Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Wittgenstein's 'cancerous growth': An Incident in the Philosophy of Mathematics:

Wittgenstein's Fright at Cultish Mathematicians:
An Incident in the History of the Philosophy of Mathematics or
What did Wittgenstein mean by Cantor's theories being a "cancerous growth" on mathematics?

A question asked;

When commenting on Cantor's ideas of uncountable sets and different levels of infinity, Wittgenstein called it a "cancerous growth on the body of mathematics". Cantor's (and others such as Dedekind) ideas have since provided the basis for much of the development of mathematics thereafter. What could have led Wittgenstein to make such a remark? What did he mean by it?

The hard part in answering this question is trying to explain the pure mathematics in everyday language so that a common reader will know what was at issue between Wittgenstein and those, such as Bertrand Russell, who thought that Cantor, Weirstrass and Dedekind provided a solution to metaphysical problems of the foundations of mathematics. If I get the basic statement of the background wrong please correct me. Still I think it is necessary to state the problem in everyday language because one must have a clear view of how much Cantor's discovery went against common sense. If the reader can understand this she will also be able to understand why so many philosophers and mathematicians thought that Cantor's theories of the infinite did not say anything that made sense. But more important for this note the reader will be able to see how Wittgenstein's view differed from the other condemnations of Cantor's line of thinking.

Cantor considered the problems of infinite sets. The common logic since Aristotle had been that the infinite was not actual but only potential.. But against common logic Cantor showed that there are sets larger than the infinite sets of natural numbers. He showed specifically that no infinite set could have as many elements as all possible subsets of that infinite set. This led to a revolution in how we conceived of set theory and of the infinite. The infinite could no longer be considered an anomaly. In other words their were different "kinds" of infinite sets. (Oh mathematicians forgive my simplicity!) What Cantor was able to show was that infinity was "actual" not just an unimaginably large number, not just "potential". He showed there are infintie sets that are larger than other sets that are also infinite. The best example is the set of all natural numbers versus the set of all irrational numbers. Both sets are infinite sets. But the set of all irrational numbers is "larger," or contains more members, than the set of all natural numbers. (Forgive me. I have merely stated the same notion in a number of ways while avoiding technical language. I did this in the hopes that non-mathematical readers will get my drift. Possibly I'm just furthering your confusion. Also for those of you who may belong to the school of mathematical realists forgive me for stating all of this as if it were just another kind of reality.)

When a mathematician comes to such conclusions philosophers sneeze. Why? Because to decide that the infinite set of irrational numbers is larger than the infinite set of natural numbers is to indirectly decide questions posed at the origins of Aristotle's metaphysics, i.e. the metaphysical status of the infinite. Philosophers of Mathematics recognized this if no one else did. Russell accepted the mathematics but spent much time trying to ground the insight into his own formal logic.

Wittgenstein rejected Cantor but he was not the only one.. Ponicare said, "There is no actual infinity; Cantorians forgot that and fell into contradictions. Later generations will regard Mengenlehre as a disease from which one has recovered " Brouwer said that: Cantor's theory was "a pathological incident in the history of mathematics from which future generations will be horrified." Another quote in my notebook is from Wittgenstein. "Cantor's argument has no deductive content at all.' Yet I would distinguish this reaction from Ponicare and Brouwer. I take Wittgenstein to mean that he would not argue with the mathematics but would just proclaim it all irrelevant to any philosophical or logical view.

I think most of these reactions were simply a matter of an inability to reconceive ancient notions. But many mathematicians seized on Cantor's theory. Some philosophers were horrified. It didn't seem gentlemanly that these theories were being used as solutions to ancient problems philosophy. Also, the mathematicians who ceased on Cantor's theories treated them as if they were the second coming of the Pythagorean theorem or a new discovery of Pi. Cantor's theories made much of what was said previously in the philosophy of mathematics hard to justify. There were philosophers who were simply exasperated. Why don't mathematicians stop this nonsense, leave us alone, and get back to their equations? What I wonder is, if there were many mathematicians with a philosophical bent who were discouraged by the narrowness of the philosophers. This is an historical determination that is hard to make. No one can ever know what was lost by way of dogmatism.

Wittgenstein was one of those who looked at all of this as an attempt to establish a New Pythagorean Cult around pure mathematics and formal logic. But even though I reject his view I think it should be fully understood. At base Wittgenstein had interesting reasons, that I think can't be easily countered, unless one is a thorrough going rationalist or believes in a pragmatic realism that states in the long run we just work and see what works. (I am somewhere within those choices.)

Wittgenstein's view of mathematics was unique and I doubt one could find more than two people who would have agreed with him in 1932. But I don't think he cared much about who agreed with him, except for Turing. When he was giving a course on these subjects it seems that the only person he cared to 'make see' his point of view was Turing, who would argue with W all the way. Wittgenstein thought that "belief" in mathematics was a kind of religion among intellectuals. He would throw out what must have seemed like Delphic statements at the time such as:

"There is no religious denomination in which the misuse of metaphysical expressions has been responsible for so much sin as it has in mathematics."

"I shall try again and again to show that what is called a mathematical discovery had much better be called a mathematical invention."

The quote about "cancerous growth" is not referring directly to Cantor but rather to Russell's discussion of Cantor, Weirstrass and Dedekind.. Russell believed that pure mathematics had laid the foundations which could ground mathematics in formal logic. For Wittgenstein, these mathematicians solutions to problems of the infinitesimal, the infinite and continuity and Russell's acceptance of these solutions as great achievements of mathematical logic had "deformed the thinking of mathematicians and philosophers." But Wittgenstein's position was not the same as other philosophers and mathematicians who criticized Cantor, et. al. He did not question the mathematics of the solutions or criticize their premises, he questioned whether these solutions were solutions to mathematical problems at all. More precisely he re-categorized the solutions to another context outside of mathematics and tried to demonstrate that the new context where these solutions must be discussed could be either accepted or rejected without effecting mathematics or logic at all.

Wittgenstein's reference to the 'cancerous growth' on mathematics encapsulates two related notions: In his view mathematicians had grafted onto mathematics the following: (1) the idea that mathematics somehow gave answers to what Wittgenstein believed were metaphysical questions and (2) the idea that when doing certain kinds of 'pure mathematics' what you were doing had some connection to that other kind of game called 'formal logic.'

It was these metaphysical 'answers' and the development of a formal logic that were the 'cancerous growth'. Cantor (and the way others developed Cantor) was just an example of this 'cancerous growth.' To the extent that I understand the issues here I think that Wittgenstein was being dogmatic. To the extent that I understand W'ittgenstein's concern I think he was trying to get the best mathematicians (mainly Turing, who he much admired) to see how both mathematics and formal logic had no real 'foundation' but could be restated in ways that were not 'elegant'. These 'non-elegant' restatements would be equally 'true' in that they would come to the same conclusion without flaws but would seem absurd. I think Wittgenstein was saying that sometimes the elegance of the solution tricks us into accepting it as fundamental or correct.

If I remember, correctly some of what Wittgenstein wrote in his notebooks on these subjects was recently published (4 years ago?). It seems to me that much of Wittgenstein's rhetoric seems to come from the fact that he simply could not get Turing to see that his (Wittgenstein's) picture of mathematics was one possible view of the cathedral. He just thought that all mathematicians were misled on the "reality" of Cantor's proofs and then compounded it all by developing false notions about proclaiming that here - at last -- was the foundation of mathematics.

Of course I may be too hard on Wittgenstein here. There was something in his whole notion about how the "game" of mathematics should be played in order to make sense in the world that also led him to reject Godel's theorem. Who knows maybe in the end we will find that the way Wittgenstein viewed the "game" of mathematics was a sort of anti-foundational foundationalism. I trust I am being appropriately obscure!

