2016/07/02

From Modernity to After-Modernity. (24)





Dear readers I'm really sorry for this late publishing of the last articles in this series.  A software glitch left me stranded in Beijing and I could not find a way to access Blogger. There are 3 more posts to complete the publishing of what I wrote along the last winter. I'll post them weekly as I did in the past.
I wish you all a great summer. I'll be back publishing next November.
Best,
Laodan



5.3.4.3. Numerous contemporary ideas about the future.


People generally agree that modernity has yielded a series of bottlenecks but they widely disagree on their future outcomes for human societies. The range of future possible outcomes varies along the line between the following two extreme beliefs:
  • the belief in technological singularity
  • the belief in the collapse of modern civilization.

 
A. Singularity.
The concept of singularity is rooted in the belief that artificial intelligence is very fast going to surpass human intelligence. That belief is held by widely optimistic scientists who envision an exponential progress in technology that will result in an unlimited increase in artificial intelligence that will soon surpass human intelligence and leave it inexorably behind with no capacity whatsoever to further comprehend what such an artificial intelligence is fostering on humanity. That vision is based on a series of postulates:

  • science will surpass human intelligence and conquer nature. In that vision science has the means to answer any and all constraints that nature puts in the way of human endeavors. All bottlenecks in furthering modernity will thus be answered and surpassed. Some scientists seriously believe in such one way streets to infinity. This non-sense denotes a serious lack of knowledge about sets and systems, that qualifies their belief as sheer hubris.

  • robots powered by such an invincible artificial intelligence are the next logical evolutionary step, after humanity, in the chain of life. Now this entails the belief that robots are a biological extension of humanity which they are definitely not. Artificial intelligence, robotics, biology and genetics are creations of the human mind. But we saw, in Chapter 2. About the formation of consciousness. 2.9. Lessons about the process of consciousness that human thought and actions can’t possibly transgress the boundaries of systemic reality. Hubris is an attitude resulting from an ideological working of the mind that ignores the necessity for human “relative knowledge” to adapt to the “absolute knowledge” of the universe. Western science is grounded in the ideology of atomism. The problem with atomism, when united with the reason at work within capital, is that its temporary success blindfolded humanity to the relative nature of its knowledge while leading it to forget about the absolute knowledge of the universe. In other words knowledge generated in a local context is operational at transforming that same context but such transformations need to remain compatible with the working of the whole. What we are learning today in Late-Modernity, at the price of our societies' collapse, is that the application of relative knowledge, out of the bounds of what is acceptable to the absolute knowledge of the universe, is a deadly proposition”.

  • science and rationalism act in the good of humanity that's why we put our trust in them. This is again an ideological a priori. The fact is that rationalism and science have temporarily resulted in an undeniable success in generating material goods that satisfy human needs and entice consumerist cravings. But the temporary success has come at a price. We start indeed to discover in Late-Modernity that Modernity and capitalism have plagued humanity with a roster of apocalyptic problems. Scientists discover that after passing a certain threshold some of these problems are destroying the habitat of human life. This certainly goes for deforestation, climate change, and the acidification of the oceans that collapse the habitat of species which results in a fast growing number of those species going extinct which has been labeled by some scientists as the onset of the 6th mass extinction.
    It is a well-known fact that the application of science in production has often resulted in side-effects. We have long thought that once scientists became aware of those side-effects they would be able to address them successfully. What we are discovering today is that some problems may eventually grow to such global proportions that nothing can stop them from destroying life’s habitat. But when the habitat of a specie is gone that species goes extinct!

There is an idealism behind those postulates that does not resist the test of common sense knowledge.

Let's first observe that, positing science and rationalism as acting in the good of humanity, is a statement that can't be proved. It is akin to a religious belief. Both beliefs are rooted in some functionality for sure. As I have shown in earlier parts of this book religious belief finds its roots in the function of societal reproduction and rationalism and science find their function in their economic and financial instrumentality for the reason of capital. It was the very material success by the long distance merchants in applying the reason of capital during early modernity that bestowed on it the cult-like belief in its truthfulness. But it’s temporary success was never proof of its validity for eternity. The numerous side-effects that we become aware of in Late-Modernity are proof enough of the non-validity of that cult like belief.

The deeply held belief in the truthfulness of the reason of capital and its functional extension in philosophic rationalism and then science does in no way portend that their application automatically leads to the truth about reality nor to nature's vision of what such a truth might be. By “nature's vision of what such a truth might be” I mean the best possible outcome for the principle of life; something that is self-evident from the perspective of the whole universe but that is out of reach to the particles within its sub-sets.

