BOOK REVIEWS (2014) – Ervin László’s (1991) The Age of Bifurcation [Part 3]

12 February 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Since complex systems act indeterminately, and we cannot know in advance which among the possibly numerous internal fluctuations it will follow when it shirts, then systems of catalysis and feedbacks to dampen either the intensity or the tempo of any amplification that results from those shifts proposes instead how we might orient ourselves socially in light of chaos theory, rather than continuing on with the historically vapid pretense that we can predict either what will happen or what needs doing. We like our politicians to promise, “We know what is going on and are in control,” but perhaps we might opt for the less disingenuous, “We are prepared as best we know how to deal with whatever chaos arises.”

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this already, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Ervin László’s (1991)[2] The Age of Bifurcation [Part 3]

This is a third reply to László’s book; you may find the first one here. I felt more inspired to respond further previously, mostly because his futurological proposals occur on the other side of 9/11.

A Vision of the Future

In his “Vision for 2020,” for example, he calls for an end to the recent invention of the nation-state and for limitations on the power of politicians; these become necessary toward creating a global holarchy—as opposed to an unsustainable global hierarchy—and because the national state “is an historical product, and it must pass into history when the age that produced it has passed” (60). And these two objectives, particularly to protect the rights of individuals, to “avert the evolution of the structures of society at the expense of the individual” (59)—what László identifies as freedom and autonomy—in the coming new era.

The development of individuals cannot and need not be planned: it need only be permitted. The first requirement of a humanistic evolutionary strategy is that it create space for personal growth and creativity. This means a strategy of restraints in areas where the evolution of hierarchic structures and institutions poses a threat to the freedom and autonomy of the individual. One of these areas is political by nature but is in fat more than political in everyday reality. It is the myth of the modern nation-state, with all its entailments including its controls, its structures, and its claims of sovereignty (60).

We may contrast, then, the advancing paranoia that accompanied the post-9/11 reaction along with the growth of the Internet, as the two major “symbols” of hierarchical globalization on the one hand and the sort of holarchic organization potential László enthusiastically propounds; hence also then the assaults on the freedom of the Internet, the various secret and invisible processes of monitoring that corporations allow (in laptops, CPU chips, phones, &c). László blithely weighs in on the cosmopolitanism versus patriotism  question—which had a dust-up in Nussbaum & Cohen’s (1994/2002)[3] debate (replied to here, here, and here)—coming down on the side of cosmopolitanism, and ignoring how the Internet and cosmopolitanism in general contribute to political neutralization: or, to put it in a less dire-sounding way, that the potential for organized protest and bringing voices to bear on the actual faces of Power that the Internet permits, have yet to show whether they truly affect change or provide merely window-dressing for protest, an ersatz substitute that therefore undermines any real political resistance. László also writes at a time pre-NAFTA, and other things like that.

As another key factor necessary to protect the individual against hierarchical institutions, László calls for the limiting of the power of politicians. Direct democracy characterizes the essence of his proposal and his comments about the excess of Power concentrated in the hands of the US executive seem understated in the wake of Cheney’s shadow government, &c., and the several (and still continuing) arrogations of power to the US Executive using 9/11 as an excuse.

He further calls for concords on defense and environmental issues.

That national security calls for a powerful national defense force is a fiction; it derives from the illusion of the sovereignty of nation-states. If a country does not claim unconditional sovereignty over its territory it would have every reason to entrust the defense of its borders to join peacekeeping forces (66).

As he notes, in the attempt to form a paneuropean defense force, England and France in particular have resisted giving up their national armies: both countries represent major (ex-)colonists. And one hardly has to mention that fully half of the world’s total defense budget—well over 750 billion dollars per year—gets spent by the United States along. As the Johnny-Come-Latelies of imperialism, the United  States and Soviet Russia vied until the international game of arm-wrestling prevailed in the US’s favor. This leaves us to carry on with essentially unchecked aspirations and conceits for Empire, in conjunction with our little slave Israel, desperately trying to fully join the “white” club.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps moving further and further from the notion of war at all. We might take the instructive example of Japan, “liberated” (as an unintended consequence) from any necessity of defense, and thus able to devote its money to better things—or, at least, rampant capitalization. Nonetheless, even in 1991 László could remark, “More and more people are coming to the realization that running up major defense bills to maintain a vast military apparatus is futile” (66). This describes a world trend, but one that reaches US ears in a muted way, because we remain locked in a heavy, heavy bondage scene with militarism an little sign of climax any time soon. The closest thing to a hopeful sign here involved (1) that the involuntary military cuts to Defense due to the sequester were, in fact, not frightening enough to prevent the sequester from happening, and (2) when the military itself says, “We don’t want those tanks” and congress refuses not to not buy them anyway, the (schizophrenic) split this represents seems like a potentially positive step as well. Certainly the post-9/11 paranoia has provided further pretexts for militarism but also likely induced a bifurcation (in László’s sense) that took us down a less desirable evolutionary pathway, as the deliberate and willful act of financial terrorism of 2008 suggests also.

