Friday, July 29, 2016

Non Real World Stuff

I've forgotten the source and the exact wording, but I was struck yesterday by a quotation I saw printed next to a sudoku puzzle. It said, approximately, "Sometimes I'm amazed by how little attention I give to real world stuff."

This, it seems to me, is one of the defining attributes of contemporary life, at least for people like me. I read fantasy and science fiction, watch superhero movies, and mainly play video games in which I can be a wizard. Some of my other interests are technically real world, but as far as my own life goes they might as well be fantasy: ancient and medieval history, space exploration.

These habits are widespread. I was back in Ellicott City with my son Wednesday night, watching hundreds of people catching virtual Pokemon.The most eagerly awaited work of art of any sort right now is probably the next Game of Thrones novel. There is also a huge amount of stuff in our culture which is real world but not very real, like professional sports and celebrity gossip. And what about music, which remains a mystery despite the explanatory efforts of a legion of evolutionary psychologists? What about art?

This is not really new. Many of the best human minds of the past were taken up with abstruse theology, or the development of elaborate mythic systems. Mathematics was developed to track the stars and planets, for reasons of faith more than anything else.

I don't have anything profound to say about this, I was just struck by the thought that I, and billions of others, prefer to think about almost anything rather than what actually feeds and houses us. For many of us, our minds are too big for our daily needs, so we find other ways to fill them.


G. Verloren said...

The routine nourishes the body, while the sublime nourishes the mind.

Working a field of grain all day may keep our bodies alive, but daydreaming of greater things while doing so keeps our minds from withering away. Even while our bodies sleep, our minds continue to dream.

I suspect it is simple a necessity of conscious life - we have a biological need to think and to imagine just as much as we have one to eat and to breathe.

David said...

According to Yuval Harari, what sets our species apart is our capacity to imagine vast fictions and guide our actions by them. Some of these fictions are abstract theology, but the fictions also include things like money, corporations, and the state, which are all really vast constructs of the imagination. Part of what gives them their power is that we trust millions of others to believe in them; and they do! Else why would I accept a few digits in a computer program as fair compensation for hours spent grading papers?

As you say, our minds are too big for our daily needs.

A stable period of history is one in which a working majority (numerical or not) accepts the same fictions and lives by the etiquette that sustains them.

Are we entering a phase of history in which the fictions that have sustained us are powerfully called into question?

Part of the confidence felt in the face of the possibility of a Trump victory in November (I mean the confidence of people who are in no way Trumpistas) is the belief that our fictions are simply too powerful for him to challenge. Can he really ban Muslim immigration? No way--the ACLU and SPLC will bottle it up in court for years! Laws being forms of fiction. Plus, I'm sure, many other factors that will make such a ban difficult. Perhaps, but can we be so trusting that these fictions will beat Trump's?

It was that phrase, "racist nationalism," and the full-throated avowal of it that did it for me. I was suddenly struck by the unscripted nature of the times. At this moment I would ask, are fictions that powerful in play?

I'm sorry, John. I'm not capable of your tolerance. Note that I am not talking about who gets to post on a blog, but about the larger historical situation.

And yet, these are all just fictions and fantasies.

Susi said...

Thank You! I come here for reasoned thought that feeds my mind during my routine quiet life. I think that this need of humans to dream while waking is the genesis of religion: the ultimate fictional tale.

G. Verloren said...


The Venetians had a saying: omnia mundi fumus et umbra - all the world is smoke and shadows.

Theirs was a lifestyle made possible only by great fictions. They held no lands, worked no fields, and existed outside of the fuedal heirachy of the rest of Europe. All of their food came from the fictions of money and trade, bent to their advantage. Their independence came equally from their ability to fend off invaders, and from the fictions of treaties and brokered agreements which convinced others it was better to not even attempt to sieze control of them. And their profits and prosperity from trade came from the fictions of currency, contracts, republican law, and the Venetian reputation for quality and honesty in trade.

