Saturday, October 09, 2010

On Despair, Vulnerability and Wisdom

To understand the forces at work in our world is to despair at times. We are all vulnerable and wisdom is more contingent than we would like.

We in America don't like to talk about despair, vulnerability or wisdom, as all these topics make us extremely uncomfortable.

To feel despair is "un-American" because we are expected to maintain a "can-do" positive attitude at all times. Despair is closely tied with death as a subject we have been socialized to avoid.

Our first reaction to despair is to medicalize it and reach for a medication-based "fix"--make the emotion go away so the "can-do" positive state of mind that we must project can be restored to its rightful dominance.

This reflects the American culture's politics of experience which distills all of human experience and emotion down to one of four states--four states reflected every hour and every day in our deranged television programming:

1. It is a medical issue which can be resolved with meds or surgery.

2. It is a criminal/legal issue which can be resolved by arresting the perps and/or suing them in court to "get justice."

3. It is a confrontation which can only be resolved with violence and an unclouded victory over "Evil" which leaves the "bad guys" all dead or in custody (see 2 above).

4. There is a technological fix which enables 1-3 to be done better and easier.

That is why broadcast television is dominated by three shows: "cops and docs" and comedies that seek to dispel/distract our despair with humor. The fourth avenue of our experience, technological "solutions" to all problem-states, is ever-present in all media.

This is what James Howard Kunstler calls techno-grandiosity--a limitless, unexamined faith that there is a technological fix to every problem-state which leaves the existing status quo political structure unchanged and life better/easier/more fun for everyone with enough money to purchase the new technology.

On the global stage, our Empire makes the same reduction. All problem-states are reduced to four situations which can be addressed by one of the four open avenues in ourpolitics of experience:

1. Kill the "bad guys" in whatever numbers are necessary to achieve clear victory.

2. Send medical aid to "cure" the afflictions/diseases.

3. Sort out the problem-state legalistically, with treaties and negotiations, penalties, etc. which mimic standard-issue courtroom TV dramas.

4. Deploy sufficient technology to achieve 1-3.

For example, the "terrorism" problem-state is "fixed" in four ways:

1. Kill all the bad guys everywhere on the planet, wherever they may be; if this requires wiring the entire global communication system for sound, so be it (see #4 below).

2. "Bring the bad guys to justice" by arresting them and trying them in a court of law.

3. Medicalize the problem-state: terrorism is a "disease" which must be eradicated by "innoculation" and other quasi-medical means.

4. Apply "can-do" technological improvements which accomplish "mission goals" as defined by 1-3 above. Bypass irksome national borders with Predator drones, satellites and electronic spyware. Overcome any difficulties with additional applications of technology: social media, networked command structures, crowd-sourcing, etc.

Outside of these narrowly defined "solutions," we are crippled.

The source of our despair is simple: none of these options can fix the fundamental problem-states we face in finance, food, energy and political security.

That we might face problem-states which cannot be reduced to "problems" that can be "fixed" militarily, medically, legally or with technology that leaves the status quo intact is "unacceptable," i.e. requires massive denial that such problem-states exist.

Why? We don't like feeling vulnerable. The great benefit of being a global Empire, after all, is the same benefit gained by being wealthy: your sense of vulnerability is lessened. 9/11 made Americans feel vulnerable, and that is a feeling that we reject as un-American: can-do, conquer every opponent, cure every disease, invent a new solution, blah, blah, blah.

Yet the truth is we are all vulnerable at all times. Brain tumors occur without warning or known cause in people who have lived healthy, accomplished lives. Extremes of weather strike without regard to probability estimates of their likelhood. Financial crises boil up endlessly, despite the many "fixes" applied.

We are vulnerable because nobody knows what will happen in the future.

This vulnerability is also a source of despair. We would prefer to know what will happen with some certainty so we can plan for that future.

Here is what we know:

1. The fundamental problem-states are not solvable with the current politics of experience.

2. The problem-states include a variety of potentially profound catastrophies of the runaway feedback loop variety which cannot be quickly or easily resolved.

Here is what we don't know:

1. How the future will unfold.

The potential for unwholesome or destructive positive feedback loops is something that must also be denied, marginalized ("you're all crackpot doom-and-gloomers, where's your can-do spirit," etc.) or compartmentalized ("yes, we might lose the Gulf/tuna/oil, but that's OK, we still have the Atlantic/farmed tilapia/natural gas.")

