Saturday, February 14, 2015

More gleanings from browsing with Zimbardo & Boyd’s The Time Paradox in mind: Alemi, Smith, Bauman, Standing, Grurray, Ronfeldt, Sterling, Wanenchak, Landes, Greer, Mattson

For background on how and why these gleanings are here, see the first post in this series (here).

In order of appearance, with minimal discussion and a semblance of order, the quotes in this second post are from: Nader Alemi, Justin E. H. Smith, Zygmunt Bauman, Guy Standing, Grurray, David Ronfeldt, Bruce Sterling, Sarah Wanenchak, Richard Landes, John Michael Greer, and Ingrid Mattson.

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Several gleanings reflected extreme uncertainty about the future, the present, and even the past. To accompany them, I’ve resurrected a deleted piece from an old post where I once discussed a case of growing uncertainty about the past.

Nader Alemi on “uncertainty” and “lack of control”: Alemi, an Afghan psychiatrist who counseled Taliban fighters about mental stress, found that many were afflicted by a total uncertainty about the present and future they faced. A depressing “lack of control” (an STA-type action orientation) also figured in his findings.
“The reason they gave me for the turmoil in their minds was the uncertainty in their lives. They had no control over what was happening to them. Everything was in the hands of their commanders. They got depressed because they never knew what would happen from one minute to the next.” (source)

Justin E. H. Smith on “the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future”: Smith, a philosopher visiting in France to study immigration, remarks about French people blaming the influx of immigrants for “the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future”:
“And while it is disheartening, what I hear in the streets is really only an echo of the rhetoric of politicians and purported intellectuals, who have found it convenient to blame the most powerless members of French society for the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future.” (source)

Zygmunt Bauman on “change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty”: Thanks to Daniel Little’s Understanding Society blog, I learned that Bauman’s post-modernist perspective, which is mostly cited for his “liquid modernity” concept, involves a future orientation of an endless quality — endless both because it is forever, but because it is devoid of real ends/aims. It’s totally uncertain.
“Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects — but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement — acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’. Being always, at any stage and at all times, ‘post-something’ is also an undetachable feature of modernity. As time flows on, ‘modernity’ changes its forms in the manner of the legendary Proteus … What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) 'post-modernity' and what I've chosen to call, more to the point, 'liquid modernity', is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago 'to be modern' meant to chase 'the final state of perfection' — now it means an infinity of improvement, with no 'final state' in sight and none desired.” (source)

Guy Standing on “precariatisation” and “loss of control over time”: Marxists who used to raise concerns about the proletariat and their fixed stable lives are turning now to worry about the “precariat” — a “class-in-the-making” of laborers who lead unanchored precarious lives. British university professor Standing bemoans their time orientations:
“… The key point is that the precariat is subjected to what I call precariatisation – habituation to expecting a life of unstable labour and unstable living. … Precariatisation is about loss of control over time and the development and use of one’s capabilities. …
“… the precariat is still a class-in-the-making because it is internally divided into three groups, which for brevity might be called Atavists, Nostalgics and Progressives. …
“The third and potentially most progressive group [Progressives] consists largely of educated people who feel denied a future, a sense that they can build their lives and careers, after being promised their qualifications would lead to that. They experience a sense of relative deprivation or status frustration. This is becoming a source of immense stress.” (source)

Grurray on “the past must also be uncertain”: In a comment for a post that no longer appears at the Zenpundit blog (due to a hacking attack, I presume), blogger Grurray noted the following, citing Kurt Gödel:
“However, according to Godel, then the connection must be incomplete. If the past is prologue to the future, and the future is uncertain, then the past must also be uncertain.” (source — now missing)
I can’t tell whether this comment is Grurray’s interpretation of Gödel, or something Gödel actually stated. Whatever, it bears well on the topic at hand.

