Comments on “Systems of meaning all in flames”

Comments

Literary references

Pobop's picture

I would be very interested in hearing some references for all this. How much of this is your own conclusions and what got you thinking along these lines? Is this well known in some field, or are these novel ideas? I don't mean this in the sense that loosely referenced output is non-academic and thus bad. If I understood correctly, you're writing this partly because a satisfactory account of meaning(ness), or meaning in a general, non-academic thinker compatible sense has not been written. So maybe a nice general book about it doesn't exist.

Still, I would be grateful if you could point to some of your favorites, particularly about changes in meaning on a societal level.

Just boring standard history

Yeah, this page was just standard, uncontroversial early-20th-century cultural history. Meaningness and Time will continue to be standard history up to the 1980s, when I start to develop analyses that are a little unusual. Unfortunately I can't recommend a specific book on the subject; I think you'd find that any history of social developments in that era would cover these topics. If there's specific points of interest, even the Wikipedia would probably be adequate. But if there are particular ones you'd interested in, let me know, and I might be able to say more.

tarpits

Lawrence D'Anna's picture

capitalism caused the world-wide Great Depression*
*Or, at any rate, this was widely believed

It's kind of amazing the extent to which this is still widely believed. In this case it seems totally obvious this is wrong. The great depression was caused by monetary policy, not "capitalism" or "regulation" or whatever word you want to use for the opposite of capitalism is.

But it's not just this case, we wind up in the same epistemic tarpit with almost every economic woe. Our actual system is not either purely capitalistic or purely anti-capitalistic, so whenever anything goes wrong, both sides can make up their own counterfactual to justify why capitalism is the problem or the solution. But I think usually the real problem is something technical like monetary policy, rather than something that fits on the ideological spectrum of bigger vs. smaller government.

That's not to say I don't have an opinion on the bigger vs. smaller government ideological tug of war, I just don't think it's has the importance people generally attribute to it. A big but well run government will outperform a small but ineffective one.

Ecstasy as the Antidote

fiona's picture

Hi David, I'm really enjoying this series!

Something you mention (that "ecstasy is the natural antidote to the sense that administering the systematic self... is exhausting") to me points to the source of our culture's myriad addictions and obsession with all other forms of externally induced choicelessness (like falling in love, becoming a follower of a cult, etc.). Maybe this is similar to your argument about eternalism "simulating" choicelessness.

In a world where everyone is conditioned to act out multiple irreconcilable selves, there's this urge to be seized by a passion or intensity or desire (by whatever means) that renders us unable to make choices... That gets us off the hook and lets us revert to a one-dimensional self that makes decisions unconsciously.

The systematists are right to have misgivings about addictive/compulsive/thoughtless behavior, but banning cults and drugs and whatnot doesn't really address the problem. Maybe I'm going off on a tangent here. Basically, I think the problem with "fluidity" is that it's mostly experienced as terrifying groundlessness, which just drives people to seek out choicelessness, which of course doesn't work in a post-choiceless world, which just results in more turmoil!

Future Shock

Greg's picture

David, I was wondering if you are familiar with Alvin Toffler's book, "Future Shock?" Seems like humans are continually trying to 'replicate' their surroundings as a means to psychological security (predictability gives some comfort that things are just right).

I'm thinking that the rate of change that the industrialized world experiences, would make it almost impossible to latch onto any thing of permanence or certainty. I wonder if the sense of permanence is connected our sense of meaningfulness?

Anyway, good topic!

Present Shock too

Hi Greg—Thanks; I haven't actually read it, but I've read multiple summaries at various times.

Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock is an interesting follow-on, describing what I call the atomized mode. (I find some parts of the book more persuasive than others, but there's useful insight within.)

Your observations (which I think are right) remind me of All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, which is a classic on the subject. (I haven't actually read it, either!)

Centres, Science

I find it slightly odd that your history here seems largely centred on changes in Europe. At other times you focus solely on America. What is happening in America at this time?

Empires funded the development of European systems and wars in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Britain nowadays could not afford to fight a major war! We can not really afford our minimal contribution to the Imperialist wars in the Middle-East. As European imperialism was falling apart and Europe becoming more inwardly focussed, America was rising as an imperialist power and taking an increasingly active and interventionist role in other nations. You don't seem to cover this.

The first "modern" war fought by multiple global powers was 1795 to 1815, in which America was a bit player for a brief period ca 1812. France may have had its revolution, but they also had Napoleon. America did not have a Napoleon! The break down of systems in Europe and America is a wholly different social dynamic isn't it? America does not start from a Feudal base. In WWI the leaders of half the major powers are first cousins whose grandmother was Queen Victoria! In this time USA rises to become a world power, rather than falling away from being one like most of Europe.

