Journalism on Solaris

If I’m capable of summoning the discipline to complete my PhD proposal and application, what I would like to do is to research ethnic and religious identity among Central Asia’s journalists, particularly how these factors shape their approach to reporting news. In my view, journalists comprise a key group of social architects in a society’s self-understanding, as it is as much through media as education, especially mass media, that a population’s self-perception is inculcated and shaped. Therefore, it is of pressing importance to understand how they construe events.

Incidentally, my time here in Kyrgyzstan has been partially spent doing preliminary “research” in the sense of conversations with various colleagues — anthropologists, activists, journalists, and friends — about my topic. Generally-speaking, there’s a lot of interest, in some cases even excitement, about my would-be project, particularly as it encompasses religious studies, regional studies, media studies, epistemology, some psychology, and anthropology. One of the cooler conversations occurred this past weekend during the Kyrgyzstan barcamp with several members and acquaintances of Internews’ Central Asian wing, in particular Nicolay Kolesnikov, a talended videographer with whom I got along very instinctively despite the language barrier (he will be good practice for my Russian once I start learning it). Nicolay was very sharp, as he immediately intuited that what I’m really exploring is whether journalists are objective.

He caught me, so to speak, red handed: when I suggested that journalists, à la Searle or Wittgenstein, are actually in the act of forging a reality out of the clash of their differing narratives, a clash that occurs ironically from their pursuit of ultimate, objective reality — indeed, they are creating an overlay of one reality over the bedrock of another, deeper one — Nicolay whipped out an analogy I didn’t see coming but which got me seriously thinking: “You know who wouldn’t need journalists? The Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar.” According to Nicolay, the Na’vi’s ability to interface with each other, their ecosystem, and even the souls (i.e., minds) of past generations, an ability constituting a combination of racial and geosystematic memory, rendered the problem of subjectivity moot. Theirs is a kind of collective objectivity (or objective collectivity), a unity of perspectives, perhaps in a way that is, at essence, not dissimilar from the Internet.

It was a daring argument, a challenge which, as both an Averroist and Science Fiction fan, I was more than happy to meet: I retorted with my own counter-example, that of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s famed novel, Solaris, and it’s even more famed film version by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, I upped the ante: he wanted to talk about conglomerate unities/pluralistic panpsychisms, but I went straight for the monopsychic jugular vein.

As my readers know all too well by now, I’m fascinated by the philosophical notion of monopsychism, articulated to great effect by Averroes (at a spiritual-cognitive level) and Spinoza (at a pantheistic level), and enticing whiffs of which can be discerned in one of my all-time favorite thinkers, Emerson. Several of my acquaintances around the world also evince monopsychic positions. Three of my favorites: my good friend Hendrik Van Waeg from Brussels envisions the universe as a self-regulating, indeed, self-fate-encoding computer, a kind of digital Lovelockian Gaia on a cosmic scale, in which events work out as they must, either as (semi-consciously) planned or ex post facto assimilated. Or Roman, a new acquaintance of mine here in Kyrgyzstan who works for the media start-up, who believes in a “universal brain” co-extensive with both physical and mental reality. Or finally my grand-parents, who believed in the relationship between God and the individual soul/mind as like that of a ball of copper string.

Why are so many people intrigued by this notion? Among other things, monopsychism and its variants, such as panpsychism, offers what at first seems a viable possibility for finally resolving the subjectivity-objectivity problem. Yet, as alluring as it has been for me, there have been two troubling issues:

(1) Monopsychism offers only a limited form of immortality — namely, the persistence of matter in the least, and in my view, the persistence of mentality, in the form of a ripple-like effect upon matter, at the most. This was, of course, part of the Scholastic criticism of Averroism during the Middle Ages.

(2) Monopsychism is insufficiently metaxalogical, by which I mean it makes God way too immanent, at the expense of Her transcendence — again, this was the underlying element to the charge of atheism raised against Spinoza by the rabbis, and it is something that one of my mentors in Leuven, William Desmond, harps on about modern approaches to God in general.

Neither of these faults have stopped me from becoming something of a monopsychist myself; rather, my own position has been modified so as to make use of the first fault as a kind of argument-by-precedence for immortality as religiously understood — i.e., if matter and perhaps even the neural network of the brain can in some sense persist eternally in physical reality, why can’t there be something spiritually analogous? — and I have tried to solve the latter fault by positing the divine as a kind of authorial mind, thereby preserving the immanent-transcendent distinction/tension (as well as being more consistent with not only my own previous views, but also the descriptions and metaphors of the Baha’i Writings).

However, there is another problem with monopsychism that began to creep up on me as I began to think over Lovelock’s famous Gaia Hypothesis (which, ironically, may or may not be an hypothesis, at least as scientifically understood): even if we posit the entire universe as a massive consciousness, isn’t it still ultimately just one perspective? In a sense, all monopsychism really proposes is a massive (or mass) individual, and as such, this individual, no matter how complex and vast its neurology, i.e., even were its mind comprised of the rotation of galaxies and the quivering of quarks, is still subject to essentially the same informational constraints as a regular human mind. In other words, the monopsyche has a perspective, and therefore, it’s subjective.

