Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
Due to the appreciation of the fractal images I use here and on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence), and the interest in fractals and the Mandelbrot Set that that appreciation has generated, as well as the relevance of fractals to my overarching evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems paradigm (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, and particularly The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for an explanation and description of the connection), I’ve decided to post here a few different video “zooms” of the set.
These are not just visually interesting and beautiful displays: They are the exploration of the underlying patterns of complexity found in nature. The Mandelbrot Set is an extremely intricate fractal generated by iterations of a simple (though mathematically sophisticated) mathematical algorithm. Zooming in on any part of the swirling pattern reveals a degree of complexity equal to that on the larger scale, across limitless levels. I selected such images to represent Colorado Confluence because I believe (as many of my essays on Colorado Confluence explicitly expound upon) that life in general is of an essentially similar nature, swirling patterns of complexity within complexity, and that our challenge, in this human endeavor of ours, is to continue to ever-better align our consciousness and our efforts with these subtle and intricate systems of which we are a part. Enjoy!
Notice the coral-like formations in this one!
There are many, many more Mandelbrot Set zooms out there! Look for the most beautiful ones, and comment here or on the Colorado Confluence FB page with the URL.
The dynamics I described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change applies as much to emotions as to cognitions, as we all know: Kindness and unkindness, love and hate, generosity and selfishness, forgiveness and anger, are all highly contagious, spreading robustly in conflicting, resonating, self-amplifying currents of benevolence and belligerence. The world is full of flame wars and love fests, shouts of “get a room!” and “cage match!” On scales both large and small we cultivate either mutual goodwill or mutual antagonism with every word and gesture.
Indeed, the dynamical, ever-changing social institutional and technological landscape described in the essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts is as much a function of this emotional contagion as it is of the cognitive contagion on which I routinely focus. The two are intertwined, at times mutually reinforcing and at times mutually disrupting, bad attitudes undermining good ideas, and kind emotions concealing callous cognitions. I had discussed this several times, in a different context, in several of the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, such as The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, and The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2.
In fact, I began to identify the interplay of the substance of our political positions and the form by which they are advocated, in The Basic Political Ideological Grid. But, as I began to indicate in that essay, their integration is more along the pattern described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, two reverberating currents intertwined in complex ways.
I have sometimes written (drawing on the work of economist Robert Frank, among others) that our emotions are our primordial social institutional material, the commitment mechanism that bound us together before we created governments and markets and enforceable contracts; the protoplasm of “norms” diffusely enforced through mutual social approval and disapproval. But even as we have rationalized our society through the ever-increasing domain of hierarchies, markets, (fully developed) norms, and ideologies, this emotional protoplasm is still flowing through that mass of latter developments, of cognitive social institutional material.
Political discourse is commonly more emotional than rational, and, as a consequence, more ideological than methodological (see Ideology v. Methodology). That’s because ideology is the handmaiden of emotion, while methodology is the handmaiden of reason. Since reason has always played, and continues to play, only a marginal instantaneous role in human cognitions and human history (though, somewhat paradoxically, a major long-term role), the dynamics described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change are of a more emotional than rational nature, at least in real time.
And the emotional content counts, as much or more than the rational content. There are those on the left who argue that we need to be angrier, to be more like The Tea Party, which used anger so successfully. But I argue that that is a recipe for becoming The Tea Party, not for countering it, because it is the anger, more than anything else, that makes The Tea Party the scourge that it is. Of course, those who argue in favor of angrier politics are not opposed to the emotional content of The Tea Party, but only the substantive content. They are already adherents of The Politics of Anger, and are spreading the same emotional gospel with a set of alternative substantive hymns.
The robustness of The Tea Party, therefore, is not only to be measured by how many substantive adherents it has attracted, but also by how many people it has inspired to anchor their own politics in anger, because the virus of anger is as much a part of its message as the virus of extreme individualism, the latter carried by the former, or perhaps the former by the latter; it’s always hard to tell.
