The Santa is white controversy got me wondering if Ronald McDonald could be Chinese….
“If not now, when?”
The Santa is white controversy got me wondering if Ronald McDonald could be Chinese….
It got into my head last night to see what North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been up to. After all, it seems that he’s more popular in his own country than Barack Obama is in his.
It turns out that the singer in the above video, Hyon Song-Wol, was recently machine-gunned for the alleged crime of making and selling sex tapes. The real reason, however, was probably that she was once the mistress of Kim Jong-Un — whose wife, also a former pop singer, may not have appreciated such a high-profile rival.
Hyon Song-Wol was executed along with eleven other musicians from her band and a rival pop band. The remaining band members, along with family members of the victims, were forced to watch and then sent off to labor camps, on the principle of guilt by association.
The above song, “Excellent Horse-Like Lady,” from 2005, is Hyon Song-Wol’s greatest hit. In it, she enacts the role of a textile worker who loves her work and is exceptionally good at what she does.
I was puzzled to find this quotation from Arthur Rimbaud as part of a long, fascinating discussion of Walter Benjamin and visionary utopias.
What could that mean, to be “filled with animals”? And where did Rimbaud say it? He said many strange and visionary things — but I’ve read pretty much all of Rimbaud, and even translated him for my own edification and amusement, and I couldn’t remember him saying anything quite like that.
I decided to search on the Internet, and came up with several places where the quote is cited, but none of them mention where Rimbaud originally wrote it. I was starting to grow suspicious. The quote always appears in a postmodern context, such as a discussion of bioengineering and genetics. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.
The earliest citation, the one from which all the others are taken, is apparently to be found in the Paul Rabinow essay “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality,” which appeared in Incorporations, a 1992 book described by its publisher as “a diverse group of reflections and interventions on the fate of the body and of subjectivity within twentieth-century modernity.” Rabinow himself is a professor of anthropology and Foucault specialist at UC Berkeley. Here’s a PDF of the essay as it originally appeared in the book. And this is how Rabinow refers to the Rimbaud quote.
If this strikes you as gobbledygook, or some form of aborted Newspeak, I can assure you that you aren’t alone. I’m not presenting this as an example of clear and coherent writing, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of where the Rimbaud quote came from. So bear with me as I explain what Rabinow seems to be saying. DNA contains a potentially infinite amount of information, if you consider its possible transformations and mutations, so now that we’re able to map and manipulate the human genome, the “man of the future” may well be “filled with animals” (by grafting animal DNA to our own, I suppose) as Rimbaud apparently claimed. Why drag the old fraud Deleuze into it? Because he’s French — and because he made the original point about the new type of “overman” and his “unlimited-finite” potential.
Unfortunately, Rabinow still hasn’t told us where Rimbaud said what he supposedly said. He’s simply pushed us back one more step, to Deleuze’s book on Foucault. In a footnote, he tells us that Deleuze uses the quote “L’homme de l’avenir est chargé des animaux” on page 141 of his book. So let’s take a look.
I will quote Deleuze in the original French, followed by the translation used in the English-language edition. Before going any further, though, I want to note that the phrase chargé de, which Rabinow translates as full of, has a range of meanings in English. It makes more sense to me to translate as loaded with, since the French say chargé for trucks where we would say loaded, or for elevators where we would say packed. Surchargé means overloaded. A battery can be chargé which means simply charged. There’s yet another range of meanings: prendre charge de means to take charge of or take responsibility for, and charger de in this sense means to give responsibility for. A chargé d’affaires, as we all know, is someone who has been given responsibility for various matters. This is the sense used in the translation below. Anyway, here’s Deleuze.
Deleuze adds a footnote, which tells us finally where the Rimbaud citation comes from (keep in mind, it’s not a direct quote).
So now we know that the citation comes from the letter Rimbaud wrote at age 17 to his friend Paul Demeny, known as the “Letter of the Seer” because of its famous claim that “the poet makes himself a seer.” We also know that Rimbaud didn’t say “The man of the future is filled with animals,” but something more like “The superman is even in charge of the animals,” which is a very different thing. Deleuze is saying that a new sort of human exists today who is neither God nor man, but a third thing, responsible (through his amazing technological prowess, I assume) even for nature, which includes animals and inanimate things. He uses Rimbaud to buttress this thought.
But what did Rimbaud actually say? Now that we know the source of the quote, we can finally go directly to it. Here is the quote from the letter to Paul Demeny he wrote on May 15, 1871. The translation is my own, based on one by Wallace Fowlie.
