Overweening Generalist

Monday, February 22, 2016

Deep History and Popular Amnesia

Recently a blogging colleague of mine, Bogus Magus at Only Maybe, linked to the TED talk by Yuval Noah Harari, whose epic history book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in Hebrew in 2011, but translated into English in 2014. I have not yet read it. I've read a lot of reviews. A rising academic "star", the Israeli historian gets a glowing blurb from Jared Diamond, and a funny and not-so-impressed review from the formidable Christopher Knight, who, incidentally, has my favorite take on Noam Chomsky, in a 2010 interview in Radical Anthropology HERE. (<---I've already digressed!)

Knight's take on Harari's thesis: that we need a planet run by Green Intellectuals, but all we need is the myth...I find this on the level of cosmic hilarity. Because I basically agree with Harari - and Knight sorta does, too; it's just that he's not all that impressed by Harari's scholarship. The Conundrum. What to do?

I used the term "cosmic hilarity" just above. Perhaps more apt: hilaritas, a term/idea I got from Giordano Bruno via Robert Anton Wilson: roughly, it means, in every deeply funny thing there's something deeply painful. And vice-versa...

                     Now just reeeeelaaaax...you're feeling very calm...calmer...you've never
                     felt so relaxed. Now repeat after me: The State, borders, money, God,
                     corporations and the National Debt are just as real as your own hands.                        

Recently in these spaces I touched on the 1992 trialogues with three acid head intellectuals, who would agree with Harari.

For as much as an anarchist like Chris Knight can pick on Harari, if you haven't read Harari or watched the TED clip I linked to above, or heard him talk, or anything, just note that he hammers on perhaps humankind's biggest problem: somehow the species went from dealing with what's real: other people, animals, rivers, feeding ourselves, and finding a comfortable-enough place to sleep...to actually allowing "fictions" to rule over our lives and consciousness: god, corporations, money, the State, borders...what Harari calls the "legal fictions." We've gone from an actual order of "reality" to an "imagined order." And our only way out is an "alternative imagined order."

As Robert Anton Wilson said about this: we talked our way into this.

And with talk comes hypnosis. I catch myself - or "snap out of it" - every day. "Nations" have an ontological status via the legal system. So do corporations. Money too, although it originated as sort of a convenient fiction: easier to carry a little piece of silver or gold in order to walk over the hills and buy two yaks than to haul three pigs with me in barter. But first, the guy who had the yaks on CraigsList had to believe that a piece of metal was "worth" or "equal to" his yaks. And I guess I believed it too, when I saw his ad.

The "god" Q? You be the Judge.

Speaking of Jared Diamond, his Guns, Germs and Steel was so engrossing to me the first time out - when it first arrived - I'm re-reading it, and it's even better the second time. Here is my gold piece.

Because certain types of thinkers who actually read books like Diamond's or Harari's tend to get emotionally invested in the possible political motivations of writers (and a certain caste of mind will see a surname like Diamond or Harari and go into their books with a specific bias), one thing I'm looking for in Diamond is his politics. I know he followed G, G&S with Collapse, a grand historical warning about the fates of previous human societies that wrecked their own environments. I even saw him give a talk about that book in Berkeley one evening, to a rapt, packed audience.

On page 90 of G, G &S Diamond's talking about how profound the shift to agriculture was. And he tips his hand. There's no hierarchy in hunter-gather band societies because every able-bodied person has to devote a lot of their time to finding food, but under agriculture:

In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of the food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage in full-time political activities.

Yep. The old schoolyard game from here to eternity. Why do some of us regularly forget this stuff? How did these posited original "takers" pull it off? Probably at first by brute strength? "Gimme yer lunch money!"

In HG Wells's Outline Of History, there's always a recurring bunch of heathens on horses who ride in from the north and rape and pillage and take the food.

(Or: I guess "take the food" really is part of pillaging. It's been a while since I've pillaged and I fess up I plum fergit. I'm pretty sure pillaging involves a handful of things, which I do not have the time to list for you here, but when I say something like "the Saxon hordes," what scenario pops up in your imagio? Just go with that.)

