Friday, December 30, 2011

It's Complex Out There

The older I get and the more I study, the more people I exchange ideas with, here and elsewhere, the harder I find it to see clear objectives. Indeed, the process is akin to seeing a once clear objective evaporate. All I am left with is participation and contribution, and both are muddy. It is not that there is no bad deed to battle, no soured system to turn to some ‘higher’ purpose or ‘functioning,’ it is rather that the ‘steps’ and ‘decisions’ to be taken appear more and more arbitrary to me. It is as if all that matters is our wisdom, our consciousness, and our broadest intent, not so much the details of the System du Jour we find ourselves in. And further, that even these vague caveats be qualified by a ‘what will be will be’ philosophy.

Perhaps some quotes from two Pixar films will help explain my ‘position.’ The first is a pivotal scene from “A Bug’s Life”, in which the leader of the bad guys (bad grasshoppers, actually), Hopper, gives a motivational talk to his troops, who kinda sorta wanna chill, quaff beer, and pork out on snacks in the delicious Mexican sun, not go out of their way to Do The Right Thing and quash an ‘upstart’ member of the ant colony they tyrannize to sustain their way of life.
Hopper: But, there was that ant that stood up to me...

Thug 1: Yeah, but we can forget about him!

Thug 2: Yeah ... it was just one ant.

Hopper: You’re right! It’s just one ant.

Thug 2: Yeah, boss! They’re puny!

Hopper: Puny? Say, let’s say this grain is a puny little ant. [Pulls a seed-grain from a jerry-rigged liquor bottle behind the ‘bar’ and throws it at Thug 2. Grain bounces harmlessly off grasshopper’s exoskeleton.] Did that hurt?

Thug 2: Nope.

Hopper: [Takes another grain from the bottle.] How ‘bout this one. [Throws grain at Thug 1.]

Thug 1: Are you kiddin’! [Chorus of thugs laughs uproariously.]

Hopper: How about THIS! [Rips ‘grain dispenser’ from the bottleneck to let thousands of grains flood out, overwhelming the assembled thugs.] You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up. Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one! And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line. That’s why we’re going back! Does anybody else wanna stay? [Entire group dutifully ‘activates’ its wings as one, ready to ride off and do their duty.]
I’m not interesting in discussing the 99% analogies that leap off the page here. I'm getting at something else. In my mind the grasshopper character “Hopper” is named after Dennis Hopper, an actor gifted at playing spooky bad guys. I mention this because it links us to a film which presents free riding ‘cool’ dudes in a very different light; “Easy Rider”. In “A Bug’s Life”, it is, in a sense, the bourgeois collective (the ants) who are the Good Guys, while the free riding fun lovers are assigned the antagonist’s role. In “Easy Rider” it is the other way around; the bourgeois collective must be rebelled against, escaped, as its cloying grasp limits freedom and smothers creativity. Furthermore, I can easily imagine a Pixar cartoon in which ants were characterless, rapacious drones, and grasshoppers sensitive, musical troubadours with poet souls yearning to create their most beautiful songs. ‘Evil’ is that which challenges us to leave our comfort zone behind, to move ‘beyond’ our current state to something ‘higher’ or ‘wiser.’ Evil is not intrinsic to one mode of life or another. Antagonism is inevitable in a reality which is complex and multifaceted. How we deal with antagonism is, in a limited way, up to us. ‘Evil’ creates the space in which progress can happen.

Good or Evil? The versatile Dennis Hopper challenges us in all his roles.

The next scene comes from “Ratatouille”, one of my favourite films. In this scene the pragmatic Rat Dad tries to show his idealistic son (Remy) the harsh realities of rat life. Dad takes son to see a store selling traps and poisons for killing rodents. The window display is gruesome for a rat; tens of dead rats hanging by their necks from various implements of death.
Dad: We’re here. [ It’s dark, but two flashes of lightning illuminate the rat corpses.] Take a good, long look, Remy. This is what happens when a rat gets a little too comfortable around humans. The world we live in belongs to the enemy. We must live carefully. We look out for our own kind, Remy! When all is said and done, we’re all we’ve got. [Walks off, thinking the lesson is over. Remy stays put.]