In addition, László calls for concords on environmental issues, many international varieties of which have begun to come about and which the US has generally refused to sign on to. No surprise, although just as a community does not let a sick and rabid dog continue to run around and harm people, the malignant narcissism of US behavior on the world stage (1) must finally meet its end, or (2) will blithely carry on in nave ignorance while everyone else carefully avoids the nut-case. The latter seems current, with South America (for example) emerging out of decades of Northern abuse. László notes, with regard to the environment:

Roman law specified jus utendi et abutendi—that the right to use is at the same time the right to abuse. But if the communities of the next century would not claim unconditional sovereignty over their territories, they would not regard any part of the environment as their exclusive property. They would view all the environment as a precious resource handed to humanity on trust. The human right to use would not include the right to abuse (69).

In point of fact, we may well already see in some way signs of the senescence of the nation-state, in the greater and greater independence of corporations. As far as László argument goes, particular against his critique of the nation-state, the problem of no check on the use and abuse of property becomes more worrisome in the corporate sector, because of profit maximization as the sole bottom-line criteria. Other criticisms aside, nation-states still possess the dominant monopoly on military force and this stuns as the only final check against unchecked corporate oligarchies.

Of course, corporations don’t want the messy task of ruling, much less policing. They much prefer to demand nation-states leave them alone to rape, pillage, and plunder unhindered. The rise of private security n private prisons occurs, it seems, more to the inability or unwillingness of nation-states to continue to foot that bill—an unnecessary bill in the first place, of course, but they still don’t want to honor it. We can question whether the sort of nation-state we now have can resist the blandishments of capital, but László does not call for anarchy in any case; whatever holarchy means to him, it involves some form of governmental apparatus. Just absolutely not anything like a nation-state.

The issue of environmental concords—even when unfortunately negotiated on rather disingenuous terms by current nation-states—points to a fruitful leverage point where people (and nation-states) get forced to face one another. Besides that pollution knows no borders, except where colonializing coziness buys the complicity of local forces, most nation-states don’t appreciate corporate raiders coming in an divesting them of the resources and wealth they claim as their own. But, inasmuch as such riding might get dealt with, anachronistically or not, through analogues to hundreds of years of international law, environmental degradation offers a completely new problem. What claim, for instance, does san Francisco have against Fukushima, &c. The very mobility of environmental degradation, the destruction of “my” way of living due to “your” behavior, the drowning of 60 to 80 percent of the world’s population under rising sea levels so that “you” can have an iPhone, &c—these things prompt powers to have to confront one another face to face in  more collective way. And so, indeed, environmental concords seem to represent a very significant political moment.

A Vision of the Future Human

László summarizes homo modernus in the following way:

He lives in a jungle [“the law of the jungle”], benefits mankind by his pursuit of material gain [“a rising tide lifts all boats”], trusts invisible forces to right wrongs [trickledown economics and “the invisible hand”], worships efficiency, is ready to make, sell and consume practically anything (especially if it is new) [“the self-regulating economy, the cult of efficiency, the technological imperative, the newer the better”], loves children but is indifferent to the fate of the next generation [“the future is none of our business”], dismisses things that do not have immediate payoffs or are not calculable in money [“economic ‘rationality’”], and is ready to go and fight for his country, because his country, too, must fight for survival in the international jungle (77, material in square brackets interpolated from pp. 76–7).

Belief in the law of the jungle encourages tooth-and-claw competitiveness which fails to make use of the benefits of cooperation—especially crucial in a period of reduced growth opportunities and frequent squeezes. Holding to the dogmas of the rising tide, the trickle-down effect and the invisible hand promotes selfish behavior in the comforting—but sadly no longer warranted—belief that this is bound to benefit others. Faith in a perfectly self-regulating free-market system ignores the fat that in a laissez-faire situation those who hold the power and control the strings distort the operation of the market in their own favor, and push the less powerful and clever partners into bankruptcy. Efficiency, without regard to what is produced, by whom it is produced, an whom it will benefit leads to mounting unemployment, a catering to the demands of the rich without regard to the needs of the poor, and a polarization of society in the “modern” (“efficient”) an the “traditional” (“inefficient”) sectors (78).

We may contrast the view of homo modernus with the emerging homo novus:

Instead of an atomistic, fragmented physical world where objects are independent and free-standing and people are individuated and discrete, we see rather a holistic, interconnected world where objects and people are interwoven into a community. Instead of seeing physical processes as materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic, we understand them as organic, interactive, and holistic. Rather than discrete and separate organic function, where the parts are exchangeable, we find interwoven and interdependent parts that are not interchangeable or exchangeable. Rather than a social ethos that is technology oriented, interventionist, and goods-based, we have one that is communication oriented and service based. Where social progress gets conceived in consumption dependent terms involving resource conversion, we see instead an adaptation orientation with a balanced view of resources. Where our economics were competition- and profit-driven and exploitative, we now have cooperative and information driven economics. Where humankind fantasized anthropocentrically about mastery over nature, in the next age we gaiacentrically see ourselves integrated into nature. Where culture has been eurocentric and colonial, it becomes pluralistic, and where politics were hierarchical and power-based, they become holarchic and harmony-based.[4] And generally, “while it would be a tragic mistake to interpret the challenge of the age of bifurcation as a call to use science, art, religion, and education to achieve a preconceived end, the response to the challenge can be more modest; it can rely on spontaneous culture evolution. It can demand that scientists, artists, religious leaders, and educators cultivate their social consciousness” (81).

