Monday, November 26, 2012

What we know and don't

I posted a link over the weekend to my friend Jeff's essay "The Bipolar in Society." I didn't want to say a lot about it initially, because I didn't want people to do one thing that he warns against in the essay, which is to assume that you understand something because of a taxonomy. We all employ our own in one form or another and it's very easy to become enamored with your own worldview. I didn't want anyone who came to the essay to have any preconceived notions about it, especially mine.

Jeff makes the point in a section I find particularly striking:

I am not in revolt against the Constitution and political system of the United States. I believe they are about the best we can hope for at the present historical juncture.
I am in revolt against the tyranny of knowledge, which had its beginnings in the 17th century Enlightenment and continues today, getting stronger all the time.
Story: A friend of mine told me about a man who lived in rural, northern Mississippi, a place not yet thoroughly colonized by the said tyranny. He got a little wild one day—got in his car, put a jug of white lightning between his legs, and rode around town sipping from the jug and shooting his pistol off into the air out of his car window. The sheriff pulled him over and put him in jail until he dried out and calmed down. That was the end of it.
I asked my friend why the man wasn’t brought up on charges. “Oh, it’s rural Mississippi,” he responded. “The sheriff just figured Sam got a little wild one afternoon. That’s all there was to it.”
Here in Minnesota, where I live, Sam would have been brought up on weapons and drinking and driving charges. He would have been processed through the legal system. He would have been evaluated like a specimen by psychiatrists to determine whether or not he was “suffering” from a mental illness. If they so wanted, these psychiatrists could have sent him to the mental ward of a hospital or, worse, a mental hospital itself. They would have claimed to act out of compassion, out of a desire to help this man.
Analysis: The pre-Enlightenment view of humanity that still holds sway in rural, northern Mississippi conceives that people, all people, sometimes get possessed by wildness. This possession is temporary. All we need to do if someone gets out of control is bring in the authorities and wait until some degree of normalcy is restored. Nothing else is needed. No more knowledge than that is necessary. 
The post-Enlightenment view of humanity holds that we can be categorized into the well-adjusted and the maladjusted, the sick and the well, the criminal and the noncriminal, the homosexual and the heterosexual, and so on.
Emphasis in original. I think this is spot-on. One of the things that always struck me during my undergraduate years is how easy and alluring it was to see the world through a particular prism. The college that Jeff and I both attended was, in the mid-80s, generally still a place where one could choose your own worldview and you had feminists and Freudians and even a few Straussians here and there. The trick in describing things is that I end up using the same sort of taxonomy that Jeff is warning about in his essay.

Jeff uses a key word in his essay -- humility. The relevant passage:

No human being is a specimen. Every person I have met is a glorious mystery, a complexity, a fluidity, a richness, consisting of levels and spirals and possibilities and a future that can bring anything. No human being is a label, and a mere label is not worthy of study.

I am a revolutionary against the tyranny of knowledge, the belief that we can label, study, and know something as fluid and wonderful as an individual human being. We must limit “knowledge.”

We must learn humility. I believe the pre-Enlightenment view of humanity represented by rural Mississippi in this story is more compassionate than that of Minnesota.

I give thanks for humility.

I do, too, although humility seems to be in short supply these days. There's a lot more at the link. A whole lot more.


Night Writer said...

The "enlightened" need to name and medicate any deviation from the so-called norm is bad enough; it becomes especially pernicious in the hands of the State, however.

A few years ago my family got involved in helping a Russian man who was applying for political asylum in the U.S. He had run afoul of the Soviet authorities when, as an engineer, he documented and reported how the head of the project he was working on was siphoning off materials and other resources from the construction for his personal ends.

Instead of being rewarded for looking out for the State's interests, our friend was taken from his apartment in the middle of the night by the authorities. He wasn't arrested; instead he was suspected of being insane and his report a result of his delusional state. No trial, just a hearing before a pschology board which, remarkably, found that you had to be insane to stick your neck out like that and he was "committed" to a mental institute where for the next two years he suffered abuses and drug regiment that were ostensibly meant to help him regain his sanity. Funny, the only way he could prove he was sane was to sign documents retracting his earlier statements. After eventually signing the documents and enduring a further "observation" period he was released.

The State doesn't need to convict someone of being a criminal, they just need to proclaim that persion is insane and who's going to question the experts (such questioning will only get you labeled insane as well) and then your detention is merely for your own good and for an indertiminate length of time.

Brian said...

I've started and stopped responses to this thing half a dozen times now. My gut-level reaction is that I find it borderline offensive (not a description I employ lightly), and I'm not sure I can respond from that place in a way that is fair to the author.

But I'll try anyway, and I'll be very brief:

If one wishes to rail against the Enlightenment, broadly, and against the "tyranny of knowledge", specifically, then one must convince me that there exists an alternative that is something other than a willful ignorance. The only "freedom" afforded by such a way of thinking (or rather, not thinking) is that for one to choose whatever explanations for the world suit him best.

That strikes me as less of a path to humility than a justification for solipsism.

Mr. D said...

Thanks, Brian — I had a feeling you would have a strong view on this piece. I understand your challenge, which is on point.

