Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cosmic Schmucks: Addenda in Rhetoric, Metaphor and Digression

Just a few items and then I'll let you get back to your porn. But first, if you'll permit me:

Addenda on Robert Anton Wilson's "Cosmic Schmuck" Principle
I recently read a summary of academic philosopher and specialist in argumentation theory Daniel H. Cohen's TED talk (linked in this article). The most interesting thing to me was that, in the "argument as war" metaphor, the "winner" of the argument wins ego strokes, maybe some prestige, or maybe a firmer conviction that s(he)'s "right." What does the "loser" get? The loser learned a better way to think about an idea. (I am bracketing those who are truly interested in thinking better about topics from those who, when admitting the other has a much stronger argument nevertheless revert - everyday perversity? - to their comfortable positions.) The "war" metaphor presupposes "losing" as "learning." That's wonderfully wrong, it seems to me. I love Cohen's idea here. (My bias, stated outright: learning seems much more like "winning" something than the feeling of "losing.")

The monstrous and firmly-embedded "war" metaphor in our culture isn't going away soon, although Cohen has a vision of how we can improve on the quality of arguments, and move away from the structure of "I win/You lose" ugliness. Which I'll get to shortly (or you can watch his 9 minute spiel on a TED stage and skip ahead; the porn's tapping its toes).

Cohen doesn't mention George Lakoff or Mark Johnson, who, very early in their landmark 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, show how "argument is war" is a basic assumption in our culture, built into the fabric of our metaphors we subconsciously think with, viz:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I've never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
-p.4, op. cit

Prof. Cohen also cites two other argument structures: argument as proof, which seems much closer to deduction and therefore more collaborative-in-agreeing-upon-principles or axioms. And then there's the argument as performance, which seems underrated to me, at least in the sense I imagine Cohen means and definitely in the senses that I imagine. But the argument as war (equality of the sexes, whether utilitarianism is the best ethical philosophy, whether we ought to let the poor starve, etc, etc, etc), is the most common and in Cohen's words, "deforms" our thinking because it accentuates tactics over logic, magnifies the differences between "me" and "you" and "us" and "them," and glorifies winning while encouraging the idea that the loser has been an abject, embarrassing failure in "defeat." (But the "loser" is the one who gets the "cognitive gains," remember?)

[But first: Let me get this out of the way: I've played the argument as war game far too many times. More than I can remember. Quite often I think I probably pretended to "know" more than I actually did, and so I was being a Cosmic Schmuck...which, by the Principle, makes me a little less of one by admitting it, just so you know I've fully internalized the meta-game rules of the Cosmic Schmuck Principle.]

What is it with all this pretentious chest-thumping in our culture? Do we secretly feel we're at sea, afraid we're clueless, so we become as much the Prosecuting Attorney as possible to force our fears back down, and keep up the Game that we're "right" on the Tough Questions? Prof. Peter Berger, one of the gods of late 20th/early 21st c. Sociology, wrote much on what he called the "epistemological elite," who were high-ranking intellectuals in institutions such as the church, psychoanalysis, Marxism, economics: these people were the masters of sectarian knowledge in their domains: "Any epistemological elite, religious or secular, must develop a system of cognitive defenses to defend its claims against outside criticisms but also, very importantly, to assuage the doubts harbored by insiders."
(see p.37 Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist)

The argument as war "winner" would seem to be heavily concentrated within the epistemological elite, although no doubt every street gang and sports team and gang of white collar business criminals has one of these guys too...

Maybe the worst aspect of argument as war is, according to Prof. Cohen (and I very much agree with him here), that it pretty much forecloses on deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration. (I'd add there seems to be something utterly antagonistic about the argument as war mode of thought and the ludic, fun-loving beings most of us want to "be.")

