I wanted to make some notes to myself on John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine. I’ve gotten pretty used to using my Kindle to highlight the important bits of what I’ve been reading, so having to return a physical book to a library feels like more of a loss these days, and I want to at least capture the arc of its argument for myself.
Going mostly from memory, with chapter titles as prompts:
- Relativity: Deleting the omphalos
The “omphalos” is a pillar or anchor for a culture, something so central that it works as a reference point for everything else. Relativity established that in physics, there is no such thing as an objective frame of reference, location, movement, etc, can all be defined only in reference to arbitrary points. This is a major blow to the idea of an objective, understandable universe, as in a very real way, nothing can be described purely objectively.
- Modernism: The shock of the new
At the same time that physics is erasing the omphalos of objectivity, Modernism in art is tackling something similar. Cubism is erasing the objectivity of the author by compressing multiple perspectives onto a single canvas. Duchamp (or probably Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven) are provoking fights over whether anything can objectively be called art. Joyce and Eliot are creating literature that embodies multiple perspectives in single works, in multifaceted, unpredictable ways. As with physics, the single, fixed perspective is seen as inadequate to describe/portray reality.
- War: Hoist that rag
The horrors of the first world war shatter the illusion that the leadership of empires know what they’re doing. While democratization was already in process and would still proceed in fits and starts, this is a death knell for the idea of monarchy (a single, hereditary line of leadership) as omphalos, as well as illustrating the danger of nationalism subsuming individual identities.
- Individualism: Do what thou wilt
With so many anchor points already removed, what’s left? Individualism. Like Descartes arriving at the self as the only objective truth, figures like Ayn Rand and Alistair Crowley preach the gospel of individualism. In that world view, culture has no fixed truth, just the interests of every person as a world unto themselves.
- The Id: Under the paving stones, the beach
But even the foundation of individualism is flawed, as psychoanalysis shows that we don’t even know ourselves. We are dominated by impulses that are necessarily invisible to us, and that don’t obey the laws of civilization. Surrealists tried to tap into this for artistic purposes, despots manipulated society’s id into acts of genocide; without the omphalos of older times to act as ego, the id runs unchecked.
- Uncertainty: We search for new omphalos, but in vain. In math, it’s proven that no system of logic can be complete, provable, and internally consistent. In physics, there are limits to what we can know built into the structure of reality. There is randomness inherent in the universe. Complete, objective knowledge is fundamentally impossible.
- Science Fiction: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
I think the argument here was that sci-fi is a reflection of a society’s aspirations, and the sci-fi of the 20th century was obsessed with individualism, and especially Campbelll’s monomyth: a special, chosen figure on a hero’s journey. The cultural dominance of Star Wsrs shows the resonance of this idea. On the other hand, by the early 20th century, different visions of storytelling, more reflective of multiple perspectives, are rising, and maybe a sign that individualism’s rule is waning.
- Nihilism: I stick my neck out for nobody
The quote is from Casablanca, seen as a metaphor for America in WWII, going from self-interested isolationism to the realization that there are things worth fighting for. The chapter is more on existentialism than nihilism, but in any case, a reaction to the idea that everything is meaningless. Not by denying it, but by embracing the freedom to make our own meanings, to revel in the absurdity of it all.
- Space: We came in peace for all mankind
A conflicted portrait of the space race, and the figures involved, like von Braun and his willingness to commit atrocities if it meant advancing a rocket program, or the Crowley-aligned fanaticism of Jack Parsons, not to mention the government’s portrayal of the space race as a humanitarian cause despite its obvious military motivations. But: the view from space also helped erase some individualist ideas by showing the connectedness and frailty of our planet. “In the twentieth century mankind went to the moon and in doing so they discovered the earth.”
- Sex: Nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)
This is the point where I really started to lose the thread of the book as a single narrative of the 20th century and not just a list of interesting things that happened. It talks about birth control, sexuality in literature, feminism, the acceptance of sex as a part of life, the objectification that was still rampant in a lot of so-called progressive movements… too many themes for me to reduce to a single through-line.
- Teenagers: Wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom
Mostly on rock ‘n’ roll and the hedonism it inspired, the Keith Richards quote “we had to do what we wanted to do”. An interesting insight on how “the day the music died” cleared the way for a new generation to move the music forward without the baggage of elder statesmen. The main idea seems to be on how the teenage stage involves an embrae of individualism to an extent that can seem unhealthy, but is necessary to become a functioning adult, part of an argument that the 20th century may represent just such a teenage period for humanity.
- Chaos: A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo
Chaos theory is discovered, showing that small discrepancies lead to massive changes. Fractals are discovered, showing that infinite complexity can exist within simple formulas. Strange attractors mean that systems gravitate towards certain stable states, but what can make them flip is unpredictable. The question emerges: if all that is true, then why does order dominate? Why does the environment seem to self-regulate? The Gaia hypothesis emerges, seeing the world a s a single entity, not conscious, but able through its many complex systems to sustain itself. A view of the earth that’s also reflected in the complex, conflicting beliefs of modern paganism, and that runs counter to the omphalos of Christianity.
- Growth: Today’s investor does not profit from yesterday’s growth
A whole lot going on in this chapter. The ideal of unfettered economic growth and its consequences for the environment. Corporations as exempt from the cycle of life and death that is supposed to keep a check on unfettered growth, something more like a cancer. The belief that, for the sake of economic growth, everything must be owned, including rainwater in Bolivia. Neoliberalism and its ties to excessive individualism of the Randian sort. “Ideology beat science. Individualism beat environmentalism.”
- Postmodernism: I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here
The ultimate relativity of everything, after all omphalos have been destroyed. But the chapter also has a pretty cynical view of postmodernism, citing the Sokal hoax as essentially an excuse for everyone to admit that, even if it has a core of truth, most of post-modernism is gibberish. The worry is that in throwing out postmodernism, we lose the insights that led to it; it’s an attempt to grapple with the relativity of everything that was demonstrated in science, art, and culture.
- Network: A planet of individuals
If the 20th century was our teenage period, or a period of deconstruction from our previous (false) omphalos, with an overadjustment into id and individualism, what comes next? The power of the network. Everything is still fragmented and individual, but the network provides context. There’s a poorly defined but promising sort of collectivity involved. “The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. Hold tight.”
Given that it was published in 2016, I wonder if Higgs’ optimism about the network still holds. Enthusiasm for the utopian internet was already waning by that point, but it’s almost nonexistent in 2021.
Still, I like the main thrust of the book, the 20th century as a period of decentering, and finding out what happens when what we thought was core to our society is no longer generally accepted. The teenage century seems like a pretty accurate description, and while a lot of traits established in teenagerhood do tend to live on in the adult, they’re hopefully moderated and channeled in productive ways. It’s a way to look at that century more optimistically, even if there’s a strong risk we won’t outgrow it before it’s too late.