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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, March 03, 2008

Absolute Chaos

This morning had a 100 mile round trip into darkest Wigtownshire. Tried to get some photos, but none very clear. Too much cloud and rain. Also the usual frustration. I am trying to find any remaining traces of the landscape as it was between 1680 and 1725, but so much has changed since then. The main change - the dividing up of farm land into rectangularish fields by dry stane dykes and hedges - took place between about 1780 and 1840. But in the Machars of Wigtownshire, this process may already have been underway by 1724 - there is a description of the landscape as enclosed from 1721 and…

Too tired to start down that path - up before 6 this morning and my brain just not in gear for academic discourse. The other set of thoughts dancing around are to do with Hegel the Hermeticist and/ or Gnostic. But that needs a few spare brain cells too. It is all that Voegelin (cue joke “I don’t know, I’ve never voegled”) and his immanentizing of the eschaton. There is a connection to the Galloway Levellers, if I can fire enough neurons at it.

The post-Levellers landscape of south-west Scotland - which was also that of pre-Victorian-industrial-and-urban-expansion-lowland-Scotland - was / is one which has been rationalised. It is the landscape of the Scottish Enlightenment, organised around the geometric grid pattern of subdividing field boundaries, which echo the geometric grid pattern of the concurrent planned towns and villages and the classical / rational elegance of the Georgian mansion houses built by the enlightened owners of the estates within which the new farms and new towns/ villages were constructed.

In his intense critique of the development policies of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank, established at Bretton Woods in 1947 along with the International Monetary Fund ) Bruce Rich [Mortgaging the Earth: 1993] argues that “improvement through rationalisation of traditional land use” has led to global economic impoverishment and environmental destruction. The belief that ‘rational development’ is an improvement on ‘irrational tradition’ - when applied to land use in e.g. the Amazon rain forest he traces back to 17th century precursors like Bacon and Descartes of 18th century Enlightenment ( or the Illuminati, as I found a translator of Hegel’s The Philosophy of History’ suggested in 1899 as a possible version of the German ‘Aufklarung‘ , French ‘Eclaircissement’ used by Hegel in the original text).

Ooops, this is getting a bit confused.

To illuminate/ enlighten/ adumbrate … Eric Voegelin argues against belief in the perfectability of humanity. Bruce Rich argues against belief in the perfectability of nature. Common to both is the recognition that although now associated with improvement through reason/ science, both beliefs have their origin in religion. This religious idea, which Mary Boyce [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Boyce ] traced back to the origin of Zoroastrianism about 3500 years ago, is that the design for the world / humanity as intended by ‘G*d the Creator’ - but disrupted by Original Sin/ the Evil One etc - still exists. And can be recovered through rational knowledge [Voegelin’s gnosis, Bacon etc’s science] of the world as an abstraction. The world as it is and ourselves as we are - are flawed, imperfect, tainted by original sin, messy, dirty, confused, complicated, irrational, dangerous, violent…

But a better world is possible - the world as originally designed by G*d. The world which (from Zoroaster onwards) we have been promised the faithful will enter at the End of Time. But why wait? Why can’t we have it now? All that stands in the way between ourselves and heaven on earth is the world (and ourselves) as it is now. A world mired in irrational superstitions and inefficient traditions. Sweep all these away through the application of rational knowledge/ abstract science/ applied technology / social revolution and … the eschaton will have been immanentized.

Another green planet

Now add in George Dyson’s ‘Darwin Amongst the Machines - the evolution of global intelligence’ ... the way I read Dyson, he argues that intelligence evolves by natural selection out of any sufficiently complex system. It does not matter what the individual components of the complex system are - ants in an ant colony, neurons in a brain, silicon chips in a computer network - it is their ability to interact in sufficiently complex ways which is important.

Apply this insight to Bruce Rich’s argument that traditional patterns of land use have evolved by natural selection between environment and human societies to become sophisticated, subtle and intelligent. The possibility then arises that in such cases ‘traditional’ is the more rational form of knowledge. And that the application of development policies to e.g. Amazon rain forest , which are designed to maximise economic benefits, whilst discounting environmental and social impacts is therefore irrational. And unintelligent.

