Monday, June 11, 2018

exordium to some excerpts.

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. 
——Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), trans. R. Warner 

"Any single historical event is too complex to be adequately known by anyone. It transcends all the intellectual capacities of men. Our practice is to wait until a sufficient number of details have been forgotten. Of course things seem simpler then!" 
..."But we're getting away from the point," he went on. "I don't care how well historical facts can be known from afar. Is it important to know them at all? I submit that history never comes close to repeating itself. Even if we had reliable information about the past, we couldn't find a case similar enough to justify inferences about the present or immediate future. We can make no real use of history as a current guide." 
——B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

When I'm reading a book authored prior to the twentieth century, I habitually scribble notes in the margins when a remark or passage seems like it could apply to contemporary events if a few historical names were swapped out with modern ones. (I'd aspire to be a gentleman scholar, but let's face it, the best I'll ever be is a degenerate scholar.) My old copy of Thucydides, for instance, is full of references to Vietnam, Iraq, and the neoconservative milieu of the second Bush Administration, especially in the pages treating Athens's doomed Sicilian expedition.

Tonight I was thinking I would share a couple of passages from Montesquieu and Burkhardt and elaborate on some of my off-the-cuff annotations, but then I wondered if the exercise might amount to just a lot of pointless pseudo-intellectual paddleball.

Well, "pointless" goes without saying. If the longform personal blog ever served a useful purpose, that time is already past. I'm talking about the lay practice of trying to clarify the present through the lens of the narrative past. The method, such as it is, has lately seemed to me to stand on dubious ground, so I'd like to spend a few minutes probing it. Even if someone only seeks out knowledge for his own pleasure, and not for some utilitarian purpose, he shouldn't want to settle for a facile understanding.

Knowing the past is necessary to navigate the present, because history tends to repeat itself. This is the central dogma of historical studies, and common sense bears it out. If you get food poisoning at a restaurant, you don't go back. One shouldn't get back together with an ex because if it didn't work out the first time, the second won't be any different. We accept the truism's validity whenever we nod at and retweet the commentariat's reminders that the global order today is much like it was on the eve of World War I, or their exhortations to remember 1930s Germany here in year two of the MAGA epoch. An air of prophecy often emanates from the eloquent argument from history. The parallels seem to obvious to gainsay. But the line between "obvious" and "specious" is ever drawn with a fine-tip pen.

Rene Magritte, La Clairvoyance (1936)

Jorge Luis Borges adumbrates the full meaning of historical cyclicality and the problems it poses in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1939), a fictional account of a twentieth-century man who applies himself heart and soul to writing Don Quixote. Nevermind that Miguel de Cervantes already wrote Don Quixote: now Menard wishes to do it. Plagiarism is not his intention. He elects to renovate himself as a person who, when he puts pen to paper to set down the story taking shape in his mind, will spontaneously choose the exact words Cervantes was moved to write, and in precisely the same sequence. After laboring for two decades, Menard only completes Chapters 9 and 38, and produces a fragment of Chapter 12. The endeavor ends with his death. But the breadth of this achievement, Borges avers, should inspire no less awe than Cervantes's complete Quixote. Menard, impossibly, makes history repeat itself, quite literally word for word.

I very much doubt that any literary magazine intern assigned to the slush pile has ever opened a fiction submission whose first two paragraphs perfectly duplicate the first two paragraphs of a completely different story sent in months or years ago by another author. We'd just as soon expect that the twenty-two starting players of two soccer teams could accidentally reenact, stride for stride, pivot for pivot, the first sixty seconds of a match played in 1932.

A hard interpretation of historical cyclicality is obviously untenable. The soft interpretation—"history never repeats, but it often rhymes"—can't be peremptorily swatted away. The statement is insulated by its own vagueness, and again, it passes the commonsense test.

