.

And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Friday, April 19, 2024

Fermi Paradox - The Myelin Filter? Life May be Common... but Intelligence?

from Wiki:
Myelin is considered a defining characteristic of the jawed vertebrates (gnathostomes), though axons are ensheathed by a type of cell, called glial cells, in invertebrates.[16][17] These glial wraps are quite different from vertebrate compact myelin, formed, as indicated above, by concentric wrapping of the myelinating cell process multiple times around the axon. Myelin was first described in 1854 by Rudolf Virchow,[18] although it was over a century later, following the development of electron microscopy, that its glial cell origin and its ultrastructure became apparent.[19]

In vertebrates, not all axons are myelinated. For example, in the PNS, a large proportion of axons are unmyelinated. Instead, they are ensheathed by non-myelinating Schwann cells known as Remak SCs and arranged in Remak bundles.[20] In the CNS, non-myelinated axons (or intermittently myelinated axons, meaning axons with long non-myelinated regions between myelinated segments) intermingle with myelinated ones and are entwined, at least partially, by the processes of another type of glial cell the astrocyte

Functionally equivalent myelin-like sheaths are found in several invertebrate taxa, including oligochaete annelids, and crustacean taxa such as penaeids, palaemonids, and calanoids. These myelin-like sheaths share several structural features with the sheaths found in vertebrates including multiplicity of membranes, condensation of membrane, and nodes.[16] However, the nodes in vertebrates are annular; i.e. they encircle the axon. In contrast, nodes found in the sheaths of invertebrates are either annular or fenestrated; i.e. they are restricted to "spots". The fastest recorded conduction speed (across both vertebrates and invertebrates) is found in the ensheathed axons of the Kuruma shrimp, an invertebrate,[16] ranging between 90 and 200 m/s[17] (cf. 100–120 m/s for the fastest myelinated vertebrate axon).

Zizek, "The Actuality of Hegel: Our Untimely Contemporary"

Chemistry for Physicists

...and Visa Versa

Michael Levin

Cellular Consciousness - Either a Self-Aware OR Non-Self-Aware Set of Emergent Qualities (Agental System) from and for the Collective.  Solving the Problems of the Collective.  Catch the Scaled-Up  (Brain) Wave.
A Technological Approach to Mind Everywhere (TAME)
A Neurally-based Top-Down Approach to Programming aka "Training"?

Thursday, April 18, 2024

From The New Yorker

Kyle Chayka, "The Internet’s New Favorite Philosopher"
Byung-Chul Han, in treatises such as “The Burnout Society” and his latest, “The Crisis of Narration,” diagnoses the frenetic aimlessness of the digital age.
“The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark,” James Salter wrote in his 1975 novel, “Light Years.” An encounter with a single “slender” line of writing, as he put it, can send a reader spinning off on a new trajectory; her life becomes divided into a before and an after the moment of reading. For Kevin Maret, an undergraduate art student at the University of Idaho, that moment came while reading “In the Swarm: Digital Prospects,” a slim monograph by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han that was first published in English by M.I.T., in 2017. In May of 2023, while scrolling Instagram, Maret encountered a video gloss on Han’s work; Maret was intrigued enough that he borrowed “In the Swarm” from his university library. Han’s writing, polemical and aphoristic, spoke to Maret’s experience of growing up on social media, and crystallized for him the lack of control he felt regarding his relationship to the Internet. In a recent conversation, Maret pointed out a few of his favorite lines: “The occupants of the digital panopticon are not prisoners. Their element is illusory freedom. They feed the digital panopticon with information by exhibiting themselves and shining a light on every part of their lives.” He told me, of the book, “The first time I read it, I read it in two hours.”

Since then, Maret has kept “In the Swarm” out on library loan and carries it with him like a talisman. “I can put this in a jacket pocket if I walk down to the coffee shop or the field by my house,” he told me. He stocked up on other books by Han: “The Transparency Society,” “Saving Beauty,” and “The Agony of Eros,” which are all written in the same pamphletary format, somewhere between manifesto and essay, and mostly run under a hundred pages. Maret is part of a growing coterie of readers who have embraced Han as a kind of sage of the Internet era. Elizabeth Nakamura, a twentysomething art-gallery associate in San Francisco, had a similar conversion experience, during the early days of pandemic lockdown, after someone in a Discord chat suggested that she check out Han’s work. She downloaded “The Agony of Eros” from Libgen, a Web site that is known for pirated e-books. (She possesses Han’s books only in PDF form, like digital samizdat.) The monograph argues that the overexposure and self-aggrandizement encouraged by social media have killed the possibility of truly erotic experience, which requires an encounter with an other. “I’m like queening out reading this,” she told me, using Gen Z slang for effusive enjoyment—fangirling. “It’s a meme but not in the funny way—in the way that it’s sort of concise and easily disseminated. I can send this to my friends who aren’t as into reading to help them think about something,” she said. Like a Sartre for the age of screens, Han puts words to our prevailing condition of not-quite-hopeless digital despair.

Born in 1959 in South Korea, Han originally studied metallurgy in Seoul, to placate his parents, who wanted him to take up a practical discipline. When he was twenty-two, he moved to Germany; he pledged to continue his studies but switched to philosophy, with a focus on Martin Heidegger. In 1994, he got a Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg, and then began teaching phenomenology, aesthetics, and religion, eventually landing at Berlin University of the Arts. He has published steadily throughout the past two decades, but has shunned interviews and has rarely travelled outside of Germany. John Thompson, the director of Polity, an independent publisher in the United Kingdom that has put out fourteen of Han’s books since 2017, told me the demand for his work has grown largely by word of mouth. “There has been this grassroots reception of Byung-Chul Han that has driven the demand, and it’s not the conventional way of major review coverage,” he said. Thompson continued, “He’s like an engine. The ideas and the books are just flowing.”

Han’s breakout work was “The Burnout Society,” originally published in German, in 2010. Nearly a decade before the writer Anne Helen Petersen tackled “millennial burnout,” Han diagnosed what he called “the violence of positivity,” deriving from “overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication.” We are so stimulated, chiefly by the Internet, that we paradoxically cannot feel or comprehend much of anything. One of the ironies of Han’s writing is that it travels easily through the very channels that he despairs of. By condensing his ideas into brief, unadorned sentences, Han flatters the reader into almost feeling as though she has thought the thoughts herself. “The Burnout Society” and Han’s other books now star in countless YouTube explainer videos and TikTok summaries. His ideas have particularly struck a chord with readers who deal in aesthetics—artists, curators, designers, and architects—even though Han has not quite been embraced by philosophy academe. (An essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2017 cautiously labelled him “as good a candidate as any for philosopher of the moment.”) His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, “The Burnout Society” has sold more than a hundred thousand copies across Latin America, Korea, Spain, and Italy. A museum director in Beijing told me, “The Chinese art world is obsessed with him.” Alberto Olmos, a well-known Spanish author and critic, described Han to me as a “wonderful DJ of philosophy,” spinning together references—Barthes, Baudrillard, Benjamin—in catchy new combinations. In 2023, in an interview with Dazed Korea, the K-pop star RM, from the band BTS, recommended “The Agony of Eros,” adding, “You might find yourself deeply frustrated because the book suggests that the love we are currently experiencing is not love.”