Noting that “the idea of scientific neutrality and disinterestedness must be relegated to history” (82), in the same section László asks, “Is there a way to satisfy people’s needs for privacy and personal space despite high levels of communication and large numbers of people sharing the same physically limited planet” (83). One might take the cramped cells of (1999)[5] The Matrix, prefigured in Lem’s (1974)[6] The Futurological Congress as one way the future might satisfy people’s needs for privacy and personal space. However, I would sooner object to the characterization that we have a need for privacy or personal space at all.

Of Needs and Alternative Necessities

A need denotes that without which we will case to live—and by “live” I do not men only biologically, or even biologically at all. When you give me bread to eat, my “life” in that moment consists in the fellowship of the giving, not the maintenance of the biological substrate of that life. People nobly commit suicide; prisoners (and others) go on hunger strikes; parents refuse themselves food for the sake of their children—in these ways we see that “man does not live by bread at all”.

As a part of the maintenance of the biological substrate of my life, of course, I do need nutritive inputs, rest, and hydration—just to refer to some basics; László refers later to “the availability and retention of water, the ongoing procurement of free energies, and the maintenance of constant temperatures [as] essential to the running of complex biochemical reactions” (96). And so by necessities, then, I mean those things that meet such needs: for the previous examples, the necessities may consist of food, sleep, and water.

So I do not need food, sleep, or water—those constitute the necessities that meet the needs (of energy inputs, rest, and proper fluid levels). Invent a pill that has all the energy nutrients I need, and I no longer must acquire the necessity of food; elaborate some way to artificially induce somatic restfulness—whatever the body does when we sleep—and I will no longer require the necessity of sleep, &c.

I use biological examples to make the point even more vividly. But in the social sphere, we say, “I need a job.” No: a job represents the necessity that meets something more like a need: a need to support one’s family for instance. In point of fact, sticking with the framing of this example, one “needs” an income, and one may imagine many necessities that meet that need other than a job: marry someone rich, steal money, play the stock market (with other people’s money), go into business for yourself (i.e., be an entrepreneur, rather than an employee), win the lottery, &c. Various objections of practicality do not apply here—for the lucky bustard who wins the lottery, the “need” of an income gets perfectly well-met by the necessity of lottery winnings, &c.

When we recognize this distinction between needs and (a plurality of) necessities, we then further see how people come to mistake their necessities for needs. We say, “I need a job,” and then having obtained a job, which represents simply one necessity amongst many for meeting the “need” of supporting my family, I then become possessive, protective, and even selfish and violent in terms of maintaining the presence of that necessity in my life. Besides the anti-social aspects of this, this also impacts our sense of satisfaction in life, because I start to feel trapped: because I mistake my necessity (the means to an end) for a need (that which I cannot do without), I lose sight of the fat that I might find alternative necessities to meet my need.

So then, to speak of our need for privacy and personal space obviously mistakes “privacy” and “personal space” as needs, when in fact they represent necessities that meet a need. I care less to identify which need this might point to and more to emphasize the obvious presence of property in this claim of  need. This so-called need for privacy and personal space substitutes the necessity of these things in the system of capitalism for whatever actual human needs these thing meet. Calling privacy and personal space a need essentially cements in place a major premise of the very system that László desires to replace.

A defining feature of traditional culture involves how everyone gets into everyone’s business; in patriarchal configurations of culture, males berate females for this under the name gossip, but gossip provides the original form of the evening news. Men have their own forms of gossip in any case, as no shortage of touchiness about “face” and “reputation” show. In essence, the notion of  private sphere becomes virtually alien, but capitalism especially—in the monetization of social relationships—proposes to sever any sense of social obligation (except those specifically associated with money debt). This ‘solution” by capitalism to the problem of perpetual public life thus offers the necessities of privacy and personal space to meet whatever need(s) traditional cultures had met through their own (traditional) means.

I must speak essentially anachronistically. These days, we sharply distinguish the public and private domain: hence the Roman law, the right of use accords the right of abuse as well. I’d venture that this distinction begins to appear in earnest with non-tribal political structures, but leave that side. When we try to look at traditional cultures, the distinction of the private and public sphere becomes muddled. Occidental commentators frequently cannot help themselves an start talking about participation mystique or the superstition of primitives and the like. Even if we try to shuck such stuff off, it might seem untenable to insist that privacy and personal space denote necessities, because we can’t even imagine what actual need gets met by a different necessity in a traditional culture.

