Friday, January 29, 2010

Revolutions and Romanticism

A passage in David A. Bell's The First Total War (Boston: Houghton Miffln, 2007) caught my eye. Reflecting on the growing cosmopolitanism of European society during the eighteenth century, Bell notes: "... commerce was binding the states of Europe more closely to one another. Commodities imported from the Americas and Asia — sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, textiles, spices, precious metals — clogged every port in Europe with heavily laden ships and drove the European economy into unprecedented expansion. Bordeaux alone saw its maritime trade increase sixfold between 1724 and 1789 (most of the cargo moved straight out again to other European destinations). ... The development of commerce was further aided by the slow rise of `cottage industry' — which had transformed half the farmsteads in some areas of France, Britain and the Netherlands into scattered elements of what amounted to a giant, primitive factory." (This is my emphasis).

This sentences sums up quite nicely the reality that factory-industry arises not in metropolitan areas, but on the countryside (as per previous entry). Bell does not directly mention Flanders, the Dutch-speaking Belgian province that was, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary/Napoleon wars in 1792, part of the Austrian empire, and after 1815, was temporarily made a part of the Netherlands (Belgium became an independent kingdom in 1830). However, the Dutch-speaking Flemish areas was where heavy-industry became predominant in the Belgian economy; as in Britain, industrialization took place in these outlying areas, instead of in or near Brussels, a city founded in the tenth century. Belgian Dutch — the Flemish — were also relatively disenfranchised compared to their French-speaking compatriots (the Walloons), who until recently controlled most political power in Belgium.

As Bell notes, the "cottage" manufactories were themselves a kind of loosely-organized factory system. In Britain, due to the abolition of feudal bonds and the apprentice system long before other European states, it was relatively easy to organize these "cottages" into a single factory existing under one roof. A web site devoted to European industrial history, suggests why it is, of all European states, it was Belgium that experienced industrial revolution first, after Britain: "In 1792 the country was conquered by Napoleon. His occupation had a positive effect on the economy: he abolished the old guilds and introduced freedom of trade. At the same time a large new market was opening up in France, not least for coal."

Of course, Belgium was not conquered by Napoleon Bounaparte, in 1792 or ever after. Napoleon was an officer with the Republican army during that time, but did not participate in battles in Austrian Netherlands; it was a Revolutionary army that took over the country that year, and did impose the liberal economic reforms as described in the passage, which led to the rapid industrialization of Belgian almost as soon as the Napoleonic wars concluded in 1815.

In December I referred to the paradox of the division of labour, in which high intellect contributes to the process wherein work itself becomes de-skilled and monotonous. This reduction of work to a dumb mechanical process is just a particular instance of the reality of scientific and Enlightened thought generally, which reveals a natural world denuded of romance and spirituality, in favour of dumb mechanical processes. This is, as I said, behind the inevitable division that exists in industrial societies between bourgeois and proletariat, or management and worker. To get a better sense of how intellectually-addled is factory work, I will refer to a book I read years ago, which quoted an academic who had worked his way through school as employee of a factory. Working on an assembly-line, he said, is comparable to a clerical employee typing out the same page of text, over and over again, for five days a week, for as long as twelve hours per day. The outlook of the proletarian, thus, is radically different from that of a bourgeois, regardless if the worker actually has an income as high or higher than the average white-collar worker. In essence, the worker can gain no inherent reward from his work. Thereby, he gains his identity and meaning from anything other than work. A bourgeois, on the other hand, does have the opportunity to gain intrinsic pleasure from her work. Thus, her identity is wrapped up closely with work.

Most books covering the Napoleonic wars begin with Bounaparte's coup d'etat on the 18th Brumaire, Year 8 of the Revolutionary calendar (November 8, 1799). Bell's work instead covers the years from the Revolution itself in 1789, to the coup ten years later, this to more fully pursue his thesis that the Revolutionary/Napoleonic conflicts were the "first total war." His argument is that, apart from the vast scale of the conflict itself (with battles themselves often numbering more than half a million combatants, when engagements of anywhere near 100,000 were rare before 1790), it was a change in mentality among the French revolutionaries which made the conflicts the Revolution itself engendered, into total war (Bell, FTW, p. 73). Prior to 1789, Bell says, the military was not considered a distinct realm apart from civilian life. The word "civilian" itself, referred in English only to an expert in Roman civil law (Bell, FTW, p. 7). Officers would usually pass seamlessly from military to civilian life, fighting wars (for various militaries) in between service as ministers of the state, being full participants in "society", as well as contributing successfully to arts and letters. The rank and file, meanwhile, were not actively segregated as they are today in "their own communities (military bases), complete with special forms of housing (barracks), a separate education system (military academies and other specialized schools), and even a separate legal system," just as eighteenth-century soldiers were not "conspicuously marked off from civilians by their uniforms" (Bell, FTW, p. 27).

