Monday, January 16, 2012

Against Progress: an Introduction

Against Progress: an introduction

(I intend to write multiple posts regarding this topic, and will, after editing, post them all again together on a separate page. In the meantime, I greatly welcome comments and arguments concerning what I've written here.)

Unseen and often unexamined exist frames of thinking, postulates and “truths” by which we filter our understanding of the world and each other. I suspect we exist in perpetual shorthand, developing habits and assumptions which serve us (usually) so well that we rarely have reason to question them, let alone even acknowledge them.

When we sit in a chair, we do not usually ask ourselves whether or not that chair is sufficient to bear our weight. We do not invoke gods or spirits or the scientific method before lowering ourselves backward upon a surface—we just do it, and for the most part, our unseen presumptions are rewarded. Anyone who's ever had a chair break when they've sat upon it, or worse, had some asshole think he's being funny by removing it just before we've landed would probably agree that the experience is horribly jarring. The trust in our own assumptions, the ease brought to the mind by not needing to question each and every physical motion, the freedom to think about other things might be crucial to our everyday sanity, and the strange shock when something so basic no longer appears to be true is far from amusing.

This shorthand has been variously explained by multiple systems, but I'm not interested (and I don't find it relevant) as to -why- we do this, only that we do. The inclination, desire, tendency or even need to explain the mechanisms behind such behaviour is both equally interesting and irritating—to the same degree that some find spirits or divine forces influencing all human behaviour, other find evolutionary or societal drives, and they get quite heated over topics that seem more fitting to lesiurely conversations or quiet contemplation, not angry, often political, debates.

Similarly, I'm not interested in the semiological or semantic urgency and precision which would require me to use universally-recognised terminology; instead, I'll define for you what I intend to mean by some of the more contentious words I'll be using in this argument (if, indeed, I mean to argue, which I think I do.)

Suffice it first to say, though, that I intend to speak against the narrative of progress, and I hope you won't decide what I mean by that before I've had the chance to tell you. I'm aware that, by now, I've already used a few words that seem already to borrow from whole systems of thought which some are (probably correctly) inclined to reject altogether.


An entire chapter could be written to explain what I mean by “narrative,” which in multiple ways does indeed overlap with some specific fields, but in a few ways attempts to break out of their limited uses and reduce, when possible, the “bludgeoning effect” of post-modern contortions of language. Not really wanting to write such a chapter, I'll do what I can here.

By narrative, I mean, at its most basic, the process by which we show relationships or make connections between things, particularly events. As such, I mean it to be a close synonym of logic, but a distant relative of “myth” and “story.”

You're standing on the sidewalk. Two cars, passing each other, collide, and you witnessed it and are then asked to describe (that is, narrate) what occurred. The details you actually saw and can remember will highly influence your account. So, too, will many other things about the way you think, whether you are blind to certain colors, whether you knew and felt sympathy for one of the drivers, whether you drive yourself or dislike cars. The account you give of that event is your narrative of that event.

Most people are aware of how different two people's account of the same event can be, even if they were both standing as close to same point and were both equally attentive to the event. The variations seem to increase when the event is not common, but those variations do seem to continue even in realms where everyone is supposed to be paying attention. Consider the discussions you may have with a friend who watched the same film with you, sitting next to you in a theatre; consider the odd moments when you realise that someone very dear to you, whom you considered thought very much like you, heard the same conversation or story but experienced a very different meaning from what you did.

These variations, I assert, are the operation of different personal narrative styles, different ways of observing and drawing conclusions derived from what the narrator sees as relevant or important. An example here might suffice to make this more clear: About 8 years ago, I worked in an office in a skyscraper, processing legal documents (photocopying, digitally archiving). I was trained on days, and then moved to evenings, and was told that, when I arrived for my first swing shift, I should talk to “Mike.”

I didn't know Mike, or what he looked like, and so asked the friendliest appearing person in the office which person was Mike. She pointed to a crowd of people of about 12 people and said, “he's the one with the blue shirt.”

There were 12 people standing together. 5 of them were female, 7 were male, and of the men standing there, only one was wearing a blue dress shirt. But it took me a few seconds to sort through the colors of the shirts, longer than I'd like to admit, because there was another distinguishing characteristic which set Mike apart from the others: he was black.

