Archive for August 2011
This is my translation of “Marienkind”, a remarkable fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The original can be seen here. I took minor liberties with the translation in the service of readability.
Before a great forest lived a woodcutter with his wife. They had but one child, a girl of three years. They were so poor that they had no more daily bread, and did not know what they could give their child to eat.
One morning, the woodcarver, full of cares, went to the forest to work. As he cut wood there appeared a tall and beautiful woman before him. She had a crown of shining stars on her head, and she said to him “I am the Virgin Mary, mother of the Christ Child. You are poor and needy. Bring me your child, and I will take her with me to be her mother and to care for her.”
The woodcutter obeyed. He took his child and gave her over to the Virgin Mary, who took the child with her up to Heaven. There all was well for the child; she ate sweet bread and drank sweet milk, and her clothes were of gold, and the angels were her playmates.
Now one day when she was fourteen years old, the Virgin Mary called to her and said “Beloved child, I am planning a great journey. Here, take the keys to the thirteen doors of the Kingdom of Heaven into your keeping. Twelve of them you may unlock and see the wonders therein, but the thirteenth, to which this little key belongs, this is forbidden. Beware that you do not unlock it, lest you find sorrow.” The maiden promised to be obedient.
Once the Virgin Mary was on her way, the child beheld the chambers of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each day she unlocked one door, until she had opened the twelve. Behind each door she saw an Apostle, and was enveloped by a glorious light, and she rejoiced in the splendor and holiness, and the angels who were her constant companions rejoiced with her too.
Now the forbidden door alone remained, and she felt a great yearning to know what should be hidden behind it. She said to the angels “Of course I do not want to open it, nor will I go within, but I will unlock it, so that we peer through the crack.”
“No,” said the angels, “that is no good. The Virgin Mary has forbidden it, and it can bring you only unhappiness.”
Then she fell silent, but the yearning in her heart did not fall silent, but gnawed and chewed and left her no peace. And when the angels had all gone up, she said “Now I am alone and can look in, for no one shall know what I do.” She straightaway sought the key, and when she had it in her hand, she stuck it in the lock and turned it within.
Thus the door sprang open, and there she saw the Holy Trinity set in fire and glory. She lingered a brief moment and considered with amazement, and set her finger toward the radiant light, and her finger then became all golden. Immediately she felt a tremendous dread, violently slammed the door and and ran away. But her fear would not yield and her heart pounded on and on, and would not be still. And the gold remained on her finger and would not come off, wash and rub as she would.
Not long after, the Virgin Mary came back from her journey. She called the maiden to her and demanded back from her the Keys of Heaven. When the lot had been given, she looked the young woman in the eye and said “Did you open the thirteenth door as well?”
“No,” she answered, and laid her hand on her heart and felt how it pounded and pounded, and noted well that it betrayed her transgression. Then the Virgin asked again “Are you certain you have not done this?”
“No,” the maiden said a second time.
Then the Virgin caught sight of her finger, that by contact with the heavenly fire had been made golden, and saw that she had sinned. She said a third time “Have you not done this?”
“No,” said the maiden a third time.
Then the Virgin said “You have not obeyed me and have lied as well, you are no longer worthy to be in Heaven.” The maiden sank into a deep sleep, and when she awoke, she lay below upon the earth in the midst of a wilderness. She wanted to call out, but she could bring forth no sound. She sprang up and wanted to run away, but whither she went dense brambles turned her back.
In the waste land in which she was ensnared stood a tall, old tree, that must serve as her dwelling place. When night came she crawled inside and slept within, and when it stormed and rained she found protection inside. But this was a miserable life, and when she thought upon how lovely it was in Heaven, and how the angels had played with her then, she would cry bitterly. Roots and wild berries were her only food, and she sought those as she could. In autumn she collected fallen nuts and leaves and put them in a hole. In winter the nuts were her food, and if it snowed, she crept like a poor little animal in the leaves so she wouldn’t freeze. Soon her clothes were in tatters and fell in pieces from her body. As soon as the sun shone warmly once more, she went out and sat before the tree, and her hair bedecked her on all sides like a mantle. Thus she sat one year after another, and felt the pain and misery of the world.
One day, when the trees stood fresh and green once more, the king of the land chased into the woods following a deer, and because it fled into the underbrush of the wild places, he rose from the horse and tore the bushes asunder, and cut himself a path with his sword. When he finally penetrated the thicket, he saw a wondrously beautiful maiden sitting beneath the tree, bedecked with her golden hair to the toes of her feet. He stood still and stared in amazement. Then he spoke to her, saying “Who are you? Why do you sit here in the waste land?” But she gave no answer, for she could not open her mouth.