Before the French Revolution, rank and file soldiers usually lived within in their own communities, or when on campaign, were (usually reluctantly) quartered within the civilian population (the obscure third amendment to the U.S. constitution expressly forbids the quartering of soldiers within "any house, without the consent of the owner").

This situation was paradoxical, however. Although there was no conceived opposition between "civilian" and "military" in ancien-regime France, and the rest of Europe, wars themselves rarely ever affected much of the non-combatant population. There were many instances of armies running amok upon civilian populations, of course: this was common in civil conflicts all through history, and it occurred frequently during the seventeenth-century wars of religion (which were often civil wars, as well). But, as Bell notes, during the eighteenth century, even as war itself became progressively more lethal for combatants, attacks on civilian populations actually decreased. As well, codes of honour among the nobles commanding the militaries usually prevented the wholesale slaughter of losing armies by the victors (after all, officers had often previously fought alongside officers they were now fighting against).

The American and French Revolutions firmly established that militaries were under the authority of civilian leadership (temporarily, as it turned out, in the case of France). This began the breach between "civilian" and "military". But this carried its own paradox. For although military personnel were thenceforth deliberately separated from civil society, armies themselves were (as with the Revolutionary levee en masse) vastly expanded to include, in potential, the whole of the adult and male population. Not only this, even those not conscripted to serve in Revolutionary or republican forces, were subjected to aggression and violence on the part of the mass armies. This is the meaning of "total war", according to Bell (a professor at Johns Hopkins university in Baltimore), and it is the reason why, at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, as many as five million Europeans had lost their lives, most of these being direct combatants, but including a far larger proportion of civilians than ever was the case previously.

Reading through Bell's review of the debates and controversies which gave rise, by 1792, to the doctrine of total war, I could not help but to be reminded of Peter Gay's assertion that the original Romanticists did not view themselves as rebels against the Enlightenment, as they are usually considered today. They instead wished to bring advance Reason from its traditional concerns with society and politics, to the realm of the arts, literature, and the psyche itself. In fact, Romanticism and the Enlightenment existed in a figure-and-ground relationship. Romanticism subsisted on the domination and enslavement of nature and natural processes, as occurred through the scientific and industrial revolutions. Enlightened philosophy, at least in its Gallic form, incorporated an ideal of the "natural goodness of man" that has, in fact, no rational basis. There is little to differentiate the chief philosopher of the Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the Swiss Protestant who lived from 1712 to 1778), from any member of the Romantic movement in the post-Revolutionary period, and into the nineteenth century. Rousseau exalted the Noble Savage, while derogating the civilized arts and sciences (including the printing press, the means by which Enlightened ideas were spread throughout Europe).

According to Bell, Rousseau's avid followers during the French revolution were frequently Romanticists, to the point of delusion. Bell writes, "Take, for example, the durable belief that freedom gave `citizen-soldiers' something close to supernatural abilities, despite their lack of experience," (p. 138) and cites Revolutionary deputies and journalists who claimed that, in face of royalist enemies, soldiers of the republic would be immune from gunfire and that would magically gain the power of ten men. Bell writes, "Then there was the curious matter of the pike. As a weapon, it had not featured seriously on western European battlefields for a century. When used to impale the horses of oncoming cavalry, it still had some utility, but for soldiers to rely on it when facing companies of well-trained musketeers was little more than suicide. Nonetheless, the Girondins [radical Revolutionary deputies to the National Convention that ruled France from 1791 to ‘93] had blithely promoted it as the true weapon of free citizens before the war, and its cult continued to flourish even as the Prussians had began their march. In September 1792, the department of the Marne, on the Prussians route to Paris, ordered smiths and locksmiths to abandon all their work in favor of pike making. The sober military engineer Lazare Carnot, a future member of the Committee of Public Safety [which instituted the Reign of Terror in 1793-94], argued for the distribution of pikes to the entire adult population. In a revealing exchange in the Legislative Assembly [which ruled from 1789-91], a deputy criticized Carnot for holding up the pike-bearing Macedonians and Romans as models. ... But another deputy immediately shot back, to huge applause: `If we have not been either Spartans, or Athenians, we should become them.' In 1793, a Revolutionary general would complain that the government had burdened him with no less than `sixty thousand [pikes] that are good for nothing.'" (pp. 138-139)