Again these are very complicated questions and unfortunately unlike during the 80 years between 1860 and 1940 we don't seem to have great mathematicians who are interesting philosophers and great philosophers who are good mathematicians. The other possibility is that I don't know what I am talking about. It has been a long time since I studied these topics, a long time since those courses where very smart and inarticulate professors tried to explain to me (a very dumb but articulate student) the elegance of pure math. At the time I agreed with Wittgenstein on at least one point. The elegance seemed purely imaginary.

Jerry Monaco
New York City
9 March 2006 (originally written - 5 Feb 2005)
Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy & Culture
Hopeful Monsters: Poetry, Fiction, Memories by Jerry Monaco

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Anti-Philosophy is Philosophy

Anti-Philosophy is Philosophy

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mental Disorder, Creativity and Evolutionary Trade-offs: Just-So Story or Testable Hypothesis?

The circumstantial evidence begins to mount that what we call mental illness is in fact "too much of a good thing." In other words there is a fine line between physiological attributes of mental disorders that lead to behaviors we consider dysfunctional, and behavioral attributes that we generally define as "good" (i.e. "inventive," creative," or "perceptive"), but originate in the same physiological processes that are connected with mental illness. Below are quotes from reports on three recent studies that lead to this conclusion. Taken together these quotes are tempting to an evolutionary psychologist but I will argue that the temptation should be resisted. We should not completely dismiss speculation about these matters but we should keep clear the line between speculation, hypothesis, and theory.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown for the first time that a sample of children who either have or are at high risk for bipolar disorder score higher on a creativity index than healthy children. The findings add to existing evidence that a link exists between mood disorders and creativity.
Many scientists believe that a relationship exists between creativity and bipolar disorder, which was formerly called manic-depressive illness and is marked by dramatic shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to function. Numerous studies have examined this link; several have shown that artists and writers may have two to three times more incidences of psychosis, mood disorders or suicide when compared with people in less creative professions. Children of bipolar parents score higher on creativity test

The more creative a person is, the more sexual partners they are likely to have...
The lead author of the study, Dr Daniel Nettle (pictured), lecturer in psychology with Newcastle University’s School of Biology, suggested two key reasons for the findings. He said: “Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result. They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interest.The lead author of the study, Dr Daniel Nettle (pictured), lecturer in psychology with Newcastle University’s School of Biology, suggested two key reasons for the findings. He said: “Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result. They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interest.
Dr Nettle added that the results suggested an evolutionary reason for why certain personality traits that serious artists and poets were found to share with schizophrenic patients perpetuated in society.
He added: “These personality traits can manifest themselves in negative ways, in that a person with them is likely to be prone to the shadows of full-blown mental illness such as depression and suicidal thoughts. This research shows there are positive reasons, such as their role in mate attraction and species survival, for why these characteristics are still around.”
Yet although some 'schizotypal' traits are linked with high numbers of partners, schizophrenic patients do not experience this level of sexual activity. These people tend to suffer from acute social withdrawal and emotional flatness - characteristics that the researchers found were linked with a reduced number of sexual partners.Creativity determines sexual success

(Also see the article in Nature - Write poems, get lucky - They may be badly paid, but artists have more sexual success by Tom Simonite.)

Surprisingly, people with mild depression are actually more tuned into the feelings of others than those who aren’t depressed, a team of Queen’s psychologists has discovered.

“This was quite unexpected because we tend to think that the opposite is true,” says lead researcher Kate Harkness. “For example, people with depression are more likely to have problems in a number of social areas.”

The researchers were so taken aback by the findings, they decided to replicate the study with another group of participants. The second study produced the same results: People with mild symptoms of depression pay more attention to details of their social environment than those who are not depressed.

The basic speculation among evolutionary psychologists is that "mental illness" is an evolutionary trade-off. The best example of an evolutionary trade-off is the sickle cell gene. Inheriting a sickle cell gene from a single parent promotes resistance to malaria. Inheriting a sickle cell gene from both parents causes anemia and death. In geographical regions of heavy malaria there is a trade off between resistance to malaria provided by the sickle cell gene and the possibility of death from sickle cell anemia - more people sexually reproduce if they have one sickle cell gene and they are able to resist malaria than if they have two sickle cell genes and die of anemia or no sickle cell genes and are not able to resist malaria. (For full explanations see the following links: The Mosquito and the Bottle. The Loom: -Carl Zimmer ; An Immune Basis for Malaria Protection by the Sickle Cell Trait; Malaria and the Human Genome - PDF.

Similarly, there are aspects of brain physiology that lead to creativity or the ability to perceive the world "realistically", or to perceive the social environment more empathetically, etc. These same aspects of brain physiology also are traits that are associated with various kinds of mental "illness," such as "manic-ness" and depression. If pushed beyond a tipping point these same aspects of brain physiology lead to dysfunctional mental breakdowns. The reproductive success and sexual attractiveness that rebounds to the person who is very creative or socially perceptive is offset by the possibility of dysfunctional (or non-functional) mental illness.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is a good story but as a story but it is as yet not a testable hypothesis. We can test the correlation between creativity and bipolar mental disorder in various ways, ranging from statistical studies to studies of the physiology of the brain. But I have yet to see a research program to test the hypothesis of evolutionary trade-offs in relation to mental illness. The hypothesis is a good beginning but too broad. I am very skeptical that an evolutionary theory of mental illness can be developed by focusing on human beings at the level of behavior. I think that the level where such hypotheses can be tested is at the physiological level or perhaps at the "modular" level of a mental system.

To illustrate the problem of the appropriate level of study it is only necessary to observe why we know so much about sickle cell anemia. We know the genes that must be inherited in order to produce sickle cell anemia and the shape of a human blood cell when the genes are inherited from both parents. Further, we know the shape of the cell when the gene for sickle cell is inherited from only one parent. We know the geographical spread of sickle cell anemia and we can calculate the differential between resistance to malaria provided by one gene and the possibility of inheriting two genes with the result of early death. In other words we have a good way of estimating the differential of reproductive success between a sickle cell population and a non-sickle cell population in geographical regions rife with malaria. We can trace this back to the physiological and genetic level.

The problem with this line of reasoning about mental disorders is that for the most part we are only beginning to learn what mental disorders are and how they exhibit themselves in behavior. The basic descriptive problems of defining mental illness are well known. But the descriptive problems in defining such vague notions as "creativity" or "inventiveness" are even greater. We know creativity when we see it, but that is about all. I am not saying that an evolutionary explanation of mental disorder is impossible only that at this point we must content ourselves with good hints and interesting stories. Turning a just-so story into a testable hypothesis is the hardest part of any scientific project.

New York City
2 December 2005

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evolutionary psychology Link


Why pay attention to the New York Times? Organization, Normalization, Ideology

Edward Herman does his usual incisive work in decoding the New York Times.

"The biases of the New York Times surface in one or another fashion on a daily basis, but while sometimes awfully crude, these manifestations of bias are often sufficiently subtle and self-assured, with facts galore thrown in, that it is easy to get fooled by them. Analyzing them is still a useful enterprise to keep us alert to the paper’s ideological premises and numerous crimes of omission, selectivity, gullible acceptance of convenient disinformation, and pursuit of a discernible political agenda in many spheres that it covers."
From Fog Watch - The New York Times Versus The Civil Society: Protests, tribunals, labor, and militarization and wars - By Edward S. Herman Z Magazine -

But here is my basic question. Why? We need information but why look at the New York Times at all? Why worry about it?

1) Because it has so much influence over the governing elite? Is this true anymore? Perhaps it guides the governing elite.

2) Perhaps by reading the NYT and the WSJ critically we gain insight into the ruling class and its aims? Is this true? In that case if we can use those insights as an organizing tool then we are doing ourselves a service.

3) Because we don't have counter-hegemonic media of our own that establishes a grand world view for radical change and will set to crumbling the world view of the New York Times? This goes back to to point one and the overwhelming influence the times have on governing elites. That influence is bound to seep through to those who oppose the Rulers and Bosses, unless we counter the distortions and ideological spin and outright lies.

