Lately, I've been amazed at how often my local library has the books I want to read. Sadly, even though I could use the out-of-house time to make the nice and interesting walk to the central library, I mostly get them digitally. Now I have a backlog.
Whatever else I might eventually wish to say about this book, it surely does give the reader enough remove from Western Ways to see that we here in these United States revert to the aristocratic European form we'd meant to leave, far more than we diverge from it. Anymore.
The book dives into the question about why we seem stuck in our Western Ways which have revealed themselves to be at such a remove from Freedom, and even survivability. Their main objective seems to be to question the popularly received truths that ours is inevitably the social setup that all history would inevitably tend toward.
Whether in terms of political or financial power, the structure is aristocratic, no matter who the controllers are by any other name. If anything, our new aristocrats are more stupid, more foolish, more juvenile and more selfish than even the court of Louis XIV. I shall see if this book answers the question why.
Of course, to me, from the remove of China, I already have an answer. But China has also become more like than different anymore, and so I'll still want to know what better answers might be hinted in my read.
The book's grand omission, so far as I can see so far, is the impact of the written language on history. I need to know, and I'm not sure these authors have anything on offer, if (and then how) it might be that the written word has created our most recent and now global prisonhouse. It's hard for me to disconnect the written language from our scientific and technological advances.
Of course history requires writing to be history, which means imposition of narrative onto the raw stuff.
For sure there is a connection to law, as the sublimated and humanized version of subjugation to God's Word. And then, for equally certain there is the tabulation and recording of money hoards, and their transmutation into property and title (as the root of all evil).
But I think these authors are leaving the obvious alone. They deconstruct our projected histories according to a meticulously scientific method. They unsettle the seemingly obvious progressive timeline, where the "discovery" of agriculture is conceived as a unitary event, which sets us on the way toward our constrained bureaucratized state of complexity, which we can't seem to imagine ourselves getting beyond.
But these few observations threaten to paint these authors as just a newer sort of essentializer about what it means to be human. Or in other words, they stretch humanity to be coterminous with our genetic biological advent, where most of us would place humans in history, which means written history (along with our fantasies about what went on before history, which it is this book's main burden to reveal).
The answer I read for is about whether there might be a way to escape the prisonhouse of the written word without leaving history altogether. A way through instead of a way out. I think that's what they aim for as well.
It seems harder for me to trash our technologies entirely than it does for these authors. I want to keep my feeling that there might yet be something worthwhile about what we may indeed foolishly construe as our human ascendance. (The foolishness would be in our destruction of our earthly body, which makes us cancer, the single most powerful metaphor on offer in my other recent library reads, which would be the works of Ibram X. Kendi.)
Perhaps it is just that our preoccupations focus more on physical pleasures, offered or withheld, than could the primitives which precede us. Perhaps that's what entraps us. But if we are obsessed with pleasures, that might make us collectively one with all of life, which evolves toward fitting in some niche, which is made by all of other life?
As a whole, must we be cancer? Or might we be fitting in to something even greater than our earthly body? Might we be a channel for the grander schemes of evolution. A scheme which would even entail the destruction of individuality among us. A reversion, in false historical terms, to the most primitive state of all. We become the rhizome, the media for some message that there is no one to read.
And then what will that sort of life look and feel like? Well, no inside, no outside, it will feel like nothing. Which could be a kind of nirvanha, right? Right?
Read on, read on, and see if you are liberated or if you are trapped. Really, this book is only about whether our own internal subversives - those whose books I seem able to find in the public library - have ever been real and in the flesh, or if they have only ever been jesters to the courts of power. Rhetorical devices designed to challenge and seeming to want to subvert the powers that be, but only ever actually bolstering those powers by their own inevitable and highly regularized failures.
How shall we succeed, is the question I want answered.
In partial answer, I would like to offer a smashup of the early reference in this book to Gregory Bateson's "schismogenesis" with Johan Huizinga's calling out of agonistic contest as the "play" which unites us with all animal life. Play is the realm of freedom, that thing which these authors now attribute, in debate, to introductions from American native peoples.