But, there was a change in intellectual life, which distinguished the Enlightenment philosophy from that of the Romanticists. It was simply due to he French Revolution itself. The plans and schemes proposed by Rousseau and the other philosophes were acknowledged (even by the philosophers themselves) as mere fantasia. It was believed that, perhaps, in a century or so, perhaps as long as two hundred years, humanity would be adequately prepared to live by Reason. As 1789 dawned, no one in France or anywhere else had any idea that, by the end of the year, royal absolutism would be replaced with a constitutional monarchy, let alone that a few years after that, a republic would be declared and Louis XVI and Queen Mary-Antoinette would be put to the guillotine. The fantasy republics envisioned by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Condorcet obviously couldn't measure up to the reality of Revolutionary republicanism.

But, far from ushering in a new age of liberty, the Revolution introduced the Terror (the Marquis du Condorcet lost his life to it in 1794) and total war (which eventually gave rise to Bounaparte). In response, many of the Enlightened turned away from politics entirely, or even embraced reaction — like William Wordsworth, the English poet and radical Whig who embraced the French-Revolutionary cause, only turn away from it during the Reign of Terror, and who, by the time of his death in 1850, was a firm Tory. But, as Peter Gay points out, most Romanticists were not like Wordsworth; to the extent that they did react against the Enlightenment, it was more so out of a recognition that Reason, while necessary, wasn't in itself sufficient to living a full life.

In any case, Romanticism and Utility formed into a Victorian dialectic: as industry and rationality proceeded during the nineteenth century, so too did Western culture become more and more enamoured with romantic concepts — to the point of cliche, by the mid-century. Certainly, Romanticism powerfully informed the radical political movements of the time. The socialist philosophy espoused by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, had as its meta-purpose the expulsion of Romanticist concepts from socialism. Marx and his followers sought to revive the dormant spirit of the Jacobins, the ultra-rationalist Terrorists of what Marx called the "Great French Revolution." It is, on the other hand, not surprising that Marx and Engels — like their erstwhile mentor, Georg Hegel — would promulgate a philosophy of history. The systematic and scientific treatment of the past was another area pioneered by the Enlightenment — in particular by German academics. History, long the only real social-science (in spite of its treatment as an "arts" subject in the English-language curriculum), had brought clarity to the past as never before, or at least since ancient times.

It established the time-line of history as being much older than was previously assumed, just as geology was beginning to prove that the earth simply had to be millions of years old. Before history was developed as a science, the past was a pastiche of legend and fact. Early-modern philosophers neglected history because they recognized how unreliable were accounts of the past. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, along with most others, instead ignored the past and proposed a hypothetical man "in the state of nature", as the starting point of their theories. Otherwise, early-moderns looked to the ancient past, accounts of which in Thucydides and Herodotus were assumed to be accurate.

The narrative of the past proposed by these early scientific historians — that the classical world marked the height of human achievement, the Middle Ages were represented the apex of darkness and superstition, and history ran on a progressive course — have become the common-sense of the educated today. These and other notions of the past have been superseded, or upended entirely, by professional historians. Marx and Engels, as much as Hegel, looked to a philosophy of history as a way to lend meaning to past events, thereby lifting humanity from the realm of dumb mechanical processes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This one's for you, Sceptical Eye

During the Christmas season, one or more of the for-pay cable channels is presented for free, with the hopes of encouraging viewer subscriptions. One of the services on free-preview this week, was a channel that features a "ghost-hunter" reality-programme. I wouldn't have given this much thought, except for the fact that the spot advertising the show was repeated at each commercial break (I was watching a New Year's day marathon of the Office for a few hours yesterday). The ad features the "real" ghost-hunters of the show, apparently being harried and troubled by the ghosts they are looking for. In one sequence, for example, one of the hunters is seen in some kind of structure with a corrugated roof. From within the building, can be heard something or someone brushing across the corrugated metal, while the hunter remarks, "Can you hear something on the roof?" I would say that any programme called Ghost-Hunters will forever be hunting its quarry; for, if these hunters ever "caught" their prey, the news would not be reported on a locally-produced cable programme.

I don't believe in ghosts, of course. But reflecting on the ghost phenomenon, I thought it might be relatively simple to disprove the existence of out-of-body spirits. This can be done by taking the inductive approach. Namely, what is a ghost — what defines it as a phenomena?

