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The Time Between Is Not Quite Over, Part Two

I have written to the point of boredom that one of my favorite cartoon punch lines is Charlie Brown’s “I don’t even understand what it is I don’t understand.”

This is indisputably (a rhetorical device that indicates that the concept under discussion is quite open to dispute) the case with our present historical moment.

We know (sort of) that we are biologically/psychologically inclined to focus on the little details most of the time, to compose the big picture from a few little details misleadingly turned into general principles, and in general to jump to conclusions, just as I am about to jump to conclusions in this essay.

A major difficulty of the present moment is the fatal concatenation of the aforementioned inbuilt mental tendencies. We are confronted with a planet-wide confluence of hyperobjects, systems of nature too large and too independently variable to permit easy focus on more than a fraction of their cumulative effects. We are confronted with hypersystems in global economics that make it easy to direct individuals towards the interpretation of small grievances, while insisting that these are all that there are, that there are no large consequences playing themselves out as a result of the many small economic distortions made possible by structurally similar legislative choices the world over.

We are discovering that human health evolves according to similar principles: Plagues derive from large environmental alterations that turn previously minor diseases into major ones through the creation of new disease vectors. Major breakdowns in individual health derive from the combination of a large number of minor fluctuations in the functioning of systems of the body we have learned to think of as separate from one another. (Paul the Apostle already knew better than that, sociologically as well as materially: cf. I Corinthians, chapter 12.)

One of the major problems in confronting this concatenation of obvious facts (a rhetorical device that indicates that there is indisputably a dispute over whether they are obvious, or even their status as potentially debatable facts) is that the previously available conceptual language with which to discuss them has been sloppily sentimental, philosophically misleading, or simply unintelligible. “Holistic” when applied to any topic is, for many people, only a cuss word signifying “superstition masquerading as science.” “Object oriented ontology” is a phrase that signifies just as much to most people as you would think it does, and a topic that seems to lead to informal discussions of what a glass might experience when it breaks, which is not at all what a revived focus on the relationship between objects and consciousness ought to be discussing. The point is that objects do interact in ways we cannot quite wrap our heads around; consciousness does not quite determine being, but “being” is not what Karl Marx thought it was, so being does not quite determine consciousness, either. We need a dialectic that is neither old-school materialist nor idealist, and old philosophical conundrums are not going to help get us there.

Whether there are neglected aspects of past thought and practice that might prove useful in getting us to where we need to be is a topic that happens to fascinate me, but focusing on possible historical antecedents is only going to give rise to unnecessary and unhelpful arguments. We need to find new ways of expressing our present condition, of overcoming our predilection towards systematic misinterpretations of that condition, and of bestirring us to get off our butts and do something about that condition.

So there. (Discuss.)


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March 2017

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