In Vico, the savages wandering the forests of the world happen upon a latifundia, and settle for serfdom, which is the beginning of class warfare. It's probably a variation of all these themes?

Later, on the same page (p.90 of Guns, Germs and Steel) Diamond is telling us about how stockpiles of food allowed for people to specialize: there are kings, bureaucrats, and a standing army. And there are those Weird Ones who heat the metals found in the ground and see what they can do with this stuff. Ah-HA! a spear so long, heavy, durable and sharp you can probably run a guy through with it and take all his wheat and cattle!

Oh, and another specialist arises:

Stored food can also feed priests, who provide religious justification for wars of conquest.

Note that in the NPR interview Harari says that the Agriculture Revolution is history's biggest fraud. Then he attributes this idea to Diamond. But it's a favorite left-ish political trope. It's in McKenna. It's in Rousseau. You can name others. Probably many others...

Certain things happened, which caused trillions of other things. And I get to sit here, well-fed, and read fat books and blog. I did not grow my own food. I have never hunted. The only gathering I've done was mostly for kicks, and some of it would you might call "stealing." There: I said it.

Back to the Yearn For Green.

It seems like a desperate move. There's no going back. Harari seems to engage in some sort of satirical reductio in saying we may as well download ourselves into silicon and live forever as merged-AI robotic something or others. Other times, only the richest of us get immortality; the rest are losers who have to die the olde fashioned way. (See Harari's bit with Daniel Kahneman.) I see Harari as a legit scholar who's also a skilled polemicist, with a touch of the hermetic-trickster in him; I said above I had not yet read his Sapiens. For now, in my minor discussion of Harari I have merely been practicing Bayard's Art.

How does all this forgetting about the "imagined order" occur? How does it occur that many people seem to have never even encountered these ideas at all? And how are we doing, collectively as a species, with this new "alternative imagined order"?

No way Harari really believes all that stuff about what's in store for our future. At least I hope he's trying to make a satirical point. Myself? I tend to favor sentient flesh. No robot sex for me. We fall for a lot of stuff that thugs and con-artists pull out of the Imagined Order of Reality. Perhaps all we can do today and tomorrow is talk a little bit about the Imagined Order vs. our new Alt. Imagined Order with our friends and loved ones. Maybe?

And I, like Ralph Abraham and Rupert Sheldrake (and Ezra Pound?) would like to get back to the Garden. After all, we are stardust. We are golden.


Eric Wagner said...

Yet another terrific post. You certainly write well.

When I hear "hilaritas" I first think of Gemisto Plethon's "Amor et hilaritas". (Spellcheck didn't like that sentence.) Your discussion of pillaging and agriculture made me think of "Seven Samurai".

Bob Wilson liked the line from the film "They Might Be Giants", "We never left the Garden of Eden. It's all around us."

From the Wikipedia page on Wodehouse's Blandings Castle, "In a radio broadcast on 15 July 1961, Evelyn Waugh said: 'The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.'"

PS I just ordered David Foster Wallace's "The Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".

michael said...

I appreciate the kindness. I like the line from "They Might Be Giants" too, and it seems related to my ideas - our ideas? - about our relatively manageable personal lives, and the Problems of the World.

Meaning: I walk/hike/bike ride around Sonoma County and Berkeley and sometimes San Francisco and can rely on awe at the natural beauty I see there. I have a friend in the Oakland hills whose personal garden feels Edenic to me...I have never felt the "Garden" vibe stronger than when walking among the old growth redwoods though.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on reading that book of essays by DFW.

Anonymous said...


Diamond has revealed his religion within his shenanigans.

Anonymous said...

Great post. This is my general response to T-shirt politics affecting the economy. I can't trace humans...


Diamond is challenged by media ethics. So am I. Twitter baffles me.
Even Telhard De Chagrin or whatever his name was, that priest, was a fraud artist. Discord-prankster at least.

I know where man cam from and why we have such big heads. Thermodynamics.