Academic writing takes on a back-and-forth nature. Experience and observation leads to understanding, which leads to a theory or thesis. Writers then begin at the end; laying out their thesis and then supporting it. The reader therefore begins a journey where the author ended it. </metawriting>
Last week I wrote out how I believe post-modernism is best understood through Aristotle’s Forms. It was kind of thick and theoretical. This post will tackle the other approach to this concept; the experiential and observational.
One point I raised was that the Material Cause of post-modernism is a certain degree of societal wealth. This wealth is the result of civilization’s “conservation of knowledge and culture.” This is worth examining in detail.
I used a fairly simplistic example, saying “cavemen couldn’t build bulldozers, but they built the things-that built the things-that built the things-that built bulldozers, and now one guy can do the work of 100′s.” However, the issue of civilization is more complicated. Specifically, it must be recognizes that civilization inherently involves both the expansion of a tribe’s physical domain and the centralization of resources. A tribe of hunter-gatherers has a small camp and hunting/foraging parties enter the wilderness temporarily to secure food and other resources. A tribe transitioning to agriculture will still have a small camp, but now maintains permanent cultivation and stewardship over a certain amount of land. At first the only places worth settling will be fertile farmland. Yet as this tribe discovers stonework, metalwork, and industrialization, the budding civilization will establish quarries, mines, and other facilities even in marginally hospitable places; transporting food to those places to support workers who send resources back to the ever-growing village. Whereas the members of the hunter-gatherer tribe could reasonably expect to participate in all aspects of supporting the tribe’s culture/economy (namely, count them slowly…hunting…and…gathering…), the members of the Bronze Age farming village are now depending on resources brought in from ever-more-remote locations that few will see or understand. It is vital to understand this process. It is often referenced with respect to increasing specialization and division of labor, but the point I am driving at is physical separation of producers and consumers, or the ever-lengthening supply chain.
At a certain point, even “human resources” begin to centralize. Local elite centralize at the state level, then the regional level, and finally the national and international level. A form of this is commonly referred to as “Brain Drain,” although those who benefit from it would probably call it something positive such as “an intellectual economy of scale,” or “Silicon Valley.” The book “Coming Apart,” describes this phenomenon in great detail; I’ll save space here by referencing it and one of its conclusions: American culture is produced and controlled by a tiny intellectual elite that centralizes itself in a few major cities.
Combine the ever-lengthening supply chain supporting the culture/economy of major cities with the fact that America’s cultural elite (as well as the power of the popular vote) centralize in such cities. The result is that the people with the most power are the least connected with the roots of the system which sustain their lifestyle. The people most heavily dependent on modern electronics are the least likely to have any experience with a rare-metal mine. The large number of people taking a taxi to a local restaurant doesn’t viscerally appreciate the necessity of car/truck ownership among the rural farmers supplying that restaurant. I have written at lengths about the consequences of this gap before.
So I have now laid out the centralizing, expansive nature of civilization and the inherent and ever-growing disconnect between producers and consumers this entails, and have done so using examples from every-day life. From this, we can see how the same conditions which create wealth also create people who don’t understand where that wealth comes from. In short, we’ve re-covered the Material Cause. Now it’s time for a science-y detour.
All systems produce waste. Among these is heat. (I imagine most readers will be familiar with the impending heat death of the universe.) Life absorbs energy and uses it to create order. Plants use the energy contained in sunlight to assemble (create a state of high order) water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients form the soil into various hydrocarbons, an in the process release some waste heat (create a state of low order). Similarly, animals eat plants and drink water and convert the energy in them into meat, while releasing energy in various forms, including waste heat. The more links in the food chain, the more energy is wasted in heat on the way to providing one calorie to the apex predator. (This is why, as vegetarians love to point out, eating plants is more efficient than eating meat.)
A human city is the ultimate of apex predators. The process of supporting the city is the process of centralizing the resources of land with a sufficient carrying capacity. Not only are enormous quantities of resources consumed in a small area due to population density, but the resources must be transported to the city from miles around. So not only are resources spent in production, but also in transportation. Yet, again, due to the length of the supply chain, the average city-dweller is oblivious to the amount of energy expended to support his lifestyle (and therefore the amount of “waste heat” release on the way.) He purchases chicken already slaughtered, plucked, separated, packaged, and refrigerated. He turns on the lights and instantly benefits from coal that was mined in the next state and burned at the power plant two counties over. He buys a wool coat from the rack having never seen a sheep. In short, he lives in a system that is kept in a state of high order, maintained by the constant exertion by those outside the system. In a way, the city is like an air conditioned room; one space kept cool at the expense of warming the entire system.