4) But in the end the reason we have to spend so much time decoding the New York Times and other media of ruling class ideological "information", is because we are too weak to establish our own media for organizing and information.

So in short: Why pay attention to the New York Times? Because of the failure of the left to organize.

Famously, in Lenin's What is to be done? he argued that a regular paper of a working class party is an organizing tool. Bolshevik party organization, was bound to be dictatorial as Rosa Luxembourg realized early on, but the fact is that Lenin, before he took power had deep insight in how to organize. It is part of the tragedy of Bolshevism and the atrocity of Stalinism that these organizational insights have been lost. The fact is that as the left stands today in the Western capitalist republics, there is no network of radical media that is also used as an organizing tool. There are small networks of radical media and they are very loosely connected to organizing networks. But unless the organizing networks and the media networks are organically related we will never be able to make the first step toward constructing a counter-hegemonic world view.

The South End Press collective and the people at Z Magazine have been trying to build such integrated networks for years but unfortunately the network is too small and too loosely connected to other cooperative organizations and to unions. It is not there fault. People such as Michael Albert and Lydia Sargent seem to me to be near heroic in their commitment to a vision of radical democracy. But over and over again I keep on coming back to the same point in my mind - we on the left must not be organizing correctly if we are not organizing better than say the right wing Christers.

The Process of "Normalization": A suggestion for using Herman's & Chomsky's model to study legal institutions:

Edward Herman continues:

One very important feature of an establishment institution is that it gives heavy weight to official and corporate news and opinion and little attention to facts and opinions put forward by those disagreeing with the official/corporate view. Government and corporate officials are “primary definers” of the news, and experts affiliated with, funded by, and/or supporting them function to institutionalize those views. In a perverse process, the links of these experts to official and corporate sources give them a preferred position in the media despite the built-in conflict-of-interest, unrecognized by establishment institutions. (PBS has repeatedly turned down labor-funded programs on grounds of conflict-of-interest, but doesn’t do the same for corporate-funded programs, as PBS officials have internalized the establishment’s normalization of conflicts-of-interest involving the dominant institutions of society.) Those in opposition, even if representing very large numbers, even a majority of the population, have difficulty gaining access. Another way of expressing this is to say that the media, as part of the establishment, align themselves with other constituents of the establishment, and are very often at odds with and give little voice to the civil society.

First a criticism. It is true that we can put this problem in terms of a conflict between "State" and "Civil Society." There is a long tradition of the radical Enlightenment for doing so. It is part of our tradition and we should claim it. (On this matter I would suggest two books Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel and A Trumpet of Sedition: Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism, 1509-1688 by Ellen Meiksins Wood & Neal Wood.) But this can be done only if we define the business entity that we call "the Corporation" as a state entity. In fact such corporate entities are very much like states, and act as little sovereignties with their own laws and arbitrary punishments. (This is a fact that right wing libertarians will never comprehend.) Even so the conflict is not simply between "state" and "civil society" but between those who own and manage society - its property, its productive resources and its capital - and those who don't . (Notice I am stating this conflict from a tradition that follows Marx but does not accept his terms as "scientific.")

The reason I begin with this criticism, a criticism that Herman would amend in his own way, is that when we try to understand the "normalization" of business interests we must understand that they are normalized as if they were the interests of society as a whole, i.e. civil society. Thus the national interest is the interest of "business" (meaning big corporate profiteering) as a whole. A person such as Herman who speaks in defense of Civil Society, cannot even be heard by the editors of the New York Times because as far as those editors are concerned, they are civil society and so is the totalization of interests that surround General Electric, Disney, CBS, Microsoft, et. al. As long as the worker of a corporation is considered to be a part of that corporation, or a small business owner is considered to be a part of business interests, then they are a part of civil society. But the immigrant who tries to form a union is not part of civil society and therefore does not deserve a voice equal to the New York Times. The same is true of the woman who gets fired from a corporation because she wishes to take care of her child before she arrives at work.

How such terms as "conflict-of-interest" are internalized and normalized is in fact the crucial question both here and when studying the ideological normalization of similar terms in legal institutions. The processes are not the same but they are similar. I would suggest that one could write a study of legal institutions and their ideological filtering systems similar to Edward S. Herman's and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent : The Political Economy of the Mass Media. One might call it Manufacturing Legitmacy: The Political & Social Economy of Legal Institutions. The problem is that there are too many aspects of legal institutions that we would like to account for - not only courts and judges, but Law Schools, law firms, police departments, private "security" forces, administrative agencies, corporate imposed "non-state" rules and regulations (both for workers and consumers), private and negotiated law such as emegers from contracts, etc. etc. Each institution should be studied discretely of course but I propose that an entry problem is distinguishing 'non-state' law from state law and showing how all of this integrates into the current political and social economy.

On the ideological level the problem is the same. How do we describe the normalization of an ideological view, accurately and in detail, in a way that can lead to understanding and not further obscurity?

New York City
2 December 2005

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The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History

A young friend who is writing a paper on existentiallism asked me to explain the Sartre and Camus break-up to her. So I did. This is material that has been covered so often that I don't know if I have offered anything knew. Never-the-less I decided to post it here for those who might be interested. As an aside, it might be interesting to write an essay taking off from this about the whole notion of "choosing" with "in" history. This idea about history seems to me especially religious... as if history was a kind of god.
The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History. : A Question from a Young Friend

Your question: "Why did Sartre and Camus argue and split (or, as you put it. "have a falling out")?"

Someday I would like to write an essay about intellectual fame and literary gossip and its meaning for philosophical issues... I think the "true meaning" of the "split" between Sartre and Camus, tells us more about the subject of the "literary star system" and the "ghost of gossip" that haunts every petty bourgeois intellectual enterprise than it tells us about the important historical issues behind the parting of ways . But some other time.

Basically the feud between Sartre and Camus was about each individual's relation to resistance and violence, history and action. Sartre and Camus argued over some of the following issues -- political commitment, the nature of history, the relation of the "writer" to the struggles of the oppressed, the nature of violence and terrorism, the role of the individual, etc. All of this was in the context of the growing anti-colonial movements, especially movements against French Imperialism in Africa and Indochina and the postwar influence of Stalinism over the European working class and these same anti-colonialist movements. Sartre's emphasis was on opposing oppression in France and opposing French imperialism. Camus' emphasis was on opposing the tyranny of Stalinism and similar totalitarian tyrannies and would not support an anti-imperialist movement that would simply lead to another form of oppression. For Sartre, Camus' moral position provided backhanded political support for imperial oppression. For Camus, Sartre's political position provided moral cover for Stalinist domination. From this distance we can see that they were both correct and both fundamentally confused.

These I believe are the important issues in a nutshell. Readers can stop here if they feel no need to learn more about the interesting gossip or the entangled history.

Like all else in the literary world the break between Sartre and Camus began as a feud over a bad book review, the book we know in English as Albert Camus' "The Rebel." In 1951 Camus published "L'Homme revolte". In 1952, soon after the publication, France was deep within one of its periodic political crises, involving Indochina, Algeria and national strikes. In the mean time the only writers with moral credit among the French working and middle classes were the intellectuals who had in one way or another participated in the fight against the Nazis. In this respect Sartre and Camus were the pre-eminent literary stars of the post-war era. They were often paired together as representing a style of revolt among the rising young intellectuals. The radical youth of the era grabbed at existentialism as representing their moral disgust at the hypocrisy of a bourgeoisie that so easily collaborated with Nazi occupation and representing their need for freedom of thought against the stultification of a mechanical Marxism as represented by the PCF.