The king said again “Will you go with me to my castle?” and she nodded her head a little. The king took her by the arm, set her on his horse and rode with her home, and when he came to the kingly castle, he put her in beautiful clothes and gave her everything in abundance. And if still she could not speak, yet she was beautiful and gracious and won his heart in love, and it was not long before he married her.
When about a year had passed, the queen brought a son into the world. And there in the night where she slept alone, the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke, “Will you confess and speak the truth, that you opened the forbidden door, that I should open your mouth and you again should speak? If you persist in sin and stubbornly deny it, I will take your newborn child with me.” The queen gave answer, but was obdurate and said “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” And the Virgin took the child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when the child had disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen was an ogress and had devoured her own child. She heard all this and could say nothing against it, but the king would not believe it, for he loved her.
After a year the queen bore another son. In the night the Virgin Mary came again and said “Will you confess that you opened the forbidden door? Then I will return your child to you and set your tongue loose. But if you persist and remain in sin, I will take your newborn with me too.” Then the queen said “No, I did not open the forbidden door,” and the Virgin Mary took her child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when it was learned the child had also disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen had devoured it, and the King’s councilors demanded that she should be examined. But the king would not believe it, for he loved her, and ordered the councilors on pain of life or life imprisonment to never speak of it again.
In the next year the queen bore a lovely daughter. The Virgin Mary came to her on the third night and said “Follow me.” She took her by the hand and led her to Heaven, and showed her then her oldest child, who laughed and played with the globe of the world. When the queen was joyous at the sight, the Virgin Mary asked “Is your heart not yet softened? When you confess that you opened the forbidden door, I will return your son to you.” But the queen answered a third time “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” Then the Virgin set her down once more to sink to the Earth, and took the third child.
The next morning when the rumor spread, all the people cried out “The queen is an ogre, she must be sentenced!” and the king could no longer reject his councilors. A trial was held, and because she could say nothing to defend herself, she was sentenced to die at the stake. The wood was gathered together, and when she was tied to the stake and the fire began to burn around her, the hard ice of pride melted and her heart was moved by remorse. She thought “If I could only confess before my death that I opened the door….” And so her voice returned, and she cried out loudly “Yes, Mary, I did it!”
And just then the heavens began to rain and erased the fires, and a light broke forth above her. Mary came down, with both little sons by her side, and the newborn daughter in her arms. She said kindly “When your sin it is confessed, it is forgiven,” and gave her the three children, and loosened her tongue, and gave her happiness for all her life.
Contemporary academics and intellectuals tend to reject theories dealing with the Big Picture. In the next couple of posts I will explore why the Big Picture still matters, why it became so unfashionable, and how we can work with it without falling into the old traps.
Part I: The Big Picture and its Critics in the Sciences and the Humanities
A few years ago a graduate student friend of mine in the Computational Neuroscience department at the University of Rochester was told in all seriousness by his adviser that he should not spend more than fifteen minutes a month thinking about the Big Picture.
He was referring to the meaning of my friend’s findings, beyond the immediate context of measurement and technical analysis. That is to say, my friend was warned against considering the implications of his research for understanding ourselves and the world. That is not what the research is for, argued the adviser, and it is not what the data can tell us.
What I will call the Big Picture refers to the attempt to systematically describe and explain patterns of events or broad categories of phenomena at a high level, such as we find in comparative and interdisciplinary studies. In the current intellectual climate, this approach is usually framed in opposition to close empirical study, which often has little to say about the world as a whole, or what things mean in the larger sense. The frequency with which the value of the Big Picture is dismissed out-of-hand might surprise someone unfamiliar with the academy, but it is extremely common, and most comparative work these days begins with a lengthy defense of the approach.
One still finds occasional advocates of thinking in large-scale terms, but the heyday of grand theorizing is long past. Few scholars take more than a historical interest in Durkheim, Frazer, Spengler, or Hegel, and entire disciplines that smack of interdisciplinary or comparative analysis have all-but vanished. Intellectual history is increasingly considered old-fashioned, and comparative work by pioneers such as the ethnographer Adolf Bastian, or by comparative religion scholars like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, are routinely dismissed by specialists who are frequently unfamiliar with their work.
For those of us who still believe that what things mean is important and worth analyzing, the rejection of global theories is unfortunate. The issue is not black and white, however, because the demise of grand theorizing was in many ways a healthy and necessary development. The increasing insistence that scientific claims be falsifiable, for example, has done much to constrain dangerous and misleading forms of pseudo-science. That is to say, we should be able to submit any scientific hypothesis or theory to empirical verification, or the fundamental rational-empirical premise of science is undermined.