Couldn't the first two paragraphs of two short stories, written by two authors without any knowledge of the other, be similar? Of course: the number of rejected submissions to The New Yorker beginning with a married, middle-aged man sitting at the office and privately stewing in bourgeoisie discontentment probably can't be calculated. And a motivated soccer fan might delve into the game's annals and find any number of matches in which the board read 2–1 at the end of the first half, due to the leading team scoring two penalty kicks in the second quarter after their opponents landed a goal in the first quarter.

But in the first instance we're no longer taking account of the paragraphs themselves, but the gist of them. A basic idea of a narrative or a severely syncopated conception of an event tells us nothing: it's a name and an outline on the conceptual map. It relegates the information to the mind's flyover country.

In the second (and more relevant) case, we eschew any consideration of the soccer players' physicality and identity, the paths they trace across the field, the movement of the ball, the drama of the game, etc., and restrict ourselves to only observing point tallies, time intervals, and ascribing to each point scored a "yes" or "no" with regard to the binary quality of "penalty shot?" More importantly: if for every soccer game that met the original criteria, say we also possess the score as it stood at the game's end. Equipped with this data, could we with any surety predict the outcome of an ongoing game whose halftime score is 2–1? Probably not: we have too little information, and there are too many variables in play, invested with too much uncertainty.

Analogy can only be achieved through a discretionary sieving of information. The fewer concrete facts with which we concern ourselves, the more readily the similarities between two events turn up. Unless we possess and can apply the knowledge of some definite functional relationship between qualities or quantities observed in each instance, the possibility of a superficial coincidence can't be discounted. A particular problem with extrapolation from ancient history is the lack of rigor on behalf of the chronicler. (For this we can't blame him: it's unreasonable to expect a pre-scientific mind to supply a scientific record, replete with data and meticulously defined terms.)

In comparing President Trump to Alcibiades of Athens (or to Adolf, for that matter), what we're essentially doing is drawing two columns—one with "TRUMP" printed at the top, and the name of our second demagogue above the other. Beneath each we write a descending list of attributes and factual blurbs particular to that figure, and then circle the items that appear in both. We don't have the hard facts for anything more thoroughgoing.

"Aha! There and there! 'Leader of an imperial democracy who's in it for personal gain and secures the loyalty of his political base by stoking their most ignoble passions!' Wake up, America! Donald Trump is Alcibiades all over again! If we don't act now he'll lead us into a catastrophic invasion of Sicily and then defect to our enemies in Sparta!"

Probably not.

Paul Klee, Analÿse verschiedener Perversitäten (1922)

Still: Trump is a narcissistic, irrational demagogue who prioritizes his own appetites over the welfare of the nation he leads, and his presidency isn't leading us anywhere good. (Accelerationists might disagree.) His tweets, the things he says on television, the quality of the people with whom he surrounds himself, and his policy priorities all attest to the danger his presidency poses. Why should it be necessary to consult ancient history for a second opinion?

We've left a key point unacknowledged: our objects of comparison are incommensurable. Donald Trump is, at this moment, a living human being. He exists corporeally, and coevally with us. His arc is not yet complete. It is possible to talk to him, observe (or interact with) him in person, provoke a response, etc. Alcibiades is a name in a book written twenty-four centuries ago by someone who didn't think very highly of him. On the basis of the evidence we accept he existed once, but all he can ever be to us is a textual figure. Only by flattening the forty-fifth President of the United States into a manageably finite cluster of ideas can we collate him with the Athenian statesman (or any other historical figure) as an alike quantity.

Through a regimen of ingrained repetition, we perform the substitution of an entity for an abstraction (and vice versa) by rote, unconsciously. Knowledge of the world beyond the borders of our instantaneous perception would otherwise be impossible. In a cultural environment where a moving, speaking image of a person on a computer screen and a bona fide human organism (paired to the inestimable locus of his public, private, and unobservable activities, past, present, and potential) are practically fungible, we take the logic of the substitutive act as a given, and it tends to go unexamined. Perhaps nobody in the West paid much attention to the habit until the postmodernists came along and drew attention to the preeminence of  post-hoc "narratives" in ordering the world confronting each of us. (Side note: if you'd like to experience the world absent narrative, take a big hit of Salvia divinorum and see for yourself how things look when they've been temporarily cleaved from the symbolic network. I promise the ensuing five minutes will be illuminating, though probably not very enjoyable.)

