For Thomas Z., to whom I owe a philosophical entry

First thing in Mainz was to join my philosopher friend, Michael, over a bottle of Spätburgunder, the delicious red wine you can only find in southwestern Germany, and hear about his recent forays into transhumanism. The concept echoed some recurring themes of my blog, so let’s have another go at it.

Here’s a quote from the mover and shaker of transhumanism, Max More.

“Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die – just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves! … What you have made is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution … We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence … Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution … We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death … We will expand our perceptual range … improve on our neural organization and capacity … reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses … take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes.”

An enticing mission statement, no doubt, but which side carries more weight — the passionate, techno-idealism or the Faustian arrogance? What if we expand and magnify all the quantifiable aspects of human identity only to discover that the things of true value in the human experience are precisely the non-quantifiable ones? To paraphrase a fine blog entry by your present correspondent, what if we increase our knowledge a hundredfold, a milllionfold, about neurological indicators of “being in love,” place all our bets for a better future there, and then discover, like J. Alfred Prufrock, that “this is not it at all,” that an infinite and complete set of data about the neurological (objective) facts of being in love turns out to be a mere child’s game, an insignificant correlative to the real thing, the subjective experience of love, love in its non-quantifiable aspect. What if we place all our bets on the objectively measurable and manipulable, and then find that the objective abstraction of reality is just the husk, the crust, empty shell of lived experience? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, we cling tightly to the banana skin and throw away the banana. The objective aspect of reality may be nothing more than a map whose coordinates correspond to the subjective conditions that make up the real meat and matter of life. Knowing every infinitely granular datum on a map of New York is not the same thing as being alive and in New York.

And the transhumanist’s desire for improvement may seem intuitively good and true, but is it really that intuitive? I would say that the obsession with continual improvement is a modern, or at least post-Renaissance, obsession. As late as the eighteenth century (at least in England, whose cultural history I’m most familiar with), there was widespread and vocal resistance to the apostles of “improvement.” If the ancient Greeks were right that meaning and value for us is to be located in “happiness” (Aristotle) or in living “the good life” (Plato), is the frenetic quest for continual improvement really conducive to those ends? Couldn’t the Greeks be right that a life of tranquility and acceptance and reflection is more apropos?

Or, to take the most persuasive case for the transhumanist, the ethical case, why not modify human beings to be more altruistic? Surely there’s no harm there. Maybe. But what if moral variation turns out to have the same crucial value in our spiritual journey, our collective quest for the good life, as genetic variation has in the biological furtherance of the species? Absent moral variation, is there then no way forward, no dynamic built into the system, no adaptability without a spread of traits across individuals?

Finally, there’s the sense that you can’t beat Mother Nature. In the 1950s, the “improvement” team was telling us that factory-made formula was better than mother’s milk. The most conventional of modern medical practice holds that a lifelong battery of pharmaceuticals and surgeries is better than the body’s natural healing processes. DDT to kill pests sounds great until you realize there’s reason Mother Nature did not carpet bomb her own fields and rivers with DDT. Science is enormously instructive within its scope, but when it goes beyond scope with easy claims of how it can outsmart nature’s millions of years of accumulated intelligence, I would like to keep at least one foot on the brakes.

And even if you could beat Mother Nature, at least temporarily, postponing death, is that really so great? If we don’t grow old and die, children’s voices will no longer fill playgrounds, as the cycle of death and replenishent of the species will have been broken. Is the trade-off really worth it? Extend your old age further and further in a world with fewer and fewer kids at play. This specific point is negotiable, but in general, the “obvious” good might sometimes have a collateral damage that our scientist, or a particular community of scientists, limited by their historical vantage and their own egocentrism, may not see.

Despite all this, I remain intrigued by transhumanism and hope to read up on it. (Full disclosure: I have not studied the actual literature on transhumanism at all; I am merely use my discussion in Mainz as the occasion to develop these thoughts.) I am not against all efforts to improve the human condition. I myself have a hippie idealism about where to go from here that my more faithful readers will know. But when we’re going to improve the moral and social condition of humans, and rewrite our collective idealism, based on the mechanical technologies of the day, I would at least like to know that the transhumanist has fully considered all the counterpoints.

Frankenstein is a tired comparison but apt. The good doctor was motivated by pure idealism, with a passion to use technology to better the human condition. In our narrative, the narrative of living humanity, can we be sure that the transhumanist will really be able to rewrite the ending this time?

P.S. Thanks, Dr. M., for pointing out that the confederacy of dunces has my back (New York Times, 07/26/16).

