Stuart and Dave’s blog, featuring thoughts and fragments on politics, economics, philosophy, literature, and spirituality.

“Man is the animal who weeps and laughs – and writes. If the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back – in a book.”

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3 thoughts on “About

  1. I think I would agree with the negative capability position – at least, as I’ve just read it on the Wikipedia page – though it seems a really clumsy title for an elegant notion.

    “Negative capability describes the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomena free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one’s own will and individuality upon their activity”

    It would, however, seem to resist standard conceptions of determinism, and I know that at least one of you has debated strong determinist positions with me in the past 🙂

    We usually think that all that we know is all of the world – it is a mere temporary failing of science if some of the deepest mysteries of nature are as yet closed to us. The range of our knowledge is the furthest edge of the big bang, and the tiniest particles. Given this, any positive structure to existence must come at the expense of some other portion. If we must do this, then we must *not* do that. It’s the tree of knowledge all over again: to affirm one part of existence is to deny another. Applying this to our own condition, determinism in practice is usually meant to mean that of all our experiences, those relating to subsistence are the true ones, and those relating to art and poetry are more or less fanciful, existing only in our heads and not on earth. *Is* also becomes *ought* – an animal *ought* to fill its belly, it *oughtn’t* paint pictures of daffodils.

    If, however, we were more humble, we would come up with something a bit more consistent – and something also that would fit the negative capability paradigm. The world beyond the senses exists prior to us, and the flow of information is entirely one way. We are pushed, pulled, and buffeted by the world around us, and collectively we form and share a picture of the world that may be doing this – but here’s the point: the picture is just the picture. It is simply not about the world beyond the senses, it is a different kind of thing. We are 6+ billion snow globes, which in no way represent the world beyond, even if they are caused by it. This is *our* world that we navigate, and it takes place inside 7 billion human skulls and nowhere else. There are no dandelions, no volcanoes, no planets, no quarks, beyond the world that we ourselves create and share, any more than there are gods or unicorns.

    This consistent evolution: just as animals do not have a dialectical relationship with their environment, but are fashioned by aggravated happenstance – “descent plus modification” – so our world itself is the product of evolution, but just as an animal’s paw on a rock is not the rock itself – the notion is incoherent – so our thoughts about volcanoes do not reach out and touch an actual volcano, the notion is incoherent. Our worlds have the same relationship to whatever lies beyond the senses as the animal’s paw – they are tools for manipulation.

    Perhaps this will help – we tend to think of our minds as the things that let our bodies navigate the world. In fact, our minds are the worlds that we navigate, bound up with the navigator – any separation of being and doing is artificial. *This* is where the dialectic lies – not the human mind in relation to its environment, but the human mind as both world and inhabitant, a unity in flux, rather than two incommensurate things bound by some mystical link.

    But I see no place for the term ‘determinist’ in what I have described. Determinism is at root the statement that the physical determines the psychological. But in this model, the physical is just what we think about things that are heavy, and the ideal is just what we think about things that are light. Determinism is a *political* statement, that we should prioritise the things that are heavy and denigrate the things that are light. In an ascending world of gears and pistons, as confronted the Victorians, this is an eminently sensible position, because of the world that *we* had made, not the world -as-is. In the hypothetical past, of course, we find from grave goods and wall paintings that in the place we are supposed to find deterministic thinking, it is less than obvious that it is found. It was only with the onset of class society, and the rise of the first writing, that art was turned towards the accounting of other men’s property.

    It is also a political position to *reject* determinism – not to say that we sit in the lap of the gods, for that would be just a determinism of a different sort: but instead to insist that all we can do, we can do, and our lives are a battle not against subsistence but against happenstance. There are conditions that we need to satisfy in order to prosper, of course: if the rag-bag of activities that a society pursues does not include sufficient along the lines of hunting animals, picking berries or growing crops, then that society will not flourish. But to say that society is *about* the gathering of subsistence is to fall from the heights of hubris to the depths of despair, to conjure the world we know as all there is but then see ourselves as troglodytes within it. And in this same way, we can look to a world beyond work, rather than the classic Marxist image of the happy worker: production and gathering subsistence are not consonant, only parallel in times of crisis. By production we mean all the elements from Marx’s Excerpts of James Mill, to be a world-historical character, producing for the community, showing your love and being confirmed in the love of others. Subsistence is something to be satisfied along the way, though the needs of the organism are the first to be produced for, the most primal to satisfy, and the model for all our needs to follow.

    So, not exactly a precis 🙂 And probably rambling. But I would say that the notion of negative capability would seem in line with what I’m trying to say, in line with a post-capitalist thinking, but that it would exclude any deterministic notion beyond saying that there is a world beyond the senses that is bugger all to do with us.

    But it’s probably elephants all the way down.

    Simon Wigley


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