To press the point once more: when we consider the totality of any physical system of greater breadth and complexity than an individual atomic particle in isolation (but there is no such thing, so the point is moot), we're faced with a manifold that cannot be duplicated, or even comprehended. Every object is transfinite: in the omnifarious spiral of universal contingency, an exhaustive analysis of an "individual" entity will eventually lead to every other particle in the universe at every instant of eternity. Suffice to say we lack the means to grasp the whole of our own selves, let alone any external occurrences. Hence, abstraction. Hence, narrative. We cannot apprehend any aspect of reality until we've reduced its complexity by several thousand thousand orders of magnitude.

If by "history" we refer to some past interval in the causal processes which precipitated the present moment, the notion that history might ever repeat itself is absurd. It can never come close. It can't even rhyme by slant. But if by "history" we refer to those events in the manageable abstract, and to the abstractions themselves—that's different. A pair of historical narratives can exhibit congruence. Depending on how far we go in abridging the facts, they may even appear to approach equivalence. By "they" we refer to the narratives, not to the events. Since you and I so seldom differentiate them, the distinction should be underscored here. A narrative might be ambiguous or involute, but it is never complex. Complexity is exclusive to continuous processes in time.

Could it be that the medium of transmission accounts for the semblance of historical tropes? We cannot, after all, conceive of history in any detail with recourse to the generalizations of language, in which the Iraq War (2003 CE) and the Sicilian Expedition (415 BCE) assume a taxonomy-level identity—even though the participants in each were completely different people; even though neither conflict was motivated by the same geopolitical contingencies; even though they occurred thousands of years apart, were waged in the pursuit of case-specific objectives, and through different means; even though the conclusions and aftereffects of each were peculiar to the nations involved. Still: in both cases, we know that some large group of people went to a place inhabited by some other group of people, and they fought and killed each other in an organized fashion for a sustained period. By virtue of these criteria, both may be designated as a "war"—as distinct from some other situation where people fight and kill each other, such as a "revolution," a "conflict," a "genocide," a "riot," a "police action," etc. And as both of these wars ended poorly for the aggressors in one way or another, we may be tempted to allege a historical consonance. We could believe that by virtue of such symbolic overlap, one historical event may be better known by scrutinizing its narrative against that of the other. Or is this just an idiosyncrasy of the format through which the majority of people encounter both events?

Once again, the figures of our current president and Alcibiades can be made commensurable only by abstracting the social role of each into something called "leader" and their characteristics as "jingoistic," "hungry for power and respect," "arrogant," and "generally odious." In doing so we ignore the areas of disunion between the two cultures in question, their peoples' organizational structures and modes of production, the political apparatuses in which each leader operated and to which each was subject, the figure's personal histories, and the day-to-day exigencies that dictated their actions. In any case, the synonymous language associated with Trump and Alcibiades invites us to augur the destiny of Trump's America in the textually scattered bones of the Hellenic city-state of which Alcibiades was a citizen thousands of years ago. It is neither quite scientific, nor quite superstitious—but is it more of one than the other?

"We must know everything before we can fully understand anything," Aldous Huxley concedes in Brave New World Revisited (1958). It's a feint. He continues: "But in fact we shall never know everything. We must therefore be content with partial understanding and proximate causes."