Our faith in technology requires a measure of certitude. The basis of science is quantifiable theorems which can be proven via experimentation and extrapolated to accurately predict the course of future interactions.

We have no such certitude in the weather or climate science. The inputs are too many and complex to sort out; all models are limited in their scope and reach. The proximate causes of global warming are less important than measuring the consequences. While ice is thickening in certain areas, in most areas of the planet with year-round ice it is thinning rapidly.

This has profound consequences if the trends in place continue to strengthen (i.e. evidence of a positive feedback loop in place).

Being social animals, much of our existence is ruled by politics and essentially political decisions and trade-offs. Everything from medical care to trade is essentially political in nature, despite the superficial appearance of being "science" or "finance."

Politics is not "fixable" with technology, and thus very little is truly "fixable" with technology.

"Growth" means never having to make trade-offs. Adult life is a series of trade-offs;permanent adolescence is the state of never having to accept the consequences of trade-offs. "Permanent expansion" of credit, debt, leverage, production, consumption, etc. enables permanent adolescence because there are no limits that cannot be overcome with further expansion of the status quo.

The solution is always more of everything: more medical "solutions," more clear-cut victories over bad guys (now safely dead and out of the way), more housing, more victories in the courtroom ("justice done"), more rights (to housing, healthcare, education, legal council, etc.) and of course more money, which enables more of everything.

Until there isn't enough oil, water or food. The three are of course deeply intertwined. Food requires soil, water and energy. If two of the three are scarce (oil and water, which do indeed mix in global agriculture), then the third (soil) blows away, or washes away when there is suddenly too much water in one place (flooding).

It is remarkable how ineffective courtroom victories will be over positive feedback loop-driven scarcity of oil, water and food. Technology offers many excellent ways to do more with the resources we have, but there are limits on technology, either in terms of resources available to power it or in the political will and understanding required to integrate the technology.

I am not anti-technology. I am anti-magical thinking about technology. In our dearest fantasies, all technology works like telephones and cellphones: a new technology emerges in the private sector and within a few years it has magically spread throughout the land, paid for with private capital (which earned vast profits in the build-out) and benign, light-handed regulation by the Central State.

Yet not all technology fits this nice little model of private capital, seamless acceptance and expansion and a hands-off government watching its citizenry profit from the rapid spread of a new enabling technology.

To medicalize the issue, we could say that vaccines and antibiotics picked all the low-hanging fruit of preventing/curing scourge diseases. But type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, to name but three remaining scourges, are not "fixable" with these low-hanging-fruit technologies.

It is a false analogy of the first order to assume that all problem-states can be solved by technologies equivalent to mobile phones and the Internet. They may well be part of the eventual response, but they cannot solve what are essentially political trade-offs.

As I have taken some pains to explain, beneath the surface, all technology is also political. (If this makes no sense, please read Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation.)

Technologists have proposed various well-executed plans to wean the planet off fossil fuels in 20 years, or sequester enough carbon to modify climate change (100 million carbon-collecting artificial trees, etc.) Technically, these are plausible; politically, they are fantasies.

Behavioral "fixes" are unsexy, technological "fixes" are sexy. Americans want a new gadget, pill or toy to "fix" their problems. This is the consequence of permanent adolescence: the inability to make adult trade-offs and acept the consequences.

That we may be vulnerable to problems which cannot be medicalized, legalized, militarized ot technologized away is unacceptable to Americans. If we are left with that vulnerability, we fall quickly into despair.

Wisdom gets short shrift in America because it carries a whiff of elitist learning or mastery. Anything which smacks of an elitism which cannot be purchased is tainted in America; our collective fantasy is that any of us can reach any financial or political-power height.

Wisdom, however, cannot be bought, and hence we are deeply suspicious of it and thus our first and last reaction is to marginalize it, belittle it, dismiss it or co-opt it to strengthen our "brand" of faith or insight.

Recently I have been wondering what, if anything, I have truly learned since graduating from high school 39 years ago. My formal university "training" is in philosophy, a field without direct applications or visible utility.

("Hi, I'd like to apply for the position of Junior Philosopher here at the Department of Defense/Goldman Sachs/Dennys/etc.")

What skills I have learned (carpentry, writing, playing music, etc.) are woefully incomplete, and my confidence in them is low because they are all contingent.