The principle of life is not at the center of preoccupation of philosophic rationalism and science which act on the deeply held belief, in a mechanistic vision of efficiency in securing positive results, by those who put them in application. Science and rationalism act first and foremost as efficient instruments in securing positive results for those who put them in use but they are no guarantee of optimal outcomes for the principle of life and by extension for humanity. This should definitely put to rest the bogus assumption that science and rationalism act in the good of humanity.

Furthermore if artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and conquer nature how do we know the way artificial intelligence will feel about humanity after having left it so far behind? Let's consider for the sake of argument that the assumption materializes eventually one day in the future. In such a scenario artificial intelligence will be deployed exclusively to activate the robots that act as its functional operators. In other words, following the human model of ever increased complexity, artificial intelligence will act with the sole purpose of pushing further its own limits without regards for the necessity to adapt to systemic reality.

In such a mechanist vision humanity has nothing left to offer and becomes a burden for artificial intelligence and its robot functional operators. At this point the logical conclusion is that for the sake of maximizing its own finality artificial intelligence decides to get rid of humanity or at best, from a human standpoint, to let it rot at the margins of its zone of operation. This is decidedly not something humanity would ever want for itself. If humanity, as a species, was conscious of the possible destination of the path that science and technology are pulling it onto it would without any hint of an hesitation reject such a path. But alas humanity does not seem conscious of this possibility.

Only cult-like believers could make the assumption that science, as the active principle of artificial intelligence, has the means to answer any and all constraints that nature puts in the way of human endeavors and will thus eliminate all bottlenecks in furthering modernity. Human endeavors under modernity have manifestly unleashed severe constraints to the continuing playing of the music, I mean the continuation of life as usual, and there is nothing like a guarantee that science and its application under artificial intelligence would succeed to eliminate those constraints.

There is furthermore the frightening possibility that science and technology could be used, very rationally I might add, as last answers to intractable problems or as answers to the inexistent political will to act to answer these problems. What I mean by this is that some scientists are openly advocating for “terraforming” (1) as an action to counter climate change in the face of political inaction. What they don't mention is the cost of the unintended consequences of such actions that portend the risk to poison to death, entire swaths of land and oceans, even faster than the causes that they initially intent to fight.

We are thus left to question the wisdom of the blind belief in science and artificial intelligence. This brings us to posit the absolute necessity for humanity to act only in light of optimal outcomes for the principle of life and by extension for itself. If such an outcome of human acts is not guaranteed the principle of prudence advocates that those acts should simply be forbidden by societies. This is a question of human responsibility that should be codified as an inescapable moral law to be implemented by all societies on earth. I'm not anti-science. Science, as a mechanic vision of efficiency in securing positive results in the short term, has much to offer to humanity but it has to be restrained by first moral principles that oblige it to confront systemic reality.

From humanity’s perspective as a living species the reproduction of the principle of life in general, the reproduction of the individuals, the reproduction of human societies and the reproduction of species are first moral principles that have to be protected at all costs even at the cost of suppressing scientific endeavor if such endeavor poses a risk of defiance against those first moral principles. It is high time that scientists be put under the supervision of human societies and stark penalties be meted out to those who run counter first moral principles. This for sure will vastly reduce the freedom of scientists. But it is the price imposed by moral first principles in order to confine human endeavors within the realm of systemic reality and thus ensure the reproduction of life. In other words from the standpoint of the human species full individual freedom is guaranteed societal suicide.
Now I understand that, from the perspective of the individual atom, such moral first principles may, in certain ideological contexts, appear as inadmissible infringements on their individual freedom. This begs the following question: what is coming first? Is the individual prime or is the species prime? To give a valid answer to that question we have to frame it in the context of the primacy of the principle of life. When doing that we discover that the principle of life, in sub-sets of the whole, materializes in species. So species are definitely prime and consequently they contain the rules of the game of life by which the individual particles have to be playing.

Ideological visions emanating from the ego, individualism – materialism, are positing that the individual particle is prime. But that so-called primeness relates to its ideological context which is no match for systematic reality. In systemic reality the principle of life is prime and sooner or later biological evolution eliminates anything that goes against that natural rule. This implies that the ideological vision of individualism - materialism may eventually have a successful short run but sooner or later it will be extinguished. The problem for species and particles alike, as we are discovering in Late-Modernity, is that during its short run to fame the ideology may have wrecked a lot of damage which shows us the deep wisdom that is contained in the old animist principle of prudence...