Or, in other words, our recent history is marked by a taking too seriously of our truths. We offer academic degrees in seriousness, and so the sides take up, in deadly earnest, their disagreements with the other side. As Bateson points out, each side moves to some sort of opposite extreme from the other, as now our Red and Blue teams do. The result is, of course, polarization and anger, as, perhaps, between the sexes which is one of Bateson's examples from the “savage” world.
And so the possibility for success might be prefigured in the comedic processes of queerness and transgender, but also in the raw comedy calling out each team for its exaggerations. It only seems that there is no common ground, which is not the reason for our deadly anger at one another. Rather it is our deadly anger which erases all the common ground, which does, in fact exist.
Pull the clothes off our representative leaders, and you will find harlequin fool facing off against harlequin fool; the people having willingly given over our every freedom.
It would seem that non-Western "primitives," among other things, have a better sense of humor than we do. They might not take themselves so seriously, just as Huizinga once thought about us more recent Americans in contrast to the seriousness of European and Chinese politics. Now we follow the inevitable grim pathways of all imperialists, and we charge along as seriously as did those damnable Jesuits before us.
Would that we could mock our scientific and technological advances! Well, I sure do! There has never been a more Arlequin Sauvage than our kidlets riding their Unicorns worth billions. There is nothing more silly than a sexy car as apex object of desire. Inequality and even lack of freedom may be the inevitable result of divisions of labor according to economic valence, but our arrangements are grotesque by any measure. And most of us do laugh.
So here's a definition of time, in human terms. Future is a place where things have yet to happen. It can be a source of dread or hope or even ecstasy or despair. But the future is never thought to be the cause for what happens in the now. Primarily, that's because it's not a fact yet.
A fact is something whose causal relation to the now can be proven, in a way, theoretically. An idea can only be related to a fact by way of some sort of documentation. Otherwise, an idea can only be a goad toward some future or other.
Now if I am right (and of course I am) that mind has always been an aspect of reality, since at least the Big Bang, then the distinction between past and future becomes much more interesting. And our problem in the present is transformed.
Just now, those of us on the literate side of the great red/blue divide feel almost nothing but dread about our collective future. In part, that must feel like a tremendous sense of loss. We've had a near lifetime of experience with our cherished democracy persisting despite the idiots - charlatans, cheats, snake-oil peddlers - who have always been in charge. We developed a sort of faith in the system.
Mostly, we've experienced our fellows as idiots who don't understand the pleasures of comfort over extravagance, good wine over a good drunk, travel to wild places instead of to Disneyland. We've been content to see them deluded by cartoonish religious beliefs, mostly because it keeps them passive. And we've pretty much assumed, qua Steven Pinker, that history moves in an anti-racist ameliorative direction.
But now none of us can imagine how to get out of the mess we've made. Global Warming has become our catch-all, which manages even to lump into its bin all the reddening folk who seem to want to destroy any and all dreams of democracy in the name of a fantasy that things were oh so wonderful in the recent past. About the only thing that reds share with blues - our common ground - is a dread about the future.
Each group probably thinks the other has taken the red pill (blue pill? I honestly can't keep them straight) where fantasy replaces reality wholesale.
Anyhow, our overall trick is to replace dread with something toward excitement. Sure plenty of blueish people do that by way of the cool whiz-bang of our inventive recent history. But those darned redsters keep wanting to tear it all up with their coaling monster trucks.
So which of us is falling into the Somerset Maugham Razor's Edge trap of thinking that if we can think it, it can be real? Which of us is destroying our collective future by our dread of it?
Now along comes this contrarian, anarchistic, view of humanity which I want to believe in just simply because I like the authors so much, but they posit a pre-written language sort of consciousness that I just simply can't see. The writing on the wall tells me something different.