My own first encounter with Han was “Non-things,” which I found positioned prominently in the small-press section of an independent bookstore. I was drawn by its gnomic title and the postmodern collage on its cover: a photograph of skyscrapers seen from within a city, spliced with a photo of skyscrapers shot from above, turning the buildings into a geometric abstraction. In “Non-things,” Han argues that online we encounter a glut of information—i.e., non-things—that distracts us from having experiences with objects in the world: “The digital screen determines our experience of the world and shields us from reality.” The best way to read Han is similar to the best way of reading the Bible: flip through, find an evocative line, and proceed from there. Each sentence is a microcosm of the book, and each book is a microcosm of the œuvre, thus the reader need not delve too deep to get the point. “The smartphone is a mobile labour camp in which we voluntarily intern ourselves,” Han writes in “Non-things.” Spicy! It is a koan to meditate upon, and a description that immediately makes one hate oneself for staring at a screen. I kept reading because I felt like I had to, in case Han might be able to offer me some salvation.

Han’s latest book in English translation, “The Crisis of Narration,” was published in the U.S. earlier this month. (Like comic books, the volumes seem to roll out one extended, episodic narrative; all of the Polity editions have similar cover designs, forming a coherent visual brand.) The book is about the decline of “storytelling,” which in Han’s argument is an endangered mode of establishing meaning in an age dominated by the bullet points and edited clips of content that we consume online. The book builds upon the argument of “Non-things,” but, instead of lamenting a dearth of real-life objects, Han laments our ability to narrativize our “lived moments.” “For digital platforms, data are more valuable than narratives. They do not want narrative reflection.” Is this why my life as documented on Instagram doesn’t actually add up to a unified whole, despite all the time and labor I’ve invested into curating my account? Han’s concept of “information,” the opposite of narration, which requires a kind of non-data-driven capacity for imagination, has something in common with “content,” the catchall term that both describes and denatures twenty-first-century culture into so much undifferentiated mush. In “The Crisis of Narration,” Han writes, “In digital late modernity, we conceal the nakedness—the absence of meaning in our lives—by constantly posting, liking, and sharing. The noise of communication and information is supposed to ensure that life’s terrifying vacuity remains hidden.”

To that, the Internet-addled brain simply wants to respond: “Yas queen!!! Byung-Chul Han, run me over with a truck.” If you are a denizen of social media, to read Han is to feel both dragged and affirmed. His status as a kind of philosophy daddy to a younger generation is reinforced by the scant glimpses that readers get of his personal image. In photographs, he wears mainly shades of black, often with a broken-in but still elegant leather jacket and a thin scarf. His long hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and his skin glows like an influencer’s. His telegenic quality belies his isolation from the media ecosystem. He is not on social platforms; he told El País in a rare interview that he writes three sentences a day and spends most of his time caring for his plants and playing Bach and Schumann on the piano. His aura of offlineness—we craven online people might be tempted to call it a personal brand—seems to confirm that he has access to some wisdom that the rest of us lack.

Charles Pidgeon, a doctoral student in the University of Oxford’s English faculty, who studies literature about the Internet, described Han’s work as “kind of old-fashioned humanism: What are you taking from this? Something that should reorient your relationship to the world and to your own life.” But he added that Han’s digestible grand pronouncements don’t always hold up to close scrutiny. “There are a lot of things you can pick holes at,” Pidgeon told me. He pointed to “The Burnout Society” ’s argument that humanity has shifted from an “immunological society,” characterized by barriers, to a “neuronal society,” characterized by boundlessness and frictionless circulation. Of course, the covid pandemic signalled an extreme return to an immunologically organized world, which had not really gone away. “The kind of reductive clarity which is so important to how his writing functions is also part of the risk of it going very wrong,” Pidgeon said.

In “The Crisis of Narration” especially, Han runs the risk of speaking with too much curmudgeonly distance from his subject matter. He rightly observes “the present hype around narratives,” which might include the mania for “storytelling” in corporate marketing or the rampant popularity of ted talks. He argues that, though “stories” is a buzzword, we have lost a true, deeper capacity for narrative meaning-making. (Here he evokes the archetypal “fire around which humans gather to tell each other stories.”) He describes posting on social media as “pornographic self-presentation or self-promotion”—which is fair enough. There is little in his writing, however, to acknowledge that digital spaces can also produce meaningful experiences, an oversight that, at this point in the twenty-first century, seems almost quaint. We don’t read Han for a holistic orthodoxy; it’s hard to blame a sixty-something-year-old for not grasping TikTok’s paradoxical way of fostering both exploitative and emancipatory forms of expression. But he overlooks the way that social media enables self-narrativization, the construction and projection of a personal identity, with a freedom that was never possible in the top-down hierarchy of traditional media. For many people, the Internet is the new campfire.

One has to wonder what Han makes of the way that his own ideas have flourished in the Internet information economy, within the avalanche of non-things. When we read about the Internet, we so often crave an answer or a solution: Is a technology good or bad? How can we escape it? Han is not in the business of offering solutions or bullet-pointed life hacks, but online his writing can be readily turned into convenient, digestible lessons. (One TikTok caption: “Byung-Chul Han and self optimization #capitalism #marxism #therapy.”) Han’s books “critique excess digital consumption but are also compatible with it,” Pidgeon told me. They can be used as “another fashionable or modish set of thoughts to be pushed through S.E.O. and imbibed in little chunks by people,” he added. “That’s the real trap of it. You can never be outside of the system that you’re trying to talk about.” But Han’s ardent, almost brutalist style is also designed to speak for itself, and in that sense it resists digital culture’s way of forcing a person to stand in for his creative output. Part of Han’s revelation to readers is that they do not have to be a persona. If Han posted his own TikTok videos, most commenters would probably just ask what brand of leather jacket he was wearing. (Honestly, I want to know that, too.) Perhaps we should take his writing as an incitement to live our own offline lives instead. Until we put his ideas into practice, though, his writing offers an aspirational symbol to tote around, to flip through, to explain to our friends. As Maret, the University of Idaho student, put it, “The Han Hive is activated.”

Copy Cats

Edited extract from ‘Shanzai: Deconstruction in Chinese’ by Byung-Chul Han, "The copy is the original"
In China and Japan, temples may be rebuilt and ancient warriors cast again. There is nothing sacred about the ‘original’
In 1956, an exhibition of masterpieces of Chinese art took place in the museum of Asian art in Paris, the Musée Cernuschi. It soon emerged that these pictures were, in fact, forgeries. In this case, the sensitive issue was that the forger was none other than the most famous Chinese painter of the 20th century, Chang Dai-chien, whose works were being exhibited simultaneously at the Musée d’Art Moderne. He was considered the Pablo Picasso of China. And his meeting with Picasso that same year was celebrated as a summit between the masters of Western and Eastern art. Once it became known that the old masterpieces were his forgeries, the Western world regarded him as a mere fraud. Yet for Chang himself, they were anything but forgeries. In any case, most of these old pictures were no mere copies, but rather replicas of lost paintings that were known only from written descriptions.

