replaced by a fixed pole.
There is a war going on between the Jesus camp and the Science camp. On the one side they’re fighting for God or absolute social certainty in politics and the other’s interest is political funding and free pursuit of inquiry. There’s a very real conflict of interests here. So Thompson writes, A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. The piece was “inspired” by a recent essay in Physics Today by the physicist Helen Quinn, who suggests (according to Thompson) that scientists stop using the word theory (and believe) and refer to evolution as law, because the public understands the authority of law. Thompson makes clear this difference of meaning for scientists and people. He writes:

“While it’s true that scientists refer to evolution as a theory, in science the word theory means an explanation of how the world works that has stood up to repeated, rigorous testing.”

“But for most people, theory means a haphazard guess. It’s an insult, really a glib way to dismiss a point of view: “Ah, well, that’s just your theory.””

Quinn, and Thompson through her authority, suggest that to people who “understand that law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed,” scientist should refer to their findings with certainty as law.

Clive Thompson is not a fascist. In no way am I implying that Clive Thompson is a fascist. I say this because I want to use the word. I could say euphemistically that he errs on the side of expediency when he writes, “Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle – in no uncertain terms.” And I could choose to see the play on words, the wit of “no uncertain terms” in the context of the article, but I choose, at this moment, to point out the fascism of those words in the social context. It’s probably best to refer you to Foucault’s Guide to a non fascist life. It’s a little too long to quote, but a very short manual for living, so I’ve typed it out in full here (not yet).

Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life

This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
  • Develop action, thought and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even thought the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
  • Do not use thought to ground political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but constant generator of de-individualization.
  • Do not become enamored of power.

Thompson has crossed the line into fascism. (About retiring words, Thompson’s article suggests
theory and believe, and fascism is a word that’s been socially retired, I’d suggest, obviously that we bring it back, not in the sense of Hitler, but as Foucault writes “The fascism in all of us.” We need the word to confront the tendency. Theory, again obviously I like the word, and concept, I keep wondering if the suggestion is satirical, if I am missing the play, or the wit. But believe, I’ve worked it out of my vocabulary. “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (p30 Portable Nietzsche). This brings up meaning. Believe as used by science and believers, and theory used by science and believers. Weiner has a good line about two different uses of language.

Leave the dictates and decrees to the government and church. Scientists when speaking to the public, should speak as philosophers and educators. Norbert Weiner (1950) writes, “The functional part of any science cannot escape considering uncertainty and the contingency of events.” This view of the world and facts as moving targets has had social impacts, but is far from a world view. What Thompson suggests is counter to the educative quality of science. It’s science and theory and the masses educated in contingency that have been taking on the absolutist state and church so far. What’s needed for theory to set us free (my interest in theory is a little different from institutional scientists) is not that it become authoritative and law, but more theory.

When Thompson writes that the best result of changing theory to law is the linguistic jujitsu performed, he misrepresents theory, misapplies the martial art and underestimates the opposition. If, and it won’t happen, the scientific community were to speak of evolution as a law, creationists would say “I believe in one law: God’s Law.” There’s nothing gentle in changing an inviting and unfinished process of theory building into an authoritative infallible law.

Not Enough Theory
The argument that a frustrated theory needs more theory is more than 200 years old. Kant (1793) writes that impractical theory may simply be incomplete and “in such cases it was not the fault of theory if it was little use in practice, but rather of there having been not enough theory, which the man in question should have learned from experience and which is true theory even if he is not in a position to state it himself and, as a teacher, set it forth systematically in general propositions.” In his descriptively named essay On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice, Kant argues that “no one can pretend to be practically proficient in a science and yet scorn theory without declaring that he is an ignoramus in his field, inasmuch as he believes that by groping about in experiments and experiences, without putting together certain principles (which really constitute what is called theory) and without having thought out some whole relevant to his business (which, if one proceeds methodically in it, is called a system), he can get further than theory could take him.”

Quinn’s article is worth reading. An awareness of meaning is necessary for anyone interested in moving ideas around. The scientific idea of theory as practical or physical, the result of experience, the product of hypotheses, and Kant’s idea of theory a priori, of desire or metaphysical are both opposed to theory as an untestable whim. We can do without belief, at this point we could do without the word, but to take advantage of the meaning behind religious belief and substitute Law for theory is to trade on a notion of authority that the liberating power of theory and science has been subverting for only a few centuries now.