The post WWII years were a time of economic boom in the industrialised West, and the USA had no rebuilding to do! Apart from Pearl Harbour, no bombs fall on USA in either war. Industrial production is never interrupted. As Bill Bryson says in his memoirs of growing up in the 1950s, the USA when straight from making tanks and bombs, to making cars and fridges without any pause. Liberalism meant that the wealth was spread around. Keynesian economic theory meant that general prosperity increased dramatically (which is why increasing inequality now looks so heinous). Access to education improved. Child labour was eliminated. Longer schooling and delayed entry into the workforce produced the teenager. Unionised labour produced the weekend and leisure time. Mass media emerged. Women joined the workforce enmasse. The standard of living rose, especially in the USA. How do these major themes in society relate to a view of society tearing itself apart?

Under "ecstasy" you don't mention the millennia long practice of drinking alcohol. Its a problematic lacuna, isn't it?

Another distinction is between American and European philosophy. In the early 20th Century Europeans to gravitated towards positivism or nihilism; Brits retreated into solipsism; Asia was still largely mired in mysticism; the Middle East revived fundamentalist theology; but American philosophers became pragmatists (and thank goodness for that!).

However, the thing that most struck me about this account was what was happening in science during this period. As social systems were supposedly breaking down, we see major paradigm shifts in science, but these lead to greater and greater systematicity. Building on evolution, studies of electro-magnetism, and atomic theory, from 1900 we see the emergence of relativity, quantum mechanics, electronics, radio communications, big-bang cosmology, DNA and NeoDarwinian genetics, plate tectonics, and so on. The defining knowledge and tech of our times emerge during this period. Unification is a major project. Time & space; matter & energy; etc.

My sense is that this essay is not history so much as rhetoric. You seem to be selectively retelling history in order to fit the narrative you have already outlined. You're trying to convince us that general history supports your social theory. You can't really do that by cherry picking.

More specifically your comments on avant-guard art do not convince me. Take Duchamp for example. He might have shocked a handful of insiders at the time, but he remained unknown to the masses until he was assimilated by the mainstream, commodified, and reproduced enmasse. Commodification and mass-production are far more important and significant in the history of art than the avant-guard. Mass-production democratised art, but also rendered it banal and two-dimensional. Arguably, this is the most important historical theme in 20th Century art. The antics of artists have become more extreme in the effort to be noticed, but the art-world continues to commodify art without a blink. And now social media commodifies our lives.

As for John Cage, well, other American composers come to mind. Elvis Presley was a far more significant influence on society than Cage was. Woody Guthrie was far more radical in his sensibilities. Duke Ellington a more interesting composer. Cage was a one-trick pony, and ironically his one famous piece-- 4'33'' --is perhaps the least understood work in the art music canon, e.g. it's not about silence, it's about ambient sound. Cage wanted to take the composer out of composition, and the results are largely execrable. His reputation as an exciting composer is all too abstract, because there was nothing exciting about the actual music, which was routinely awful. Elvis by comparison was extremely exciting, if not terribly original. Listen to some of those early Elvis recordings and they still fizz! Guthrie was more truly selfless because he was focussed on other people and their struggles rather than lost in an individualistic intellectual pursuit of non-existence. Ellington, though popular in his day, innovated in ways that influenced music outside his own genre and across time, e.g. without Ellington, Gershwin wouldn't exist.

I also would say the invention of cinema and the rise of Hollywood is a more significant cultural phenomena than any of those you chose to highlight. But it runs counter to your narrative, because it united people at a time when you say they were fragmenting.

I don't disagree with the premise you are exploring. Society clearly is atomising. And maybe fluidity is the answer (though fluidity is a higher level property so the metaphor of decreasing structure breaks down at that point). The trouble is that you've long since stated the conclusion that you intend to reach in your writing and I think this has doomed you to agreeing with yourself as you fill in the gaps.

A history of breakdown

Thank you for the long comment!

It seems that I wasn't clear enough about the goal for this page—and, actually, for the history of meaningness overall. It's meant to provide just enough background knowledge to understand how we got to atomization, and the problems of meaningness atomization responded to, and then the ones it creates.

So, two things. First, this isn't meant as a general overview history of the period; it's highly selective, in surfacing themes that in some cases may not have been particularly important at the time, but became so decades later. (For example, the early-20th-century anti-art movement was minor then, but anticipates some nihilistic features of subcultural and atomized art.) More generally, it emphasizes breakdown, because the countercultural mode was a response to that breakdown. Without understanding how meaning had fallen apart, you can't understand why the countercultures tried to put it back together.

Second, nothing in this was meant to be original or controversial or tendentious. It's a recitation of what I take to be well-established facts, that are well-understood by anyone who has studied the cultural history of the period, but which some readers (particularly younger ones) may not know. I've written it up for their benefit as background, rather than just saying "go read a mainstream history book." Because most of what's in that book would be irrelevant to my story, and I could fit everything people need to know into one long web page.