So we are no longer talking about the “man of the future,” or the “superman” either (no matter what Deleuze wants us to think), but simply the “poet” — Rimbaud himself. Of course, he is describing the poet as seer, which still makes him a “man of the future” in some sense — as he says elsewhere, “One must be absolutely modern.” But the poet he’s talking about isn’t “filled with animals,” nor does he predict the genetic engineering of our day in a utopian vision. Rimbaud is simply saying that the poet, after entering profoundly into the rhythms of nature and charging himself there (as a battery is charged), is responsible for bringing back those impressions and translating them into language, so they can be seen, felt, and heard as he saw, felt, and heard them. For this, “a language must be found” (if none exists) — and that is the mission Rimbaud gives himself.
In fact, it could be argued that Benjamin’s reference to a future “when in technology body and image…interpenetrate” looks even further ahead than the Internet we have today. He seems to be describing a situation where the Internet becomes part of our own bodies, so we can receive the impressions of others directly through our own senses, or upload our impressions directly to the collective cloud. Google Glass may be the first primitive manifestation of this, but the full technological realization is still years in the future. Only in this way will we live the “revolutionary tension” of humankind as “bodily collective innervation” — which means stimulation of the nerves. If this is really what the Communist Manifesto is all about, then it was truly a radically futuristic document, one whose ultimate vision will not be realized by technology until some two hundred years after it was written (1848)!
Today I found myself, not for the first time, arguing with a friend about whether the U.S. under Bush was “sincere” in its desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. My position has always been that many of the people around Bush (people like Paul Wolfowitz), as well as Bush himself, were sincere. However crazy their reasoning may have seemed to us, and however full of hubris it may have been (believing that the U.S. could reshape the world merely by wishing it so) there was a plan to turn the Middle East into a series of democratic states (not just take their oil) in the belief that only free Arabs in control of their destiny could help us to fight Al Qaeda-style terrorism. My friend wasn’t buying any of this, so for documentary proof, I went back to this April 2003 article by Josh Marshall, creator of the political news site TPM, in which he lays out the grand vision neoconservatives had at the time (improbable as it was), in the first days of the war in Iraq. The article made an impression on me then that I never forgot, and I still feel it’s the best piece of political analysis of that decade.
I should note that the article is titled “Practice to Deceive,” so doesn’t that undermine my claim that the Bush administration was sincere? But the article doesn’t claim that their desire to democratize the Middle East was insincere. To the contrary, the duplicity referred to is of the opposite variety — they were claiming to the American people that their plan was far narrower in scope, dedicated only to ensuring that Iraq was free of chemical and biological weapons. Only after American troops were engaged would the full dimensions of the plan become clear, and the American people realize that we were committed to a region-wide project of twenty years’ duration. By then we would have no other choice but to swallow our doubts about democratization and nation-building, and see things through.
Of course, none of this turned out quite as the neoconservatives imagined it then. The Palestinians, for example, saw nothing worth imitating in the fate of their Iraqi brothers. And where democratic elections did occur, the people stubbornly refused to vote for the sort of people the Bush administration had in mind (like Ahmed Chelabi), choosing instead pro-Iranian Shi’a conservatives in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005, and Hamas in Palestine in 2006. Eventually, the Bush administration grew considerably less sincere in its desire for democracy in the Middle East, and backed away almost entirely from the original plan. A few neoconservatives (not many) even apologized to us for their naive and deceptive advice. But still, it helps from time to time to go back to this original snapshot of Josh Marshall’s, and remind ourselves of the kind of imperial hubris that was in the air then.
During my time in the labyrinth of footloose youth, I’ve barely had time for other Internet reading. However, current affairs did manage to poke through a bit in the past couple of days. The themes of interest for me were the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda while passing through London (Greenwald is the journalist who receieved Edward Snowden’s classified documents about NSA spying); a call for Swedes, men and women, to wear hijabs in solidarity with a pregnant Muslim woman who was assaulted in the street for wearing a hijab; and testimonials from Egyptian revolutionary youth showing how torn, angry, disgusted, and betrayed they are by the horrifying turn toward authoritarianism their country has taken. Here are the links.
The Guardian, “David Miranda’s Detention at Heathrow ‘Extraordinary’ Says Senior MP“:
Al Jazeera, “Swedes Don Hijab to Support Muslim Woman“:
A few of the hijab photos posted to twitter, from the “Traveler in Time” tumblr account.
More photos from BuzzFeed, “Women in Sweden Wear Headscarves After Muslim Woman Is Assaulted.”
Jack Shenker in Mada, “Beyond the Voice of Battle“:
Yasmin El Rifae in Cairo, again, “Dispatches“:
Omar Robert Hamilton in Mada, “Everything Was Possible“:
Lee Smith in Tablet, “What’s Wrong with Egypt’s Liberals? For Starters, They’re Not Liberals“:
David Kenner in Foreign Policy, “How 36 Egyptian Prisoners Suffocated to Death in the Back of a Police Van“:
The Wandervogel of Germany.