And they flourished for centuries on mere fictions, becoming the greatest maritime power in the region. For hundreds of years they were opposed violently by differing, mutually exclusive fictions, and yet they held firm. Despite the rejection of their Republic by feudal kings and lords, despite the condemnation of the Catholic Church at every turn, the fundamental values of The Serene Republic persisted through it all, unflinching in the face of all cultural opposition.

Indeed, when Venice at last began to decline, it was not for reasons of cultural decay, but for mundane ones. External forces beyond their control reshaped the balance of power in the Mediterraean. The continual militant ascent of the Ottomans in Anatolia; the lack of a unified European response; the changing politics of the Orient and their impacts on the Silk Road and on Black Sea trade; the rise of blue-water sailing; the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope; the establishment of American colonies and the imperial conquests of India and Oceania; et cetera.

In contrast, America isn't really facing great practical upheavals from external forces that we can't influence. There's nothing on the horizon that could realistically threaten our existence and undermine our ability to continue holding to our extant cultural values.

If our culture radically changes, it will be because we collectively choose for it to do so - and even in the face of Trumpists and others, that seems unlikely given the long tradition of "Americanism" that has been present in this nation. Despite our failings, despite our flaws, what makes all of us Americans is that we choose to share the same fictions - we agree to the same rules, and we more or less all play by them. And when we feel a rule is unfair or immoral, we talk it over and decide to change it, and everyone agrees to the new version.

Sometimes that takes years, sometimes it requires great struggle and much suffering, but ultimately we work within the system to fix the system. We don't have military coups imposing new rules and new laws upon us. We don't have dictators bending us to their whims. We have elections, and we have protests, and we have discourse, and we try to be as fair and prudent as we can be in deciding things. And yes, the system is very much imperfect. But it's better than coups and dictators.

The only time the system has broken down was in 1861 - and a similar breakdown today strikes me as practically impossible.

David said...

@Verloren, can one really be so certain? Can one really be sure that there's still a coherent "we" that does things the "American" way? Might we not be France in 1789? The French ancien regime was also centuries old, and had withstood the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, and a series of exhausting European-wide and even global wars, most of which ended in defeat. The system had shown itself flexible, capable of incremental change in the face of challenge, and yet had endured in a substantially similar form since at least the late thirteenth century. France was still the richest and most powerful state on the Continent, and had just defeated Britain in the War of American Independence. Then, in one summer--poof! (The warning from history stands, I think, regardless of what one thinks of the changes of 1789, or what followed after.)

Are the Trumpistas the brownshirts? And if they're only the brownshirt equivalents of, say, 1923, is it still too early to take them seriously?

I wouldn't put money on a Trump victory in November. But the times are nevertheless serious. And what if Trump loses? Might not the Republicans simply repackage the formula for 2020, with a more presentable standard-bearer?

G. Verloren said...


The thing about the French Revolution, though, is that there were absolutely extreme external pressures and practical concerns in place exacerbating the extant cultural flaws leading into things.

The economy was in shambles, crop failure was rampant, warfare was constant. The Monarchy was not only completely out of touch with it all, but was also incredibly ineffectual, in large part due to Loius himself being largely inept. The Estates General was a farce, with both the Nobility and the Church being wildly corrupt and exploitative of the masses.

The other major powers of Europe were also largely corrupt and untrustworthy in this period. There was great resentment of the Russians, of the Austrians, of the Prussians, et cetera. News of tyrannical, dishonorable rule carried out by the notable monarchs of the continent made it easy for the common Frenchman to oppose not just their own king, but the very concept of a king itself.

Conditions for the average Frenchman were staggeringly bad, and the sentiment was that there was literally no hope whatsoever of relief from the extant authorities of the nobility and the Church. It could well be argued that the French masses might have tolerated their extreme misfortunes if only their leadership had bothered to display even the merest shreds of interest or concern - to make certain reassuring promises and minor reforms, to ease tension amongst the populace and keep resentment and desperation from spilling over into full blown revolution.