B. Societal Collapse

On the other side of the spectrum, of Late-Modern beliefs about how the bottlenecks of Late-Modernity are going to affect the future outcomes for human societies, lays civilizational collapse. What the proponents of this thesis envision is that those Late-Modern bottlenecks are going to destabilize the complex working of societal systems that will inevitably end in their collapse.

The peak oil community, for example, envisions decreasing volumes of oil extraction after the peak of extraction is reached while demand nevertheless continues to increase. Furthermore the decrease in the volumes of extraction is understood to be accelerating till it becomes anti-economical to continue to pump oil at all. Without cheap energy the powering of the activities of societies comes to a halt and societies simply collapse and disappear, so say peak-oilers and I have to say that they are no dreamers. Many among them are geologists specialized in the geology of oil who worked their whole life in the field. Those people should know what they talk about. Furthermore there is a gradual alignment being observed by international energy agencies behind the positions of peak-oilers. And there is more. The Pentagon, the British and German military, all published internal studies concluding that peak oil is to occur between now and 2020 and that measures are urgently needed to counter its potentially devastating effects. These agencies are walking their talk and investing heavily in alternatives sources of energy.

Peak resources follows the same reasoning as peak-oil. After resources start to peak their extraction decreases till a later point when the remaining resources become simply too expansive to be further exploited. But to keep modernity running we need those resources. There is no possible shortcut here; the decrease in their extraction is going to bring modernity to a standstill.

The same is observed in the climate-change debate. The scientific community in the field of climate and weather research, in near unanimity, alleges that climate change is a reality provoked by human activities that will greatly destabilize human societies in the coming decades and whose effects are going to stay put over many centuries in the future.

The loss of biodiversity is considered a similar threat by the scientific community that is already impacting agricultural outputs and health conditions.

All these crisis potentially share common outcomes in the view of the scientists studying them:

  • destabilization and collapse of societies

  • the survival of populations is at risk and the world population could eventually enter into a free fall

  • the global civilization that was unleashed by Modernity collapses. Now this idea that a civilization grew out of the globalization of Modernity is preposterous. Modernity is a worldview or a belief about the working of reality. It certainly does not have the attributes of a civilization. I defined those concepts of civilization, worldview and culture in the introduction of book 1 with the intention to avoid inducing further confusion. It seems to me that those concepts are too important for the understanding of the working of societies to continue to let them be mishandled. Now having said this what scientists are warning about is that inaction to counter each of those crisis is bringing us closer to societal collapse which could potentially bring down all trace of civilization on earth. And some go as far as saying that the survival of the human species is eventually on the line.

Science and technology are supplying momentarily answers to each of those crisis but, force is to observe that, it is not solving them nor will it be solving them in the future. Each of these crisis is indeed intensifying and each of these Late-Modern crisis is very complex indeed. But, even if all the ramifications of each one of them are not perfectly understood, scientists have nevertheless a good grip on the direction their internal mechanics are driving them forward to. This is why, on a worldwide scale, the great majority of scientists are in agreement on the diagnostic and are launching calls for action. Most of those in the minority are being paid by industrial lobbies that have much to lose from the application of remedies so it is understandable that they would accept to create noise, in order to shatter the impression of near scientific unanimity, in return for immediate material gains.

What is not very well understood is the interactions and feedbacks taking place and due to take place in the future between all these different crisis. What is not difficult to understand is that in those interactions and feedbacks lay possibly many black swans. We have constantly to remember that it all happens in a dynamic framework where many of our actions today will generate outcomes that will manifest years or decades later.

Societies as complex as our Late-Modern societies are like gigantic ships that need a lot of space and a lot of time to make u-turns. The nature of the multiple crisis we face gives us to see that not one u-turn shall be needed but a succession of u-turns in very narrow and shallow waters. Our predicament is furthermore compounded by the fact that the problems are global and so all societies need to make this zig-zag u-turn dance all at once all over the world in the record short time of a few decades at most. Realistically speaking the chances of all this really happening seem very slim indeed.

While I’m not a follower of the rationalist cult the most frightening in my eyes is perhaps that the interactions and feedbacks loops between these different crisis is possibly going to annihilate the credibility of science as a mechanistic vision in the eyes of suffering populations. If this were to take place it would mean the risk of science falling out of history which would push After-Modernity so much further back on the societal evolutionary ladder. As I wrote earlier rationalism and science, contained within the boundaries of systemic reality, are immensely valuable instruments that could help humanity deal with some aspects of its troubled future.

