The problem of abstraction is a perpetual one. We can’t help but abstract, thinking itself would be impossible without it, but despite its tremendous utility, abstraction leads us into trouble when we confuse our abstractions for things themselves. This confusion is an inversion of the hierarchy of being. Abstractions are constructions of our minds. They are therefore less real than things themselves; an org chart is not the organization, an architectural drawing not a building, a forecast not the weather. Intelligent people are particularly susceptible to this error.
There are a slew of examples, some of which we recognize as obviously bad, consider the moral approbation given today to stereotyping or the criticism levelled at war-leaders who mistake their battle plans for the fighting itself, cf. the subjects of Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.
There seem to be two levels of this inversion. The first is the epistemic level. We mistake the model for reality, and thus misjudge our circumstances, miss out on what’s really happening because it doesn’t conform to the model. There’s no danger of a German counter-offensive in the Ardennes, because their forces must be exhausted and the Ardennes have been marked as a quiet sector. Obviously, this can lead to disaster.
Far more insidious, however, is when the inversion fully takes hold, when it becomes not merely a failure to see things as they actually are but when the recognition that things do not conform to the model hardens into a decision that they must be made to conform. Like Procrustes, the adherents of the model chop, stretch, or otherwise torture the real so that it “fits.” Of course, human beings with all their terrible freedom are generally the most difficult things to model, thus most often the subject of this torture. And, of course, it never actually works, because humans simply cannot be reduced to variables on a spreadsheet.
In technical organization, this attempt at reduction often takes the form of transforming men into machines and punishing them when they don’t act as such:
The operational accident occurs where man fails to function as a human machine, where he no longer acts in accord with the automatic mechanism he is operating. The operational accident, in other words, occurs precisely where we are human, where we try to assert our independence of the machine, be it by lack of attention, fatigue, sleep, or preoccupation with non-mechanical things. It is in such moments of human weakness that the suppressed elemental forces break loose, get out of control, and wreak their vengeance by destroying both the operator and his machine. The law, now in the service of the technical organization, punishes the negligent operator for his failure to control his automaton with automatic regularity. – Friedrich Georg Jünger, The Failure of Technology*
The technological mindset Jünger critiques is, at heart, nothing but this inversion enacted en masse and unleashed to consume the world. It is also why the mindset is doomed to fail in its triumph. Technology is supposed to free us by allowing us to dominate nature, but where did we get the conceit that we existed independent of nature, that technological organization would somehow stop when it came to managing human beings? Of course it doesn’t, it can’t, but man is not an object, some gear that can be slot into a machine, and thus the all-consuming advance of the technological can only proceed by denuding him of the qualities that make him human. Man can only be freed by technology, therefore, in so far as he stops being a man.
More Jünger, “The mechanization of life is the mill which grinds the individual down into atomized masses.” Without other selves, we have no self. Our being is established in communion, but this communion must be dissolved in order for the technological to triumph. Hence, the terrible atomization and alienation of the present moment.
I’m starting to wander a little bit. This is the post that I’d mentioned I’ve been banging my head against for a few days. My mind pulls me in two different directions of exploration, the first into broader historical and philosophical considerations, how this emphasis on modeling and the technological emerges out of the epistemic crises following the Reformation, particularly the science envy that has so effectively destroyed philosophy, or at least reduced the bulk of it to mere squabbling around the edges of things. The second is into specific examples of how the confusion I’ve detailed manifests in the release of forces which oppose the modelers, the way in which the Procrustean mindset generates its own enemies, whether primal in the shape of famines that devastate agricultural planners or profoundly human, as in how the model of an extremist leads to the FBI goading impressionable fools to engage in acts of terror or, and this was the key example that I wanted to really talk about (because I don’t want to only heap blame on the moderns), how the Church created in their opposition to the Cathars a counter-church that could only be expunged by hideously destructive warfare.
But, I’ve run out of time, run out of energy, and my thoughts remain stubbornly incoherent. So this is where we’ll leave it for today.
*What Jünger observes here is really quite radical. It’s worth considering just how pervasive the attitude described here is and its tremendous cost in blood.