Still Waters

Still                   -          Volatile
Repression        -          Expression
Permanent         -          Transitory
Death                -           Life
Solid                 -           Liquid
Order                -           Chaos

Nothing is truly still.

In trying to keep things too still, too serene, too perfect, we must repress anything that may cause a disturbance. Things are pushed under the surface - out of sight, out of mind - and we are afforded the comforting illusion of tranquility. All appears to be well.

But really we know that those disturbing and pesky data points aren't really gone, they are merely forgotten. And the longer we keep them in the dark the more of a debt we accrue. Their power grows - slowly, silently - until it can no longer be contained; at which point it bursts forth, catastrophically.

What is the alternative? Robustness, or resilience.

In becoming resilient we are able to tolerate an amount of volatility - we don't allow disturbances to disturb us too much. We accept that perfection is an illusion, that nothing in life is truly still, and that the need to make it still is pathological. We accept that at times we will be sad, unsettled... imperfect. We come round to Dionysus, become less fixated on Apollo.

Where there is too much stillness - a peace that lasts too long - there is too much repression. If things seem too good, then they likely are. Low volatility is paid for with greater exposure to catastrophic risk. The ground state, or vacuum state of quantum physics, in spite of appearing to be a state of total emptiness and stillness, is in fact full of latent energy and possibility, suggesting that the more still things appear the more latent energy is accumulated in reserve.

Excessive control involves a paring down of diversity and dissension and so requires a stable environment. Stillness and repression go hand in hand with central control.

I don’t trust [Steven Pinker’s] optimism […] more and more kinetic energy, like war, has been turned into potential energy, like unused nuclear weapons - [but] if you don’t have a potential energy term, then everything’s just getting better and better.

[Eric Weinstein]

[...] we may need to intervene to control the iatrogenics of modernity - particularly the large-scale harm to the environment and the concentration of potential (though not yet manifested) damage, the kind of thing we only notice when it is too late.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 121

[…] we can see how the fear of volatility […], leading to inference with nature so as to impose “regularity,” makes us more fragile across so many domains [...] Reducing volatility and ordinary randomness increases exposure to Black Swans - it creates an artificial quiet. 

Preventing small forest fires sets the stage for more extreme ones; giving out antibiotics when it is not very necessary makes us more vulnerable to severe epidemics - and perhaps to that big one, the grand infection that will be resistant to known antibiotics and will travel on Air France.

Which brings me to another organism: economic life. Our aversion to variability and desire for order, and our acting on those feelings, have helped precipitate severe crises. Making something artificially bigger (instead of letting it die early if it cannot survive stressors) makes it more and more vulnerable to a very severe collapse - as I showed with the Black Swan vulnerability associated with an increase in size.

The idea is simply to let human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to prevent their spreading through the system, as Mother Nature does.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 322, 329

We sacrifice ourselves in favour of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter outside us.

Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalised catastrophes.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 350

A story

A man marries a woman and they settle down.

They buy a house, decorate and furnish it. Eventually they have a child together.

All seems relatively well, until the man’s behaviour begins to change. Perhaps he begins to drink more, or drinks with less control. He gets drunk and stays out, gets into trouble. He becomes more distant from his wife, and child. Maybe he has an affair. Perhaps he does other troublesome, disruptive things.

And for his actions he faces recriminations.

“Why are you doing this?” he is asked. And perhaps he cannot come up with an answer, and he feels bad; but he does not know if he feels bad because he did those things, or because he cannot say why he did them.

And so our hero becomes a villain; his name muddied, his image tarnished.

And he sees the pain that he is causing, and he feels the judgements that are cast upon him. And, whilst he may not show it, somewhere within him he is hurt. He does not like being the one to bring about all this pain, and he does not like the weight of shame that has been hung around his neck. And so he makes efforts to change his ways, to do less of these things that have caused pain. He pares himself down, becomes “good”.

People begin to notice a change in him.

In becoming good he seems to have lost something. He seems dulled, muted. Neutered. At certain points of the day he can be caught staring into the distance, empty-eyed. And people wonder, “What is wrong with him?” “What happened to him?”

Some people, those with eyes to see, sense a deep rumbling within him; and they know that something is very wrong.

A story about a story

We started with a fantasy, one that was presumably shared by both parties; a fantasy of “everything is alright.” An image of a still lake, of balance and harmony. But for some reason this fantasy lost its truth for our hero, and he began to desire new images, and different stories.

His abandoning of the initial fantasy – the shared fantasy – caused pain; not only to his beloved, but to those in the community who were also invested in it. They could not understand his new stories, the sense of them; and, unfortunately for him, neither could he.

All he “knew” was that they were in some way necessary. To keep his own private lake still he seemed to have to cast stones upon communal waters. But he knew that these stones were not thrown out of malice, just to see the splashes and disruption that they would cause. There was an unconscious logic in his actions, a balance was being preserved.

Unfortunately for our hero his lack of insight into his own behaviour – his lack of language, of concepts; his inability to explain himself, to make himself known – meant that it became illegitimate. Lacking an advocate, it was forced underground, into the depths, where it could no longer disrupt the fantasy of “everything is alright”.

In forcing his devils underground he was able to once again to become “good”, the communal lake restored to stillness. But he did not realise that the devils do not disappear; they came to him with an important message, and it is their duty to make sure they are heard. Forced into the darkness, they still sing and dance, only he can no longer see them, or hear their song.

Perhaps our hero even begins to think of himself as “bad”; after all, he can see the consequences of his behaviour, and he is not blind to its effects. And so he is forced into a corner, given an ultimatum; to deny his devils, and to force them underground, or to remain the “villain,” and to live with the label of “bad.”

But perhaps an understanding of his actions – of their sense – would make the choice irrelevant.

Because he could not defend himself, he was forced into an act of self-amputation; an act that – seen from a certain angle – is perhaps the most horrific of this whole tale.

Things that can't be said or thought within a relationship/marriage.

The marriage becomes a normalising structure, marking out a safe area within which we can live. Each keeps tabs on the other to make sure that they aren't straying too far from safe ground.

But the structure cannot stop us dreaming; it cannot halt the flow of fantasy. We see what happens when fantasy enters the marriage, when messy, foreign madness is brought into the home, muddying the carpet and disrespecting the rules.

The question is: will fantasy be allowed in here? Will we open our door to it, or will we turn our back on it; deny it, or vilify it? Does fantasy have a place within our safe structure? Perhaps we made it too safe, too secure. Or perhaps we were wrong to build it in the first place.

"We should be grateful that we've managed to survive our dreams [...] The important thing is, we're awake now."

And so, we're back to normal. We're both back on safe ground, and let's put an end to our dreaming. It was too messy, too painful.

Frozen in time

The marriage begins with an image - the wedding photo - and asks the couple to remain faithful to this image. It asks them to keep smiling, to maintain harmony.

But perhaps the marriage needs to be able to allow other images within its borders; images of tears, and bared-teeth; of dreams, mistakes, regrets.

In asking its participants to stick to a single image it does not allow them to be fully human, condemning them to the immovability of rigor-mortis. Its foundational image is two-dimensional; pathology free, all smiles and great expectations. But if we decide that pathology is an important aspect of flourishing - an aspect of a balance - then it must be let in.

In this case, the mark of the strong marriage is its ability to adapt to changing waters, to allow the roiling seas as well as the calm lake.

[…] if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness

How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together […]

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 338

The general lack of experience of pain of both kinds and the relative rarity of the sight of anyone who is suffering have an important consequence: pain is now hated much more than was the case formerly: one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one considers the existence of the mere thought of pain scarcely endurable and turns it into a reproach against the whole of existence.

The emergence of pessimistic philosophies is by no means a sign of great and terrible misery. No, these question marks about the value of all life are put up in ages in which the refinement and alleviation of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malignant and one is so poor in real experiences of pain that one would like to consider painful general ideas as suffering of the first order.

There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophers and the excessive sensitivity that seems to me the real “misery of the present age" - but this recipe may sound too cruel and might itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge that "existence is something evil." 

Well, the recipe against this "misery" is: misery.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 48

A system's functional efficiency is often related to its integration. The system is called stable if it returns to or fluctuates minimally around a constant value. Stability is usually inversely related to integration, that is, to the stringency of the structural bonding. 

For the most part, the more flexible the coupling between the subsystems, the greater the overall system's stability. Usually, too, the more homogeneous the environment in which the system is located, the more stable the system. Greater variety of internal couplings as well as a larger number of such couplings also tends to increase stability.

The Great Lakes ecosystem is a good example of a stable system, one that also illustrates the fact that very stable systems, when perturbed, may be unable to survive. Because flora and fauna in freshwater aquatic systems are fairly homogeneous and the water tempers extreme climatic fluctuations, lakes are characteristically stable ecosystems. 

They may be stable, but they are not resilient. 

Fish stocks are often quickly decimated when the lake's ecological balance is perturbed. Resilience is "the ability of the system to absorb changes ... and still persist". A system can be quite resilient yet unstable if it persists as that (kind of) system despite wide fluctuations. 

Resilient systems are able to modify their specific structure so as to ensure the adaptability and survival of their overall organization. Insects and viruses are remarkably resilient: they can mutate dramatically and so persist. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.111

Within quantum field theory, both particles of matter, like the electron and proton, and the quanta of energy such as a photon of light, appear as vibrations of quantum fields.

But what is particularly interesting about the field is that its lowest energy state, called the ground state or vacuum state, is the state of total emptiness, the quantum void, for within this state no excitations exist.

One would expect the vacuum state to be empty of all vibrations and all energy. But paradoxically this absolute zero of the quantum world is totally full of energy. It is packed with an infinity of energy, so that there is more energy within this tiny dot of the vacuum state than in the whole observable universe!

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.194

The aggressive fantasies which are so characteristic of early childhood and which, if they are still active in adult life, cause such distress to kindly characters who would in reality not harm a fly, remain in this primitive form because the person concerned has also remained childish, and has never been able to utilize the aggressive energy which would have become available to him if it had not been disowned at an early stage in his development.

It can regularly be demonstrated that, in their daily relationships with each other, such people are too compliant, too yielding, too submissive.

The aggressive energy which is locked up their symptoms is actually energy which should be finding expression in life; and which would contribute to the achievement of a more adult attitude if it were allowed to do so.

The more submissive the patient is in reality, the more aggressive will he be in dream and fantasy: the more he is able to make adult relationships on equal terms, the more will the infantile, pathological, and un-acceptable aspects of his aggressiveness disappear.

[Anthony Storr]
The Integrity of the Personality, p.136

Complex systems operate under conditions far from equilibrium. There has to be a constant flow of energy to maintain the organisation of the system and to ensure its survival. 

Equilibrium is another word for death.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.4

I think ecological tax reform is an extremely important first step that we could as a society, in theory, take. And by that I mean that we attempt to move toward what I would call full social cost pricing of our goods and services.

Right now, almost everything we consume is produced at less than the true costs because we're allowed to pollute, we're damaging the ecosystems, we're changing the climate. All the climate damage costs are really the costs of production that have not been included in the prices of goods and services.

We are embedded in a culture that has a set of beliefs, values, assumptions, and narratives that have largely been socially constructed during an era of abundance. You and I have lived through an era of unprecedented abundance during which a whole set of completely unrealistic and false assumption didn't matter. Even if they were wrong, it didn't matter.

To make matters worse, we've spread this set of beliefs, values, and assumptions to the entire world. So we've created a set of human expectations that they too can follow in these trends. By the way, they feel absolutely that they have the right to do so and condemn us for not allowing them to do so.

[William Rees]
‘William E. Rees: "The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot" | The Great Simplification #53’, Nate Hagens, YouTube

To live in love and peace is one of the outstanding contradictions that Christianity has imposed on its followers, an ideal impossible and unnatural. Since Romanticism, artists and intellectuals have complained about the church’s sex rules, but these are just one small part of the Christian war with pagan nature.

Only a saint could sustain the Christian code of love. And saints are ruthless in their exclusions: they must shut out an enormous amount of reality, the reality of sexual personae and the reality of nature. Love for all means coldness to something or someone. Even Jesus, let us recall, was unnecessarily rude to his mother at Cana.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.18

[The murder of the scapegoat] is the secret origin of all religious and political institutions, and is remembered and transfigured in the form of myth.

The scapegoat, perceived as the primal source of conflict and disorder, had to die for there to be peace. By violence, violence was brought to an end and society was born. But because society rests on the belief in its own order and justice, the founding act of violence must be concealed—by the myth that the slain victim was really guilty.

That is how things used to work. But we now live in a world where the cat is out of the bag, at least to the extent that we know that the scapegoat really is not as guilty as the persecuting community claims. Because the smooth functioning of human culture depended on a lack of understanding of this truth of human culture, the archaic rituals will no longer work for the modern world.

The unveiling of the mythical past opens toward a future in which we no longer believe in any of the myths; in a dramatic rupture with the past, they will have been deconstructed and thereby discredited. But unlike Hegel, our knowledge of our hidden history—of the “things hidden since the foundation of the world”—does not automatically bring about a glorious final synthesis.

Because these founding myths also served the critical role of distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate violence, their unraveling may deprive humanity of the efficacious functioning of the limited and sacred violence it needed to protect itself from unlimited and desacralized violence.

From a Girardian perspective, the current political debates remain inadequate for the contemporary world situation to the extent that, across the spectrum, there remains a denial of the founding role of the violence caused by human mimesis and, therefore, a systematic underestimation of the scope of apocalyptic violence.

One may define a “liberal” as someone who knows nothing of the past and of this history of violence, and still holds to the Enlightenment view of the natural goodness of humanity. And one may define a “conservative” as someone who knows nothing of the future and of the global world that is destined to be, and therefore still believes that the nation-state or other institutions rooted in sacred violence can contain unlimited human violence.

The word that best describes this unbounded, apocalyptic violence is “terrorism.”

[Peter Thiel]
‘The Straussian Moment’

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