I recently found myself thinking about the name Lafcadio, which has two associations for me. The first is Lafcadio Hearn, the turn-of-the-20th-century author of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of Japanese ghost stories. Apparently, Hearn was named for the Greek island of Lefkada where he was born. Despite his being a Westerner who moved to Japan late in life, Hearn found success in his second career as a collector of Japanese literary curiosities — his first career was as a journalist in New Orleans. His work is well-known in Japan to this day, and the 1964 movie Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi was based on his book. I watched the film a couple of years ago and read the book after that, however that’s not what I want to talk about here.
My second association for the name Lafcadio comes from André Gide’s 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, most often translated into English as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In the novel, Lafcadio is an elegant rogue of 19 who attempts a “gratuitous act” — a purely arbitrary, unplanned, and unmotivated act, in his case tossing a fellow passenger from a train. Much else happens in the novel besides, and a good summary can be found here. Some critics seem to think that Gide based Lafcadio on the real-life artistic provocateur Arthur Cravan, a poet-boxer and proto-Dadaist, but this seems like a stretch. Cravan was at the height of his Parisian fame (such as it was) when Les Caves du Vatican was published, and he’d attacked Gide the year before in his literary revue Maintenant (which was sold from a pushcart), but Gide had been developing ideas for his novel for several years by then. It seems far more likely (according to analyses such as this one) that Gide drew his inspiration for Lafcadio from the characters of Raskolnikov and Kirillov in Dostoevsky, Julien Sorel in Stendhal, and a variety of young men he knew in real life.
As often happens when I start doing research on the internet, by now I felt like I was being drawn into a labyrinth. I had two questions to answer: What exactly did Arthur Cravan say about André Gide in his review that (according to André Breton, at least) left Gide still hurting twenty years later? And why was the concept of a “gratuitous act” so controversial in the early 20th century, that many of the early critics of Les Caves du Vatican apparently saw little else in the novel, ignoring its send-up of bourgeois morality and its picaresque qualities?
To answer the first question, I had to locate the original French text of Cravan’s take-down of Gide, and I found it in several places on the Internet, including here. Since no English translation was available, I made my own. In it, Cravan describes his fantasy of visiting Gide, seducing him with “my shoulders, my beauty, my eccentricities, my words,” and persuading him to finance a romp together through Arabian lands. Since his actual visit to Gide didn’t go off nearly so well, Cravan decided to take his revenge by caricaturing Gide as a stingy, overly fastidious, humorless bourgeois. The bulk of his essay has the same tone of mockery as Bob Dylan’s famous line, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Here is a sample:
All in all, I find this rather droll, and it’s hard for me to believe that Gide was so insecure as to still feel insulted twenty years later. In his place, I think I would have felt almost flattered that a talented young man had gone to the trouble to insult me so cleverly. (Though the part about my sickly appearance, my tiny white hands, and the skin peeling from my face might have disturbed me — and I might have asked my entourage for weeks afterward, “Are you sure those stained glass windows aren’t tacky?”) As far as what motivated Cravan to burn his bridges so publicly, Philippe Sollers expressed an interesting theory in Le Monde: it was payback for Gide’s failure to support Oscar Wilde more publicly in his trial, the one where Wilde called homosexuality “the love that dare not speak its name.” As Sollers puts it, “It’s a matter of avenging Wilde, who died in misery, by demonstrating that there can be an official, orderly, profitable, Nobel-worthy homosexuality and that, therefore, that isn’t the question here.”
So let’s move on to my second question, about the “gratuitous act.” When I read The Vatican Cellars years ago, Lafcadio came across to me as an enjoyable rogue, someone I was rooting for — so it surprised me to recall that he’d done something so brutal as toss a man from a train, just because he could, and because he didn’t like the guy’s looks. Once he did that, however, I would have preferred that he’d remained true to his original amoral nature, rather than start to have regrets. We seem jaded to existential questions like these nowadays, but when Gide’s novel appeared in 1914, it was controversial enough to provoke strong reactions, all the way from young men carrying it with them into the trenches of World War I (because they saw Lafacadio as a hero), to the predictable outrage on the Catholic right. Wishing to better understand the debate around the “gratuitous act” (which apparently dates back to Dostoevsky), I did a search on the phrase and came up with this, by George D. Painter from his book André Gide: A Critical Biography.