Rich was writing back in the early nineties before the full reality of global warming had entered public consciousness, so we can now add ‘low-carbon’ to ‘traditional’. You might even argue that ‘modernity’ is not more intelligent than ‘tradition’ - it has just ridden the wave of destruction unleashed by the carbon explosion. It could be that we are close to the point where it will all look very, very stupid.

Especially if the Dyson Hypothesis is confirmed by , e.g. the emergence of some form of intelligence out of the web of computers we now live within and upon. Or is intelligence the wrong word? If we can’t see any intelligence in the natural world, if we think it is dumb and dead matter, rather than recognising it as a complex dynamic and intelligent system which sustains us from day to day - we are hardly going to recognise something similar in the artificial world of our computers and information systems. Which also sustains us - or I would be writing this by rush light on parchment with a quill pen.

But where does this leave Voegelin and his transcendent orthodox G*d opposed to the gnostic/ hermetic heresy of an immanent divinity? If someone like Bruce Rich expresses doubt about the possibility and desirability to perfect the world through human reason, does that make him an orthodox transcandentalist? Surely not. Go back to Mary Boyce and Zoroastrianism. Just as Voegelin points to Augustine’s ‘City of God’ as a response to a this world event - the fall of Rome in 410 e.v. , so Boyce suggests Zoroaster responded to a this world event - conflict between his tribe of pastoralists and a metal using/ chariot driving tribe - to explain the origin of wickedness as embedded in a flaw in the creation of a world which was perfect as originally designed - but was damaged by the equivalent of Original Sin. A flaw which would in and through time, lead to the restoration at the End of Time of perfection. The eschaton. [ My summary, all a lot more complicated.]

Do it yourself.

Here is a quote from Magee [Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition: Cornell University press: 2001:97]

What Hegel’s system promises is a transformed experience of the world, in which we see familiar things in a new light. Science, poetry art, religion, the state, are all seen to be expressions or embodiments of the Absolute. Ordinary things suddenly take on new meanings. That which had been thought to be a human contrivance, carried on only for finite human ends, devoid of any higher meaning, mystery, or religious significance - that is to say, that which had been thought so quintessentially modern - is now suddenly imbued with spiritual significance, the full systematic scope of which can only be experienced by the typical consciousness as sublime.

Thus, Hegel attempts to heal the rift in the modern consciousness between thought and sensation, or thought and experience, by giving us a new form of experience. The very modern scientific and philosophical ideas that formerly seemed to cut us off from experience and from our intuitions of the divine are now seen to be moments of a system of experience that constitutes the divine itself. Hegel’s system is an attempt to “re-enchant” the world, to re-invest nature with the experience of the numinous lost with the death of mythical consciousness.

Great stuff, but it is Hegel- the digested read. Here is a random quote from the man himself

The extreme of passive reality is sublated by the active extreme .Actuality can, however, on its own side, be sublated only because its own changeless essence repels itself from itself, and hands over to the mercy of the active extreme what is thus repelled. Active force appears as the power wherein actual reality is dissolved. For that reason, however, this consciousness, to which the inherent reality, or ultimate essence, is an “other”, regards this power (which is the way it appears when active), as “the beyond”, that which lies remote from its self. Instead, therefore, of returning out of its activity into itself, and instead of having confirmed itself as a fact for itself, consciousness reflects back this process of action into the other extreme, which is thereby represented as purely universal, as absolute might, from which the movement in every direction started, and which is the essential life of the self-disintegrating extremes, as they at first appeared, and of the process of change as well. [Hegel: The Phenomenology of Mind: 1807: trans. Baillie: McMillan: 1910: Dover reprint: 2003: 126]

As with the works of Kenneth Grant, this is language on the edge of coherence. It is “the mythology of reason” (a phrase used only once by Hegel, but spotted by Magee: 2001: 67), a place, a crossroads between sense and non-sense.

Does such a place actually exist? To boldly speculate where no sensible person has gone before, I suggest it does. It is the place where matter and mind meet - the place where physical brain activity gives rise to thought, to self- consciousness. Where object and subject are indistinguishable.

It is a bit of tricky thing to do whilst trying to type words so they pop up on the computer screen before me - requires a more meditative state of consciousness, one where you try to let go of distinct thoughts/ language/ images and experience the raw stuff of brain activity - the fuzzy noise of neurons firing or not firing. And then move deeper into the molecular structure of brain chemistry , deeper into the atomic structures, until you get to the foaming quantum ocean which [so I am led to believe by physicists] underlies space and time, mass (or is it matter?) and energy.

