Friday, August 6, 2021


So, I backed into this David v. Goliath story, as I usually do back in, by random reads. There's the Mark Ruffalo connection from the docudrama Dark Waters, which came from a New York Review of Books review of a book I'm now reading called Second Nature, and then a Twitter thread from McKenzie Wark led me back to Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble

The protagonist of Dark Waters, Robert Billot, is certainly unlikely. His early history as a lawyer made him seem almost a moral neutral. He wasn't super-charged for success, like many or most of his colleagues at a large Cincinnati law firm, and it wasn't clear that he didn't have the same bland desires to make a good living that we all do. And yet he became obsessed and outraged by what DuPont, by way of 3M, had unleashed on our planet in the form of  "forever chemicals" related to Teflon.

In the end, in a mild sense, he brought the company down. In a very unlikely way, his firm, more of less, stuck by him. There was money on both sides of the environmental law industry. But the tides eventually turned as they realized the scope of what they'd lost from the chemical industry. And still, even in the bumpy denouement, Billot seems the victor. Which means we all won.

Somehow, in all this reading, it becomes clear that there is one kind of decision-making process which can lead to utter disaster, even for the corporate entity which the decision-makers represent. A very different sort of process was demonstrated by Billot in fighting against the first kind. 

Most of us are familiar with the kinds of thinking and meetings which might have gone into DuPont's decision-making. It might be better to call it non-decision-making. In any case, people are tied to a structure - a business - which makes their lives good, and they want to support it. Not just the executives, but the workers and even the victims in the general population want 'the trouble' to go away. Ultimately and inevitably, they want the trouble-maker to go away. Trouble-makers are shunned, when they're outside the pact. Nobody wants to believe that the object of their fervent belief is the actual troublemaker.

Nobody within this structure seeks a moral decision-maker, who might weigh all the nitty gritty of the long view to protect the company from itself. That would be almost a court jester role, if it weren't so serious. Or like the lawyers who follow our troops into battle now. Volkswagen could have used one when they were tipping the scales on emissions readings. Dupont might have been better off if they had realized the scope of what would be revealed, and what the impact would be.

Well they did realize the scope. They just simply did a cost-benefit analysis and realized that the risks were all on the side of admission. That the best form of cover would be to keep on keeping on, and then to claim a kind of sanctioned innocence. In any case, it was easier to add up the dollars, and that all pointed to the clear financial risks of admitting any kind of guilt.

Perhaps there are lots of avenging angels all along the way, and these, even the ones inside us, prevented Billot and his work from being completely stopped. Perhaps it's all happenstance, what some call fate. I'm wanting to use it as some kind of analog for good governance.

I think it's an important subject. In his approach to Terraforming, Benjamin H. Bratton implicitly calls for a very different form of governance that the one which is now allowing some form of rampant capitalism, or call it vectorialism, to keep on keeping on until we're well beyond the cliff of sustainability. 

Our current system of governance clearly renders up a structure more similar to what went on inside DuPont and its company towns, than it does what might be called the autocracy of Billot's almost monomaniacal set of lawsuits.

Except you can't really call him monomaniacal, since he's after what we commonly call the truth, and he's doing it all for the public good. Our legal structures enabled him to do that, even while so much was corrupted and stacked against him. EPA cosy with those they regulate kind of thing. 

Bratton and I agree on the need for better governance. From my read, we agree on most things. Where we differ, I think, is in cosmology, but mostly in how we understand humanity. He doesn't seem to recognize what I consider to be important subtleties, analogs to forever chemicals, in the technological blossoming that he, more or less, champions, or even celebrates.

Just now in these United States we are still witnessing a governance structure - caricatured by Trumpism - which is very much like what happened inside DuPont. There's lots of reality denial and ready acceptance of convenient truths; ways of interpreting facts to downplay not just culpability, but even the facts themselves. We believe what it is convenient to believe. It's convenient not to change. To keep what's working for us in place as it is. 

Every once in a while, I come across really far-out theories about how quantum physics will ultimately reveal those occult structures of our brains which prove that we are connected to the greater cosmos, and that we feel, along with all our brethren among all the species. 

