Overweening Generalist

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stranger Than We Can Imagine, by John Higgs: A Review

A magisterial "alternative" Tale of the Tribe-like history of the 20th century, and something that was desperately needed. Higgs has produced a book that somehow manages to function as a page-turner and to speak to three different classes of readers:

1. Those quite well-read folks over 30 who perhaps need to view the century they were born in from such an "alternative" angle Higgs provides.

2. Those of us over 30 who have tended to assemble a narrative of the 20th century from the occasional history book, TV, radio, newspapers, and now Internet. Like water to fish, we all lived in a world where individualism was one of the primary values. Higgs shows us how vital the movement toward individualism was in that chaotic century, and how we must learn to see how the downside of individualism as a primary value has led us homo saps into the quandary we're in now. This is a real eye-opener for many of us.

3. Those born after 1990, who probably feel "how odd" that people lived in a world without massive digital connectivity. Higgs shows them how uncanny, how weird, how what we found out about ourselves in the 20th century was indeed "stranger than we can imagine," and Higgs reminds us where he got this phrase. After a brief discussion about HG Wells and how, around 1900, Wells was able to predict many seemingly amazing things that did indeed come true, proving Wells as one of the great forecasters of all time, "But there was a lot Wells wasn't able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, postmodernism and so forth. These were not so much unforeseen as unforeseeable. His predications had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine, but, 'stranger than we can imagine.'" While I read this book, I thought of young, smart artistically-minded people I know, and how I wanted to press this book into their hands and say, "You will really love this one. Trust me on this."

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is written from the standpoint of the generalist intellectual who is not beholden to a larger institution, and I see Higgs as a good example of the type of intellectual Karl Mannheim wrote about in his Ideology and Utopia, still the ur-text in the sociology of knowledge. Mannheim wrote of a "relatively classless stratum" of "free-floating"thinkers who, because they were not beholden to institutions, probably had the most valid overview of social life and current ideas. Higgs's erudition is quite great and yet he wears it lightly, and I found the book difficult to put down once I started it. Whether he's discussing Einstein and how artists contemporary with him who couldn't understand Einstein's math yet were still projecting a worldview that demanded a relativistic /multi-perspectivalist view, or a stirring encapsulation of the horrible irony of the space race (Jack Parsons, Werner von Braun and Sergei Korolev were visionaries who ended up beholden to nations who demanded their research be used to develop killingry, or hi-tech nuclear missiles)...there are no dull moments in this book.

There are chapters on chaos mathematics (Higgs makes it understandable to the most math-phobic among us), the advent of "teenagers" (a word that wasn't coined until 1940!), feminism and the rise of "free sex" with its misunderstandings and missed opportunities, post-Hiroshima nihilism and existentialism, how quantum mechanics showed that uncertainty is baked into the human condition, and the function of Freud's metaphor of the "Id" as it relates to fascism, advertising, individualism and alienation. The author manages to thread together all of these disparate ideas, which I find marvelous.

Higgs's work is vital in a world filled with paramilitary death squads answering to corporations, nuclear weapons, and banks/corporations that behave like psychopathic individuals and are in many cases more powerful than many countries and not subject to criminal law to boot. In a world of ISIS and the prospect of someone like Donald Trump as leader of the free world, we citizens in 2016, bombarded by information about our comparatively "little worlds," need broad overviews of How We Got Here. In a very substantive sense, this book can function as a map that will help us avert catastrophe. Higgs cites climate change and that the 21st century appears to be the penultimate century "in terms of Western civilisation." Id est, it's curtains for humanity in the 22nd c. But: "That's certainly the position if we look at current trends and project forward. We can be sure, though, that there will be unpredictable events and discoveries ahead, and that may give us hope."

Most of the books I've read on 20th century history address relativity, cubism, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, cultural anthropology, quantum mechanics, postmodernism (which Higgs compares to New Age thought in a provocative section), neuroscience and perception, and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy as a world that found itself foundation-less. Or, as Stephen Dedalus thinks in Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, we can never be certain about our big ideas, because they are "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." Higgs uses the metaphor of the omphalos. Is the ultimate Source for our normative claims the Church? Our "selves"? Our money? Our country and our ways? Logic? Rationality and science? All of these were severely undermined during the Roaring 20th century, some moreso than others.