                                             Kenneth Burke, who changed the field of
                                             Rhetoric from an idea about literary and
                                             oratorical devices to basic human 
                                             communication, which seeks largely to

I think Robert Anton Wilson wanted much more of all of that (deliberation, negotiation, collaboration, compromise, playfulness) in his thinking that actuated the Cosmic Schmuck Principle. Why? Well, for one: the need to be "right" all the time seems linked with being repressive and Authoritarian. RAW used a term he attributed to Mike Hoy: "Correct Answer Machine": this is an assumption deeply embedded in out culture, so we take it in, seemingly, with mother's milk: that we must have The One True Answer to any question, as if there were a little machine in our brains that always knew the "correct" answer to everything. Wilson thought this was basically the same as an ideology, but an authoritarian one, almost always based on Aristotelian two-value logic, with no room for the Excluded Middle. Wilson called it "robot circuits in our brains." (see Email To The Universe, p.135) This seems cognate with the I Am Right You Are Wrong problem that Edward Debono wrote so engagingly about. Let's have more arguments using "water" logic and less having "rock" logic. Here! Here!

Wilson thought, somewhat Dao-istically that, from the most elemental forms of energy and life systems on up to inter-accomodative systems in nature and society: cybernetic feedback loops, unhindered by rigid and artificial stumbling blocks, were a key aspect of freedom and evolution. I simplify his views far too much here, but suffice: the need to consult a stupid-making Correct Answer Machine (installed when? by your daddy or the priest at age 13?) led to human misery. Open systems in nature, open minds in society: we go with the best we know, we make "gambles," but it's always contingent; we ought always be ready to take in new forms of information in order to hone our thought, and to never decide one day we needn't do this any longer, for we Have Arrived at The One True Way...

So: the need to be "right" is a big problem.

For another: "reality" does not seem to conform to the structure of our Indo-European sentences of SUBJECT +(linking verb) + PREDICATE all that well at all, at all. Not as well as we seem to assume. Especially those sentences with the troublesome linking verb forms of BEING (am, is, are, was, were, be), which tend to hypnotize us into going along with a static eternal Thing-ness to abstract nouns and ideas. Also: these linking verbs tend to make us forget the thousands of other "things" an idea could stand for. That's why he advocated for the use of E-Prime, or English without "is" forms in it, as a tool for improved communication and to root out bullshit in one's own thinking. (See any comments by Eric Wagner left on this blog for examples of E-Prime.)

I use E-Prime only some of the time, mostly because I "am" lazy, but I think some forms of "be" or "is" in sentences, while ontologically misleading according to D. David Bourland's standpoint, my language becomes stilted. I have not learned to use it in a consistently eloquent way. Finally: I am more impressed with ideas about how metaphor and rhetoric actually function in our nervous systems and culture, and the Big Names that have influenced me here are: Vico, Nietzsche, Cassirer, I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Erving Goffman, and George Lakoff. I see E-Prime as a valuable tool for exploration as of this date.

As a way of making my way toward some sort of detente and the ethical problems around subtly hypnotizing others into possibly false artificial ontologies ("Xs are Qs" or "P is Y, and at times W and V"), notice any sentence I use with the form of "be" in it and "be" just a little bit suspicious of my intentions, okay? If I write, "What the NSA is doing will be found in any history of totalitarianism; with the Obama administration's blessings, Obama's being a fascist now," E-Prime would put it as, "From the reports I have read about what the NSA has done, this reminds me of my understanding of what gets labeled 'totalitarianism' in books and other discourse, and Obama seems to have over-rode the Constitution, which reminds me of certain historical examples often called 'fascism.'" Say what you will about the stilted style, but don't I sound a lot less know-it-all-ish in the E-Prime version?

Take away: stay vigilant about the OG's use of "is" "am" "was" "be" "being" "were." (This seems another way for me to lessen my Cosmic Schmuckitude.)

Back to Prof. Cohen: I loved his idea of changing the argument as war assumption in our culture with changing how we perceive the role of arguer. What he idealizes goes something like this: with deliberation, negotiation, compromise and collaboration (and I'd add our ludic nature), we enter into an argument as an arguer, but also as an audience member to that argument. The goal would be to arrive at the endpoint of an argument and have the participants (including any audience members) saying, "That was a satisfying argument!" So: even if you "lose" you feel no shame. And the "winner" feels a sense of accomplishment in bringing about an invigorating aesthetic experience for all. (I might be reading into what Prof. Cohen wants here, so these observations can be considered as Cohen/OG ideas, but let's give Cohen the kudos; I don't wanna come off as some Cosmic Schmuck!)

