Scholar writing as his desk. From Avicenna’s Kitab Al-Shifa’.
Digitized by the Provenance Online Project
Scholar writing as his desk. From Avicenna’s Kitab Al-Shifa’.
Digitized by the Provenance Online Project
“As soon as one concedes the self-immunizing, individual-space-creating purpose of ‘originality,’ or rather of micromanic competency (extending to kitsch and delirium), the constitutive avoidance of reality evident in most human utterances, even a certain degree of hallucination, can be taken as indicating the successful installation of individuals and small groups in their own self-will. Those who are original wear self-woven garments.” (emphasis mine)
– Sloterdijk, Foams. Spheres III. p. 240
I was searching for an English translation of a Karl Ove Knausgaard novel last week when I stumbled across this auction for a set of his My Struggle autobiographical series, Books 1-5, signed no less.
It also includes a “life-sized” image of his head. It’s basically a picture of him cut out and glued on a popsicle stick:
The seller states:”The winner will receive a life-size ‘Karl Ove Knausgaard’ mask provided at the pre-publication [of Book 5] event in London – a great collector’s item!”
Then: “I am happy to provide pictures of the signing to the winning bidder.”
The whole thing sounds kind of bizarre to me, especially because Knausgaard is a famous introvert.
I’m tempted to bid.
After hearing quite a bit of hype, I tried reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book I about a year ago. I found the first 50 pages or so fascinating; yet every subsequent read became shorter and shorter, until I finally gave it up.
But since then I’ve heard even more about Knausgaard and recently felt the pressure to give his work another shot. This time, instead of laboring over my screen, I opted for the audiobook version. This proved decisive. Listening to his novel, A Time for Everything, was a treasure. I quickly followed that up with My Struggle, and now I’m mostly done with My Struggle: Book II. Knausgaard rambles in such a patient yet meaningful way that listening to–rather than reading–his autobiographical sketches becomes almost meditative.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to his work is that his neo-Romanticism offers a kind of antidote to our American fascination with progress and the futurism of Silicon Valley. Listening to My Struggle feels almost like a guilty pleasure, like a lost time that modernity will always try to cover up, and in some cases for good reason. Yet his style of thinking helps me think about other material that I come across in a new way.
Here’s a passage I listened to while running in the Boise foothills:
Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious. But in my lifetime death was removed from our lives, it no longer existed, except as a constant item in all the newspapers, on the TV news and in films, where it didn’t mark the end of a process, discontinuity, but, on account of daily repetition, represented, on the contrary, an extension of the process, continuity, and in this way, oddly enough, had become a source of our security and our anchor. A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers . . . everything we saw and did contained the intensity that was triggered in us, but had nothing to do with us. (175-76)
These thoughts originate in Knausgaard’s reflections on his Dostoevsky reading. He mulls over the distance between Baroque death, Dostoevsky’s grotesque yet compelling figure of a redeemed humanity that has fallen into nihilism, and then the way modernity has triumphed over death in an artificial, abstract manner—”in my lifetime death was removed from our lives.” The reproduction of death in the news, on film, and through the technology of the internet has made it routine. Death at a remove.
What struck me about this passage is that in it Knausgaard critiques the same indifference towards death that the modern revival of Stoic philosophy values. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are practically triumphant in the Bay Area right now, in part because they offer a Western correlate to Buddhist indifference. One of the core components is indifference towards one’s own death. “Death is nothing frightening,” Epictetus reminds Stoic practitioners in his Manual for Living.
The Stoic effort to become negative–to become free from externals–is attractive for sated consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Yet looking at modernity’s neo-Stoicism through the eyes of Knausgaard suggests that this indifference is enabled, or even compelled, by data collection. It’s big data that makes plane crashes a ritual, a routine that can be algorithmically determined. This ritualization of death begs for indifference.
Does that make the Stoic revival noble, or naive?
A few years ago (around 2012) I started following research updates published by the Brookings Institution. That dropped off when my interests drifted elsewhere. Then more recently I’ve been looking for political podcasts with some heft; I searched for the Brookings Institution once again.
I’m glad I did. Their Oct. 30 podcast event, “The Future of Land Warfare,” offers a roundtable on…the future of land warfare. The main interlocutor is Michael E. O’Hanlon, whose book, The Future of Land Warfare, argues for a build-up a conventional U.S. forces in order to prepare for future (and ongoing) conflict. He sees this as a correction to the present trend towards de-militarization (although he does laud Gen. Allen & the White House for its unprecedented coalition-building breakthroughs).