On the one hand, then, we must take these advances seriously, and try understand what was wrong with so many of the old-style global theories. On the other hand, we should hold open the possibility that the Big Picture is not an unsuitable topic for study in principle. New strategies exist for dealing with global theories, and new classes of empirical phenomena are known to require such a perspective.
Let’s begin with a look at two of the most pervasive critiques of the Big Picture that have shaped our current intellectual climate over the last century: logical positivism in the sciences, and postmodernism in the humanities.
In the sciences, global theories linking findings from different disciplines have been almost entirely displaced by close empirical observation, formal analysis, and experimentation. My anecdotal sense is that among working scientists, this theoretical orientation is typically inherited and is rarely the outcome of an analytical process of methodological reflection. But such analysis is present, what I generally find among scientists is a form of logical positivism.
In essence, logical positivism is a theory of science that holds that there are only two kinds of meaningful claims we can make about the world: empirical claims that can be either verified or disproven, and the terms of formal operations that are structured by rules, such as math or logic. In the view of logical positivists, most theory building is merely a thinly-disguised form metaphysical speculation, and speculative theories have about as much to do with truth as theology does – that is, nothing at all.
The epistemological stance of logical positivism has often struck me as naïve, as many logical postivists seem to regard the relationship between the knowing subject and the world as unproblematic, which ignores the keen insights of two hundred years of philosophy and at least sixty years of psychology. The practical consequence of this orientation, however, has been beneficial on the whole. Positivism orients scientists to stick close by the data, which counter-balances the innate human tendency to formulate theories prematurely, and to shape their subsequent findings to fit their ideas – a problem known to cognitive psychology as confirmation bias.
In the humanities, postmodernism has trained decades of students to view global theories with suspicion. Postmodernism, as formulated by the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, rejects external overarching systems as the ground for determining the meaning of elements within the system. Lyotard suggests a cursory definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” referring to the lattice of epistemological assumptions and beliefs which legitimate any particular form of discourse. For example, he characterizes the basic narrative of science that grounds the discipline in a cultural and epistemological sense of legitimacy as “the hero of knowledge work[ing] toward a good ethico-political end — universal peace.” (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, xxxiii-xxiv)
The related critical-theoretical approach of poststructuralism analyzes texts through deconstruction, a technical approach to reading texts that excavates and destabilizes the implicit conceptual frameworks that organize textual meanings. A deconstructive reading exposes and undermines the hidden metaphysical assumptions implied by the conceptual framework upon which a text is based. Such a reading brings the metaphysical assumptions of its author to light, determining their influence on the text and unraveling their contradictions or limitations.
As a rule, postmodernists emphasize difference over unity, polysemy over analogy, and deconstruction over metaphysics. As such, the very concept of a neutral conceptual sphere that allows different and manifold phenomena to be analytically grasped in terms that render them all alike with respect to conceptual judgments is viewed with suspicion. The postmodernist is likely to question many common strategies for conceptually organizing the world as based on anachronistic metaphysics that hearken back to Plato’s idea of the world as constituted by eternal, timeless truths.
The postmodern rejection of global narratives often constitutes a political critique of the control mechanisms encoded in the conceptual distinctions shared by members of a society, which both determine and reflect sociopolitical interpretations. Historically speaking, the coordination of social belief is often intertwined with tacit or overt mechanisms for enforcing conformity. As such, revolutionary or marginalized groups have often employed deconstruction to subvert social constructions of identity based on characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or race. Critiques of this kind, which one might find in the writings of Michel Foucault or Luce Irigaray, destabilize the covert tactics by which conceptual distinctions organize humans in typologies that suppress differences on the level of concept formation.
Here we have the strangest of bedfellows: positivism and postmodernism, which could hardly be less alike, nonetheless share a deep suspicion of grand theories. Largely as a result of these philosophies, an intellectual climate has arisen in the United States in which few academics take the possibility of looking at the big picture seriously.
My purpose here is not to call either positivism or postmodernism into question. Both have made important contributions to culture and society. I believe that the positivists are right to push science toward painstaking empirical engagement with the world, and the postmodernists have offered important criticisms of some very bad ideas.
But when these philosophies reflexively reject global theories, their putative target is often out-of-date.
In the last fifty years we have developed important new conceptual tools for dealing with complexity, and we have established strong empirical grounds for taking such theories seriously. There are species of global theory today that have little in common with the architectonics of, say, Marx’s dialectical materialism.
One of the most important conceptual frameworks for organizing such theories is general system theory. In the next post in this series, we’ll have a look at systems theory, what it deals with, and how it works.
Part II — General System Theory, Self-Organization, and Emergence