A Gene For Agnosia?

As I have written elsewhere, simple ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. Wilful ignorance is a different matter. At first sight people can seem stupid, when what they are is really incurious. They can think well enough if they care, but mostly they don’t care. What they already know, or think they know, is enough for them.

Now, according to Aristotle the negative labels denote not an actual something but a privation – for example, cold is the absence of heat. Again at first sight, ignorance may seem like another privation, this time the lack of knowledge. And yet we may wonder whether sometimes the parallel breaks down. Could there be an active kind of ignorance resulting from either genetic or memetic dissemination?

Well, that this AGNOSIA should be genetic seems unlikely; how would a lack of the normal mammalian curiosity come to spread? There would have to be some survival or reproductive advantage for incurious individuals, and it is hard to see in what that might possibly consist. On the other hand, if curiosity were genetically coded for, and individuals carrying this quality were more likely to move somewhere else, then the individuals who stayed at home would be selected for incuriosity. I know a place like this.

As for memetic dissemination, there would seem to be no a priori reason why lack of curiosity should not be culturally transmitted – a habitus. It would then be a matter of the messages on which the young are fed. “Avoid knowing this!” might be justified in terms of some kind of superiority that would be endangered by new information. Obviously many religious communities have gone in for this, but it probably works on an ethnic basis too: “Avoid knowing anything about the Not-Us!”

Such constant restriction of the mental environment probably sets up a feedback howl: the less you know, the less you even realise there is to be known, or want to know. Last but not least, the external world can be simply drowned out by an emphasis on a volatile peer-group status conferred mostly by consumer trivia, as in what I call Starbucks Culture. “I am superior because I have more like-bots than thou!”

(Fiddle date-stamp to December 24, 2013)

Posted on July 16, 2018 at 19:43 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

No To Political “Movements”

I have just been reading about the nineteenth-century assumption that too much sitting caused constipation, which in turn caused political disgruntlement. Could it really be that simple?

That a sedentary lifestyle conduces to constipation is probably quite true. The trouble comes with the second step of the argument. “Disgruntlement” is a heavily loaded term, implying a regrettable deviation from how things ought to be. When applied to politics, the assumption is that we should all be so to speak perfectly gruntled – that is to say, with our betters. “Disgruntlement” thus shares a rhetorical universe with froward “malcontents”, ranting “rabble-rousers”, insolent “tub-thumpers”, and other purportedly objective condemnations of those who have their enthusiasm for their rulers well under control.

If healthy sports and games really built the Empire, not only by rendering the British able to venture into the challenging terrain of exciting new peoples and kill them, but also by reducing the disgruntlement with one’s social superiors consequent upon constipation, then perhaps we should make a case for eschewing dietary fibre. A more sluggish digestion might help us to look around and see more clearly what is being done to us.

The Ultimate Division

The most fundamental dichotomy running through humanity is not between male and female, it is between dominant and subordinate. This division runs between those whose will is done and those who do that will. It by no means follows that a purportedly mistreated woman is in actual fact an Alpha exploiting the complaint – as a tactical device to have her will done or to distract everyone’s attention from the fact that it is her will that is being done – but the enquiry is always worth making.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2013)

The Strongest Force In The World?

I was once asked to name the strongest force in the world, by an African Christian who very obviously required my answer to be the conventional “love”. She was quite discombobulated by my awarding the palm instead to “stupidity”. As soon as we regard love as the only way long-gestating mammals can be suckered into reproducing at all, however, then she would be in a way vindicated.

And of course this is the very essence of the Gnostic critique; “love”, in the sense not of charity or compassion but of the drive to mate and reproduce, is indeed the strongest force in the world – but why should the strongest force in the world be a good force? Anyone who makes that assumption, however atheist he may imagine himself, has actually hidden a beneficent god in the baggage.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 28, 2011)

The Expatriate Excuse

There is a tremendous advantage of being a foreign resident that nobody ever cites: you can take absolutely any bad quality of human beings and attribute it to the host culture. So convenient is this that expatriates succeed in utterly forgetting what they witnessed in their own native land; everything negative is now treated as typical, not of human beings as such, but of the culture in which they now live. In fact, many expatriates take care never to move back home, for if they did they might have to rethink their knee-jerk habit of blaming every conceivable vice or foolishness upon their host nationality.

