JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS

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WE CONTROL NATURE for societal reasons. The control of nature advances with our ability to predict the outcome of natural processes. Inasmuch as predictions are but explanations in reverse, it is possible that they will be quite as combative as explanations. Indeed, prediction is the most highly developed skill of the Master Player, for without it control of an opponent is all the more difficult. I t follows that our domination of nature is meant to achieve not certain natural outcomes, but certain societal outcomes.

A small group of physicists, using calculations of the highest known abstraction, uncovered a predictable sequence of subatomic reactions that led directly to the construction of a thermonuclear bomb. It is true that the successful detonation of the bomb proved the predictions of the physicists, but it is also true that we did not explode the bomb to prove them correct; we exploded it to control the behavior of millions of persons and to bring our relations with them to a certain closure.

What this example shows is not that we can exercise power over nature, but that our attempt to do so masks our desire for power over each other. This raises a question as to the cultural consequences of abandoning the strategy of power in our attitude toward nature.

Just as nature has no outside, it has no inside. It is not divided within itself and cannot therefore be used for or against itself. There is no inherent opposition of the living and the nonliving within nature; neither is more or less natural than the other. The use of agricultural poisons, for example, will surely kill selected organisms; it will arrest the spontaneity of living entities-but it is not an unnatural act. Nature has not been changed. All that changes is the way we discipline ourselves to consist with natural order.

Our freedom in relation to nature is not the freedom to change nature; it is not the possession of power over natural phenomena. It is the freedom to change ourselves. We are perfectly free to design a culture that will turn on the awareness that vitality cannot be given but only found, that the given patterns of spontaneity in nature are not only to be respected, but to be celebrated.

Although “natural order” is the common expression, it has something of a veiling quality about it. More properly speaking, it is not the order of nature but its irreducible spontaneity with which we find ourselves contending. That nature has no outside, and no inside, that it suffers no opposition to itself, that it is not moved by unnatural influence, is not the expression of an order so much as it is the display of a perfect indifference on nature’s part to all matters cultural.

Nature’s source of movement is always from within itself; indeed it is itself. And it is radically distinct from our own source of movement. This is not to say that, possessing no order, nature is chaotic. It is neither chaotic nor ordered. Chaos and order describe the cultural experience of nature the degree to which nature’s indifferent spontaneity seems to agree with our current manner of cultural self-control. A hurricane, or a plague, or the overpopulation of the earth will seem chaotic to those whose cultural expectations are damaged by them and orderly to those whose expectations have been confirmed by them.

The paradox in our relation to nature is that the more deeply a culture respects the indifference of nature, the more creatively it will call upon its own spontaneity in response. The more clearly we remind ourselves that we can have no unnatural influence on nature, the more our culture will embody a freedom to embrace surprise and unpredictability.

Human freedom is not a freedom over nature; it is the freedom to be natural, that is, to answer to the spontaneity of nature with our own spontaneity. Though we are free to be natural, we are not free by nature; we are free by culture, by history.

The contradiction in our relation to nature is that the more vigorously we attempt to force its agreement with our own designs the more subject we are to its indifference, the more vulnerable to its unseeing forces. The more power we exercise over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months we can cut down a rain forest that took tens of thousands of years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the desert that takes its place. And the desert, of course, is no less natural than the forest.

Such contradiction is most obvious in the matter of machinery. We make use of machines to increase our power, and therefore our control, over natural phenomena. By exerting themselves no more than is necessary to operate fingertip controls, a team of workers can cut six-lane highways through mountains and dense forest, or fill in wetlands to build shopping malls.

While a machine greatly aids the operator in such tasks, it also disciplines its operator. As the machine might be considered the extended arms and legs of the worker, the worker might be considered an extension of the machine. All machines, and especially very complicated machines, require operators to place themselves in a provided location and to perform functions mechanically adapted to the functions of the machine. To use the machine for control is to be controlled by the machine.

To operate a machine one must operate like a machine. Using a machine to do what we cannot do, we find we must do what the machine does.

Machines do not, of course, make us into machines when we operate them; we make ourselves into machinery in order to op~rate them. Machinery does not steal our spontaneity from us; we set it aside ourselves, we deny our originality. There is no style in operating a machine. The more efficient the machine, the more it either limits or absorbs our uniqueness into its operation.

Indeed, we come to think that the style of operation does not belong to the operator at all, but is inherent in the machine. Advertisers and manufacturers speak of their products as though they have designed style into them. Most consumer products are “styled” inasmuch as they actually standardize the activity or the taste of the consumer. In a perfect contradiction we are urged to buy a “styled” artifact because others are also buying it-that is, we are asked to express our genius by giving up our genius.