I suspect that dreaming represents one such necessity. Although one’s body remains in the public sphere—everyone can still see it—one’s affective consciousness stops becoming accessible. This does not men  culture cannot assert some collective dream-world, because after all, once we wake an begin to relate our (private) experiences that occurred in  (personal) space, these become public holdings. Thus, the privacy and personal space involve the experiences of sleep, even as we publicly report them to others, and share (collectively) in whatever cultural myth-space our culture supports.

Thus, while privacy and personal space as ensconced in property law provides for whatever need these passages refer to, we may imagine in traditional cultures that the experiences of sleep—more precisely, dreaming—represent the necessity that meets that self-same need.

Were I to assign this to a human need, I would say it involves outstandingness. By this, I mean that one (momentarily, or for a while) literally becomes outstanding in a group. The beginning of eldership resides here, and a less obscure way of describing this would point to recognition on the part of one’s culture. In other words, humans need recognition (from others) to live existentially. And the experiences of dreams provide a pretext for expressing that which these days we ensconce in an experience of privacy and personal space.

Notwithstanding going so far as to actually embody this notion in law, it seems a curious and mistaken fundamentalism—a literalism as benighted as religiously fundamentalist readings of so-called scripture—to manifest this experience of private space in the form of rooms and buildings others generally must acquire permission to enter. One may wonder what neuroticism drove people not to remain satisfied with the actual experience of sleeping that they had to create (legal) barriers to outwardly manifest the protection of this private space. Apparently, folks would literally “get in folks’s heads” so that further and further isolation, further and further diminution of inputs from other people, seemed necessary in order to assure no violations of the private space of sleep.

Of course, males also socially articulated their secret societies and huts, and we may bless what historical record we’ve managed to argue that it shows us sometimes the almost desperate extent of men to keep at bay Woman—as for example when Chambri male lodges get referred to in terms of the creator-Goddess. I suspect that “women” getting into men’s heads may actually provide an important link in the literal, outward manifestation of prohibited zones, places where “you” may not enter.

In other words, if we imagine a world where everything exists publicly, then where does that part that I call “me” exist. If my culture places the most emphasis on who I represent with respect to the (many) social interrelatednesses that define me, then where does that specifically individual part of me reside? How do I manifest a recognition of “my” individually specifically and not just my social self as constituted by my whole culture. Here I locate the human need for recognition, for outstandingness, and see dreams (the experiences of sleep) as a major source of such individuality. This individuality further articulates as reputation or face, &c, and so attaché to traditions of male secret societies, &c.

However this all goes, for László to invoke as a need the necessities of privacy and personal space simply recapitulate, unintentionally, one of the major tenets of the sociocapitalist technocracy he desires to replace. But it means also a problem for his exposition. Specifically, one my readily discern manifold threads of a kind of neo-tribalism (on a large scale) implied in his various future social structures. He does not propose going backward, of course, but if we strip away the sociocapitalist doxa—the one that holds, for instance, privacy and personal space as a need—then that very stripping raises alarms in people of “enforced collective life” or ‘the hazards of non-property ownership” and other panicked statements.

Because a need genuinely warrants the term need—because it genuinely denotes that which we cannot do without—to threaten to remove a necessity meets with (sometimes violent, certainly psychologically violent) opposition. If the human need for recognition has attached itself to privy and personal space, then to threaten those domains with a public rushing in obviously represents a major threat. Part of the psychological value of direct democracy—though it rarely sounds sexy—involves precisely the recognition it promises: you will participate, you will get seen! However, this often seems to resonate simply with a bunch of meddling and nagging: “did you go to the meeting tonight” &c.[7]

But this points some to my nagging intuition that outstandingness in some sense represents a better term than recognition. The latter more lends itself to ready understanding, but the human need to “stand out” does not so clearly come across. One does not simply want recognition at a meeting; one wants to make a difference, even if that difference only amounts to having had one’s ideas given consideration. Hence I say, “Freedom of speech without freedom of listening doesn’t amount to much.” One doesn’t want only to serve society, but also wants that service wanted. If, as capitalism does, the public sphere more and more rejects or has no support for recognition, then the private and personal space (particularly of the family) becomes the place where that need (yes, here, “need” for recognition) gets met. Thus, László may understate things when he says, “the development of individuals cannot and need not be planned: it need only be permitted” (60). Merely to set loose a panoply of “self-expression” (as the Internet shows) does not necessarily foster the sort of development of individuals he calls for; it requires also social structures that recognize one’s attempts at developing outstandingness. Social media provides this in a very dim way, though its structures still fall along the hierarchical lines of “popularity” more than holarchy. The accessibility to a sort of (artificial) public sphere provides an intrastructure that might support what Lázló calls for, but we still need to further refine the form (or use it against itself) to incorporate feedback loops that make “mere” recognition into “actual’ outstandingness, that adds freedom of listening to freedom of speech, one might say.

A Vision of the Future Big Picture

As a note, typos may sometimes read adorably. “Intelligence in  species is not unique to [humans] —other animals have developed form of it … Wales and dolphins have intelligence” (95), for example.

