Tuesday, October 18, 2011

#ows, Sovereignty, and the Individual

Like millions of others I’ve been following the #ows and Occupy Everywhere movement grow in numbers and support (Maju has a great post up at his blog). What is most heartening for me, at least for now, is how robust the core desire of the movement appears to be. The ambition to redesign democracy from the ground up is hardly timid, and even if foolhardy—in that the enormity of the task is unimaginable—my sense is that it is precisely at this depth we must begin. All power to those who act so bravely and generously on the awareness that it is up to us, we naked apes, to restore our dignity and honour. No doubt this sounds overly dramatic to many, yet I would go so far as to add that this is humanity’s darkest hour, that if we don’t recognize the gravity of our situation soon, it will be the end of our chance at true civilizational progress.
What I want to ponder in this post, albeit briefly, is what it means for a system to be alive. Yes, that enormous old chestnut, ‘What is life?’ I feel this to be of central importance to what it means to believe in the sovereignty of the individual, to what selfishness and agency are, and what ‘earning a living’ means. For how can anyone claim to deserve either punishment or reward if there is no individual? And what is private property if the individual disappears? Discussing the phenomena of life as a process, a dynamic, an emergent, complex property of certain systems is key to this age old debate. Of course a blog post can only be a gentle introduction to such an enormous topic, but this is one intellectual battleground that will become more important as time goes on, so the more of us acquainting ourselves with the meat and potatoes of this debate, the better. (I don’t do predictions often, but yes, this is one. Suck it up, bitchez!)
According to my daughter’s school biology text book, an entity is said to be alive when it fulfils the criteria denoted by the acronym RINGER:
Growth and development
I find this too limiting a definition, too ‘biological’ or ‘matter-biased’, as do many others, which a look at Wiki’s page on living systems quickly demonstrates. As an old Star Trek fan I remember an episode of Next Generation in which Data’s right to be thought of as alive was discussed (for the uninitiated, Data is an android) . “I, Robot” covers similar ground, and there are many other similar explorations in literature and philosophy of course. However, the kind of living system I have in my sights here is a social system, such as a corporation or governmental organization.

What got me thinking about this was the YouTube video of the arrest of a woman outside a Citi Bank branch for closing her account (she was one of many, but the others had already been locked inside the branch). After my anger at the bank’s and police’s inelegant and panicked handling of the issue subsided, I started thinking about what one particular officer in a lower ranking blue shirt, with many cuffs dangling from his belt, rocking nervously on his feet in an aggressive-defensive posture, wielding his truncheon uncertainly as he protects the bank from the assembled crowd (about 2:20 on, right at the end of this short but compelling video). What was he thinking? Or, better, what was he feeling and experiencing for those few, hot seconds?

