Friday, November 28, 2008

A Walrus in the Tree

Say I am walking down a country road with a group of people, about thirty or so, with a beautiful forest on the lefthand side. Someone notices an animal up near the top of one of the trees. One of the men of the group, a rather boisterous fellow who fancies himself leading the walk, speaks up loudly, "Why I do believe that's a walrus up there." Not to be outdone, another man, just as proud and ambitious, says back, " My good fellow! Obviously this is not a walrus, for it doesn't have tusks! I can plainly say that this is a horse."

The two stop everything and begin an argument about it. Amazingly, the group becomes divided down the middle, with rougly half standing behind the one, and half behind the other. Right there in the middle of the road, there forms pro-walrus and pro-horse parties, raucous, passionate!

I had been enjoying the walk until that point, rather airily and dreamily taking in the country air, the country sights. However, I take one look at the animal in the tree...I know it is a squirrel and there is just no doubt about it. Now, there's a lot I don't know about squirrels, there's a lot I don't know about trees, there is a lot I don't know about this stretch of country road, etc. But I do know this is a squirrel in a tree.

I say, "Friends, this is neither a walrus nor a horse, but a squirrel."

The immediate response I get is, " You just can't say such a thing...Why, it doesn't fit...Your answer is entirely chaotic. We have a tradition of some length of categorizing this as horse or walrus, and we have vibrant healthy communities of opinion going where we affirm it one way or the other--these are what give our lives structure and meaning..."

I hadn't meant to provoke a reaction beyond simply pointing out the obvious and hopefully finding a way to get the group to continue on with its until-then pleasant walk. Having had some experience with being considered abrasive and divisive, I respond very carefully. I say, " Show me why I can't say this thing, ie, show me why I am wrong to do so, why saying it is a squirrel 'doesn't' fit. Show me why it is chaotic to say it is a squirrel while on the other hand it is traditional-community based to hew to the claim of it being either walrus or horse."

I have at this point a difficulty of explaining the course of events--I am at a loss of how to summarize the response of the walrusists and the horsisists to my questions, my request for clarifications. There are actually a variety of responses contained in their "one" response to me. They are concerned that they do not know my background; that they think I have a funny name; that they don't have enough, or perhaps anything, in common with me; that I don't have a sense of humor; that I am a Lockean liberal; that I need to get used to teasing; that I am irrational in wanting to get it straight on whether it is a squirrel or something else while I am simultaneously destroying their community, their tradition, by being rational...whatever that means. (And I notice one of the most important things is never to bring 'rationality' itself into sharp focus...That's even more out-of-focus than the squirrel-walrus-horse up there in the tree.)

Though I haven't done anything violent or even particularly provocative, the groups are in turmoil. Let's kill this whole "squirrel" heresy before it creates any more turmoil or gashes into profits, as surely it will. (It sure will! We had a squirrelist working for us a few years ago and we ended up with a severe quarterly loss because of it!) Then, the leader of the walrusists pipes up, in a voice stentorial and commanding, "Enough. We must cut down the forest and put all of the biomass in it and of it into my woodchipper over here."

There is silence over the dispersing groups, resigned to the "fate,destiny" of the forest, of themselves. An enormous caterpillar (John Deere D-10) begins to dig into the forest floor and overturn the trees. I am the only one continuing to watch. I see the squirrel scamper away. Then it comes to me...My God! I am responsible! I've been guilty of "naive realism."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Totalization of Shadows, Part VII

I am going to try to pick up my train of thought on the theme of rationality, totality, and probability—what escapes rationality or totality—what escapes rationality in order to fall into even more awful Totalization (from the frying pan into the fire) or what hews to rationality only to lose all sense of contrast—lost in a brilliantly orthogonalized matrix (where I haphazardly mean to imply such an orthogonalized matrix is an image of Totalization.)

Thus, a terrible dilemma appears: abandonment of rationality leads to Totalization, but so does staying within it.

How did this dilemma come to be?

My brief and simple (because I am in fact simple) recap of the philosophical history:

1) Something arises or takes force as an organizing principle in western societies: it is called rationality. What exactly it is doesn’t need to be asked—one of the most remarkable aspects of this historical events is that it is seen as self-explanatory. This is all the more remarkable in that the event is philosophical (so, here’s a problem: why does an actively-questioning ethos shut itself off in the face of such an eminently questionable emergence?)

2) This organizing principle of rationality is powerful and effective in ways which will be broadly perceived as emancipating—and that they are emancipating will also be seen as self-explanatory.

3) This powerful, effective, organizing, and emancipating unleashed emerging force is glorious and wondrous—and yet even its most adamant adherents notice here and there a sacred flowerbed is being trampled over, and at this point very serious questions about what is happening do begin to be asked. For example, it begins to be asked whether we can have all this glorious power and freedom and yet keep our sacred flowerbeds protected from the thundering herds? In other words, can we channel and direct this power? Can we channel this emancipating power, and if so, to what extent does it remain emancipating? (Entirely? Or if not entirely, to some acceptable degree? Who decides what that degree is? If someone decides, do they decide rationally? How is such a thing decided rationally? If the decision cannot be rationalized but must be undertaken anyway (because the sacred flowerbeds must by necessity be protected—yes, “unquestionably” so,) does this involve a philosophical de-activation of philosophy? What in the heck is that?