Admiring oneself as the one-eyed king in the country of the blind is much more fun.

(Fiddle date-stamp to November 10, 2009)

Posted on June 17, 2018 at 14:36 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

The Locomotive Modellers And The Weed

In my youth it was a social law that no adult ever criticised another adult in front of a child. (This rule was one of the things that facilitated the sexual abuse of Catholic priests and others, but that is another story.) My parents must have really strained themselves in not saying that a given family in our village were total weirdos, but they managed by hinting that I should provide the son with some company. The word “nerd” had not yet been coined. Aged about forty, he lived at home with his parents, worked at the steelworks as had his father before him, did some photography and had as his annual and perhaps only joy a two-week hiking hour of Austria with the Ramblers’ Association.

So far, not so unique; but I have still never seen anything quite like his parents. Their consuming hobby was the making of working models of steam locomotives from steel and brass. I would guess the scale at 1:10. These were not kits, but made from bar stock on a lathe and so forth, with a simply astonishing level of craftsmanship. Now, in those days for an upper-working-class husband to pursue solo hobbies in his garden shed was pretty well normal; the gentility-aspiring wife could keep her house unsullied by him, and the couple lived largely separate lives. The bizarre aspect of this couple was that, far from staying in the house and leaving him to it, the woman was an equal partner in the machine shop. I could see no signs of coercion, she seemed as committed to the day-long fabrication of steam locomotives from raw metal as he was. Whether her manual skills were inferior, equal or superior to those of her husband I cannot begin to say.

I admire all craftsmanship. That a woman should have such a “masculine” hobby and craft is not the objection here; the doubt arises from the fact that they did, after all, have a child (no doubt an early mistake, before they discovered their true calling). A child whom these monomaniacs seemed utterly to ignore. The parents were not alcoholics or criminals, and they must have fed and clothed him, in between the milling of miniature components, so that there was not the slightest prospect of his being “taken into care”; and yet one may wonder whether perhaps he ought to have been.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 20, 2011)

On Pathetic Male Neediness

In Isabel Allende’s novel Daughter of Fortune, I read how the Californian Forty-Niners used to walk miles merely to look at a woman. Her just sitting there was enough. In the miners’ dance, moreover, having a kerchief in your belt meant that you were playing a woman, and would be asked to step out. The second item reminded me of the origins of the tango, danced by customers outside the brothel with one another. If any thinker about gender has mentioned the latter two habits, it would surely have been Camille Paglia; but I do not know whether she ever encountered Allende’s marvellous example of the male need even for the most trivial amount of female company.

Paglia’s work on the history of art concentrated on paintings as a source of nekkid wimmin; Boucher was essentially for jacking off to. The more high-minded approach to “Art” seems to require a belief in some kind of female spiritual superiority, of which men can vicariously partake – either by looking at an Old Master nude, or walking miles just to gaze at a seated woman. But if we suggest that this male belief in Das Ewige-Weibliche comes from having a mother, then we need to ask why women do not have it too? Well, perhaps half the women honestly believe that they are themselves a window onto a better world, while the others find the scam lucrative.

However that may be, the extreme example of those footsore Forty-Niners may suggest something to the present generation of men. We have all grown up as the product of centuries of quasi-religious veneration of women and many decades of ruthless mockery of what used to be considered specifically male values. Which need not mean killing people in duels over silly points of honour; that equation is just precisely what has been so long foisted upon us. The fact that ninety-nine people out of a hundred assume that male separatism, literal or psychic, must be synonymous with rape or at least Trumpish groping is the fruit of this long eclipse of the masculine. Let us therefore develop a new creature: a modest, courteous, and celibate gentleman, all his energies devoted to science, arts and letters. Or even gardening!

A New 17th-Century World Power?

Just suppose that in Japanese history there had been no “closed country”; that is to say, suppose that the Tokugawa shogunate had reunified the nation but continued the policy of “the southern-barbarian trade”.