A Digression on Abstract Art

With a secret preference for Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I don’t know if I can do this. Let’s start with language. Language is a conceptual mapping of the world.  It breaks the raw, unintelligible flux of experience into intelligible chunks (conceptually, not physically).  We first access the world conceptually not in simple chunks, but in complex but finite experiences, just as physically we see a table, not the atoms that make it up.  To see a table on its atomic level is more difficult.  We see the complex immediately, but to see the simples, perhaps ironically, requires some subjective mediation on our part.

In the visual arts, some works give us a holistic, complex scenario – a mother and daughter walking in the park.  This is immediately intelligible.  Thus, it almost guarantees some affect in the viewer.  We may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking, but the artist has pretty much stacked the deck in terms of having the viewer process it on some affective level.  The amount of aesthetic value it has is not contingent upon its intelligibility, which is a given, but falls upon other matters of style, content, and cultural context.

Abstract art, on the other hand, “abstracts” the simpler, hidden building blocks of visual experience and recombines them.  There are of course many levels of abstraction between complex, holistic lived experience and absolute simples.  A Picasso painting may go one step deeper and depict a face with an eye on the chin and a breast hanging off the left ear (like a sheet of stained glass that’s been shattered and had the shards put back together in the wrong places).  An eyeball is still a complex, but is nonetheless not something we apprehend in the abstract in ordinary experience.  When we see someone, we don’t see an eyeball, an ear, and a breast.  So that painting has broken lived experience into smaller building blocks.  Part of the value of such a work will probably lie in how well it exposes for the viewer the abstract building blocks that are always already embedded (though not immediately recognized as such) in his/her lived experience.

A more abstract painting may go deeper toward even simpler, more abstract units of lived experience. Take Joan Miro’s compositions of straight or squiggly lines and half-formed figures, the archetypal fragments of geometry, or Rothko’s non-referential color patches, returning us all the way to the archaic building blocks of visual reality.

Bottom line: When the composition corresponds to a holistic unit of lived experience – a traditional representational painting – it is immediately intelligible (whether or not it has much aesthetic value).  The closer the compositional markings get to simple abstractions (i.e., the further from holistic, as-lived experience), the more subjective mediation is required for the work to be intelligible.

I think we will agree that it is silly to pronounce art at either extreme generically “good” or “bad.”  Great aesthetic value can be generated by art that deals in the holistic sequences of lived experience as well as by art that seeks to uncover and “make conscious” the hidden building blocks within lived experience.

20th-century poetry shows, generally but not universally, a much greater interest in the 2nd kind of art.  Call it the influence of a remarkable set of contemporaries – Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Pound, etc.  This interest may take the form of imagist poetry, which isolates smaller and smaller chunks of lived experience, each of which remains holistic.  Take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                        barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

Because this backyard scene remains holistic, it is immediately intelligible – we know what is being said/depicted.  But because it so deliberately chips off such a small chunk of experience, we are unsure of the value/meaning of such a work.  I can tell you from having taught it repeatedly that despite anything Williams thinks or says, to see this poem as valuable or meaningful requires mediation.  Most readers immediately find it intelligible but do not immediately see any value or meaning in it.  To see it as valuable means rethinking your orientation.  The best imagist poems succeed in getting the reader to rethink his/her orientation; the worst fail to do so.  So this, tentatively, would be an important standard of value for an imagist poem.  And this standard of value – whether the poem succeeds in getting you to rethink your orientation toward smaller and less immediately meaningful chunks of lived experience– is more prominent in relation to 20th century imagist poetry than to other historical bodies of poetry.  It puts a different kind of pressure on the reader, and it also runs a different kind of risk – the risk of being too mundane to matter.  Naturally, some such poems succumb to the risk and some rise above.

Other poetry in the formative modernist years, say T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Waste Land,” respond to the same changing world view (precipitated by Einstein, Freud, Picasso, the trench warfare of World War I, etc.) but respond differently.  Here the scene is larger but less holistic.  They strike the reader not as simple, digestible fragments whose meaning is in jeopardy (as in Williams), but as collections of incongruous fragments whose intelligibility is in jeopardy.  To take the simpler Prufrock, the path from line 1 to line 17 seems fraught with discontinuity.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…

Each phrase, image, concept, is clearly a meaningful fragment – a building block – of language, but the fragments at first reading don’t add up.  We’re not even sure who is doing what in the landscape of the poem.  The intelligibility of the poem is in jeopardy, and it requires much mediation for the reader to render the compositional markings intelligible enough to be valuable.  The poem’s success or failure in achieving aesthetic value is contingent upon whether or not it can reach that threshold of intelligibility for a given reader.  And this contingency is at the heart of much 20th century poetry.  The best of such poetry reaches that threshold, leaving the reader with the feeling that we’ve just juggled the building blocks of conceptual experience and come up with an expanded conceptual register of the world.  The worst of such leaves the reader feeling that it was just a silly, self-indulgent word game that didn’t pan out.