It was in this situation that Francois Jensen wrote a scathing review of Camus' book in Sartre's journal "Les Temps Moderns." Camus in response wrote to Sartre accusing him of making a personal attack in order to gain political points with his leftist friends. Sartre wrote back accusing Camus of betraying the cause of the oppressed in order to advance his career as the popular writer of petty bourgeois angst. Well, all of this is the usual literary gossip, and the Parisian literary culture can be especially vicious, probably because French "intellectuals" are not only "writers," "philosophers," and "artists" but are also caught in the frenzy of fame that elevates the writer to the equivalent of a rock star. It's hard to imagine now but "Paris Intellectual Culture" once held an analogous place in French Society that "Hollywood Star Culture" holds in the U.S. This meant that the friendship between Sartre and Camus was broken in public and the events were played out in the newspapers and broadcast from the lecture halls, in a way that is hard to imagine for a present day American. It would be as if some imagined feud between Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish were to be covered by the New York Times, the Daily News, and the Fox News channel. More than anything else this magnified the bitterness of the break. It also tended to obscure the issues behind the break, then and now.

Beneath the posturing, gossip, and frenzy of fame there were actually a few serious philosophical and political questions. And as far as those are concerned it is not easy to say who was more wrong-headed Camus or Sartre. In current intellectual culture, with its automatic bourgeois self-satisfaction (which parades as democratic righteousness while obliterating democracy everywhere) it is usually Camus who is given the last word. Many U.S. writers today (especially those around the oddly jesuitical "New Republic" magazine) would turn him into Saint Camus. Yet when I was coming to awareness intellectually in the 1970s, at a time when U.S. atrocities in the Vietnam war were still obvious to U.S. intellectuals, Sartre was looked upon as the model of the committed intellectual and Camus was considered a naive, if unwitting apologist for imperialism. Much of this is simply the clouded sensorium that is the politics of literary reputation and has more to do with our current ideological battles than with history or moral principle. The issues behind the rise and fall of literary reputation are interesting, but not important for this particular post.

To understand the historical issues that give the little literary feud between Sartre and Camus some historical significance it is necessary to understand what most left-leaning French intellectuals understood in the postwar years. They all knew that the French "bourgeoisie" had quickly given in to the Fascists, and collaborated with German occupation. Most believed this was because the bourgeoisie feared the communists more than the fascists. They all believed that in the countries occupied by the Germans it was the communists and the socialists who organized the underground resistance to the Fascists. In short the Stalinist Communist parties emerged from World War II with moral credit for their resistance to the Nazis and the ruling classes of France and Italy were largely discredited. For independent intellectuals, such as Sartre and Camus, who opposed the Nazi occupation with varying degrees of risk to their own lives, the significant question was, what attitude should be taken to the PCF, the French Communist Party. The best known of this group of independent intellectuals, beside Camus and Sartre, were Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Aron. But there were others who would make their reputations much later such as Cornelius Castoriadis and the intellectuals around a little known but very interesting group called "Socialisme ou Barberie". I mention this group because it was one of the few left intellectual formations that offered commentary on these issues that more than holds up today.

The first break between Camus and Raymond Aron on one side and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on the other took place over how to characterize the Stalinist party and what attitude to take toward the newly reconstructing "bourgeois" parties. Basically, Sartre believed (at least up until 1956 and the Hungarian Workers Rebellion against the Stalinist Communist Party) that the Communists were an oppressive party but were the only game going and represented the interests of the oppressed. Camus believed that all political parties were basically oppressive and that the leaders of these parties cynically claimed to represent the interests of the oppressed in order to become oppressors themselves. (I am highly oversimplifying.)

But being writers and intellectuals who were also French, Sartre and Camus were bound to create a theory of their disagreement that would bring it back to fundamental philosophical differences with world historical import.

For Camus, individual rebellion, the ability of the individual to say "No" to the oppressive regime was the highest value. (I suppose one could make Antigone the great patron saint of this attitude.) But the history of the previous 200 years seemed to Camus to call into question the very basis of "rebellion" as a collective act of liberation -- of revolution. Collective rebellion, would simply result in organized murder and, therefore, even though the individual "Rebel" should be honored for his act of resistance -- that act of resistance being the basis for asserting human dignity -- revolution itself would fail to constitute justice. For Camus, all collective action could only constitute more injustice. If Camus was willing to take collective action against the Nazis it was only because Nazi injustice was all invasive and total. This meant that any kind of rebellion at all was a Pascallian wager that had to be accepted. In fact for Camus, the Nazis proved his point about the futility of collective rebellion, since the Nazis were simply one more example of that futility. All revolution led to greater terror, even when it was a reaction to the terror of the status quo.

Camus' solution to this "paradox" between individual rebellion, which establishes the basis for human dignity, and collective rebellion, which creates the basis for increasing repression, was the solution Sartre regarded as typical of the petty-bourgeois writer. Camus believed that one should essentially "privatize" rebellion, make rebellion into a moral standard of ones own life that could be expressed in the ethics of one's art. Rebellion in Camus' view could not establish a world of justice, but when the rebellion of the individual is turned into the directed energy of human art, it can create a universe of meaning.

Sartre believed that the only way to resist oppression was to make a moral choice. So far he agreed with Camus. Sartre also believed that collective rebellion would inevitably lead to violence. But far from shrinking from this violence Sartre tended to think that collective violence was one of the motors of history and the only choice to make was on which side of history the individual would choose to fight. For Sartre and Camus the choice was moral, as well as political. But for Sartre the choice of rebellion was also the choice of history. It sounded to Sartre like a betrayal of the values of the Resistance to Nazi occupation to say that collective rebellion only leads to more violence. Later it would sound like a betrayal of the liberation movement of the anti-French Algerians, to say to them that they should not rebel collectively. For Sartre it was merely a choice between supporting the violence and terrorism of the Algerian rebels against the French oppressors or supporting the violence and atrocities of the French colonialists against the Algerian people. To say that one should retreat into one's own art was simply to make a choice by default, it was to engage in an act of bad faith by pretending not to choose. For Sartre personal retreat into art was merely another way of supporting the violence of the status quo.

If one remembers that, at this time (1952), France was actively trying to recover its empire in Indochina and Africa, and that Sartre was actively opposing French colonialism, whereas Camus believed that the anti-colonialists had no "moral legitimacy", then one can get a sense of what the feud was "really" about from Sartre's point of view. If one remembers that Sartre was trying to "existentialize" Marxism and therefore not offering very acute criticism of the "political acts" of the Stalinists, then one can get a sense of what the feud was "really" about from Camus' point of view. For both writers the basic principle was "how" to oppose oppression. For Camus "collective resistance" to oppression only leads to more oppression. For Sartre Camus' "quietism" could only lead to the triumph of the oppressors. Camus believed that Sartre had become an ideologue giving cover to Stalinist domination, while he, Camus, was the advocate of individual human dignity. Sartre believed, that Camus was an apologist for French Imperialism, while he, Sartre was simply choosing to be "in" history and Camus was choosing in "bad faith. "

The question of who was "correct" in this argument is not the correct question. The question is how can we come to an historical understanding of the moral issues presented by Camus and how can we come to a moral understanding of the historical issues presented by Sartre. In many ways, in 1952, each represented the missing center in each other's thought. Camus' refusal to see that any fight for the oppressed could be meaningful, and Sartre's refusal to see that his uncritical support of the "resistance" of the oppressed could lead to a glorification of violence, seems to me to dance around the same basic absence in the world view of each philosopher.

Quotes from Sartre and Camus:
I offer below a few enjoyable quotes from Sartre's "Reply to Camus", which in French reads with the voyeuristic thrill of observing a distant intimacy, like hearing your best friends breaking up in the next room. Sartre constantly addresses Camus as "you, you, you,..." as if it were his version of "J'Accuse." These quotes are "fun" and the reader will get a good flavor of Sartre's side of the argument.

Sartre's "Reply to Albert Camus" is a polemic worth reading if only for its rhetoric of energizing invective.

