MAX HEADROOM & DEMOCRACY

In the late 1980’s, cult television brought us Max Headroom, a futuristic series whose eponymous hero, an artificial intelligence, a dissipitive bundle of code, lived in cyberspace and interacted with carbon based life forms (like us).

In Max’s time, democracy is the rule but the electoral process is not at all what we’re used to today. Instead of publishing political platforms, competing parties and candidates stage entertainment spectaculars on TV. The winner, you guessed it, is the candidate or party that garners the highest ratings.

On election day, voting takes place continuously.  A cyber-tool records each household’s real time viewing choices and displays the aggregate results. As viewers (voters) change channels, the fortunes of the candidates ebb and flow.

In Max’s society, candidates are not selected according to their political or economic proposals; they are elected according to the cultural affinities of the electorate. The candidate that best understands voters’ tastes and proclivities and uses that understanding to create a product that resonates with those same voters ultimately triumphs.

Does such an electoral system make the slightest sense? Maybe! After all, understanding voters’ values and preferences and being able to translate that understanding into something tangible demonstrate that a candidate is ‘in touch’ and therefore perhaps a ‘better choice’.

It is not easy for folks to decide what they think about complex political and economic issues and it is even harder for politicians to figure out what folks think about such things. But we all ‘know what we like’ and we eagerly and sometimes eloquently defend those decisions of the heart.

Of course, the electoral process in our society is nothing like this! According to our text books at least, each voter carefully and thoughtfully assesses the platforms of the various candidates and comes to favor those candidates whose proposals seem to be in the best interests of society as a whole…or at least of the voter himself. Then each voter retreats into the privacy and isolation of a voting booth and records his conclusion without any input from or interaction with any of his fellow voters.

But is this what ‘democracy’ really is and, even if it is, is it how our political system actually works?

According to G. W. F. Hegel, true democracy does not involve a direct relationship between the individual citizen and the Sovereign (whether King, President or Parliament). Rather, true democracy is what happens when individuals participate in functional communities and those communities in turn influence or direct Sovereign policy.

What is a ‘functional community’? The group of people we live with as we build neighborhood, the group of people we work with as we produce or distribute goods or services in exchange for compensation, the group of people we pray with as we worship God, the group of people we play with as we recreate ourselves.

Of course, we derisively call such functional communities ‘special interest groups’ and we deplore their unofficial role in our political system. But to Hegel, these communities were the true building blocks of democracy. He found the notion of isolated voters directing public policy by pulling levers while hiding behind curtains…well, hilarious (and I don’t get the impression Hegel found very many things hilarious).

Hegel would argue that we are not at heart isolated individuals, that with rare exceptions we exist only in communities. As we produce ourselves in the context of our communities, we naturally take on certain political perspectives. We do not deduce those perspectives from study and contemplation, we inherit them as we produce our lives within our functional communities.

Marx accepted Hegel’s notion of human beings as fundamentally social animals but in place of Hegel’s functional communities Marx inserted the concept of ‘class’. We are in most cases born into a class which is defined by the relationship of its members to the ‘means of production’. While Hegel’s concept of community was broad enough to include all important human activity, Marx focuses almost exclusively on economic activity.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin combined the teachings of Hegel and Marx and built ‘democracy’ in Russia on the basis of so-called ‘soviets’, communities with an economic focus and purpose. Of course, one can lustily dispute how democratic the political system actually was in Hegel’s, or Lenin’s, Europe. But then again, one can also dispute how democratic the political system actually is in the United States today.

So what really happens in the US on election day? Do our election results reflect the considered judgments of isolated voters or are they a product of our functional communities or are they driven by the economic interests of the classes to which we belong? Or is it possible that they spring from our cultural affinities and identities just as they do in the time of Max Headroom?

In 2004, John Kerry lost the Presidency to George W. Bush. Did that happen because each voter performed her own exhaustive analysis of the political and economic prescriptions of each candidate, a slight plurality favoring Mr. Bush’s policies over Mr. Kerry’s. Of course not! (Can you hear Herr Hegel laughing?)