Quantum foam, also referred to as spacetime foam, is a concept in quantum mechanics, devised by John Wheeler in 1955. The foam is a qualitative description of the turbulence that the phenomenon creates at extremely small distances of the order of the Planck length. At such small scales of time and space the uncertainty principle allows particles and energy to briefly come into existence, and then annihilate, without violating conservation laws. As the scale of time and space being discussed shrinks, the energy of the virtual particles increases. Since energy curves spacetime according to Einstein's theory of general relativity, this suggests that at sufficiently small scales the energy of the fluctuations would be large enough to cause significant departures from the smooth spacetime seen at larger scales, giving spacetime a "foamy" character. However, without a theory of quantum gravity it is impossible to be certain what spacetime would look like at these scales, since it is thought that existing theories would no longer give accurate predictions in this domain. [From Wikipaedia so treat with caution]

“At such small scales of time and space the uncertainty principle allows particles and energy to briefly come into existence, and then annihilate, without violating conservation laws.” As best as I can understand it, (if true) this suggests the whole universe -including ourselves - exist within this foaming quantum ocean. There is also speculation [Penrose: Emperor’s New Mind and here http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/overview.html ] that consciousness emerges out of this sea of possibilities, of existence and annihilation.

It could be so, but for my purpose here, it simply allows the possibility of a ‘mythology of reason‘ the imagined access to a place / non-place where what will become thoughts, ideas, images -mental activity - are indistinguishable from physical reality. Where ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ might just be one/ none - beyond and before space and time. Which is maybe a tad too mystical. Yet this seems to get close to what I can grasp of Hegel - and Hegel’s ideas inspired Karl Marx and Karl Marx’s ideas are very much of this world - so we are back to Voegelin and immanentizing the eschaton, to creative/ destructive actions in the everyday world, to politics and economics. To Bruce Rich and the World Bank’s development policies. To the lost landscape of the Galloway Levellers.

Which is a rather extreme jump-cut - my apologies to any one who was beginning to meditate on the quantum foam…

Yet what I find when I am walking around ’inside’ the landscape or poking about in fields to try and find any traces of the landscape as it was two or three or more hundred years ago is a clarity of consciousness I call ‘non-duality’. It is a direct experience of being in the world. It is, I guess, a form of ‘historical consciousness/ awareness’ - of the world around me as it is now, as it has been at different times in the past and as it may become in the future.

The ‘as it may become in the future’ is the more significant to the extent that reality is a social construct and as, for example, the tension between sustainable and unsustainable forms of farming practice in this particular environment/ eco-system conflict with food price inflation/ cheap food/ supermarkets - with the spectre of a collapse of taken-for-granted certainties about the survival of a fossil fuel powered capitalist global economy.

There must be some kinda way outta here? - as the joker asked the thief. Or are we trapped here in the sullen cage of our rage watching all our tomorrows slip away. We took the wrong step years ago. Locked into a deep trance beat, the Absolute dances before me in flashing colours everywhere, within me without me. Like an elemental child Torch girl of the marshes Her kiss is a whip of the moon

Gems hemmed in the heart's head The shield of the rivers is hers She one told me to think white And the night disappeared like a bird. [Bit obscure - it’s the song on Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Beard of Stars album where Marc Bolan shifts from poetic whimsy to rock n roll, letting rip with his punk rock electric guitar]

I have the image ( or should I say, the image has me) of Hegel’s Absolute as this shimmering incandescent glimmering rainbow starred void. It flickers and pulses as virtual entities exist and non-exist faster than the speed of light ,as insubstantial as sun light reflecting on a strand of spider web as solid as a granite mountain revealed and concealed with every pulse beat, the hypnotic fountainhead cunt of a tantric goddess from which all of timespace for ever flows outwards into the world. That is the world. My very flesh sparks and flashes the body electric sings in the feedback hum all is consumed all is enflamed. All that is solid melts into the living air. Like perfume, like the scent of sex musky goddess cunt enfolds drawing back into her eternity this now, this then. This that was, that which is. And whatever will be. Come.
My arrows are made of desire, from far away Jupiter sulphur mines.

Blank walls dissolve, everything is melting, flowing. Solve et coagula. [Note: at the c of coagula text on screen froze then vanished before returning.]. Waiting. Waiting for the physical activity of my brain to spark to form words. For the Absolute to interface with mental activity. ? Physicality. Imagining a brain scan, imaging it showing patterns of brain activity. But move beyond. Find the finer detail. The typing finger types, touches a letter on the key board and having typed moves on. Mechanical process. Is there thought? Or just a wave of electro-chemical impulses flooding through this body? Like an artifice of intelligence, like an illusion of consciousness. Creative process or billions of unminded neurons randomising through filters of rules - spelling. Grammar. Syntax. Is there a homunculus inside of me, (inside of you) a coherent entity, a being, a self, a person?

Or is this just noise? Chaos, confusion. Or is this the Absolute? Speaking? In silence as Jimi Hendrix plays Electric Ladyland. “Hey man, take a look out the window and see what’s happening…”

As the veneer of democracy starts to fade and some pretence of normality returns to this cut up text can anything be salvaged from the smoking ruins of my burnt out mind? Not to die but to be reborn. I would rather the fire storms of atmospheres than this cruel descent from a thousand years of dream to the starkness of this capsule,…the tubes and wires worming from my flesh to machinery I will have to cut…I stir from the trauma of my birth, attentive to the hypno-tapes assuring me that this is reality, however grim… the return itself was nothing. I touched upon this shelf of rock selected by the auto-mind and left a galaxy of dreams behind. [Hawkwind log entry 0207 hrs 15 April 1572 Praesepe cluster.]

A galaxy of dreams? Nightmares more like. But been here before. When logic seemed to dictate that (circa 1983 e.v.) the empire was about to be blown away in a thermo-nuclear flash. Now it is the slow heat-death of the planet. Or at least mass starvation by collapsing eco-systems, wilting in the heat. One wonders what difference the pursuit of the Absolute can make. Or is the Absolute the pursuer? Personal or collective?

Never mind, this is now just over 3000 words long so doubtful if any one else will have got this far - better things to do than read such ramblings . So, as Jimi breaks into his version of All Along the Watchtower - oops - House Burning Down [Written in 1968 inspired by the "long hot summer" of race riots.
-from songfacts http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=6888 - so political and personal]

Where are we? Chasing Hegel the Hermeticist / Gnostic in his pursuit of the Absolute which Karl Marx turned into the pursuit of the Revolution/ Eschaton and wondering if there are other ways to make some kinda sense of it all (or should that be The All?) I’m standing next to a mountain, and I chop it down with edge of my hand. I pick up all the pieces and make an island, Might even make a little sand… cos I’m a voodoo child…

It is a search for something that is ‘certain’ - Absolute. But as the chaos magician says ‘There may be no Absolute Truths’. Maybe. But if there was/is/ will be - would that make any difference to the way the world is/ we are? What if Quantum Foam = the Absolute? And if by some as yet unknown but speculated by some mechanism, the physical activity of the brain (my brain, your brain, their brains) emerges out of this or some other ‘random’ process thus giving rise in turn to the perception of consciousness/ thoughts - which in turn interact with language - which is a social/ collective construct…

So that just as we are physically- molecularly, atomically, quarkily, quantumily - indistinguishably part and parcel of the entire spacetimemassenergy cosmos, so the sense of apartness created by the perception of individual consciousness is an illusion and that which is conscious is the entire cosmos which is resolvable to the quantum foam which is at once nothing and everything. Is the Absolute. Which is what we are. Since it is all that there is. Or isn’t. As it were. Or weren’t.

What if there is a continuum from our sense of self, our perception of being conscious and separate individuals all the way through the non-human world (environment, planet earth etc) to the different layers/ levels of matter down to the place / level of materiality where it blurs out into indeterminate vagueness - where it is not possible to distinguish even individual atoms?

But even if true, even if established as ‘fact’ rather than speculation, what difference would that make? It is way too abstract. It would get stuck in a still religiously / individually defined social construction of reality. [Struggling with language here, or rather trying to compress too much complexity of thousands of years of human culture into a couple of neat sentences].

So will stop here and go to bed.


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