Thus far I have re-examined the connection between wealth and civilization, civilization and supply-chain length, and supply-chain length with efficiency, order, and waste. The point was to fully explore the Material Cause of post-modernism, ie the environment in which such an ideology can arise.
Now it’s time to talk about Entropy. As a said last week, this was the “Big Realization” that led me to write this whole thing out. And like I said at the beginning of this post, this was a long chain of observations, experiences, musings, and thoughts which began to crystallize (or maybe coagulate?) into a theory. As I wrapped up talking about wealth, I ended talking about cities being high order. This is the same as being low-entropy.
As I stated last week, I believe one of the Formal Causes of post-modernism is the inability to comprehend entropy due to lack of experience. The air conditioner referenced above cools a room through a process which warms the overall system. The city-dweller who lives an entire life within the confines of a low-entropy system (the city) has no first-hand experience with the amount of entropy created in the process of maintaining that system’s low-entropy state. He is like someone who has experienced air conditioning but never felt warm A/C exhaust.
I’ve used a lot of analogies to this point; now I’ll get to a real example of how this plays out in real life. Over the summer I mowed my yard, weeded the garden, and trimmed overgrowing bushes and trees. I didn’t just do this once and quit forever; every weekend I had to spend a little bit of time engaged in at least one of those activities. In order to maintain my yard in a state of low entropy, I had to continuously exert effort. Despite my education, training, and qualifications to do many high-minded things, the task of simply maintaining my home requires repetitive, boring, simple work. No further amount of specialization or civilization on my part is going to remove or reduce the requirement to constantly overcome chaos. Despite my white collar job, I am still very in-tune with entropy thanks to this simple connection to reality via my yard.
Now consider the stereotypical young, urban college student living in a dorm, or a young activist living in a city apartment performing some paper-pushing job and spending his free time raising awareness for organic, pesticide-free farming and against genetically modified organisms. He’s never so much as maintained a yard. He has no appreciation for the amount of effort required to keep it looking nice this week, and he certainly has no appreciation for the fact that he’ll have to do it again the next week. Instead, his world is a constant treadmill of progress; he takes his 100-level classes, then his 200-level, then 300, 400, and on to a capstone course. Maybe he continued on to grad school, and then wrote a thesis. Then a PhD, and a dissertation. He watched fellow socio-political activists secure hate-speech rules. Then he watched “tolerance” become the law of the land. Then he watched the newly empowered Political Commissars intolerantly silence anyone who disagreed with them. (After all, democracy is a vector, not merely a system) Never once did anyone repeat anything. Never once did anyone lose ground to chaos. Never once did someone have to exert effort just to maintain the status quo. And so this individual who knows only life inside a low-entropy system tries with the fervor of a prisoner of Plato’s cave to impose the rules of his low-entropy world upon the farmer, whose entire job it is to create order in of a high-entropy environment. After a summer of home ownership, this activist would come to appreciate Round-Up and drought-resistance grass, and by analogy would probably support moderate pesticide and GMO usage on the part of the farmers who feed him. But his near total-disconnect from nature’s high-entropy state, made possible by the ultra-long supply chain of a major city, has rendered him completely ignorant of the issues upon which he speaks.
The realization of a Formal Cause is an Efficient Cause. We have just seen how the Formal Cause “Lacks understanding of entropy” leads to the efficient cause “fanatically opposes modern farming methods.” It was the mental cataloging of these progressive causes and the search for the theoretical/structural underpinnings the united them that led me to the framework I have been articulating. The point I’m trying to make is that just about every political issue or stance is an Efficient Cause of post-modernism; they are the mechanisms by which the Formal Causes (which themselves are born from the Material Cause) are instituted as tangible, meaningful, enforceable policy. Before I untangled this, I spent considerable brain power trying to find the first Efficient Cause; did feminism lead to environmentalism, or vice versa? Perhaps socialism led to both? These avenues of thought were fruitless except to the degree I realized that they were all united by higher-order concepts; the Formal and Material causes I have outlined.
Next up will be an examination of the implications of a world-view which categorically ignores entropy as a fact of life. Stay tuned.
Continue to Part 3: Post-Modernism’s Final Causes and Pyrrhic Victory