The Peculiar Nihilism of the Scientific Will to Abstraction, or Towards a Knowledge of What's There

Just look at tea and coffee in situ. Smell it, too. Are we sure can extract one element, caffeine, and draw conclusions about the drinks and their caffeine? They look so different, taste so different, feel so different. Aren't such things constitutive of knowledge, too? Whence this will to abstraction?
Tea, they tell us, has less caffeine than coffee. I have no reason to doubt this. The presumption of this fact is that if I want to feel the effects of caffeine less adamantly, I should drink tea. This makes perfect sense: have less of the thing. At the risk of articulating the painfully obvious, this assumes that it's the quantity of this one element — in this case, caffeine — that matters.

But when I, a coffee drinker, opt for black tea, I get jittery. My hands shake just a bit as I lean forward in my chair, tap my foot, get a bit nervous — all signs of too much caffeine. And yet when I drink a cup of coffee that has twice as much caffeine, I feel fine. No, I take that back: I feel good.

It's not just the caffeine, then, that's affecting me. It's this caffeine, not that caffeine. Which suggests that there is not just one caffeine. That caffeine, in fact, is an element within a calculus. That perhaps, just perhaps, there really is no such thing as caffeine per se. That caffeine is a form within a form — there's coffee-caffeine, tea-caffeine, NoDoz-caffeine. And it's its place, function, behavior within that form that matters.

Science is funny. We believe it heeds what's there. But its definition of what's there involves effacing and ignoring what is, in fact, there. Science is not empirical. It is not based in experience, in the actual doings of this life. It's dedicated to not heeding experience, to not heeding what's there, so that it can discover abstract truths that exceed and determine experience. To wit, it finds this certain shape and behavior of some form that's in tea, coffee, chocolate and declares it one thing — caffeine.

Such is the basis of its methodology. It creates a lab removed from experience, removed from the conditions of life, so as to discover the presumed truths of life. Science, I have to say, is nihilistic: it thinks truth is what happens in a vacuum, in a place that can't possibly exist anywhere in the world. To it, truth is the state of things stripped of life.

How did we ever come to believe that this is the place where we learn the truth of things? Where we learn about the respective experiences of coffee and tea?
This seems more like the proper place to understand coffee and tea.
What's particularly odd is that after establishing knowledge outside of life, we then draw conclusions about how we should behave in this life. Get jitters from coffee? Try tea instead; it's got less caffeine. But this advice about our worldly experience is based on an abstraction from the world, from behavior, based on a fact derived from a no place, a vacuum, from plants and beans sans their worldly accoutrements.

How could any empirical scientist make judgements about tea and coffee without talking about tea and coffee? Tea is so thin, astringent; coffee, so viscous, dark, and luscious. One comes from these impossibly delicate, tiny leaves; the other, from a hearty bean. But to the scientist, these facts are not facts that matter; they're in fact obstacles to knowledge. For science, to know the world is to remove the world from the equation as much as possible. That's an odd will — and even odder method to derive knowledge!

Just look! They're so different. How could any knowledge of these things ignore these differences?
Is there really such as a thing as caffeine? Sure, there seems to be something there; scientists didn't just make it up. And when I drink tea and coffee, I note a similar effect. But similarity isn't equivalence. It's a note within a symphony. Or, even more, the very way of caffeine is determined by its environments as much that environment is determined by caffeine. Which is to say, it's not just a note — A major — that can be plopped down in any song (of course, my A major, Miles Davis' A major, and Michael Stipe's A major are all different, as well — so perhaps there's no such thing per se as a note, either: every note is always expressed and, as such, is never an abstraction). Its very constitution, its very way of going, is how it goes here, now, in this way, with these things, in this situation, this environment.

And this difference, these differences, are constitutive of knowledge. The shape of the leaves, the texture of the beverage, the smell, intensity, feel: these are not ornaments. They're not clothes added to bodies nor bodies added to souls. They are constitutive of the experience, inflecting everything around them — and vice versa. They are the stuff of knowledge.

What makes them tricky is that they can't be so readily quantified. They are qualities, as sensuous as they are affective. And the reigning scientific method disdains the body, disdains experience, disdains quality. Bodies just get in the way.

Science, then, is not opposed to religion. On the contrary, as Nietzsche argues, science and religion share a certain ressentiment, a nihilist will to efface the flesh in order to reveal  truth. Science finds bodily experience icky. It wants elements it can measure and weigh. Once quality enters the equation, it's no longer a matter for science. It becomes the stuff of art, of poetry, of private reverie. And, just like that, droves of essential data are brushed aside as extraneous. Our systems of knowledge, like our religions, leave life out of their equations.