Meanwhile, evidence for human-made fires some 500,000 remains uncontroversial;[8] “there were humanly laid fires at such diverse sites as Zhoukoudian near Beijing, Aragon in the south of France, and Vértesszöllös in Hungary. A number of hominid bands seem to have arrived at the insight almost simultaneously, without learning from, or probably even knowing of, each other” (98). This echoes Prigogine’s (1991)[9] remark: “I have always been struck by what we might call a kind of synchronicity in history: great innovations such as pottery or plant cultivation seem to have appeared more or less at the same time all over the world” (x–xi).[10]

Not to make overly much of this, but the heading matters here, László’s “almost simultaneously” and Prigogine’s “more or less”. On a pragmatic argument, these hedges simply acknowledge that our record of such  distant past remains egregiously imprecise. But for that very reason, then, the claim of simultaneity more or less an only have heuristic value; it cannot (and could never) represent  statement of fact. And, of course, I don’t position myself as any enemy of heuristic approaches, but this sort of argument—that humanity all over the globe more or less simultaneously invented fire[11]—provides a kind of quasi-rational background for retain arguments about technological competition: if we don’t develop the Bomb, someone (meaning the bad guys) will. In the process of developing, and detonating, the bomb, we actually become then the bad guys, which Tolstoy’s (1894)[12] The Kingdom of God Is Within You anticipates in his arguments for nonviolence.

On a heuristic analysis, we may dismiss any citation of more or less simultaneity (in the evolution of intelligence) as justifiable grounds for enveloping a technology—particular weapons of mass destruction—because that evolving intelligence guarantees that the Chinese, the Russians, or the terrorists will absolutely an certainly develop it as well, if not first. Again, as an explanatory hypothesis, it may do more and better intellectual work to explain this apparent mastery of fire in many places in terms of more or less simultaneous developments, because the alternative explanation requires a seemingly irrational degree of diffusion or contact between people in the south of France and at Zhoudoukian, &c. But the relative inadequacy, the seemingly not compelling  assertion of diffusion in this sort of situation, does not rationalize an argument that “if we don’t do it, it will happen somewhere else”. The paranoia of this Said (1978)[13] rightly links with orientalism in his book.

Moreover, this assertion in an important way runs contrary to the main thrust of Lázló’s book. We recall that nonlinear time (and chaos theory), “unless we are comforted by the notion of a preordained destiny” (51), appeals to those who do not have a craving for predestination, but if humanity spontaneously, simultaneously, and in multiple environmentally very different location all generated the same innovation, then this betokens almost diametrically an opposite circumstance than chaos theory emphasizes. Here, we see that sensitivity to initial conditions—whatever prevailed in the environmentally diverse circumstances of humans scattered over the planet—made no difference at all; we all invented fire. One would have to very fancifully construe the entire planet as a single system—I say fancifully, because while we may readily suggest such a concept, to provide it any grounding in fat remains beyond our ability even to model models of as of yet—in which system, the invention of fire rose in multiple locations because the system as a whole supported it. In this respect, László’s remark “an intelligent species is not necessarily an evolutionary success, reproducing and enhancing its environment” (100) seems pertinent. I take him to mean, precisely, that an evolutionary success reproduces an enhances its environment.

This also, however, detaches a large part of László’s exposition from its bases, although not necessarily so seriously as just above. I mean, if we have taken the path of an intelligent species, then we no longer must follow or do follow the “laws” of evolution; we have become detached from that, even if our biology continues to mutate, &c. It means that all talk of evolution in the book, as a basis for any present or future public policy, becomes moot, and I think László would not object to that; when he declares that the path of genetically engineering ourselves holds too many unforeseeable dangers, this seems like forestalling any urge to intervene in our biological evolution as a species. Avoiding such reductionism, he prefers to focus instead on our social “evolution”. I agree. Hence, “rather than devolving into extinction, sapiens could evolve with distinction” (102). *rimshot*.

Even so, László finds it difficult to avoid reductionist temptations.

The next generation of humans could make a major evolutionary leap. Here is an intriguing fact: in terms of human population, we are approaching a magic number: 1010—ten billion. This is how many humans will live on this planet by the time the curve of the world population growth finally levels off. The number 1010 is closely associated with major evolutionary leaps. As Peter Russell pointed out, it takes some 10 billion atoms to make a basic living cell, and about 10 billion cells to make an autonomous multicellular organism. It also takes 10 billion neurons to relate consciousness in the neocortex of the human brain. If life emerges from the physical and chemical processes when this threshold is reached, and if consciousness emerges in living beings, significant novelty could also emerge when this many conscious beings congregate within living societies.

Of course numbers alone provide merely a quantitative parameter and not the full set of conditions to be satisfied if an evolutionary breakthrough is actually to occur. An amalgamous mass of 10 billion atoms could no more create a living cell than a mass of 10 billion cells could create an organism—or a conscious brain. There must be precise connections among the components, cycles within cycles, feedbacks within feedbacks, and coherent integration on the level of the whole. Only [then] can cellular life emerge in a system of atoms and molecules, and autonomous life and consciousness come about in a system of living cells (102).