Bush won because voters felt more comfortable with his Texas swagger than they did with Kerry’s Patrician condescension. He was a better cultural fit. As the press reported it, “people would rather have a beer with George Bush (even though he doesn’t drink) than with John Kerry (even though he does).”

Bush resonated, Kerry didn’t. The median voter felt a cultural affinity with Bush that she did not feel with Kerry. It seems we are not so very far from the world of Max Headroom after all. Cultural affinity appears to trump intellectual analysis, social identity and even economic self-interest.

But even this analysis is over-simplistic…by a mile. The real impact of cultural identification on the political process is much more subtle…and even more powerful.

Our cultural identities themselves are the product of a highly non-linear process of selection and reinforcement. As Hegel correctly understood, our relationship with political leaders is not a direct one but is rather mediated through a variety of social groupings and institutions. Each of us belongs to a number of functional communities and these subcultures are the primary determinants of our cultural affinities, which in turn are the primary determinants of our political choices.

We live in a neighborhood, we hold down a job, we belong to a church, we bowl in a league on Thursday nights. Almost everything we ‘do’ embeds us in one social group or another. But what does this have to do with politics?

To a certain, but admittedly variable and limited, extent, we choose the neighborhood where we live, the church where we worship, the company we work for and the ‘guys’ we bowl with on Thursday night.

But how do we make these choices? At least to some extent, we look to associate with folks whose life experiences, values and tastes mirror our own. Sure, there are famous exceptions but they are famous precisely because they are exceptional. When studying political behavior, we are not interested in the rebel; we are interested in the crowd.

When we choose to belong to a functional community, we are already making a cultural statement, albeit often a very weak cultural statement. Selection is the first step, but only the first step, in the formation of cultural affinities.

The bigger factor, by far, is what happens once we are in a given functional community. Belonging to a group is all about being accepted by the other members of that group. If your beliefs, values, tastes and behaviors differ radically from those of most other members, you will often find yourself isolated; eventually you will wake up some morning and realize that you are no longer really part of the group at all.

This is the process by which some folks decide to move to a new neighborhood, change careers (or at least employers), change religions (or at least churches), or give up bowling (“I never really liked bowling anyway and besides, I should spend more time with my family.”). But ultimately, we are social animals and most of us most of the time will try to make our existing relationships work, even if that means gradually learning to think and act like the other people in our functional communities.

Groups form in part because of cultural affinity and then in turn groups massively strengthen and focus that affinity! Functional communities are crucibles of consensus!

How does this impact the political process? As our cultural affinities harden, we find ourselves drawn to candidates, and even parties, that seem to share and reflect those affinities. More importantly, we find ourselves wanting, even needing, to join our mates in lauding one candidate or criticizing another.

Most issues have two sides. Which side are you on? Which set of arguments do you emphasize in your thinking and talking; which set of arguments to you minimize? Take abortion, for example. The interests of the mother and the interests of the unborn child, by themselves, both clearly have a legitimate claim. Which claim do you lionize, which do you marginalize, and why? The final answer, at least for most of us, is cultural. Do we belong to social groups that tend to be primarily concerned with women’s rights or do we belong to groups that focus on the rights of the child? By the process of selection and amplification outlined above, our views tend to become consistent with the functional communities to which we belong.

Of course, this too is over simplistic. Many folks are deeply conflicted over the issue of abortion, some break from their cultural roots, some put forth nuanced positions, some even propose novel solutions. But most of the time, when you discuss abortion with someone, you come away with the sense that your interlocutor formed his position first and later adopted arguments to justify that position. Where does that aboriginal position come from? It comes from cultural affinities defined and amplified in functional communities.

Consider the story of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Berkshire County is a wonderful place. It is geographically gorgeous, full of friendly, caring and creative people and home to an extremely vibrant culture of the arts. But, isolated from the rest of state, Berkshire County is also an excellent social laboratory.