And then there was the example of the Americans. Conditions across the Atlantic were never anywhere near as bad as those the French people were suffering under, and yet their discontent with George III had been enough to compel them to rise up and take the reins of government into their own hands. So then why shouldn't the French, who had much more severe grievances with their own king, do exactly the same thing? What did they have to lose at that point?

I honestly don't think you can remotely compare the conditions of the present day to those of the French Revolution.

And as for the Brownshirts, again, the comparison doesn't work. As with the French Revolution, you have to note the conditions of the country.

The Nazis rose to power because huge numbers of Germans at the time considered themselves apolitical, and largely ignored the development of the fascist regime. The Brownshirts themselves were armed, uniformed paramilitary thugs openly roaming the streets causing politically motivated mayhem and violence - and the German masses largely didn't care or do anything about it. I can't imagine such a development in present day America - the public outcry would be staggering, and the government response would be overwhelmingly severe.

The rise of the Reich coincided with a time of general weariness and apathy among the peoples of The West. The global economy was in shambles, and the German economy was in utter ruin. Europe was a political mess, World War I was still fresh in living memory, and people in general simply didn't want to engage with politics and militancy - they were too busy just trying to muddle through. It was easier to ignore or appease the Fascists, who only were winning about 1% of the vote in elections, and worry about one's own private affairs. There were other, more pressing concerns to worry about for most people - like making ends meet.

David said...

Verloren, our takes on history are entirely different. France 1789: there was a bad harvest in 1788 that foretold shortages in the summer. But was this worse than the terrible famines of 1315-17, or the 1690s, neither of which issued in any significant social crisis? The aristocracy and church were corrupt and exploitative? Compared to what? They had always been that way. Actually, there probably more civic- and reform-minded nobles in France in 1789 than any time before. Foreigners distrusted and thought to provide bad examples? When had that not been the case? In short, I would say there was nothing so objectively or materially different in France in 1789 from ancien regime France at any other time. The difference was the fragility of the common fictions that had bound society together. How else could you explain the sudden death of feudalism in one night in August, and its entire conversion (including supposedly sacred things like the tithe) into money redemption, with hardly a peep of internal opposition?

(Additionally, I think the American example was less influential than often credited. I've never found much mention of it in the primary sources. The British example seems to have been more influential with the men of 1789; and the men of the Terror were obsessed with Sparta and Rome.)

As for the rise of the Nazis, the Nazis did quite well in the elections of the 1930s; not just 1%. Fascist and other rightist parties in general enjoyed significant electoral support in many countries.

I could go on, but I guess I don't see the relevance of this reassurance anyway. We're looking at the serious possibility in our country of a major shift in the political culture, in the limits of the permissible in speech, and in the limits of the possible in policy. And these shifts may well go in the direction of racist nationalism. Such changes happen under their own steam, because of human psychosocial dynamics much more than because of material factors. We've already in our lifetimes seen a significant decline in the willingness of wealth in our society to acquiesce in the redistribution that is crucial to basic social comity in almost any society.

In any case

David said...

Hmm. I wonder what I was going to say, "in any case."

David said...

Looking back over my notes and filling them out with Wikipedia, it's actually impressive how well the Nazis did electorally:

Reichstag elections of 1930: 6.4 million votes, 18.25%

Reichstag elections of July 1932: Nazis were the top vote-getters, at more than 13 million votes, 37% of the electorate, in an election with 70+% turnout.

Reichstag elections of November 1932: Nazis again the top vote-getters, though their numbers declined somewhat, in an election with 80+% turnout.

Reichstag elections of March 1933: 88% turnout, Nazis obtain their largest percentage ever, 44%. Results were skewed by handicaps affecting their Communist and Socialist rivals, especially the melding of the brownshirts with the Prussian state police and the arrest of Communist leaders, raids on their headquarters, etc.

Still, I think there's room for arguing the Nazis rode to power on a wave of popular mobilization among a remarkably politically active population.