I could rewrite The Fractal Geometry of Social Change referring to emotional hues and shades rather than cognitive hues and shades, keeping all the rest intact, and it would serve the purpose well. But the final draft would have to combine the two, the emotional and the cognitive, for, to play on Richard Dawkins’ previous play on words, we are not just a story of genes and memes, but also of emes, all braided and blended in complex and mutually reverberating ways.
(cross-posted on SquareState: http://www.squarestate.net/diary/1137/a-progressive-new-year-the-ongoing-project)
I think most people who self-identify as “progressives” are, at root, committed to advancing the cause of reason in service to universal goodwill as the driving force of public policy. Unfortunately, we are all less than perfect on both dimensions, often failing to be either particularly reasonable, or particularly motivated by goodwill. But if we are serious about our commitment to improving the quality of human life by employing more reason in our public policies, more in service to humanity (and, by extension, all that humanity depends upon), there are things we can strive to do, dimensions we can strive to improve on, to advance the cause to which we are all committed.
In A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, I outline three components of the individual and collective disciplines that would best serve the on-going progressive project: 1) The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge; 2) The Cultivation of Social Identification; and 3) The Activation of Interpersonal Kindness. I describe each of these three, and penumbral aspects of the overall proposal (such as the commitment to process), in detail in the post linked to above.
One aspect of the first component (“The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge”) is the creation of an overarching social systems paradigm through which to compile and evaluate all competing ideas, one which does not start with any inherent political ideological bias, and in fact accommodates currently conflicting analytical and ideological paradigms. I have outlined such an overarching paradigm in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.
One aspect of the second component (“The Cultivation of Social Identification”) is finding frames and narratives that resonate with the frames and narratives of those who either are not “progressives,” or are “progressives” of the sort that are promoting just another blind ideology (precipitously certain substantive conclusions) rather than a commitment to reason in service to goodwill (a procedural and methodological discipline). In A Political Christmas Carol, I’ve provided an example of the kind of “messaging” I’m talking about (and that George Lakoff was referring to in his book The Political Mind). By associating the currently prevalent extreme-individualist ideology with a character almost universally pitied and disdained, and a reason-in-service-to-goodwill approach (what I consider to be the essence of progressivism) with his almost universally appealing transformed self, the gravitational cognitive force of progressivism is marginally increased, drawing more of those toward it who are capable of being drawn toward it. Since we know that social attitudes and ideological centers of gravity shift over time, we know that current distributions are not fixed and immutable; a major challenge is how most effectively to sway the zeitgeist in the direction of reason and goodwill.
Of course, one lonely act of such messaging on one blog is not going to do the trick. We need to flood discursive space with this kind of messaging; not, as some believe, only with the kind of mechanistic and reductionist sloganeering that has served the Right so well (though, yes, some of that as well), but also with the deeper appeals to human souls which is where the Progressive comparative advantage lies. We don’t want to become just an equal-and-opposite counterpart of the Tea Party; we want to be the clear distinction from all that is wrong with it, the opposition to irrationality and belligerence, not to perceived enemies and reductionist boogeymen.
And, finally, one aspect of the third component is the organization of community groups dedicated not to anything overtly political, but rather only to strengthening our communities and increasing our interpersonal commitment to reason and goodwill. The value of this is not only intrinsic, but also increasing the association of empathy-based policies with interpersonal goodwill, something which helps erode the successful Libertarian meme of government as some external entity imposing its will on an antagonistic public. If we want to promote progressive public policies, which use government to improve opportunities and enhance the quality of life, we have to associate support of such policies with actions in our communities based on that same attitude. This helps dispell the enervating argument over whether government itself is “good” or “bad,” and refocus on the inevitable fact that government is the battleground over whether our public policies will be yielded to the interests of the most wealthy and powerful, or will be successfully harnessed in service to humanity. I have made some efforts on this dimension as well, organizing the South Jeffco Community Organization, an on-going project I will return to after I clear my plate of some other more immediate and pressing obligations.
