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O Modernism (redirected from Modernism)

Page history last edited by roy williams 4 years, 8 months ago

O Modernism (endgame)


End Game for Modernism
Many years ago, the epistemologists had great fun showing that the modernists had 'no clothes on'. Latour has taken that debate a lot further over the years, particularly in his latest book, Facing Gaia.

The end of science?
No, but the end of modernism, and modernist science, which was just one (resonant) aspect of the global commoditization of: commerce, production, governance, and communication and interaction. We now have to re-cognize (literally and figuratively), the ‘terrible beauty’ that was born with the creation of mathematics and science. Whether we unfairly exploited ‘Nature’ or not is now besides the point. Its done. We have already fundamentally destabilized what was already a fragile ecology and are increasingly doing so. There is no chance that, whatever we do, it will return to what are we once imagined was a 'stable state of Nature’.

Modernism: the delusion of a domain of ‘externality’ - called the market, or ‘nature’, (or both), which is i) always going to be resilient enough to mop up all the detritus, junk and pollution extruded from our modernist projects; &/or, ii) not ‘our’, first World’s, or the 1%’s problem; &/or, iii) something that will be taken care of by a metaphysical 'externality', e.g. God’s divine plan (fill in a deity/sect of your choice here); &/or, iv) the next generation’s problem, which wont affect ‘our’ children, because we have set up adequate off-shore trust-funds to take care of that.

Global-commoditization is really a single, fusion meme. The whole point of commoditization is the global projection of agency and/or power on the one hand, and accumulation of globally liquid financial and intellectual assets on the other. Since time immemorial, it has aspired to unfettered global reach, and ‘capture’. The ‘world’ has always seemed to grow bigger and bigger to accommodate this, but now there’s nowhere left to go, except into your/our minds.

Once upon a time ...
Commoditization starts well, and provides undreamed of freedom to trade, exchange ideas on science and technology, accumulate and deploy intellectual and financial capital, create 'egalitarian' nation states, regulate governance and the transfer of political power, and more recently to interact and communicate with anyone and any ideas on the planet – at ever diminishing cost - although there is now the ironic cost that we, the users, are becoming the commodity – courtesy of the algorithms of Big Data – the inversion of the once promised ‘explosion of freedom’ – see below).

Like language, commoditization is a powerful force for expansion of the human horizon and human agency. But it is written in the increasingly abstract ‘languages’ of numbers and mathematics, computer code, and ‘AI’ (autonomous intelligence), as the metamorphosis of use value into exchange value takes place, and takes on a life of its own.

This explosion of 'freedom’ is based on stripping out all context and subjectivity, in the service of ‘objectivity’. But the dialectics of this cumulative increase of freedom and autonomy inevitably turns on itself, when there is no longer an additional ‘other’ (culture, land, country, ocean, space, raw material, technology, etc.) to ‘acquire’ and metamorphose into commodities, and when the accumulation of capital goes feral. Or to put t another way ...

  • The freedom and autonomy that results from stripping away context and subjectivity (in the commoditisation of financial or intellectual property, etc) facilitates open ended capital accumulation. That is good as far as it goes, as it allows for an increase in wealth and commerce (of financial and material assets, and science and technology) within ever expanding markets and/or projections of interaction/power.
  • However … without effective constraints (‘negative' ones are required, if you want to develop these systems / networks as resilient, emergent, and self-correcting), this eventually runs out of new fields to discover and exploit, and conquest/power becomes an end in itself. This takes the form of more and more abstract and powerful forms of science and technology, and more and more abstract forms of financial capital (the infamous derivatives of derivatives that caused the 2008 global crisis, and algorithms that are 'understood' only by the AI programmes that create them.
  • So the process of abstraction, if left without constraints, becomes uncontrollable freedom or, simply, chaos, or autonomous algorithms that are not open to scrutiny (see autonomy in the Ontology). The complex-adaptive systems tip over from the (creative, innovative, and playful) “edge of chaos” into ‘feral’ or unfettered chaos / dysfunctional concentrations of capital, which are difficult if not impossible to control.
  • In short, if the enthusiasm for freedom and abstraction and exchange is left to run wild, it inevitably loses touch completely with its context - to such an extent that it threatens the very existence of the complex-emergent ecology (i.e Gaia) within which it exists.

The domain of ‘externalities’ disappears too, as the game of commoditization becomes counterproductive and threatens to eat itself up, and everybody else, too.

Modernist game over. (Unless we hasten the planet’s end-game, and just go back to war, which seems to be rapidly coming back into fashion in the US/ex-SU, not to mention China).

There are four great metamorphoses, or ecological mutations / adaptations, in the production of the social: language, commoditization, digitalization and automation.