Sartre tells us that Camus is claiming to be tired of the fight. Sartre replies:

"[I]f I were tired it seems to me that I would feel some shame in saying so There are so many who are wearier. If we are tired, Camus, then let us rest, since we have the means to do so. But let us not hope to shake the world by having it examine our fatigue."

"[T]he only way of helping the enslaved out there is to take sides with those who are here."

Sartre speaks of Camus' relation to history and to Camus secondary relation to his own personality "outside of history", as if Sartre could perform an existential psychoanalysis on Camus, in a way he would later write about Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and Flaubert.

"Your personality, alive and authentic as long as it was nourished by the event, became a mirage. In 1944, it was the future. In 1952, it is the past, and what seems to you the most intolerable injustice, is that all this is inflicted upon you from the outside, and without your having changed. ... Only memories are left for you, and a language which grows more and more abstract. Only half of you lives among us, and you are tempted to withdraw from us altogether, to retreat into some solitude where you can again find the drama which should have been that of man, and which is not even your own any more...."

Sartre continues:

"Just like the little girl who tries the water with her toe, while asking, "Is it hot?" you view history with distrust, you dabble a toe which you pull out very quickly and you ask, "Has it a meaning?" ... And I suppose that if I believed, with you, that History is a pool of filth and blood, I would do as you and look twice before diving in. But suppose that I am in it already, suppose that, from my point of view, even your sulking is proof of your historicity. Suppose one were to reply to you, like Marx,: "History does nothing... It is real and living man who does everything. History is only the activity of man pursuing his own ends.... It is only within historical action that the understanding of history is given. Does history have a meaning? Has it an objective? For me, these are questions which have no meaning. Because History, apart from the man who makes it, is only an abstract and static concept, of which it can neither be said that it has an objective, nor that it has not. And the problem is not to know its objective but to give it one."

With this invective, Sartre could carry the reader with him. What is not remembered about Sartre is that he was one of the great polemicists of our time and wrote best when he was personally angry. Thus the young intellectuals of the time were more likely to read Sartre's side of this argument rather than Camus' side. It was only later, when reacting against Sartre's supposed "communism," his commitment to fighting for the oppressed even if the oppressed used violence, that Camus' clear eyed anti-Stalinism was used as a bludgeon against Sartre's wrestle with the French Communist Party. Sartre could be naive. He could cheer any and all anti-colonial movements on the one hand and cheer Israel as an exemplar of overcoming oppression on the other. But simple ignorance of the history of the time usually prevents most people from understanding the "argument" between Sartre and Camus.

In the end, when Camus died, Sartre showed his grudging, and admiring respect for Camus. The following is a quote from the obituary Sartre wrote for Camus:

"He [Camus] represented in this century, and against History, the present heir of that long line of moralists whose works perhaps constitute what is most original in French letters. His stubborn humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged a dubious battle against events of these times. But inversely, through the obstinacy of his refusals, he reaffirmed the existence of moral fact within the heart of our era and against the Machiavellians, against the golden calf of realism."

Some quotes from Albert Camus

"By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."

"A free press can of course be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad"

"The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom, even temporarily."

"A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world."

"The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding."

"Stupidity has a knack of getting its way."

New York City
9 December 2005

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Literature as Experience - A Hope for Literary Darwinism

Literature as Experience - A Hope for Literary Darwinism
A purpose of literature is to provide experience to humans - this is an expression of my hope that literature can be looked at from the point of view of evolutionary psychology.
Some preliminary thoughts on Literary Darwinism.

There is much I object to in Joseph Carroll's idea of applying evolutionary psychology to literature. (See Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature.) Yet, I am in sympathy with the point that any rational view of literature, or of human culture in general, accepts the fact that humans are a product of natural processes and that all of human culture is a subset of our biological make-up. Humans share a common evolutionary heritage and because of the contingencies of our biological history we share a set of species-properties including common cognitive faculties. The species-specific cognitive faculty that is easiest to designate and investigate is the language-faculty. This is because it is relatively isolated from other cognitive faculties and is unique in the way it works in our brains.

First of all, it is probably true that "narrative" or story telling is a species-specific result of our biological history. But, does that lead us to conclude, that any particular aspect of narrative, or narrative-itself, is what we should be trying to explain when developing an evolutionary theory of cognitive faculties? Narrative may be a by-product of the combination of many other cognitive faculties, which, when combined with the very special faculty of language, brought about the possibility of narrative. The fact that what we call "narrative" is universally observable among homo sapiens does not necessarily mean that narrative, as a separate human faculty, provides the individual with a selective advantage. One would suppose that there must be certain aspect of narrative and story telling that does give selective advantage. If story-telling "merely" allows us to give a good description of how to find food or allows us to sound charming to a potential mate, then I would easily conclude that there must be some selective advantage for the "behavior" of some story-telling. But exactly which aspects of narrative provide this advantage? And how do we "find" and trace these aspects of narrative back to their evolutionary etiology?

In theory, all of what we call culture and society can be traced back to human potentials and physical structures that have emerged in the course of biological evolution. Whether these structures are specific adaptations or are spin-offs from other changes in the structures of our body-brain-minds - spin-offs which were necessitated in order to accommodate previous adaptations - does not matter for a biological explanation of culture. Also, it is possible to have a biologically cognizant explanation of culture and literature - relating our cultural products to cognitive structures in the brain - without providing an explanation of how any particular cognitive structures were selected for in the course of our evolutionary history. Of course, we should assume that such an explanation, if provided, would be theoretically important, even if not always pragmatically possible. It is certainly true as E.O. Wilson pointed out to us many years ago that 'society' by any definition is not unique to humans. Moreover, what we call culture - a very loose and non-scientific term - is not unique to humans either. As an example I would suggest that the work of Frans de Waal would be a good starting point. I am currently reading his Chimpanzee Politics : Power and Sex among Apes, which shows that many of the cognitive processes and cultural relations that we consider uniquely human are in fact properties of our closest animal relatives.

But the problems of tracing any cultural or cognitive product back to its origins in our biological nature only begins once you accept the above - and the above must be accepted if the premises of evolutionary biology are accepted. But this does not mean that we are in the position to develop non-trivial theoretical descriptions and explanations of any particular aspect of culture from the point of view of evolutionary psychology.

Take the following suite of faculties, propensities, and abilities - chimpanzees can plan ahead; they make simple tools that show an ability to manipulate diverse aspects of the environment; they can establish coalitions to obtain leadership; chimpanzees seem to have a complicated ability to recognize and "make" patterns; they seem to have primitive mathematical abilities, which we can suppose grew in the course of human evolution; they display a need for both reciprocal and hierarchical sociability; all chimps "play" among with their peers and the "play" seems both elaborate and sometimes rule-based. Suppose this suite of faculties, propensities, and abilities, were ramped up by the language-faculty into the ability to make narrative. Suppose, also, that narrative or telling stories is both a need and a pleasure. So when we study story-telling from the point of view of evolutionary psychology what do you want to study first? An evolutionary psychologist can in fact make up many stories of why the ability to tell a good story will provide an adaptational advantage. If I wanted to be flip and snarky I would say that evolutionary psychologists are themselves a good example of the advantage provided by good story telling since they often tell good stories and have had some success doing so. But my real question here is what should we study? Joseph Carroll's answer is the following:

A primary concern of literary theory, then, must be to identify the level of analysis at which elements form meaningful units that join with other such units so as to fashion the larger structures of figuration. As the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides rightly affirm, "Sciences prosper when researchers discover the level of analysis appropriate for describing and investigating their particular subject: when researchers discover the level where invariance emerges, the level of underlying order. What is confusion, noise, or random variation at one level resolves itself into systematic patterns upon the discovery of the level of analysis suited to the phenomena under study." (From Joseph Carroll's Rhetoric and the Human Sciences: The Conflict between Poststructuralism and Evolutionary Biology)

Do we know enough about human cognition to designate "meaningful units"? My reading of the literature is that beyond our basic study of language and how it grows we know very little in this area. A word might be called a "meaningful unit" but we are nowhere near understanding what makes a unit "meaningful" simply because meaning is a term or concept that has no scientific definition. The closest we can come in most cases is when we define units of perceptual information, but even here we are not yet on solid explanatory ground. When it comes to problems of meaning we are mostly lost. We need much more study of the basic cognitive faculties involved in perception before we reach the point where Carroll wants to begin. The problem might also be grounded in our biology. One reason why we can define "meaningful units" in language is that human language is discrete (there is no such thing as "half" a word) where as most other forms of animal information transfer seem to be continuous. There is no reason to think that the way we perceive narrative as a whole is discrete or that we can isolate a meaningful unit. IIf we can't define basic "meaningful units" of narrative then it may be very hard to look at the cognitive aspects of narrative in the way we have been able to look at language.