Because we make use of machinery in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, we use machines against ourselves.

Machinery is contradictory in another way. Just as we use machinery against ourselves, we also use machinery against itself. A machine is not a way of doing something; it stands in the way of doing something.

When we use machines to achieve whatever it is we desire, we cannot have what we desire until we have finished with the machine, until we can rid ourselves of the mechanical means of reaching our intended outcome. The goal of technology is therefore to eliminate itself, to become silent, invisible, carefree.

We do not purchase an automobile, for example, merely to own some machinery. Indeed, it is not machinery we are buying at all, but what we can have by way of it: a means of rapidly carrying us from one location to another, an object of envy for others, protection from the weather. Similarly, a radio must cease to exist as equipment and become sound. A perfect radio will draw no attention to itself, will make it seem we are in the very presence of the source of its sound. Neither do we watch a movie screen, nor look at television. We look at what is on television, or in the movie, and become annoyed when the equipment intrudes-when the film is unfocused or the picture tube malfunctions.

If indifference to nature leads to the machine, the indifference of nature leads to the garden. All culture has the form of gardening: the encouragement of spontaneity in others by way of one’s own, the respect for source, and the refusal to convert source into resource.

Inasmuch as gardens do not conclude with a harvest and are not played for a certain outcome, one never arrives anywhere with a garden.

A garden is a place where growth is found. It has its own source of change. One does not bring change to a garden, but comes to a garden prepared for change, and therefore prepared to change. It is possible to deal with growth only out of growth. True parents do not see to it that their children grow in a particular way, according to a preferred pattern or scripted stages, but they see to it that they grow with their children. The character of one’s parenting, if it is genuinely dramatic, must be constantly altered from within as the children change from within. So, too, with teaching, or working with, or loving each other.

Nature does not change; it has no inside or outside. It is therefore not possible to travel through it. All travel is therefore change within the traveler, and it is for that reason that travelers are always somewhere else. To travel is to grow.

Since machinery requires force from without, its use always requires a search for consumable power. When we think of nature as resource, it is as a resource for power. As we preoccupy ourselves with machinery, nature is increasingly thought of as a reservoir of needed substances. It is a quantity of materials that exist to be consumed, chiefly in our machines.

Being undivided, nature cannot be used against itself. We do not therefore consume it, or exhaust it. We simply rearrange our societal patterns in a way that reduces our ability to respond creatively to the existing patterns of spontaneity. That is, to use the societal expression, we create waste. Waste, of course, is by no means unnatural. The trash and garbage of a civilization do not befoul nature; they are nature-but in a form society no longer is able to exploit for its own ends.

Society regards its waste as an unfortunate, but necessary, consequence of its activities-what is left when we have made essential societal goods available. But waste is not the result of what we have made. It is what we have made. Waste plutonium is not an indirect consequence of the nuclear industry; it is a product of that industry.

Waste is the antiproperty that becomes the possession of losers. It is the emblem of the untitled.

For the infinite player, seeing as genius, nature is the absolutely unlike. The infinite player recognizes nothing on the face of nature. Nature displays not only its indifference to human existence but its difference as well.

Nature offers no home. Although we become gardeners in response to its indifference, nature does nothing of itself to feed us. In Jewish and Islamic mythology God provided us with a garden but did not, indeed could not, do the gardening for us. It was only a garden because we could respond to it, because we could be responsible for it. Our responsibility lay in noting its variabilities and discrete features. We were to name the animals, separating one from the other. This garden was not a machine-like device automatically providing food for us. Neither were we machine-like, driven from without and destined from within. According to this myth, God did breathe life into us, but in order to continue living we had to do our own breathing.

But responsibility for the garden does not mean that we can make a garden of nature, as though it were a poiema of which we could take possession. A garden is not something we have, over which we stand as gods. A garden is a poiesis, a receptivity to variety, a vision of differences that leads always to a making of differences. The poet joyously suffers the unlike, reduces nothing, explains nothing, possesses nothing.

We stand before genius in silence. We cannot speak it, we can only speak as it. Yet, though I speak as genius, I cannot speak for genius. I cannot give nature a voice in my script. I can not give others a voice in my script-without denying their own source, their originality. To do so is to cease responding to the other, to cease being responsible. No one and nothing belong in my script.

The homelessness of nature, its utter indifference to human existence, disclose to the infinite player that nature is the genius of the dramatic.

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
Read a brief and/or a longer summary here.
Read the whole book here.

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