I find it slightly odd that your history here seems largely centred on changes in Europe. At other times you focus solely on America. What is happening in America at this time?

Later parts of the story are primarily about America; but the pre-WWII cultural developments that led to the American countercultures were mainly European. Specifically: Romanticism, Marxism, Freudianism, and existentialism were the main intellectual influences on the monist counterculture. Also on the dualist one, although fundamentalism was an indigenous American development.

I share your admiration for American philosophical pragmatism, but it wasn't a significant influence on any of the major post-1960 American cultural or social movements, so far as I know. (Unfortunately!)

The standard of living rose, especially in the USA. How do these major themes in society relate to a view of society tearing itself apart?

I cover this, in passing, in the countercultures chapter. The standard view—which seems right to me—is that 1950s American culture was an elaborate make-believe attempt to paper over the disintegration of meaning that was continuing beneath the surface. The 1960s counterculture was a refusal to go along with that, which was feasible in part due to the unprecedented material prosperity of the period.

Under "ecstasy" you don't mention the millennia long practice of drinking alcohol. Its a problematic lacuna, isn't it?

I'm not sure—problematic why?

During the "glory days" of systematic modernism, i.e. the Victorian era and later 1920s, the temperance movement was huge, and it was directed mainly at "reforming" the working class, who got drunk instead of working reliably in factories like they were "supposed" to.

we see major paradigm shifts in science, but these lead to greater and greater systematicity.

Yes; but at the same time, science and mathematics undercut their own foundations. The Victorian rationalist-eternalist view that they could provide Absolute Truth, absolute certainty, complete understanding, and perfect control—that conclusively failed. The page immediately following this one, "The collapse of rational certainty" will cover that (but there's only a brief summary there now).

So, science was greatly increasing "horizontal" connections in its structure of justification, but at the same time cutting off the vertical ones that rooted it in Absolute Truth. (And, as you've written, the reductionist project of grounding "higher level" sciences with vertical connections to "lower level" ones also failed, although that realization came somewhat later.)

Mass-production democratised art, but also rendered it banal and two-dimensional. Arguably, this is the most important historical theme in 20th Century art.

Yes; I return to this point repeatedly later in the history. Recognition of this pattern of commodification was one of the main drivers of subculturalism, starting with punk's rejection of the "corporate rock" in the late 70s.

I agree that Cage was doing "performance art" or "conceptual art" rather than music, and that the mid-20th-century artistic avant garde was generally awful. In "Counter-cultures: thick and wide" I write (quoting Hobsbawm):

By the 1960s, [the avant garde] had degenerated into knee-jerk negativity and empty simulations of creation, “a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks by which artists sought to give their work an immediately recognizable individual trademark, a succession of manifestos of despair.” Meanwhile, “popular” culture was mainly trivial; and so neither could provide thick meanings. Nihilism seemed a plausible consequence of the loss of the meaning-defining classical high culture of the systematic mode at its zenith.

The countercultures deliberately addressed that nihilism by creating new cultures as serious, positive mass alternatives. This is perhaps the most valuable legacy of the countercultural era.

The countercultures obliterated the obsolete high/pop distinction. Their new art started from popular forms, but also borrowed from the avant garde. Overall, it had greater depth, heft, sophistication, and broad appeal than either.

You hit the nail on the head here:

fluidity is a higher level property so the metaphor of decreasing structure breaks down at that point

This diagram illustrates that. It shows fluidity as a motion away from atomization's quasi-nihilistic denial of structure, toward a renewed recognition of pattern—but this time without the eternalistic denial of nebulosity.

Persuasion

I can't help wishing that this book was finished, in print, and able to be read from beginning to end. But at least I can harass the author via comments :-)

Your expanded comments on history only reinforces my view that you are telling the story to fit the conclusion you have already arrived at. This is called confirmation bias.

The Victorian rationalist-eternalist view that they could provide Absolute Truth, absolute certainty, complete understanding, and perfect control—that conclusively failed.

This failure only began to dawn on me in the last couple of years, and to be clear only this year when I started reading about antireductionism. I studied science at school and university, not the history or philosophy of science. I liked science precisely because it provided definite answers - though, it must be acknowledged, not always to the actual questions I had. My dissatisfaction on this score was inchoate for a couple of decades.

I would guess that most people have never heard of this failure and still see science as in pursuit of the ultimate answers. I'm sure some scientists still see themselves in this way also.

"Lights all askew in the heavens"

Your expanded comments on history only reinforces my view that you are telling the story to fit the conclusion you have already arrived at.