One thing is clear. The man is as much a human as any one of us. He has a job as many others do. His job is part of his totality, but only a part. Perhaps another ‘part’ of him sympathizes with those who claim to be “The 99%”. Yet in his role as policeman he must (at least while he thinks this way) put aside one part of his humanity in the interests of … What, exactly? I would say, in the interests of a living system we’ll call Police Force. Police Force trained him to become a Policeman, and when he’s in his uniform on the job he is a ‘different’ person to when he is on the couching watching TV. Why? Why do our behaviours change according to the hat we have on our head?
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a number of experiments on obedience, inspired by the question of the morality of Nazis such as Eichmann, as well as their underlings. What does it mean to be obedient if such results in our killing others? Milgram’s experiments involved three people: an actor posing secretly as a participant, a genuine participant, and a ‘scientist.’ The two participants were allotted the roles of teacher and learner, apparently randomly, but it was previously ensured that the actor always became the learner. The learner (actor) was then wired to an electric shock machine, and told to push buttons in answer to questions put to him/her by the teacher. The actor made plain that he/she had a heart condition. If the learner pushed the wrong button, the teacher was to punish him/her with an electric shock. Milgram wanted to find out how severe an electric shock the teacher would administer in the interests of ‘science.’ “He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, 61–66 percent, regardless of time or place.” There are many experiments like this, and all yield, I suspect, similar results. That they are disturbing is because, in my view, we falsely think of ourselves as potent or sovereign individuals independently deciding on matters of right and wrong, correctly assessing situations ‘out there’ and acting accordingly in constant demonstration of our free will.
Are we discreet individuals in control of our lives, or are we emergent subsystems of larger subsystems in which we find form, definition and meaning in an ongoing and ever-changing way? What would your ideas about reality be like if you had been born deaf and blind? If we took identical twins at birth, raised one in a rich household in New York, but deposited the other with the Pirahã, how similarly would they turn out? If we then collected the Pirahã-twin twenty years later and brought it to New York to meet its identical sibling, how much would they have in common? How much about New York would the Pirahã-twin understand? If we deposited the twenty year old New York-twin with the Pirahã, how well would it function in that alien environment?
We will never know the thousands of reasons why the man shifting defensively on his feet outside Citi Bank became a policeman. If we asked, perhaps he’d tell us he freely chose the job. Could he have? Why not arrow-head maker? Or shepherd? Or poet? Or brain surgeon? How happy was he at school? How good a school was it? How ‘effective’ were his parents at raising him? Which of these many early conditions did he choose? Did he choose his body? Does such a question make any sense at all? When do we start being able to choose ‘freely?’ Certainly not where or to whom we are born. Nor the language our parents speak to us, nor how they communicate, their interests, sensibilities, passions, failings and strengths. Nor the television we are exposed to, nor the foods we are fed (though taste and screaming play a role here!). I’m not pushing the tabula rasa position of John Locke; I believe we are all born with a certain ‘stuff-mix’, a unique biological-social-familial-spacetime set that means we will remain unique forever. And we react uniquely to stimuli even though we have no ‘choice’ in the matter. We are not born blank slates, nor do we ‘begin’ at birth, and yet we are never ‘free.’ It is a non sequitur to point to uniqueness as evidence of free will.
So the policeman of this brief inquiry is a subsystem of a social organism called Police Force. The degree to which he is able to be ‘objective’ about this fact; that is, his loyalty to both his role and the oath he took upon becoming a policeman, is dependent upon millions of other factors we can never know about. For example, I am writing this article because of Universe as it has been through me up till now. As Charles Eisenstein puts it, I am Universe TobyRusselling. I am an unfolding verb, and so are you. Whether or not we see nobility in this or that part of Universe is a matter of perception, and all our perceptions are reactions we don’t control, as our reactions to what we perceive are beyond our control. Whether or not the policeman feels he acted nobly by virtue of staying true to his job is not as important as that we all tend to be true to our conditioning, as Milgram’s experiments show. And of course the minority who refrained from issuing the killing dosage were conditioned by their pasts to be less influenced by authority, less obedient, more critical of their situation.
As part of a nation, of a family, of a school and classes within a school, as child, sibling, father, mother, friend and employee, we are constantly influenced by ideas and other communications in various contexts; everything that we imbibe, not only as it comes to us from ‘the outside,’ but also as it exists in us in our own unique context, as we continually re-experience our ‘inner’ world of memories and senses and thoughts, we passively integrate into what we are becoming, passively generating associations, forming habits and addictions, likes and dislikes. This is what we are always becoming. We are not sovereign; it only seems that way because we can convince ourselves it is so. An idea-infrastructure is available to us with which we can create this impression. A human raised by dogs for long enough will never be able to comprehend the idea of individual sovereignty, for example.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Police Force is also a living system influenced by its environmental conditions, came into existence for certain reasons, and evolves over time in constant adjustments to unstoppable change. It, as we do, seeks to live on. In that it is what it does, and what it does is policing, it must police if it is to ‘survive.’ Furthermore, Police Force is a subsystem of State. State is also a living system which is what it does (extract the ‘foods’ it needs and ‘wants’ from its environment via exploitation of its citizens and other resources, in a hierarchical format), and seeks too to carrying on ‘living’ indefinitely. (And all this without even looking at issues of wages, money and debt, which are concepts, or communications, developed and evolved by culture and society.)
Niklas Luhmann posits that social systems consist of communications, and that the ‘soil’ from which they emerge are psychic systems (humans). Because we psychic systems find form in social systems, the interrelationship is obvious. Though notionally separate, in practice psychic and social systems cannot exist independently of one another. Even if we imagine a baby raised by wolves outside of human society, that psychic system is nevertheless embedded in a social system of communications consisting of barks, growls, snarls, smells and any other information produced by its environment, in my opinion including seasons, food, hunting, etc. Information is discernible difference, is anything we are capable of perceiving.
A large corporation emerges from the broader society of which it becomes a functioning subsystem. Ditto our Police Force. And as the cells of our bodies are living systems, so we humans act as cells of larger order social systems, from families to mutli-nationals. Our ‘obedience,’ or sense of belonging to those social systems we are part of depends on a multitude of factors I won’t even try to list. What I here publicly ponder, after having watched that video over and over again, is how the changes coursing through society as ideas that conflict with the existing paradigm of scarcity, greed and competition, are affecting people like the policeman here contemplated, or CEOs, or prime minisiters, presidents, and chancellors, and how they impact on social systems such as Police Force and Government. I don’t think I am saying anything controversial by stating they feel threatened.
Change is afoot at a scale and depth I suspect humanity has never remotely experienced before, yet the cultural equipment we have inherited to deal with this change finds itself in a defensive posture regarding that change. We are under an attack we must deal with using the cultural repertoire which is the very object of that attack. We each react differently, and likely we are all confused. That means Interesting Times Ahead, through which it is vital we remember, constantly, that we are all simultaneously ‘victims’ and ‘agents’ of reality, just as Police Force and Policeman. We are reality, as is everything else without exception. A wise mix of humility and confidence is therefore called for, which I fall far short of. My hope is that the efforts of those publicly closing bank accounts; those collecting in cities across the planet to teach themselves direct democracy; as well as those of us merely discussing, thinking and debating, find a constructive rhythm or cohesion towards a new direction thus far only minutely in evidence. If we are unable to keep this transition together to some useful degree, the centre will not hold and the subsequent, violent oscillations could destroy most of what humanity has built this far.