David Ronfeldt on “can the past become as uncertain as the future?”: There is a common assumption that the past is fixed, because it has already happened, and the future is open. In America, the future seems wide open, because we are a land and people of many possibilities. What to think, then, when revisions make the past seem as uncertain as the future, and the fight for the future and its possibilities becomes a fight over the past. In April 2009, I included some paragraphs about this in a post, but then deleted them because they seemed off-topic. Here, however, they’re on topic, so I’m resurrecting them as a gleaning.
“Ordinarily, the past is said to be fixed — because it has already happened. In contrast, the future is wide-open — it’s uncertain and unpredictable.
“Often, the contrast is not that sharp: The past may be subjected to differing interpretations and revisions, depending on new information and on the ideological or other standpoint of whoever is doing the remembering. At the same time, the future may be made to look less uncertain, more predictable — by doing trend analysis, having a good model, or just being close-minded. But even then, the past remains more certain than the future.
“What’s got me wondering is a rarity: moments when the past suddenly looks as uncertain as the future — when one suddenly turns as unsure about what has happened as about what’s going to happen. And not as a result of a bit of revisionism or confusion. But because of some sudden trauma or radical rethinking. I gather this is not so rare in personal lives. But I’m referring to moments when this kind of abnormal time disorientation spreads like a virus across a society.
“A [then] current example is the upending of FDR’s reputation for having healed, even saved, our country from the ravages of the Great Depression. This upending has been going on for months now, prompted in part by a book by Amity Shlaes, and spread in part by Rush Limbaugh, not to mention others. A [then] recent New York Times write-up of a [2009] conference on the matter summarizes its effect thusly:
“In this interpretation Roosevelt is a well-meaning but misguided dupe who not only prolonged the Depression but also exacerbated it. For many people, it’s like hearing that Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and not the wolf is the rapacious killer.” (source)
“That’s the handiest example for me to bring up, but there are surely others. Perhaps more than I realize. Perhaps enough to add to worrisome notions about the rise and decline of civilizations. What I have in mind is a sage old observation by Fred Polak in his The Image of the Future (1973 [1955?], p. 19):
“[Man’s] image of the future is his propelling power . . . . the rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.”
“Perhaps something similar applies to images of the past. For one thing, it can expose your OODA loops in the war of ideas.” (source: deletion from old 2009 post)
By now, this particular controversy has dissipaated, perhaps partly because Ken Burns’ 2014 PBS series on the Roosevelt family offered a corrective. But other instances are afoot. And as for that quote from Polak, here’s a fuller version:
“[Man's] image of the future is his propelling power. … [T]he rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society's image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.” (From Fred Polak, The Image of the Future, [1955] 1973, p. 5, 19, ital. in orig.)
Radical upendings of people’s images of the past may similarly accompany a culture’s loss of vitality.

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Two gleanings highlighted a time perspective I’d not known about: “atemporality” — a dark contrast to Zimbardo & Boyd’s “holistic present”. Atemporality is different from uncertainty, but it strikes me as a hip way to deal with the extreme uncertainty noted in other gleanings.

Bruce Sterling on “atemporality” and “becoming ‘multi-temporal’”: Science fiction author Sterling indicates that our era is about being multi-temporal, even more than being multi-cultural. Accordingly, we should adopt atemporal stances when we think about past, present, and future matters.
“So, what is ‘atemporality’? I think it’s best defined as ‘a problem in the philosophy of history’. And I hate to resort to philosophy, because I am a novelist. But I don’t think we have any way out here. It is about the nature of historical knowledge. What we can know about the past, and about the present, and about the future. How do we represent and explain history to ourselves? What are its structures and its circumstances? What are the dynamics of history and futurity? What has happened before? What is happening now? What is really likely to happen next? …
“Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence to the past. If they are really the same thing, you need to approach them from the same perspective. …
“Becoming ‘multi-temporal’, rather than multi-cultural: it used to be a very big problem for historians that they supposedly could not divide themselves from the outlooks and interests of their own age. I think we are approaching a situation where the outlooks and interests of our own age make very little sense. They just don’t bind us to anything in particular. We don’t have a coherent outlook or interest that can enslave us. This means we are closer to a potentially objective history than anybody has ever been.” (source)

Sarah Wanenchak on abandoned ruins as archetypes of atemporality: Cyborgologist Wanenchak calls atemporal cognition a time perspective in which “we remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past” — all simultaneously. A sense of atemporality arises, in her view, especially when one stands before an abandoned ruin, contemplating all that was, is, and might have been.
“A quick refresher: atemporality most simply refers to the idea that our experience of time is not necessarily as linear as we like to present it; that we don’t just move in a straight line from A to B in time but that we often experience aspects of the past, the present, and the future simultaneously, simply by virtue of our nature as remembering, imagining creatures — as I wrote in my last piece on this topic, we remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. Moreover, this phenomenon is intensified by technology and especially by technologies of documentation and sharing. Abandoned physical space, because of the way it encourages us to imagine our own ruined futures at the same time as we imagine an unruined past, is uniquely atemporal.” (source)
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A few quotes I browsed across in this period addressed the nature of apocalyptic millenarian mentalities. For more on this, watch for Charles Cameron’s posts at the Zenpundit blog.