Those 2 visions, singularity and collapse, are the creations of our Western dualism. They are the extremes on the straight line representing the whole range of visions among futurologists and concerned scientists. Any vision out there today takes some aspects of one or of the other of those two extremes running from the promised paradise of scientism to the hell of the annihilation of societies, civilizations and eventually humanity itself.


5.3.4.4. The future is probabilistic

As I already stated earlier the future is not a given. It is the probabilistic natural selection of one variable path among the many present at the bifurcation point from chaos to order. Each of the variable paths present at that point have a decent shot at being the lucky retained one to become the future. So we come to understand that even extremely minuscule forces have the potential to help the selection of one of the variable paths by adding their weight to it in the balancing act of natural selection.

That's where idealist visions of the future take their full dimension in term of their possible impact on the creation of the future. Not only have idealist visions the potential to impact the choice of natural selection at future bifurcation points toward newer forms of order; such idealist visions are primarily impacting our choices in the present and thus shaping the present at the image of our ideals of the future. As Ilya Prigogine stated: “...since no deterministic prediction is likely to be valid, visions of the future -utopian visions- play a very important role in present conduct ” (2).

The future being probabilistic societies have to maximize the probability of generating a future as close as possible to the present dreams of their citizens. The elements I just laid out in my vision about the future are nothing extraordinary; they are not in the domain of the impossible. What fails is the understanding and the political will. It would be relatively easy to generate a future close to the dreams of citizens. But I'm a realist and I know that the establishment has no will to apply dreams or ideals in the present. Now if not applied in the present it is clear that those same dreams will not materialize as per miracle in the future.

Humanity, I mean societally, has at least once taken the shortest and most efficient route toward maximum happiness. This was when the clans instituted the function of men of knowledge, with the arts as its instruments, resulting in the societal evolution towards tribal societies. But since power societies took the helm humanity has been unable to take the shortest and most efficient route to maximum happiness again. Power always behaves as if the wisdom to see the route to the future was weighing less than the weight of immediate material gains. But the fact is that natural evolution always has the last word. It guided the process of biological evolutionary change to this very day and there is nothing to stop it from continuing to do so.

Humanity has now reached an evolutionary threshold of sufficient scientific knowings” from where it could possibly accompany the waves of biological evolutionary changes while guiding societal evolution on the most efficient route toward maximum happiness. Such a feat will not emerge out of the blue for sure. But I'm firmly convinced that the extreme miseries unleashed by the great convergence of Late-Modernity will act as an awakening call on the more sapient among us. This is when by necessity we will re-discover the utility of knowledge in its traditional sense of universal wisdom.

This awakening could be the historical opportunity for humanity, at long last, to size the control of its societal evolutionary route toward maximum happiness. For me the possibility of the idea of something so momentous taking place is worth pushing the dream. Better that than waiting for collapse in any case. Time could very well prove, long after we are all gone, that in term of historical importance the knowledge that is emerging during Late-Modernity is the equivalent of the knowledge that grew clans on the societal path to tribes. A momentous possibility indeed!

I have no way to know for sure if this will materialize in future reality but the very fact to be able to think about the existing potential for humanity to gain the control of its societal evolutionary destiny is something stupendous that I feel must be explored further. It is what gives meaning to life in an age of societal absurdity.


5.3.4.5. The arts as a narrative about life and reality

As I already stated I don't believe in the promised paradise of scientism but I see the clear possibility of societal collapse and even of the extinction of human life. I nevertheless don't feel it is worth spending my time writing about the extinction of human life other than as a reminder of the danger of complacency and inaction.

I'm firmly convinced that in a common dream about the future lays the surest and strongest path toward the shaping of a livable world for our children and grand-children and such a dream should necessarily be accompanied by the codification of “first moral principles” to be implemented by all societies around the world. A common dream about the future and the codification of “first moral principles” these 2 constitute the bedrock of my optimism in the future. Without an optimistic outlook on the future life becomes intolerable indeed.

A common dream and the codification of “first moral principles” is such an optimist outlook on the future that gives humanity a chance and a reason to live and to fight in the present.

My dream about the future relates to the following fields:

  • economically: the satisfaction of the objective needs of all. There are no valid reasons whatsoever to continue accepting this mental flagellation of the justification of hunger and human misery. It is no more than a question of societal and political choices and priorities. I'm not advocating here for a redistribution of incomes that levels social realities to the bottom while generating a gargantuan bureaucracy. I'm advocating a minimum of human decency that should be part of a set of “first moral principles” implemented by all societies on earth. The present discussions, and tests at the local level, of a guaranteed income for all in the form of a negative tax for example could fit the bill. The cost of such an initiative could easily be offset by the elimination of the myriad of tax exemptions and other favorable policies, among other social redistribution schemes, that have ransacked the budgets of public institutions. Monetary creation could also find in the financing of a guaranteed income an ideal instrument of equitable distribution of money creation which today exclusively benefits the banking industry. In conclusion the technical means, to finance the satisfaction of the objective needs of all, exist. What still does not exist is the will to act.