Prof. Cohen's ideas about improving the quality of argumentation remind me of a similar sort of idea that I first ran across in the journal EtcA Review of General Semantics, when Edward MacNeal used the term "grokduel" on p.270 of vol.63, #3, July 2006. Apparently he coined the word in 1999, and here's a definition:

grokduel: a contest in which two or more parties vie to see who best understands the positions of the others.

MacNeal quite likely got the "grok" aspect of his coinage from Robert Heinlein's 1961 mindbending cult novel Stranger In A Strange Land. The idea plays out in my mind, somewhat ideally, as very much like what Prof. Cohen would want in new argumentative forms. There seems a sort of possibly ironic chest-thumping aspect to MacNeal's "grokduel," but I do think much mirth and learning could take place during such experimental arguments.

Back to Cosmic Schmuck: You know who's a quite a lot less of a Cosmic Schmuck these days? Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a very charming and handsome TV Doctor, who admitted recently - and quite publicly - that he'd been duped by anti-cannabis government propaganda. He - finally! - actually looked at lots of evidence for himself and concluded he'd been wrong, wrong, wrong. (I assume most readers of the OG wonder why anyone would believe what the government said in the first place!) And I barely know who Gupta is, but Unistatians love him, so his play within the game rules of the Cosmic Schmuck Principle (which no doubt he's never hoidda!), with regard to the subject (cannabis prohibition and the efficacy of marijuana for health reasons), makes his recent lessening of Schmuckiness quite a felicitous thing, aye?

So: get to grokdueling, my fellow schmucks! And lessen your schmuckiness a tad for the day! And then: on to porn! (829 gadzillion troglobytes of new porn went up while you read this...stuff you haven't yet seen! Have fun!)

                                     computer scientist Lofti Zadeh, who developed a 
                                     fuzzy logic that admitted a very large number of
                                    values between 0 and 1, but Zadeh took great pains to 
                                    distinguish his logic from probability theory.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I kept hearing John Lennon singing "I'm a Loser" in my head as I read it.

I have Bruckner's Fourth playing as I contemplate small victories. Keep up the good work! (Have you read DiLillo's Underworld? I hope to finish it this week.)

Anonymous said...

GRIN if we don't peruse vast amounts of porn the Spooks won't have anything to search through looking
for the vast armies of imaginary
enemies they are so fond of.

Warfare is the basis of modern culture, as a meme it ate all contenders long ago. Like Fascism
it contaminated everything that got
near it. The only quibble I have
with using it as basis for debate
is that instead of real warfare,
the kind armies and navies engage
in most substitute their cartoon
version learned from comics, movies
and academics.

I recommend Sun Tzu and Clausewitz
for those who wish to brush up on
the subject. I always ask the very
embarrassing question about what is
being won. Think about our current
wars, on terror, on drugs.

What are we winning ? Where are we
winning ? I don't know how to frame
those questions in e-prime, but I'd
like to hear an answer that makes
some sense and doesn't include an
invisible army of fabricated evil

Todays magic word is Palantir, the
world according to Karp.

Keep the good vibes aflow we need
them more than ever.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

This is a great commentary on the Cosmic Schmuck principle. I do wish that RAW had given one or two examples of when he thought he had been a Cosmic Schmuck. That would have been more powerful than just talking about it in the abstract.

michael said...

@ Prof Wagner: "I Perceive Myself As What Some People In Our Culture Seem to Currently Label as a Loser" may have taken the edge off, or at least totally balled-up the rhythm.

"But I seem not what I appear to seem."

Contemplating small victories seems a very sound strategy in the varieties of cognitive behavioral therapies that I've read and studied.

I can't call up phrase one, melodic line one from Bruckner's 4th. I'm pretty sure I've listened to it but none of it stuck. Is there a tune in there that has gone viral?

