Friday, December 18, 2015

Thanatos: The Deliverer

"Knowledge tolerates no dissent. She grinds the rebellious soul with all its mysteries into dust."

The Personification of Science
Here's Neil Postman quoting Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents in the first chapter of Technopoly. Although I've expanded the quote a little here:
... We ought to be content to conclude that power over nature is not the only precondition of human happiness, just as it is not the only goal of cultural endeavor; we ought not to infer from it that technical progress is without value for the economics of our happiness. One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man? And there is a long list that might be added to benefits of this kind which we owe to the much-despised era of scientific and technical advances. 
The real cost of every advance is that which we must leave behind...

The casualties we suffer can only be accounted for afterward. Never in advance. Even then we can only approximate our losses since our ability to perceive damage is itself damaged. We arrive at the place, in a condition like the one Richard Weaver describes, where we are amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent. There is no going back once we cross Amara's Bridge. Should we surmise that we erred in crossing it, or that doing so was in some way injurious to our health, we'll also find that the way back has been blocked.

We often suffer unforeseen consequences resulting from the uncontrolled release of energies with which we are unfamiliar. Variables appear in our equations seemingly from nowhere. What we think is construction often turns out to be demolition as well. Parts of our ego are dislodged or buried with the id; the new foundation of our being.  Tekne displaces Christ and serves as our new superego; rearranging us without our fully informed consent.  The ancient landmarks of the psyche are toppled or removed.  Sometimes, when we're lucky, they linger on as metaphors in the stories we tell.

The as yet unwritten future is a future past. Past is prologue. We are forced to carve this future-past into stone while blindfolded; prologue is transformed into an unalterable epilogue while freedom dissolves into fate. The present that our technologies summon is a demon—one that possesses us for as long as he fancies. Eventually, some new spirit is conjured up and takes up residence within us. All we can ever be is a habitation for newer and improved devils.

Our arts are unavoidably eradicated by our sciences. Art does not insist—it cedes whatever ground advancing tekne demands. She makes way for science and yields so much she makes practice of her own self impossible. Knowledge—unlike feeling—tolerates no dissent. It grinds the rebellious soul and its mysteries into dust.

The campaign to make everything amenable to conceptualization—to contain and control it all with reason—is a consequence of fear of the unknown. It's a war born of a visceral hatred of the unquantifiable. Progressives are aware and terrified of the immeasurably deep and unsearchable foundations of our being. They seek to exorcise the other within that haunts the darkened corners of the soul. The endless railing against xenophobia is projection. 'Enlightenment' is institutionalized fear. Science is collective paranoia.

All this effort is vain striving to deliver man from his own self. What is this madness but the Will To Power seeking to destroy man through transcendence, abdication, or extirpation? This rough beast is nothing but our own image twisted, turned inward, feeding off of itself, and devouring its own flesh. The ardent desire to explain man is the desire to enslave him to his own transient epiphenomena. Is it wise to tear down the scaffolding with which we erect ourselves? Should we dash this scaffold to pieces to render it available for study? What is humanism but the attempt to exterminate man? Rationality seems inclined to self-harm then. What is 'progress' but hatred of the present? It is to despise the given.

O Prometheus! Thou art a villain! Misanthropy piled upon absurdity! 

Our instruments are powerless. We affirm with Qohelet that the destiny of finitude is vanity—to be dashed and broken upon the infinite. All so much grasping for the wind. Will we see, like Weaver did, that total immersion in the problem will leave us unfit to solve it? Understanding is unable to understand itself (((( bootstrapping )))) After all, we are just clouds of probability made up of variable electrical charges whose speed and/or location will forever escape our scrutiny.

Continuing our expanded quotation of Freud:
But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard and warns us that most of these satisfactions follow the model of the 'cheap enjoyment' extolled in the anecdote—the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again. If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage, and have probably worked against the beneficial effects of natural selection? And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?



1) Postman, Neil "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology" New York: Vintage Books, 1993 [pg. 6]

2) Freud, Sigmund "Civilization and Its Discontents" New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005 [pg. 70-71]

3) Weaver, Richard "Ideas Have Consequences" Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [both quotes from the Introduction]

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