Yes. I'm not pretending otherwise. That's exactly what I'm doing on this page. I'm not trying to persuade, but to inform.

I would guess that most people have never heard of this failure and still see science as in pursuit of the ultimate answers.

Yes—but there were major cultural wobbles around this before we were born (and even before our parents were born). Arthur Eddington's confirmation of Einsteinian relativity in 1919 had an enormous popular impact, not because it proved the new theory true, but because it proved classical mechanics false. (It's interesting reading a newspaper announcement from the time; I have a copy here.)

Its impact was disproportionately large because it came shortly after WWI, at a time when there was already a widespread sense that meaning had fallen apart. The popular understanding was that science had disproved itself and that now nothing made any sense.

In retrospect, this is hard for us to understand, because relativity was consolidated into the scientistic worldview, but it was a very big deal at the time. Mid-century cultural theorists described it as an epochal shift in the way people understood meaning. As late as the 1960s, hippies, when confronted with any inconvenient fact, would still say "Hey, man, don't you know everything is relative? Einstein proved that!"

I'm sure some scientists still see themselves in this way also.

I think most do! Eternalism is such a powerful attractor that science's numerous demonstrations that it is wrong get shrugged off.

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem

It's a bit tendentious to say that "Kenneth Arrow proved mathematically that there is no such thing as a 'fair' system of government." Arrow proved that for one (albeit fairly broad and intuitive) set of fairness criteria and one particular model of voting system.

Sorry for quibbling with a footnote, but hopefully it can be taken in the spirit of pointing out nebulosity :)

No fair system of government

Thanks, yes, that's a useful technical corrective.

If Arrow's Theorem had the impact I suspect (but am unsure of), it would have been because it was understood as a broad proof. Whether that understanding is accurate is another question.

I think it probably is: despite extensive effort, no one has proposed a system that avoids Arrow's Theorem and that has gained significant support as an adequate response.

Link Broken

Vinod Khare's picture

The link in "In the anxiety of relativism, as eternalism disintegrates, one doubts everything. " seems to be broken.

Links to the future

Thank you very much!

Unfortunately, this is one of very many "links to the future" in the book. They reference pages in my outline that are not yet on the web, even in "stub" form.

I don't have a good technical way of suppressing these. Maybe I'll write some code for this purpose at some point!

However, it also created

Bad Horse's picture

However, it also created psychological alienation (discussed below) and social conflicts. The existing social system, which had been stable for hundreds of years, functioned only in an agrarian economy of peasants, aristocratic landowners, and a small class of skilled craftspeople.

This is a Marxist myth.

First, there has never been any evidence or logic to the claim that workers experienced more "alienation" during the industrial revolution than that experienced by artisans in the Renaissance, serfs during the Middle Ages, or slaves under Rome. In all cases people were necessarily "alienated" from the product of their labor when that product was sold, even independent craftsmen. Marx's definition of "alienation" makes no reference to the ownership of the means of production, so it makes no sense to claim it's specific to "capitalism" or would vanish if the factories were owned by "the workers". Someone bolting carburetors onto Fords all day will not suddenly find that more fulfilling if issued a few shares of company stock.

Also, the last time the existing social system in Europe had been stable was 300 A.D.. Europe had had massive dislocations and social disruptions in the 4th (Roman civil wars), 5th (entire Roman Empire taken over by Germanic tribes), 6th (Byzantine and Arian wars, Europe devastated), 7th (Islamic invasions, North Africa cut permanently out of the European sphere, continued wars over Arianism), 8th (Frankish wars, more Islamic invasions, widespread enslavement, destruction, and forced conversion to Catholicism), 9th (Charlemagne's construction of the Holy Roman Empire), 10th (collapse of Charlemagne's empire), 11th (establishment of feudalism, general chaos), 12th (establishment of nobility, dynasties, social classes, and land ownership; crusades), 13th (more crusades, scholasticism, absolute power of the Catholic church), 14th (collapse of Papal power, the black death, the Italian Renaissance, rise of the middle class, the 100 Years War, many peasant uprisings), 15th (age of naval exploration begins, beginnings of nationalism, the Byzantine Empire falls, the Spanish Reconquista, African slave trade begins, printing invented, rise of the cities and city-states), 16th (intellectual Renaissance begins the labor specialization being attributed here to the industrial revolution; the Reformation; rise of absolute monarchs and royal power), 17th (the wars of religion, American colonization, agricultural revolution begins to cause unemployment among farm workers), and 18th (American and French revolutions; family farms have trouble competing in the new British free market system; the enclosure movement, mechanization of weaving, and fertilization all also decrease rural employment).

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This page introduces a section containing the following:

This page is in the section How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The previous page is Invented traditions and timeworn futures.

This page’s topics are Eternalism, History of ideas, and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.