The Writing on the Wall shall be the title of my upcoming science fiction book, which will be about this hinge in time where present and past swap, in a way, and the writing no longer predicts or foretells or guides us into our futures, but as though light started to go backwards, is coming to us from a future which is as far from us as the stars.
Not everything important is physical Larry Darrell. That's the name I was given as an outlier space cadet at Yale, when we had all just read that book. The only thing I had in common with the prepsters. I did, of course, deserve it. Already a classic, and old. But we had not yet escaped its thrall.
I was, of course, a mistaken admit who made it in the back door of the engineering school.Worth David - now there's a name right out of fiction - told me so by a look. He corrected course quickly, to allow the institution more certainty that its recruits would uphold the fiction of merit and talent and be out mostly for themselves, and eventually their alma mater. Most certainly yes.
And so which team, red or blue, betrays the promise of anti-aristocracy? That's the bigger question than the rest, no matter how caught up we all are in that trivia.
To put the matter into other words, has the written word become our prison house, or might it yet be our redemption. Read on, Sailor Moon, read on. Notes from the future take no time at all to reach us. They have been there all the time. It's the parsing takes time.
And nope, no Julian Jaynes, no Johan Huizinga in these authors' bibliography. Tant pis. We all have our blind spots and shortcomings and can't keep up with everything. Hardly. But the term "homo ludens" does appear. Shall I doubt their documentation, then? Of course to cite Julian Jaynes is to court ridicule.
But here is the reason why the globe is now overrun by the imperialistic and very racist police state: it's because we're in a mad dash to our future. We're on the move, and like societies everywhere, we don't dare to allow ourselves to be pushed off course. Our forebears also clamped down while on the hunt.
The Trumpers are right to detect a kind of illicit coercion in all the sound scientific advice they're meant to ingest. They're right that it's a false future that's being held in trust. That we have construed a (virtual?) state of perpetual warfare, and that's why we're "stuck" (to use these authors' word).
This is a major insight from this massive book. Many societies which predeceased ours had cyclical periods of control and anarchism. The control was never gentle, but the anarchism mostly was. The control was focused on the capture of a kind of annual plenty. The Buffalo Police of the American plains would viciously corral everyone to corral the Buffalo. Once the plenty is gotten, they revert to gentle anarchy.
And so here we are, so very excited by the plenty dangled in front of us or on our screens. And we want to squash everyone in our way. Some - the Trumpers - are saying enough already, leave us be. We don't want no stinkin' yacht to take care of. The rest - the literate - are just plain excited by the ever-elaboration of high culture, and want to know where it might end.
Slowing down would be the thing, wouldn't it? But alas, all of us are addicted to speed.
In the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of everyone's mind, while reading this book, is writing. While focusing on the likely equivalency between the political savvy of primitives and moderns, these authors do conflate pre-literate and post-literate humanity. They make a good case, in other words, for the fictional myth-making nature of our grand political histories, which move Biblically from primitive to modern, while apparently ignoring the forward march of science.
Who is the sinner and who is sinned against here? It is hardly arguable that the explosion of technology in our contemporary world is disconnected from the warmaking and prodigious bloodletting of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Now, we have made the emergencies permanent, but in a tiredly positive sense. We are feeling on the brink of breakthrough, and have for quite a while. Therefore the full regime of control as deployed by the written word is being deployed 24/7/365 as led by these United States.
The trouble is that you can't follow science if you can't read, and so it was inevitable that the hoi polloi would, as these authors do, conflate political with scientific (anti-religious) thinking. Oppressed politically, the non-literate naturally assume that the oppressive forces extend to science. All authority is bad, unless it be a permanent jester-king, Buffalo Bob's Howdy Doody - Ronald Reagan in all his forms - who has always been meant to amuse us to death.
Along with the technology inevitably comes social media. But social media with its algorithms of hate-concentration (this is just a law of nature, since anger promulgates far faster and wider than love) misses the main point. Which is that in our red counties, people still check in with one another. That is how they form their political opinions and actions. There is an hermetic distance now between urban and rural, and it is the distance of art from colloquy.