The deepest structure of Higgs's argument about what just happened to all of us in the 20th century, and where we might be going seems of the utmost importance in our understanding of our prospects as a species. With the demise of at least 30 centuries of rigid hierarchical institutions that governed every aspect of our lives falling apart at the start of the 20th century, individualism reigned. But an overweening individualist ethos turned out to cause more problems than it was worth. What arose at the end of the century was something to combat it: massively networked sociality and constant feedback and accountability, and those who grew up in this digital world seem to intuitively understand game theory: the zero-sum games we're running (especially with banks/corporations and politics) are no longer sustainable: the generation born after 1990 implicitly understands that we must all come together, under no hierarchy, to solve problems, then disperse back to our own lives. The only semblance of omphalos we have is the articulation of our own values and the idea that all of us are in this together. This younger generation - certainly younger than me - may be the best card history has dealt us. Let's hope Higgs is right, 'cuz if he isn't, we probably are living in the penultimate century for human Being.

It has shimmering prose, luminous details, and a rhythm I can dance to. Oh yea: it could also help save our species, and I'm only about 1/3 joking. You can't afford NOT to read it. 23 stars out of a possible 20.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. The Higgs book looks interesting. I enjoyed his Leary book. It saddened me to see no listing for Atatürk in the index to his new book.

michael said...

Thanks! His KLF book is a must-read for RAWphiles, too.

I can easily imagine four to seven other paths toward writing a 20th c. history that would be 300 pages and emphasize non-mainstream history book/"strange" aspects of that 100 yr block.

I cannot imagine myself as one of the writers of those books, however. Higgs did one of 'em, and he did it well. I hope more publishers are open to historical periods being written from the perspective of marginalizing Great Men in politics. Higgs covers Stalin and Hitler, but not as focal points. That's but one of many strong points in STWCI, in my view.

I will now act robotically and check the "I'm not a robot" box.

Sue Howard said...

I'll have to give it another go, perhaps. The intro turned me off, in what I saw as massively sweeping nonsenses on 20th C art. I thought: Jeez, you're attempting an alternative look at 20th C history, and you start by saying writing there's "no compassion" in a room full of modern art (Picasso, Dali, Ernst, Man Ray) - an impression formed by the author after just leaving a room of Gauguins "that spoke to the heart" (pre-20th C, you see).

This "jarring transition" leaves us "struggling to answer a very basic question: what the hell happened, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the human psyche?"

I read through the rest of the long intro waiting for the punchline to this (hopefully letting us in on the joke - that he wasn't seriously starting his book this way). And, then, when the punchline doesn't come, I start thinking: "How the hell do you get a book deal for such an ambitious project when you start it like that!? Or are all the commissioning editors partial to dumb cliches on modern art as applied to the human psyche?"

So, not a good way for me to begin reading a book ("LOL"). Maybe I'd had too much coffee.

Sue Howard said...

Ok, I've now read the chapter on 'Growth'. No improvement in my appreciation to report back, unfortunately. I'm assuming I've inadvertently selected a relatively dud chapter? Laboured(?) and not particularly original(?) point about how the planet can't sustain "infinite growth", and on the way corporations have the rights but not the responsibilities of persons under law, their reliance on "externalities", etc. Maybe I'm missing the Fnords, here - most of this reads like hundreds of existing blog posts about exactly these things - the same points that have been stated all over the Internet for years?

Sue Howard said...

Ah, apologies - looks like I've given this comments thread the kiss of death with my (probably over-) critical comments. FWIW I read some more & enjoyed the detail of the Fortean type chronicling, where the writing has a lot of charm.

PQ said...

In response to Sue Howard: I also wasn't crazy about the beginning of the book. Starting off by discussing Einstein and relativity made sense from a structural standpoint, but it made for kind of a dry first chapter, in my view. I read the book immediately after finishing Leonard Shlain's "Art & Physics" which, I think, describes these concepts in a much more lucid and fascinating way.