Everything about Berkshire County screams heterogeneity. It includes cities, towns, villages and rural farmland. Among its principal industries are manufacturing, retail, agriculture and art. Its population includes yuppies, townies, retirees, and families with school age children.

The residents of Berkshire County have every imaginable relationship with Marx’s ‘means of production’: seasonal farm workers, minimum wage service sector employees, manual laborers, entrepreneurs, trust fund babies, millionaire refugees from Manhattan, artists and folks not working but living in part on incomes provided through various government programs and agencies (including Social Security).

Twenty years ago, Berkshire County was the most Republican County in Massachusetts. For 32 years before that it was represented by a Republican, Silvio Conte, in the U.S. Congress. Today, Berkshire County is almost ‘Republican-free’ and on election day it is one of the most reliably Democratic counties in the state.

What happened? Certainly, there has been a significant influx of new population. But it would we way too easy, and inaccurate, to attribute Berkshire County’s political homogeneity to population change alone. Something much more profound is going on here.

Berkshire County is a way of life and that way of life permeates all its social, commercial and artistic institutions. Unlike other parts of the country, folks do not really have a choice among different social groups with different value sets. While individuals are diverse, functional communities are not. Wherever you go, the culture is the same.

In a certain sense, Berkshire County is one big functional community. Community there is not something that incidentally happens; it is a value that helps define the society. Community is a verb, not a noun, and that is one of the things that makes living in Berkshire County so magical. But “magic always comes with a price” and the price is cultural hegemony.

To live in Berkshire County and to be engaged in its functional communities is to immerse oneself in a univocal process of cultural selection and amplification. The overwhelmingly Democratic tilt is only one very superficial manifestation of this cultural hegemony. After all, there are plenty of reasons not to be a Republican these days! A much clearer manifestation can be found inside the politics of the Democratic Party itself.

In 2013, a U.S. Senate seat became available in Massachusetts. John Kerry (above) vacated the seat to become Secretary of State. Two sitting Democratic Congressmen announced. Neither man lived in or near Berkshire County; neither had any significant past history in that part of the state. Both candidates were middle aged white men, both had predominantly liberal voting records.

But one candidate (Lynch) came from South Boston and enjoyed significant support from organized labor while the other candidate (Markey) came from a Boston suburb and was generally favored by the academic community. Statewide, the race was fairly close; but not in Berkshire County. Markey, the more urbane of the two, gathered over 85% of the vote. Berkshire Country’s cultural hegemony flexed its muscle that night.

But Berkshire County is really no different from any other county in the U.S. What is writ large there is actually happening, albeit less obviously, in every hamlet and metropolis across America. The sovereign voter, enshrined in the texts of American civics, lives only in those texts…nowhere else. Likewise, Marx’s purely economic voter is a myth. Whether it is the futuristic world of Max Headroom or the historical world of G. W. F. Hegel or contemporary America, politics is not about ideology but about cultural affinity and electoral outcomes are dictated, not by voters acting in isolation, but by functional communities and the cultural identities they foster and amplify.

CREATION

The world we live in seems to consist of discrete entities, i.e. objects and events with size, shape and/or duration (in other words, extension) in what we call space and time. One of the ways we catalogue these discrete entities is by comparing the extent and orientation of that extension.

In fact, the phenomenon of extension is so universal and pervasive that we have managed to perform a figure/ground reversal: we imagine that space and time are the substructural elements of our world and that discrete entities are epiphenomenal. In fact, the reverse is true. We abstract our notions of space and time from real experiences with actual objects and events.

Now suppose instead that we lived in a world without extension. It is barely possible to imagine what such a world would be like. But reflecting on that possibility allows us to ask a fundamental question: what is it that distinguishes at the core a world made up exclusively of extensive entities from a world entirely without extension?

It turns out that this basic question was addressed in three foundational documents of Western philosophy: Parmenides’ On Nature, Heraclitus’ Fragments and the Biblical book of Genesis. It could be argued that every major Western philosophical school for the past 2500 years draws inspiration from at least one of these three foundational works. All three documents were written at about the same time but they represent three absolutely opposed philosophical orientations…or at least so it seems at first glance.

In Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead quotes a hymn: “Abide with me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” He goes on to argue, “Ideals fashion themselves round these two notions, permanence and flux. In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux.” For Whitehead, the project of philosophy is to account for this dual nature of our experience.

It is in the context of just this project that our three sources propose their accounts of Creation. By Creation, we mean that process by which the world is both one and many, the process by which multiple discrete entities can come to be, change, and cease to be…without becoming disjoint. Buckminster Fuller famously wrote, “Universe is plural and at minimum two.” ‘Creation’ is our attempt to account for that reality. How is that there is plurality without mere disjuntion?

Parmenides is thought to be the father of the philosophy of ‘stasis’ while the philosophy of ‘process’ is attributed to Heraclitus. Genesis, obviously, comes at the problems of philosophy from an entirely different, top down, angle, introducing the concept of God, i.e. invoking a quasi-outside agency to account for the phenomena of experience.

The influence of Parmenides and Heraclitus on Western philosophy is well known and we will not attempt to summarize it here. Genesis, of course, is the shared inheritance of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But its influence is by no means confined to theology; its approach reverberates today in various intellectual nooks and crannies such as Quantum Mechanics, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Big Bang Theory.

Astoundingly, however, all three of these tri-polar opposing theories share a common account of the nature (but certainly not the mechanism!) of Creation. So what is the single, fundamental feature that distinguishes a world of extensive entities from a world entirely devoid of extension? All three foundational documents provide exactly the same answer to this question!

Let’s start with Parmenides. On Nature is divided into two main sections, The Way of Truth (Aletheia) and The Way of Appearance (Doxa). While both modes of being are important to Parmenides, it is widely (though not universally) thought that The Way of Truth was for him substructural:

“…It neither disperses itself across the cosmos nor gathers itself together…What is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete…it is now, all together, one, continuous…Nor is it divisible since it is all alike…”

Being in the mode of Aletheia admits of no division, no parts, no coming to be, no ceasing to be, no growth, no decay and in short, no attributes. On the other hand, Being in the mode of Doxa is everything that Aletheia is not:

“It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color…And they distinguished opposites in body and established signs apart from one another…Everywhere the same as itself but not the same as the other…Thus according to belief, these things were born and now are, and hereafter, having grown from this, they will come to an end. And for each of these did men establish a distinctive name.”

Being in the mode of Aletheia neither disperses itself nor gathers itself. It is singular, immediate, unchangeable and indivisible; it displays no distinguishable attributes. Being in the mode of Doxa is impermanent, continuously changing, and mobile; its entities are defined by their characteristic attributes.

So what is the fundamental distinction between these two modes of Being? What is it that turns Aletheia into Doxa, what is it that constitutes Creation? It is the distillation of uniformity into constituent elements (and the distinguishing of those elements, e.g. by ‘naming’ them). Think light! Mostly, we experience it as ‘white light’, but through the agency of a prism, or a raindrop, light refracts into a rainbow whose colors we name.

Returning to Parmenides, he explains: “But since all things have been named light and night, and these have been applied according to their powers (attributes) to these and to those, all is full of light and obscure night together…”

Being in the mode of Doxa consists of attributes (Bertrand Russell). Attributes are only recognizable when they contrast with one another (e.g. when they are opposites). But contrasts are inherently unstable. They represent dissonance in search of harmony. Therefore, the world of doxa is a world in flux, a world of constant, insatiable change where entities “exchange bright color” in pursuit of harmony…peace.

In the mode of Aletheia, however, there are no opposing or contrasting attributes; potential contrasts subsist together in an eternal and hence changeless unity. The genius of Parmenides is that he can see the irenic unity that is Aletheia through the multi-ringed circus that is Doxa.

Parmenides has confounded philosophers for well over two millennia and he even baffled the great Plato; but in many ways, Heraclitus’ perspective is even more complex and challenging. Unlike Parmenides, Heraclitus begins with process as his primary category:

“World, the same for all, no god or man-made, but it always was, is, and will be, an everlasting fire, being kindled in measures and put out in measures.”