Of course, when we're talking about coffee and tea, such a will to abstraction seems relatively innocuous, a matter of a few jitters here and there. But unfortunately this will to abstraction has strange and unsettling effects that pervade our pedagogy and policy. One conspicuous area affected that I've written much about is the pedagogy of writing. Students learn the definitions of words and the rules of grammar but never the sense of either. Like scientists in their labs studying tea and coffee, writing teachers too often brush aside the affective particularity of words, grammatical structures, and punctuation. As Lohren Green, writer of Poetical Dictionary, writes: 

Rather than parsing sense from the word and uniformly imposing accuracy, clarity, concision, and simplicity, we sought to express each word’s unique sense, and to do so we relied on a different, more protean standard. Of course, here too (even especially here) there is room for error. Perhaps foreplay doesn’t go far enough; perhaps clumsy is too intentional, and poise leans, just slightly, forward. These are the things that keep the Editor of a Poetical Dictionary up at night. There is, after all, no privileged access to the being of words, but only sometimes a happy moment in which they can be found to declare themselves a very particular (or very universal) this.

As I write in my book, Reading the Way of Things, what's so powerful about Green's approach is that this sense is not an abandonment of knowing but, on the contrary, marks it embracing: But this is not an abandonment of knowledge claims, as if poetry were ornament that came after the fact, a trope upon the foundation of literal language. Green’s claim is at once supremely bold and absolutely humble. His book supersedes the traditional dictionary, tending to meaning but including the affect of the word. Affect, for Green, is knowledge that neither impedes nor adorns meaning. A word has a way of going that is simultaneously conceptual and affective. As Green embraces affect as knowledge, knowledge becomes uncertain, unprovable: there is room for error here. But this does not make it any less knowledge.

And then there's medicine. I've never had a doctor — an MD, that is — who heeded my symptoms as part and parcel of this body living this life. Any symptom I have is isolated from my living body and assessed next to other symptoms gathered from other people — which, as our data sets grow to include billions of people, makes the experience of this skinny hebe less and less relevant.

And so when I get the blood test results from my yearly physical, the software system of my health care provider — I use the term "health care" generously — automatically generates an email. Some number enters its system and I get: You are pre-diabetic. Read this PDF. Your have Stage 1 Chronic Kidney Disease. Read about ways you can change your behavior. You're due for an HIV test.

No doubt, a certain number on a blood test result may very well mean I have these diseases. And it may be time for an HIV test. Or it may just be some numbers on a screen and the better way to assess me is to put those numbers into a living system, namely, me-in-the-world. This guy, right here. See? 

My doctor never even touches me. I am a series of numbers on a screen to her; each number inaugurates a fork in a decision tree. This decision tree is on WebMD. So why am I paying $700 a month for health insurance? What does this doctor actually do? When medicine stops reading this body here, it ceases to be of much value to this body here. Sure, it has some value. But to understand that abstraction in relationship to this body here and now demands a skill that is simply not taught, is not privileged, is not even considered within the practice of medicine.

What do I want from doctor? I want the methodology Green deploys in his Poetical Dictionary: a reckoning of what's there — a there that's at once particular and general, affective and conceptual. I am not suggesting that knowledge only heed the moment as the moment, the body as a unique site from which all knowledge should be garnered. That'd be absurd. What I am saying is that each body is a particular way of metabolizing the world, a how and not just a what. And while this how can't be quantified, it does not mean it shouldn't be included in our knowledge base. 

I am not suggesting that knowledge of caffiene needs to begin with every cup of coffee or tea. I am suggesting, however, that the respective bodies of coffee  and tea — bean, leaf,  hue, texture, tone, taste, and tenor — are constitutive of the knowledge of caffeine. That, in fact, to ignore such things is bad science, bad knowledge, as it ignores what's there! And so it is with my body in the doctor's office.

Or take the THC in sativa and indica buds. The scientific community poo poos the anecdotal distinction — sativa is heady and up; indica is body and down — based on the fact that in the lab it all looks the same. And yet the plants grow differently, look different, taste different. Why is that not relevant? Why is the experience of millions of consumers not constitutive of knowledge? Why is what's there not considered?