In China, collectors themselves were often painters. Chang, too, was a passionate collector. He owned more than 4,000 paintings. His collection was not a dead archive but a gathering of Old Masters, a living place of communication and transformation. He was himself a shape-shifting body, an artist of metamorphosis. He slipped effortlessly into a role of past masters and created a certain kind of original. As Shen Fu and Jan Stuart put it in Challenging the Past: The Paintings of Chang Dai-chien (1991):
Chang’s genius probably guarantees that some of his forgeries will remain undetected for a long time to come. By creating ‘ancient’ paintings that matched the verbal descriptions recorded in catalogues of lost paintings, Chang was able to paint forgeries that collectors had been yearning to ‘discover’. In some works, he would transform images in totally unexpected ways; he might recast a Ming dynasty composition as if it were a Song dynasty painting.
His paintings are originals insofar as they carry forward the ‘real trace’ of the Old Masters and also extend and change their oeuvre retrospectively. Only the idea of the unrepeatable, inviolable, unique original in the emphatic sense downgrades them to mere forgeries. This special practice of persisting creation (Fortschöpfung) is conceivable only in a culture that is not committed to revolutionary ruptures and discontinuities, but to continuities and quiet transformations, not to Being and essence, but to process and change.

In 2007, when it became known that terracotta warriors flown in from China were not 2,000-year-old artefacts, but rather copies, the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg decided to close the exhibition completely. The museum’s director, who was apparently acting as the advocate of truth and truthfulness, said at the time: ‘We have come to the conclusion that there is no other option than to close the exhibition completely, in order to maintain the museum’s good reputation.’ The museum even offered to reimburse the entrance fees of all visitors to the exhibition.

From the start, the production of replicas of the terracotta warriors proceeded in parallel with the excavations. A replica workshop was set up on the excavation site itself. But they were not producing ‘forgeries’. Rather, we might say that the Chinese were trying to restart production, as it were – production that from the beginning was not creation but already reproduction. Indeed, the originals themselves were manufactured through serial mass-production using modules or components – a process that could easily have been continued, had the original production methods been available.

The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations. The discrepancy with regard to the understanding of what a copy is has often led to misunderstandings and arguments between China and Western museums. The Chinese often send copies abroad instead of originals, in the firm belief that they are not essentially different from the originals. The rejection that then comes from the Western museums is perceived by the Chinese as an insult.

In spite of globalisation, the Far East still seems to be the source of a great deal of surprise and confusion, which could release deconstructive energies. The Far Eastern notion of identity is also very confusing to the Western observer. The Ise Grand Shrine, the supreme Shinto sanctuary located on Honshu island, is 1,300 years old for the millions of Japanese people who go there on pilgrimage every year. But in reality this temple complex is completely rebuilt from scratch every 20 years.

This religious practice is so alien to Western art historians that, after heated debates, UNESCO removed this Shinto temple from the list of World Heritage sites. For the experts at UNESCO, the shrine is 20 years old at most. In this case, which is the original and which the copy?
In a culture where continual reproduction represents a technique for conservation and preservation, replicas are anything but mere copies
This is a total inversion of the relationship between original and copy. Or the difference between original and copy vanishes altogether. Instead of a difference between original and copy, there appears a difference between old and new. We could even say that the copy is more original than the original, or the copy is closer to the original than the original, for the older the building becomes, the further it is from its original state. A reproduction would restore it, as it were, to its ‘original state’, especially since it is not linked to a particular artist.

Not just the building but all the temple treasures of Ise are completely replaced, too. Two identical sets of treasures can always be found in the temple. The question of original and copy does not arise at all. These are two copies that are, at the same time, two originals. It used to be that when a new set was produced, the old set would be destroyed. Flammable parts were burned, and metal parts were buried. As of the last regeneration, however, the treasures are no longer destroyed but put on display in a museum. They owe their rescue to their increased exhibition value. However, their destruction belongs to their cult value itself, which is clearly disappearing more and more in favour of their museum exhibition value.

In the West, when monuments are restored, old traces are often particularly highlighted. Original elements are treated like relics. The Far East is not familiar with this cult of the original. It has developed a completely different technique of preservation that might be more effective than conservation or restoration. This takes place through continual reproduction. This technique completely abolishes the difference between original and replica. We might also say that originals preserve themselves through copies. Nature provides the model. The organism also renews itself through continual cell-replacement. After a certain period of time, the organism is a replica of itself. The old cells are simply replaced by new cell material. In this case, the question of an original does not arise. The old dies off and is replaced by the new. Identity and renewal are not mutually exclusive. In a culture where continual reproduction represents a technique for conservation and preservation, replicas are anything but mere copies.

The cathedral of Freiburg Minster in southwest Germany is covered in scaffolding almost all year round. The sandstone from which it is built is a very soft, porous material that does not withstand natural erosion by rain and wind. After a while, it crumbles. As a result, the cathedral is continually being examined for damage, and eroded stones are replaced. And in the cathedral’s dedicated workshop, copies of the damaged sandstone figures are constantly being produced. Of course, attempts are made to preserve the stones from the Middle Ages for as long as possible. But at some point they, too, are removed and replaced with new stones.

Fundamentally, this is the same operation as with the Japanese shrine, except in this case the production of a replica takes place very slowly and over long periods of time. Yet ultimately the result is exactly the same. After a certain period of time, one effectively has a reproduction. However, one imagines one is looking at an original. But what would be original about Freiburg Minster if the last old stone were replaced by a new one?

The original is something imaginary. It is in principle possible to build an exact copy, a fuzhipin of Freiburg Minster, in one of China’s many theme parks. Is this then a copy or an original? What makes it a mere copy? What characterises the Freiburg Minster as an original? Materially, its fuzhipin might not differ in any way from the original that itself might someday no longer contain any original parts. It would be, if at all, the place and the cult value related to the practice of worship that might differentiate the Freiburg Minster from its fuzhipin in a Chinese theme park. However, remove its cult value completely in favour of its exhibition value, and its difference from its double might disappear, too.
The onset of industrialisation increased the need for the museumisation of the past
In the field of art as well, the idea of an unassailable original developed historically in the Western world. Back in the 17th century, excavated artworks from antiquity were treated quite differently from today. They were not restored in a way that was faithful to the original. Instead, there was massive intervention in these works, changing their appearance. For example, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) arbitrarily added a sword-hilt to Ares Ludovisi, the ancient statue of the god Mars, which was itself a Roman copy of a Greek original. During Bernini’s lifetime, the Colosseum itself was used as a marble quarry. Its walls were simply dismantled and used for new buildings.

The preservation of historical monuments in the modern sense of the term begins with the museumisation of the past, whereby cult value increasingly gives way to exhibition value. Interestingly, this goes hand in hand with the rise of tourism. The so-called Grand Tour that began in the Renaissance and reached its apogee in the 18th century was a precursor of modern tourism. In the eyes of tourists, the exhibition value of ancient buildings and artworks, which were presented to them as attractions, increased. In the same century as tourism was beginning, the first measures to preserve ancient structures were undertaken. Now it seemed imperative to preserve ancient structures. The onset of industrialisation further increased the need for the conservation and museumisation of the past. In addition, the burgeoning fields of art history and archaeology discovered the epistemological value of old buildings and artworks, and rejected any intervention that might alter them.

Aprior, primordial positing is alien to Far Eastern culture. It is probably this intellectual position that explains why Asians have far fewer scruples about cloning than Europeans. The South Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk, who attracted worldwide attention with his cloning experiments in 2004, is a Buddhist. He found a great deal of support and followers among Buddhists, while Christians called for a ban on human cloning. Though since revealed to be falsified, at the time Hwang legitimised his cloning experiments with his religious affiliation: ‘I am Buddhist, and I have no philosophical problem with cloning. And as you know, the basis of Buddhism is that life is recycled through reincarnation. In some ways, I think, therapeutic cloning restarts the circle of life.’