A full description can be gleaned from eyewitness accounts of people who profess to have seen ghouls. Based on these, I would say a ghost has the following characteristics. First, it is usually transparent. Which is to say, ghosts have substance, but of a quality that does not completely reflect light. Ghosts have to be substantive, or else they couldn't accomplish the things ghosts are said to: turning off lights, moving furniture, generally causing a racket (poltergeist is German for "noisy ghost"), even appearing in photographs. Ghosts are also observed to speak.

So, at least typically, ghosts are witnessed to be solid, yet are also partially invisible. This transparent quality practically defines photographic phenomena said to depict ghostly beings, for example. If such images were not transparent or even translucent, they wouldn't be identified as ghosts. But, in spite of this apparent solidity, ghosts are also observed to have the characteristics of a gas: walking through walls, disappearing in mid-air, even appearing (in one famous recent photograph) in the midst of a raging fire.

So, ghosts are phenomena that can change elemental states at will, from solid to gas, back to solid again, all without the influence of heat or cold, for example. Ghosts do so without apparently compromising their physical unity. This raises the question as to the molecular structure of ghosts. This must exist, as everything in the universe consists of molecules. Being dead, ghosts presumably have no DNA; their ability to change physical states at will precludes them from being alive in any way understood by biology. How can chemistry explain the anomalous behaviour of ghostly atoms?

Other transparent objects, whether in nature (the membrane of a jelly-fish, for example) or in the human world (glass), are not able to change physical states, unless under extreme cold or heat. They are, as a rule, far tougher as solids than are non-transparent objects. Somehow, ghosts are able to achieve what no other object in the universe can, though.

Perhaps it is that ghosts are neither solid, gaseous or liquid, but a kind of energy — plasma. Ionized energy, the fourth state of matter, has characteristics of the three other states. This would explain a lot about ghosts, except for one thing. Plasma, like all forms of energy, dissipates rapidly when it is not contained naturally or artificially (and, of course, it dissipates eventually in spite of being contained). Stars are plasma, but of course, all stars are in the process of dissipating their energy to the planets that may surround them.

If ghosts consist of plasma, something must keep them integral — a structure or membrane of some kind. Thereby, a least part of the structure of ghosts must be solid; but what happens to this solidity when a ghost walks through a wall? Does it suddenly transform into ionized energy as well? This transformation in a state of matter occurs, as with the theorized ghostly change from solid to gas, regardless of environmental conditions, as well. Not only that, the membrane changes back into a solid once the walking-through-wall part has been carried out, so as to contain the plasma that the ghost consists of. And, once again, such a transformation has never been observed by science.

There is also the fact that ionized matter exists in low concentrations throughout the universe, for plasma to constitute even such a being as a ghost, would require great deal of energy indeed. It would be enough to be measured on commonplace instruments for this purpose. Ghostly concentrations of plasma would also be disruptive of other electrical devices nearby it — this at least, is also described in some ghost testimony. It would make sense. But it ought to be a simple enough matter, going by the proposition that ghosts are concentrated plasma, to attempt to measure ionized energy within an allegedly haunted environment.

There are other characteristics of ghosts which seem abnormal, even disregarding physics and chemistry. Ghosts, for example, are hardly ever described as being naked. It was commonplace at one time for ghosts to be depicted as draped in a white sheet or similar garment (as with the children's comic-book, Casper the Ghost). However, ghosts are more generally said to be attired in the fashions appropriate to their time: perhaps the clothing they were buried in. But, why should ghosts be clothed at all?

Ghosts are, one presumes, the souls of the departed. No theory of the soul, from Plato to the Hindus, proposes that one's clothing is integral to the soul; it is essential at least to the eastern religions, in fact, that the body is not essential to the soul. Surely a departed soul's clothing would not be treated as more essential than his body, but from the testimony of those who have seen ghosts, this appears to be the case. Perhaps this particular difficulty can be overcome by arguing that ghosts are not objects at all, but projections, earthly representations of deceased beings. Spectres are able to go through walls and do other physically impossible things because they are not really there. The ghost appears in clothing because it is merely the image of the soul, not the soul itself. This explanation (if indeed, it has ever been proffered) has its own difficulties. If ghosts are projections from heaven, how are they able to affect the world physically (ie., knocking on walls, turning on lights, etc.)? By what means are these ghostly images projected onto the earthly dimension?

Whatever way one slices it, there are basic difficulties in squaring the phenomenon of ghosts with the nature of physical reality as explained by science; this is according to the testimony of those who are alleged to have seen ghosts. Perhaps ghostly phenomena are indicative of aspects of physical reality that cannot be observed by conventional scientific instruments. But the more probable explanation is the simpler one, that "ghosts" exist not in physical reality, but are projections not of heaven but of the human mind itself.