And I think these end up being a kind of humanity worship by way of brain worship. I just simply don't think it's all that complicated, and that these promised complex forever theories are mostly convenient to those who want our current assumptions to stay as they are. The wacky way-out promised theories remain perpetual sideshows. They allow the main show to keep on keeping on.

By extension, by celebrating "intelligent life," Bratton privileges an aspect of humanity at which we are demonstrably not all that great. He favors computational intelligence, as far as I can tell. He sees it in a way which lines up, vaguely, with Haraway's feminism in her celebration of the cyborg. But his is the very opposite of  'staying with the trouble." I want both, I guess.

I've called my own maneuver an analog for what Einstein did, without claiming to be his caliber. I might claim Billot's caliber. Not sure. But Einstein didn't really discover anything new. He reconceptualized what had already been discovered in a way that the pieces fell into place far better than they had been doing. The most celebrated shift was to see lightspeed as a constant along with an equivalency between energy and mass. Everything else followed.

I have been working for my entire adult life to communicate an analogous reconceptualization. I guess that I will ultimately fail. I guess that's because there are too many beliefs stacked against me. I guess it's because I sound like just another crank. 

I don't mystify the human brain, and I don't mystify the cosmos. It strikes me that we already know as much as we need to know in order to change our ways in a manner that would be good for us and good for all of what Haraway calls our kin. And we need our kin.

We have labored under a dangerous illusion that conceptual reality belongs only in the brain. That we carry around pictures of both the world around us, and of the way that it should be. The 'should be' is the realm of "ideas," so-called. We think that only humans have well-developed emotional lives, and that we have the right to commandeer the bodies of our kin to benefit ourselves. 

We no longer think, as Newton apparently did, that other life feels no pain. But we're still pretty sure that they don't suffer the same self-knowledge and foreknowledge that we do, which prevents most of us from taking over anyone else's human bodies for our own personal sake.

No, I'm not heading toward vegetarianism. It's far bigger than that. For me, the pieces have fallen into place once I realized that mind and emotion are both out there as much as is perceptual reality. They don't originate and they don't end with us.

Our subjectivity is no longer either some sort of privileged stance "outside" reality, nor is it any kind of dodge from objective truth. We are no more apart from cosmos than we are very different from our kin. There is no time in the history of the cosmos that conceptual reality wasn't real. And it was real before we thought it up. And it shifted and led to encoded replicators which generated a direction for life that can only be called an emotional direction. It sure wasn't physical.

I mean that emotion provided the direction - an arrow in time, the reverse of entropy - for a conceptual creation which was the replicable replicator. It idealized itself by the proof of so many identical copies. Which is to say by the proof of de-identifying any individual gene.

And so as I conceive the mind, it can and should become our model for governance. Not exactly Gaia, but perhaps moving in that direction. So long as emotions are an add-on to cognition, or even an obstacle, then we can discount them. But once we recognize that emotion is basic to our minds, and that it provides the impulse not just to do the right thing, but to think productive thoughts, then we might not be so ever-ready to cede power to the best cognition. 

Of course, when in our history have we actually done that? Name one President . . . one precedent . . . But I think we do want leadership that we can trust. Maybe Confucius, a purely constructed "man" who provides a kind of retrospective structure for ongoing governance. And it took modern China a while to rehabilitate Confucius. And his was hardly a cognitive structure. The human heart/mind had cosmic function to bring the order of heaven down to earth. To tame the waters, and pacify the beasts. But not to subjugate anybody or anything.

I really do hate to say it, but this may be the positive message to the election of Trump. Rather than to fight it with all the cognitive power at our disposal, we might instead celebrate it in ways to undermine the insane conspiracy theories. Those of us on the "right" side are quite literally denying the most important aspect of reality that our adversaries hold so dear. Trump is a simple measure of how far in the direction of perceptual science we have gone. We are well beyond the cliff, and it's time we rebuilt the ground.

Or in other words, we can't argue people from their conspiracy theories which we consider detached from reality. We can't, that is, until we make an emotional connection. Less yelling and more listening. Everyone, each individual, has a story to tell. We should listen to that with compassion, rather than to assume that all those yelling at us are all one.

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