Slowing History Down, Research Time, 12/10/2017

Here I am continuing the short but dense post I wrote yesterday. The real unfolding of history – the complex web of interconnecting events and processes – is too chaotic for us to understand it as a whole.

Our histories simplify the world. Look at how we discuss history over centuries at a time. We focus on a few great leaders, the activities of governments, business leaders, and massive economic interests. Zoom in or zoom out from the village to the globe, and it's the same structure to the story of the place.

Human spaces are carved into simple patterns and clear paths. All
other creatures are driven from the space. Co-existence – even
though ecological co-existence is always kind of dangerous and
rarely peaceful – becomes impossible, or at least rare.
We can contain much of the immense detail of history, but only if we either stick to a single phenomenon, or a very short period of time.

I once knew a professor of history who concentrated almost all the research articles of his multi-decade career on a few key decades of industrial development in early 19th century Montreal.

It’s immensely impressive, but I’m reminded of an image I came across once. You can achieve incredible things in a narrow specialization, but ultimately you have to put it to use. But now you have to wonder if you need more than narrow or broad knowledge to act best.

If you do need that level of knowledge, you’re screwed because that knowledge is practically impossible at the speed of human life. We can build datasets that big, but comprehensively understanding that dataset takes way longer than any time we’d have to act on what it can tell us.

Here’s a place where Hannah Arendt’s discussions of Greek culture turn out to be pretty enlightening for folks living in the nuclear age. You can – with reasonable accuracy for such a big, complicated, chaotic assemblage – describe modern civilization as an attempt to grasp hold of the world by paring it down to the human story.

Raccoons are called human-adapted species because they've done so
well adjusting to life in human urban spaces. They're one of very few
success stories in humanity's industrial age.
Human geography is simple – like a European park, we shape our world into simple structures. Boxes with clear boundaries. Specific lanes segregated for different kinds of vehicles and directions of traffic. We build our cities in grids and circular patterns – simple shapes.

We bulldoze the complex patterns of multifaceted ecologies. To see the chaotic mess of wilderness disgusts many of us – unsanctioned plants are weeds. So we reduce the world to human structures – cities, highways, farms, parks – to simplify this complexity.

Then we’ll at least have a better chance of grasping hold of the world. It won’t be so chaotic, and it will have a pattern of entirely human design. The world won’t change so fast because there won’t be so many ways for it to change. In paving the world, we’ll slow it down enough to grasp it in our knowledge.

When we shape our society to make it last forever, we finally have a world that we can understand. It won’t escape from us.

Arendt finds this idea in the political thinking of Plato and Aristotle. They saw the greatness of humanity in building a world that lasted – a permanent world. It would be a world built by craftsmen, designers. That’s the image of the legislator, the mythical founder-leader who builds a city and a society just as an architect and team of masons builds a temple.

Laws and institutions exist to constrain human behaviour and
channel it in directions where it can be understood. If you
understand it, then you know how to control it without the
chafing violence of constraint.
Can we even achieve that level of constraint in human societies?
Why on Earth would we want to?
The designed order of institutions and laws would make the desperation of human action unnecessary. We wouldn’t need to fight with chaos to catch up with reality itself as it steamrolls us. Durable institutions are reliable, and human institutions are comprehensible.

We associate Plato and Aristotle with how the Greeks thought. They’re often the only Greek thinkers popular culture pays attention to. But they were rebels in their society – while they created concepts at the heart of our culture, they had little direct influence on their own for a long time after their own lives.

Most Greeks were creatures of the polis – the one durable institution in Greek society, built to hold the hurricane force of contingent, improvised action. These were the debates and duels of Greek politics.

The culture as a whole most valued fleeting glory than vain dreams of permanence. Instead of grasping for comprehensive knowledge, they were content to become the brightest light in the chaos for a moment.

Who do you think was most wise?

1 comment:

  1. You don't get the ecstatic/kairotic moment in all this. The idea is that both Socrates and some of his Sophistic opponents thought they might grasp the whole of reality at one moment. Unfortunately, they treated how to perpetuate that vision as no more than an afterthought. But we know that strategy is not good enough. Why that's not good enough is basically the story of Christianity and Islam, which led to Max Weber's smart distinction between 'prophet' and 'priest' -- i.e. the one who for a brief moment grasps the whole versus the one who's left with turning that visionary moment into a universal world-view, given the different epistemic starting points of all the potential converts. That's really the issue you're talking about. At least, if you stick to my interpretation, you won't try to de-centre the human too quickly.