Apparently for Heraclitus, change is the only constant. Because of this, it is very easy to miss the monistic side of his philosophy. While Parmenides begins with stasis (aletheia) and moves to process (doxa), Heraclitus sees process as the gateway to stability:

“Even the barley-drink separates if it is not stirred.”

Stirring (process) allows ‘barley-drink’ to maintain its unity. Without process, Heraclitus’ world could consist only of distinction, separation, disjunction; it is not clear that such a world is even ontologically possible. But through process (Whitehead’s “creativity”) the world reclaims its unity and uniformity:

“The sun is new each day…(but) the real constitution of each day is one…What is opposed unites.”

“The road up (and) down is one and the same…one does wisely in agreeing that all things are one.”

Heraclitus’ view is perhaps most clearly summed up in Fragment 67 of his work: “God (is) day night winter summer war peace satiety famine and undergoes change in the way that (fire), whenever it is mixed with spices, gets called by the name that accords with bouquet of each.”

In other words, God, eternal stasis, re-combines all the primal opposites in a single nature but primordial process (‘change’) ensures that God is always recognized through specific manifestations, just as fire, common to all, is recognized by the aroma of the various spices (fuel) it happens to be burning.

This brief treatment does not begin to do justice to the complexity of Heraclitus’ thought. But for our purposes, we need only see that Heraclitus, like Parmenides, sees the phenomenon of distinction (separation) as the defining characteristic of the world we experience.

Without wishing to blur in any way the very real differences between Parmenides and Heraclitus, one might be tempted to understand their opposition dialectically: for Parmenides it is distinction (separation) that constitutes Creation and sets process in motion (‘exchange bright color’) while for Heraclitus it is precisely that process which overcomes separation and restores unity and uniformity.

Finally, it is time to turn to Genesis. What does Genesis tell us about the core process of Creation, about the creative act itself?

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form or shape…God said: ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’…evening came and morning followed – the first day.”

“Then God said: ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate one body of water from the other. God made the dome and it separated the water…God called the dome ‘sky’.

“Then God said: ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin so that dry land may appear’…God called the dry land ‘earth’ and basin of water he called ‘sea’.” And so forth…

The language of Genesis is much more poetic, and much less academically philosophical, than the language of Parmenides and Heraclitus. But what about the process of Creation itself?

It is widely supposed that God’s creative act occurred with the command, “Fiat lux – Let there be light.” But this is incorrect! Creation occurred when God “separated the light from the darkness” and named them accordingly. Only then was it the case that “evening came and morning followed” and only then can we speak of  the created world’s “first day”, the phenomenon of extension, the timeline.

This controversial, unorthodox interpretation is actually self-evident. First, consider the nature of light itself, a packet of pure energy, massless, with a constant ‘speed’ we call ‘c’. Light does not just happen to travel at c in the context of space-time; c establishes space-time, i.e. a fixed ratio of distance/duration. Furthermore, light travels at speed c only in relation to other entities, not in relation to itself. Since it is light that establishes space-time, there is no space or time from the perspective of light itself. Every photon, from its own point of view, is everywhere instantly. Put another way, it is motionless and eternal. That’s not what we mean by the created world. Pure light inhabits the realm of Aletheia, not Doxa; only when light is separated from darkness do we have doxa.

Second, examine more closely the text itself. The ‘first day’ is the name given to an event and that event is defined as ‘evening came and morning followed’. But according to the text, light came first and then, by a process of separation, darkness. So why doesn’t the text read, “morning came and evening followed – the first day”? Because creation does not occur until God separates light from darkness. In the context of a world filled with light, photon,  fiat lux, creation begins with darkness, evening. We measure the days of creation from the separation of darkness from light and not before.

Third, consider the context. Each subsequent day of creation consists of additional acts of ‘separation’ and ‘naming’, often explicitly, other times through the agency of evolution (speciation and natural selection). For Genesis, separation and distinction constitute creation. There is no rational reason to imagine that this would be true of all the later days of creation but not the first day.