In an earlier work, Prometheus, Gide defined a gratuitous act as “an act unmotivated by passion or interest, born from itself, a means to no end.” But logically, such an act is impossible. Anyone who consciously sets out to do something arbitrary and unmotivated is seeking to prove to himself that he can do something arbitrary and unmotivated — and this, then, is his motivation. Conversely, anyone who acts in a seemingly arbitrary way without conscious motivation is simply a victim of his own unexamined impulses, and thus hardly a paragon of free will. Gide himself tired of the argument in later years, and gave increasingly snippy answers when the subject came up.
An unexpected angle of the debate appeared when I saw in my search results that Thomas Mann described homosexuality as a kind of gratuitous act. So what’s the connection, according to Mann? “A lack of consequences and responsibility…a proud and free attitude.” The following quote is from A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919–1939 by Florence Tamagne.
Wait — what’s this about “a whole generation murdered by the war”? Was Mann saying that the death of hundreds of thousands of young men in World War I was an “irresponsible and sterile act” like Lafcadio throwing a stranger from a train? And did this make homosexuality good or bad? I read further in Tamagne’s book, but rather than pursuing this subject, she turned instead to homoeroticism in the German youth movements of the 1900s–1930s.
It seemed that I’d turned a corner in my labyrinth, and was now in a new sector. I recalled reading about the Wandervogel in the past. They were groups of teenagers, mostly boys aged 14–20 or so, who went roaming the countryside for days at a time, singing, building campfires, bonding with nature and each other. Since the Nazis’ rise to power was also marked by the formation of a powerful youth movement, the Hitler Youth, some have accused the Wandervogel and similar groups of being precursors to fascism. Yet their ideals seemed more inclined to the romantic notion of self-discovery, freedom from propriety and constraint, and an almost hippie-like return to nature. I decided to abandon my research on the “gratuitous act” and instead learn more about the Wandervogel. I recalled how in the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, the arrival of World War I appears to its youthful protagonists as the unavoidable call of a historic destiny, a sort of cleansing that would sweep all before it and prepare the way for a new ideal. How did the German youth movements tie into that?
This quote from Ernst Jünger captures the feeling. Jünger himself was a former Wandervogel who became one of Germany’s most highly decorated veterans of World War I, and later a celebrated author.
The same feeling of extreme romanticism is captured by Jay W. Baird in To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon, where he paraphrases the account of Franz Brüchle, who was present on the field of battle at Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914. This event, in which thousands of raw recruits were cut down in the flower of youth while singing a patriotic hymn, later became a powerful symbol to German nationalists of youthful purity and sacrifice.
Adolf Hitler was present at Langemarck as well, as a young private, and he recounts the experience in Mein Kampf.
Florence Tamagne had referred to The Wanderer Between Two Worlds and the “powerful homoerotic overtones” with which its author, Walter Flex, portrayed his dead friend August Wusche, idolizing him as a symbol of youthful sacrifice. I learned that Wusche had been a leader in the Wandervogel before going to war, and that Flex’s book — published posthumously, because he himself was killed in 1917 — had an enormous impact on German youth during and after the war, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. However, the book is almost forgotten today, and no English translation exists, so it wasn’t easy to learn more about it and the values it expressed. I tried searching for the book’s title along with the term Wandervogel (which means, by the way, “Migrating Bird”) to see what connections I could discover. This led me to a chapter from The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest, in which the author traces the rise of the German youth movements and the way they were ultimately co-opted by the Nazis. He is particularly critical of what he sees as their failure to face up to reality, their escapism and lack of “objective values” which, he feels, made it easy for the Nazis to manipulate their emotions.
Why did the Nazis, in particular, benefit from an upsurge of youth support in the late 1920s and 1930s?
I found myself frustrated by certain of Fest’s criticisms, which struck me as too vague to get a handle on what the youth movements actually believed. “Ineptitude for life”? I would have liked a nice, chunky quote from their writings so I could decide for myself. Though Fest had mentioned The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, I wasn’t any closer to understanding what that book was actually about, except that it was a dreamy paean to inner purity and “resignation to fate.” But his mention of the “legendary gathering on the Hoher Meissner” left me with a tantalizing clue. If that was the time and place where the Wandervogel had come together to define themselves in a time of social crisis, perhaps they had produced a declaration of principle that would clarify their beliefs? I continued my research in this vein.