Scientific discourse is political discourse in only the metaphorical sense. And vice versa. It is our figures that are mixed up. Private property is no requirement of the sciences, and in many cases has become its enemy, where money leads any discourse now.
And, back to the main point. If we are to become hopeful again about our collective future, we will then have to let go of the imminence of completion. We will have to recover seasonal ways of being rather silly. We will have to, periodically, issue get out jail free cards to all those who sinned against our ritual kings when we were stuck in the permanence of the hunt.
* * *
Anyhow, as I continue to read along in this lovely book, I am becoming rather convinced of its main thesis (at least as that appears to me so far, about halfway through). As humans apparently always will, we have imposed our narratives backwards across the vast expanse of time, and seen there all the signs of a narrative progress toward where we are today.
These authors are therefore solidly in line with scientific thinking, which takes evidence first before creating their narrative. They have a theory, sure, which is approximately that subjugation of man by man is not the necessary end of history, along with, of course, exposure of the equally false corollary; that further "progress" will get us beyond this local aberration. Here I find more true believers in human agency, so long as that agency makes allowances for something beyond rational economic ecological adjustments. So long as there is room for quirk.
It must be in the back of every reader's mind that they will have to explain away notions of scientific progress as well, along with the general certainty that this follows, more or less inevitably, upon the advent of writing. Certainly, they will at least localize our particular scientific fluorescence, perhaps following upon the WEIRD thesis.
As I might say myself, science is as stuck as everything else about our now globalized ways, and I hope and actually by now believe that the arguments in this book shall help us to get unstuck. I am puzzled for a moment when they declare that there have been no real scientific breakthroughs since Einstein. Perhaps to them, as to me, it's the physics which really matters?
I awaken this morning after the dire warnings yesterday of a wind storm. Funnel storms have churned a path from Arkansas through Tennessee, centering on Kentucky, as long as any recorded in history. The crows (are they ravens?) have returned to what I lately discover is their highest Buffalo concentration, just beyond my windows. What does their noise portend?
At the very least, I am convinced of the unity between private property and the narrative construction of an individual and highly specific self, housed within the boundaries of our skin. We have reduced agency to these terms as well. And we shall - we must - soon discover the fiction of this arrangement for our thinking right along with exposing the fictions of our grand stories for geologic time.
As these authors describe cars, whose insides are legally inviolate while their disposition and usage are incredibly circumscribed by not only law but by infrastructure and even, dare we say it?, civic norms. (Of course those norms have been massively disrupted in cities now, where loud and law-breaking two and four wheel Mad Max vehicles scream through the nights) . . . as they describe cars, they will certainly describe humans. Ownership of our fetishized self is as much a fiction as are the national boundaries.
Liberty is not available to those who fetishize narrative eternal life. (I also just completed Amor Towles' Lincoln Highway) There is no necessary progression through the agricultural "revolution" to enclosure to the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons also describes the tragedy of dividing of be-souled humans from the rest of life.
We shall see. The crows have dispersed with the sunrise. I remember that the Mad Max marauders are far milder and more funny than that term allows. There are also electric skateboards and unicycles and proliferating bikes. Perhaps my thinking has calmed.
So back to cars for a moment - that focal point for all that is wrong with the way we live now. Our mediated lives tend to lead us to think that the solution to cars is less polluting cars, when the only real solution is not to want the particular life which allows us to live, even in cities, without really having to interact with anyone outside our small circle of friends.
The same lens needs to be applied to the meaning of all this communications technology and artificial reality. Does it solve a problem or exacerbate one (which might, as ever, be a goad to evolution)? What change in our consciousness - our sense of self - could change this? What are the powers which are desperate to keep us wanting what we want, and how do they infect our lives? Is it even possible that the Trump reaction is actually salutary, in a cosmic sense?