The seductiveness of this warrant remembering whiteheads, “Seek simplicity and mistrust it” if László’s resort to the word “magic”—“we are approaching a magic number” didn’t lead fly the red warning flag. Since this merely magical argument provides no basis, it doesn’t do to follow László when he next immediately asks, “What are the chances that the kinds of cycles and feedbacks that in nature make for a leap to a new evolutionary level would also occur within the human population of this planet?” (102), which he answers, “The chances seem rather good” (102). Religion lives alive and well in pseudoscience.

But let’s try to take this more seriously than László seems to. He simply wants to argue for chaos theory with regard for the basis of his argument. One has to proceed circumspectly with this Russell character, whose (1982)[14] book that Lázló refers to has the title The Awakening Earth: the Global Brain. The most serious objection concerns whatever “about 10 billion cells to make an autonomous multicellular organism” refers to. Not only do umpty-thousand multicellular organisms consist of less (or more) than 10 billion cells, if my brain has 10 billion neurons, then the total count of cells in my body already goes orders of magnitude beyond the 10 bill for multicellular organism level.

It seems as if Russell has, rather, started from the notion of 1010 neurons in the human brain, and then rather loosely extrapolated that number backward through the cellular and atomic levels. But even if we could make this all make sense somehow, we have no grounds to pretend that 1010 minds (or brains) represents the next evolutionary threshold. Not because such a ‘fact” seems wildly unknowable or because “mind” and “brain” do not at all denote commensurable things, but rather because the atomic and cellular 1010 already represents an extraordinary degree of redundancy. By analogy, this suggest that 1010 minds on the planet would also already represent an extreme redundancy as well; in other words, we stand already far beyond whatever level we should need if something “magic” were going to happen. And so the point that a mere heap of toms or cells never suffices but only an organization of them puts the emphasis in the right spot, and nothing even in the vaguest way like such precise interconnection does or will prevail for the 1010 minds on our human planet—if we could even keep up the conceit of a merely mechanical or informational organization in the human social sphere that resembles the atomic and cellular spheres.

The magical thinking continues: “information always structures, and not merely agglomerates, in the system into which it flows” (103). He makes this unlikely claim (in the human domain of information) based on research from the domain of the physical world; specifically, that “a flow of energy passing through a nonequilibrium system in the third state organizes its structures and components and enables it to access, use, and store increasing quantities of free energy” (110). The empirical veracity of this does nothing to inform the claim in the human domain. Nonetheless, he immediately follows the above with, “If this process [of organizing energy flow] were to continue, the kind of developmental rhythm that is typical of the growth of the embryo in the womb would be re-played on the level of the entire human populations” (103). Thus László’s argument runs off the rail—notice also that he drops the subjunctive construction here—offering goop of mixed domains that would likely make Oyama (2000)[15] twitch and want to write another refutation of the conceits of information in our day and age. Much as I like associative thinking and (sometimes) so-called fuzzy logic, this sort of blunt analogizing, which crucially relies on abusing the notion of information (as Oyama patiently demonstrates at length), strikes me as ultimately irresponsible and misguided. Its only saving grace comes from its desire to wallow more positively in the sort of terrain that the scientific racists and the social eugenicists of IQ on display extensively in Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994)[16] The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life use in pursuit of promoting social injustice and anti-human vileness. Its positive spin, however, doesn’t make it more desirable.

László notes:

The growth of brain cells [in the human embryo]  accelerates from about the eighth week of gestation; by the tenth week it becomes explosive. A million cells are added to the fetal brain each and every minute. Then, at the thirteenth week, extensive growth stops and development turns inward. Instead of growing in numbers, the embryo’s brain grows in connection. In a matter of months, the complex structure of the spaiens [sic] brain, the product of some 50 million years of evolution, is precisely reconstructed.

The possibility that a similar process could take place on the level of human populations cannot be lightly dismissed (103).

Sure it can. The foamy effervescence of explosive cellular growth has no viable analog in the human domain. Over the course of three weeks—which comprises 21 days of 24 hours each of 60 minutes per hour—the number of cells rises to 30,240 million cells (note that this stands fully three times more than Russell’s 1010 neurons; something has gone wonky with someone’s math). To try to correlate that to the “explosion” of human population depends entirely upon what scale we imagine fancifully. Either it has taken well-nigh infinitely longer to arrive at 1010 humans (literally millions of years) or, in geological terms, it has taken an unimaginably tiny fraction of  second. Only by the most artificial manipulation does the period of “three weeks” get aligned up with some duration in human evolution.

But even beyond this quantitative flay, László’s attempt to analogize the articulated interconnections of neuron in the brain with things like “the number of computer networks is doubling every few years; and radio, television, telex and fax penetrate every corner of the planet. The world population is becoming both extensively and intensively interconnect” (103) imply can’t bear scrutiny. He doesn’t even acknowledge what various social justice activists might point out in this argument: that it assumes access to technology. Even in our highly digitized culture, vast portions of the population have limited access to the Internet, &c. And to the extent that László would acknowledge this (if he did), it would likely only consist of advocating programs to extend access to all corners of the globe—exactly already the rapacious technocratic intention of global capitalism.