Remy: No.

Dad: What?

Remy: No! Dad, I don’t believe it. You’re telling me that the future is ... can only be, more of THIS!? [Points at rat corpses.]

Dad: This is the way things are. You can’t change nature.

Remy: Change is nature, Dad! The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.
“Ratatouille” is a better and subtler film than “A Bug’s Life” (in my opinion). It’s as if the two films represent two statements on the same problem, the earlier film taking a standard position (the ‘bad’ guy is defeated), whereas in “Ratatouille” the threat is transformed into a creative partnership. The later film deftly wields multiple antagonists, but the main ‘bad’ guy literally becomes the hero’s business partner. (I hope that’s not giving away too much for those who have not seen this wonderful film.) And for me this is what antagonism (‘evil’) is about; change. We either manage change creatively, or we don’t (though I’m loathe to present a binary!). And of course when we manage change creatively, we set up some ‘better’ situation which itself is antagonistic to some other system. A life without challenge cannot create anything new, cannot evolve. And in that melee, we each perceive (experience) comfort and discomfort, pleasure and pain, in greatly varying degrees.

I am on holiday in Italy with my own family of four, my sister-in-law’s family, and my parents-in-law. Aside from my good self, everyone here loves Christmas, loves the toys, the gifts, the abundance, the drinking, the hedonism and indulgence. Lip-service is paid to ‘being together,’ but every day is about consumption, shopping, spending. And if not that, watching TV. The young ones play computer games. On (what is for me) the plus side, there’s been a fair bit of scrabble, and my elder daughter’s gifts were her own creations for the main part. One was even a piano piece she discovered online and learned with great self-discipline, then played to her aunt. And it is here my duality is highly visible to me (and you I’m sure). At Econosophy I write about deep societal change, less is more, transition to a resource-based economy. Here in Mirano I mention no such thing, stand on no soap box, seize no opportunity to berate my fellow revelers for their ‘mindless’ consumption. I am middle class, so would not enjoy the subsequent tensions, but deeper than that I realize we all walk different paths. There is no such thing as equality, except in the abstract world of mathematics and scientific measurement. There is no pure, clean path we must tread as one, loyally follow to reach one single destination, a city shining on a high hill, best for all, the best that humanity can achieve. Though I am romantic and idealistic, I know deeply such visions are exactly as ‘evil’ and divisive as that which I see as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ in the world ‘out there.’ There is not one tune we should march in lockstep to which can possibly be good. Mess is beauty. Mess is mucky. Celebrate that.

And my duality (or hypocrisy) runs deeper than that rendering. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with enjoying Christmas in all its consumerist glory, with singing the Santa Claus-Coca Cola, Good Child-Bad Child song; with playing along with the ‘crowd,’ going with the flow. We are all of us socialized by the ongoing dance of our biology and the events we pass through. For thousands of reasons I become what I become, perceive as I perceive, desire, fear, hope as Toby Russell does. Pride of ‘accomplishment’ is misplaced, totally egotistical. I am the flow of my life, as are you of yours. That I go ‘against’ the mainstream is neither here nor there. If doom-based predictions are right, if our ‘greed’ were to cause civilizational collapse, would that be more or less ‘evil’ than a meteor wiping out life on earth? Or the sun exploding?