Richard Landes on “cognitive war”: Landes, an expert on millenarianism, has repeatedly warned about “cognitive war” at his blog Augean Stables. In this instance, he warns about apocalyptic millennialists who imagine a transformed future (a time orientation) and believe they can be the agents for making it happen (an action orientation).
“Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists. …
“Millennialists, from stone-age cargo cults to the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution in Egypt around 1350 BCE to modern secular movements including the French Revolution, Marxism, Communism, and Nazism, all imagine that in the future the world will transform from a society in which evil, corruption, and oppression flourish and the good suffer into a world without suffering and pain. The term “apocalyptic” refers to the experiences and behavior of those who believe that this millennial transformation is imminent. …
“Of the most dangerous such movements to jell are those I call “active cataclysmic” ones that believe that only vast destruction can pave the way to the new world, and that they are the agents of that violence. Such movements have killed tens of millions of people (often their own people) before their raging fires burned out.” (source)

John Michael Greer on “the shape of time” and “the difference between Joachimist and Augustinian visions”: Greer’s blog The Archdruid Report tracks what he views as the decline and eventual collapse of America — and he frequently provides thoughts about time. The following quotes discuss the “cognitive framing” he calls “the shape of time”, as he lays out the decline of “the vision of perpetual progress” and the rise of apocalyptic perspectives. He discusses how and why people may adapt by opting for Joachimist or Augustinian beliefs (i.e., the millenarianism of Joachim de Fiore, versus the spiritualized rationalism associated with St. Augustine), depending on whether life seems to be trending upward or downward.
“It’s no accident that when movements for social change fail — whether the failure is simply a matter of banishment to the fringes, as happened to the New Age, or whether the movement is courted, seduced, betrayed and abandoned like the hapless heroine of a Victorian penny-dreadful novel, as happened to the fundamentalists and the environmentalists — apocalyptic beliefs become increasingly central to their rhetoric. …
“If you and your civilization are staring the Dark Ages in the face, a way of thinking about time that treats ordinary history as an evil irrelevance and focuses all hope on a shining vision of a world after history ends is not merely comforting, it’s adaptive. It inspired monks and nuns across Dark Age Europe to preserve the cultural and scientific heritage of the ancient world, and helped many ordinary people find a reason to keep going even in the harshest times.” (source)
“The cognitive framing that I called the shape of time in last week’s post is a case in point. Most people, most of the time, don’t notice that all their thinking about past, present and future is shaped by some set of unnoticed assumptions about time and history.…
“The shape of time that governs nearly all contemporary thinking in the industrial world, the vision of perpetual progress, was adaptive back when ever more abundant energy supplies were being extracted out of mines and wells and poured into the project of limitless industrial expansion. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, though, makes that shape of time hopelessly maladaptive, and a galaxy of assumptions and ideas founded on faith in progress are thus well past their pull date.
“Since most people in the modern industrial world aren’t even aware of the role that faith in progress plays in their thinking, their chances of adapting to the end of progress are not good — and certain habits of thought the civil religion of progress has inherited from older theist religions make the necessary adaptations even harder than they have to be.” (source)
“As real as the political subtext was, it’s a mistake to see the myth of progress purely as a matter of propaganda. During the heyday of industrialism, that myth was devoutly believed by a great many people, …
“The problem that we face now is precisely that those hopes and dreams and visions have passed their pull date.” (source)
“Put two compelling visions of the shape of time in a culture, and you can count on any number of fusions and confusions between them. …
“For the great difference between the Augustinian and Joachimist visions is precisely the kind of historical events to which they tend to be adaptive. Augustine’s vision was crafted in a civilization in decline, and it turned out to be extremely well suited to that context: from within Augustine’s shape of time, the messy disintegration of the Roman world was just another meaningless blip on the screen of secular history, of no real importance to those who knew that the history that mattered was the struggle between Christ and Satan for each human soul. That way of thinking about time made it possible for believers to keep going through times of unrelenting bleakness and horror.
“Joachim of Flores, by contrast, lived during the zenith of the Middle Ages, before the onset of the 14th-century subsistence crisis that reached its culmination with the arrival of the Black Death. His was an age that could look back on several centuries of successful expansion, and thought it could expect more of the same in the years immediately ahead. His way of thinking about time was thus as well suited to ages of relative improvement as Augustine’s was to ages of relative decline.” (source)
Those gleanings relate to STA. Much of what Greer writes relates to TIMN as well. If I ever get around to posting a TIMN analysis of collapsitarian and dystopian thinking, I expect to revisit Greer’s writings. Offhand, I think the +N component of TIMN provides a new path and thus a way out. If so, America’s decline and collapse are far from inevitable.

Ingrid Mattson on planting a seedling at “the end of time”: Most scenarios I see about the end-times lead to massive violence. In contrast, Mattson, a Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford seminary, speaking on a PBS-broadcast program titled Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, says that no matter how bad things look (time-wise), “the job of human beings is to build for the future” (a time+action orientation). Thus, a productive way to respond “when the hour comes” for the apocalypse at “The end of time” is to plant a tree:
“One really interesting parallel between Judaism and Islam is that there is a statement in both traditions that when the hour comes, when the horn is blown by the angel to announce the apocalypse, to announce the end of the world, that if you have a seedling in your hand, if you have a plant in your hand, that you should plant it. Now what that says to us, the message is that no matter how dire things look, no matter how hopeless things look, the job of human beings is to build for the future. The end of time is in God’s hands. It's not in any human’s hands.” (source)

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More to follow …

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