Language is based on social work: the deferral of immediate, personal need satisfaction, and a commitment to community (however communal or hierarchical that turns out to be). It is also based on abstraction from multimodal to non-modal engagement with the world (see
synaesthesia), as well as abstraction from the material of particular signs. Commoditization on the other hand, is based on a more radical metamorphosis: stripping out context and subjectivity completely, to maximize the production of abstract, objective, exchange value. Global commoditization is a viral meme based increasingly on the fetishisation of this metamorphosis, (and of objectivity), which unsurprisingly provokes the response of a viral spread of ‘identity politics’, amongst other things (see below). It’s the dominant ecological mutation that dominates and threatens our Anthropocene metamorphic zone (Latour’s terms), which is increasingly unstable and unsustainable.

The development of commoditization accelerates from the 6th Century BC in Greece, as commerce and science - coinage and mathematics - flourish simultaneously. Governance (i.e. bureaucracy) and politics (representative democracy) soon follow the same path, as does information, which goes through a number of mutations – paper and books, printing presses, electronic media, and finally digital packet-switched communication and interaction through the internet. This produces our digitally connected and encoded world, in which production rapidly becomes digitized and increasingly automated across all economic sectors. Work is literally ‘taken out of our hands’, which both a good and a bad thing as global data harvesting, surveillance and manipulation of information-consumption permeates the global village.

Fetishized Objectivity
Commoditization in this way provides the transformative metamorphoses, and thus the new, 'self-evident freedoms' (e.g. the US Constitution) for the ‘modernist’ project, based on an unrelenting abstraction from context and subjectivity, into what becomes the fetishized meme of the objectivity of exchange value.
Cryptocurrencies, later on, are the logical conclusion of this process, as they are even more abstract, as they are not tied down to any particular ‘nation state’.

The irony is that many of these systems could, in principle, develop into self-regulating, complex-adaptive (even equitable) networks: i.e. systems which are unpredictable (yet ordered), characterised by frequent interaction between large numbers of agents with large degrees of freedom, in which no one agent knows what is going on in the whole system. But this happens if, and only if, they are governed, decisively, by negative constraints: which specify and enforce the limits of what may not occur.

Despite the frequently stated aspirations of commoditization to become a force for equality and stability, objectivity instead has become the engine for vast discrepancies and accumulations of power: in wealth, health, science and technology, information (‘big’ data), global governance (a tiny nuclear club runs the UN Security Council), and, more recently, the manipulation of communication and interaction. The new trinity ( the 'strange' attractors de jour) are Facebook, Google and Amazon (and their Chinese equivalents); the new petit bourgeoisie are the programmers and algorithms of 'silicon' valley. The wonder is not that these discrepancies produce instability, but that they have not (yet) produced far more instability.

Far from providing open, ‘objective’ systems and networks for the emergence of innovation, creativity and cooperation, these systems are instead pushing us over critical social and geological tipping points, into the unfettered, unregulated chaos that is always present over the edge of chaos. All of these systems require negative constraints, clearly specified and enforced. Without them there is no emergence on the edge of chaos, but, sooner or later, just degenerating disorder (and the intellectual deserts of relativism).

The modernist project has proved itself to have been a bubble all along; the Earth was ultimately never going to be subject to the neat controls of objective, predictive science, and that has now become painfully obvious. Neither relativism (truth-on-the-hoof), nor modernism (the deification of objectivism) are of much use. Far from sitting back and letting automation / automatons do all the work, we now have to 'do all the work' of managing unpredictable emergence. And paradoxically, yes, we can use apps. and even AI modelling to to this, but ... (its a big but) ... the assumptions in the models have to be transparent, and open to tweaking, challenge and variation (which means the code must be open source).

At the same time as we are experiencing the fractured narratives - and pop-up diaspora - of the social, we are also faced with the reality of the complex, contingent narratives of (ongoing), major ecological mutations in the geohistory of our Anthropocene era. This is our 'new normal'.

Not surprisingly, this causes shock, panic and denial amongst those with most at stake in the social, financial, political, IT and academic technologies of modernism.

Several possible [panic] reactions follow, for instance: i) ramping up the engines of war – to mindlessly drive modernism to its ironic conclusion (i.e. the third and final global slaughter); ii) trying to reinvent the hegemony of an elite of objective experts and nation states – which provoked the viral spread of populist identity politics and trolls in the first place; iii) the proliferation of the fractured narratives and pop-up diaspora of the troll infested global village; iv) a reversion to metaphysics, reaching out to a God (or sect) of your choice to intervene on 'our' behalf, to cleanse us of the pollution of the other: heathens, apostates, etc; v) withdrawal from it all (an illusion too, of course), by going off-grid, or certainly off Big Data with its re-commoditization of social media users (a new iteration of the age old slavery meme); (vi) a last ditch attempt to insist that the only road to redemption is through more (modernist) science and technology (the dream of the Silicon Valley geeks; - no pun intended, but just how telling is the name: 'silicon' valley?) - and, of course, an OTT voyage of discovery - to the dead planet, Mars.

See also
a short read of Latour's Facing Gaia, as well as Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust, which place all of us flag waving modernists in the same dock.

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