I soon learned that the Hoher Meissner is a mountain range in central Germany, where several thousand youth and their adult supporters gathered in October 1913. They represented a very diverse spectrum of views from progressive to nationalist, as well as many who wanted nothing to do with politics. The main questions were how to unite the diverse youth groups under one umbrella without compromising their autonomy, and what to do with members who were now too old for a youth movement but who wanted to stay involved. One of the more coherent descriptions I found of the ideological trends of the day was (unfortunately) on the Aryan Futurism website, in a talk by Alisdair Clarke called “Hans Bluher and the Wandervogel.” (Hans Bluher was an early member of the Wandervogel who developed a theory of homoerotic male bonding as the source of the institutions of the state. This theory, which sounds crazy today, attracted the interest of Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann.) Alisdair Clarke writes:
We have a number of new leads here, and it would be impossible to pursue them all. However, I’ll have occasion to return to Gustav Wyneken, an educator and a major influence on the Wandervogel from the older generation, who was present at Hoher Meissner. For now, let us note that the main tendency of the Wandervogel was “Free German, often Anarchist.” They wanted youth to take an active role in the cultural life of the nation, not as “a dependency of the older generation,” but in a new way “corresponding to its youth” and “independently of the commands of convention.”
Wikipedia’s article on the “German Youth Movement” reinforces the idea that the Wandervogel began as a rebellion against the repressive conventions of the previous generation, particularly the regimentation and materialsm of the industrial revolution.
A 2011 post by Peter Berger, “Movements,” on the religion blog of The American Interest, also emphasizes the rebellious nature of the Wandervogel, as well as its extreme diversity.“It consisted of young people (mostly from the educated middle class) who wandered around the country, singing folk and marching songs to the accompaniment of guitars, camping out under the stars, feeling one with nature and each other. They considered themselves as refugees from decadent urban culture and rebels against stuffy bourgeois convention. Supposedly they were free spirits. There were discrepant strands within the movement — some German nationalist, some anti-Semitic, some politically liberal, some homoerotic (others welcomed girls). These discrepancies were very obvious in an event in 1913 defined as historic, the Hohe Meissner Treffen, a gathering of thousands of ‘free German youth’ over several days on a mountain top. After World War I the movement lost whatever cohesion it had. Different political parties created their own youth groups.”
The Wandervogel Q&A, copied from the now-defunct website wandervogel.com, reinforces this image with a description of the Wandervogel penned by Richard Miller in (apparently) his 1977 book Bohemia: The Protoculture Here and Now.
(If all of this sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960s–1970s, an in-depth examination of the influence of the Wandervogel on California “nature boy” culture and the later hippies can be found here, along with vintage photos of free-spirited nudity. However, we are still lost in the labyrinth and must return our task.)
The most detailed information I could find on the Hoher Meissner gathering comes from a 1969 Durham University dissertation by D. J. McGlynn, “A Historical Study of the Development of the Youth Service in Germany,” which in turn seems to draw most of its information from Walter Lacqueur’s 1962 book Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement. The chapter of Lacqueur’s book that covers the Hoher Meissner gathering is unfortunately not available online, but McGlynn’s dissertation summarizes it nicely.
Incidentally, McGlynn also gives an excellent summary of the Walter Flex book The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, finally tying it with absolute clarity to the romanticism of the Wandervogel movement.
The final turn in my labyrinth came when I discovered that Walter Benjamin, of all people, had been a leader in the German Youth Movement, and had been present at Hoher Meissner! Benjamin (for those of you who don’t know) was a Jewish, neo-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, a social critic with mystic leanings who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, and whose writings have been hugely influential in postmodernist circles in recent years. In 1913, he was 21 years old, and a contributor to the youth journal Anfang sponsored by Gustav Wyneken, whose boarding school he had attended from 1905–1907. The following is taken from a review of Benjamin’s Early Writings (1910–1917) by Matthew Charles in Radical Philosophy.
The young Benjamin may have broken with Wyneken over his support for the war, but it’s ironic that Wyneken was pressured to leave the German Youth Movement for the opposite reason, insufficient nationalism. A few years later, he was to suffer a far more serious career setback, when he was accused of homosexual relations with two of his students. Wyneken had come to national prominence as the leader of a network of Free Schools organized on the principle of “pedagogic eros,” which is just as it sounds, the idea that a teacher and his students share an erotic bond. Though defended during the scandal by the school’s leadership as well many of the parents, he was forced out as leader of the Free Schools in 1920, and convicted the following year of “committing vice with minors.”
What saddens me here is not so much the sexualization of trust in a parent figure — a story we’ve seen repeated with sickening regularity over the years, right up to the Catholic Church scandal of our day — but that Wyneken presented this frankly and openly as the core value of his movement, and seemingly no one gave it a second thought. He did have another idea, though, with a more positive lasting impact — the idea of a Youth Culture in which youth lead themselves, defining their own values independently of adult supervision. This principle runs through the Wandervogel from its formation, and it can be seen in the Meissner Declaration of “Free German Youth…determined to shape independently their own lives.” It was clearly an inspiration to the young Walter Benjamin, starting him on a career of radical thinking.