It took me weeks of self-contemplation to understand why I'd been so confused by which detail she'd chosen to distinguish this person from the others. I got to know her better, and was able to learn that she'd had no special sensitivity training or political-correctness indoctrination—she was bi-racial, had lived surrounded by people of varying skin colors, and had, because of her background, not learned to see skin color as a useful way of distinguishing one person from a group.

Beyond suggesting that there are multiple ways that a white man (even one very consciously anti-racist) might be perpetuating racism, this disconnect between what detail she used to identify a subject and what I thought the most obvious/natural detail to bring to the forefront is important for understanding this concept of narrative.

That is, the details one chooses (consciously or habitually) to mention in an account are not “natural” or “self-evident.” There is the “real” of a thing, what “really happened” or “really exists,” and then there are the things we overlay upon an event in order both to describe and understand it. I take an agnostic position upon whether or not anyone can get at the “real” thing—that area is either the realm of religion or philosophy, not of anything that is settled.

So, again, by Narrative I mean the entire process of putting together events, showing relationships between them (including what-caused-what), and choosing which details are important and relevant, and which ones are not. And this process extends not just to individuals and individual events, but to entire groups of people.

Most of us are educated in similar ways, a product both of universal schooling and near ubiquitous media (or mediation). Also, our parents, who usually first define our world had rather similar educational experiences, as well, so many of us from similar geographical locations, of similar ages and similar financial circumstances very likely think some of the same things about the world. We may all generally believe that the place we were born and live in is called America, that it is a good thing called a democracy, and that is a place where anyone can be what they want to be. These ideas, together, are also a narrative, a story we tell ourselves or are told about who we are and what we are. This narrative is also largely inherited—nobody I have known received an education when they were young which also stated “you were born on land which is still claimed to belong to people your ancestors mostly slaughtered,” but most people I know were taught with educations which asserted “America is the greatest, most free, richest country in the world.” I don't know anyone who came upon this narrative on their own, but I know quite a few (in fact, my favorite sort of people) who at some point recognised that it wasn't their own idea nor the product of their own rational processes. Most of them rejected it, one or two decided, mostly independent of their earlier indoctrination, that there was something to that narrative.

Narratives, functioning on more than an individual level, can be seen to act as a filter on experiential data flowing to each person, and can define how new events are ordered and understood. Just as my bi-racial friend didn't divide people into black and white, although she most likely experienced the same skin tones as I did, so too might an entire section of society interpret a bombing by an individual to be an attack “on democracy,” or on any other principle, while others might instead see it as an act of resistance to an oppression, or a consequence of previous bombings, etc..

But I need to clarify. I do not believe Narratives themselves are bad or good—they seem to just exist, in the same way that ideas or thoughts just exist; intangible, unable to be scientifically dissected or proven, but still, as “things,” they just are. Certain narratives seem to take hold and dominate huge sections of societies and perpetuate themselves, but I do not believe this dominance makes them “good” or “superior,” anymore than an honest biologist (brunette or not) would assert that the brown-dominant color of most human's hair is superior to any other color, only that it is dominant. There are explanations for dominant traits in organic life, and they are mostly extrapolations from adaptation theories, but just as external environmental changes can make a dominant trait suddenly become a disadvantage for a species, so, too, can external environmental changes cause a narrative to no longer be useful for us.

There is worse, and there is better. There is earlier, and there is later. But for very specific historical reasons, and because of a very specific narrative, many of us equate these two statements together.

This is the problem, and the point of these essays. Time is a form of narration of events—one thing happens, another thing happens after it. Evolution is another narration of events—something was once this, then it changed and became this. Progress combines these two separate narratives together, with a statement of belief—what was before was not as good as what is now, and what will come will be better still.

I am defining Progress thus—it is the belief that change over time (evolution, not limited to biology) generally results in a quantitatively superior resulting form of what existed previously. Put more simply, the present is better than the past (and can be shown to be), and the future will be better than the present (because the present is so much better than the past).

I intend specifically to avoid discussing too thoroughly the narrative of progress as it relates to evolution, because others far more knowledgeable than myself have done a better job of it (specifically, Steven Jay Gould). I'm also aware that John Gray, a fantastic writer who is rather damn pessimistic, has written extensively regarding what he considers the “utopian” idea of progress, an evaluation with which I agree but a metric I find less useful for my purposes here.