What I found most interesting about the podcast, however, is Gen. Petraeus’ comments. He more or less backs O’Hanlon’s call for an increased military presence; at the very least, they both agree, it creates deterrence. But Petraeus’ key addition to the discussion is that land forces in the future should be made up of what he calls “pentathlete soldiers”. I did a quick web search and found that he’s been pushing for this since at least 2007. Basically, a pentathlete soldier is different from a conventional Army soldier in the range of skills they’re expected to deploy. These future soldiers should be able to respond not only to conventional warfare, but also humanitarian crises, outbreaks, disasters, etc.
The trigger for any given scenario would be global instability. This is key. “Instability” is more general than traditional “warfare,” and this lack of specificity means that a pentathlete soldier must adapt to many different circumstances–the context here determined by shifting geo-political configurations. As world revolutions emerge and submerge at a faster rate, and as national boundaries are increasingly disrupted by globalizing forces, future soldiers must become high-performers.
This emphasis on varied high performance, capable of adapting to unforeseen instability (i.e., risk), is fascinating because it offers a strong military parallel to the emphasis on adaptation and varied skills in the economic arena. Just as the increasing instability of conventional domains demands that soldiers become more plastic, more “athletic” in their training, so must potential workers (students) view education as risk-minimization training, wherein they too learn skills varied enough to survive multiple economic cycles.
However, what stands out in this comparison is that there’s a strong spatial (strongly geographical) component that’s driving the demand for pentathletes. Petraeus explicitly makes such a connection in the “Future of Land Warfare” discussion. It’s as though the new geography is creating new military subjects.
But the economic instability leading to demand for entrepreneurial risk-taking seems rather non-spatial. It’s a matter of economic ebbs and flows rather than spatial alterations.
There’s much more to the podcast. Do check it out.
On Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
These days I pick up book recommendations from a few different sources. The most common inspiration comes from reading–if I enjoy a book and the author alludes to or explicitly mentions another book, I’ll check it out. The other source is my Feedly blog updates, which is a mixture of academic and quasi-academic material. The final source is podcasts. Strangely enough, the one I’ve pulled a few from recently is the Tim Ferriss Show. He comes off as a self-help guru (I’ll post some more about Ferriss in the future), but he interviews some fascinating characters; and many of them offer book suggestions that stand out to me because I don’t hear about them elsewhere. In a recent podcast, when Reid Hoffman recently praised Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind for its consistent evolutionary method, I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that Mark Zuckerberg selected this for his 2015 book club.
If you have even a vague acquaintance with world history, the middle portion of this book will disappoint. I’m not sure what purpose it actually serves other than to complete the story. However, the first and last third of Sapiens are worth chewing on. These bookend the “brief history of humankind” with a clear narrative arc: the goal of Sapiens is to show how the messy, more “natural” diversity of our human genetic history has been usurped by modernity’s penchant for channeling biology according to artificial selection. Harari’s historico-biological expertise pays off here. He succinctly lays out the evidence for the haphazard path from the multi-pronged lineages of Homo neanderthalensis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus to their violent usurpation by Homo sapiens. Then, with the final section of the book, it becomes clear that selecting for uniformity is what Homo sapiens does best, artificially selecting in a prescriptive manner. As Harari suggests, intelligent design apologists might actually turn out to be right–but only in reference to the future of human history.
For this narrative to work, however, Harari relies on a key assumption that is worth picking apart. Harari suggests that a “good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids’”. Culture seems to be his stand-in for the philosophical concept of “human negativity”. Pre-ancient human history is more biological, while modern human history is more cultural (more negative). This might seem like common sense, but it’s vaguely Freudian. It seems ironic to offer a thoroughly empirical account of human civilization that actually relies on twentieth-century psychoanalytic trope. I’m sure Harari has good reasons for relying on this dichotomy (there is indeed a political payoff, e.g., with regard to the rules governing sexuality), but those don’t appear in the book.
What if, instead of adopting a “biology enables, culture forbids” rule of thumb, Harari turned to Deleuze & Guattari’s distinction in Thousand Plateaus between life processes of hierarchical stratification (like a tree) and rigorous multiplicity (like a rhizome). Deleuze and Guattari pride themselves on thoroughgoing empiricism, which is why they locate the tension between identity (Harari’s “culture”) and difference (Harari’s “nature”) within nature. That is, Deleuze & Guattari have the virtue of not reserving seemingly negative attributes like hierarchical selection to the human species. Life is always already both driving towards diversity and assimilation. Rhizomes and Trees have “cultural” counterparts in nomadic communities vs. ancient cities.
Phrases like “artificial selection” beg a rather important question in this book. If Harari adjusted the language of Sapiens according to a more thoroughgoing empiricism, would that alter the story being told?
It might. I can see why Silicon Valley embraces Sapiens. It paints a problematic but ultimately crafty view of the human species. We come off as the Promethean hacker of natural history.