BUT I loved this book otherwise. Absolutely loved it. My experience was similar to OG's in that it was a page-turner for me. I zipped through it. Higgs writes so smoothly and it was incredible how he condensed so much into concise paragraphs. The book's discussions of World War I and the three pillars of rocketry (Parsons, von Braun, and Korolev) were the most captivating parts for me.

I've read surprisingly little straight up history, especially 20th c history but this book really made me crave more.

OG, I agree with your emphasis on this book being an instruction manual for surviving past the 21st c.

Great stuff!

(I'm hoping to write up a full review soon.)

Ben Turpin said...

I have only read up to the trite dedication to his children so far. Like so many other concision-lacking authors, John Higgs has managed to turn me off right from the get go.

This (e)book costs $11 dollars on Kobo, discounted. Regular e-price is $16. I could have had it delivered physically for $21, (free shipping) or walked out of the store with it for $34, plus Canadian sales taxes which would bring the grand total up to $85.50 or so. I got a very good deal.

I am glad Sue and Peter found the book more readable. I can't even make it to the table of contents without cursing Higgs for the annoying front matter. Also, I much rather the cover with the lobster and telephone.

Mostly the covers tell me all I need to know. Did you all ever read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell? I didn't. The dust jacket told me what I needed to know...

Sue Howard said...

I probably deserve that sarcasm, Ben - but I'm not as bad as the stereotypical Catholic Pope, and I'm more conscientious than film director John Boorman, who once said he watches only 10 minutes of any film before judging it & deciding whether to watch it all.

michael said...

Hey you guys: sorry for the tardy comments: huge SNAFU with Blogger for me as of this past Sunday. I tried to edit my last post (one sentence tweak), but for some reason it wouldn't work. Then I realized I couldn't manage my blog or post or edit or anything...sorta like coming home and finding your keys don't open the front door anymore...for no good reason. Blogger had many people locked out like I was, and they thought it was their problem at first, but now it appears to be something wrong with Safari. Go figure.

I know it's BORING to read about other people's computer problems, but I felt I had to explain why I didn't respond to Sue quicker.

Sue: when I saw you'd commented on my Higgs review, I immediately thought, "Sue Howard is one who is not in my conceptualized three categories of readers who'd like STWCI. I don't think she'd like it." And it looks like I was pretty close.

I don't think there was enough information for your resonant nervous system. Info in the Shannon sense. Most of the ideas in the book were familiar to me too, some very very familiar. But: I appreciated the overall thesis, thought this overview was much-needed, didn't foreground political figures, and I liked the ride. It was a quick read, and I liked the tacit argument that really weird people you probably ain't never hoidda helped change our world. I want to know more about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven now, for example. And Jack Parsons and Emperor Norton? 'Cuz we're all RAW readers, we know how important they are, but I bet many non-initiates do. I admit I need to know more about Marie Stopes; my feminist history is far too skewed for Unistatians.

I would REALLY love to read about a 20th century history book recommendation from Sue Howard.

michael said...

@PQ: Oh wow! I was going to mention Shlain's Art and Physics in my review, but plum forgot. I read that when it came out, and reading Higgs reminded me of why I like this sort of take on history. Of course, Shlain was dialed-in to his thesis: poets and artists seemed to have foreseen scientific breakthroughs beforehand, somehow. Or...wasn't the subtitle something like "parallel visions in space, time and light"?

A year or so before I read Shlain (who was very much a Renaissance man: he also was a brilliant surgeon, who late in his life, learned laparoscopic techniques and even taught them, which is usually a young person's game), I'd read Einstein's Space and Van Gogh's Sky by Leshan and Morgenau, which I liked, but then the Shlain book was even better.

I too liked Higgs's chapter on the space race the most.

Higgs makes writing a book like this one easy, but apparently it's not. I see it as a sort of bravura magic trick, and I hope it puts a fire under bright young people who think history is boring, and who probably need a richer historical consciousness.

Does anyone reading this think Higgs's metaphor of the "omphaloi" more interesting than the standard academic's "foundationalism"? I liked it more, but I can't explain why. Maybe it was just a breath of fresh air.

As the book percolates in my brain-pan a couple weeks after finishing it, I find the riffs on how important individualism was and then how toxic it was (as an omphalos) the most compelling of the book. It's easy to just say "The Ayn Rand and Crowley individualist-egotist libertarian idea sucked!" To give examples in nearly every chapter, interweaved with the progression of the 20th century, of how Individualism was proven to have very toxic limits for human survival? Bravo! Higgs!