Horror of horrors, right? But where is the desperate rhetoric about what is going wrong lodged, and whom does it serve? Why are we meant to feel the precarity of the anthropocene and the inevitability of cataclysm if not utter ecological and economic collapse? Should these sorts of exhortations lead us to double down to preserve what we have or to dismantle it? We really can't seem to decide.
Urban elites seem divided between thoaty exotic sports cars (I suppose one would have to include Beemers and Benzes and newly cheap Maseratis and the Japanese luxury models here as well), and the quicker and more acceptable to the authorial elite Teslas and their potential descendants. Meanwhile, the ride of choice in the redder counties is the pickup truck, around whose bed men commune and communicate.
Could it be that the social networks are not powering social polarization and anti-literate chaos? Could it be that those outside the city still do actually know and go to church with and talk to each other? And form their takes on the world that way?
As tempting as it is - and it is really tempting - to see everything about the Trumpers in terms of racism and even white supremacy, the urban centers remain largely defined by exclusive neighborhoods if not by exclusive politics. Who among us participates in that politics to the level and extent of rural churchgoing?
If one doesn't read all the urban rags but listens instead to the likes of Rush Limbaugh (R.I.P.), or Hannity or that Fucker Tucker, or all the other fabulously wealthy exploiters of ignorance, why, really, wouldn't one be fairly certain that there is a conspiracy afoot which considers its opposition to be a Conspiracy of Dunces.
I'm about to read this other book, which I consider to be a tract of the opposition. I am certain that its arguments will proceed conspiracy style. It's called Life 3.0, and it will reduce life the universe and everything to that old hardware/software saw. You won't even know what's been denied existence by omission. And I, for one, will be horrified that there are people who actually buy and believe this shit.
Can't we please just get beyond conspiracy theorizing?
This book Life 3.0 will take to absurdity the procrustean logic which is deconstructed in the book I'm reading now, The Dawn of Everything, which is co-written by an anarchist who wanted to help guide us out from our current nightmares.
The corrective lens The Dawn of Everything applies to our grand histories of the past can be and must be applied equally to our suppositions about our collective future. Already - halfway through - I find myself deconstructing apocalypse as yet another Platonic Christian imposition. And here I'd thought it was scientifically considered opinion, just like the grand histories Hariri and Diamond wrote.
Nope. Just more mythmaking. It's not that global warming isn't anthropogenic, it's just that the earth has turned more wildly many times before. One gets the feeling that we actually do still evolve and are still evolving and that far from being the end of history, we are closer to its beginning. Pushing back the timeline of the Anthropocene - which the book also implicitly does - also highlights our recent accellerationism.
Yes indeed now is far "worse" than when the dinosaurs were killed or when the earth was crusted in ice and human habits and habitats were squeezed. But as we are, we are hardly poised to prevail in our current disposition. What comes next becomes far more interesting and not necessarily deadly.
Whatever we explode into, supernova-like, it won't be Life 3.0. That sort of cognition riding on fully describable hardware is so very YESTERDAY. The belief system of (mostly male) children who don't even know what love, literature and good living are. Who fervently believe that they have driven the godhead from existence permanently and for all time by good common sense. Now that right there is just nuts.
Right there at the beginning, the author declares:
"But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics, so before our Universe awoke, there was no beauty. This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: it transformed our Universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope—and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose. Had our Universe never awoken, then, as far as I’m concerned, it would have been completely pointless—merely a gigantic waste of space. Should our Universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will, alas, become meaningless.
He then goes on to describe Larry Page as some kind of change-the-world genius. Really?!? These dudes are the reason I should have hope?
I mean the arrogance to suppose that without us the cosmos is meaningless! Our physics tell us that we can't know. What we can see is always from our past, and if one were to suppose that life develops according to the same universal timeline that life on earth has, then we shall never know, even before our inevitable flameout. And so we should fill the cosmos with us? I'd say that right along with Larry Page, these AI folks extend (to infinity, if they have their ways) our private property enslavement culture of totalitarian empire.