My point here is that there is a pretty clear path forward for a progressive movement that wants to be effective at the most fundamental level, and that there are clear substantive steps we can all take in service to that path. Our almost absolute focus on who is elected to office and how successfully we compel them to do our substantive bidding is sub-optimal on several levels: 1) It reduces us to mere equal and opposite counterparts of the advocates of irrationality and belligerence, and leaves many marginally engaged moderates seeking some midpoint between the two camps, as though that were the definition of “reasonable;” 2) It fails to attend to the very real issue of how often and to what extent our substantive bidding is imperfectly informed and conceived, and the resultant need to place more emphasis on the procedural discipline of discovering the best policies motivated by less certainty of the infallibility of our current understandings; and 3) It fails to address the more fundamental determinant of public policy, the zeitgeist, the popular political ideological center of gravity. There is, of course, a place for traditional political activism, but if we really want to catalyze and institute social change, traditional political activism alone is not enough.
If we redistributed the resources of time, money, effort, and passion currently invested by American Progressives in progressive advocacy in more targeted ways, looking beyond the superficial political arena, and focusing more on the ultimate political battlefield (the human mind), and doing so in well-designed and coordinated ways, we would have far more success at moving this country in a progressive direction. Here’s to the hope that we begin to do so.
Not long ago, I created a page describing A Proposal for a project that I consider the core dual mission of the progressive movement: 1) Mapping out the social institutional landscape, including all known public policy experiments here and elsewhere, all known suggestions, and all identifiable new ideas, evaluated on the basis of sound analysis applied to reliable data in service to human welfare, allowing for ranges of uncertainty and legitimate debates; and 2) working toward creating a national (and perhaps eventually international) system for communicating this universe of information, not only to those already inclined to make the best informed and best intentioned political choices, but also in ways that resonate with existing frames and narratives that are to varying degrees resistent to doing so.
From various angles, and somewhat haphazardly, I’ve been exploring the various dimensions and aspects of this mission on this blog, even before I clearly identified the mission itself. A crucial piece of the puzzle is the relationship between individual action and social change, a relationship which generally suffers from either oversimplification or underemphasis, or both. As I noted very recently, too many political activists believe that their only job is to get preferred candidates elected, and then are angry but unchastened when that inevitably proves insufficient (An Open Letter To Angry Progressives). The critical question for each of us, too often unasked, is what do we each need to do to best contribute to the realization of the progressive mission described above?
One starting point for addressing that question is consideration of The Variable Malleability of Reality, a careful recognition of how changeable each aspect of the social institional landscape is, and how to work through those interconnected threads of variable malleability in service to effecting widespread and profound positive change. The necessary attitude with which to address that systemic challenge is a combination of realism and idealism, or ”Cynical Idealism,” knowing and acknowledging what is, in order to create what can be.
But another aspect of the question of the intersection of individual action and social change is a more personal one, an identification of just what exactly “personal responsibility” means in the context of social responsibility, or being an agent of positive social change. While no one has to be saint to be a sincere participant in our shared efforts to improve the world, the on-going commitment on the part of each of us to walk the walk as well as talk the talk is more vital than we often acknowledge.
In one series of posts, I explored this nexus between the personal and social aspects of the challenge, recognizing that those of us who want to dedicate ourselves to improving the world really do need to try to improve ourselves as well (The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, The Ultimate Political Challenge). Referring back to the “Proposal,” the challenge of cultivating a gravitational pull to the progressive agenda, making it a more attractive force than its ultimately anti-social competitors in the political arena (Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, Liberty & Interdependence), involves modeling the spirit of the movement, showing people that it not only is what we can aspire to together, but also what we can be individually.
An earlier, related set of posts explored the ways in which our individual foibles aggregate into political ineffectiveness and dysfunctionality (The Politics of Anger , The Foundational Progressive Agenda). Numerous other posts delineate how such foibles have matured into a new incarnation of populist anti-intellectualism, combined with extreme individualism, giving us the worst of both worlds in the form of ”The Tea Party” (“Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”). Other posts continue to trace the historical continuity between this movement and its anti-progress, anti-intellectual predecessors (The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, Social Institutional Luddites).