I also wonder if the surmised new omphalos: we are all accountable for each other: was this satisfying for anyone reading this? I agree with it, but the implications make me feel like I'm on a high wire without a balance pole.

I look forward to PQ's review. See A Building Roam over there --------> and keep an eye out!

michael said...

@ Ben Turpin-

I seem to recall reading Gladwell's _Blink_. I don't know, man. It went by so fast. Was it good?

michael said...


I wrote above:
>Higgs makes writing a book like this one easy, but apparently it's not.<

Should be something like:
Higgs makes writing a book like this one SEEM easy...

ADDENDUM because I have your attention now, so what the fuck:
-See Higgs's chapter on "Growth" and pay attention to p.268, then go back and read RAW's essay "Ecology, Malthus and Machiavelli" from Right Where You Are Sitting Now, pp.135-144, which originally appeared as "Ecology and Conspiracy" in the now (sadly) defunct journal _Critique_, 1981. Higgs and RAW seem to have some dialectical sparks going on there. RAW: 1981; Higgs: 2015. I suspect RAW would see anthropogenic climate change as actual science and not "pop mysticism" as promulgated by the Yankee elite. Higgs seems to disagree with RAW's Buckminster Fuller-driven optimism about harnessing energy to advantage everyone without disadvantaging anyone. However, I find RAW's conspiracy thinking here too interesting, and at the moment the dialectical conversation over decades seems ongoing. YMMV.- the Mgt

Sue Howard said...

Hi Michael - I agree with you about the omphalos metaphor. To me it has that surrealist-occult ring to it that I used to see in Illuminatus-inspired underground zines (etc) published mostly in London circa mid-late 1990s, on topics such as psychogeography etc. Or Grant Morrison's 'The Invisibles' comic strip.

To readers unfamiliar with all this, Higgs's aesthetic will no doubt seem a wild ride. Which is great, although perhaps he could have pointed such readers to the motherlode - one Robert Anton Wilson - as part of his narrative, since it seems pretty obvious to me that RAW's ghost is - to a massive degree - behind Higgs's particular selection of strangeness. (The one and only reference to RAW I could find is in Higgs's bibliography).

Extending Orson Welles's point about biography to 20th C history - we should maybe consider it a narrative not of "the 20th century", but of the author's particular preferences, views, selectivity in attempting to write a book about "the 20th century". In that sense, Higgs's book could be seen as: "My hugely Robert Anton Wilson inspired selection of modern weirdness". (Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh - but doesn't RAW deserve some recognition here, for christ's sake?).

I enjoyed the chapters on war and nihilism, the Forteana and colourful details and eccentrics/outsiders. The story of Baroness Elsa and the Marcel Duchamp-credited urinal was, incidentally, first reported by Glyn Thompson and Julian Spalding in 2014 (The Art Newspaper, 3/11/2014). There was a piece about it in the Guardian, 7/11/2014. Higgs seems to have cashed in on this without crediting Thompson or Spalding - although he does mention (in his notes) Irene Gammel's 2002/2003 biography, which first speculated on the matter (Gammel wrote: "while final evidence of the Baroness's involvement may be missing, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that points to her artistic fingerprint", p224).

michael said...


Check out this interview Tom Jackson did with Higgs; Higgs says RAW so permeated the book that he eventually disappeared from it. Skip down to the Q about why RAW readers would want to read STWCI:

I see EVERY book as about the reality tunnel the writer inhabits, even if they're wide-ranging in inquiry - which RAW thought qualified the thinker as inhabiting a "reality labyrinth" - and still: we will include some information but exclude most. Phenomenologically, it seems something we can't avoid. Or: write a dense, 23-volume megawerk, each book 1400 pages with tiny footnotes...it still excludes a lot, no?

Nice catch with the Art Newspaper reportage on Baroness Elsa and Duchamp. Higgs should have cited that, if he didn't get the info second or third hand.

Sue Howard said...