In our world, a few years after seeing their first firearms the Japanese had copied the Portuguese model and fought a major gun-battle. In no time at all, Hideyoshi Toyotomi was trying to conquer Korea with a musketeer army bigger than anything yet seen in the West. They had built a state-of-the-art oceanic vessel, the San Juan Bautista, and sent an envoy to the Pope via Mexico. It is no more improbable than other outcomes with which that writers play to imagine the amazing technological and industrial catch-up of the Meiji era happening in the early Tokugawa period instead.

An allohistorian could then ask himself, what would that have done to European colonialism in Asia? If Japan had played exactly the same games as the Europeans, which it surely would have done, we might have seen the Aztec and Inca gold flowing west instead of east. No Spanish Golden Age, then, and thereby a totally different European history. Above all, what would Japanese dominance of the Pacific have done to the European sense of ethnic superiority?

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 14, 2010)

May The Force Be With You

I take my title from the modern pop-culture greeting, so common as to be known even to me, who am far from being a fan of Star Wars. When people start putting “Jedi” on their census forms, perhaps we should consider what people actually mean by it. What exactly is The Force supposed to be?

More urgently, perhaps, we might as ourselves why we have chosen precisely that word as a shorthand for something-or-other. The thing that Jedi Knights are supposed to employ for good, the heart of the universe, is given a name that in other contexts means either a body of soldiers, the police, or thumping somebody to make him do what we want – but was this really a good idea? I doubt people truly want to go round saying, “May the Military Formation be with you” or “May Violence be with you”. But that is what they risk suggesting.

As a term of physics, on the other hand, “Force” is part of a very unfortunate metaphorical conglomeration chosen several centuries ago. The operations of a “clockwork universe” were described in terminology taken from human concepts of rules and coercion. (Biology had to wait its turn, the model 17th-century sciences were mechanics and chemistry.)

Calling an observed correlation or regularity a “Law” of Nature was by no means logically inevitable. It was driven by a belief in a creating deity that could hardly, in those days, be publicly repudiated. The nearest that age could get to a godless universe was Deism, according to which the Sky Man wound up the clockwork and set it ticking, but then refrained from day-to-day interference. In theory observed regularities might instead be called just “patterns”, but since the concept of god was modelled both conceptually and emotionally on human kingship, taking the terminology from human legislation was probably unavoidable. The term “Laws” thus implies someone standing behind Nature and giving her orders. Or at least, it implies a something that compels the phenomena to happen in “obedience” to these “laws”.

But that compulsion is just precisely the thing that we cannot observe. As far as I know, David Hume was the first to point out that we do not see this thing called “causation” happening. What we do see is regularity, or correlation. If X occurs, then Y occurs. It always occurs, and occurs close in time and space to X. That is what we observe, end of story. We must go beyond the empirical evidence to speculate that in some way Y had to happen. Our minds, conditioned by millennia of reward and punishment under monarchs and warlords, attribute to the phenomena of the natural world the coercion that we know in our own flesh. Even consciously regarding phenomena of mechanical or planetary motions as entirely inanimate, does not stop us projecting onto them the familiar patterns of human power.

Motivation for our own action we understand so to speak from inside, which means understanding what is nowadays called social engineering. The king threatens to flog us, behead us or torture our families if we do not do as he says; or at best he bribes us to do his will; we then imagine a similar coercion happening to inanimate objects, and denote this by the impersonal-seeming word “force”. But the term “force” is not actually impersonal, it is a metaphor. A third party can observe the king giving us a motivation to do something, but we cannot observe an equivalent “compulsion” acting on a billiard ball, or on a planet.

Ultimately, therefore, the term “force” is just hand-waving – it says that stuff always happens, with the question of why it happens remaining beyond our reach. Names such as “gravity” are merely ignotum-per-ignotius dodges for transferring the problem to a higher level of generality. When Sartre said that Nature had no laws, only habits, he was using another anthropomorphism; but at least he reminded us that we could have used a language other than that of obedience to law and coercion by superior force.

The attraction of the ideas of law and force must surely lie in the illusion of someone – rather like the warlord we already know – operating the gears and levers of an inanimate universe in much the same way that the warlord dispatches his soldiers and police. If there really were such a personage, we might then influence him, both to benefit ourselves and to punish everyone who annoys us. We project our own intra-group violence and its later elaboration in “law” onto the whole universe, because it has to be all about us. And yet the universe is under no obligation to conform to our monkey-hierarchy metaphors.