It should be apparent by now that the 1910s were a surprisingly radical time. Gangs of footloose youth roamed the countryside, and theories of homoerotic bonding were embraced by progressives and nationalists alike. Let’s not forget, too, that this was the era of the Suffragettes, the Russian Revolution, and Dada and Surrealism in art. The 1960s were no more radical — their radicalism was simply updated to a fancier time, the era of satellites and airplanes, computer mainframes and moon landings. If these things follow in cycles of fifty years, we should be entering another radical age now.
NOTE: The labyrinth is infinite, and this post would be too, if I were to try to exhaust all its leads once and for all. However, please permit me to present a few options for further exploration, should you decide to go further on your own.
At least 120 are dead in Cairo in a pre-dawn massacre.
Mohamed ElBaradei, how does it feel now to be seated in this government? Here’s what you said yesterday, before the killings:
So will you resign in protest today? Call for an aggressive investigation? Or will we hear more mealy-mouthed words?
The tragedy of Egypt is that both “sides” in this struggle, the military and the Brotherhood, seem to be treating it as a zero-sum game, meaning there is no room for those who feel caught in the middle and can’t bring themselves to identify with either (authoritarian) camp. By rights, this should include nearly all the revolutionary forces who brought down the Mubarak regime in the first place.
I’ve never been to Egypt, but I do try to evaluate the news out of Egypt as if I were an Egyptian citizen, faced with the choices they are faced with, and I’ll say this: throughout the whole post-revolutionary process until now, with all its ups and downs, I’ve never once felt the urge to boycott an election or a referendum. However flawed the choices may have been, it always felt better to validate the concept of citizen participation. But if there were elections under this new regime in a few weeks or months, even if there were candidates who matched my political views exactly, it would be nearly impossible to persuade me to go to the polls, because I would feel like I was validating the very massacres we’ve just seen. Cold-blooded, premeditated, state-sponsored killing. In my eyes, the process is irrevocably tainted in a way that it hasn’t been until now, even at its worst moments.
The Egyptian revolution is over, it seems, and it failed. I hope I’m wrong.
UPDATE: Abdel-Rahman Daour, a spokesman for the pro-Morsi sit-in:
Islam Taher, a pro-Morsi protester whose childhood friend was killed:
In his New Yorker blog post Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real, Richard Brody lays out the arguments of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
In other words, according to Nagel, the universe is predisposed to favor an outcome in which intelligence like ours exists.
Meanwhile, Scientific American has published an article which touches on similar themes, Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.
Unfortunately, this is just a “teaser” — the article itself is behind a paywall. But it prompted me to do further research. As a former computer programmer, the mention of “properties such as mass, charge and spin” reminded me of the properties assigned to an object in programming. I soon learned that in 1990, John Archibald Wheeler, one of the preeminent physicists of his time, introduced the concept of “it from bit,” in which the building blocks of the universe are neither particles nor fields, but bits of information.
The concept of the universe as information is seconded by Anton Zeilinger, a contemporary physicist reknowned for his demonstrations of “quantum teleportation” — the instantaneous transfer of properties through space from one entangled particle to another, which means that the particle (or its information) has traveled faster than the speed of light. The following comments come from a 2006 interview.
This article from 2001, The Mystery of Quantum Mechanics by Hans Christian von Baeyer, has much more to say about Zeilinger’s ideas on information as the building blocks of the universe.
This article from last year, The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet by Amir Aczel, is also definitely worth a look, if you have any interest in what cutting-edge physics is thinking about. In it, Aczel tackles a thought problem, the Boltzmann Brain, which is currently making the rounds in quantum theory.
So according to the second law of thermodynamics, our universe should not exist, since it is extremely ordered and complex — a high-energy state — whereas the “natural” state would be a universe that is all noise and no signal, a dead universe of chaotic, disordered events. Aczel continues:
So to have intelligent life like our own, a universe must first evolve in such a way as to support life. And as Boltzmann pointed out a century ago, there is something highly “unnatural” (according to the second law of thermodynamics) about a universe ordered enough, and complex enough, and durable enough, to do this. The probability of this happening on its own, through a quantum fluctuation, is vanishingly small — and yet here we are.
This brings us back to Nagel, and the notion that our universe must be predisposed in some way to seek complexity and self-awareness. There must be some other principle at work here to counter the drift towards entropy. If the universe is really made of information as Anderson and Zeilinger believe, maybe that predisposition is built into the programming. Maybe we live in a universe which, through random events playing out over time according to natural law, is pre-programmed with a high likelihood of becoming conscious.
So who or what did the programming? Was there a programmer? I have some thoughts on the subject that I’ll share below. The following pieces were written in the last few months of 2012. I was reflecting then on what I knew of current theories in physics, but I’m not a student of physics, and I was really coming at this from another angle. My real interest is the study of the world’s religions, particularly the Eastern traditions, and religious philosophy. What struck me is that if you squint at science and religion in just the right way, scientific and religious views of the universe seem to be returning to harmony.