Thanks for the link to the interview. Holy crapola! Higgs says: "Bob was the scaffolding that this book was built around. It's tidied away when the thing's presented to the public, but it couldn't have been built without him."

"Tidied away"? What The Postmodern Fuck?! Unfortunate choice of metaphor, no doubt. No acknowledgment in the book for the person who was the "scaffolding" for it - that's certainly one way that a 20th C history can be "presented to the public".

Anonymous said...

Sue, I like your feisty, ‘razor blade’ approach in commenting Higgs’s “Stranger Than We Can Imagine” book. It can positively provoke our minds and help regroup our thoughts, in my view. I agree with you, WHY was Robert Anton Wilson not acknowledged by Higgs? Why not support and show respect for another “free-floating thinker”? Strange !!!


michael said...

W/re/to: Sue and Alex:

In Higgs's book on the KLF RAW "appears" quite a lot. And it's easy to find out how profound Higgs was influenced by RAW, via search engines.

Here's what I think MIGHT be going on with Higgs keeping RAW's looming presence behind the scenes in STWCI: RAW was never accepted by the mainstream intellectual establishments. If Higgs's history is well-received, Higgs can mention RAW and maybe it will incite a reevaluation of his impact on the disparate Discordian/non-serviam/gnostic groups of mirthful intellectual dropouts who love his books and thought and whose contributions to culture have not yet been linked to RAW.

If Higgs mentioned RAW throughout, the biases of would-be reviewers may have gone in the direction of, "Well here's a history of the 20th century by the acolyte of some forgotten cult writer named Robert Anton Wilson...how did this ever get published on a mainstream press?"

Just spitballin' here: it is an interesting Q why Higgs decided to dial the mention of RAW so far back only _Illuminatus!_ gets mentioned in the bibliography and RAW isn't mentioned at all.

Another spitball: all of us are reading the book and are "seeing" RAW everywhere; it's as if we're in on something with Higgs. In this view Higgs's book has covert occult (AKA: "hidden") vibes other than the overt ones about Crowley and Parsons?

I know that I (the OG) must seem like a "follower of some obscure occult writer who was a conspiracy theorist and friend of the drug-advocate Timothy Leary," and if so I honestly don't care, because I think that line of thought is inherently authoritarian, stupid and wrong. If RAW is to slowly become recognized as one of the major social philosophers behind many of the Occupiers, hackers and programmers, avant archivists, space advocates, anarchists, and hip scientists, it will be because of books like Higgs's, Rushkoff's still-underrated _Life, Inc_, Alan Moore's work, David Jay Brown's tireless intellectual interviews with wild thinkers, George Carlin saying to Brown, "I have learned more from Robert Anton Wilson than from any other source," etc.


PQ said...

Looks like the Blogger SNAFU also deleted my most recent comment...

Wanted to say that Ben Turpin's comment cracked me up.

OG: Not to stray too far off topic but Shlain really blew my mind. He's my new hero. There are some interviews and lectures on YouTube that are really fantastic. I picked up his "Alphabet vs the Goddess" and read the first chapter and my jaw fell on the floor. He's a devout McLuhan-ite applying the Canadian sage's theories to history and culture and I love it so much.

Back to topic: I really love Higgs' book. Want to read it again.

Along the lines of the RAW nitpicking though, I felt the same about not mentioning Pynchon in the rocketry chapter. It seemed that chapter was coming straight out of Gravity's Rainbow, I was waiting for the Pynchon mention that never came.

Of course, these are observations not complaints.

michael said...

@PQ: I tried to respond to your comment, but it never turned up, so I hope Blogger isn't effed up in some other way.

I thoght of Shlain's _Art and Physics_ too when I read the first 20 pages. Shlain was quite the polymath, and what amazed me most about him was this: here's a surgeon who is renowned. Very late in his life he learned a totally new surgical technique (laparoscopy), and he was so good at it he ended up teaching it to younger surgeons. All this while it was widely believed that the only ones who will be able to perform surgeries laparoscopically are young people, and maybe because they grew up with video games.

RAW really liked Shlain's book _The Alphabet vs. The Goddess_. What an amazing mind! His daughter made a documentary about him that was on Netflix a while ago. I forget the title, but Google "Tiffany Shlain" and you'll find it.