I read Underworld when it came out. I worked in a public library and books like that - big fat ones of info-density - would arrive and no one would check them out, so I read it over about a 10 week period. With books like this, I get involved in a weird way. They seem so engrossing - especially because they seem to be entering into conversations with other books, like Harlot's Ghost or Oswald or Ellroy's My Dark Places and RAW and Peter Dale Scott and Ed Sanders and even Paul Krassner and a few others....I get "lost" and they whittle their way into my intellectual DNA, on the chromosome that has to do with the covert, dark aspects of Unistat after 1945.

I would like to publish some 7000 word essay on this SCHTUFF but who's paying? And I have no real contacts.

Anyway, I'd like to read it again, for anything I've read once that gave me that particular species of frisson, I want to read again. As it seems now, nero-logically, Underworld as instantiated in my neurons seems dormant, and has entered into a melange of waking dream-like images hard to pin down. It's been awhile.

michael said...


I recoil in mortal terror every time I realize that someone at NSA looked into the possible troublemaker the OG and his aliases and history and found out he's got a thing for Amazonian tribal women over the age of 60. What can I say? Those old National Geographics in the school library must have imprinted on my nervous system. That SECRET was sacred, a personal thing between me and my libido/imagination. No one at the NSA deserves to know such a thing, but now they do! And now? Fuck it!: I'm telling anyone who reads these comments, and...I...just don't...(sniff) care anymore.

Your idea about war/fascism as a meme that won out long ago is an idea that's haunted me since around age 11. Seriously. War and our semantic, collective unconscious. Thanatos. What can be done to (I won't say "combat" it, as that would be too cheap, considering the blather on metaphors in the blogspew above)...mitigate or STEER the paideuma from war? I think you get at something when you hint that most people who use the war metaphors haven't internalized how profoundly horrific it is.

Red Oak, Iowa was profoundly affected by WWII. Most of the young men who grew up in that small town never came back alive. It's well-studied. If they did come back...

"One Red Oak veteran, who had spent most of hsi war in German prison camps, had a case of the 'nerves' when he returned, his son recalled. Sudden noises, like fireworks, would set his synapses crackling. He was plagued by nightmares and haunted by memories of the time the German guards shot a friend of his who said he was too sick to work and left him lying on the ground as an example to the other prisoners." - p.125, _The Noir Forties_, Lingeman

(Oh, but porn is "sick" and will "corrupt" us...)

Or just to see your brothers cut in half, to shreds...then come home and realize the already rich had profited off the war...

"What are we winning?" Let's keep asking that open question. Let's have more teachers point out that you cannot have a "war" on an abstract noun. Is "terrorism" being put behind bars to make us safer? What IS terrorism? Do other countries think what we do "is" terrorism? How does that work? Are there "drugs" wearing orange prison jumpsuits, waiting for a hearing or sentencing? How do we define "drugs"?


You're right: "What are we winning?" can lead to embarrassment. The real work seems trying to allow the other person to save face if they think the wars are noble and worthwhile.

Hey kids! Do yo think there were any Murkan corporations or banks that HELPED Hitler? No? Yes? You're not sure? Well, let's go to the library and find out.

michael said...

@ Tom-

Vielen Dank fur die freundlichen Worte!

In the two Cosmic Schmuck blog articles I don't think I mentioned Maybe Logic, which I think RAW thought was the most basic way to unite and implement his fallibilist ideas.

In all the writings I've seen by him I haven't read anything that (that I recall) that was on the order of "I've been a schmuck and let me tell you how I did it..." The Cosmic Schmuck Principle - as it shows up in Natural Law - says we ought to say to ourselves once a month (if not more often) something like "I've been acting like I know how the world works, which allowing my Cosmic Schmuck-ness to get out of hand."

This lessens our Schmuckiness, but I think he thought we couldn't help but be Schmucks, on some level. All of us. The key was to make the condition a little less worse.

If I had to point to some aspect of his writing that seemed possibly Cosmically Schmucky, a bit out of hand: there are a large number of articles (most of which don't show up in his books) in which he evinces a virtuoso use of logic within a combative style to engage people he thought were total, hopeless Cosmic Schmucks: modeltheists. The ones worth taking on were often those he labeled "fundamentalist materialists" and various self-described "libertarian" persons whose positions seemed to him to lead to cruelty.