And yet none of this moral relativism detracts from my passion to fight for what I see as a ‘better’ system. I still love humanity, life on earth, Universe. Such feelings are expressions of what I am becoming, but have next to nothing to do with what I can ‘control.’ What these tendrils binding me to the mainstream do is humble me. Though I get angry at injustice and short sighted profligacy, perfection is not only an impossibility, striving for it is almost cruel. While I do not want short sighted profligacy to wipe us out, it is not because such would be ‘evil,’ but simply because I do not want that outcome. Fighting for what I want does not mean accusing others of being less Good than I am oh so nobly struggling to be. Such is not only counter-productive, it is short sighted. No one can be handed wisdom by me (however well written or reasoned); there exists no finished ‘wisdom’ that can be handed over. Each of us develops our own, unique wisdom; art is communicating it, sharing it. I would go so far as to say that is what living is, for amoebas, coral reefs, forests, herrings, hedgehogs and humans alike. And all together as Universe too, for life is not a separate or alien phenomenon, weirdly and inexplicably around for a moment until the ‘natural’ pitilessness of Universe can carry on as it was before. Life is as inextricably Universe as ‘barren’ rock drifting the depths of space, or as nuclear forces. And I say that knowing we do not yet understand anything, life most of all perhaps, not to mention time and gravity. So while I do get angry, and shout at Those Idiots, such does not help that fight which has chosen me; it just gets in the way, slows me down.

We are our own worst enemies. But without that defect, could we do anything at all? What would we be without our ‘enemy’ within? And thus, in my round-about way, I get to thank you, dear readers, for keeping me grounded, challenging me, offering me your wisdom in your art, and helping me change creatively, even if it hurts sometimes. And thank you too to those who don’t resonate with my art, who walk very different paths. Whatever we do choose and create, we’re in this together, in ways both great and small, intimate and remote. We would wither to dried flotsam were antagonism not in our midst. We get to try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Peace, pain, change and a good life to all!


Malagodi said...

"If there's one thing you cannot, and will not do, it's make the world a better place." ~John Giorno

This line is difficult to accept, yet in it is contained the wisdom of centuries. Both the Buddha and Jesus are quite explicit in this.

It is in no way a rationale for indifference, apathy, hedonism or worse, exploitation. It is an acceptance of our humility. It is an acknowledgement that the physical and moral universe is of it's own nature; formed and behaving according to its structure and its capabilities, not the creation of human will or our desire for 'good' or 'evil'. [Who is it that desires evil?]

"Everybody I ever met who says they want to help somebody wants to help themselves." ~Giorno

This line points to the usual motivation of altruism and activism; reinforcement of the ego as a 'good and moral' being. Even the instances of altruism in the plant and 'lower' animal kingdoms are explicable as long-term genetic benefit strategies. The instances of real altruism, I don't say they don't exist, only that they are extremely rare; they are the province of the bodhisattvas, actual saints, and those who, like the example of Jesus, give themselves over to the suffering and murderous violence of the world for the enlightenment and relief of others. These people are extremely rare; I no longer count myself among them, thank god.

"Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis." ~Thomas Merton.

One cannot attain humility by practicing it, much less thinking about it.

There is nothing to do except to hone ones awareness through the study and practice of compassion ~ suffering together ~ as best we can. Erode ignorance; tame delusion. At some point one becomes aware of what to do, and far more often, what not to do.

"It is as if all that matters is our wisdom, our consciousness, and our broadest intent."

Quite correct, but the one attribute you neglected to mention in your statement is courage. In the end, it is the courage to act on ones awareness which is the final hurdle.

"Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times."

Don't worry, my brother, you're doing just fine.

Toby said...

Thank you, Stephen. It's a pleasure having you around. As for courage, that's a good spot. For me perhaps still a blind spot.

And as for genetic selfishness, I'm quite sure we deeply misunderstand that. We are not 'controlled' by our genes. Nor are they foundations of anything, and I suspect there are no foundations. I don't think reality is hierarchical like that. Like, at the bottom there is energy, and at the top Christ-like compassion or The Godhead. So what then is selfishness, what is altruism? Our projections? Another false dichotomy? I think so, but I've yet to formulate a (for me) satisfactory way of re-couching this particular axis, this crucial scale. I'm not even sure they're opposites.

Debra said...

