Wednesday, June 10, 2009

August 08, 2006: Embracing Chaos

I would like to continue my reflections on Isaiah Berlin's Crooked Timber of Humanity, briefly alluded to yesterday. This time I would like to explore his idea that the conception of knowledge that came out of the Romantic Sturm und Drang movement in Germany is grounded in chaos, rather than order. Here is a relevant passage from Berlin (not as terse and therefore rather more typical than the one cited yesterday):
For Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, for Wackenroder and Tieck and Chamisso, above all for E. T. A. Hoffmann, the tidy regularities of daily life are but a curtain to conceal the terrifying spectacle of true reality, which has no structure, but is a wild whirlpool, a perpetual tourbillon of the creative spirit which no system can capture: life and motion cannot be represented by immobile, lifeless concepts, nor the infinite and unbounded by the finite and the fixed. A finished work of art, a systematic treatise, are attempts to freeze the flowing stream of life; only fragments, intimations, broken glimpses can begin to convey the perpetual movement of reality. The prophet of Strum und Drang, Hamann, had said that the practical man was a somnambulist, secure and successful because he was blind; if he could see, he would go mad, for nature is ‘a wild dance’, and the irregulars of life – outlaws, beggars, vagabonds, the visionary, the sick, the abnormal – are closer to it than French philosophers, officials, scientists, sensible men, pillars of the enlightened bureaucracy: ‘The tree of knowledge has robbed us of the tree of life.’ The early German Romantic plays and novels are inspired by an attempt to expose the concept of a stable, intelligible structure of reality which calm observers describe, classify, dissect, predict, as a sham and a delusion, a mere curtain of appearances designed to protect those not sensitive or brave enough to face the truth from the terrifying chaos beneath the false order of bourgeois existence.
In twentieth-century America this spirit may best have been captured by Henry Miller (yes!), who, in Tropic of Capricorn, wrote, "Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood."

I have to insert a digression here. My first teaching job was at the Technion in Haifa. I began in the fall of 1971, and the first course I had to teach was in data structures. At the time the only source was Fundamental Algorithms, the first volume of Knuth's uncompleted project, Art of Computer Programming. This book was both too expensive and too locked into Knuth's own invented machine language to serve particularly well as a textbook, so I prepared my own notes to distribute to the students. However, I was inspired by Knuth's indulgence in literary quotations (as were many of my contemporaries); so I could not resist showing off my reading background. Therefore, I began my notes with the above quotation from Tropic of Capricorn, a book that did a lot to help me maintain my personal sense of identity and sanity during my first experience as an expatriate!

I think it is important to appreciate the significance of the Miller-Berlin perspective because we are seeing the anarchic nature of the Internet coming into confrontation with our "inescapable universal" (to borrow a phrase from Max Weber) fixation on bureaucratic organizational forms in the worlds of both work and government. After all, the Internet is probably the only successful anarchy the world has seen since the Ancient Greeks took it upon themselves to invent the concepts of government and politics; but we are so terrified by the prospect of "an order which is not understood" that we desperately try to impose it on the Internet, whether through the Semantic Web, "neutrality" regulation, or God-knows-what-else.

This is not to say that anarchy is not scary. Berlin is right: It takes bravery "to face the truth from the terrifying chaos beneath the false order of bourgeois existence." If it is any help, we can bear in mind the principle that the order is not so much false as it is subjective. One of the things that Jeff Hawkins did not seem to get in all of his waxing on intelligence is that our brains have a natural inclination to impose order on their stimuli. Gerald Edelman called this perceptual categorization and made it the foundation of his own attempts to model the nature of intelligence (which he has tried to substantiate with studies of "wet brain" behavior). What we fear, then, is not that we cannot grasp order in the midst of the confusion but that the order that I grasp may not (probably will not) be the same order that you grasp. Now back in the Sturm und Drang days, Fichte tried to teach us that we should not fear this, that it is through this I-you opposition that each of us develops our own self-awareness (and, while Edelman does not explicitly invoke Fichte, his model of consciousness is definitely sympathetic to Fichte's philosophy). Thus, we can understand the confusion; and, if we are bold enough to let our understanding confront the understandings of others, then we can only benefit from the growth of our own self-awareness. Given all the different ways in which both government and media seem hell-bent on cultivating a culture of fear, the last thing we need to do is waste our cycles on fear of anarchy.

One final point: The way in which Berlin characterizes the Strum und Drang conception of reality is very much verb-based, rather than noun-based. On the other hand the whole "culture of organization," which has invaded our educational system as much as the worlds of business and government, is, by its very nature, noun-based. We have to get beyond the myth we have cultivated that reasoning can only take place when we "freeze the flowing stream of life." Berlin demonstrated how to get beyond the myth in his "Political Judgement" essay. Perhaps it is time to unravel (with "burning patience," as Neruda put it) all of his elaborate sentence constructions and see what those sentences are actually structuring!

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