  • socially: every individual, whatever his economic status, should be regarded as equal in front of the law and in front of morality that is integrated as “first principles” into the law. That means that societal rules must be made simple and clear for all to allow for their easy implementation. Such equality before a law that is recognizable in its meaning and thus applicable by all is the best guardian of societal righteousness and equity. This in turn acts as the best promoter of societal enthusiasm which is the highest possible maximizer of societal cohesion.

  • politically: in an age of global interconnectedness through computers and the web the model of Western democracy, that resulted from a chain of centuries of political compromises between clergy, aristocracy and bourgeoisie, that model of democracy is past its useful life. Giving one vote to all adults in an election every four or five years while in the meantime ignoring peoples’ ideas and opinions about what should be done by the societal group on a regular day to day basis; such a model today reeks more about manipulation than about democracy.
    We have the individual smartness and the societal technology to collect the opinions of all citizens on all major decisions to be taken by the societal grouping. There is simply no justification any longer for a political mechanism that dates a few centuries back to serve as a tool of mass manipulation.
    The empowerment of we the people” through a direct consultation mechanism on all decisions considered important for the societal group is sure to act for all individuals alike as an apportioning of real stakes in the societal game which is the condition for citizens to feel societally concerned.
    To gain a maximum of efficiency the execution of the decisions of we the people” have necessarily to be undertaken by a bureaucratic meritocracy that could take advantage of learning from the Chinese experience and knowledge accumulation in the workings of the biggest bureaucracy on earth in conditions of chaos management.

  • artistically: the arts should once again be considered as societal instruments as they always have been along the societal history of humanity. This does in no way imply that the arts have to be put at the service of propaganda or mind manipulation. It simply means that the arts once again are shared by all:
    • visual arts convey visual signs for all to see so that everyone can share the ideas and concepts of the men of societal knowledge about the working of the global reality in which we are such tiny particles. By sharing a common understanding visual arts convey peace in the minds of the individuals
    • music conveys the mood shared by all in societal gatherings. Music predisposes our moods and when shared in a societal environment it unifies the mood of all present and this reinforces the feeling of belonging to the group which ultimately also conveys peace of mind to the individuals which in the last instance is what maximizes societal cohesion.

  • culturally: craving for human dignity, the equality of all before the law, the feeling of being apportioned real stakes in the societal game and the shaping of ideas and moods through the arts; all this is conducive to a level of harmony in societies that predisposes each individual to prioritize societal betterment over his own personal betterment. Personal betterment would indeed be considered as the natural outcome of societal betterment and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the primacy of societal betterment would be counterproductive in terms of creativity or productivity.

  • ethically: to maintain and grow sapience it would be advantageous that societies once again recoursed to the services of its eldest and smartest individuals who have accumulated the highest levels of wisdom among all in the societal group through age long experience. Such a College of Sages would then be best placed to tell the most credible story of the day, to the children and adults alike, about the working of reality that visual artists should be in charge to illustrate. They are also the writers, ultimate interpretors, and guardians of the code of “first moral principles” that act as the moral charter of society which is what forms the side-rail on the bridge to the future protecting the citizens from falling in the absurd.



5.3.4.6. The world’s Late-Modernity & the arts in China

The Western transition to Late-Modernity is well engaged already and the whole world is being sucked in the maelstrom. That countries are willing to adapt, or unwilling to adapt, to this new reality changes nothing. Late-Modernity acts like a gigantic black hole. Nothing can escape being sucked in it.

Meanwhile a country like China only transitioned for real into Modernity round 1980. It was a calculated decision, taken as a self defense stance, against the Western push toward globalization and world domination by Western big capital holders. The Chinese leadership understood at the time that:

  • or China rapidly succeeds to build up as an economic might that can resist the push of Western capital and its institutions of power in order to ensure the survival and thriving of its nation into the future

  • or China can not build up as an economic might to resist that push and in this case the Chinese nation faces the risk of extinction at the hands of the West which would break it into pieces to ease its exploitation by Western capitalist interests

The decision by the Chinese leadership must have been a harrowing process indeed. So much more so that it implied abandoning the traditional principle of prudence that was considered necessary along the whole span of empire in order to protect the survival of the nation from falling into unforecast and destructive side-effects. I have argued this aspect of prudence in the process of societal governance in “4.6.1. Societal reproduction - Individual for change”.