Thanks for sharing your increasingly complex world with me, Toby.
We had a similar Christmas, and I enjoyed opening the packages, and watching the others open their packages. Most of the "stuff" was small fry, and since I like opening packages, and watching other people open packages, I have a tendancy to hang onto "gifts" and wrap them up to stick them around the tree : like.. socks, pants, even underwear. Anything goes.
My French family has truly got into the American, childlike appreciation of Christmas, and watching their eyes light up when opening those packages really pleases me.
Christmas is a CHILD'S holiday, as I like to say, and it is a reminiscence of those three wacky looking astrologers who showed up in a poor neighborhood looking for a king who was a baby, in order to give an poor infant costly presents.
What is so neat about Christmas to me is its totally improbable nature, as I'm sure I have said before. Like.. opening a tiny, tiny package and finding a treasure in it. What hasn't dreamed of that before ?
I shall have to look for "Ratatouille"... but will pass up your first reference.
In more concise form we have... La Fontaine's famous fable about the ant and the locust ? cricket ? grasshopper ?
La Fontaine's judgment on the cricket who sang all summer, and the ant who slaved away is to remark that "the ant is NOT A LENDER, that is her/his LEAST fault."...
The world would be a happier place if the ants could recognize that the crickets' singing is "work" enough to justify being tided over the winter...

Debra said...

The Giorno quote "everybody..." is, to me, the illustration of the perverse effects of a Christian ethic gone wrong.
The economy of sacrifice.
As if IT WERE NECESSARILY BAD for people to GET at the same time as they give, and the ONLY WORTHY gift is one that entails SELF SACRIFICE.
I don't subscribe to that RELIGION at all.
I still believe that the world, and business, and all our relationships WORK better when we don't consciously or unconsciously desire to implement the economy of SACRIFICE.
As appears in.. "The Merchant of Venice"...
Unfortunately, a world which is abysmally ignorant of its Christian heritage STILL subscribes to the absolute value of sacrifice.
REJECTING CHRIST'S sacrifice has opened the door to encouraging us, once again, to demand our own sacrifice, and/or the sacrifice of others.
Tragic, she says.
Particularly since the word "sacrifice" is not ready to disappear from our vocabulary...

Anonymous said...

> ...the harder I find it to see clear objectives.

What kind of world do you want to see? If you choose carefully here then all other decisions can follow effortlessly.

> A life without challenge cannot create anything new, cannot evolve.

Molecules became microbes which became men. What was their challenge? Does an energy differential constitute a challenge?

> ... perfection is not only an impossibility, striving for it is almost cruel.

Ok, if you say so. I reject the idea that sacrifice is necessary, so I have a different perspective. Listen to your friend DEBRA and see what you can make of this text.

> There is not one tune we should march in lockstep to which can possibly be good. Mess is beauty.

Order is also beauty. Time-space allows us to experience both. Pretty nifty, eh?

poulpinnette said...

Karl, I read all the way through this link...
Since I am basically a closet Jewish rabbi, I will say that the major quibble I have with the text is the degraded PLATONIC place it assigns to the body...
I happen to LOVE MY BODY.
It is NOT MAYA to me.
It enables me to BE IN THIS WORLD, and enter into relations with others, not the least of which is THE SEXUAL RELATION.
That one is neat. (although I am getting older and it is not so neat...)
So, anyone who serves me Platonic Jesus, well, I will respond as a Jewish rabbi and say... NO GO.
Happy New Year.

Toby said...

Hi Karl,

it seems this is a major area of difference between us. I'd have to say though, I have not stated that sacrifice is necessary, but that complexity means unity of perception about what is Good is impossible, thus perfection is impossible in that sense. All That Is is already perfect ("everything is best"), but that broader 'perfection' contains mess and muck and order too. I did not say I was against order, far from it, and my writing, which strives for clarity, is, I guess, some evidence of that. And as you say, it's all about perception in the end. Where there's muck, there's brass, as the saying goes. Muck is order too, and there's no such thing as (pure) chaos. I think that's part of what we're learning; to trust Universe. We are not separate. We are self-organizing, as Universe is. Hobbes was wrong.

So, what kind of world do I want to see? As rich as possible, as wise as possible. Though change is the only constant. ;-)

The 'challenge' for single cell to become nucleated cell was to cooperate with the virus which is the now the nucleated cell's nucleus. That act of cooperation to a permanent symbiosis saved life on earth, since the virus was killing the single cell and wiping itself out too. As for pre-life 'challenges', I'd put that at the level of energy exchange and entropy. Challenge at the human level (to leap 'up' to more complex orders of perception) is to look at something different again, since we exist in abstract language and have all sorts of juicy attachments. It's complex out there.

I'll read the linked article soon, just wanted to squeeze those initial reactions out. Thanks for your penetrating comments! They're always challenging. ;-)

Toby said...

Hi poulpinnette, and welcome! I suspect you are our first closet Jewish Rabbi.

I suspect I agree with your point (though I've yet to read the article). It is escape from constraint itself I'm attempting to escape, as it were. There is a flight from 'Enemy Nature' that 'civilization' has been embarked on for millennia now, which includes attempted control of absolutely everything 'negative' and unwanted, until all is Just So, and there are no more Problems, no more stresses, and the Good Life can unfold uninterrupted. The clean, Platonic City, which is very evident in The Venus Project, is part of that. Obviously I don't reject that per se, just as I am not rejecting 'mess.' My point is that wisdom, in part, is accepting that mess is part of order, and vice versa. Indeed at a deeper level that the opposition of opposites is an illusion we can transcend (which is Jungian, though he got that perspective from earlier minds). Though that is a topic for a far larger text.

Happy New Year to you too!

Toby said...

Debbie, I'm still pondering your points, and will get to them shortly.

poulpinnette said...

Oops, Toby, poulpinette and Debbie are one and the same.
My daughter is home for the holidays and has used HER signature and google account, which I did not see.
I shall have to rectify WHEN SHE LEAVES...

Malagodi said...

see, what a delightful mixup. What you thought were two different things were actually the same thing with a different name speaking at a different time.

Toby, is a wild forest a mess, or a natural ecosystem?

cosmic suffering
cosmic suffering,
the suffering
in the cosmic
the suffering implicit
in the·cosmic law,
which chains us
to our deeds
which chains us to our deeds,
as well as
good as well as bad,
which chains us to our deeds,
good as well as bad,
and drives us
and drives us incessantly
and drives us incessantly round
in a restless
in a restless circle
from form
to form
from form to form
in a restless circle
from form to form
I woke up
When I woke up
When I woke up again
I was alone
I was alone
I was alone"
~john giorno, from Dakini Software

Toby said...


"Toby, is a wild forest a mess, or a natural ecosystem?"


Is a tamed city a mess, or a natural ecosystem?


Is order messy? Is mess orderly?

It' all about perception, as Karl says. "World and mind arise together." Check out 'structural coupling.'

Wonderful poem. Visually, phonically and philosophically.

Debbie's Double Daughter threw an old man into sweet confusion Monday, when, laid low by a light head cold, he emerged from a deep sleep after an unbroken eleven hour drive from Venice to Berlin to confuse her for another. The rest may well be history.

And now for some well earned recuperation!

Frank Powers said...

The deliberate use of CAPITALS gave poulpinette's true identity away, anyway. ;-)

Anonymous said...

> I think that's part of what we're learning; to trust Universe. We are not separate. We are self-organizing, as Universe is.

Hmmm... I like that.

One of the things I've learned from master programmers is that if a problem seems too difficult to solve you have the option of redefining the problem itself. Said another way, rather than trying to fit solutions around a fixed problem, realize you can move in other dimensions which will vastly alter how the problem manifests or entirely by-pass it. I'd say that's what the Venus Project does with respect to the problem of money. It's what a commons does with respect to property. People will insist that their problem is real and *must* be confronted, but there are always other options just outside their awareness.

I like the Course in Miracles because it gets down to brass tacks, pronto. It says "this is your world and if you want to make it hell then that's your business. You've been shown how to love, there's all these people here to practice with, and when you're tired of dicking around you just might want to try that. I'm God, I have infinite patience, so take your time." Or something to that effect. :)

Toby said...

I think I can properly respond to Debbie 1's first comments now.

Childlike wonderment need not be attached to Xmas, which is a massively commercial event. Awe is a beautiful emotion each of us can feel at any moment. The idea of cordoning off a piece of the year in which one may be childlike does not appeal to me. Similarly, I'm not fond of wrapping things up, as if that makes them special. Their specialness is always there to be perceived if we so choose. Furthermore, only doing so at Xmas is too vulnerable to commercialization. Ritual is important, and I would never 'ban' anything, but at the moment all ritual is 'fair game' to bizniss and has become almost thoroughly corrupted. Life is a 'gift' from top to bottom, so is also, therefore, spending good times with friends and family, at any time of the year.

As for sacrifice, it is indeed necessary, as is breathing. There is necessity on this playing field, whether we like it or not. Only, we don't have to idolize sacrifice. The concept of 'opportunity cost,' part of the discipline of economics, is perhaps a less religious way of looking at sacrifice. If I go swimming instead of going to the cinema I have forgone the latter for the former. In that simple example is the 'beginning' of sacrifice. Should we get all hot and bothered about it? No. It's complex out there.

This austerity, hair shirt thing is confusing. I went to a museum with my kids a while back and watched a short documentary on Eskimo life. They are not a people I know well, and a short documentary (and a few articles) does not an expert make, but they sacrifice, they make do, they cope, and they have fun too. "With gifts you make slaves just as with whips you make dogs!" an Inuit hunter is reported to have said. "I store my food in the belly of my brother" say the Piraha (not Eskimos of course, but the 'sentiment' or 'philosophy' is the same). "With gifts you make slaves". What does that mean? That sharing is fundamental in 'harsh' conditions, and need not be idolized into 'gift giving.' "I store my food in the belly of my brother." Same story. There is no ritual here (though there will be in other aspects). That's how they live. And they are as homo sapiens sapiens as we are. And I say this as someone who likes pleases and thank yous. Different conditions produce different cultures, behaviours, mores. It's nothing to get hot and bothered about, but it is a salient reminder that Christian sensibilities are just that; Christian. That is, not genetically human. Celebrate diversity.

Toby said...

Karl, I read that linked article-chapter-thing and did not like it. That's quite odd since it's the first thing you've linked me to which has not resonated. Too Christian for one thing, but dripping too in the duality it seeks to transcend. It says "your body" as if there is something 'inside' the 'body' which 'owns' the body; the Cartesian Split in all its dual confusion. And the rest of the piece is standard fare about Oneness and acceptance but smacks of escape from the feminine, as Debbie pointed out. As you know, I push both Oneness and Acceptance, but as Charles Eisenstein (and Erich Fromm, I've been given to understand) does:

I do not have a body, I am body.


I do not have a soul, I am soul.

The two sentences are one. "Matter is what we can see of spirit." And our language, being born of drawing distinctions and seeing 'objects' to be understood and 'controlled', makes it close to impossible for us to communicate rich, complex Oneness without falling pray to dualism. Traditional art forms like music and poetry come close, but then sharing our reactions with each other entails analysis, interpretation, and the whole thing starts over. Science suffers (at the moment) from the same problem. As science and art blur, so we enter a new phase of human development in which perpetual emergence, uncertainty and embeddedness will be (my prediction) the defining characteristics. We have millennia of dualistic thinking to transform. It's proving to be a wonderful challenge full of all sorts of dangers and rewards. Or is that too dualistic of me? ;-)

The intellectual danger of "this is your world and if you want to make it hell then that's your business" is solipsism. Children starving to death in a barren and fruitless waste cannot perceive themselves to health. We are not 'a priori' masters of our fate. We are 'masters' of our freedom to enjoy what comes our way in potential. We are not born ready for wisdom. We are born as an embedded node of a richly complex network we do not control. We are adrift from the start, learning how to choose which way to drift. It takes effort to discover it doesn't really take effort. What you appear to advocate, Karl, is a wisdom hard to acquire, not easy, even though it is equally true to say that when we 'get it,' it seems like the easiest thing in Universe. It's complex out there.

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