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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Rooting for the Apes

In the movie Planet of the Apes (1968), the chimp-archeologist Cornelius in quoting from the sacred scrolls of the apes:

Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

Those familiar with the the Planet of the Apes series know that the action moves back and forth between a distant future, when apes inherit the world, and a not-so-distant human Apocalypse, genetically engineered apes rising against the cruelty of their masters.

When I watched the latest reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), I surprised myself rooting for the apes. A casual search on the Internet convinced me that I was not an exception. Tired of human cynicism and decomposing ideals, the public was ready to embrace primate liberation as a cause worth the demise of humanity. The reaction is catalyzed by a subtle racial/political subtext.  The rising apes are perceived as racial stereotypes.The pandemonium is a cartoon of white fear. The uprising stands for the  emancipation of the third world.

Let’s go briefly over the movie. A young scientist, Will Rodman, works in a biotechnology lab. The research team is looking for a retro-viral drug to enhance mental capacity and cure brain disease. Rodman has a special interest in this work, as his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The drug is tested on a female chimp named Bright Eyes, increasing her mental power. Without them knowing, Bright Eyes gives birth to a baby chimp who has inherited her almost human intelligence. As she perceives him to be in danger, Bright Eyes turns violent and is killed. The project is terminated and the chimps are ordered to be euthanized. Will takes the baby-chimp home, determined to continue the project by himself. His father calls the baby-chimp Caesar.

As Will continues to medicate Caesar with the mind enhancing drug, the chimp grows as a frustrated would-be human. For all reassurances, Caesar realises that he is  just a pet. The hysterical reaction of their obnoxious neighbour reinforces his doubts. Eventually, Caesar has a confrontation with the bad neighbour and ends up in a primate shelter. Here he discovers his own species. Caesar is disappointed by their stupidity and cruelty, but is more repelled by human insensitivity toward animals.

In the meanwhile, Will develops an improved version of the mind-enhancing drug. Caesar steals it and medicates his tribe. He organizes an escape. The rebel apes confront humans successfully on the Golden Gate Bridge and escape into the forest. Therewith the retrovirus created by Will turns lethal to humans and spreads through airlines. Man’s rule on earth comes to an end.

As Caesar is moving center-stage during the movie, the spectator begins to identify with his cause. It seems like there’s a deep self-hate in humanity feeding archetypal fantasies about hell and the Apocalypse. The retroviral pandemic at the end of the movie is received like an act of biblical justice. On the other hand, Caesar has been identified with liberation icons, like Mandela Gandhi, Malcolm X, even Obama. All these are beside the point. Caesar stands for Mao-zeDong.

Why Mao? After all Caesar is against unnecessary violence. However, Caesar is Mao, because he merges the struggle against the West and the dethronement of man, in one and the same cause.

Says Mao:

The life of dialectics is the continuous movement toward opposites. Mankind will also finally meet its doom. When the theologians talk about doomsday, they are pessimistic and terrify people. We say the end of mankind is something which will produce something more advanced than mankind. Mankind is still in its infancy…  In the future, animals will continue to develop… And can it be, moreover, that of all the monkeys only one species can evolve, and all the others are incapable of evolving?

This is exactly the point in the Planet of Apes. The movie is more than an allegory of racial/political liberation. It is Maoist dialectics. Toppling western imperialism is the first step in toppling humanity: “Can it be, moreover, that of all the monkeys only one species can evolve”? Forget class struggle, forget racism, forget Western dominance and Third World emancipation. The true oppressor  is humanity.

One can only understand the subtle chemistry of postmodern academics toward Mao. He walked the walk where they only talk the talk (killing means business). Google yields 82,600,000 results for “human race is a cancer of the earth”, and 38,700,000 results for “white race is the cancer of human history”. If humanity is cancer, the West is metastasis.  So, what is the point?

The point is that the West stands for the concept that a human being is defined by something which is universally true, rather than by culture and blood. I don’t mean that this has been an exclusive prerogative of the West, or that universal humanity has been historically embodied in it. My point is that the West has aimed for universality, and that anti-western sentiments are rooted in the absoluteness of culture and tribal identity.  When science and reason are denounced as forms of cultural imperialism, a process of infinite regression is set in motion. One ends up rooting for the apes.

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Dreaming of truth in America

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that America is “one of the countries where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and are best applied”. He finds explanation in the peculiarities of democracy. Philosophy is for aristocrats. America is egalitarian. Yet egalitarianism encourages also intellectual self-reliance. So it is that doubting authority comes rather naturally to Americans.

I will argue that the philosopher whose precepts are “best applied” in America is not Descartes but Nietzsche. What distinguishes the latter is the concept that mind is a battlefield rather than a serene throne. I will quote from aphorism 333 in Gay Science.