— • —
Earth is a fine planet. Enjoy your time here.
What is a planet? It’s a place where intelligence comes to settle for a while. It’s a place where, out of all the infinite universes, galaxies, and stars unsuited to life, a harmonious balance of gravity, temperature, and chemicals exists to make life work.
My current theory is that wherever intelligence can be, it will be. It is everywhere, seeking the right receptacle. It will inhabit the receptacle to the extent that the receptacle is able to carry it. At times intelligence will even guide the receptacle to improve its capacities, as when a complex molecule striving to become life makes the leap with some kind of innate intelligence.
We seem to know what we’re going to become before we get there. We have a precognitive intuition that recognizes new discoveries as obvious and says, “I told you so.” It remains in the background but prods us to knowledge wherever new knowledge is possible, and then breaks through to reveal itself as the thing we knew all along.
Why doesn’t it simply tell us all we need to know in advance? Because we ourselves must make the discovery. The complex molecule must go through a billion permutations before it becomes a cell. The tadpole must evolve over millions of years into a bird, an elephant, a dog. The scientist must labor for years over his equations before finally grasping the concept in its simplicity. Intelligence guides us, but we must do the work.
It’s the process that counts — the result is just a side effect. By putting itself to work in the world through physical laws, natural selection, or the workings of the mind, intelligence finds progressively more worthy receptacles and is itself improved. The ultimate project of intelligence is the universe itself, with evolution as its sign.
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I’m arguing that events in the universe are pre-programmed both for randomness — to produce sufficient variety — and for what I’ll call “useful complexity,” meaning a preference for results that achieve a more advanced state. In this way, simply by “running the clock” and allowing randomness to happen, according to rules that prefer more advanced states, evolution will inevitably take place, leading to life bearing planets, intelligent life on those planets, and beyond. While the process is completely random (though constrained by rules), the result is, roughly speaking, foreoredained. The universe was designed to evolve to a higher state.
“Spontaneous programming,” as a friend of mine calls it, is coupled with a “learning curve” so the most successful variations take priority over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows how this learning curve works, not just in the biological world, but in the physical world as well (solar systems, organic compounds) and even on the level of cosmology (universe formation, natural laws). Some natural laws and universes were “discarded” simply because they didn’t work. They didn’t produce a stable equilibrium able to hold itself together and build yet further complexity.
So “spontaneous programming” plus the “learning curve” (which is natural selection, or the tendency to preserve a successful model) equals complexity.
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We should be operating under the premise that God doesn’t “intervene” and our universe has been running under the same rules from the beginning. That those rules produced all this complexity, including us, is built into the programming, or the design, or the original intent of the model in which we are living. Thus, through a principle of guided randomness, which is to say randomness filtered through, constrained by, or selected according to certain parameters which favor complexity, we got from random stardust to where we are now without divine intervention.
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WHAT IS GOD?
This is simple. God is what we call the unknown. Since the first humans knew nothing at all, even about the natural forces that acted on them directly, they called those forces God. The natural world, with its winds and rivers, animals and forests, was seen as sacred, and we walked within that sacred space. Later, when humans began to understand these natural forces rationally and reduce them to patterns, God retreated to the heavens, and became associated with the sun and moon, planets and stars. In a yet further abstraction, the dawn of monotheism invited us to perceive God as the “unmoved mover,” the unseen, unknowable, yet omnipresent force behind the known universe. And today, for those who feel that physical laws explain everything, scientific inquiry has so far pushed back the boundaries of the unknown that there is no longer any room for God.
DOES GOD EXIST?
It seems obvious to me that no matter how much humans eventually come to understand about ourselves and the universe in which we live, there will always be infinitely more that we don’t know. This is partly because our perceptions and mental capacities are limited, no matter how much we abstract them or acquire additional tools — and partly because each time we manage to solve an intellectual problem such as the structure of DNA or the expanding nature of the universe, this only leads to more questions about how these things actually work. So if God is what we call the unknown, as I claim above, then God will be with us forever, one step out of reach.