For the Ise shrine, too, the technique of preservation resides in allowing the circle of life to begin anew over and over again, maintaining life not against death but through and beyond death. Death itself is built into the system of preservation. In this way, being gives way to the cyclical process that includes death and decay. In the unending cycle of life, there is no longer anything unique, original, singular or final. Only repetitions and reproductions exist. In the Buddhist notion of the endless cycle of life, instead of creation there is decreation: not creation but iteration; not revolution but recurrence; not archetypes but modules determine the Chinese technology of production.
It is not by chance that printing was invented in China
As we know, even the terracotta armies are manufactured from modules or stock components. Production in modules is not consistent with the idea of the original, as from the outset these are stock components. Foremost in modular production is not the idea of originality or uniqueness, but reproducibility. Its aim is not the manufacture of a unique, original object but mass-production that nevertheless allows variations and modulations. It modulates the same, thereby creating differences. Modular production is modulating and varying. Thus it allows for a great deal of variety. However, it negates uniqueness in order to increase the efficiency of reproduction. For example, it is not by chance that printing was invented in China. Chinese painting, too, uses modular technology. The Chinese treatise on painting, the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, contains an infinite row of component parts from which a painting could be composed or indeed assembled.

The question of creativity arises once again in light of this modular type of production. Combining and varying elements becomes more important. Here, Chinese cultural technology works like nature. As the German art historian Lothar Ledderose put it in Ten Thousand Things (2000):
Chinese artists … never lose sight of the fact that producing works in large numbers exemplifies creativity, too. They trust that, as in nature, there always will be some among the 10,000 things from which change springs.

Chinese art has a functional relationship with nature, not a mimetic one. It is not a question of depicting nature as realistically as possible but of operating exactly like nature. In nature, successive variations also produce something new, clearly without any kind of ‘genius’. As Ledderose says:

Painters like Zheng Xie strive to emulate nature in two respects. They produce large, almost limitless quantities of works, and are enabled to do so by module systems of compositions, motifs and brushstrokes. But they also imbue every single work with its own unique and inimitable shape, as nature does in its prodigious invention of forms. A lifetime devoted to training his aesthetic sensibilities enables the artist to approximate the power of nature.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

NAZI Globalism v. Democratic Globalism

From video starting @ 28:54:
From 1938 to 1946 the Allies made serious and fundamental mistakes in their assessment of Germany's ability to resist huge amounts of punishment, and an equally a complete failure to understand where their bombing offensive might be having a real impact. They were wrong, albeit in different ways pre-war, confounded during it, and confused after it. And part of the problem was a constant failure throughout the whole of the war to understand how Germany's economy worked. Applying an activity index, as the RAF was trying to do which used the British economy as its starting point, was never going to work. They didn't know that they were fighting a country which, until the string of disasters at the end of 1942 and then through 1943, simply hadn't really considered the possibility of losing the war and therefore didn't give overriding political priority to economic production.

Inside of Germany until the start of 1943, it was virtually impossible to know that there was a war on. In Britain though at the same time, everybody's lives have been turned utterly upside down, almost from the first days of the conflict. The reality, certainly for this period that the video covers today of 1941 to early 1943, was civilians in Nazi Germany only had a very limited amount of rationing. Production of Civilian Goods really hadn't slowed down very much, and most women, in fact the vast vast majority of women, never went to go and work inside the German economy.

Whereas in Britain, something like half of all women were involved. Indeed, once the invasion of Britain was abandoned in November of German Manufacturing 1940 until about June of 1941, many men were demobilized from the Army and returned to manufacturing jobs and jobs in the Civil sector, basically to build up for Barbarosa. When Albert Speer took over as Armament Minister in February of 1942, the Vermacht was being supplied with all manner of useless dross, from piano cords, to electricity meters, to hundreds of kilometers of spare belts, to Jungle uniforms for the step of Russia, and so on. All whilst Pierce was convinced that his bombers had reduced German production capacity by at least 30%.

For many observers, and frankly until quite recently including me, this was one of the trickiest bits of trying to understand the war. Or, if you are of a certain bench, you might say this was just down to the Germans will to resist. You might cite examples used by, for example, Goebels and his diary of factory workers moving their workbenches into the Frozen streets of a German winter and carrying on working. In 1944, fighter production rocketed up with over a thousand machines a month being built. At its' peak German women, as we mentioned a minute ago, never made up a significant percentage of factory workers for fear of impacting the troops morale if it happened. German civilians were never hungry until the very last days of the war. German troops had sufficient amounts of small arms ammunition right up until May 1945.

There are some obvious things that one can point to: Innovation definitely played a part, the extensive use of easily moved machine tools also had an impact, which if they weren't destroyed during an initial bombing, were fairly easy to set up in a new Factory. A good Railway Network within Germany proper helped a great deal too, because it was relatively simple to tear down factories and move them further East and South if you needed to. But none of these factors are sufficiently comprehensive in an explanation.

There were some clever little tricks which were used by the German state which helped as well. Things like, for example if you were a German worker who was bombed out, if you returned back to your shift within 48 Hours you got more help than if you didn't. In fact actually, you got help if you didn't go back, you didn't get helped at all. And production targets, and prizes, and holidays, and all manner of other things were offered too. But this was really ultimately marginal stuff.

And the question remains, how did this economy survive, and indeed Thrive under the biblical levels of Destruction coming from the air in 1942 - 43 - 44? Were the Nazis somehow better? Did they believe their ideology more strongly? Were they somehow superhuman, were they gods of old reborn?

Um, no no, not really. The answer to these questions is actually quite simple: short-term economic fixes combined with the industrialization of human suffering among subject peoples. In the West, the economies of France, and Holland, and Belgium, and Denmark, and Norway, and many other places were stripped bare. Italy was bled White, even as an ally. When it had surrendered to the Allies, it was considered a turn coat, and it was absolutely exploited to the maximum. In the East the approach was purely genocidal, working starving men and women and children to death to support the living standards and war production within the Reich itself. The systematic leeching of occupied territories was as much political as anything else. The Reich must be maintained now. The war will be short, thus we do not need to take a long-term view. Resistance can be crushed without fear of retribution, because after all, we are the master race and we will be here for a thousand years.

Manufacturing capability that could have contributed far more to the Nazi war effort if it had been left in place, was instead broken up and shipped back to Germany. Workforces were turned into forced labor. Russians were slashed for civilians outside of the Reich. Agricultural products were taken directly to Germany, whilst the locals teeter on the edge of starvation. France, for example, had three times as many cars on its roads as Germany did. In 1939 something like one and a half million, but by 1942, it had less than 100,000. The rest having been taken to Germany. In 1939, France had the French Manufacturing capacity to build a vast amount of stuff, something like 250,000 Vehicles, something like 3,000 aircraft, 10,000 Arrow engines, 2,000 tanks, and so on, and so on, and so on. By 1942, almost all of this capacity, with the exception of the huge Renault plant at Buon Bellacor, which was basically largely intact. That's a whole other story, but during the whole War, it produced something like 38,000 vehicles for the Reich, which was a drop in the ocean at potential capacity. Anyway, the Renault Factory, and a couple of others were basically left behind, but the vast majority had gone.

And these moves were highly inefficient and disruptive, but they benefited Germany, and Germany alone in the short term. Even where the Nazis didn't move equipment, they became the primary customer by force. And for all production, they paid with script and promisory notes and not with currency, which preserved the Reich's limited reserves of hard currency. In total France exported something like 990,000 vehicles to the third Reich during the whole of the war, and got paid almost nothing in exchange. This was a recipe for disaster for the French economy as the war dragged, on but shortterm ensured that Berlin Housewives didn't go hungry, ME-109's got made, and the bombed out in Germany got looked after, if they were German and Aryan, of course.