While I confess I'm thrilled with his hard-core chops in this sort of "debate" I do often feel he may be doing what Prof Cohen said was one of the problems with Argument as "War": we tend to magnify the differences between me/us and you/them. Do you think RAW was fair to Rothbard in Natural Law? I'm not sure he was...RAW had numerous, withering and at times devastating riffs against the "I'm right" Martin Gardner and a few of the CSICOP dudes, but he did say a nice thing about Gardner in a place or two.

RAW enjoyed the sort of writing in Natural Law and The New Inquisition more than the expository prose style in Prometheus Rising. He said he liked to create "dialectical sparks." That would seem to court something that could be perceived as Schmuckiness.

Although I've never seen if he said it openly, I think he wished his dialectic with CSICOP guys and Libertarians he had a beef with would blow up into something bigger. He was ready for a bigger stage in his battles with those guys, I think. The Libertarian feuds remained confined to small, specialist magazines, maybe the main reason being that the Republican/Democrat parties have a stranglehold on what passes for "legitimate" political discourse?

The CSICOPpers never engaged him, really. But I do think his rhetoric about their epistemological stances had an effect. I've seen a softening overall of the "scientism" I used to read in Skeptical Enquirer. It's not gone - nor should it be - but it seems to me to have been attenuated. Only part of this I would attribute to RAW's rhetoric.

RAW did say that Leary could be a "son of a bitch," but I always wished RAW would've addressed what I perceived as his going a little overboard for Leary around 1972-77. I never asked him about it. I didn't know how to. Also, the Bruno/W.Reich State persecution of a brilliant if flawed visionary was so horrific to him I can see why he maybe became a too-entusiastic advocate for some of Leary's ideas, like Starseed, for example.

But even that seems explainable, as RAW acknowledged there's so much darkness... that to adopt optimistic stances were heretical and worth doing if for only the reasons that they made you feel better (as we can't predict the future with certainty) and that it was so gawdawfully fashionable to be pessimistic, esp among intellectuals.

What do you think RAW was Schmucky about, if anything?

BerserkRL said...

Given that Aristotle is always looking for a third way between false alternatives (though not between logical contradictories), the characterisation of him seems rather inappropriate.

michael said...


Aristotle's invention of logic/organon admits of two values, but other books by him - IIRC his Rhetoric? - seem to move past the rather artificial Excluded Middle logic. The common assumption of structure on arguments in public discourse among audience members still seems to be "Who's right and who's wrong?" In this way (and because certain educations train thinkers to "win" arguments) Aristotle's 2-valued Logic seems emblematic of a rather primitive way of thinking about "reality."

If you'd indulge us: please elaborate on those books of Aristotle that encourage thinking beyond false alternatives, and feel free to plug your work/website.

Thanks for your contribution!

Eric Wagner said...

No tune from Bruckner's Fourth has gone viral...yet. Perhaps it will become the "Call Me Maybe" of 2014. I can only hope.

The ending of Underworld made me think of Vico: "There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password - world without end, amen." (Pg. 825). I think he means the internet here, but it also makes me think about the comments about the labyrinth of languages and etymologies which run through Underworld and Vico.

Underworld also made me think of McLuhan from the world of radio and newspapers in 1951 with "The Shot Heard Round the World" to the internet keystrokes that end the novel in the 1990's.

michael said...

The reverse-chronologicality of Underworld's structure made it really trippy to me, and I think of the number of jesuses doubling through all that.

Wasn't a rookie named Willie Mays on deck in case Thomson got on?

Thanks for typing out that quote from Delillo. I think of that info acceleration and McLuhan too: how utterly pervasive it's become in 20 short years, how this seems to warp perceived time, how all that info has to be negotiated in some way (even if in default) by individual nervous systems, how learning involves interaction and engaging with others who have a sufficient framework for empathy, how we're probably not evolved emotionally to handle the vast influx of data, how all that data and info interacts with the LITERALLY physical basis on ideas instantiated in neural circuits.

And all that explains why I sometimes don't respond to the interesting comments at OG for a day or three: the digital environments have foregrounded how far more gorgeous non-digital environments seem to me.