Let me give two examples. Darwin gave us a working model of evolution and how the various forms of life arose that we see around us today. We can map the DNA of these life forms, and confirm that humans are much closer to monkeys than we are to lizards or birds. Scientists can trace back, in theory, all the current forms of life to a single source, simple one-celled organisms that existed in the earth’s primeval oceans a billion years ago. We understand how the existence of certain elements like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in certain combinations at certain temperatures, made the formation of complex hydrocarbons possible, which are the building blocks of life. What we don’t know is why it happened, or how these static compounds, however complex, “learned” to move around, acquire energy from their environment in a systematic way, and above all reproduce their complex structure in subsequent generations. Does it make sense that such an exceptional “qualitative leap” could occur entirely by chance, through random combination of molecules over billions of years? Perhaps, but we can easily imagine a trillion planets like ours where the same material conditions existed and the same complex hydrocarbons formed, but where the leap to a self-reproducing new form, which we call life, never occurred. So at least, we must admit that we are very lucky.
My other example involves the universe itself. Less than a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding from a single point in time and space, known as the Big Bang. Indeed, time and space are themselves products of the Big Bang, and only have meaning within the confines of our universe, which is vast but not infinite. The expulsion of matter and energy from that single point produced all the forms we now perceive — galaxies and nebulas, planets and stars. For life as we know it to exist in the universe, stars are necessary as a source of heat, and planets like the earth are also necessary, to serve as an “incubator” for life. Fortunately, our universe seems to contain a vast quantity of planets and suns. But what the latest theories now tell us is that if the Big Bang had occurred in a slightly different way, no planets or suns would have arisen. If the physics of the Big Bang were tweaked even slightly, either the universe would have collapsed almost instantly, or it would have expanded too fast and dispersed all its energy, or the separation of matter and energy into discrete masses would never have happened, and we would have an undifferentiated field of plasma, rather than planets and suns. Indeed, the parameters for a “suitable” universe are so exact that the chances of one forming from a random Big Bang are vanishingly small. Now, apparently scientists believe that new universes are being formed all the time — not that we can see them, because their Big Bangs occur beyond the bounds of our own universe — in more than sufficient quantities to produce a universe like our own, once in a while. But while random events may have caused us to be where we are, once again we can say we are extremely lucky.
Therefore, at the very frontiers of modern science — the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth — are two “miracles” which, though they can be explained by physical laws and random events, are so unlikely as to raise the question, “Why?” Why did it happen, when obviously it didn’t have to happen, and indeed has not happened far more often — so much so that it boggles the imagination? For one universe like ours with the conditions to support life, ten to the trillionth power universes had to form where the physical laws were a tiny bit off; and for life to arise on earth, who knows how many random combinations had to occur before one molecule arose that proved to be self perpetuating. If God is what we call the unknown, then clearly God played a role here, for the simple reason that we can’t answer the question, “Why?” How we managed to be so lucky is unknown.
Of course, this is all just sophistry, simply a game of defining God in such a way that I can later bring her back into the picture under the guise of clever wordplay. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken as a proof that God exists, simply an example of how much about our existence, even for a rationalist, necessarily remains mysterious and unexplained. Indeed, for a rationalist there is no “miracle” at all, because all the universes that came into being without being able to support life, and all the chemical reactions that came close to generating life on our planet but fell short, are simply irrelevant to the fact that it eventually worked. Had it failed, we wouldn’t be here to gripe about it, so of course we live in a universe able to support life, and on a planet that produced life, however rare that may be. A rationalist may allow herself to wonder at the seemingly infinite blind alleys necessary to produce one random rationalist — but there is nothing miraculous about it, or anything unknown. It’s simply the product of chance, just as you can be sure that enough monkeys, or enough raindrops, at enough keyboards will eventually write Shakespeare.
But Hamlet produced by rain falling on an infinity of keyboards would be just as meaningless as all the garbage words produced on those same keyboards beforehand, because there is no intent. Fundamentally, instinctively, we sense that there is an essential difference between Hamlet written by meaningless raindrops, and Hamlet written by Shakespeare with intent. These events are of an entirely different order. So the real question here is, did life emerge on this planet, in this universe, through intent? Were we helped in some way? Were the rules written so that the series of random events that occurred would make our emergence more probable, even likely? It makes all the difference, and it speaks to our future as well. Raindrops producing Hamlet will go on to produce a nearly infinite series of garbage words before producing Hamlet once again, or Plato’s Republic. But if there is intent, perhaps both our past and our future have meaning. Perhaps we’re headed somewhere, somewhere unknown. And since God is what we call the unknown, maybe God is the future we’re headed to — in a universe that is far from meaningless, because it is governed by intent.
Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post, Egypt’s “Democrats” Abandon Democracy:
Khaled Fahmy in Ahram Online, On Fascism and Fascists:
Baheyya, The Middling Muslim Brothers:
Politico, Elizabeth Warren, Hard-Liner:
Machines Like Us, Purple Sunlight Eaters:
Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, My Game of Thrones Problem:
John Lancaster in London Review of Books, When Did You Get Hooked?
New Scientist, Shiny, Happy Earth Photobombs Saturn Snapshot: