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An air of design

October 8, 2015

From Aristotle’s Poetics, ch, 9:

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.

Posting will continue to be light for the next few weeks as I attempt both to complete by diss. prop. and to organize a graduate student conference on the subject “community, reason, tragedy.” If you’re in Chicago in early November you should come by.

Harder than stone is the flesh and bone

September 29, 2015

When Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, & Strider come across the turned-to-stone trolls in their journey to Rivendell, Sam Gamgee sings this song:

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.

Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: “Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like the shin o’ my nuncle Tim,
As should be a-lyin’ in graveyard.
Caveyard! Paveyard!
This many a year has Tim been gone,
And I thought he were lyin’ in graveyard.”

“My lad,” said Troll, “this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o’ lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
Tinbone! Thinbone!
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don’t need his shinbone.”

Said Tom: “I don’t see why the likes o’ thee
Without axin’ leave should go makin’ free
With the shank or the shin o’ my father’s kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Rover! Trover!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!”

“For a couple o’ pins,” says Troll, and grins,
“I’ll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o’ fresh meat will go down sweet!
I’ll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I’m tired o’ gnawing old bones and skins;
I’ve a mind to dine on thee now.”

But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o’ the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.

But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain’s root,
For the seat of a troll don’t feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.

Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the bone he boned from it’s owner.
Doner! Boner!
Troll’s old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from it’s owner!

It’s a curious song for Tolkien to have written. Evil seems to win. Of course anyone who’s read the Silmarillion knows Tolkien tells many stories where evil wins; but they’re always contained within a larger story, catastrophe followed by eucatastrophe. Here, the troll keeps the bone, and that’s the end of the story.

Some explanation is needed. I offer this one: though trolls be evil in Middle Earth, in the world of this song this troll is not. He is simply natural; perhaps, even, (though Tolkien hated allegory,) he is nature, or rather is matter, and the resistance matter offers to our desires. This troll is not to be overcome, or given the boot to larn him; he’s harder than stone, and no more mobile: “Troll’s old seat is still the same.” But neither is he malicious; unlike Sauron, who detests whatever he does not control, “Troll don’t care, and he’s still there.” This troll is to be accepted, and taken into account.

If we accept this reading, we can see in this song (despite Tolkien’s hatred of allegory) three interpretive levels of natural resistance:

First, and most obviously, the troll is gnawing on the shin o’ Tom’s nuncle Tim. This is perfectly natural: animals eat each other. But it bothers Tom because he’s not merely natural, he’s human, and he wants his nuncle Tim to remain buried. But as Tolkien knew, nothing can remain buried forever. If a troll doesn’t dig up your shin and eat it, it will still turn eventually to dust.

Second, much of the humor of the song comes from each stanza’s apparently nonsense rhyming: “come by. / Done by! Gum by!” Of course, the rhymes aren’t all nonsense; some reveal what someone intended to keep hidden. Take “larn him. / Warn him! Darn him!”: Tom claims to want only to teach the troll, but his words betray him: he wants to damn him. Or “owner. / Doner! Boner!”: Tim was the bone’s owner, but the bone is no longer his, he has donated it to the earth, and all that’s left of him is bones. By stressing and over-stresing the rhyme-words, the song demonstrates the materiality of language, and how that materiality is a two-edged sword: it breaks down both sense and deception.

Finally, Sam Gamgee sings this song while the fellowship takes a rest in the literal shadow of one of the most memorable events from the book The Hobbit, predecessor of The Lord of the Rings. Without The Hobbit, of course, The Lord of the Rings could not have happened. But in writing the latter, Tolkien had constantly to overcome the resistance offered by the former. He found it necessary, in fact, to rewrite an entire chapter (the riddle-game with Gollum) to fit with his new conception of the Ring. But in Tolkien’s mind it would have been dishonest to simply rewrite that chapter with no explanation; it would be a brute-force attempt to overcome the resistance The Hobbit offered in the writing of TLotR, a resistance necessary for that work’s composition. So Tolkien did something more ingenious: he rewrote that chapter of The Hobbit, but made its very rewriting a minor plot-point of TLotR. The original chapter becomes the story as Bilbo first told it; the revised chapter becomes the story as it really happened; and the difference between them becomes significant: it shows us how the Ring convinces its wearer to deceive others about its true nature.

Of course there’s more to be said about this poem; I could write, for example, about how Tom evading the troll’s grasp but laming his foot offers a comic version of a common Tolkien motif, the maimed hero (consider Beren’s hand, or Frodo’s finger). But I’ll end, I think, with this: a recording of Tolkien singing this song (with slightly different lyrics). His singing voice is actually quite decent:

The custom of our times

September 18, 2015

Tired of what T.S. Eliot calls “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings,” Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to help its users slough off the very bonds of language:

We’ll have AR [augmented reality] and other devices that we can wear almost all the time to improve our experience and communication. One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.

Of course, fond of words and meanings as I am, I don’t particularly like this idea; I retaliate by looking even more carefully at the words Zuckerberg uses.

On reading Zuckerberg’s comments—not just the above quote, but the entire Q&A from which it’s drawn—I’m struck by his resolute avoidance of any of the language of commerce. He never talks about “Facebook customers,” and rarely even says “you”; he talks about “we.” Avoiding the language of commerce like this is to be expected. That language is difficult for Facebook because their users are not “customers” in the usual sense. It wouldn’t make any sense for Facebook to talk about “customer service,” unless it was talking about keeping the advertisers happy.

On one reading, it’s a good thing that he avoids this language; he avoids the trap so many organizations fall into of considering the people they interact with to be “customers,” rather than “passengers,” or “students,” or “patients.” It’s a small thing, but the word “customer” suggests a particular paradigm: an interaction which is always (potentially, if not actually) customary, habitual; and which is in each instance voluntary, optional. In Aristotelian terms, it denotes a friendship of utility. If “neoliberalism” is a helpful term of opprobrium, it’s because of this kind of language, and what it signifies. This paradigm isn’t appropriate for public transit authorities, or for universities, or for hospitals (for reasons which I hope are obvious); when they adopt it, they lose sight of the difference between economic and ethical ventures; and they lose sight of the fact that being friends of utility is not the same as sharing membership in a community.

But I don’t think Zuckerberg avoids the language of “customer” because he sees Facebook users as “citizens,” or even as “users”—he’s equally adept at avoiding this sort of language. Like I said, he talks about “we.” Sometimes “we” means Facebook as a company, but often it means, well, all of us, us Facebook users, us humans—as if there were no distinction between the two. In the world his words draw for us, Facebook is not a company with something to sell; it’s not even a tool people use to navigate the world; Facebook is the world that we live in. Technology just is human nature: it determines what is possible, what is usual, what is necessary. When Facebook changes, our world changes. An alarming thought.

Catena asina

September 7, 2015

[Presented without comment.]


J.L. Austin, “A Plea for Excuses,” note 4:

You have a donkey, so have I, and they graze in the same field. The day comes when I conceive a dislike for mine. I go to shoot it, draw a bead on it, fire: the brute falls in its tracks. I inspect the victim, and find to my horror that it is your donkey. I appear on your doorstep with the remains and say—what? “I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry, etc., I’ve shot your donkey by accident“? Or “by mistake“? Then again, I go to shoot my donkey as before, draw a bead on it, fire-but as I do so, the beasts move, and to my horror yours falls. Again the scene on the doorstep-what do I say? “By mistake”? Or ” by accident”?


Numbers 22:21-38:

And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. ‘ And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. ‘ And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. ‘ But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. ‘ And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. ‘ And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. ‘ And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? ‘ And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. ‘ And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. ‘ And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: ‘ And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive. ‘ And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again. ‘ And the angel of the Lord said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto a city of Moab, which is in the border of Arnon, which is in the utmost coast. ‘ And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honour? ‘ And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.


Sigmund Freud, Notes on a case of obsessional neurosis, page 193:

At the time of the revival of his piety he made up prayers for himself which took up more and more time and eventually lasted for an hour and a half. The reason for this was that he found, like an inverted Balaam, that something always inserted itself into his pious phrases and turned them into their opposite. E.g., if he said “May God protect him,” an evil spirit would hurriedly insinuate a “not.”


J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, page 9:

Surely the words must be spoken ‘seriously’ and so as to be taken ‘seriously’? This is, though vague, true enough in general–it is an important commonplace in discussing the purport of any utterance whatsoever. I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem. But we are apt to have a feeling that their being serious consists int heir being uttered as (merely) the outward and visible sign, for convenience or other record or for information, of an inward and spiritual act: from which it is but a short step to go on to believe or to assume without realizing that for many purposes the outward utterance is a description true or false, of the occurence of the inward performance.


The Book of Common Prayer, “A Catechism”:

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer. Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1131:

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

All things fall and are built again

August 31, 2015

A personal note: posting has been light this August, and will likely continue to be so in September. I spent the last few weeks moving into a new apartment for the sake of a new job, which will involve a few weeks of intensive training in September.

This is my sixth new apartment in seven years. Moving so often is inconvenient, but I find that in some ways I enjoy it. Taking down a house and setting a new one up are rather interesting, as activities go; they force one to make a catalog of one’s possessions and contemplate the proper proportions to establish between them. One might say that moving so often is tragic, if tragedy means life seen as an aesthetic object.

Yeats is of course the paradigmatic poet of house-building, but it’s not “The Tower” that’s been on my mind as I go about packing and unpacking my belongings. Rather, it’s “Lapis Lazuli” (setting aside the stuff about WWII):

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Argumentative pacifism

August 17, 2015

[A follow-up to a previous post about St. Athanasius, extrapolating further the ideas suggested there regarding equivocation.]

So Athanasius did not speak misleadingly: the soldiers were only misled because they “operate[d] under a false premise”? If this were sufficient, then it could justify every equivocation. Equivocations would never be misleading if people didn’t assume things about why they were spoken.

Things cannot be so simple. Without assumptions of some sort, communication is almost impossible. Linguists have, in fact, codified the most important everyday assumptions as the “cooperative principle,” consisting of four “Gricean maxims”: the maxim of quality (be truthful); the maxim of quantity (be as informative as required, and no more); the maxim of relation (be relevant), and the maxim of manner (be perspicuous). Equivocations insist on the first of these, but violate the other three.

If equivocation differs in some important way from lying, it must be because the first of these maxims is absolutely inviolable, while the others are not. But if equivocations are to be justified only in extraordinary circumstances, we cannot dismiss the rest of the cooperative principle entirely. We must explain in what circumstances the maxims of quantity, relation, and manner can be overruled.


Some case studies:

(1) I ask who the president is, and you say “Well, Bob’s term ends next year.” I assume that you mean to say that Bob is still president. If you actually know that Bob resigned yesterday, I will feel deceived; you spoke the truth, but still refused to cooperate. It does not excuse your refusal to call it a “riddle.” The riddle teaches us only this: “Don’t assume everyone wants to cooperate.” That is, it asks us to replace trust with suspicion. This is a good way to make enemies of your neighbors.

(2) I ask you to help me run for president, and you say “I always wanted to manage a presidential campaign.” I assume that you meant to accept the job. As with (1), I will feel deceived if it turns out you did not. But this deception will mean something different: while I desired cooperation in my campaign, I knew that you might not think I ought to be president. I did not take for granted practical assistance, but only linguistic cooperation: either a yes, or a no. Your response here refuses even that; it poses a riddle with the meaning, “Don’t assume someone will cooperate (with your conversation) who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise).” It asks us to replace our assumption that even enemies can talk to one another, with a belief that they cannot. This is a good way to alienate your adversaries.

(3) I ask you whether my political advertisement is effective, and you say “Flags in the background usually make advertisements better.” I assume that you meant I should revise my advertisement to have flags in the background. I will feel deceived if it turns out that you actually thought that in this particular case, flags would hurt the advertisement, and were trying to sabotage me. As with (2), I asked for help without assuming you necessarily wanted to provide it. But like (1), I did not ask for anything more than your linguistic cooperation, which in this context just is assistance with my enterprise. Your response here refuses both; it suggests the maxim, “Don’t assume someone who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise) will cooperate (with your conversation) if to do the latter is also to do the former.” This maxim is reasonable. One should not assist in what one thinks is evil. But to word it as a riddle not only refuses, it conceals that refusal. This is a good way to make sure your opponents never know that you oppose them.

(4) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you whether you support my campaign for reelection, and you say “I am sure your lordship will triumph.” I assume that this counts as expressing support. I will feel deceived if it turns out that, while you do suspect I will win (the polls are fixed), you are doing everything in your power to defeat me. This case resembles (2), except for the introduction of an implied threat of force: if you announce your opposition, it might result in your imprisonment. (Refusing to answer, rather than answer “no,” would likely make no difference.) This threat changes everything. I am not now actually asking for help (I do not even desire it); I am trying to compel assent to my reelection, as if by magic. The riddle the equivocation poses thus has an entirely different solution: “Don’t assume violence can control minds just because it can make events turn out as you desire.” If I recognize the riddle and see it solution, perhaps I will hear the voice of conscience. If not, I will have been misled by your elision of the inevitability of my victory into your belief in its justice—but only because I already believed they were the same thing, or could be made to be.

(5) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you if you have seen Athanasius, who is fleeing from me, and you say “He is close to you.” I assume that this means he is further down the road. I will feel deceived if it turns out that Athanasius is your friend, and is hiding downstairs. This case resembles (3), in which I pursued an enterprise to which you objected: as there, you ought not to cooperate, for that would be to assist in evil. But given the threat of force, it is also like (4). I am trying to compel assistance in my pursuit. I have tried to make it so that you must either assist me, or lie, and so set yourself against me. The riddle of this equivocation thus means: “Don’t assume violence can force one’s enemies to hate you.”


Both (4) and (5) seem to be licit equivocations, while (1), (2), and (3) do not. Why? It hinges on the clause “a ruthless dictator”: the threat of force justifies the evasive response. Importantly, this threat is not part of my question; it’s a fact about my person, of which you were aware before my question was ever asked. Even if I’ve told you explicitly that I intend to punish any answer I don’t like, that statement must be distinguished from the question it precedes. The problem is not with my speech act, but with my reasons for making it.

Similarly, while your response can (and perhaps ought) to stultify an evil intention, it must constitute a reasonable response to my speech act. We might hypothesize that this is the criterion for licit equivocations: if I undergo a sudden conversion, such that my intentions are now good, your response ought not to deceive me.

If deception resembles violence, we might describe this criterion as a kind of argumentative pacificism; rather than responding to violence with violence, one must respond in a way that opens the door to peace. But this does not mean one must do nothing to evade an attack. Physical and argumentative violence differ, however, in that it is rather more difficult to evade conversational violence without inflicting violence in return.

Bodily forms from natural things

August 10, 2015

[A round-up of links old and new, and a sequel of sorts to this previous post.]

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick

“Want to understand what it means to be a woman? Look at robots.” So Alyssa Rosenberg instructs us. To be sure, there’s some sort of connection; she amasses sufficient evidence, in the form of movies and music videos, to demonstrate this. (Surprisingly, Rosenberg doesn’t mention the origins of the Turing Test, which, as I discuss here, emerged from a parlor game in which a man tries to imitate a woman.)

The problem with Rosenberg’s commentary is implicit in the title. How is looking at robots supposed to help us understand women? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Which of those two things do any of us know anything about? Of course, she doesn’t actually want us to look at robots; she wants us to look at how certain people imagine robots. “Robots,” for her, is not a technological concept, but a mythological one. More specifically, a science fiction one: its status as fiction is obscured by its claim to a scientific pedigree.

………………………………… unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

To be a robot, in this mythic world, means that to be your own person you must escape belonging to someone else. Nature, or perhaps culture—no sharp distinction is drawn between them. Paradoxically, in this mythos, you escape one’s createdness by creating yourself: for example, by getting a tattoo.

But as Christine Rosen discusses in The Hedgehog Review, this is rather self-defeating:

Today we treat our bodies like material possessions over which we have exclusive ownership and, we incorrectly assume, total control. But questions about the human body will only become more important in the near future, when we will have access to a range of new technological and genetic enhancements that will force us to confront what it even means to be human. The conversations we should be having aren’t about deviance and power and the fetishization of difference; they are about the integrity of the human body. After all, our physical bodies are the means by which we understand ourselves and the world, and the greatest proof of our shared history as human beings. They are what we have in common with each other, no matter how much we attempt to change. That understanding, like the tattooists’ skill with needle and ink, is something we must cultivate if we don’t want it to fade.

True, a tattoo transforms your body from an emblem of commonality with other human beings, into an expression of personal preference: but if your culture is built around the glorification of such expression, what exactly have you escaped?

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

The problem, perhaps, is the equation of culture and nature described above; perhaps the two are, in fact opposed. Matthew Crawford, in an excerpt published in The New Atlantis from his new(ish) book The World Beyond Your Head, suggests that modern culture is built around a rejection of nature, and an elevation of “virtual reality as moral ideal,” such that culture seeks to reshape human nature to function better within it. Crawford takes as emblem of this ideal a contemporary cartoon show (contrasted with the old Mickey Mouse cartoons, in which the characters experience the world as something that resists their desires):

When the choosing will is sealed off from the fuzzy, hard-to-master contingencies of the empirical world, it becomes more “free” in a sense: free for the kind of neurotic dissociation from reality that opens the door wide for others to leap in on our behalf, and present options that are available to us without the world-disclosing effort of skillful engagement. For the Mousekedoer, choosing (from a menu of ready-made solutions) replaces doing, and it follows that such a person should be more pliable to the “choice architectures” presented to us in mass culture.

The absence of the real from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse — indeed the dissociative or abstract quality of children’s television in general these days — makes it an ideal vehicle for psychological adjustment; for constructing and managing the kind of selves that society requires, without meddling interference from the nature of things. The particular adjustments to be carried out will have to be determined by a Disney script supervisor, or some other functionary of the modern self.

Against this, Crawford wants to argue (my words, not his): the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. We should not think that these pathways can be smoothed out for us, giving us what we want while avoiding any confrontation with “the nature of things.” Such smoothing represents, not freedom from nature, but enslavement by culture.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall

It’s true, of course: the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. But Crawford’s response accepts the science fiction mythos it claims to reject. It merely inverts the view that those pathways ought to be smoothed out, by claiming that their ruggedness ought instead to be celebrated, as an opportunity for self-creation. Culture is what other people do, when they smooth out the world for me; nature is when I make myself rugged through a direct confrontation with a rugged nature.

When he accepts this mythos, equating nature with what resists us, he denies nature what he means to restore to it: integrity. This denial is conceptual, but also practical. As any student of American history knows, rugged individualism is not exactly the natural world’s friend. Consider, not an obvious example like buffalo-hunts, but something more pervasive: air conditioning, and the general belief that it is somehow unnatural, because it takes a shortcut through the labyrinth of causality. It’s true that it’s pathway is fairly complex (though once you do understand it, it’s quite fascinating). Yet, as Megan McArdle describes, air conditioning is better for the environment than heating. So why does everyone believe the opposite?:

Heating also seems normal because it is normal, if not exactly natural. Once we harnessed fire, humans started moving into temperate areas that were previously uninhabitable by hairless bipeds evolved for the equatorial plains of Africa. By now, warming ourselves in the winter seems like “something that everyone has to do”; we don’t see it as “a great deal of energy expended to live in an area that’s not really all that suitable for human habitation.”

In other words, air conditioning feels “smooth,” rather than “rugged.” It does not feel like an interaction with nature, but like an escape from it. Whereas heating involves manipulation of a basic chemical process, one so basic that it’s not obvious there even is anything to understand, and for whose contours we can quickly get an intuitive feel. Pre-modern cultures often considered fire one of the basic elements. It is the epitome of “rugged” nature.

But fire, quite literally, destroys the labyrinthine pathways of nature, reducing complex organic matter to heat pure and simple. A/C does the same thing—everything does, as the second law of thermodynamics tells us—but it’s less wasteful. It does less to destroy the labyrinthine pathways, less to propel the universe towards its final oblivion. While the rugged/smooth dichotomy concerns nature-as-alien-force, the hot/cool dichotomy concerns nature-as-common-home. These dichotomies are not antiparallel, but orthogonal. A/C is smooth and cool, fire is rugged and hot; cars are smooth and hot, bicycles are rugged and cool.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

This observation doesn’t compel us Chicagoans to stop heating our homes, or to all move to Texas (which isn’t a realistic possibility anyway). But it forces us to ask: is our goal to keep things rugged, or to keep them cool? Is it to test our mettle against nature, or to live peacefully within nature?

The same question applies also to less hypothetical controversies. Many conservatives object to trangender surgery because it’s not “natural.” Most supporters of transgender rights find this objection difficult even to comprehend, and so don’t really try. An interesting exception can be found in this article in Public Discourse, “Rethinking the Conservative Approach to Transgenderism.” Basically (the author argues), transgender persons aren’t psychologically disordered; their minds were ordered the way they are from their beginning. So nothing would count as restoring their mind to proper alignment with their body. In the terms developed above, psychological treatment is of course more rugged than sex-change surgery (talking is a fairly basic technology), but it’s no less hot; any psychological treatment that successfully altered a mind’s gender would consume, not heal, what had been there before, just as much as would any surgical sex-change.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

Of course, while transgender surgery is “smooth” in the sense that it’s not “rugged,” no one would ever imagine that it was shiny and chrome. We might introduce here a third dichotomy: normal and grotesque: what feels like part of the world, and what feels like a distortion of the natural way of things. As with rugged/smooth and hot/cool, these terms don’t translate simply into good/bad; they’re about sensibilities, not ethics. For example, organ transplants feel grotesque, and probably always will. And when people invoke the mythos of the Robot Future, that future feels to them normal. Perhap’s it’s terrifying, but it’s not disgusting; it’s the way of things. Technology, like history, flows ever onward.

Perhaps this is the real problem with the robot mythos. It knows robots are smooth, not rough; but it has no views on whether they’re hot or cool; and it mistakenly believes that robots are normal, not grotesque. In fact, far from being Cartesian, robots are Lovecraftean. When a computer looks at the world, the result looks to us like Yog-Sothoth.


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