I’m personally not willing to give up on the Enlightenment by any means and I don’t think Jeff is, either. He is pointing out a signal danger that we need to keep in mind, though — there are limits to what we know and what is knowable.

And I’m highly sympathetic to the bind that Jeff finds himself in right now. My mother was bipolar and was in and out of mental hospitals multiple times during her life. She suffered greatly and the toll that her illness took on my family was immense. There’s no disputing it. There were times when the medical establishment and the judicial system had to intervene; there were no good solutions.

Having said that, the course of treatment and the interventions of the judicial and medical establishments were hardly satisfactory, either. I remain convinced that my siblings and I weren’t well served by these various interventions. Nor was my father, who tried for a very long time to make the best of a bad situation, even though my mother regularly threatened him with physical harm.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but I’ll have to return to it later.

R.A. Crankbait said...

I'm all in favor of true enlightenment when brought about by reason and revelation and when it reveals or illuminates principle. I'm not so keen on indoctrinated enlightenment spoonfed and accepted as what "everybody knows" and with reason replaced with regurgitation.

Fie on the repressive Church that persecuted Galileo! Yet heterodoxy is treated little differently today by those in power.

Someone was talking about the story of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego the recently, and commented that at least we don't throw people into fiery furnaces for not going along with the accepted wisdom. I suggested that the CEO of Chick-Fil-A might disagree with that statement.

Gino said...

i find that there are very very few really smart people. (eric hoffer comes to mind)

the rest are coached to process info a certain way...

and a smaller rest are taught HOW to process information within a particular purpose.

i've come to see that intelligence is knowledge, not to be confused with the ability to know.

the Enlightenment was a cool thing. i kinda like its values.
but keep in mind that those values have been placed into the hands of people who are largely not very smart to begin with.

and those few who truly are smart (hoffer) dont like to spend time among those who think that they are while they set about making policy for the management of the rest of us.

admittedly, i am not very smart, but i think i have noticed a pattern throughout the years.

Mr. D said...

eric hoffer comes to mind

Good when that happens.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

It is wrong to think of the Enlightenment as being the sina qua non of thought of reason, as if thought didn't exist before it. It did. Perhaps a good question to ask is, "In what way does Enlightenment thought differ from the thought that preceded it?" Or, "What different modes of thought exist that might have validity?"

Anonymous said...

One quick thought about the Enlightenment and progress and secularism and any other way you want to define the path of history we all share as a species: two days ago New York City experienced not one (1) reported voilent crime. Not one homicide, not one aggravated assault, not one rape, not one battery, not one strong arm robbery, not one violent crime reported. We live in the best of all possible times that have ever existed for human beings on this planet. Celebrate that fact and don't turn to medievalism (unless you're Ignatius Reilly making us all laugh out loud).

Night Writer said...

Anon, do you attribute this good news to the populaton of New York achieving enlightenment and realizing how short-sighted and self-serving their violent actions against others are, or was it a fluke?

For that matter, is a lack of crime the best testament of an advanced society? It's nice, but I understand that the crime rate in China is very, very low yet not many would hail the freedom and liberty of its population. Wasn't the main (simplified) point of the Enlightenment was the freedom of the individual to make his or her own decisions regardless of church or government doctrine?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Mr. Writer, of course what happened in New York was a fluke and a random event that could have happened at any time in the city's history. But the odds of it happening in 1812 or 1912 are ridiculously long compared to 2012. I grew up in New Jersey in the '70s and the idea that the NYC would have a happy day like two days ago would have been beyond laughable. Steven Pinker's latest excellent book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" makes an overwhelming argument for reason, intelligence and to a lesser degree empathy being the cause for the tremendous decrease in violence of all kinds globally. Now, does the Enlightenment of the 18th Century deserve credit for Time Square being full of tacky restaurants and gimmicky tchotchke stores? Hardly. But the trend toward understanding the more accurate positioning of mankind in the Universe that Lucretius and Galileo and Spinoza and Darwin and Einstein et al brought into the human imagination leads to a deeper appreciation of life's enormous value. This big bite of obviousness is an awful lot to swallow whole, I know, it made me a little nauseous to write it, but it needs to be represented here, I think.

In regards to the essay, I think Brian's conclusion seems right on. It's been argued that alienation from capitalism leads to psychosis for those unwilling or unable to abide by its commands and proscriptions. Without any allies to chart out that mental space denied by an ownership culture, one is left terrifyingly alone. The counter revolution preys on dividing in-groups and out-groups incessantly, thereby fracturing identity of the individual and alienating people from their common causes. The cure for this system of aerosolization of society can never be isolation. In the essay, Jeff refers over and over again to his economic status as elements of separation and fracture. It's not a label doing that to him, it's the punishing system of Capitalism. I suggest finding revolutionary comrades and forming an art collective a la the Situationist International. It's time again for some new thinking around here, partner.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

Anonymous nothing, you're freaking Pangloss.

Mankind was making amazing progress a century ago right before millions got butchered running at machine guns. Just to prove the point, the encore was worse. The idea that we are progressing should be met with extreme skepticism at best and derisive laughter would probably be more appropriate.