The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)Now that my ladder’s goneI must lie down where all ladders startIn the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
– William Butler Yeats
Every thinker, writer, poet, or just plain old fashioned human without pretensions comes to a point in their lives when they must settle accounts, look back across the intervening years and mark the highs and lows of a lifetime spent pursuing whatever odds and ends they called a personal existence. We all came in the same door and will leave by various routes to that “unknown country”. As the proverbial phrase would have it - it’s what happens between the two abysses of birth and death that counts, not the before or after of its demarcated journey through time. In his letter to his brothers George and Thomas, John Keats mentioned in a succinct insight: “At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This ability to stand in the midst of life without clutching to some preconceived notion, some manufactured philosophical, poetic, or scientific etc. framework or ideological reference point and let the unknown have its own way. This is the marker of beginnings, of allowing the new and untested to emerge out of the strangeness we call existence.
“Language is fossilized poetry,” Emerson once said. The idea that reality can be reduced to a set of codes: analyzed, computed, and formulated into scientific or philosophical knowledge is the oldest of grand illusions. Even that admirer of Emerson, Fredrich Nietzsche, once stated: “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Yet, it was Nietzsche in another moment of lucidity who told us “We behold all things through the human head and cannot cut off this head; while the question nonetheless remains what of the world would still be there if one had cut it off.” Exactly! What is reality without human intervention? Can we mortal beings ever come to terms with the real beyond our thoughts? Are we forever doomed to roam in a blind twisted circle of thought and concept without ever touching the face of the real?
Should we return to such thinkers as Wilfrid Sellars and slay the beast of the ‘Manifest Image’ in preference to the ‘Scientific Image’? Is all of our former poetry, literature, humanities, philosophies, etc. doomed to a sideline circus for lost causes? Is the way of an open skeptical and empirically based speculative naturalism our only viable path in the future as R. Scott Baker has recently reiterated: The Political Even Horizon? Are we living out fantasias of a blind brain following the age old illusions of its false masters into oblivion? How will the future engineers of this programmed society reroute the minions enslaved to the older ideologies? And, more than that, What do these Brain Engineers want to do with us? Is Neurofascism on the horizon? The post-biological chemical and pharmacological destiny of this programed society seems to be heading into strange zones of closure rather than of freedom. What next?
Bakker tell us we’re in the midst of neither a cultural nor technological event change, but rather in “an evolutionary event” that “is not a human event“. For him this does not preclude a technological movement (“AI could be the primary vehicle.”). But it is not some transcension of the human as the “transhumanists” would have it, either. What’s important for him is that we’re entering dangerous territory, a “combinatorial explosion brought about by our increasing ability to overcome environmental constraints on our behavior.” For him the point is simple: “There simply is no horizon of expectation that we can depend on…” We have no frame of reference in scientific, religious, philosophical, poetic, humanist, etc. for what is going on. We are in the midst of the new without an explanatory framework to help us through the maze of strangeness that is exploding all around us. And he is a little pessimistic about our prospects, seeing it as a ‘triage’ in which we are probably already too late to abstend, but that we should still “ immediately engage outgroup interests in their own cultural idioms” to stem the tide. Like ambassadors from the future we seem to be pacifying our groupies reading them for the troubling world ahead. The future is collapsing all around us like a seething volcano with avalanches of knowledge falling into the abyss with each moments movement forward. Bakker drops his nihilist mythologies into the midst of the populace who could care less about the past or future, but who seem bent on the joyride of chaos around them as they move through the darker zones of blind brain traps. More like a slipstream rider of the apocalypse Bakker’s fiction inverts the old romantic mythologies and pulls the suspecting reader into a gnostic vision in reverse. Instead of enlightenment into a perfect world thought, he introduces the reader to this very real world as it is without fear or trepidation, a place where death is the boundary zone for neither transcendence nor false mythologies but is instead the painful truth of opening ourselves to living this life without illusions. Freud hoped for the same; yet, Freud turned back from cemeteries sickened by the very nakedness of their truth. Bakker knows he’s one of us, a lost soul in the midst of strange days; yet, he also knows he will keep his eyes open and ready for what is coming next even if he used the dead songs of ancient days to free us from our illusions.
Maybe that’s all we can hope for, an allegory of the world without illusions… maybe that would be something new! Bakker and I are two sides of the same coin: he opts for the scientific path, I opt for what remains of our humanistic and enlightenment world. Neither gives us just what we need so we continue looking for signs of the new everywhere we can in a world bereft of new ideas and thought. If we are beyond the intentional worlds of the past and moving into a post-intentional realm as he predicts then we are needful of Keats’s admonition on negative capability. Maybe that’s what we need – a survival guide that helps all of us in the trenches as we move through these “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
Bakker tells us “that all bets are off, that tradition and intuition may have been duped all the way down”. (see here) Now we must be “receptive to the possibility of facts that are out-and-out indigestible–culturally, psychologically–as well as to daring re-imaginings of political economy based on radically counter-intuitive accounts of ‘human nature.’ Ours is the time of “the crank, the amateur, understanding that unprecedented answers tend to come from institutionally unconstrained sources–from the weeds outside our academic gardens”. There are no experts anymore, no one to trust or guide you down the path, to hold your hand as you go. All is permitted! Maybe James Joyce with his etym-smasher was close to the mark, maybe we should rediscover the dreamwork of HCE again; or, maybe Thomas Pynchon is moving down the path with his latest satire of the ages, Against the Day! Maybe the cartoon worlds of superheroes will provide better direction than your local scholar at the university. Maybe thought is a tool as the pragmatists suggest rather than a site of knowledge to rest in. What Bakker is suggesting is use the tool for the job, rather than keeping the hammer when you need a screwdriver. At the moment he seems to be saying that the brain sciences are offering suggestive paths forward, so we should be aware of the latest trends in that field of endeavor. I wouldn’t disagree with that, and neither would that great humanist Thomas Mann who spent his life trying to understand the sciences of his day, too. The enlightenment is still about the sciences and the arts.. one needs both, not one or the other. At least that’s my stance and struggle in the matter.