Thus came my example of Solaris, a living, thinking planet, one whose internal cognitve integration is even more deep and powerful than that of the Na’vi, and yet it appears incapable of understanding the human beings who are in orbit around it. As I recall, it’s unclear from the original novel whether the simulations (“visitors”) that Solaris generates of the human characters’ deceased loved ones are an act of self-defense, i.e., in the face of what it perceived/experienced as an attack when the humans shot radioactive waves into its core, or an attempt to communicate with the station, or perhaps even, ironically, to study those studying it. Whatever its agenda, once the humans decide that Solaris must be conscious (because, in fact, that’s all they can do, as they cannot scientifically verify the planet’s consciousness — this is the fundamental problem with monopsychist/panpsychist/pantheistic arguments in our empirical era), it becomes clear that what’s at stake in the story is a clash of perspectives, of subjectivities.

The lesson from Solaris: the monopsyche is therefore no solution — indeed, if the Solarian simulations are any testimony, disturbed as they are with regards to their own ontological status, it may even create new problems (are humanity’s thoughts its own, or are we simply the neurological pulses of a universal brain?) Spiritually, monopsychism might be able to massage our epistemological concerns, but in fact, when you pull back the microscope lens far enough, you realize that it cannot fully resolve them.

Nicolay grokked my point and then asked me how I thought we could, as journalists, work toward solving the problem. My thought was (and is) that we need to somehow accept the relativity and then proceed from there: to try to ascetain as accurate an understanding of our own inner worlds, particularly the structure of our identity and the influences upon our cognition — ironically, I’m proposing that we struggle to be independent, objective journalists of ourselves, another paradox I confess — and then admit our perspectives to our audiences, indeed, to each other. From what I can see at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any other way.

How we can calibrate our perspectives and evaluate the data after our admissions? This is a question to which I don’t have an easy answer. Consider: strangely, as a human being I of course do calibrate my own perspective, and I am continually evaluating data, but when I look within to understand this process, I realize that I’m not entirely sure how and by which measures. It’s troubling, because sometimes my evaluations actually turn out “right” in the sense that reality unfolds in a manner seemingly concordant with my assessment. Emerson would suggest that I embrace the world-soul moving through me, that through it I can find the universal, or as Jaspers would put it, the All-Encompassing of final reality. But in fact this embrace, which I do actually engage in, is Kierkegaardian — I’m leaving behind the evidential for the transcendent.

I suppose, then, what I’m proposing is the mystic’s path to journalism. It’s not without its incoherencies or dangers, but not doing it is also dangerous, perhaps more so — that much is clear from the ending of Tarkovsky’s film, when the main character actively chooses to surrender to illusion, in other words, when he chooses to cease struggling with his own perception and succumb to egoism, to imprison himself in solipsism, and to cease transcending the limits of individuality. Oddly enough, he allows himself to be consumed by the monopsyche, rather than to ride it to a higher state of consciousness. It’s a terrible fate to live with only the appearance of facts and never the fact itself, à la Kant. I, at least, would prefer to keep striving, even if I can never get there.

There is, though, one more element that I should address, and that is the nature of God, or in philosophical terminology, the metaxu or ground of being: although as a committed Baha’i, I would not be so bold as to speculate on the divine essence, it would seem that infinitude is the key difference between God and the cosmic monopsyche/panpsyche. Strange as this may sound to say, and as much as it probably contradicts my author analogy, God does not “have” a perspective, nor does God “have” all perspectives; rather, somehow God is perspective, and also beyond it. I don’t really have a strong philosophical or even remotely empirical argument; to the contrary, I’m actually arguing from a kind of logical necessity. Or, if I may quote the Isa Upanishad:

“The Spirit, without moving, is swifter than the mind; the senses cannot reach him: He is ever beyond them. Standing still, he overtakes those who run. To the ocean of his being, the spirit of life leads the streams of action. He moves, and he moves not. He is far, and he is near. He is within all, and he is outside all. Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear. When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?

“The Spirit filled all with his radiance. He is incorporeal and invulnerable, pure and untouched by evil. He is the supreme seer and thinker, immanent and transcendent. He places all things in the path of Eternity. Into deep darkness fall those who follow action. Into deeper darkness fall those who follow knowledge. One is the outcome of knowledge, and another is the outcome of action. Thus have we heard from the ancient sages who explained this truth to us. He who knows both knowledge and action, with action overcomes death and with knowledge reaches immortality. Into deeper darkness fall those who follow the immanent. Into deeper darkness fall those who follow the transcendent. One is the outcome of the transcendent, and another is the outcome of the immanent. Thus have we heard from the ancient sages who explained this truth to us. He who knows both the transcendent and the immanent, with the immanent overcomes death and with the transcendent reaches immortality.”


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