In the last analysis, asking “why?” of any inanimate phenomenon is therefore a category mistake, a projection onto the universe of what we know about ourselves – namely that we have “reasons” for doing things. Unless the universe as a whole is actually sentient and has reasons not unlike our own, asking why things happen is sheer anthropomorphism. The Thusness of things may not require a Why.

The Gascon And The Pickled Herring

I was recently reading a biography of Napoleon written by a Swede. With customary Nordic self-absorption, it paid almost as much attention to his rival Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who ended up on the throne of Sweden.

Much was made of the Gascon general’s “Southern temperament”; the author appeared to feel no need to analyse or even unpack this concept, probably because the contrast between temperamental southerners and themselves is the small change of Nordic self-consciousness. They sometimes mean it in critical contrast to their own admitted lack of warmth and bonhomie, but far more often in boastful contrast to their own imagined rationality and balance. In Norway, at any rate, being “temperamental” means being to any degree indignant at one’s maltreatment by Norwegians; in this it greatly resembles the way in which psychiatrists define any objection to their coercive interventions as being in itself a symptom of insanity. That is, the Nordics are so superior that any trouble you might have with them becomes unspoken proof of your own dysfunctional “temperament”.

Not that the Nordics are alone in commenting on the alleged Gascon temperament. Even the other French do this. We have the Three (or Four) Musketeers, for example, plus Cyrano de Bergerac. In all cases this “Southern temperament” functions as a plot point. So what do they mean by it? In Old Goriot, Balzac identifies those coming from south of the Loire as possessing “impetuous courage”, “dash and boldness” and “impatience of delay and suspense”. Well, is impatience of delay and suspense actually Trans-Loirean or simply human? “Dash” is difficult to define, although we know it when we see it; while “boldness” too often means my own stupidity rather than yours.

The Southern quality most often cited by Northern people is surely hot-headedness; but this is merely a metaphor that pushes back the question. That some people have emotions that are “hotter” than those of others is usually special pleading and always unprovable. If we go only by what we can actually observe, then we may observe that allegedly “emotional” types do not seem to calculate costs and benefits before acting, are oversensitive to offence and make a great deal more noise about everything.

Histrionic types are convinced that it is normal to take up as much space in the world as possible and consider a small footprint to be a form of “death”. A sceptic might counter that making more noise does not in fact mean there is more “in there” to make a noise about – the loud ones have learned this particular kind of meaningless display from their parents, that’s all.

As for rushing about without thinking, I know of no definitive formula for precisely how much thought in which to engage in before action. Perhaps our only guide is not to do again that which blew up in our faces last time. If being “hot-blooded” means courting the same disaster every time, then my vote is for the other side. Or else it just means being willing to act at all, as opposed to eternal dithering, which would be the equal but opposite error.

As regards the prickliness of one’s amour-propre, there is an Aristotelian golden mean; on the one hand it is unwise to hang a sign on the seat of your pants advising the world where to kick, and on the other hand the man who is easily insulted is easily manipulated. Characters such as Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man may come to resemble not chocolate but rather clockwork soldiers, comically easy (in the felicitous British idiom) to “wind up” and set a-strutting. If the cold fishes of the North are advising an interval of thought between stimulus and response, then perhaps they have the right of it.

As well as retribution to all offenders, the Southern temperament is supposed to deal out generosity to the defeated and the innocent. Bernadotte himself was certainly noted for this. The magnanimous ideal, of course, goes back at least to Virgil’s command to spare the conquered and war down the proud. The quality that the Nordics sometimes seem to be promoting in contrast with the hot blood of the South is being langsint or never letting go of a grudge. Funnily enough, this is closer to the Corsican or Sicilian vendetta than to magnanimity. So perhaps the whole business of the “hot Latin blood” is merely a nonsensical stereotype; or perhaps the vendetta-nurser is actually “colder” even than the pickled herrings of the North, who despite all their grim unsociability are rarely as destructive.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 18, 2011)