Monday, February 1, 2016

Review: John Higg's "Stranger Than We Can Imagine"

John Higgs new history book, "Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century" is not the  usual political-military narrative that most historians offer.

Instead, Higgs argues that the best way to understand how we got from the 19th century to the present day is to examine some of the difficult but interesting ideas and artistic conceptions that arose from 1900 to 2000. Some of these ideas are hard to  understand, so the "Making Sense" in the title is something of a double entendre.

This approach plays to Higgs' strengths. He is very good at explaining difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to understand, and he often uses humor. A floating teacup (Higgs seems very British) is used to discuss the theory of relativity.

Although 12-tone music was invented fairly early in the century, the results of the composing style remains incomprehensible to many listeners today, and it's also difficult to explain to non-musicians. Higgs manages the job, lucidly, in one paragraph:

In traditional composition, a stream of musical notes complement each other in a way that sounds correct to our ears because the pitch of every note is related to, and determined by, the central tone of the key chosen by the composer. Without that central tone, which all the other notes are based on, we become adrift in what Professor Erik Levi called "the abyss of no tonal centre." This is similar to Einstein's removal of the Cartesian x, y and z axes from our understanding of space, on the grounds that they were an arbitrary system we had projected onto the universe rather than a fundamental property of it. Without a tonal centre at the heart of Viennese atonal music, the compositions which followed could be something of a challenge. 

Although Higgs is one of the most clear prose stylists writing today, his book actually is rather complex. By my count, he offers three narratives.

In one narrative, the book is what it appears to be — a history of the 20th century, focusing on some of the more striking and hard to understand ideas and social movements. These ideas and movements are discussed in a series of thematic chapters, but the topics they cover are arranged to form a kind of temporal narrative; relativity is covered in the first chapter, for example, while the Internet takes up the last.

But as a kind of organizing principle, Higgs narrates these events as a history of the rise of individualism, and how that played out. For Higgs, while there is a positive side how individualism freed people, individualism is not an end to itself, but a stage along the way to organizing a new approach to society that balances freedom and responsibility.

In his chapter on teenagers and rock and roll, Chapter 11, Higgs compares Margaret Thatcher's philosophy to the philosophy of the Rolling Stones, and he does not intend that as a compliment to Mick Jagger & Co.  He ends the chapter,

The second half of the twentieth century was culturally defined by adolescent teenage individualism. But despite complaints about kids being ungrateful and selfish, the adolescent stage is a necessary right of passage for those evolving from children to adults. Understanding the world through the excluding filter of "What about me?" is, ultimately, just a phase.

The teenage stage is intense. It is wild and fun and violent and unhappy, often at the same time. But it does not last long. The "Thatcher Delusion" was that individualism was an end goal, rather than a developmental stage. Teenagers do not remain teenagers forever.

But RAW fans will recognize the book as a kind of "secret history" or hidden narrative of RAW's intellectual universe.

I call it a "secret history" because Wilson is not mentioned at all. He's not in the index, although the bibliography does mention the Illuminatus! trilogy.

But Higgs, who often lectures about Wilson and who often writes about him (he wrote the introduction for the new edition of Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, published by the RAW Trust) provides discussion and background on many concepts, people and ideas mentioned by Wilson.

For example, he discusses modernism and the writing of James Joyce;  Emperor Norton in San Francisco; Aleister Crowley's career; John von Neumann's game theory; rocket scientist and magician Jack Parsons; Carl Jung's interest in UFOS; Erwin Schroedinger and quantum mechanics, and George Gurdjieff's efforts to get people to come out of "waking sleep" — all issues raised by Wilson's writing. I'm probably forgetting other examples. Because I have read so much Wilson, there were probably fewer surprises for me than for most of Higgs' readers. I doubt that many of them had heard of Emperor Norton before.

Higgs' rather skeptical treatment of the value of individualism allows him to put some distance, however, between himself and Wilson, who rooted much of his philosophy celebrating the uniqueness and primacy of the individual.

Higgs' book is entertaining and stimulating from beginning to end; when I did a "best books of 2015" piece for my paper, I included it in my list.


Ben Turpin said...

"But as a kind of organizing principle" it is practical to have knowledge about science and math when glossing the chaotic fractal nature that is all around us, within our minds. Leaving RAW out is a crop out, maybe an insult and no different that what other decent enough geezers did in the '70$. RAW is dead, so I can't ask his opinion. I can only make the living intellectually uncomfortable, and hopefully enough so to explain themselves. I just pray that Bill Drummond never dies. Higgs will have him stuffed and mounted. Displayed in a secret room from flattering angles. Poor RAW, is on the wrong side of a 40 year climate science script and seems not name-dropped in this book because *it seems* that John Higgs is CIA. To me. Malthus is his handler. Maybe. The Climate Ignoramus Agency is hidden in plain sight. I hope my jokes are funny.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I didn't see leaving RAW's name out as an "insult." I think RAW is embedded so deeply in Higgs' DNA that almost anything John writes about will be affected by his reading of RAW. An analogous example would be Michael Johnson's blog; even when Michael doesn't mention RAW, I often detect allusions to him in Michael's posts.

chas said...

I read an interview with Higgs somewhere and he took on the question of why no mention of RAW in the book. He said that RAW was so imbedded in the text that it made no sense to actually mention him by name, and that he had given Bob his public due in the KLF book. Bob pretty much lived his life as an invisible man anyway--he's like the Velvet Underground that way--hardly anyone bought his books, and everyone of them wrote a book of their own! (almost)

As far as Bill Drummond goes, I tend to side with Julian Cope in that regard.

michael said...

