Thursday, May 08, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Three

See also: [Part Zero] [Part One] [Part Two]

A statement of fact is an act of violence. Established signals within a system ("coins of the realm") represent a peaceful efficiency because they create conventions for nominal realities: we agree to agree. Everyone wins if we all drive on the same side of the road instead of running into each other and arguing about who's right. The Cynic is dangerous to any such establishment because he actively undermines the convention. The Cynic is in effect saying "this is not my reality," and behaving accordingly. You have to take someone seriously who drives on the wrong side of the road.

Higher itself education is ripe for Cynical challenges, but the title topic refers to the role of higher education in the realm. Accordingly, we ask:
  1. What is the role of signaling within the realm?
  2. What are the effects of Cynical attacks on those signals?
  3. What is higher education's actual and potential role in the above?
The first of these was the subject of the prose poem in Part Zero. The Enlightenment has allowed construction of physical and virtual machines of ever greater complexity because of the establishment and maintenance of reliable signals [1]. This is the effect of organized and sustained inquiry into the nature of the world. But science is not the whole of The Enlightenment project. Humanism has not seen such obvious success. The computers that we love for their life-changing conveniences were created in order to solve shock wave calculations so that governments could kill more thoroughly [2]. 

So successful are the advances in signaling and the iron enforcement of convention, that in the West Cynics cannot function in the classical form. Diogenes was a public Cynic. The example of the teen tweeting a veiled threat shows that public mocking of official signals (no matter how absurd) is dangerous. Currently it's safer to be a (lower-case) cynic, mocking rather than debasing, but history shows that even this is not to be taken for granted. At a time when practically every form of digital communication is probably being archived and indexed, even cynicism may find itself underground. At that point we may as well entirely diminish the 'c', and merely think about absurdities but say and do nothing: Joe the Ynic ponders the absurdity of life, but dares not utter a cynical remark. By capitalizing the letter, it gives us seven more retreats before we come up blank. (Joe the ynic doesn't dare think about absurdities, but would like to, etcetera). 

This state of affairs is because of asymmetry in epistemology. The police officer with the radar gun gets to create your velocity-reality. No wonder devices that interfere with radar are illegal. The Cynic would laugh his socks off (if he wore any) at a typical traffic stop. The citation has a precise speed on it, but the system doesn't know who you are unless you produce a little laminated rectangle with your name on it. The fact that the systems are rapidly becoming smarter is more, rather than less, worrying to the Cynic.

In the latter twentieth century, official identity as defined asymmetrically by the state became the currency of life and death in many countries (Aryan/other, Bolshevik/other, Communist/other, Hutu/other, on the depressing list goes). It's clear that the humanist project is as much impeded by the progress in science and technology as it is aided by it. This isn't surprising in retrospect because machines have no humanity themselves; they can only amplify the wishes of their masters.

Although Cynical acts have undoubtedly saved some when the machine noise shifts register from white to ultra-red, for example by faking credentials, classical Cynicism has been impotent for a long time. Shea quotes Diderot in The Cynic Enlightenment [3, pg 42], snipped here from Amazon's preview (I bought the book, but this is convenient):

(The footnote indicates that the quote is the author's translation from Diderot's "Cynique"). If classical Cynics were gone in Diderot's time, it is no wonder that the common meaning of the word has retreated from acting to debase system signals (Cynicism) to merely complaining about them (cynicism). Even lower-casing was noticeably weak in the national news coverage of the impending invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the system classification "enemy" was being sold to Americans. There was, however some reflexive cynicism by the press afterward.

This brings us up to date on the state of affairs of the first item on the agenda at the top of this page. Next time we consider whether  or not classical Cynicism or its lower-cased offspring have the potential to make systems operate with more humanity.

Next: Part Four

[1] Gleick, J. "The information: a history, a theory, a flood." (2011).
[2] Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. Random House LLC, 2012.
[3] Shea, Louisa. The cynic enlightenment: Diogenes in the salon. JHU Press, 2010.

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