László returns to something like this possibility when he says, “having become conscious of evolution, we must now make evolution itself conscious” (104). Certain varieties of ecofeminism such as Murphy (1991)[17] describes would suggest that we may again reinscribe teleology back into the operations of nature, which seems partly to resonate with László’s claim here, even if he still more or less maintains an emphasis on (rational) human intervention. One might also point to the “message” locatable in interpretations of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, where the sequence of ten cards from the Magician to the Wheel of Fortune denote an unconscious but developing approach to consciousness and understanding, while the second sequence from card 11 (Strength) through card 20 (Judgment) represents the same “journey” but made consciously.


László closes his book with a final section on the basic concepts of evolutionary system theory, which has largely seemed lacking. I expected more nut and bolts regarding chaos theory and bifurcation rather than the very largely diffuse or detailed but unfortunately empty analogizing with evolutionary processes. But before covering his last section, I’d offer  sort of conclusion I draw from the above.

One might exploratorily deconstruct László’s discourse as constantly espousing rationality while dwelling in an irrationalist domain (chaos theory). His disingenuous swapping of mathematical models (rationalist) for physical (irrationalist models) betokens this; and if it seems unfair to describe physical modeling as “irrational”, I rely on Jung’s (1921)[18] observation, where he usefully described thinking and feeling as rational human functions, and intuiting and sensing as irrational ones. I find considerable merit in his distinction.

But besides this scientistic conceit, his approach to the (limits of) knowledge seems the most problematic. With linear positivists, they blithely assume everything becomes knowable, at least quantitatively, and they proceed from that blunt assumption to steamroll everything into an unrecognizable goo. With the nonlinear point of view, the critique of that conceit doesn’t necessarily prompt an avoidance of the same, as many places in László’s exposition shows. In effect, he maintains that we may somehow plumb chaos and come up with an intentional outcome. He seems to write as if one my confront the chaos of information and divine a truth within it.

In other words, he would prove a very naïve reader of Faulkner’s work—or specifically, just to pick one example, Faulkner’s (1932)[19] The Sound and the Fury. What seems one of the most significant feature of Faulkner’s writing, especially in this book, concerns what I would call its saturation of meaning. Again and again, Faulkner opposes sentences that describe how a thing “is not”, stringing these phrases together and usually (at the end) providing a description of what it “is”.[20]

All of these negations leave their traces in the reader’s reading. He does not merely, like a masterful realist like Tolstoy, paint a picture of the world but rather also all of the other worlds that might have existed or even, in some ghostly sense, do exist, as hauntings of what never happened. It would seem kitschy to say Faulkner writes quantum fiction, but one may still make links with the reader’s experience in terms of probabilities. He relentlessly makes narratives of his books; they comprise tales put explicitly in the mouths of human consciousnesses, and therefore explicitly represent only one of manifold possible tellings. He makes this explicitly so in The Sound and The Fury by telling more or less the same story from four points of view. In this welter of very literal literary bifurcations, what the text “means” disappears seemingly unreachably over the horizon. Only a fool—including even the fool of Faulkner himself—at that point might dare, with László’s confidence, to pronounce on what the text does mean. At a minimum, we would have to resort to probabilistic decryptions, but the almost explicitly literal chaos of the text, which opens by plunging us directly into the min of a developmentally disabled adult who makes almost no distinctions about past and present invites us from the very opening of the book not to get too cocky about what happens when we confront chaos. One can, rather dishearteningly, imagining László trying to insist he finds some embodiment of something like phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny in Faulkner’s book[21] as it proceeds from the points of view of an idiot man-child, a suicidally depressed college student, a brutally pragmatic householder, and finally a compassionate and stereoptypicalized maternal figure more than farfetched, especially as the embryogenesis here ends with “the mother” (Dilsey).

What Faulkner’s fiction embodies in terms of information—its rampant overdetermination, its saturation of invoked and negated images, its relentlessly embodied and multiple points of view—makes for much more than the sort of narrative play of literary uncertainty. The kind of uncertainty one experiences in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—besides sheer confusion over the meaning of individual sentences often enough—does not arise from knowing too little, but rather from knowing too much. one fins no sparseness of words on Faulkner’s page; he represents an anti-thesis of Hemingway in this respect, but also of Joyce—at least up to his (1939) Finnegans Wake—because Joyce (like many modernist males) typically assembles puzzles the literarily competent may decode. In this respect, even Finnegans Wake continues this tendency, although in function the work offers something more like the irresolvable degree of overdetermination that Faulkner provides as a matter of course. We can split hairs over what Faulkner means, and he remained gentlemanly enough to lie on different occasions about what he meant—only adding one more (quantum) layer of interpretive uncertainty to each work and his entire oeuvre.

A thoughtful reader of Joyce assures me that his writing invites the reader to recognize her own modes of reading. One certainly may read this way; I recall also how Joyce, responding to someone who mildly praised Ulysses and averred that he’d only spent about two weeks reading it, declared, “I spent twelve years writing it; you should spend twelve years reading it.