The risks taken in 1980 have obviously paid off. China has grown tremendously economically over the last 30 years and has accumulated the necessary financial means to resist the pressure of the West. This pressure is not gone as we can observe in the South China Sea and on the Southern flank of the Eurasian corridor. But what is reassuring is that China will not again be bullied in unequal treaties as it has been over the last centuries.

Having said that the frenetic rhythm of change has taken a toll in the form of severe air, land, water pollution and a severe choking of societal cohesion. The engineers who form the present leadership are well aware of the toll the economic craze has exacted. They are furthermore also well aware of what I wrote about in “5.3.4.3. Many contemporary ideas about the future”. Proof of their understanding of the severity of the problems the world is facing is seen in their rapid decisions concerning the gradual elimination of the use of coal, their investments in new energies and in new modes of transportation. No other country on earth is acting with the rapidity to adapt to the constraints of climate change, for example, than shown by China.

But the fact of the matter is nevertheless that China is stuck in the quandary of – rapidly pushing Modernity further down the throat of its citizens on one side, – while having to adapt to the destructive effects unleashed by a Western inspired Modernity. There is a contradiction here. You can’t simply continue to push your citizens on the path of Modernity and urbanization while knowing that the world has entered a forced re-balancing enacted by nature or by the Tao. As I wrote here above the transition from Late-Modernity to Early After-Modernity will be a forced transition out of over-population, over-consumerism, and a general absence of prudence in confronting an increased consciousness with the principle of systemic reality.

This is what I wrote in 4.6.1. Societal reproduction - Individual for change: “Being the mother of all necessities societal reproduction makes societies wary of individuals promoting ideas of change which could distract from the need of societal reproduction. So societies unleash a flow of conservation measures to weigh on the individual urge for change by striving to slow and orient change along a manageable path while making extreme change a virtual impossibility.

What we have here is the crystallization of a contradiction in the interaction between the tactical principle of competitive growth and the strategic urge for more complexity. In other words in Modernity:

  • the tactical principle of competitive growth has been privileged for ideological reasons and as a result it has been extracted from the polarity-play competition-cooperation which killed the polarity-play and destabilized the balanced course of evolution.

  • the strategic urge for more complexity has not been accompanied by an equal urge for increased consciousness by the individuals to stabilize higher levels of societal complexity through higher levels of cooperation among themselves.

So Modernity ended up with the tactical principle of competitive growth defeating the strategic urge for more complexity for the only reason of a failure of consciousness by societies, that under pressure from ideological considerations, have pushed knowledge to their margins thus freeing the level playing field to the exclusive use of competing individual atoms and the aberrations that followed.

The quandary for China is at the decision making level for sure but it will also be felt at the level of the peoples’ daily lives. I tried to show the contradiction that decision makers have to juggle with. An even more striking contradiction will inevitably knock the Chinese people to their knees in the not too distant future when economic growth stalls and the economy suffers the ravages of pollution, climate change, an energy crunch, peaking resources, dead oceans, the 6th mass extinction, and so on… And all this will be compounded by a melting societal cohesion that augurs trouble in the street! The Chinese population barely entered Modernity and only took its first bites out of consumerism but it soon will have to face the fact that the dream was merely a mirage.

Chinese artists are in for the same nasty surprise. The opening of the country let them taste Western freedoms and the promises of its artworld. The result was a wild run indeed. Many artists have been aping past and present Western schools. A very short few among them were lured by the Western art market and their names now are synonym with big sale figures that make dream new entrants.

But the fact of the matter is that aping the West resulted in no more than a gigantic cacophony that plunged the minds of all in the deepest of confusions. In “5.1. Clarification on what we call the arts” I wrote the following about this cacophony: Western collectors 30 or 40 years after their selection was realized are now trying to impose their criteria of choice on China’s society. This operation can’t be seen any other wise than as a blatant political interference in China’s cultural affairs. The way the game is being played by these collectors is to impose the idea on Chinese society that the works they bought have attained artistic authority by invoking as proof the high financial valuations they are achieving on the market. First they operated a selection of works at a time when Chinese artists had no notion at all of value. The works they bought were thus dirt cheap and furthermore, even if this was done unconsciously, their selection was made according to Western ideological criteria. Secondly the art market in China was inexistent and to some extent it is still today. So their game consisted in playing their dirt cheap ideologically framed Chinese artworks on the Western art market which till today is largely controlled by Western capital and by Western actors and interveners like art reviewers, art appraisers, auction houses, galleries, museums, and so on…