Instead, I'll be examining the Narrative of Progress particularly insofar as it relates to several key concepts which have become analogues of the broken or missing chair, areas in which our reliance on the short-hand or habitual may actually cause us pain.

A friend of mine developed excruciatingly painful Sciatica. She went to multiple doctors, each who gave her tests and made suggestions about its cause (sciatica is not a causal medical problem itself, its the painful result of another underlying dis-alignment, just as a headache is a symptom, not a disease). Each of the disagnoses and prescribed changes in behavior (stretching, more exercise, wearing flats instead of boots) resulted in no change in her situation, and she endured quite a bit of pain until, at her wit's end, she relented to the suggestion that she check in with a naturopath. Possessing no high-level degree or equipment (and maybe dubious training), the naturopath listened to her complaints and previous treatment, and then asked what sort of chair she had at her computer desk at home. She owned an ergonomic desk chair, one of those expensive sort developed by engineers familiar with the science of human anatomy, built to reduce back trouble and the negative effects of sitting too much.

He told her to get rid of it, to get a normal chair, and she did, and her sciatica went away.

New does not equal better, though sometimes it might equal more useful or more efficient. Old does not equal primitive or backwards, although sometimes is may less desirable. Sometimes, an old chair, the sort that people'd been sitting in for centuries, might just be more durable and less harsh on one's back than the product of “progress.”

I must make this clear, though: while the notion that something new is therefore better and something old is therefore worse is integral to the narrative of Progress, I do not mean to take measures of time out of the realm of measures by which we evaluate ideas or things. There is also something to be said for the span of time during which a thing has been used or an idea has survived. Though I'm aware of the converse of the progress narrative—that believing something from the past is useful and maybe even desirable is the delusion of nostalgia—I will be asserting that, like the sort of chair that people have been sitting in for centuries might have survived so long for a reason, old narratives that have refused to die must still be kicking around for a reason.

Monday, January 9, 2012


One of the first times I realised that current scientific thinking about the mind conflicts with the way I understand the world was from reading Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct.  It was assigned to me in a linguistics class at the christian college I attended (there's a very long story behind that, and probably an even longer story behind the professor who would assign a book written by a cognitive scientist/evolutionary psychologist to a bunch of christians). and--I didn't like it.

At the time, I was still professing to believe in one particular god and his son who was also him, etc.., but interestingly, i'm still certain that it wasn't my adherence to those codified religious beliefs which caused me to find Pinker useless.  Pinker borrows heavily from Chomsky's idea that language is hard-wired into the brain (I hate using mechanical metaphor for organic organisms, but let's let that slip, yeah?)--that is, we're born with the mental faculty to learn and use language(s), and "switches" are turned on or off according to the general type of that language's grammar.

This isn't hard to agree with, actually.  But what I find more difficult, and probably wrong, is his assertion that thoughts are independent from words.  Consider Orwell's assertions that a totalitarian society could better control its people by reducing their access to words, and that "doublespeak" exists as a tool not just of obfuscating information, but confusing and limiting thought.  Also, the converse of this notion: along with new words (and languages) comes the possibility of new thoughts, or modes of thinking. *

It's either a primitive superstition or an ancient wisdom to believe that words have power, and even more so, names.  In multiple cultures, "naming" is an act of power; it conveys upon the named the traits of the name itself.  And consider all the esoteric ponderings of the meanings of the tetragrammaton (the four hebrew letters denoting the name-of-god), including the still-survived bann against saying the name aloud in orthodox jewish practice.

This seems to derive from an opposite (and also hard to accept) belief that power itself is contained within the sounds of a word.  I don't dislike the aesthetics of such an idea, particularly when it also comes to music and why the sound of something in D Dorian sounds so haunting on a reeded instrument and why D Minor sounds much safer (and better for pensivity than anything in F major)(fuck F major).  Formalized ancient music writing contains countless references to the magic of one mode over another, the uses and purpose and emotions that can be evoked with mixolodian vs lydian.

As I say, I like the aesthetics of it, but I'm equally uncomfortable with the notion that names possess inherent meanings as I am with Pinker's argument.  But equally, I'm frustrated by the general compromise between these two ideas, represented by the weakest section of the multiculturalist framework--words have some meaning to some people, but not to others, and therefore one should be as technical and unemotive as possible with their choice of words.