Artists crate works for reasons and will likely at least hope to have that work recognized in light of the intended effect. This makes reading Joyce simply to discover one’s reading seem contrary at least to Joyce’s aim. Notwithstanding that he hoped to awake the consciousness of the Irish—if one can put it that way—then only to become aware of ones’ reading as a reader might miss that mark.

Whatever. The dominating take-away I get from this involves a very serious effort on Joyce’s part to construct literary artifacts that one may decode (that he means for one to decode), whether by simple attentive reading or with the assistance of Joseph Campbell, Noam Chomsky, and a Finnish language expert in the room with you. Faulkner too very deliberately, sometimes too earnestly some would say, aspires to create an aesthetic object as well, but it never seems one that becomes decodable in the sense that Joyce’s text (and other stereotypically modernist texts) intend. Whereas something essential seems lost if you don’t follow the allegory of the Odyssey in Joyce’s text, much less gets lost if you don’t know where Faulkner got the title for The Sound and the Fury or the background references in Absalom, Absalom—and this fact tends to operate continuously in his texts.

But whether one does or does not “get” these allusions, with Faulkner’s work, they occur in  miasma of embodied narratives in the first place. In Absalom, Absalom, at some point the narrative gets something like eight storytellers deep—some ridiculous degree of Quentin said Mr. Compson said someone said, &c. In such a context, it becomes untenable to believe that “Faulkner said” offers a window on historical fact. And in his last book, he gets this up to such a reflexive literary habit, that he begins his (1962)[22] The Reivers with “Grandfather said:” an all of the rest of the book follows from that compulsively necessary Faulknerian frame.

Take this distinction, between modernist works that rely on a positivist epistemology in presenting a  decodable narrative reality and others that embody something more like a phenomenological epistemology to present a quantum reality we may only offer commentaries on, and you will find my central objection to László’s covert or unintentional positivism despite presenting ideas in a field better served by a phenomenological an quantum description. In any case, he does know better:

At the critical junctures, when they are critically destabilized and in chaos, complex systems act indeterminately: one among their possibly numerous internal fluctuations is amplified, and the amplified fluctuation spreads with great rapidity within the system. The amplified or “nucleated” fluctuation dominates the system’s new dynamic regime and determines its new steady state” (113–4, italics added).

Moreover, this outcome “is not a function of initial conditions, nor of changes in the control parameters” (116). Whatever strategy we might as humans develop in the face of this, we must—to use László’s phrase—relegate to history the conceit of making deliberate interventions, particularly if we would involve complexity or chaos theory.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] László, E. (1991). The age of bifurcation: understanding the changing world. (World Futures General Evolution Studies Vol. 3). Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, pp. i–xvii, 1–126.

[3] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism) Boston: Beacon Press

[4] His summarizes László’s chart on page 79.

[5] Warner Bros., Reeves, K., Fishburne, L., Village Roadshow Pictures., & Silver Pictures. (1999). The Matrix. Burbank, Calif.: Warner Home Video.

[6] Lem, S. (1974). The Futurological Congress (from the memoirs of Ijon Tichy). New York: Seabury Press.

[7] The counterobjection here runs (1) those who don’t want to go don’t have to; () much meetings would not represent dread necessities but actually exciting opportunities to directly benefit the course of one’s life and community. One would actively want to go.

[8] As opposed to 1.5 million years ago.

[9] Prigogine, I. (1991). Foreword. In E. László (1991). The age of bifurcation: understanding the changing world. (World Futures General Evolution Studies Vol. 3), pp. ix–xi. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach

[10] He continues, “But this synchronicity was broken in the nineteenth century with the advent of cultural destabilization, of inequality, of an epoch when humanity divided into savages and civilized people. In the present day, we try to go beyond this dichotomy to attain a more universal vision of human dignity” (xi). It seems unclear who represents the savage and the civilized in this claim.

[11] We might remember that the etymological root of “invent” means “to discover”:

late 15c., “find, discover,” a back-formation from invention or else from Latin inventus, past participle of invenire “to come upon; devise, discover” (see invention). Meaning “make up, think up” is from 1530s, as is that of “produce by original thought.” Related: Invented; inventing.

[12] Tolstoy, L. (2006). The kingdom of God is within you: Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life (trans. CB Garnett). [Rockville, MD]: Wildside Press. (complete text here)

[13] Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[14] Russell, P. (1982). The awakening earth: the global brain. London: Routledge.

[15] Oyama, S. (2000). The ontogeny of information: developmental systems and evolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

[16] Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. A. (1994). The bell curve: intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

[17] Murphy, PD (1991). Prolegomenon to an ecofeminist dialogics. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 39–56. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[18] Jung, C. G. (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[19] Faulkner, W. (2012). The sound and the fury. Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library.

[20] Arguably, Faulkner rises this to its most orgiastic display in his (1936)* Absalom, Absalom.

* Faulkner, W. (1993). Absalom, Absalom!: the corrected text. 1993 Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library.

[21] You mean Joyce’s Ulysses, Ervin!

[22] Faulkner, W. (1992). The reivers: a reminiscence. 1st Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage Books.


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