Mind Matters

Progress, Zak Stein, and Style

Hello, wherever you are -

A couple fun areas for this email to explore:

  1. What is progress? Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison’s recent essay called for the establishment of a ‘Progress Studies’ department. My exploration of post-capitalism is leading me to some funky notions of how we might reconceive of progress to support a more vital, creative, interesting culture.

  2. Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s style

  3. New Musing Mind Podcast episode with Zak Stein

  4. Subconscious complex pattern recognition > conscious mind’s complex pattern recognition


1. What is Progress?

In the essay, I think Cowen and Collison describe progress in the kind of quantifiably reductive way characteristic of the modern era’s scientific mentality:

“Progress itself is understudied. By ‘progress,’ we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘Progress Studies.’”

To equate progress with living standards submits to the same neoliberal, capitalist growth creed that proxies human development with capital development. This is the kind of thinking that’s led to what Erik Hoel calls ‘extrinsic drift’, an idea we explore in our podcast conversation.

Rather, I’ve begun wondering how things might change if we think of progress as a kind of cultural dividend everybody shares in. If we democratize the ‘ownership’ of cultural & technological innovations and distribute the wealth they generate equitably across all cultural stakeholders, progress could come to mean the progressive marginalization of what John Maynard Keynes called ‘the economic problem’, something I reference a lot. Sorry.

In short, progress would mean the democratic displacement of matters of scarcity and survival insecurity from the center of our lives, democratically emancipating entire populations to ask: how might we live, if we didn’t need to earn that living?

This conception of progress is post-capitalist, in that it imagines a gradual exit from the institutions of wage-labor, which itself poses a major, major challenge. That kind of newfound freedom would be heavy, overwhelming, and difficult. It’s this kind of hypothetical freedom that leads David Foster Wallace to write:

“Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do…What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”

This is where I seriously jive with Zachary Stein, who frames the cultural evolution beyond wage labor as fundamentally an educational project.

The good news is that I just recorded a podcast discussion with Stein, more on that below.


László Krasznahorkai’s Writing Style

I’m writing a long essay on how digital mediums are changing, and threatening, writing. We’re quick to celebrate how easy it’s become for anybody to write and publish to a potentially global audience with zero marginal costs, but the underbelly here is that now market dynamics are infiltrating writing as never before.

Here’s the introduction:

“Recent observations on writing in the internet age suggest that digital mediums are eviscerating all barriers that constrain the marketplace of writing. To reach markets, writing traditionally had to travel a lengthy and expensive pipeline of editors, publishers, and institutions. Now, anyone with internet access and an idea can publish to a global audience with near-zero marginal costs.

We’re quick to celebrate this newfound ease-of-entry to the writing market, but I worry markets might swallow the craft of writing whole. If all writing occurs under the panoptic watch of market incentives and the allure of earning one’s living, writers will conform to the market’s taste rather than exploring their own. 

I worry that taste itself is being commodified, and writing is just the latest bastion of individuation to give way.”

Standing in stark contrast to the standardized style of the market, I’ve been reading a Hungarian novelist named László Krasznahorkai. His sentences run on for chapters at a time, constructing and transfiguring realities as they cascade, spiraling into disorientation, a Borges-ian metaphysical vertigo that kicks up the cosmic dust and leaves us enmeshed in a swirling puzzle that always suggests immanent depths beneath the storm. Dustin Illingworth describes Krasznahorkai’s style as “gorgeous derangements of consciousness…Here is fiction that collapses into minute strangeness and explodes into vast cosmology.”

The Paris Review interviewed Krasznahorkai for their series, The Art of Fiction, No. 240. Take this bit on how he developed his style:

"Finding a style was never difficult for me because I never looked for it. I lived a secluded life. I always had friends, but just one at a time. And with each friend, I had a relationship in which we spoke to each other only in monologues. One day, one night, I spoke. The next day or night, he would speak. But the dialogue was different each time because we wanted to say something very ­important to the other person, and if you want to say something very ­important, and if you want to convince your partner that this is very important, you don’t need full stops or periods but breaths and rhythm—rhythm and tempo and melody. It isn’t a conscious choice. This kind of rhythm, melody, and sentence structure came rather from the wish to convince another person."

Crucial to Krasznahorkai’s (I’ve typo’ed and retyped his name a million times in this email so far) style is a trait that seems common among all great writers: he absolutely refused to compromise.

