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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Our logical leaps: monkey shines in the artificial paradise

The Lynn White thesis, advanced in his 1967 article, The Historical roots of our Ecological Crisis, is that Christianity provided a paradigm that allowed the “West” to develop the kind of mechanical technologies that subordinated the whole of nature to man. This isn’t an original thesis, nor does White claim it as such. The young Hegelians present a similar picture of the historical meaning of Christianity. What was original with White is the thesis that this subordination is at the root of our present ecological crisis.

LI has already put his fork and knife into this article, as it doesn’t accord with our sense of before and after. We locate the shift of the human limit in the early modern era. And we maintain that the ‘subordination’ of creation to man and is different in kind from the subordination of nature to man.

Here is Lynn White:

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

At the level of the common people this worked out in an interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible
to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their
ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook,
it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation,
and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it
possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural

LI’s discussion of Vico’s doctrine that verum est factum gives us a hold on what is missing in Lynn White’s rather romantic historiography. For Vico’s modern anti-modernism is precisely concerned with the conflation between mechanical and real understanding. Now, this may seem like almost nothing, but it has roots in a much greater thing, the main thing, the thing so casually overlooked in White’s hedging phrase that man shares “in great measure’ God’s transcendence of nature. In fact, the word "nature" avoids the word, the non-scholarly word, ‘creation” – which is the historically interesting word, here. It is part of the creation of the non-Western other that the West is the home of the nature/culture divide, and the other is the home of a groovier monism. Philippe Descola, for instance, has made much of the idea that there is no divide between society and nature for the Jivaro among whom he did his fieldwork. That, instead, the Jivaro “consider the plants and the animals like persons with whom one can communicate in certain circumstances.” And this simple insight has led to further insights about the lack of a certain structure – totemism – in the Western world.

This is, on one level, true. On another level, however, it fails to penetrate the sheath of the modern, the womb of the artificial paradise in which our ethnographic fieldworkers have their breathe and bodies. LI would contend that the famed modern ideology critic – that God is made by man in his image, in some unconscious moment of ilynx that occurs throughout the premodern era in universal history – imports into that era an idea of the made, the mechanically made, that significantly distorts the idea of creation. It might seem that Vico’s idea that there is a special, interior understanding in making is part of the White mythology – that man takes, once again, a transcendental distance from nature in a symmetry that can never really be sustained, and produces, infinitely, its supplements. But I think this ignores the way in which Vico’s critique of the geometric method and the appeal to God the maker go together. Vico is not urging their synthesis – not leading us to the world of models and bullet pointed instruction sheets. Rather, he is pointing to the transcendental blind spot that makes man’s participation in making essentially different from God’s, not quantitatively – we just need better science and tools – but qualitatively. Dominion is not and can never be making, and the creatures made by man – fire, wheel, telescope and automaton – are not made in the same way, with the same gesture, as is inherent in divine making.

Monday, August 30, 2010

verum and factum

LI lept, in our last post, upon Vico’s passage concerning the material transmission of the masterpieces. As I pointed out, it is an odder passage than it might at first appear. Consider – it sounds themes – notably, the warning that mechanization works against authenticity – which are distinctly post-revolutionary. Furthermore, the man writing this is the son of a bookstore owner, who – one can say, literally – owes his bodily being to the printing press. Furthermore, the chance to study came to him from a chance conversation in a bookstore with a Bishop, carefully recorded and placed in the autobiography.

The ancients versus the moderns was a battle of the books, as Swift puts it (at about the same time as Vico), but it is the making of books as well as their content that concern our man. While it may seem that the analysis of mechanization is far removed from Vico’s protest against the geometric method, in fact, it is part of the same problem of exteriority. Just as the deductive method, in philosophy and physics, is nothing more than a baroque ornament, expressing no intrinsic truth about philosophy or physics, the printing press is the extrinsic mechanism that gives us no information about the quality of the rhetoric and themes of the books it produces, as it deviates from the track of the word – the special art of Hermes. To put oneself, by copying, in the track of the writer is a form of ‘magical’ materialism, one that is hard – and perhaps impossible? – to entirely give up. LI, ever your man for tracks and paths, backwards and forwards, would link Vico’s words about copying with a more famous Viconian theme that is given to us a year later in his essay, “The wisdom of the ancient Italians. This is a passage translated from Michelet’s French translation:

The words verum and facturm, the true and the fact, are put in a relation one for the other by the Latins as inter-convertible, as the schoolmen say. For the latins, intelligere, understand, is the same thing as to read clearly and to know with evidence. They call cogitare what, in Italian, is called pensare et andar raccogliendo (ratio reason) designating among them a collection of numeric elements, and this gift proper to the human, distinguishing him from the beasts and constituting his superiority, which is why they call man an animal who participates in reason - rationis particeps – and who, consequently, doesn’t possess it entirely. Just as words are the signs of ideas, ideas are the signs and representations of things. Thus, as to read, legere, is to gather together the elements of writing out of which words are formed, intelligence, intelligere, consists in assembling all the elements of a thing from out of which emerges the perfect idea.

One is able thus to conjecture that the ancient Italians admitted the following doctrine on the true: the true is the fact (the made) itself, and by consequence God is the first truth because he is the first maker (factor), the infinite truth because he made all things and the absolute truth because he represents all the elements of things, external as well as internal, for he contains them. To know is to assemble the elements of things, from which it follows that the thought cogitatio is proper to the human spirit and intelligence to the divine spirit, for God unites all the elements of things, external as well as internal, since he contains them, and he disposes of them, while the human spirit is limited as it is, and outside of all of what is not of it can relate to the external points, but can never unite everything in such a way that it can think about things, but not understand them – this is why he participates in reason, but does not possess it.”

In the background, outside of the window of a bookstore in Naples, on the branch of a figtree, two birds have settled from the Rg Veda, “one of the twain eats the sweet Figtree’s fruitage; the other eating not regardeth only.”