But let me suppose that we do know enough to begin some kind of study into the biological basis of narrative. Should we then jump directly to telling a story about its adaptational value, i.e. its evolutionary etiology? Perhaps it would be better to study the various cognitive faculties that go into making of narrative.

It is precisely here that I find the main problem with literary Darwinism. If the brain is made up of modular cognitive faculties - as I think the best evidence shows us it is - then on what level could we study something such as narrative? As I have already indicated I think that narrative is a by-product of a number of other faculties, propensities, and abilities and that there is unlikely to be a separate "narrative"-faculty that can be studied as if it were a cognitive module. I hope that my previous sentence is incorrect. I hope that there is a sort of deep grammatical structure to narrative that is somehow separate from other cognitive faculties. I hope that this is true only because it would be interesting in many ways. But I don't think that we have the evidence for it. Without being able to isolate a cognitive module it will be next to impossible to give a biological and evolutionary explanation of narrative.

The above is the basic problem an evolutionary psychologist runs into when she tries to explain any aspect of evolution that cannot be defined as a bodily organ. The evolution of the eye is easy to define because the physical unit itself is discrete and definable. It is possible to study animal and human vision without knowing anything about how the eye evolved. It is also possible to study the evolution of the eye without knowing a whole lot about how the eye works inside the human brain. Similarly, it is possible to study human narrative as a biological product without necessarily knowing anything about how narrative evolved in our biological history, but in this case I can't say vice-versa. Without knowing the biological basis of narrative it will be well nigh impossible to study how narrative evolved. That is because unless we are able to define the biological basis of narrative we will never be sure what evolved and why. (Similar criticism can be made of Carroll's concepts of "figurative structure" and "elements of figuration." See FN1.)

So let us suppose that we simply seek to give an explanation of the behavior that we call narrative? Then my question would be, what kind of behavior is it? Even if we overcome all other hurdles, I have a basic disagreement with Carroll on what literature actually is and how it functions among human animals. Carroll states:

The traditional categories--character, setting, and plot--can be explained and validated by invoking the largest principles of an evolutionary critical paradigm. If the purpose of literature is to represent human experience, and if the fundamental elements of biological existence are organisms, environments, and actions, the figurative elements that correlate with these biological elements would naturally assume a predominant position within most figurative structures. Evolutionary theory can thus provide a sound rationale for adopting the basic categories, and it can also provide a means for extending our theoretical understanding of how these categories work within the total system of figurative relations. This theoretical understanding can in turn provide a means for assessing traditional explanations or applications of the categories and measuring their central presuppositions against those of an evolutionary paradigm. (From Joseph Carroll's Rhetoric and the Human Sciences)

Is "the purpose of literature to represent human experience"? I am not quite sure of this. I think a better preliminary definition is that "the purpose of literature is to provide experience to humans." Of course the experience that is provided can also be a representation of certain kinds of human experiences, dilemmas, actions, etc. The important point is that the mere change of definition would provide a different focus for investigation into narrative.

For example, at times stories may be mere play, rehearsal, or simply a kind of logic game that exercises the mind. I would argue that all good stories have aspects of a logic game about them, but a logic game extended into a very particular kind of experience that somehow ramifies beyond the mere "logic" of the game. What I mean by this is that to a certain extent a structure of narrative may be working through problems that are internal to the mind's own cognitive processes. I think to some small extent dreams might work this way also. I am not making a point that is similar to Freud's point about dreams being a form of wish fulfillment. Rather, I am saying that some of the logical structures of narrative might actually be a working through and a building of logical structures of the mind/brain. Further, humans may need to build these logical structures through out a long period of life (if not a whole life time) in order for certain areas of the brain to continue to grow... at least not atrophy. (This would be in contrast to the growth of the language-faculty during childhood.) In other words this kind of narrative game playing may be an experience that the human mind/brain 'craves' for its own internal growth.

This may just be one function of narrative and it may be a function that is similar to our attraction to rule based games such as chess or poker, games that depend on pattern recognition, etc. In other words this kind of experience of narrative might be relatively independent from the representational aspects of narrative. But it is possible that narrative may help humans to connect social relations with pattern making cognitive abilities.

There are other reasons for my redefinition. I think that the primary fact of literature is that it provides humans with a very special kind of human experience and that it is an experience that helps us to build our experience of the world beyond literature. It is this fact that I think is a primary starting point for any evolutionary or sociobiological (to use the taboo designation of the field) view of literature.

In one respect I would like to chastise Carroll. Carroll seems to assume that all leftists will be repelled by biological explanations of literature. I think this may be a result of his social position as an English professor. It is likely that the only 'leftists' he knows are in the English Departments of the academy. I am a radical leftist, informed by left marxism, anarcho-syndicalism, romantic radicals such as Shelley, and the tradition of the radical enlightenment. There are others like me who are repelled by the obscurantism that passes for politics in many English departments.

Perhaps, Carroll will think it strange that for me the cofounders of evolutionary psychology are two polemicists -- Kropotkin, the anarchist, and T. H. Huxley, Darwin's bulldog. I am sure many on both the leftist and right will choke on the fact that I believe that both Kropotkin and Huxley are politically admirable and scientifically correct. Didn't Huxley produce a rationalization of the ideological justification of dog-eat-dog capitalism that is known to history as Social Darwinism? Didn't Kropotkin deny natural selection and put in its place "cooperation"? No, on both counts. I would suggest that we reread Huxley's The Struggle for Existence in Human Society and Kropotkin's Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution and reevaluate both in the light of current debates. I think what a new reader will find is a rehearsal of the arguments over the origins of altruism and the evolution of cooperation. On a political note, suffice it to say for now that I don't believe evolutionary psychology or sociobiology are incompatible with radical democracy and libertarian socialism - a view that one aspect of human nature is a desire for freedom and self-determination, and that this desire can be best fulfilled by a radical democracy that would eliminate the monstrous human destructiveness of our current business forms.

I close with the first paragraph of the Joseph Carroll essay I have quoted in this comment.

Darwinian evolutionary theory has established itself as the matrix for all the life sciences. This theory situates human beings firmly within the natural, biological order, and evolutionary principles are now extending themselves rapidly into the human sciences: into epistemology, sociology, psychology, ethics, neurology, and linguistics. The rapidly developing and increasingly integrated group of evolutionary disciplines has resulted in an ever-expanding network of mutually illuminating and mutually confirming hypotheses about human nature and human society. If literature is in any way concerned with the language, psychology, cognition, and social organization of human beings, all of this information should have a direct bearing on our understanding of literature. It should inform our understanding of human experience as the subject of literature, and it should enable us to situate literary figurations in relation to the personal and social conditions in which they are produced. Up to this point, contemporary literary theory has not only failed to assimilate evolutionary theory, it has adopted a doctrinal stance that places it in irreconcilable conflict with the basic principles of evolutionary biology. (From Joseph Carroll's Rhetoric and the Human Sciences)

The results of the extension of evolutionary theory into the areas of epistemology, sociology, psychology, ethics, and neurology are yet to be seen. Can we go beyond the good hints that we now have and provide theoretical descriptions and explanations of human faculties and propensities that are more than mere truisms? Or is it possible that we have reached areas where there is too much hidden from us for us to come to firm testable scientific conclusions? What is for sure is that only a world views that "situates human beings firmly within the natural, biological order" are contenders for the production of knowledge. This excludes all forms of obscurantism, whether superstition, religion, or deconstruction.