Elements of the Holocaust also helped. For example, during the course of the war, 85,000 fully loaded trains carried confiscated items from Jews back into Germany from across Europe and the Soviet Union, their possessions from table lamps, to Pianos, to garden furniture were distributed to those who been bombed out. The mass use of slave labor meant that there was no need to bring German women into the workforce, when women from the occupied territories mostly Ukrainian and Polish could do the work, and Jews from across Europe could be worked to death on production lines. I can't do the Holocaust contribution to the German economy justice here, but I may try to tackle another another time. It was not insignificant before the final solution became the final solution. Putting aside the Holocaust and the death camps, the composition of the labor force itself was completely extraordinary and beyond the wildest imaginings of the Allies. For most of the war, laborers were sought from within the occupied territories, initially voluntarily, but when less than 1% of workers stepped forward, the Germans immediately reverted to force drafts and mass arrests to make up the shortfall. After the war Speer claimed that he had no idea where the SS was getting its 400,000 workers that he demanded to boost production in 1944 from, a claim that beggars belief, but we'll come back to Speer another day. In reality, in 1942 Poles, Albanians, Greeks, Czechs, Slovenians, Yugoslavs, Ukrainians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Hungarians, Dutch, French, Norwegians, Danes, Italians, and other nationalities besides, were shipped in, worked for 10 to 12 hours a day, fed just enough to keep them alive, and treated like cattle with the threat of being shot or imprisoned in a concentration camp if they bucked the system. In all, some 6 and a half million Forced workers worked in Germany during the war, and perhaps as many as 1.3 million of them died as a result.

And all of this is before we start to consider the situation with the prisoners of War. There was something like 2.2 million Soviet Prisoners inside of Germany, just 30% of them would survive to go home. 10% of the male French population, some 1.8 million men became prisons of war in June 1940, and most were pressed into service whilst being held as hostages, as guarantees of the Vichy Regime's good behavior the sordid and sorry details of the deals done by the Vichy Regime to get their men back are worthy of a video in its own right. Deals for expelling Jews, for volunteering their own workers to go to Germany, the establishment of free worker schemes from amongst the powers themselves, are just some of the low lights of the system of blackmail that the Nazis established over Vichy France. And it was all for naught, because the Germans occupied France in 1942 anyway, and held the remaining prisoners for the rest of the war as forced labor. And there is an irony in the Nazi State here, one which prided itself, after all, on racial Purity but became involuntarily incredibly Multicultural as the war went on. When it surrendered, some 11 million people scattered from its borders across Europe and the Soviet Union in the largest migration ever seen in human history. And unfortunately, tens of thousands of them died in the process of trying to get home.

In short then, the combined United States and RF bomber commands were, and would be trying to bomb not Germany, but the entire Continental European means of production, enhanced by slave labor on an unimaginable scale. Little Wonder it didn't work. In London, politically speaking, the idea was fairly simple, they had seen how the blockade of Germany in 1914-18 in the first world war, combined with Battlefield defeat, had led to a revolution within Germany's border and a swift surrender. To assume that the same results might be possible through bombing, especially given the pre-war predictions of people like Trenchard, is understandable. They failed to realize not just the economic factors, but also the political ones. Practical political resistance within Germany had been, Political Resistance, rendered next to Impossible, almost from the moment that Hitler took power. Certainly from about 1936, it was impractical to conduct large scale resistance of any kind. A combination of Gestapo surveillance, the effective subversion of Law and due process, the use of fear as a weapon which crushed all but the weakest of Uprising during the war, and even had people wanted to resist, the reality of being bombed out, as so many millions have were, is that you became entirely dependent on the State to survive. The process of bombing people, bound those people to the government in a way that had been completely unforeseen by London, or Washington, and it's a fact worth bearing mind today.

Monday, April 15, 2024

On Emergence...

...of Consciousness

David Chalmers coined the name “hard problem” (1995, 1996), but the problem is not wholly new, being a key element of the venerable mind-body problem. Still, Chalmers is among those most responsible for the outpouring of work on this issue. The problem arises because “phenomenal consciousness,” consciousness characterized in terms of “what it’s like for the subject,” fails to succumb to the standard sort of functional explanation successful elsewhere in psychology (compare Block 1995). Psychological phenomena like learning, reasoning, and remembering can all be explained in terms of playing the right “functional role.” If a system does the right thing, if it alters behavior appropriately in response to environmental stimulation, it counts as learning. Specifying these functions tells us what learning is and allows us to see how brain processes could play this role. But according to Chalmers,
What makes the hard problem hard and almost unique is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions. To see this, note that even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience—perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report—there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? (1995, 202, emphasis in original).
Chalmers explains the persistence of this question by arguing against the possibility of a “reductive explanation” for phenomenal consciousness (hereafter, I will generally just use the term ‘consciousness’ for the phenomenon causing the problem). A reductive explanation in Chalmers’s sense (following David Lewis (1972)), provides a form of deductive argument concluding with an identity statement between the target explanandum (the thing we are trying to explain) and a lower-level phenomenon that is physical in nature or more obviously reducible to the physical. Reductive explanations of this type have two premises. The first presents a functional analysis of the target phenomenon, which fully characterizes the target in terms of its functional role. The second presents an empirically-discovered realizer of the functionally characterized target, one playing that very functional role. Then, by transitivity of identity, the target and realizer are deduced to be identical. For example, the gene may be reductively explained in terms of DNA as follows:
 
1) The gene = the unit of hereditary transmission. (By analysis.)
2) Regions of DNA = the unit of hereditary transmission. (By empirical investigation.)
3) Therefore, the gene = regions of DNA. (By transitivity of identity, 1, 2.)
Chalmers contends that such reductive explanations are available in principle for all other natural phenomena, but not for consciousness. This is the hard problem.

The reason that reductive explanation fails for consciousness, according to Chalmers, is that it cannot be functionally analyzed. This is demonstrated by the continued conceivability of what Chalmers terms “zombies”—creatures physically (and so functionally) identical to us, but lacking consciousness—even in the face of a range of proffered functional analyses. If we had a satisfying functional analysis of consciousness, zombies should not be conceivable. The lack of a functional analysis is also shown by the continued conceivability of spectrum inversion (perhaps what it looks like for me to see green is what it looks like when you see red), the persistence of the “other minds” problem, the plausibility of the “knowledge argument” (Jackson 1982) and the manifest implausibility of offered functional characterizations. If consciousness really could be functionally characterized, these problems would disappear. Since they retain their grip on philosophers, scientists, and lay-people alike, we can conclude that no functional characterization is available. But then the first premise of a reductive explanation cannot be properly formulated, and reductive explanation fails. We are left, Chalmers claims, with the following stark choice: either eliminate consciousness (deny that it exists at all) or add consciousness to our ontology as an unreduced feature of reality, on par with gravity and electromagnetism. Either way, we are faced with a special ontological problem, one that resists solution by the usual reductive methods.
Tim William Eric Maudlin (born April 23, 1958) is an American philosopher of science who has done influential work on the metaphysical foundations of physics and logic.

Education and career

Maudlin graduated from Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C. Later he studied physics and philosophy at Yale University, and history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received his Ph.D. in 1986. He taught for more than two decades at Rutgers University before joining the Department of Philosophy at New York University in 2010.