Following a discussion of such ideological foibles in general (The Elusive Truth , The Hydra’s Heads, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Pro-Life Dogma v. Life-Affirming Sentiment), I identified the basic duality involved: Ideology v. Methodology. The two institutions most committed to a careful pursuit of truth, science and law, rely first and foremost on a methodology, on procedural reductions of the influence of bias and caprice. While we have a process in politics for resolving conflicts, we don’t have a process in place for reducing bias and caprice. This is a dimension of the challenge which requires concentrated attention, and which inspired the proposal mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.
Despite the anti-intellectual rejection of the notion (while, ironically, always claiming to represent the more rational position), no enterprise suffers from an improved methodology, and no effort to confront the challenges of the world suffers from the increased application of reason. Reason isn’t everything: Passion and imagination both are vital ingredients as well. But reason is crucial, and plays an integral role in any enterprise, including the enterprise of self-governance.
A Framework for Political Analysis provides a very sketchy look at one aspect of the analytical paradigm that I developed during my work as a sociologist. I’ll need to develop this more fully in future posts, with a more complete description of how to use the techniques of microeconomics; game theory; evolutionary learning theory; linguistics, semiotics, and epistemology; and network analysis (along with tools from complementary fields, such as evolutionary psychology and cognitive science and evolutionary ecology) to explore the social institutional landscape that is characterized by various combinations of hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies (along with the primal social institutional material of emotions). While not everyone, necessarily will want to get into the weeds of these esoteric academic methodologies, awareness of them, and allowance for their ability to produce insights beyond those produced by casual observation and precipitous ideological assumption, certainly has a place in our collective efforts to continue to improve the human condition.
Some of the fruits of that methodology indicate its value. As I described in The Politics of Consciousness, human history is, in the abstract, a story of interacting evolving memes, aggregating into paradigms, which gradually accumulate anomalies (in the cultural context in the form of doubts and discontents; in the scientific context, in the form of inconsistent observations), which eventually generate paradigm shifts. In a series of subsequent posts, I explored various aspects of this dynamic, and contemplated some of its implications for the future (Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).
In Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, I explore the ways in which adaptations large and small ripple through the social institutional and technological landscape, triggering adaptations and modifications in both forward and backward linkages. In The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, I continue the focus on the role of technology (drawing heavily on Brian Arthur’s recent book, The Nature of Technology), exploring the cumulative dynamical architecture of purposively programmed phenomena carved into and growing in conjunction with the social institutional landscape. In Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, I outline and speculate upon the interplay of the title two defining elements of the social institutional and technological landscape. In The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), I take a more precise look at one particular thread in that evolving social institutional and technological landscape, something that this project would seek to do, over time (perhaps over generations), comprehensively, compiling an encyclopedic dynamical mapping of the entire social institutional landscape. In The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, I delve into the complex ecology of the interface of natural, human, and technological systems. In Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, , and A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity, I consider the role of modern communications and data processing technologies in continuing the process of unleashing “the genius of the many.” In Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, I describe this driving force of social institutional evolution.
I also posted on specific aspects of the social institutional landscape, more relevant to the challenge of forging the best public policy. Economics is, of course, a topic of primary concern, and one which we all need to become better educated about. To that end, I’ve posted on various aspects of economics, including how to contemplate the question of public spending, monetary and fiscal policy, and economic priorities (The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy, The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face ).
