Deflation of human agency


One of the premier Art Deco buildings in London, the famed Senate House (above) keeps resonating in my mind every time I wander in it. Especially overnight.
Vastly different in concept but equally capable of impressing with its geometry, the Brutalist masterpiece by Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower: below) gives a sort of shock on its first appearance.

Trellick Tower was an ideal-typical realization of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” concept but in “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick placed Alex and his comrades in one of Britain’s most notorious environments, Tavy Bridge area of Thamesmead South: in the Brutalist architecture Kubrick sensed the scary vibrations coming from Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. Who was right?

Norbert Wiener said that the fundamental assumption of 1930 dictatorships rested on a conceptual fallacy, i.e. the misrepresentation of the human nervous system:

[the] aspiration of the fascists for a human state based on the model of the ant results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man. […]. The human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. […] Those who would organize us according to permanent individual functions and permanent human restrictions condemn the human race to move at much less than half speed.
( The Human Use of Human Beings, pg.51-2)

Both the modernist utopia of the Swiss architect and the dystopia hinted at by Wiener rested on the same assumption: life is path-dependent, human being is intrinsically plastic, and can be cast in various shapes. In  “Variation of Animals and Plants” (1871),

Darwin had already found that the brains of hares and rabbits that grew up confined in boring hutches were 15 to 30 percent smaller than those of their wild counterparts. Conversely,  when animals are placed in an “enriched environment,” a large enclosure full of objects that are renewed each day and in which they can play with one another, their brains grow and develop more synapses. Children who are seriously neglected during their early development also have smaller brains […]; their intelligence and linguistic and fine motor control are permanently impaired, and they are impulsive and hyperactive.  (D. Swaab, “We are our brains”, 2014)

The question at stake in the dilemma above is really the interplay of freedom and necessity. This is the message that resonates from the Senate House and the Trellick Tower. We cannot escape this message:  we can only hope to be able to stand their presence, to endure their shadow.

The organization of society implied by those massive structures is a reminder that man is a social animal, thriving in the social organization of labor. At the same time their very conceptual and physical presence deflates human agency to the level of the ant: which corresponds in material terms to the epistemological pessimism of Dostoevsky’s “Great Inquisitor”, when he assumes that the elite has to control the common man as he is not able to discern good from evil for himself. Christ gave men liberty out of a misplaced thrust, the Inquisitor’s stance reads.

Truth is that today we cannot do without the towers and what they represent. We have to inhabit these imposing concrete islands. We have to pass through them, to rise to their level if we want to face our time. But we have to accomplish that without losing the touch with our uniqueness of human beings. We do not want to relinquish Enlightenment’s epistemological optimism, lest we end in Great Inquisitor’s trap.

There is no room to regress to previous modes of social interaction. We have to struggle for “the human use of human beings” while inhabiting the many towers of Modern times.

Ascesa & Declino: “All that is solid melts into air”

panorama 002

In his marvelous study of modernism All that is solid melts into air, Marshall Berman claims there is an idea which the human civilization owes to the Germans: the idea that economic development and human expansion are one and the same phenomenon. Quoting him:

“In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personalities must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change: not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively to seek them out and carry them through.
They must learn not to long nostalgically for the “fixed, fast-frozen relationships” of the real or fantasized past, but to delight in mobility, to thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments in their conditions of life and their relations with their fellow men.
Marx absorbs this developmental ideal from the German humanist culture of his youth, from the thought of Goethe and Schiller and their romantic successors. This theme and its development […]
may be Germany’s deepest and most lasting contribution to world culture” (see ASMA, pgg 95-96)

Take Italy. The time of Fellini & Antonioni, Burri & Fontana was the time of Natta pioneering plastic, Ferrari & Alfa Romeo triumphing in international car contexts, Olivetti inventing arguably history first PC, Piaggio building Vespa. In Pisa, the strongest PDE school in Europe was being created under the auspices of Ennio De Giorgi (of Hilbert XIX problem’s memory). In Milan, Berio & Maderna with the Studio di Fonologia Musicale were actively advancing the frontier of 12 notes agenda.

One must then be grateful to Emanuele Felice for his wonderful book on Italian Economic History (“Ascesa e Declino”, Il Mulino, 2015): a story that appears to reinforce the point raised by Berman. This article is a quantitative summary.
Italy had given birth to the modern world with Renaissance, and its lead went as far as Galileo, having progressed through the likes of Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo and Machiavelli (admittedly without cuckoo clocks). A remark is appropriate here, as the book is a bit reticent about the decline in the XVII century. One should not indulge in the idealistic fallacy of attributing that decline to whoever ordered to burn people at the stake for their ideas (although that did not help, of course): Cipolla (see: The Decline of Italy: The Case of a Fully Matured Economy) is exhaustive, here. Responsible for the collapse were economic causes, not encrusted geocentric ideologies.