Apparently, I am the only non-Godist who understands that there is no time required for emotive contact. God Himself is, of course, just another anthropomorphic imposition on cosmos, in precisely the way that AI is. We reduce life, the universe and everything to our parochial terms and then we declare it ours. I'd say that's what's beyond boring.
We have always been in contact with other life, and it's not cognitive in the way that math could describe it. We just simply aren't paying attention.
Well back to more reading about what is and isn't "common sense."
* * *
And now, finally, by the summary chapter, I see it! As the discoverer of an earth-shaking scientific principle that I've strived to share for most of my life, I've also tortured myself each time - and it's only moments here and there - that I wish for fame and fortune. I see myself being interviewed on TV, say, where I will know what to say, when I can't while writing.
But I don't need no stinkin' audience. I need only a single interlocutor, and I can't find them.
And so I realize that there is terrorism - and slavery - implied by individualism. If only my name were a title, shared by those in my geographically dispersed clan, I would be able to remain calm about my imminent death, for whatever reason it will come. Though I may never experience a spirit dream of sufficient power to marshal all my clan's power, I may know when one comes along. I would recognize it by obvious ways without possibility for trickery or secrecy, because it would be written on the landscape, in the weather, on the evening news.
That is what money is for. Selfiness. GDP. GPP. MIT. And all I am allowed - no longer allowed - is the brief ecstasy of copulation. Now even that has been cleansed of smell and shaved and rendered into a commodity with almost all fetish power leached away, though I may still make claim to how amazing it really is to be slingshot into space. Changed forever. So profound. Orgasm and away, with Big Boobs, eh Bezos you big rocket prick?
My nightmare would be to awaken as Zuckerberg. Abandon hope, for your script is written. What does it profit you to gain the entire world? Oh one name men of the world all Ga Ga for the very same thing. So singular. So detached from all that keeps the rest of us alive.
Sour grapes? You say. Well, I can't know. I don't know. I know that the plot of my own life interests me, and that it remains almost entirely unpredictable. And I'm nobody's slave.
Cycling down toward the end of the book, I find myself feeling hope and despair both. The hope, of course, is the loss of the feeling of inevitability toward the end of history. We've been here before. Perhaps not to this scale, but the pattern is the same. And so the Trumpers fit into the longer sweep of history, and are no more (certainly not less) deluded than the rest of us who have been both mystified and taken in by the arrangements of our modern world.
As have peoples eternally, we don't even recognize what we've lost, even in the face of extremes of lost liberty (properly so defined) and lost truths and an apology for democracy that could not be more forced, and grotesque for that. And so the despair is that it must always be this way, cycling toward and away from more communal and congenial forms of life, perhaps because the strains of any sort of living can always lead to dreams of something better.
And so I am left wondering what can be preserved? Could we who have inherited the roles of priests and nobles in our brave new world extrapolated from all mystery come down from on high to understand the misery of the masses of people who feel so pushed around? Could that even be what 'woke' could come to be? If we could ever even take the esoteric out of that term.
At least I have a model for our future. We will have titles and not proper names, and we will share these and be therefore less alone. The ego will dissolve as will the state, and we shall be once again a part of nature. Could there be anything more certain than that?
Well, spoiler alert, by the end of this book the authors make a pretty good case that it really is all about private property and its genetic connection to slavery. It's about money, and if agriculture is important, it's because cereal grains can be counted and stored and are fungible forms of edible energy.
We are not so smart. Our cities are no more complex than the many which came before we could write history. In most ways, our cities are far simpler. We are constrained in our behaviors in ways that were never even imagined before. We actually believe it's all hardware/software and that we are somehow different from all of life because we are conscious. And our definition for consciousness - like any good conspiracy theory anywhere - is perfectly circular. A perfectly empty concept. And round we go, above the earth and under our waters and never even touching life. Just gawking at how boring it would be without us.
And Thank You Graeber and Wengrow for this wonderful book. It has given me actual, tangible, scientific hope. I'd thought hope was gone, and I am very glad to be proven wrong!