Confronted with such a market reality Chinese artists understandably obliged in order to make a buck and produced what attracted Western collectors. What attracted Western collectors was what made a splash in the media. So selection criteria overwhelmingly favored works, that were critical of the Chinese authorities or of Chinese culture and, gained the front pages of Western media. Seen from a historical standpoint this shall, without any possible doubt, be remembered as a marginal or anecdotal Western ideological fork on the road of Chinese art that was bought maliciously with Western easy cash. I hope Chinese collectors will have the brains to stay away from these works and make their own selections according to their own criteria. Only Chinese made collections can validly reflect the vibrations of Chinese society. Western established collections can only project the ideological vision of China that their financiers, consciously or unconsciously, want to project.

This example demonstrates that there is no such a thing as an artistic exceptionalism that is valid universally. The world is not the expression of one but of multiple cultures. For centuries Europe got away with the projection of the myth of its own universal exceptionalism. Observing the US it appears that this time is now ending”.

The great majority of Chinese artists are stuck in aping Western Modernism and the more advanced among them are stuck in the nihilism of Postmodernism without understanding that all this is already well passé. Our ship world has already left the harbor of High-Modernity and is navigating in the waters of Late-Modernity. But Chinese artists have had no time to observe the world; all their attention was concentrated on following the extremely rapid changes their society has been undergoing these last 30 years. So their heads have been stuck in the non level playing field of the market of their own country and their eyes and minds are missing the action of the world that will unavoidably reverberate tomorrow in China itself. Only a handful are trying to reconcile what happens in their country with Western Late-Modernity. Those who succeed to reconcile these 2 stories are the effective initiators of Modernism in China.

Thirty Year after the country opened itself to the rest of the world the cultural and artistic scene is in total chaos. The contours of what promises to evolve in twoheavy trends are nevertheless already observable:

  • a play by Western market actors: since the opening of the country some Westerners assembled collections of contemporary Chinese artworks based on Western criteria. The most important among those criteria was the preference given to works expressing disagreement with the country's ways. These collections are presently fetching reasonably high valuations on the Western centric art market and are touring the exhibition circuit trying to push those valuations even higher. But the really interesting gamble is that the Western art world is presently using this reality to try to impose the idea that the works, of the artists represented in these Western assembled collections, are China's most significant contemporary artworks. Wow!

  • Modernism morphs into a revival of traditional Chinese culture: After having been under the spell of Western cultural influence along the last 30 years a revival of Traditional Chinese Culture is slowly emerging that acts as a radical critique of the values of Modernity. It is definitely an antidote to individualism, materialism, consumerism and more particularly the vanity of Western high end fashion. So paradoxically Modernism in China seems to bring the country in an opposite place that it did in the West. It is reintroducing artistic and societal sense which is starting to strengthen China's societal cohesion while in the West Modernism concluded in total confusion and participated in the societal atomization in its Late-Modernity.

These trends, more particularly the 2nd one, are still in their very early stage of emergence. But because of their selection criteria, the works in Western assembled collections appear already out of bounds with the fusion that is taking place between Modernism and traditional Chinese culture. So my bet is that these Western assembled collections will gradually be falling on the way-side of the mainstream Chinese art market and will end up being perceived as historical aberrations as they rightly should be.

But how can Modernism possibly fuse with Chinese traditional Culture?

We have to remember what Modernism was all about. I addressed this question more in detail in book 1. In summary the introduction of the application of rationalism and science in economic production shattered intellectual and cultural certainties. In this particular context Modernism questioned the validity of all past worldviews and after rejecting all of them it postulated that the role of art is to discover the truth at deeper dimensions of reality than the first dimension image that projects on the retina. What distinguishes the approach of Western and Chinese artists in the search of such deeper dimensions is that:

  • while Western artists rejected the past they had nothing to fall back on. As I have shown earlier each paradigm shift in the West took the form of a rupture that erased all traces of the past from the level playing field so that something totally new could take its place: tribal societies / animism transformed into empire / religion and empire / religion morphed into Nation states / Modernity. The rejection of the past, by avant-garde artists in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, was such a rupture with the past understanding of what reality is all about. So a new understanding had inevitably to be created from scratch. But the avant-garde failed in its self assigned mission and so the whole adventure of Modernism in the West concluded in the intellectual confusion that “whatever is art”. After a few decades of this confusion a reaction emerged in the form of Postmodernism. But while its diagnostic of the situation was correct Postmodernism erred in the remedies: – rejection of beauty, – content to be defined by ideation (3). Sadly the remedies of Postmodernism proved to foster nothing else than absurdities and this was directly responsible for an accentuation of the individual’s societal disconnect that ended in societal atomization which is when societies are effectively dead…