It's up to us, but by golly that doesn't mean it's going to be easy!


Rupert Russell said...

“..And the world flashes into my living room; television made me what I am” Talking Heads.

The impact of these raw, unneutered images, for a while, meant something entirely different to me than what I am feeling of late. I was excited by them; the internet was becoming the tool with which we could tear the walls down. Not just a change of paper or paint, not even fresh plaster, with this ‘hammer’ we could do the whole fucking building.

Watching that US Marine, Sergeant Shamar Thomas, passionately lambasting those cops was extraordinary and my feelings were rattled. I saw the humanity of those cops, the fear and confusion in their eyes when confronted with passion and reason and the stupidity of the whole situation: We are the 100%.

I’m 44 years old and for most of my life TV has been a place to escape, a very carefully controlled and sterile propaganda tool. The enormity of the change we are facing as a species chills me to my toes. My fear; what if, as a result of this explosion of information and understanding, this transition becomes fractured, confused and so utterly dispersed, right at the moment when we are at the closest point to each other we have ever been, what if this is the thing that kills us off? Too late methinks, there’s no going back now, or ever, and the journey from this point forward is starting to look like a very steep climb indeed.

Toby said...

Well said, Rupert.

It's soon going to be very frightening. Right now it's as if the roller coaster is slowly creeping up a steep incline, and our tummies are starting to tingle, our palms are getting sweaty. Some of us are looking down and starting to scream in fear. Is that the peak up ahead, or just an optical illusion? We won't know until we know (whatever "know" means!).

Debra said...

The Internet/media issue is part of Babel.
Logically, the more we concentrate ourselves, the bigger the, uh.. DECONCENTRATION risks sweeping us away.
If it's any comfort, reading Tocqueville gives the definite impression that THOSE people AT THAT TIME (of the French revolution) had exactly the same impression (what side is up ??) that we now have.
On the Milgram paradigm, a very important part of the experiment is a result of the fact that there is no direct contact between the actor, and the guinea pig. When PEOPLE HAVE NAMES AND FACES and are not systems, they have a better chance of being perceived as LIVING, FEELING INDIVIDUAL BODIES. (Also, I have very serious qualms about an "experiment" which is based on the dishonesty of the "scientists". Freud showed, (and we should know this) that the matrice for an experiment has a very great influence on its outcome.)
That's what I HATE about the systems GAME.
I see NO REASON whatsoever to call a corporation a LIVING system.
So, that means that according to MY defiinition of the word "living", IT IS NOT LIVING.
None of our symbolic systems is living. They are all...abstractions. And abstractions do not have BODIES, last time I checked.
The cop has delegated a large part of his identity to... THE SYSTEMS GAME.
Having delegated part of his identity there, he can temporarily put aside his identifications with the people on the street as FELLOW HUMANS, in order to put meat and potatoes on the table (but not just...) by REPRESENTING the social order.
But the social order is not living.
It isn't living any more than it is THINKING.
In my opinion.
Just because our social order mimics the body's organization to a certain extent (logical that we would "invent" this type of organization by analogy...) does not authorize us to decree that an analogy is an IDENTITY.
As for the TV, I unhooked at around 18, when I saw my mother lying on the couch in the evening, watching stuff that I found rather thought UNprovoking.
France's TV was GOOD for a while, but now it's all downhill in the rush to.. BABEL.
Not having a TV is a BIG ACT of resistance.
There are others.
When you realize that YOU and the world are not going to fall apart if you miss the news tonight, well, that helps put things BACK into perspective.