He viewed money as a force that vulgarizes and corrupts literature, if not modern society at large:

KRASZNAHORKAI

“…For me, music history is a descent. And after two thousand years, this is also happening in literature. But it’s very difficult to analyze this process of vulgarization. The terrible revolution that was always going to happen in modern societies has in fact happened. Not that mass culture has won, but money. Occasionally a very high-level literary work happens to say something on the midrange level and reaches more readers—and maybe this is the fate of a lot of contemporary writers.

INTERVIEWER

What about your novels?

KRASZNAHORKAI

No, my novels absolutely don’t work on the middle level because I don’t ever compromise. Writing, for me, is a totally private act. I’m ashamed to speak about my literature—it’s the same as if you were to ask me about my most private secrets. I was never really part of literary life because I couldn’t ­accept being a writer in a social sense. No one can speak about literature with me—except you and a few other people. I’m not happy if I have to speak about literature, especially my literature. Literature is very private.”

Krasznahorkai spent some time living in Allen Ginsberg’s apartment, and is one of the most fascinating, enthralling, and difficult writers I’ve tango’ed with in a while. Check out either this commentary in The Paris Review on his work, or the longer interview.

If you remain interested, he considers his latest novel his masterpiece, Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming (I started by reading some of his short stories, as in Seiobo There Below).


New Musing Mind Podcast Conversation: Zachary Stein

Link to Episode Page, or || Listen now: iTunes | Spotify | Overcast | Stitcher

Zak is one of the most comprehensive thinkers I’ve encountered. He’s an educational futurist, scholar in developmental psychology, and complexity-meets-contemplation philosopher, among other titles.

In addition to working with Howard Gardener (a famous developmental psychologist at Harvard), he works closely with Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni, developing integral philosophy for the 21st century transition from society as it was, to society as it might become (if we get our shit together).

His book, Education in a Time Between Worlds, is insanely good. Specifically, we spoke about what he calls ‘The 13 Social Miracles’.

Zak’s 13 Social Miracles are a practice in ‘design fiction’, or concrete utopian theorizing. He offers a pragmatic but unfettered set of policy proposals and global projects to support the emergence of our most vibrant, wholesome futures. His miracles include everything from guaranteed basic income, total planetary demilitarization, to the de-alienation and re-humanization of the global workforce (h/t Marx).

So often, even the most radical philosophers do not engage with the political - that is, policy oriented - dimensions of their work. How do we get from here to there? We can talk about abundance, autonomy, and freedom all we like, but what kind of bills should we introduce into the House of Representatives in support of these abstractions? What social policies will help bring about these realities? Individual practices are great, but collective policies can help democratize these outcomes.

Zak’s philosophy is radical, and it’s political, making it some of the most refreshing, valuable work around.

(And if you enjoy the conversation, consider rating it on Apple Podcasts, or sharing the podcast - sharing it in its infancy really helps spread the word!)


The Subconscious is Better at Picking up on Complex Patterns than the Conscious Mind

Often times, that intuitive ‘feeling’ we have about something turns out to be a vague perception of what our unconscious already knows.

I’m starting John Vervaeke’s Youtube series, Awakening From the Meaning Crisis. At first I was apprehensive, but man is it fascinating so far.

Two nuggets from that:

1) Try to momentarily take literacy out of your brain. Imagine, in this moment, that language simply doesn’t exist for you. How does it feel? What’s it like to look at things, turning off the inner monologue that linguistically narrates experience to you?

On one hand, to me, this feels familiar. “Ah, feels like meditation”. On the other hand, it’s a little startling.

2) Vervaeke goes through a few experiments that demonstrate how the human subconscious is far better at picking up on complex patterns than the conscious mind.

Pair this up with my reading from Keith Johnstone’s book - Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre - and you get quite a picture. Keith’s whole spiel is that the best improv occurs when the actors are no longer trying to act. When you stop planning what to say, and instead, focus on stabilizing the conditions where you ‘get out of your own way’, and words flow naturally, effortlessly.

Your subconscious is fully capable of generating creative, fascinating material without your conscious mind getting involved to mediate things. So within each of us, beyond the sliver of consciousness that constitutes what we’re aware of, and from which our perceived ‘will’ acts, there’s a much larger environment, a subterranean landscape of creativity, pattern recognition, and potentialities. By definition, it will always remain larger than our conscious minds (I wrote about this once, in relation to meditation).

So what are we to make of the fact that ‘we’, that is, our conscious apprehension of ourselves and our capacities, are always overlaid upon a much larger self, one that is smarter, funnier, deeper, and more creative?

This circles all the way back to emergence and complexity science. Rather than thinking we ‘know’ anything, maybe it’s best to design for principles that simply allow for the process of emergence to occur ‘effortlessly’. What might that mean?


That’s all.

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Cheers,
Oshan