So it is clear that Genesis presents a model of creation fundamentally consonant with the models presented by Parmenides and Heraclitus.

But we’re not done with Genesis yet! Genesis contains two Creation narratives taken from two different sources (traditions). Chapters 2 and 3 contain the second version, the one that famously focuses on Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden:

“The Lord God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…when you eat from it you shall die…The man and his wife (Eve) were both naked yet they felt no shame…she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked…”

Good and evil are ultimate opposites; they constitute the primal distinction that underlies all other distinctions. In the Genesis account, this pair of opposites represents all opposing attributes including the various contrasts that Parmenides and Heraclitus use to distinguish Doxa from Aletheia.

Once the first humans make contact with the primal opposites (good and evil), everything changes for them. They ‘shall die’ (impermanence, flux, entropy and mortality are introduced), ‘the eyes of both of them were opened’ (they passed from the purely noumenal world of aletheia into the phenomenal world of doxa) and ‘they knew that they were naked’ (they became aware of each other as discrete entities…’separate’ and ‘distinct’).

While the two accounts of Creation found in Genesis are different in many respects, they do share one crucial common theme: it is the phenomenon of distinction (separation and distinction) that constitutes the ontological membrane between the world of eternal stasis and the world of processional history.

But based on these texts alone, it is hard to argue that the authors of Genesis glimpsed an eternal world behind the spatiotemporal experience. The first two verses suggest it and it is one way to understand the status of Eden prior to the eating of the forbidden fruit, but these arguments are not conclusive. However, in the context of the entire Bible, this conclusion is inescapable. One could even argue that the later half of the New Testament, everything from John through Revelation, is one long hymn to the Kingdom of Heaven, Parmenides’ Aletheia. Consider these climactic verses from Revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…’Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, the old order has passed away.’”

In one respect at least, the Bible is one very long story about the transition from a featureless world, through the entire history of universe, back to an eternal realm (parousia, Kingdom of Heaven). Like the dialectic between Parmenides and Heraclitus that we proposed above, Being moves from unity to multiplicity and back to unity. But in the Biblical account, the eternal realm (Aletheia) itself is immeasurably enriched by the resolved conflicts and harmonized contrasts it inherits from the phenomenal realm (Doxa).

Our analysis of Creation begs an important question. We have seen how Parmenides’ stasis and Heraclitus’ process dialectically constitute a horizontal model of Creation while Genesis provides a vertical, top down model. Is there possibly a fourth approach that is vertical, bottom up, and if so, does it leave intact our premise that it is the phenomenon of distinction that separates the eternal world from its phenomenal counterpart?

The answer is yes. But this fourth way is the most difficult of all. It is almost impossible to express in our modern European languages with their active and passive voice verbs and their first and third person nouns. But Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher who actually pre-dated Parmenides and Heraclitus, proposed that it was the relationship between discrete entities that gave rise to the existence of those entities in the first place.

Stated this way, the notion makes no sense. How can the relationship between two entities precede, even logically, the existence of the entities themselves? Such an idea can only be properly expressed using a different language, one with middle voice verbs and second person nouns, one like ancient Greek for instance.

Nevertheless, this idea did not die with Anaximander. It reappears in the Christian concept of Trinity (and perhaps Incarnation), in the Hasidic philosophy of Martin Buber, in the cosmological notion of ‘bootstrapping’ and even in the contemporary cultural phenomenon of Emo. Is it consistent with the premise of this essay? Absolutely! Relationship per se belongs to the realm of Aletheia (Heaven in Christian theology) while the ‘relata’, the discrete related entities themselves, belong to the phenomenal world of Doxa.

We imagine that there is a virtually unbridgeable gulf between the concept of eternity and the experience of everyday life. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Our realm is separated from the eternal realm by just one simple distinction: the way we experience contrasting attributes. Once that is understood, it becomes clear that eternity and extension are not inconsistent but coincident; they are merely different ways of living a common reality.