"The neo-modern embraces complexity as conflicting, lucid ideas held in dynamic tension"

This challenging perspective by Anthony Wing Kosner springs from an unlikely source, Forbes. He begins with an illustration.

[T]he cover of the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone, “The Dark Knight Rises” is mashed up with Justin Bieber  and “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” by environmental activist and author, Bill McKibben. To see Bieber’s pouty lips, coiffed hair and unblemished skin next to a warning call about the fate of the earth is disorienting, to say the least.

This disorientation is of a kind perhaps unique to our era. This is what I call a neo-modern problem. There are two, or more, simple and compelling ideas that exist in superposition. Like a Qubit, a quantum bit, in a quantum computer, that “can be 0, 1, or a superposition of both,” the fact of continued growth of energy consumption (the show, the “on state,” the “1″) and its impact on global climate (the final curtain, the “off state,” the “0″) are staring us in the face.

This is where we are in our cultural evolution. The modern embraced speed and simplicity; the post-modern despaired of complexity and meaninglessness; now the neo-modern embraces complexity as conflicting, lucid ideas held in dynamic tension.

I feel this acutely because two of the thinkers I most admire, McKibben and Constructal Law theorist Adrian Bejan, are weighing in on opposite ends of the spectrum and I am left trying to make sense of the superposition of the two. In this way I am a proxy for everyone who is trying to make sense of these seeming contradictions. [emphasis mine]

Anthony Wing Kosner ends with paralysis:

I can’t see how not to be both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. A Qubit of affect. A quantum emotion. It is an existential feeling best expressed, perhaps, by the exchange between Estragon and Vladimir at the end of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:  “I can’t go on like this.” “That’s what you think.:… “Well? Shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move.

Let’s go.

McKibben and Bejan impress me too. But Adrian Bejan is an engineer whose platform springs from analysis of fluid flow in pipes and ducts. While his equations apply to a wide range of real world systems, I think McKibben's perspective better captures the scale of planetary complex systems. His research background embraces past climate regimes and is more in tune with evolving technological/social/political complexities, in short a wider horizon.

Nonetheless, Anthony Wing Kosner's analogy strikes a chord with me. He captures my multidimensional parallax failure, where contradictory images of what's happening refuse to fuse in my head to make sense.


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Upon further reflection, I feel like a fool. As Beth Gardiner says in We’re All Climate-Change Idiots

Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant. A new study by the psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, published in last month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that participants seated in a room with a ficus tree lacking foliage were considerably more likely to say that global warming was real than were those in a room with a ficus tree that had foliage.

How could I allow a pretty face to compete on any level with science? Forbes, makes sense after all as the source.  The goal was paralysis, just like replacing investigative journalism with He Said/She Said journalism. As long as the issue is presented as if it's a debate, delay seems justified, inaction seems justified. As long as we struggle with conflicting emotional narratives, disorientation seems justified.

What a clever damage control tactic to deflect from the terror inherent in McKibbens piece. The fossil fuel industry and their corporate buddies are more subtle that I'd imagined, to fight science with apparent philosophy.

Why should I expect a coherent narrative from a magazine anymore than a coherent narrative from the world? We're constantly surrounded by conflicting messages. That's no reason for disorientation. Injecting an affective element into image composition to elicit a particular emotional response in the audience is one of the oldest tricks. Corrupt leaders are photographed with babies, puppies and flowers. Normally I react with disdain to such composition. This tactic is an interesting derivative.

Forgive my moment of "dumbth", falling for a philosophical gloss that elevates a pretty face as "a lucid idea" capable of  dynamic tension with Bill McKibben's piece on the apocalyptic implications of current economic/climate trends. Has too much internet use lobotomized me? Jarring discontinuities of affect are normal in these media. There's nothing confusing there.

Just as some Jewish citizens of Berlin patronized the arts and lived in luxurious homes right up until Kristallnacht, photos of pretty carefree teenagers will adorn magazine covers right up until an abrupt economic, social or political discontinuity occurs from climate destabilization. 

My only sources of disorientation are the speed of climate change and fear of the future.

Sanity regained.




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