I'm writing about this because I offended someone the other day.  I said the words "freak" and "tranny" in the same sentence when describing some of my favorite co-workers, and a new co-worker, who'd I'd been training, first got very quiet and then angry, and then asked,  "Why are you describing transgendered people as freaks?"

It isn't uncommon to run into this problem in Seattle.  The actual experience of life as a lefty-fag-freak is vastly different from the academic discourse of gender studies and sensitivity.  I go to drag shows where my friend dresses up as a "retarded" child and gets abused by a cheap-liquor-swilling overweight trailer-dwelling ugly-as-hell drag-quaen.  I've lived with males who've become females but refused to shave their face.  I had a friend move here from the east-coast at the same time that I did, become a male and refuse to admit that I'd ever known him when he was a she.  A good friend of mine hugged me on the street and told me she'd finally transitioned to he, and the only difference I'd noticed was that he was a hell of a lot happier now.

Each one of them has happily enjoined the use of the word "freak" along with "tranny."  Those who've I met who oppose either of those words (I hate when someone tries to tell me I'm not a freak) have had the same certainty of what the world is really about as I've seen in both fundamentalists and materialists (left or right).  And they've all been so gods-damned normal.

Multiculturalism seems too often a stand-in for monoculturalism.  It borrows heavily from the medicalisation of human traits started by the scientific totalitarian regimes--sexual and social "deviance" can be traced somewhere to the body.  Folk who'd see themselves as a different gender than the one into which they physically appear experience "gender disphoria," that is, a medical/psychological disorder that can be remedied by therapy or surgery.  In the same way, homosexuals are now "born that way" and possess something within their genetic makeup which inclines them to have sex with someone besides the normal, expected sexual object.

There are political reasons why this has become widely considered factual.  White men of certain economic means argue very heavily that gays deserve the same rights as straight (marriage, etc.) because they don't choose to be gay, they just are gay, and besides, DSM doesn't define them as mentally ill anymore.  They use the human-rights discourse and have wagered that genetic determinism is on their side.

The attempt to create a master-narrative in which deviancy--that is, freakishness--is acceptable seems both stupid and dangerous to me.  It's stupid, because I don't see a need for it.  None of my (self-identified) tranny friends want to be "normal," and I'm a freak specifically because I reject (okay, actually, hate) monoculture.

And it's dangerous, because I do not think the need or desire to become something else should be a matter of medical, scientific, or political discourse.  It's obnoxious to evoke the Nazis, and I'm sorry for doing this, but consider the certainty that the intellectuals within Germany at that time had concerning the racially/sexually/socially different.  Consider the "work-shy," people who had medical/psychological disorders which kept them not only from working as much as others, but prevented them from wanting to (Arbeit Macht Frei--work makes you free--was not just a cynical slogan in a death-camp).

I'm quite certain that the words one uses to describe the life of another (work-shy, gender disphoric, multi-racial) define and confine the existence of that person into a tight space within the mind.  Naming still possesses power, at least within the sphere of the social and political.

That's why I've no problem calling myself a freak.  It's a word that doesn't mean what it is supposed to, or a name that now cannot be defined in any limited sort of way.  It was derogatory, and on the tongues of some is still intended to be, but we've stolen it back in the same way that many gays have stolen back "faggot" and blacks have stolen back "nigger."  It's an act of defiance, a subversion, a transubstantiation of meaning.  Freak is a word full of mirth and joy, in the same way my "gender disphoric" friends prefer "tranny."

*In many other languages, you do not ask someone what their "name" is, you ask them how are they "called."  There is an uncertainty inherent within this notion, a politeness and caution.  There's a world of difference between "what" and "how"--what assumes a concrete thing, a term, while how implies means: "by what means shall I call you?" 


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Story and Death

Death is a stupidly hard thing.

I've so far avoided, even now in my almost 35th year, the death of anyone very close to me.  I've known lots of death, but none within that safe circle of people you cling to most, who are most of the only world that generally matters.  The deaths I've known (before this job) were of friends estranged either by time or drugs, or of family whose existence haunted me miserably more in life than they ever could in death.