Similarly, I’ve explored other aspects of the social institutional landscape, including international relations (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige , Problems Without Borders , “Democracy IN America,” But Not BY America, The Brutality of War is Relevant), environmental issues (Environmental Open Forum, Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year, What One Marine Bacteria Might Mean to the World, Back to the Future, Sort Of: Sod Houses & Environmentalism, Energy and the Environment), child and family issues (The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services, Community, Family, and Crime Prevention, Solving Rather Than Punishing Problems), educational issues (Real Education Reform , The Importance of Mentors), health care issues (Sound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?, Is It Wrong to Require People to Buy Health Insurance?), immigration issues (A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue), and social/moral issues (Pro-Life Dogma v. Life-Affirming Sentiment). Many other posts flesh out various other aspects of our social institutional landscape (Should Political Libel Be Legally Prohibited?, Predators, Prey, and Productive Praxis, Free Will, Determinism, Quantum Mechanics, & Personal & Social Responsibility, The Meaning of “Representation”, Why Fame Is Attractive, “Is Religion A Force For Good?” ).
Finally, as several of the above posts linked to indicate, I tried to apply this improved mapping of the social institutional landscape to issues of public policy. Some of the overarching statements of general attitude and policy include “A Choice Between Our Hopes and Our Fears”, A Positive Vision For Colorado, What’s Right With America, and “A Theory of Justice”.
This blog is a somewhat haphazard nascent contribution to the paradigm I describe in the first paragraph, and in A Proposal. The paradigm is comprised of sets of interrelated memes, covering a broad territory, and involving various branches of the human endeavor, including: 1) methodologies both of how we form our understandings, and of how we attempt to implement them as public policy; 2) the products of the former methodologies, in terms of mapping out our social political landscape and its underlying dynamics; and 3) the myriad challenges we each must confront as individuals to become most effective in contributing to the development of this paradigm, and of its expression in the form of improved public policy.
When I was a sociology student, the conventional wisdom in the profession was that the paradigm known as “functionalism,” which had predominated until a generation or so earlier, had failed by too-closely linking our understanding of society with an organic metaphor, that of a body with organs that served functions. Many of the critics failed to see the genuine insight embedded in the metaphor, but they were right about the problems: A society is composed of competing interests, and the “organs” in this case (social institutions) function to favor some interests over others, not merely to perpetuate the survival of the organism.
But trying to divorce our understanding of anything from metaphorical thinking either relegates it to the realm of mathematical esoteria (which is itself rooted in metaphorical thought), or simply leaves it flailing for a handhold, something to grab hold of to provide it with cognitive stability. Society is like an organism, and it is like an ecosystem, and it is like a complex multilateral strategic game. But it isn’t quite any of these. We need to build our understandings through complex, multifaceted metaphors, without shackling our understanding to any one of those metaphors.
The October 18 issue of Time Magazine, in the “Briefing” section, has a short report on “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells,” which are skin cells transformed into stem cells by use of “viruses to ferry new genes into the cell’s genome.” I’m not sure yet what it is, but I’m sure that there’s a valuable metaphor for society, and how to address some of the challenges that we face, embedded in there somewhere.
The challenge with human thought is to balance recognition of similarity and difference, and to understand differences by means of similarities, and similarities by means of differences. For instance, if I explained that if you enlarged a billiard ball to the size of the Earth, it would have deeper canyons and taller mountains than the Earth has, you would understand how smooth the Earth is, because of both its similarity to a billiard ball (it’s essentially a ball), and it’s difference (it’s much larger).
Our challenge is to find metaphors that help us to understand our world –the dynamics by which it functions, the challenges and opportunities embedded within it, the potential ways to most effectively confront those challenges and opportunities– without be seduced into confusing the differences for similarities. We have to apply a bit of formal logic: Just because two sets intersect (similarities) does not mean they are identical (lack differences). The Tea Party mantra that “government spending is always tyranny” is based on the logical fallacy that because tyranny involves centralized government, any centralization of government must be tyranny. The frustration is that anything so transparently fallacious can continue to have such a potent force over our lives.
There are other metaphors we can use to understand that hierarchical centralized organization can be beneficial to those so organized: Corporations, or, inviting more ideologically motivated misinterpretation, species such as bees and ants that thrive through hierarchical organization. Or we can go deeper, and discuss the interplay of centripedal and centrifugal forces, the interplay of that which disintegrates us and that which integrates us, and how the combination of these forces, rather than either one in isolation, is what grants us our vitality, our liberty, our humanity.