  • Modernism in China entered as an outside influence in the form of aping Western Modernism and Postmodernism. Thinking and questioning the past was not really part of the equation. It was more the promise of dollars from Western market participants and the luster of Modernity’s promised consumerism that shined in the minds of Chinese artists. But thinking never really quit the minds of the minority of scholar-artist kinds who were very fast unsatisfied with that whole aping thing. The real turning point or the awakening has to be seen as a reaction to Western arrogance and interference that forged the perception of a need to better understand the origins of China’s culture and civilization. That’s how in China the thinking about Traditional Culture fused with Modernism which resulted in a rejection of the Western model of rupture with the past. And so continuity, in this particular case, is not at all a conservative ideological rejection of Western ways but more an affirmation of the Chinese identity in reaction to Western ideological pressure.

But the tiny minority of artists-scholars who are trying to fuse Modernism with Chinese traditional culture have had no time to observe the rapidly changing geo-political and ecological realities and are thus missing out on the emergence of Late-Modernity in the West. We are confronted to a reality that we observed at play again and again in history. I mean the different levels of an evolutionary process being present simultaneously. Late-Modernity already emerged in the West while some countries still have not entered Modernity at all. In the Meantime China entered High Modernity at the speed of light and only very few of its artists grasped the true nature of Modernism. These same very few have now to come to terms with the reality of Western Late-Modernity that soon enough will put their country and their fellow citizens on notice that the music of Modernity has stopped to play. That’s when the notion of After-Modernity will come knocking on the doors of their minds.

Chinese Late-Modernity, like its present form in the West, will announce a historical shift away from Modernity. But the coming paradigm shift to After-Modernity is going to have far wider and deeper consequences than the ones caused by Modernity that nevertheless shocked the traditional Chinese culture into catatonia. It is urgent that Chinese intellectuals and artists awake to the fate of humanity. We are indeed entering a historical transition of gigantic proportions. Modernity is falling and the seeds of what comes after Modernity are preparing to sprout. This is a process that unfolds over decades but what is important to know is that the process already started.

I wrote the following in “5.2.3.3. The arts at the service of life” that is particularly well adapted to our present times: “ to re-make contact with its natural evolution, biological and societal, it is imperative that humanity catches the genie of egotism, or is it egoism, and imprison the ego in its bottle anew. But the most important lesson that we should never forget again is that human life relies on knowledge to ensure its preservation and knowledge relies on the arts to spread in the minds of all. A society that lost its memory about the role of knowledge and the deep meaning of the arts is a society that is dead and solely continuing to move further under the impact of inertia till it collapses. Late-Modern Western societies are such societies...”. Let’s hope, for the good of humanity, that the Chinese society never forgets about the role of knowledge and the deep meaning of the arts.

Over the span of its history China developed a pragmatic philosophy of life that could be its prime richness going into the future. Lets remember that art should trace the path of the Tao; not only the Tao of mountains but also the Tao of societies. The knowledge about the Tao of life and the Tao of societies should shed some light on what awaits humanity in After-Modernity.

The truthfulness, gained from the knowledge of the tao of life and of societies, will be the most momentous prize come true that Chinese artists could ever be dreaming about. Their success at re-catching that truthfulness will also be the greatest gift of sensicality that they could contribute to all artists around the world.
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Notes.

1. Terraforming: “Terraforming (literally, "Earth-shaping") of a planet, moon, or other body is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life.

2. Prygogyne. In “Beyond Being and Becoming” an interview with Illya Prygogine by Marilyn Berlin Snel in the Magazine NPQ

3. When writing “… while the diagnostic of the situation was correct Postmodernism erred in the remedies: rejection of beauty and content to be defined by ideation” I have in mind Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 book “The Postmodern Condition” which is a diagnostic about the collapse of worldviews in Western societies and the hegemonization of capital whose control of science destroyed philosophy and later financialized the arts out of their societal function.
The reaction of Postmodernism to such a state of affairs was to reject beauty and impose the primacy of ideation in the arts.
But by rejecting beauty Postmodernism was going against the grain of biological and societal evolution which necessarily would leave it as a loser. The primacy of ideation was not necessarily wrong. What was wrong was to fail to grasp that ideation had to be connected to worldviews that Lyotard had diagnosed had collapsed. This intellectual misfiring was responsible for the erring into the absurd.

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