I won't claim to understand death, or even to really known it even close to the degree that many other people have.  I've no intention of writing some pensive or profound contemplation on the experience of death--enough has been written on that. 

But this is just to say that the first person who ever heard me play a song on the recorder died today. 

About a year and half ago, just back from Berlin, I purchased an alto recorder.  I worked graveyard at the same place I work now, and would spend some of the ridiculously long hours of those nights practicing, fumblingly.  The first time I finally had a song almost down, she was in the lobby, listening, and then she danced.

Like all people I work with, she'd had a horrible life compounded by the addictions she'd used to lessen her suffering.  The addictions then caused more suffering, and then finally death.

When I was younger, I was certain there was a very particular life after death.  I'm always embarrassed, however, by how pale everything seemed in my imaginings, how gilded but not golden, how too much unlike this life I envisioned it to be. 

Others have written on the beliefs in life-after-death; that's not my intention.  My intention also isn't to make any sense of death, because it really seems pretty senseless.  Every religion eventually faces this question and comes up with some answer that somewhat satisfies the adherent.  My own religious ideas could be probably be defined as  "atheist with wild suspicions" or "marxist pagan"...that is, it's a jumble of mixed metaphor and competing arguments which happen to work damn well for me but probably wouldn't work for many others, at least those unfamiliar with G.K. Chesterton's mirthful paradoxes.

In fact, I don't see the point of finding the truth of the matter, or any truth that doesn't fit LeGuin's brilliant confession of the fiction writer--"I'm lying to you--it's the only way to tell you the truth."   I rather like the creed of the liberation (Catholic) theologists and engaged buddhism, or of Starhawk's unabashed anarcho-paganism; that is, religion (possibly re-)infected by leftism.  Their creeds, essentially--promises of spiritual enlightenment or heavenly matter little when you watch needless suffering on earth.  Priests who wield guns against wealthy land owners to help their flock grow their own food, monks who immolate themselves in the streets to oppose the slaughter of their fellows, the shaman who helps his people defend themselves against government soldiers. 

A good friend of mind, german, an atheist-leftist corrected me one time when I quoted marx's statement concerning religion being the "opiate of the masses."  He reminded me that, at the time Marx wrote, the opiates did not yet have the modern connotation of "stupifying/pacifying," only of "pain relieving."  That is, religion didn't make the masses complacent, it lessened their pain.  The cause of that pain, of course, was the matter Marx attempted to get at, and used materialism (a mostly anti-religious framework) to try to correct it. 

I distrust both religion and political ideology when they deny each other.  Communism and Capitalism both (I'll argue elsewhere how the economic is actually also political) do little for the soul, The Monotheisms and Buddhism do little for the poor (and all assume wretched suffering from poveryty to be the "natural" state of things). 

The woman who died, for whom I first played a song, was native.  I'm constantly fascinated by several things regarding native spiritual culture.  It's mostly invisible, it's mostly story, and it isn't overly concerned by any of questions that codified religions obsess over.  I've been studying european paganism extensively (both the re-constructionism from the 17th century as well as the history we mostly know from what the Catholic church recorded, adopted, and resignedly propagated), and I'm fascinated by how much like native beliefs in America. 

Most particularly, both paganism and native religion makes shockingly few claims of universality.  The natives I ask will tell me the story of how her people were created, but not how all people were created.  When coyote plays tricks, he plays them not on other peoples, but on the people who know him. 

Paganism is a catch-all for thousands of belief systems (pagan originally meant "villager," and I think it most helpful to think of paganism as "folk-belief") and showed so little concern for what other people believed.  Like the Hebrews, pagan peoples typically just added the gods of other people groups, must in the same way that many of the natives I've met embrace aspects of christianity and Bahai'ism without sense of contradiction. 

Also, they like flute music.  There's a tradition of carving your own flute from a block of wood, at least among the natives I work with.  Sometime's they'll chide me for not having done so yet (I don't think I ever will), but they listen to my music all the same.

This is the song I played for her, an old icelandic story turned into a song.  There's a recorder part in this creation of it, which provided much of my initial inspiration.  I showed her this video, too, and she told me how beautiful she thought it was, how beautiful the woman who died and was lost was, and how glad she was that she found her way.  Maybe she found her way, too.

It's just a story, of course, but really--what else is there?