In other words, no matter how many thousands of cuts I have made with a Skilsaw, I could still quite easily cut off my finger on the next one. The tool, and its power, is inherently dangerous to every user. No matter how many times I practice a song, I can botch it the next time I play it. If this is so, then the "skill" or "knowledge" is only partially accumulative.

In trading, we're only as "good" as our next trade. So how much value can be placed on what we supposedly "know" when the payoff is so contingent?

As for writing, I wonder what I have learned and what I could teach about it. I am truly not confident that I "know" anything about it that can be taught, or if that would be anything more than tired cliches ("writing is re-writing," etc.)

What wisdom have I acquired in 40 years of adulthood? Once again, I am not confident that I have acquired any, because insight is experiential, not intellectual in the sense of a learning can be explained and replicated.

Is whatever wisdom I have acquired helping me day to day? Once again I am not at all confident it is, or if I have any wisdom to apply. I am acutely aware of my own limitations and vulnerability, but I don't think this counts as wisdom.

Every day I struggle to produce something of value or meaning here, and my success is relative/questionable. We all want solutions, but as Jim Kunstler said the other night at the book reading I attended, perhaps this word "solutions" is too loaded with the unthinking techno-grandiosity which has infected the culture: a pat answer, a pat solution, problem fixed, move on.

Jim suggested perhaps the more appropriate phrase might be intelligent response rather than "solution." This has the benefit of capturing the contingency of our learning and knowledge, and also the nature of life to be feedback loops rather than vectors in which a problem is identified, quantified and then dispatched, 1,2,3.

Given life's vulnerable and contingent nature, I come to simplistic and inherently imprecise conclusions about what constitutes an intelligent response. I conclude that all we can do is lessen our vulnerability/dependency on forces and agencies outside our own control by increasing our own level of self-reliance, knowledge and sustainability.

What this means for each individual and household within our limited, purposefully deranged politics of experience is up to each individual and household. "Solutions" are themselves contingent, imprecise and open to positive and negative feedback.

Empirical or experiential wisdom is not easily reduced or distilled to language. It tends to sound stilted, canned, cliched or precious. So if I say "Do more of what works and less of what doesn't," does this classify as an intelligent response or is it just an empty-sounding slogan of the can-do, rah-rah type which has no applicable meaning in the real world?

I don't know. It seems to have meaning, but only as a lived experience. As an intellectual "answer," it is too general, too pat, too precious.

If I say, "do what is easy," what does that mean? Isn't the life we lead now implicitly the "easiest" way to live? Perhaps not. To fully explore what constitutes "easy" for any individual, we come to the intersection of psychoanalysis and Taoism--or we go nowhere, because what we as a culture want is not messy self-knowldge and contingent, open-ended responses but metrics, hard-and-fast answers, and people and/or machines to tell us what to do.

If there is such a thing as wisdom, can it be packaged, marketed and sold, like "higher education"? Can it be tranched into "low-risk wisdom" and "higher-risk wisdom"? Can it be quantified as "rigorous, proven wisdom" or "internally contradictory, Taoist-style wisdom"?

I know I am tired, from overwork and long days, and perhaps from doing too much of what is not easy for me. I feel my limitations and vulnerabilities quite acutely, and despair of discerning the future before it becomes the present. I have no idea if a stash of gold coins will be a lifesaving strategy or one which costs someone their lives, for as the Taoists pointed out 2,500 years ago, extreme concentrations of wealth and power attract theft and corruption.

That is, in some ways, the entire "story" of our present American culture, economy, State and Empire.

Fortunately, perhaps, I have no concentrations of wealth or power. I am average in most ways, mediocre in the others, blind to the future and lacking in the sort of wisdom which offers guidance through the treacherous shoals of contingency.

Is the awareness of contingency, limitations and vulnerabilities a kind of wisdom? If so, it gives cold comfort.

I am skeptical of pat answers, the current politics of experience and its offspring, techno-grandiose "solutions" which if you scratch them, are deeply and profoundly political in nature. I am skeptical of my own attempts to fashion intelligent responses to the unknowns ahead.

I have been reading Thomas Merton recently, and by happenstance (or perhaps not; synchronicity is not something easily disproved) longtime correspondent Ken R. sent me this excerpt from Merton which speaks very directly to me--but perhaps not to you. Despite this lack of universality, I offer it up as a fitting conclusion to this entry on despair, vulnerability and wisdom:

"...there is a contemporary form of violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace. It destroys one's own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one's own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful." (Thomas Merton, via Ken R.)

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