What does Knowing Mean? “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari (do not laugh, do not mourn, nor to curse), sed intelligere!” (but understand) says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this “intelligere” ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event. The struggle of these one-sided views occurs afterwards, and out of it there occasionally arises a compromise, a pacification, a recognition of rights on all three sides, a sort of justice and agreement: for in virtue of the justice and agreement all those impulses can maintain themselves in existence and retain their mutual rights. We, to whose consciousness only the closing reconciliation scenes and final settling of accounts of these long processes manifest themselves, think on that account that “intelligere” is something conciliating, just and good, something essentially antithetical to the impulses; whereas it is only a certain relation of the impulses to one another.

Nietzsche was the first to realise the abyssal origin of our thoughts. Descartes’ thinking self is the triple product of instinctual vectors rather than a metaphysical substance. It is something reminiscent of a Western movie, where three gunslingers confront one another in Mexican standoff. The finale truel in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the classic example. The camera moves back and forth between the contenders, capturing the mounting tension. The graves of Civil War soldiers flung all around, reminding the viewer that the world is a deadly battlefield. The soundtrack plays a sinister note, disrupted occasionally by the croaking ravens.This is exactly the kind of situation that, according to  Nietzsche, takes place in our unconscious, as laughing, mourning and coursing keep one another in Mexican standoff. Rational knowledge breaks the deadlock by a truce.

More than elsewhere, in America the game is played through socio-political proxies. It is what Michel Foucault has called the “external history of truth”.

The hypothesis I would like to put forward is that there are two histories of truth. The first is a kind of internal history of truth, the history of a truth that rectifies itself in terms of its own principles of regulation: it’s the history of truth as it is constructed in or on the basis of the history of the sciences. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are in society (or at least in our societies) other places where truth is formed, where a certain number of games are defined—games through which one sees certain forms of subjectivity, certain object domains, certain types of knowledge come into being—and that, consequently, one can on that basis construct an external, exterior history of truth.

The American “external history of truth” involves such games and places as the court of justice, the cinema, the media, the pulpit, the political discourse, the street protest, the talk-show, the blogosphere. It is here that “the precepts of Descartes… are best applied”. America has offered the best opportunity for the truth-seeker by letting everything happen and clash in those places.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The ultimate meaning of Emma Lazarus’ lines, graven on pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, is the promise that truth will make us free. Or is it?

Says Tocqueville:

In the United States… Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact, which no one undertakes either to attack or to defend. The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry… the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and many of the most important of human opinions are removed from its influence… In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

Religion has become less powerful in our day. Yet expert opinion has become as much an “established and irresistible fact”, as Christianity was when the French writer travelled to America. The assertions of  doctors, psychiatrists, behavioral scientists, and so on, assume the guise of what Kant has called “the public use of reason”. Their lack of self-restraint betrays rather “the private use of reason”, wherein the Enlightenment has confined religion. What distinguishes each other is exactly what Tocqueville called “the precepts of Descartes, i.e. the exercise of philosophical doubt. An assumption that refuses to be questioned does not belong to the public square.

One might subsume political correctness under the same category. The difference from outspoken faith lies in the absence of the “wall of separation”. As such, it not only influences the public to raise “formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion “, but informs policy making as well. The perverse reversion of this invasion of the public space by expert opinion is the privatization of truth. The history of Galileo’s trial is repeating itself in gag orders and government/corporate restrictions of public information. Going public with common-interest knowledge might throw one into a Kafkaesque maze of legal problems.

In this context, the untutored Cartesianism mentioned by Tocqueville manifests itself as common-sense doubt regarding expert opinion, and  blasphemy against political correctness. It is a new form of the proverbial impiety of the common people. And it is, ironically, the left which is trying to suppress these heresies from its alleged base.

Hegel anticipated the postmodern sterilization of thought as he wrote about the “customary tenderness for things, whose only care is that they shall not contradict one another”. Of which Lenin comments: “This irony is exquisite! ‘Tenderness’ for nature and history (among the philistines)—the endeavor to cleanse them from contradictions and struggle”. What Hegel and Lenin called philistine and reactionary, the cleansing of society from contradictions and struggles, has come to be called “progressive”.

Tocqueville’s “formidable barriers” surrounding  liberty of opinion, are not truly barriers, but tectonic fault lines of the “external history of truth”. They are places where the instincts predating knowledge, recast as social tectonics, clash and unwind, shaping the ever-changing landscape of truth. Volcanoes and earthquakes are deadly phenomenon, but they make possible for a planet to be alive by recycling the elements of life. Similarly, ideas are alive on a dynamic infrastructure and are energized by eruptions of political passion. Logical truth comes only as a final compromise.

One cannot help noticing how old Europe is becoming more and more like Mars with its dead geology. No plate tectonics, no earthquakes, no fire from the depth, no life. Dreaming of truth is still possible in America.