Thompson, Clive. (2007) A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. Wired 15.11 p.102 November

Quinn, Helen. (2007) Belief and knowledge — a plea about language. Physics Today.
January 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science I: Theories and laws

July 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science II: Degrees of knowing

July 2007, page 11

Technorati Tags:: Clive Thompson theory language science evolution

Probability of one

April 21, 2007

I’m well aware that there are some conversation stoppers. Mention God or the Bible in mixed company and prepare for the apocalypse. And then there’s the law that states, as an Internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. I read here, about Yann Martel’s site and for me, this discussion has gone on long enough. Really, when the Reform Party Government is handing out huge monetary amounts to Quebec, all that’s left is the charge of power for power’s sake.

In their introduction to First Drafts J.L.Granatstein and Norman Hillmer end the first paragraph with the words of journalist Matthew Halton, “Watch out for the first signs of fascism in your own country and operate on them quickly, because in spite of their seductive exterior virility, they are signs of decay, they are signs that we are despairing of reason, despairing of our fine dreams of a sane world.” Halton was writing in 1933 and the introduction was written in Canada July 1, 2002.

But what are the signs of fascism?

Also I just finished reading Critique of Cynical Reason, (Volume 40 of the University of Minnesota Press’ Theory and History of Literature series (I only mention this because, while this is completely political, it’s also pure literature!)) Sloterdijk writes in the conclusion,

Hence, if in modernity, worldly and self-experience converge in spite of all sundering, they do so under the condition that the struggles of self-preservation of privatized subjective reason inwardly as well as outwardly, psychologically as well as technologically, in the intimate domain as well as in political spheres, have generated the same iciness, the same polemical, strategic subjectivisms, and the same quick-footed denial of high-cultural ethical ideals.

On page 544, in the conclusion, this sentence is packed with meaning, but you can read the modernity in this sentence as the same that spawned Hitler’s rise to power.

So is Harper on the road to Hitler? Those are some pretty big boots to fill. If you are on Harper’s side, the absence of gas chambers is proof enough that your man isn’t evil incarnate. The charge borders on ridiculous. Have you seen Bush’s name written on walls with a swastika where the “s” should be? And if you were in Ontario during the 90s, Harris (another conservative leader) was often shouted down as “just like …”. Harris did a good job of messing things up. I’d blame his policy on welfare for the increase in homelessness across Canada. Harris will take Conservative policy further if he gets the chance. Harper does model himself on Bush, who has become a mass murderer. The military, law and order, and ethics are Harper’s trilogy. Maybe it’d be more fair to compare him to Mussolini?

Either way he’s propped up by voters who believe that the Bible is “the history of the world as we know it, and how we will know it.” These are people who want authority. They want to be led. In Escape From Freedom the character type is describe convincingly by Erich Fromm, who himself fled Nazi Germany. (Fromm also heavily influenced Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason.)

Any dog knows to get nervous when the master starts rolling up a newspaper. And when I see Harper calculating to consolidate power I get anxious. Fascism is a spectre haunting all the people of the world, and whenever power gets mean people start screaming. The Harper Reform/Conservative government is mean. Cutting money from women’s groups, while giving tax cuts to families is calculated meanness. Refusing to apologize for residential schools while spending money on Quebec is calculated meanness. If this government wins a majority, the calculation is gone. There will be meanness in broad daylight.

Please vote for anyone but the Conservatives in the next election. (That’s all I’ve got.)

Love in the Days of Rage: some notes

February 20, 2007

The connections that can be made when reading books simultaneously are interesting. There is the event of May 1968, even more interesting is the historical perspective. Sloterdijk deals with the event in 1980, Feenberg in 1999 and Ferlinghetti in 1988. I might come back to this after reading The Critique of Cynical Reason. There are also issues of self that come up in LITDOR that I’m thinking through Siddhartha. That said I’m going to write notes on what I’ve read so far and then after all the writing I’ve set up for myself I’ll work on one book at a time. Reading wildly in the odd time that I have is easy and enjoyable, but it complicates thinking and writing.

some notes:
In defense of the beats… Ferlinghetti is more famous for his bookstore, press and isolated cabin than he is for writing. Those 3 beat writers had their moment. That didn’t stop them from writing beyond it. This novel is written twenty years after Kerouac’s death, in the same long meandering poetry-for-sentences that made On The Road what it is. I pull phrases out of those sentences… Some ideas…

identity/self and proof
There’s something here, something… like The Apology which starts with a couple sentences that erase the idea of self…

The co director of the theatre says, “I approve of your movement, but why occupy the Odeon?”(p.78) She defends the theatre against any idea that it is bourgeois, but the students vote permanent occupation.