Jerry Monaco
7 November 2005
New York City

[FN1 -
To designate the total set of affective, conceptual, and aesthetic relations within a given literary construct, I shall use the term "figurative structure." Any element that can be abstracted from a figurative structure is ipso facto a figurative element. Thus, representations of people or objects, metrical patterns, rhyme schemes, overt propositional statements, figures of speech, syntactic rhythms, tonal inflections, stylistic traits, single words, and even single sounds are all elements of figuration. Figurative structure, like any other kind of structure, can be analyzed at any level of particularity.

It remains to be shown empirically that there is any level of what Carroll is calling "figurative structure" that can be studied directly. Let us assume, to make things easier, that there is a specific metrical mental module that has adapted over the course of biological time. The behavior of making poetry with metrical patterns may have nothing to do with the biological evolution of this "metrical module". One might what to start with any kind of testable hypothesis to study the evolutionary origins of this "metrical module." It may have had something to do with memory of sound that allowed our evolutionary ancestors to perceive or understand patterns. The sounds can be any kind of pattern whether patterns in vocalization or in the rustling of trees. But it may have nothing to do with our current uses of metrical patterns.

When studying non-mental physical phenomena such a diversion between the original function of an evolving "module" and its eventual function does not pose an insurmountable problem. For instance, feathers and wings may have first been insulation devices and later feathers and wings enabled flight. We were able to study how one function evolved into a different kind of function. The reason that this is less of a problem when studying physical evolution is because it is easier to isolate the physical entity (the organ or module) upon which adaptation is operating. This is not so when studying most mental phenomena. The isolation of the "module" we call "wings" and the module we call "feathers" was relatively easy. They were in effect predefined for us. If we were mistaken in isolating these specific modules then in the course of investigation we would have been able to clarify and modify our levels of analysis. Very little is predefined for us when we try to isolate the modules involved with general mental, emotional, and related phenomena. We have a hard enough time isolating the modules having to do with perceptual phenomena such as vision, smell, etc. The rare exception to this is probably the language faculty, which seems to be a relatively isolated mental module that can be studied separately. Jerry Monaco 16 November 2005. ]

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Secret Prisons, Spies, Lies & Democracy II

In a previous entry, "The Rule of Law" and Secrecy: CIA Prisons and the Plame Affair, I drew connections between the Plame Affair and the gulag of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency. I wrote:

If a CIA agent with a conscience knows where these prisons are located, if she knows the CIA operatives who run those prisons, if she knows the conditions of those prisons and the names of the people in the prisons, if she then reports on the activities of the CIA wardens and their hirelings who run these prisons, and if this person of conscience exposes all of the above, I would celebrate such a person. In my mind, such a person should be considered a courageous fighter for democratic openness. The law that would put such a person in jail should be repealed. All secret security agencies should be exposed to the light of day.

This is not a mere hypothetical. Think of Dana Priest's article exposing the CIA secret prisons. She wrote it without naming names. But she must have sources somewhere in order to write the article in the first place and those sources must know names. The names of the people running those secret CIA prisons are engaging in crimes against humanity and the names of the CIA prison wardens and their accomplices should be exposed to democratic sunlight. Perhaps one reason that they are not so exposed is the threat of jail under Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

According to the BBC, "The US Central Intelligence Agency has taken the first step toward a criminal inquiry into who told the media that it runs secret jails abroad, reports say."

Who are these prisons secret from in the first place? They are not secret from the people in the prisons or their families. They are assumed to exist by most people in countries that fear U.S. imperialism. The U.S. government of course can brush such speculations away as a conspiracy theory and "anti-Americanism" - because, as we know, the people who are under threat by the U.S. government's terror tactics are prone to such conspiracy theories. The truth is that these secret prisons are not meant to be secret from the purveyors of retail terrorism through-out the world. The U.S. government, the main purveyor of wholesale terror in the world today, means to keep these prisons secret from the domestic population of the U.S. and the populations of every country where these prisons are kept. Why? Because if such facts were widely known they would provoke outrage - not the outrage of terrorism, but the outrage of democratic protest.

These were never so secret. More than a year ago I read about them. Here is one of the articles I read in June 2004 - Secret world of US jails: Jason Burke charts the worldwide hidden network of prisons where more than 3,000 al-Qaeda suspects have been held without trial - and many subjected to torture - since 9/11.

The people who leaked the information of these secret prisons to the Washington Post may have been playing their own bureaucratic games, but they have done a service to all of us who value the semblance of democracy that remains to us. Democracy is murdered in secret. The bare minimum of a conservative republican form of government, a government of due process and the rule of law, cannot be maintained when the government is maintained by secret organizations of political spies. The fact that our government runs secret prisons is only an end product of the permanent government of secrecy that has existed in the United States since it became a world empire.

As I said in my previous entry, "The demand for the rule of law is a conservative demand in normal times but quickly turns into a radical call in times of 'emergency.'" We live in a time of emergency in the United States. The emergency is for the wounds that are debilitating the republic.

New York City
9 November 2005

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Friday, November 04, 2005

"The Rule of Law" and Secrecy: CIA Prisons and the Plame Affair

The Washington Post has an interesting article on CIA secret prisons, which proves that for the ruling class of the U.S. "the rule of law" and "due process" is applied selectively. I quote the beginning of the article and recommend that all who are interested read the complete report.

The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement.

The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.

The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.

The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.

The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.

While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons
Debate Is Growing Within Agency About Legality and Morality of Overseas System Set Up After 9/11

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005; A01

The demand for the rule of law is a conservative demand in normal times but quickly turns into a radical call in times of 'emergency.' It is because of the fact that in the U.S. there are no conservatives left in politics that radicals must fill the vacuum. (A non-trivial question for radicals interested in the history of the U.S. ruling class is: Who was the last conservative? Perhaps Robert Taft.) It is the weakness of the left that we must be the conservatives demanding that these rulers of our lives keep to some minimum of the rule of law and provide basic due process.

I propose to use the occasion of the elite media's acknowledgment of secret prisons, and the exposure of an international CIA gulag, to make a small comment on the affair of Valerie Plame. The connection between the Plame Affair and CIA secret prisons, may seem a bit odd but it I think they are thematically the same story. It is an indication of the ideological weakness of the U.S. left that the responses to the Plame affair has been limited to schadenfreude. We are happy that the likes of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby have been caught out in the cold of their own hypocrisy and lies. We would be happier still if they were sent to jail, but that seems to me unlikely. But is this the limit of our contribution to the Plame affair? Is it possible that Rove and Libby were engaged in an unwitting service to democracy by their exposure of a covert operative?