"Secret history" is a riff I envy. Indeed. We're all so close to it we don't see it, but I imagine there are all kinds of bright young people who will really love this book, and it will seem loaded with novelties and novel ideas to them.

RAW did emphasize individualist anarchists and Crowley and individualist ideas in general, but I suspect he'd - were he alive today - see the 2008 bankster-driven collapse and growing inequality as a reason to emphasize social well-being as complementary to our personal projects. As a matter of fact, I think it's easy to go a thorough reading of all his work and see both ideas at work: we have a social sphere that needs to work for everyone. You can't have that with banksters and bought-off politicians and most of the wealth trickling up to the 1% who don't need it.

RAW saw all that (banksters, the rich and their political influence) growing up, and it seems a main reason why he was fascinated by Pound. At the same time, in our personal worlds: find your tribe, think for yourself, like what you like, enjoy what you enjoy and don't take crap from anyone, don't be part of the bewildered herd, etc.

The neo-pragmatist academic philosopher Richard Rorty had a view that seemed quite isomorphic to RAW's in this regard: some philosophers are not to be read with regard to our social and political commitments. He cited Nietzsche as a good example: read Nietzsche to help you realize your self-creation. RAW thought Crowley's politics were fascistic, but his overall philosophy fecund when negotiated with one's private life.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Michael, I've been thinking about these same issues, and I am planning to write about it for Wednesday.

Oz Fritz said...

I'll have to read Higg's book soon, it sounds fascinating. R.A.W. printed Crowley's most famous anti-fascist statement in Illuminatus! To represent ideas about "individuality" as something uniform, unchanging, and consistent seems an oxymoron of sorts. Delueze coined the term "dividual" to define aggregates of individuals who go or function in a similar direction as a unit but still remain complete individuals. The biological form of that is a slime mold.

michael said...

Oz: Yes! We must be much more like the uncanny slime mold! (No, I'm not advocating for Ted Cruz...)

I like "Dividual." Erik Davis is an intense reader of Deleuze and Guattari too.

Speaking of which those two: they cited the stealthy dividuality of the player of Go as a model for how to operate in the current epoch. Then I saw how AI recently defeated the top Go player. And AI so far benefits which class, mostly?

Re: RAW and social-ist ideas: not only in Libertarian ideas but in all sorts of areas, he put on the mask and advocated for the neglected, marginalized and alternative ways of thinking about big social issues. Look at him on money, basic income, work, corporations, political parties, etc. The State overreaches constantly,and maybe it's not the best form. Hell: it's probably not. And yet, look at the end of our forks: it's a naked lunch. We have to make do with what we have NOW too. And we want enough clean air and water for everyone, food and shelter and medical and access to educational material for everyone. We all want to protect ourselves from those who'd do us harm, but we should include those who'd do our neighbors harm too. How to socially get together with our neighbors, decentralize, negotiate with other networks and get just enough of what we NEED and follow our own paths for what we WANT?

RAW wanted us to ask these Qs for ourselves and then talk about these ideas with both good humor and seriousness. And take action. Perpetually.

The corporate media and those who own it - for the most part - does NOT want that: thinking about alternative ways. Hence, the individual vs. the socialist State is far too simple of a concept. We all want to be unfettered individuals who don't step on others' rights. We also don't want to worry about greedy assholes cratering the economy, selling off our patrimony (public lands) to corporations, letting things like Flint, Michigan happen.

(I'm enough of a "nationalist" to say: those are Americans who had orange-brown heavily leaded water coming out of their pipes. Then, the ethicist's "we" statement: "We don't let other Americans live under such conditions." This is outrageous! If the Owners and their Managers allow this, they can allow anything. Someone needs to be held accountable for this. It's intolerable!)

This is why, for the most part, the Libertarian Party hasn't gotten anywhere: well, sometimes the market fucks up, but: FREEDOM and "the price" we sometimes have to pay, etc. NO! If gummint has any legitimacy, it's to protect us from this sort of shit: lead in our water. Lots of it. I could have used any number of other examples. Some of us - not me - were born on 3rd base. Some of us were born, given a bat, had one hand tied behind our back, and fwere told if we want to live a decent life, go up to the plate and get on first base by hitting a single of Aroldis Chapman. Let's not pretend we're all starting from the same place. But also let's not pretend - to quote Nietzsche - that we're not all "human...all too human."

Chad N. said...

In existentialist and humanist models—models influenced by the thought and experiments of researchers such as Maslow, Sullivan, Ames, Peris, Leary, Krippner, and many others—the human being is seen as both in-DIVIDE-ual and in-UNITE-ual, separated in some ways but connected with all things in other ways. --RAW

Ben Turpin said...

I lost it over fractals. I felt bad, for spamming Tom, and John Higgs. I broadcasted a puerile hot mess over it.

Like Ed in Florida in his Coral Castle, I got right gone over fractals in nature in the way wise old Ed L. was so defensive about Thompson's electron model.

Just because I don't see fractals at all, in nature per se doesn't mean I have to treat those that indicate that they do with such undue disrespect. Sorry Tom and Michael, for all the crap I sent you. I get really gone over uncomfortable science.

Particle, wave, field. Human relativity. We are the relationships.
Knowing the void helps understand and ground science. Bewilderment over climate change, sexism and racism in pop-news is hampering our ability to generate discussions about serious upcoming pollution, war, and dismal state science. I can't get angry over global warming models, Jian Ghomeshi, or Trump.

"Look at him on money" Yes, indeed. Bobby Campbell. Great work!

Oz Fritz said...

Slimemolds cruising rubies to carcinogenic trump the burning hill and not a bush in sight, thank goddess.