Max Ernst, Jeune homme intrigué par le vol d’une
mouche non-euclidienne

Translating the inconceivable world into comprehensible and communicable is indispensable to virtually everything we've done as a species. Zoologists cite language as the primary attribute setting Homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The fact that humanity didn't go extinct after the dissemination of language across its entire range of habitation vouches for the abstraction's usefulness, and, obversely, the inessentiality of the information omitted—that is, in most cases; and, so far. A linguistic order must necessarily presuppose a world order: if on the scale of organic life, conditions on the Earth's surface were so volatile as to preclude the formation of any stable forms and recurring patterns, not even the simplest lifeforms could have developed. And though any fact of the situation brings something to bear on every other fact, some variables are extraneous to some processes.

"The ape climbed the tree." This formulation can be applied in reference to any number of events. The ease with which we can accept the statement (and easily envision the event signified) suggests that collapsing the transfinity of particular and unique physical occurrences into an unspecific set of markers possesses no small measure of practical value, however dubious its methodological validity appears under scrupulous interrogation. Provided it doesn't matter which individual member of which species of ape was doing the climbing, which individual tree in which species in what part of the world was being climbed, the particular tropistic activity the ape engaged in, when it happened, who was looking, what else was happening in the vicinity of the event, or what preceded the climb and what occurred afterwards, we can act upon the facts as they've come to us without much concern for the incompleteness of our knowledge.

Often π = 3.14 can be safely substituted for π ≈ 3.14, even though the latter equation is correct, and the former is not. In a similar sense we can trust language—and narrative—to the extent that we can credibly believe that our abstractions have not extirpated information that would influence our reasoning, and subsequently our decisions, if it were brought to our attention.

In the simple case of the ape climbing the tree, the plurality of "insignificant" details are probably of no importance (unless the ape could possibly be a close personal friend of ours, whom we've warned about clambering around for genips while his sprained ankle is still healing). But where human society is concerned, the devil always lurks in the details, even the apparently trifling ones, and the discrepancies between occasions tend to multiply over space and across time. To return one last time to Ancient Greece and the United States of the twenty-first century: when we talk about homosexuality as it was practiced by the Hellenes, how appurtenant is that information to a discussion of gay behavior and culture in America?

For all its diversity, human behavior remains circumscribed by biological and historical parameters. Perhaps this fact entitles us to assume that some event patterns are categorically commensurate. Whether or not a figure presides over people as a chieftain, a king, a president, or a World Controller, that figure leader may still be understood as a leader. Whether they're waged with arrows, muskets, tanks, nuclear submarines, drones, or artificial intelligence, wars are wars. However society is organized, whatever people understand themselves and each other to be, however human relations are mediated by economics, social mores, and technology, love and sex are always still love and sex. In this view, human existence in all its variety manifests enough universal patterns for a high-fidelity transference of understanding from the literature of the past and the historical anecdote (many histories are anecdotal in substance, or otherwise rely on a plurality of anecdotes in lieu of hard data) to the receiving seeker of the present day.

The danger lies in the risk that the exclusion of certain information (or context) results in a false analogue, and consequently, spurious knowledge. To recur to π ≈ 3.14, there may be a case where the engineer or physicist rounds off the decimal too soon, and an apparatus or experiment fails as a result. It is in complex systems that a difference of 0.0001 units can potentially decide whether the coast sees a sunny weekend or a nor'easter in three months' time. And human behavior has shown itself, to the gloom of economists, to be a most frustratingly complex system.

To come back around to the beginning: I'm still going to post excerpts from a couple of books written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I'll share a few thoughts about how uncannily familiar they might seem to the twenty-first century reader. I'll be doing it more cautiously than I might have a month ago, but it would appear as though I've gone in a circle.

Well: as Borges pronounces in "Pierre Menard," "there is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless"—a consolation and an encouragement to inveterate amateur bloggers everywhere.

If there was anything constructive we might have gleaned or been reminded of from this walk around the block, it might be:

1.) The past is precedent, but the past is also largely unknowable.

2.) Every narrative, to some extent, perpetrates a lie through omission.

3.) Universals are particular.

4.) In general, it is prudent to assume that your own knowledge, at best, falls just a little short of adequate.

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