Annie says to Julian, “I don’t believe you — believe in you.”(p.58) Julian later says, “I see myself pretty clearly.”(p.59)
“She a supposedly “dissident” artist, the daughter of old Lefties, what was she doing here now, in love with this rich official of the French banking system who claimed to be some kind of anarchist yet seemed to do nothing but go to his bank, eat well. live will, talk revolution, and make love to her?”(p.57),
“still intent upon persuading Annie that he was indeed on the right side”(p.27)

Annie never really knows who Julian is.

“…a great unblinking eye that left no place to find one’s private self…”(p.8)

collective weight
“Freed yourself?” interposed Annie. “But what about everyone else still hung up in it?”(p.67), “…the anarchist and the Trotskyists and the communists who hated everyone else…”(p.54)

“what kind of antifascism were we working for anyway?”(p.59)

What’ve you got to eat besides fancy words?”(p.64),

“It’s a long time since my student days, yet it still hasn’t happened, the real ‘revolution’ hasn’t happened yet, it’s the same old story, the students divided against themselves as before, and the anarchists and the Marxists still on the same side but still violently opposed to each other, the students and the workers together but not together, each still unable to really understand the other, still with wildly different goals, even though they come together against the state…”(p.32)

“The idiot anarchist…”(p.66), “If they wouldn’t be real anarchist, then I would continue on my own”(p.64), “They wanted ‘liberty’ for everyone, in the abstract, but they couldn’t give full liberty to anyone to act on his own!”(p.64),”Working separately we’d all be separately free”(p.63)

(p.62) They talk here about the underground, it just reminds me how misused the word is. People took their freedom underground because they had to. Today’s underground music and art scenes…

real world
“back into the real world, Paris 1968, where everything was about to happen.”(p.14), Growing up in Castelo Branco, Portugal “once in a while I came upon a magazine that gave me some inkling of the outside world, of real life.”( p.35)

“there is no middle ground anymore.”(p. 58)

(p.88) new consciousness
“.., his ancient land where he had known the consciousness of birds, …”(p.105) bird consciousness/bat consciousness “If, someday two brains could be joined what would be the result?… …Or might a human someday be joined to an animal, blending together two forms of thinking… …a philosopher might after all come to know what it is like to be a bat…”(Larissa MacFarquhar, The enigma of consciousness, The New Yorker, Feb.12, 2007)

The novel was written in 1988, twenty years after the event. This bit echoes a chapter in Questioning Technology:

It was a new consciousness, or an ancient consciousness rediscovered. And it was a new feminist consciousness, the Gaia hypothesis, based on what was being called the New Physics, the earth seen as Mother Earth again, ancient source of all, and man raping that mother, beginnings with Blake’s “dark, satanic mills” and roaring forward to the dark atomic mills, the nuclear mills with their undisposible radioactive wastes. This whole new view a part of the rebellion of the sixties everywhere, a kind of “youthquake” against everything artificial and unnatural in modern life, and the French student revolt a part of the general worldwide cry of youth against the dehumanization of the human animal more an more separated from its animal roots, from the earth itself, the green earth. The spirit of ‘sixty-eight was the first halting cry of what twenty years later would burst forth in a great new political movement, a new green movement, Green Power, which would have little to do with all the old political labels like Marxist, Maoist, communist, Trotskyite, anarchist, Republican, Democrat, or whatever. It would be a whole new ball game, and it would sweep the world. It was a game that Julian could hardly know, even Annie was only dimly able to articulate it herself. It would sweep the world, into the twenty-first century.”(p.88-89)

good stuff
“…the students speaking in chalk and spray paint: ” (p.44) this is followed by a number of slogans. (Somewhere out there Andrew Feenberg has a digital collection) This says something about voices. What?