Maudlin has also been a visiting professor at Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University. He is a member of the "Foundational Questions Institute" of the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.[1][2] In 2015 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is the founder of the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics in Sveta Nedilja, Hvar, Croatia.

Since the academic year 2020–21 Maudlin is Visiting Professor at the University of Italian Switzerland.[3]

Tim Maudlin is married to Vishnya Maudlin; they have two children.

Philosophical work

In his first book, Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity (1994), Maudlin explains Bell's Theorem and the tension between violations of Bell's inequality and relativity.

In Truth and Paradox: Solving the Riddles (2004), Maudlin presents a new resolution to the "Liar Paradox" (for example, the sentence "This sentence is false") and other semantic paradoxes that requires a modification of classical logic.

In The Metaphysics Within Physics (2007) the central idea is that "metaphysics, in so far as it is concerned with the natural world, can do no better than to reflect on physics".[4]

Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided solely by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.[5]

Maudlin delves into fundamental topics of cosmology, arguing that laws of nature ought to be taken as primitive, not reduced to something else, and that the passage and direction of time are fundamental. On this theory the arrow of time has a single direction and time is asymmetric, contradicting the quantum-mechanical idea of time's symmetry and other theories that deny the existence of time, as championed by physicist Julian Barbour.[6]

I believe that it is a fundamental, irreducible fact about the spatio-temporal structure of the world that time passes. [...] The passage of time is an intrinsic asymmetry in the temporal structure of the world, an asymmetry that has no spatial counterpart.[...] Still, going from Mars to Earth is not the same as going from Earth to Mars. The difference, if you will, is how these sequences of states are oriented with respect to the passage of time. [...] The belief that time passes, in this sense, has no bearing on the question of the 'reality' of the past or of the future. I believe that the past is real: there are facts about what happened in the past that are independent of the present state of the world and independent of all knowledge or beliefs about the past. I similarly believe that there is (i.e. will be) a single unique future. I know what it would be to believe that the past is unreal (i.e. nothing ever happened, everything was just created ex nihilo) and to believe that the future is unreal (i.e. all will end, I will not exist tomorrow, I have no future). I do not believe these things, and would act very differently if I did. Insofar as belief in the reality of the past and the future constitutes a belief in a 'block universe', I believe in a block universe. But I also believe that time passes, and see no contradiction or tension between these views.[7]

Maudlin defends his view over rival proposals by David Lewis and Bas Van Fraassen, among others. Lewis analyzed natural laws as those generalizations that figure in all theoretical systematizations of empirical truths that best combine strength and simplicity. Maudlin objects that this analysis rides roughshod over the intuition that some such generalizations could fail to be laws in worlds that we should follow scientists in deeming physically possible. Van Fraassen argued that laws of nature are of no philosophical significance, and may be eliminated in favor of models in a satisfactory analysis of science. Maudlin counters that this deprives one of the resources to say how cutting down its class of models can enhance a theory's explanatory power, a phenomenon readily accounted for when one takes a theory's model class as well as its explanatory power to derive from its constituent laws (Richard Healey, University of Arizona).[8]

In Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time (2012) Maudlin explains the philosophical issues of relativity to a lay audience,[9] though some of his arguments, like his divorcing of the resolution of the twin paradox from the presence of acceleration for the travelling twin, have been criticised in the literature.[10] In New Foundations for Physical Geometry (2014) he proposes a new mathematics of physical space called the theory of linear structures. Maudlin's subject is specifically empirical spacetime, which he believes a kind of linearization describes better than abstract topological open sets.[11][12]

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Killing Capitalism?

Slavoj Zizek, "Why The AI Revolution May Wind Up Killing Capitalism" (for an earlier variation of this post)
The threats posed by advanced AI are serious and varied. Among them is a direct threat to capitalism so much that in the end we will be faced with a choice between two systems: a new form of communism or unchecked chaos.

BERLIN — An open letter published by the Future of Life Institute in March 2023 called for all labs working on artificial intelligence systems more powerful than GPT-4 to “immediately pause” their work for at least six months. The idea was that humanity should use this time to take stock of the risks posed by these advanced systems.

Thousands of people signed the letter, including Elon Musk, who is an advisor to the Future of Life Institute. The organization's stated aim is to reduce the existential risks to humankind posed by such technologies.They claim the AI labs are “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict, or reliably control.”

So what has caused this sudden wave of panic? It is about control and regulation – but control in whose hands? In the suggested six-month pause “humankind can take stock of the risks” – but how? Who will represent humankind in this capacity? Will there be a global, public debate?

What about those IT labs that will (as we must expect) secretly continue their work, with the authorities turning a blind eye, not to mention what other countries outside of the West (China, India, Russia) will do? Under such conditions, a serious global debate with binding conclusions is unimaginable. What is really at stake here?

Unexpected division

In his 2017 book Homo Deus, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who also signed the open letter, predicted that the most realistic outcome of developing true AI would be a radical division within human society, one that would be far more serious than the divisions imposed by class.

Harari predicted that, in the near future, biotechnology and computer algorithms would join forces to produce “bodies, brains and heads”, meaning that the gulf between those who knew how to construct these and those who didn’t would widen dramatically: those who are “driving forward progress” would achieve godlike abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind would struggle to survive.
They don't want a wide-ranging public debate – more like cooperation between governments and companies.
The panic expressed in the open letter from the Future of Life Institute is motivated by a fear that those “driving forward progress” will no longer be able to control what they create – in short, it's expressing our fear of our new, digital overlords.

Fetishistic denial

Clearly what the open letter is aiming for is not a wide-ranging public debate – it is more like cooperation between governments and companies. The threat posed by advanced AI is very serious, and it affects those in power and those currently involved in developing, owning and controlling AI.
Many lonely people spend their evenings having long conversations with chatbots.
The future waiting on the horizon is nothing less than the end of capitalism as we know it: the prospect of a self-reproducing AI system that requires less and less human involvement – the explosion of automated trade on the stock exchange is the first step in this direction. So the true choice facing us is clear: a new form of communism or unchecked chaos, in which machines interact with us as pseudo-human partners.

Many lonely (and also not so lonely) people spend their evenings having long conversations with chatbots, talking about new films and books, debating political and ideological questions, and so on. It’s not surprising that they find these exchanges relaxing and satisfying: to repeat an old joke of mine, what they get from this exchange is an AI version of decaffeinated coffee or a sugar-free drink – a neighbor with no hidden motives, an Other who perfectly meets their needs.

There is a kind of fetishistic denial at work here: “I know (that I’m not talking to a real person), but still… (it feels like I am, without any of the risks that arise from a conversation with a real person)!” Therefore a chatbot is at its most disingenuous when it openly admits that it is just a machine – for example, if you ask a chatbot which films it likes, the response will likely be an honest admission that it is a machine and has no individual preferences. I recently asked a chatbot: “Should I be a communist?” The answer I received was:

“As an AI chatbot I have no personal opinions or convictions, and I can’t make decisions for you. In the end, the decision to embrace a particular political ideology, for example communism, is a personal choice that should be made based on carefully weighing the principles, values and possible outcomes of the ideology”.

The secret hope of technology

Why is that a lie? The content of the answer is true, but it is a lie because of the implied position: a chatbot speaking as if it were a real person, in that it openly admits its limitations and the fact that it is not, in fact, a real person. This mystification is the opposite of the fetishistic denial: the AI system is not denying anything, it is simply saying, “I know that I’m not a real person!”, without a “but still…” – because the “but still” is the very fact that it is speaking (and thereby imitating subjectivity).