What most threatens our liberty is the tyranny of monolithic metaphors, one-sided evaluations of what serves the good and what doesn’t. We don’t want to reduce our understanding of society to the metaphor of an organism, because the health of an organism depends on avoiding any revolutionary changes in its form and function, whereas the health of a society depends on occasionally midwifing such threshold paradigm shifts. And we don’t want to reduce our understanding of society to the metaphor that equates institutional disintegration with individual liberty, because our liberty depends on wisely using our agents of collective action rather than zealously destroying their efficacy.
In the spirit and form of classical mythology, but informed by a synthesis of complex dynamical systems (“chaos”) theory and an amalgam of relevant social and biological (and even physical) theories, this is my attempt to capture the essence of our existence in a work of intellectual art. This is an exploration of the underlying dynamics of human existence, rendered in a tapestry of magical story-telling woven from threads of ultra-violet prose. Now if that doesn’t make you run hard in the other direction…, read on!
The interplay of chaos and order, which are sometimes perceived as opposites, are in reality complementary (reminiscent of the motto that Danish Physicist Neils Bohr chose for his coat of arms when he was knighted: “Contraria Sunt Complementa” [opposites are complementary], beneath the Taijitu [the symbol of yin and yang]). Disordering and ordering forces interact to produce complexity, revealing the universe to be more organic than mechanical in nature. Applications of this theme to physics, ecology, human history, and the nature of individual lives are laced throughout the story. A secondary theme involves human consciousness of these systems, and how it grows by finding order, discovering increased complexity, and finding a subtler order within that complexity, in an endless process of cognitive and spiritual refinement.
To a backdrop of a millenial struggle between the Loci (mischievous chaos-loving imps with the magical ability to make tiny changes with enormous consequences, such as moving a twig an inch to the left, and thus providing the necessary link in a chain of events that lead to a forest fire that would otherwise not have occurred) and the Vaznallam (serene order-loving semi-divine beings that live in an ice city high in the Vaznal Mountains), a host of characters on intertwined adventures find themselves involved in the fulfilment of a phrophesized “Realignment”, averting the holocaust of mounting natural and human disasters. In the course of these adventures, they undergo a paradigm shift of their own, discovering a subtler, more accurate, and more naturalistic explanation for the wonders of their world than the religious and mythical understanding of reality they (and the reader) had always held to be true.
Two of my favorite scenes:
1) Algonion, a main character on a highly adventurous spiritual quest (which leads him to become a wizard-trained archer-hero at one point), finds himself inside one of the ice spheres nested inside a larger sphere which is, in essence, the wizards’ incubator of wizardry. Inside, initially simple patterns of colored light and sound and tactile sensations cause pleasure when solved and pain when unsolved (by thinking, chanting, and moving in anticipation of the next sequences in the patterns), only to encounter ever deepening subtley and complexity of patterns upon each resolution. This is my representation of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which accumulating anomalies in old established paradigms cause focused attention on those anomalies, and subsequent paradigm shifts. And it synthesises this quintessentially western theory of scientific philosophy with elements of Eastern mysticism. See The Wizards’ Eye.
2) Inspired by National Geographic footage of the Rainforest Canopy Ecosystem, Algonion is fleeing the Loci imps in an enchanted forest, their emotion-destabilizing darts, and the javelins of electricity that flashed in the air, swinging from trees and sailing from branch to branch…, “If only I could fold myself into the wind, he thought, desperately, “wrap myself around it like flesh around a whim….” Arriving at a debris strewn set of slate ledges leading down to a sea which “churned as though tossed by a storm, thrashing about like a beast with struggling prey clamped in its jaws,” he did just that, and transformed himself with his last lopping strides into a gangling bird that skimmed above that choppy sea…. See “Flesh Around A Whim”.
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