Toby said...

Debbie, agree with most of what you wrote and good point about not knowing the guinea pig personally, but of course I disagree about corporations and other social organizations not being living systems. They are most certainly not mortal, they just outlive their constituent parts, rather like human beings and other biological entities outlive their constituent parts. But I know there is no way in hell we'll ever agree on this, so I'll leave it at that! ;-)

Malagodi said...

Busy day for me so I'll be brief.

What is life?

Many years ago in my Jr. High School biology class the teacher said the test for whether something was alive or not was that it must eat and reproduce.

My hand shot up immediately. "What about a mule?" Indignation filled the room.

The oft impenetrable Kitaro Nishida says the difference between inanimate matter and biological life is that "life moves from the formed to the forming." It is a self-creating process.

It took me a while, but this simple observation keeps opening and expanding for me.

Toby said...

Hi Stephen,

that def sounds similar to the musings of the Santiago School of systems theory which coined the term 'autopoiesis,' meaning self-making. There is something 'magical' about life as it somehow (invisibly, really) emerges from not-life, to one day sink back into that which made and makes it possible. Form and pattern are key elements, especially as they pertain to energy input and output.

I'm also fond of Amit Goswami's position that consciousness is the ground of all being, that, e.g. the material universe is 'collapsed' from an unformed 'probability cloud' via conscious perception to the condition we all differently experience. Of course the danger of solipsism here is great, so we must remember when pondering his theory that everything is involved, from stones to stars to air, all as 'conscious' participants co-creating and sustaining All That Is (though beyond (or beneath) notions of 'control' of course).

How we then define 'consciousness' is very unclear, like a permanent blind spot. But hey, unsolvable mystery makes it all worth while.

Heady stuff, but waters I like, that's for sure!

Malagodi said...

"Twenty billion years ago,
in the primordial wisdom soup
beyond comprehension and indescribable,
something without substance moved slightly,
and became something imperceptible,
moved again and became something invisible,
moved again and produced a particle and particles,
moved again and became a quark,
again and became quarks,
moved again and again and became protons and neutrons,
and the twelve dimensions of space,
tiny fire balls of primordial energy,
bits of energy tossed back and forth
in a game of catch between particles,
transmitting electromagnetic light
and going fast, 40 million times a second,
where the pebble hits the water,
that is where the trouble began,
something without substance became something with substance,
why did it happen?
because something substanceless
had a feeling of missing out on something,
not getting it,
was not getting it
not getting it
getting it,
imperceptibly not having something
when there was nothing to have,
clinging to a notion of reality;
from the primordially endless potential,
to modern reality,
twenty billion years later,
has produced me and my stupid grasping mind,
has made me and you, and my grasping mind."
John Giorno, "Thanks for Nothing."

Toby said...

That's a great poem.

Without the itch, there is nothing. And the impossible nothing makes the itch.

"Matter cored of nothing.

In the hole this left, its absence.
Laid out on my desk,
under pressure of my eyes’ earnest affect,
pure nothing yields a few facts:

1. It is soil for mind’s roots.
2. All particles whir from its oil.
3. It delimits time
and so is timeless.
4. It blinds us into sight.
5. It is a malfunctioning mirror.
6. Thirst for it is endless
as is fear
of it.

But there is evidence to suggest
it may, counter-intuitively, be something after all.

Research is ongoing."