Free Radicals, Rogue States, and Factoids
It’s a curious thing that free radicals, rogue states, and factoids should have become such dominant memes within their respective cognitive frameworks and our perception of things. We might refer to them as memes of disintegration or incoherence. “Free radicals” in biochemistry are said to be implicated in aging; rogue states in the breakdown and fracturing of internationalism and of the modern Westphalian system of nation-states. “Factoids” is a term used to describe discrete or rogue pieces of information, often news clips or reports, that have no apparent meaningful relationship to each other and don’t seem to fit meaningfully in a broader framework of knowledge. They are texts without context, answers without a question, isolates, the “free radicals” and “rogue states” of the datasphere.
“Factoids” are a symptom of the aging and atomisation of a consciousness structure; the flip-side, as it were, of “the end of the Grand Narrative”; “the end of ideology”; and “the end of history”, too.
“Factoids” are characters in search of an author; answers in search of a question; events in search of a meaning; texts in search of a context; perhaps pieces of a puzzle in search of a schema, maybe the articles of a faith in search of a dogma. They don’t belong to what we call “knowledge” because they don’t cohere. They have no apparent meaningful bond or relationship to each other or to anything beyond themselves. Are they important or unimportant? Are they trivial or not? Are they meaningful or meaningless? We really can’t say because there is no context, no cognitive framework or perspective, in which they might be evaluated and interpreted.
That’s what “the end of the Grand Narrative” means, of course. It’s why some people now speak of a “multiversity” rather than the “university”. What is called “end of the Grand Narrative” is the breakdown of the unity of knowledge and perception represented in a cohereent cognitive framework. “Factoids”, as much as “rogue states” or “free radicals”, are a symptom of what Jean Gebser anticipated as the atomisation and breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness structure.
Our present world is full of such “factoids”. We might call them “rogue memes”. Scan the morning’s news stories and you might wonder what connection one news event has with any other news event. We have fragments of a story. Is it meaningful or not? It’s indeterminate. The end of the Grand Narrative means the dissolution of the paradigm of interpretation, the confounding of our perception of things and powers of discernment, even the loss of distinction between the factual and the fictional.
As an example, consider a report today that appeared today in The Guardian according to “the index of ignorance“. You might well ponder how it is that the most informed populations in history can be so wrong about their actual reality. One can also question whether such measures of ignorance are, in fact, meaningful in themselves since by “ignorance” I understand something different than whether a population can correctly calculate the actual rates and ratios of teenage pregnancy, crime, or immigration, and so on. There’s more to the meaning of “ignorance” than miscalculation and innumeracy. One can question whether such scalar measures of ignorance (or, for that matter, happiness, trust, contentment etc) measure anything meaningfully, which aren’t themselves simply “factoids” that bespeak not much or nothing at all. Number, weight, and measure aren’t exactly meaningless. But they are often somewhat less than the whole truth.
There’s a certain irony in the factoid that the most informed populations in human history also appear to be the most ill-informed populations in history, too. Perhaps even more prone to delusive thinking than even earlier generations who never ranked thinking very highly and therefore never felt the need to hold an opinion about everything. The medievals never ranked thinking very highly. What they ranked highly was prayer rather than thinking. Oro et laboro — “I work and I pray”. The proper relationship of the soul to God, or the time-bound to the timeless, which was prayer ranked higher than the proper relationship of the mind to Nature. which was thinking.
Thinking is not for everyone. Some people are ruined by it. They are made a bundle of nerves by thinking. Much of our pedagogy is ruinous. This is where I think Nietzsche had it correct over Marx. Marx was a true son of the Enlightenment. What was his ideal for his communist society? “Hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, criticise in the evening”. In other words, an aristocratic life-style for all and, moreover, thinking and philosophising as the highest expression and realisation of consciousness. It ain’t necessarily so. But that bias towards thinking — the mental-rational — explains why an old Marxist like Slavoj Zizek has such an antipathy for Marxists who have turned to Buddhism.
It is one of the serious weaknesses of democracy, as you may have noticed. Democracy was based on the premise that the human is “the rational animal” — Universal Reason would prevail. But not everybody thinks, or even wants to think and reason things out, and into that breach steps propaganda and the “factoids”. What are factoids then? Instant opinions for the unthinking, because everyone is expected to have an opinion, even if they are totally self-contradictory and incoherent.
What’s wrong with “I don’t know”? That would be honest. And in this Age of Bullshit, the supreme wisdom even.
Into this configuration of “rogue states”, “free radicals”, and “factoids” — or the lack of configuration, as may be — steps also the atomisation of time in physics, too, which might even be a more bizarre instance of decoherence and disintegration. I’m thinking of the CBC Ideas radio show I once heard called “Living on Oxford Time“. In the current conception, there is no “universal presence”, only an infinite number of discrete “now points” or moments, with no apparent relationship to each other. Even the cosmos does not cohere, then.
But that also suggests a different interpretation. If every moment or point in spacetime is its own eternal “now” point, doesn’t that suggest rather a holographic universe? Time is and is not. Doesn’t that actually affirm Blake’s vision of “eternity in the hour” and the infinite in all things?
It seems to me that it does. And I cite that as an example of the “coincidence of opposites” that seems to me that chief feature of our times, and which was recognised by Jean Gebser as the strange, paradoxical “double-movement” of disintegration and re-integration simultaneously. “Where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also” (Hölderlin), and if every fragment of time that we call “moment” has this quality of “eternal now”, why wouldn’t we conclude that “Now” is the true reality of the entire cosmos, and not just in terms of pieces and atoms of Now?
A slight digression from the theme of this post, perhaps. But I don’t think I could pass up the opportunity to mention again the theme of coincidentia oppositorum, that there is a curious integrative counter-dynamic also within the apparent disintegrative tendency — an integrative “undercurrent” only because it is happening in the background of our awareness and perception even as we remain too focussed on the disintegrative “foreground” tendencies. You might call that undercurrent “the other world”, if you will, only because it is the potential future present in the background attempting to become actuality or “presence”, which it can only do via the agency or mid-wifery of human consciousness.
“Where Man is not, Nature is barren”. What that epigramme from William Blake means is that human consciousness adds something to the world that is not there “naturally”. The classical virtues of the Good, the True, the Beautiful do not inhere in Nature, but are added to Nature as a function of the human consciousness. Human consciousness is needed to complete Nature, and to make it whole.
Hence it is said, “physician, heal thyself!”