Italy resurfaced from that ordeal  only at the beginning of XX century, had another dip into troubled waters under Mussolini and really took off after 1945. That was the time where we were strong again, leaders in the visual arts & cinema, strong in science, big in design.

Cultures and civilizations evolve, they are living systems: it is a delusion to think scarcity and material privation can engender systems of thoughts, scientific revolutions, deep art.

This is not an input-output analysis, for exceptions, i.e .heroes or geniuses capable of penetrating the core of the problem from afar, do exist: take Dostoevsky, thinking about the dissolution of the Western-christian Weltanschauung from the midst of S. Petersburg, or Kafka, perceiving the fall of Europe from the backwater of Prague.

But Marx needed the British Museum (i.e. London) to write ‘Das Kapital’. Late XIX Wien was the center of Europe when Freud, Schönberg, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Musil and Mach were destroying every gradualist & deterministic conceptual foundation for XX century man and woman.

That was the center of the economy: hence of culture.
The rest is backwardness: hence –with Gramsci-  folklore (pgg. 626 ff).

Are we serious when we think we can escape this mirroring?

Dialectic of the Enlightenment?


Syncretism is the true currency of our time. Living in London, this is more than an erudite remark, is an everyday experience, as this photo taken in a massive technology store in central London shows.

The old complain by Carl Sagan that we have built a society increasingly dependent on science and technology and less and less (on average) productively engaged with them (given declining STEM in the West), can be coupled to the point raised by late Eric Hobsbawm regarding the ubiquity of diametrically different Weltanschauungen.

Granted, Enlightenment is no guarantee of civilization, as Adorno and Horkheimer perceptively noticed: Buchenwald was only few kilometers from Weimar and great metaphysicists were spelling oaths to Hitler in their University Rector’s speech in Freiburg, Baden 1933.

Still, one does not feel at ease with the above photo: premodern habits of male-female interaction coupled with the differential geometry of Google maps in the background. Something is clearly not working here.

“Any metaphysics is ethnocentrism in disguise”, someone would probably counter, “astrology is as good as astronomy”, and “homeopathy can  be given money from the government, as long as people like it”.

Against the above noise stemming from poor understanding of what gives the modern world its foundation, one is left pondering whether the last argument in favor of science, rationality and hard facts must be based on pure taste: whoever fails to notice a contradiction in the photo above seems to have no sense of proportions, seems to lack the intellectual rigor coming from the very foundation of our world, i.e. Science.

“It is not important what we cover, but what you discover” (Victor Weisskopf)

Otium, in ancient Roman time, was the time productively spent pursuing the agenda of your personal growth – be it the cultivation of your garden or the virtuous studium of arts & science. This concept was clearly coming from the greek “paideia”: in XIX century’s Germany it will be given a new incarnation in Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s foundation of the modern University.

It is easily forgotten that, when one attends a research seminar, one is simply following on the footsteps of that venerable tradition.

A good metric for the rationality of a social system could in principle be based on what is the ratio of aggregate time spent by the economic agents in jobs perceived as conducive to personal growth as opposed to jobs perceived as mere toil.

The (social) target function to minimize would then involve not the time spent on the job market, but the toil itself, something Keynes was hinting at in his famous piece on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930).
Clearly a necessary condition for that is again and again that technology reaches a stage where all the toil is left to automata. The Human Use of Human Beings is just that.

Anthrax, strychnine and the fallacy of Antigone’s argument

One should feel grateful to Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver for this wonderful video, detailing the main points of friction between the full materialism of contemporary biology and the hidden resurgence of metaphysical thinking sub specie of the idea of “nature”.

The video is very inspirational, especially in this present time of engineering the human race. His passing remark about Reprogenetics is quite appropriate (see this MIT tech review sample). Since quite some time, the Italian Roberto Marchesini is advancing on a parallel front, trying to define the contours of a posthuman existence. See here.


The reference to Antigone in my title, much as in my other post, is then polemic: her “unwritten laws” are a mark of conservation, a sign of fear. The famous comment Heidegger gave to “The Ode of Man” must then be investigated in the same vein.

Recursion: Cortázar and Antonioni


Continuity of the Parks, by Julio Cortázar

He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, its back toward the door–even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it–he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful, panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even to those caresses which writhed about the lover’s body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it; they sketched abominably the fame of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over reexamination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.

Not looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running, her hair loosened and flying. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until, in the yellowish fog of dusk, he could distinguish the avenue of trees which led up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there. He went up the three porch steps and entered. The woman’s words reached him over a thudding of blood in his ears: first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first room, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the knife in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.