Reply To: October 6: Science and Potery

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Markus # Posted on January 11, 2015 at 18:28

Complementary task, Markus Nyström

One of my earliest memories is from sitting by the kitchen table having breakfast and looking at my older sister and thinking: “How can I know that she is a person and not just a body?”. When I have told this to people, they sometimes do not believe me, but it is entirely true. I think I was five.

With “person” I of course ment “a subject”, that she had a mind of her own and was not just a fancy biological robot. My question was the question, the doubt, of the solipsist – a person doubting even the most plausable interpretation and understanding since no positive proof is available. The Cartian doubt.

Hearing and reading Midgley was highly rewarding. I sympathize with much of her points and think her writing was accessible and intelligent (a sometimes unusual mix in academia). There are many points that I feel like discussing, but I start with her criticism of “atomism”. What is interesting is how atomism, or reductionism as it is more often called, in Midgley’s perspective, has permeated all levels of understanding and how this reduce the importance of the the larger, emergent levels of reality – which, coincidentily, most often is the level immediately available to us. In debunking Dawkins, she points out how he tend to regard genes as real – the only thing really real – and the organism that is the result of those genes as “not exactly an illusion” but almost. Midgley’s argument is, in my opinion, very convincing, which is that the atomistic thinking hurts our understanding of the world and ourselves.

What atomism can lead to, in the long run, is that all organism – that is, also humans – are regarded as merely DNA, and, further, as nothing but atoms and quarks. This reminds me of a thought experiment described by Niel Evernden where he asked the reader to imagine that the value of a human being is the market price of the natural materials that she consists of – iron, calcium, carbon, etcetera. Evernden brings this up as an example of the bizarr and insane result of market thinking and scientific reductionism. The point, which both Evernden and Midgley tries to make, is that this type of reasoning leads not only to the wrong answers but the wrong questions. The problem with Evernden’s thought experiment is not that the value of a human being is “too low”, but that it is entirely the wrong way of valuing a human life in the first place.

Social atomism – individualism – is something I find so ingrained in the modern perception that I have troubles thinking around it. My childhood story is a case in point – no five-year-old would think like I did if it had not, in multiple different ways, been schooled into regarding herself as the undivided center of the universe. In the other end of the spectrum is, perhaps, communism or religious beliefs where the individual is regarded as unimportant to the collective. But Midgley’s analysis – thankfully – is intelligent enough to avoid the false dichotomy between capitalist individualism and communist collectivism. Instead, she argues that individuals are part of larger constallations – of societies and communities – also in the most rigid capitalist societies, which really is quite obvious. What is refreshing, in other words, is that she does not argue for one over the other – individualism over collectivism – but that she understands how they both are real, important, and forming our understanding of ourselves. I am “me”, but I am also part of “we”, even though ideology can obscure this, at least cognitively, if the ideology is too extreme in either way.

This reasoning brings yet another writer to mind, another favorite of mine, Mark Fisher with his book “Capitalist Realism”. In it, he argues, among other things, that mental health problems – rising quickly in the western world, especially among the young – is the result of a mentally unhealthy society, but the atomistic way of interpreting mental health leaves out the possibility of interpreting the issue of rising numbers of mental health problems as anything than chemical imalances in the (individual) brain. The mental health problem may be because of chemical imbalances in the brain – no one questions that – but that is not the sickness’ origin. A sick society is, a society where the individual is contantly taught to be in competition with other individuals in an ever faster information flow, instead of focusing on cooperation and common goals. The atomistic, individual perspective on people make it difficult – for the individual psychiatrist virtually impossible – to draw larger conclusions about the collective, the society. Perhaps the saddest thing about this is that the discussion about cure and treatment thus is individualized and chemical – psychofarma – while it perhaps ought to spark a political movement away from atomism. Thus, social atomism tends to lock itself in, re-inforcing itself.

If I had come to the seminar I most likely would have brought my favorite poem by the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, “Gallrets visa är lång”:

Lång är gallrets visa
och grå som den gråaste höst.
Man har ett galler kring kroppen.
Man har ett galler till bröst.

Fågeln sjunger i skogen
långt bort där man inte är.
Man ville nog höra den sjunga,
men alltid är gallret där.

Långt bort är en skimrande gata.
Långt bort är en glimmande älv.
men sliter man sönder sitt galler
så sliter man sönder sig själv.

Galler (bars, as in a prison) is surrounding the person’s body and heart, and even though he can hear the bird sing in the forest, where he wishes to be, the bars are always in the way. But if you tear asunder the bars, you tear asunder yourself.

Pervasive metaphors, says Midgley in the video, is part of the substance of what the metaphor is suppsed to convey, there is no such thing as “only a metaphor” if the metaphor is pervasive way of describing something. The bars in the poem shows Dagerman’s being trapped, being imprisoned, behind the grey (iron), so that he cannot reach out to the bird in the forest or the shining river.

This metaphor, this poem, speaks to me, on many different levels. What are the bars behind which I am trapped? They are both discoursive (I cannot understand or percieve the world outside the vocabulary that I have at my disposal and which is culturally sanctioned) and physical (the convenience of modern life, the fear of hunger and cold, etcetera) stops me from trying to reach another state, another understanding or perception. And, perhaps, most importantly, there are social barriers, norms, which keeps me within the fold of the acceptable. This is why I simultaneously feel like mocking, as well as being intrigued by, people trying to reach new understandings of their place in the world, through meditation, being “sensuous” and “listening” in new ways, to other voices, and so on. I feel like derogatorily calling them all “hippies” and walk away at the same time as I am a little envious at their courage.

The metaphor of bars could perhaps be what Midgley refers to as a myth, even though, of course, she means larger stories, shared by vast number of people (like the “story” about the proleteriat and class struggle). About myths, Midgley says that myths are “imaginative vision which in some way manages to capture the point about how the world is.” The point, as it were, with my quoting Dagerman’s poem is that we (or at least I) are trapped in a certain way of thinking about the world. Maybe human beings always are.

Even though I love this poem, I disagree with it’s conclusion, that by tearing asunder the bars you tear asunder yourself. Maybe it is the other way around. Maybe, by tearing down that which holds you back, you indeed free yourself? But, again, perhaps my lean towards individualism shows through here, regarding myself as the solitary force of my life, while I at the same time belong to larger collectives and groups? By tearing asunder the bars I also distance myself from the convention of the culture and society that I live within, am a part of, so I would have to sacrifice my position. Maybe that is what breaks when you tear asunder the bars?

In closing, I would like to say that I did not attend many seminars in this course. I have instead opted to do many seminars as complimentary tasks afterwards. Now, having read and written for ten seminars, I can say that the seminar I wish mostly that I had attended was this one. Both because of the topic and the fascinating scholar but also because of the interesting pedagogical setup that Nisa and Gao were responsible for. Good job!