On closer reading, it is easy to see that the attempts to “take stock” of the threats posed by AI will tend to repeat the old paradox of forbidding the impossible: a true post-human AI is impossible, therefore we must forbid anyone from developing one… To find a path through this chaos, we should look to Lenin’s much-quoted question: Freedom for whom, to do what? In what way were we free until now? Were we not being controlled to a far greater extent than we realized?

Instead of simply complaining about the threat to our freedom and intrinsic value, we should also consider what freedom means and how it may change. As long as we refuse to do that, we will behave like hysterics, who (according to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) seek a master to rule over them. Is that not the secret hope that recent technologies awaken within us?

The post-humanist Ray Kurzweil predicts that the exponential growth of the capabilities of digital machines will soon mean that we will be faced with machines that not only show all the signs of consciousness but also far surpass human intelligence.

We should not confuse this “post-human” view with the modern belief in the possibility of having total technological control over nature. What we are experiencing today is a dialectical reversal: the rallying cry of today’s “post-human” science is no longer mastery, but surprising (contingent, unplanned) emergence.

Science is risky

The philosopher and engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy, writing many years ago in the French journal Le Débat, described a strange reversal of the traditional Cartesian-anthropocentric arrogance that underpinned human technology, a reversal that can clearly be seen in the fields of robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life and AI research today:

“How can we explain the fact that science has become such a ‘risky’ activity that, according to some top scientists, today it represents the greatest threat to the survival of humankind? Some philosophers respond to this question by saying that Descartes’ dream of being ‘lord and master of nature’ has been proven false and that we should urgently return to ‘mastering the master’. They have understood nothing. They don’t see that the technology waiting on the horizon, which will be created by the ‘convergence’ of all disciplines, aims precisely for a lack of mastery.
If post-humanity truly comes to pass, then all three fixed points in our worldview (man, God, nature) will disappear
The engineer of tomorrow will not become a sorcerer’s apprentice due to carelessness or ignorance, but of his own free will. He will create complex structures and try to learn what they are capable of, by studying their functional qualities – an approach that works from the bottom up. He will be a discoverer and experimenter, at least as much as a finisher. His success will be measured by how far his own creations surprise him, rather than by how closely they conform to the list of aims set out at the start.”

Even if the outcome cannot be reliably predicted, one thing is clear: If something like post-humanity truly comes to pass, then all three fixed points in our worldview (man, God, nature) will disappear. Our humanity can only exist against the backdrop of inscrutable nature, and if – thanks to biogenetics – life becomes something that can be manipulated by technology, human life and the natural world will lose their “natural” character.

And the same goes for God: what people have understood as “God” (in historically specific forms) only has meaning from the perspective of human finiteness and mortality. “God” is the opposite of earthly finiteness, and as soon as we become homo deus and achieve characteristics that, from our old human perspective, seem “supernatural” (such as direct communication with other conscious beings or with AI), that is the end of “gods” as we know them.

Phono Sapiens

Mathew Gasda, "Phono Sapiens"
My friend J, a computer programmer, once convinced his former roommate—also a programmer—to watch the Japanese art film Asako I & II, about a woman who falls in love with two identical-looking but different men. J’s roommate sat patiently through this intricate, two-hour meditation on identity before complaining that the film could have been much shorter: say, five to ten minutes. He could have saved even more time by reading a plot summary in bullet-point form. That would have been far more efficient.

This story, which J told me over lunch when I said I was writing this review, is also a parable. We are either J, the humanist programmer, or we are the ex-roommate, the rationalist who doesn’t see the point in J’s humanism—in his engagement with gradual, digressive, and lyrical unfoldings. The roommate just wanted information, conveyed in useful packets.

This split—and perhaps existential choice—between information and narrative animates the philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s new book-length essay The Crisis of Narration. According to Han, narratives—formally constructed stories, rich with allusion and suggestion, open to interpretation by the community—are disappearing as Homo sapiens transforms into what he calls Phono sapiens.

Han’s prime example of a master narrator is Herodotus. The Greek historian could “forgo explanation,” trusting in the power of a few key images to convey history’s complexity and tragedy. His audience knew what it meant when a city was sacked, or a general sent into exile. Thus Herodotus’s storytelling made sense of the past and pointed to the future. Narrative, Han argues, brings together discrete moments of experience, both personal and collective, so that we feel that it’s all heading towards something, is for something. Stories can bind together families, tribes, and civilizations.

By contrast, Han looks around at the present and sees disintegration. People who grew up with phones—and even many older people who didn’t—can’t read a novel anymore, sit through a film without looking at their phones, sit through a TV show without pausing it to check their emails, finish an article online—in short, can’t really do anything without multitasking. There’s no moment of rapture in reading the first page of a book because the mind no longer expects to reach the end. The old tools of storytelling are obsolete; distraction supersedes even entertainment, let alone art. And because we can’t narrate our lives, “we can’t construct narratives connected to our own inner truth.” Truth simply falls out of the human vocabulary, replaced by big data: charts, memes, viral clips. Phono sapiens is “lost” in a “forest of information,” without passion or purpose.

He also lacks consolation. Whereas narratives have a “wondrous and mysterious” quality, there is something frantic about the data pouring out of our screens: charts and infographics, advertisements and commercials. Our information society lives in an “age of heightened mental tension”: constantly stimulated, constantly expecting surprise, constantly fragmented. Phono sapiens may become terrified of climate change, political extremism, or microplastics; he may compulsively bet on stocks and games; he may be addicted to dating apps; or all of the above. In any case, he is stuck in an information loop without the possibility of closure.

If we take Han’s argument seriously, and I think we should, its implications for our common life are very grave. A society structured around pure information, around data, will struggle to access the traditional meaning inscribed in acts such as marriage, child-rearing, community service, and churchgoing. All of these come to be perceived as inefficient or pointless. The same could be said of cooking dinner for friends, attending a sporting event without wagering on the outcome, or writing a thank-you note.

But, one may object, isn’t the world full of narratives? Don’t people turn to their phones in search of Instagram stories? Aren’t politicians always trying to construct a compelling “narrative”? Not so: “The more we talk about narration or narrative,” Han cautions us, “the more we’re alienated from it.” The stream of pseudo-narratives one finds on TikTok, Instagram, or X are replacement calories for a narrative-starved hive mind. Han calls this development “the inflation of narrative,” a term that applies to much of the media landscape. UFOs, pandemics, pop-star romances, global wars: All, in different ways, are discursive simulacra of the complex, allegorical, future-oriented, rich, and humanizing narratives that Han locates, however vaguely, in the past.

Han’s diagnosis is partly a spiritual one. Most contemporary people, he suggests, don’t experience the time between birth and death in a natural, primal way—especially if they no longer believe in stories of salvation, whether pagan or Christian. Instead they must anxiously distract themselves from death. According to Han, the busyness and noisiness of digital life and the internet is the eerie sound emitted by the narrative vacuum: a void that expresses itself “in a lack of meaning and orientation.”

Han finds the smartphone age overwhelming. So do I. And yet as powerful as Han’s brief book is, he is perhaps too pessimistic about our ability to regain our spiritual thirst. In my own work, writing and directing plays in New York City, I have found that narrative and the demand for narrative are still alive. A good dramatic scene, written and performed at just the right pitch of subtlety and pathos, may still speak for itself; there is indeed something “wondrous and mysterious” in those moments in which something small can stand for something big, something close to universal.