It seems to me completely unnecessary to further expose the pro-war propaganda campaign that the United States Government and the Bush regime engaged in during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. It was obvious at the time. Those who believed the Bush-Blair propaganda campaign need to look into themselves and ask what made themselves so susceptible to nationalist fantasy. They should make amends by becoming anti-war activists. The lesson that the left should be teaching is simple skepticism of those in power. We should be pointing out that there has rarely been a war advocated by a powerful state that has been justified in retrospect. Yet, all wars are justified at the time by the propaganda of the state and the rulers and war propaganda more often than not turns out to be cooked. The role of a well functioning intelligence agency is to prop calls of war made by the rulers with the necessary scenery of enemy atrocities and threats. At times, the intelligence agency will also engage in covert operations that are elaborate stage productions aimed to convince the true enemies of the rulers of the U.S., in this case the U.S. people, that war is necessary and inevitable. For those of us who oppose the war drums of the latest imperialist adventures the ideological enemy is patriotism, nationalism, jingoism and racism. One purpose of intelligence agencies and the state in general in the lead up to a war is to lie to the domestic population, producing enough fear and hatred of the target country among the people that the frenzy of jingoism overwhelms reason. When the state and its intelligence agencies fulfill its purpose we on the left should not be surprised. Our duty is to educate people in the historical fact that this is always the way powerful states act in the lead up to the war. Powerful rulers lie and fix the facts in order to get the domestic population to tolerate what the rulers want.

Given this general historical viewpoint we should view the framing of the facts and the propaganda campaign as revealed in the Plame affair as politics as usual except for one fact that the affair highlights: A section of the U.S. ruling class and its elite bureaucrats in the intelligence agencies were not cooperating with the Bush regime, led by Chaney and Rove. I think that we can conclude from this that the Bush regime is a relatively narrow clique of the ruling class. One of the reason for the rampant irrationalism of its rhetoric is that a narrow regime has to constantly whip up the various groups of its base. Most of the rhetoric of the Bush regime and many of its actions, political appointments, etc. should be interpreted from the point of view of the narrowness of the Bush regime within the ruling class as a whole. The reason the exposure of Plame is significant, and the only reason it has become an "affair", is that with Plame the Bush regime proclaimed that it has contempt for a portion of the ruling elite that is important to imperial domination. As Nicholas Lemann put it in a recent New Yorker article:

[T]he conservative foreign-policy position generated a vigorous subculture. Life inside it had many charms, one of which was the unassailability of the conservatives’ ideas .... Conservatives were smarter, bolder, more strategic-minded, and more historically aware than moderate Republicans, being less vitiated by the need to appease interest groups and by the grind of running bureaucracies. When the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department ... was mentioned in conversation with a foreign-policy conservative, the reference would usually draw a derisive chuckle or a rolling of the eyes: those organizations had been captured by the appeasers, and could be counted on to respond insufficiently to threats.
TELLING SECRETS - How a leak became a scandal by NICHOLAS LEMANN The New Yorker Issue of 2005-11-07, Posted 2005-10-31

The ideological battle of the right wing neo-conservatives has always been aimed against the entrenched bureaucracies of "liberal" imperialism, which they look at as a brake on the expansion of U.S. state and corporate power. Thus, attacking people such as Joseph Wilson (a career State Department official) and his wife Valerie Plame, was simply attacking the representatives of the liberal foreign policy bureaucracy. Such attacks are just part of the game for the extreme reactionaries of the Bush Admnistration. And the fact that this is the way that they play the game, without regard for usual ruling class solidarity, is what separates them from the more 'conservative' elements of the U.S. ruling elite. But when powerful people undermine other powerful people an "affair" or a "scandal" will ensue. This is the simple lesson of the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals. (See FN 1)

But this does not mean that we who consider ourselves radicals and internationalists should simply parrot those who wish to drive "the affair" for their own interests. Scandals such as the Plame Affair are most useful if we can use them to expose the usual workings of the state and the ruling class. But they are also useful to expose the hypocrisy of the application of "the rule of law." Thus once again I come back to the beginning of this comment.

Let me make a thematic connection between the Valerie Plame Affair and the CIA archipelago of secret prisons. Let us be clear: The law that gave Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald a mandate to investigate the Valerie Plame Affair is an anti-democratic law meant to protect the national security state against exposures of its 'secret' atrocities. The law is known as Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) and it was past in order to protect the criminals at the CIA from exposure. The secrecy of CIA operations is aimed at the domestic population. We are the ones who are not supposed to know the history of subversion of democratic movements of our government. The CIA is not simply an intelligence organization it is also an organization that bribes foreign officials, undermines foreign elections, overthrows foreign governments, fosters foreign secret security agencies and trains them in torture and death-squad operations - in short the CIA is an organization meant to inspire fear in foreign civilian peoples through the use of violence and propaganda. In short, by definition, the CIA is engaged in terrorism. Exposing the CIA, its operations and its operatives is a democratic duty that we must fight to make a 'right.' The Intelligence Identities Protection Act was passed in the early 1980s and was aimed at Philip Agee and the Covert Action Information Bulletin (CAIB). Agee made his own separate peace by defecting from the CIA to the multitude. He published CIA Diary: Inside the Company in 1975 and soon after teamed up to publish CAIB. In both his book and in CAIB he exposed CIA operations and operatives. It was Agee's and CAIB's civic activism in exposing CIA secrets that led to the passage of IIPA. The activities exposed by Agee were largely illegal activities which are condemned (with much usual nation-state hypocrisy) by international norms. Agee, no matter what his motivations, was a whistle blower and IIPA is an anti-Whistle Blower law that will be used mainly against the left. In the usual misapplication of the rule of law those who harm the ruling class will be prosecuted and those who benefit the ruling class will not be prosecuted under this law.

Which brings us back to the CIA run secret prisons.

If a CIA agent with a conscience knows where these prisons are located, if she knows the CIA operatives who run those prisons, if she knows the conditions of those prisons and the names of the people in the prisons, if she then reports on the activities of the CIA wardens and their hirelings who run these prisons, and if this person of conscience exposes all of the above, I would celebrate such a person. In my mind she should be considered a courageous fighter for democratic openness. The law that would put such a person in jail should be repealed. All secret security agencies should be exposed to the light of day.

This is not a mere hypothetical. Think of Dana Priest's article exposing the CIA secret prisons. She wrote it without naming names. But she must have sources somewhere in order to write the article in the first place and those sources must know names. The names of the people running those secret CIA prisons are engaging in crimes against humanity and the names of the CIA prison wardens and their accomplices should be exposed to democratic sunlight. Perhaps one reason that they are not so exposed is the threat of jail under Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

I am cynical enough to hope that despicable hypocrites, such as Carl Rove and Scooter Libby, will betray the norms of their class and expose covert agents, even if they do so only to further their very narrow political interests. In the end, if the Intelligence Identities Protection Act is consistently violated by those who rule this country, perhaps the act will become a dead letter. This is a mere modest proposal in favor of ruling class wolves eating their own puppies. In reality only an active and organized radical democratic left, which has its own organizations willing to expose the crimes and atrocities of the U.S. government and its secret agencies can put some content into the notion of the "rule of law" and someday make such notions of law into a flexible instrument of pragmatic democratic justice.

Jerry Monaco
New York City
2 November 2005

[FN 1] Note that this internecine war between ruling class elite sectors is partially represented by the battle inside the intelligence agencies. Thus Dana Priest reports

The secret detention system was conceived in the chaotic and anxious first months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the working assumption was that a second strike was imminent.

Since then, the arrangement has been increasingly debated within the CIA, where considerable concern lingers about the legality, morality and practicality of holding even unrepentant terrorists in such isolation and secrecy, perhaps for the duration of their lives. Mid-level and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its unique espionage mission.

"We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy," said one former senior intelligence officer who is familiar with the program but not the location of the prisons. "Everything was very reactive. That's how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don't say, 'What are we going to do with them afterwards?' "

Put aside the official media-speak of these paragraphs and what you see is that the CIA has stepped outside its usual role and the "old hands" do not like it very much. In the good old days of the U.S. imperialism the CIA trained other people to do their dirty work. The vision of the Bush regime sees a more active role for the CIA in torture and oppression, mainly because as U.S. military might has increased, it has lost political control over many of its foreign clients and servants. I suppose that one of the results of the reorganization of the intelligence agencies is to bring them under direct political control by the Bush Regime.

Jerry Monaco
New York City
Originally Published 2 November 2005

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