I’ve come to understand that theater, in our time, isn’t a genre of entertainment. It is, for me at least, a refuge and a place of consolation: a castle at the edge of the desert in the late empire of the human soul. What theater is for me, and philosophy is for Han, any number of things could be for any number of people: cinema, prayer, a long walk, a night in front of the fireplace, with the phone on airplane mode (or even, dare I say, off).

Homo sapiens has reason to hope, then, that Phono sapiens is just a very modern version of the Neanderthal: a competitor species that will not live to tell its own story.

Understanding Straub & Huillet

Friday, April 12, 2024

Deleuze, "What is a Creative Act?" Adventures in Space-Time

Robert Bresson - Blocks of Movement-Time linked by Hand Movements:
Did Bresson NEED hands?
Did Kurosawa Need Dostoevskian urgency?
HUMINT - An App for Crossing the Limits of Space - Time


Excerpt:
I consider that having an idea, in any case, is not on the order of communication. This is the point I was aiming for. Everything we are talking about is irreducible to any communication. This is not a problem. What does it mean? Primarily, communication is the transmission and propagation of information. What is information? It is not very complicated, everyone knows what it is. Information is a set of imperatives, slogans, directions—order-words. When you are informed, you are told what you are supposed to believe. In other words, informing means circulating an order-word. Police declarations are appropriately called communiqués. Information is communicated to us, they tell us what we are supposed to be ready to, or have to, or be held to believe. And not even believe, but pretend like we believe. We are not asked to believe but to behave as if we did. That is information, communication. And outside these orders and their transmission, there is no information, no communication. This is the same thing as saying that information is exactly the system of control. It is obvious and it particularly concerns us all today. 
[...] 
Let's say that is what information is, the controlled system of the order-words used in a given society. What does the work of art have to do with it? Let's not talk about works of art, but let's at least say that there is counter-information. In Hitler's time, the Jews arriving from Germany who were the first to tell us about the concentration camps were performing counter-information. We must realize that counterinformation was never enough to do anything. No counter-information ever bothered Hitler. Except in one case. What case? This is what's important. Counter-information only becomes really effective when it is—and it is by nature—or becomes an act of resistance. An act of resistance is not information or counter-information. Counterinformation is only effective when it becomes an act of resistance.

What relationship is there between the work of art and communication? None at all. A work of art is not an instrument of communication. A work of art has nothing to do with communication. A work of art does not contain the least bit of information. In contrast, there is a fundamental affinity between a work of art and an act of resistance. It has something to do with information and communication as an act of resistance. What is this mysterious relationship between a work of art and an act of resistance when the men and women who resist neither have the time nor sometimes the culture necessary to have the slightest connection with art? I do not know. Malraux developed an admirable philosophical concept. He said something very simple about art. He said it was the only thing that resists death. Let's go back to the beginning:

What does someone who does philosophy do? They invent concepts. I think this is the start of an admirable philosophical concept. Think about it... what resists death? You only have to look at a statuette from three thousand years before the Common Era to see that Malraux's response is a pretty one. We could then say, not as well, from the point of view that concerns us, that art resists, even if it is not the only thing that resists. Whence the close relationship between an act of resistance and a work of art. Every act of resistance is not a work of art, even though, in a certain way, it is. Every work of art is not an act of resistance, and yet, in a certain way, it is.

[...]

What relationship is there between human struggle and a work of art? The closest and for me the most mysterious relationship of all. Exactly what Paul Klee meant when he said: "You know, the people are missing." The people are missing and at the same time, they are not missing. The people are missing means that the fundamental affinity between a work of art and a people that does not yet exist is not, will never be clear. There is no work of art that does not call on a people who does not yet exist.

Building the PERTs

Bryan Counter reviews Byung-Chul Han's "The Crisis of Narration"
In response to the familiar platitude that everyone is distracted these days, Marina van Zuylen has argued that what we actually have is “disengaged engagement” in a “multitasking universe, where we are enthralled by a weird kind of disembodied focus.”[1] Our attention is monopolized by a constant influx of information, data, statistics, and as a result we seem distracted, but in reality we are hyper-focused. In other words, narrative gives way to storytelling, with the latter being aligned with information and commodity rather than relaxation and imagination. As Byung-Chul Han writes in The Crisis of Narration: “The modern reader has lost the long, slow, lingering gaze”—that is, the ability to daydream or to be truly distracted (p. 1). This also means that we can no longer listen to one another. As we can no longer listen or distractedly read, we lose our capacity for wisdom, “and its place is taken by problem-solving techniques” (p. 10). Not for nothing is part of this book focused on digitalization, which, to a higher degree than information in general, “intensifies the atrophy of time” (p. 19).

Han begins this study by writing: “Everyone is talking about ‘narratives.’ Paradoxically, the inflation of narrative betrays a crisis of narration.” What he goes on to lament about this paradox is itself paradoxical: the crisis of narration is “a lack of meaning and orientation” in narrative, but this lack of meaning and orientation is a lack that ostensibly fills itself with various narrators and types of information (p. vii). There is never a lack of information! And yet, calling on a children’s book by Paul Maar, Han shows on the one hand how storytelling tends to reduce the world around us to mere information, and on the other hand how narratives come about when the world refuses that reduction.

The Crisis of Narration brings to mind other recent texts that diagnose our present moment with striking accuracy and urgency, such as Anne Dufourmantelle’s In Defense of Secrets (2021) and Anna Kornbluh’s Immediacy: Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism (2024), to give just a couple of examples. The modern touchstones of transparency, immediacy, and telling stories each leave so much left untouched, unsaid. As Han writes: “Narrative is a play of light and shadow, of the visible and invisible, of nearness and distance. Transparency destroys this dialectical tension, which forms the basis of every narrative” (p. 40). Writing and thinking in a style reminiscent of Martin Heidegger, Han has many other reference points throughout this slim book. Echoing the juxtaposition of eroticism and pornography by Roland Barthes, Han in one notable instance contends that information “is pornographic, because it has no cover. Eloquent narrative is only the cover, the veil that weaves itself around the things. Covering and veiling are essential to narrative. Pornography does not tell anything. It gets right down to it, whereas the eroticism of narrative indulges in incidental details” (p. 30). Information decides ahead of time how it should be interpreted, whereas narrative gives us the task (and enjoyment) of making sense ourselves.

The transition from narrative to storytelling is how the world becomes disenchanted, and this disenchantment proliferates. As our everyday lives are increasingly transformed by the media we consume and their methods of consumption, so are our works of art and ways of experiencing art. We can seemingly no longer speak of the quasi-Romantic conception of the artist or of the spectator: “A Netflix series is nothing like a piece of art that corresponds to a pronounced danger to life and limb” (p. 47). Our state of constant bombardment itself becomes the danger when so much of what we take in is low stakes, for profit, part of an entertainment machine.

In a brief later section called “Theory as Narrative,” Han justifies theory insofar as it “designs an order of things, setting them in relation to each other” rather than, like data, “merely disclos[ing] correlations between things” (p. 50). And perhaps this is Han’s intervention: to show that theorizing can help us to create a path, to prioritize the world around us, even if—and in fact precisely when—this means going against the grain. For if we do “live in a post-narrative time” despite the abundance of narrative-speak everywhere, it is for no other reason than that we have lost the plot (p. viii).

Notes:

[1] Marina van Zuylen, The Plenitude of Distraction (New York, 2017), p. 9.