Scientific abstraction, like the religious asceticism it echoes, wreaks havoc — on my nerves, my health, and my high, not to mention on the education, health, and high of the planet. This is all to say, that I'd like to imagine a different mode of scientific knowledge which involves different modes of knowing — poetic, shamanistic, gonzo — that reckon all that's there — the touch, tone, taste, tenor, timbre of things both visible and not.


Plugged, Unplugged: Conflicting Mythoi

When my son was around 10 (he's now 16), he started a YouTube channel dedicated to aliens and the ensuing cover up(s) by various governments. I like that he had this concerted focus, all these folders which he labeled, all these diagrams (at 16, he knows no such order, or focus, any more). But I was confused by his desire to have a YouTube channel. Where'd he even come up with such a thing?

At the time, he was watching lots of YouTube videos, sure, but it was one that seized his imagination: PewDiePie. I have no desire to get into the saga around this guy. My point is: my son was attracted to the number of followers and views this channel had. And, of course, by the money this PewDiePie earned from Google. Both views and money were staggering. Frankly, while I was a bit intrigued, I was mostly confused — and bored by it all. And so I didn't think about my boy's desire again.

And then he and I both started using Spotify. We have vastly different tastes in music but we still swap songs, trying to impress or engage the other, to read the other's taste (a great exercise in reading another's way in the world). One thing my son often comments on is the number of streams a given song has. 27 million streams, Dad? That's the real thing.

These comments threw me off. I come from a culture where it was cool to find and be obsessed with the band that had, like, seven listeners. If something was popular, it became hard to like — and it surely meant you had to defend it. Oh, I liked Dire Straits way before "Brothers in Arms." The drive of my cultural cohorts was to be plugged into an alternate world, one where capitalism and suburban bourgeois bullshit was not the dominant force. I can still picture driving across the country and continuously turning that radio dial ever so finely down the left side, seeking out those obscure college stations that played the songs no one knew. We were literally trying to tune into an obscure cultural flow.

That's just not the case with the kids today. They're all about plugging into the vast interconnected engine of commerce, taste, and collective discourse. To wit, my kid recently decided he wanted a polo shirt. This struck me as funny as that's what preppies wore when I was in middle school in the early 80s, collar up. So I bought him one — sans logo. He thanked me, of course, then went out and bought one with the Polo logo on it. Silly dad.

At first, I was deeply dismayed by all this. Here's this cool kid — quirky, funny, interesting — trying to plug into what I've always deemed the wasteland of culture, its vapid tastse, its mindless consumption, its utter banality. Don't you want the band no one has heard? I'd ask. He'd just look at me blankly across a vast generational chasm.

But then I realized that it's me who's lost his way as I find myself adrift in a mythos that's become obsolete. I come from a world that believes in an outside — outside the humdrum of bourgeois life, of capitalist drive, of the steady machinic drone. I am perhaps the last vestige of a world that can still imagine being unplugged, that aspires to be unplugged. When I close my eyes and picture peace come at least, I am Neo waking up in his pod, all those wires flying from his flesh in a great violent release.


I still revere Terence McKenna who wants nothing more than to break the reigns of culture with psychedelics. I still revere William Burroughs and the Beats who set up camp in North Africa to escape the madness of America. I still dream of Ginsberg and Kerouac careening through the same America in search of sex and drugs and near-God experiences, free of any tethers. I still love Jean-Luc Godard who never caved to any studio and David Lynch who tried but, alas, gave up to do his own thing. None of my close friends have any online presence. I alone remain the idiot in the crew who tweets and blogs, much to my embarrassment. Here's McKenna summarizing this world view:

“We have to create culture, don't watch TV, don't read magazines, don't even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told 'no', we're unimportant, we're peripheral. 'Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.' And then you're a player, you don't want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world."

But that world is gone. There is no longer any outside. There's nowhere to go. Everything is plugged into one big matrix, the singularity, the heaving hive of human consciousness in which thought is controlled and surveilled at all times. Yes, psychedelics are back in vogue but they serve a vastly different function, a different imagination. If for Mckenna (and me) psychedelics are a radical break with the culture machine, today they're viewed as a means to "boost" creativity, focus, and that horror of the contemporary moment, productivity. Rather than being a way to untether, psychedelics have become a way to jack in all the better, all the more efficiently — to be an engineer of the culture machine just like Steve Jobs.

The kids these days never even consider an outside, never dream of being unplugged. On the contrary, they want their own YouTube channel! They want to wear the clothes, photograph themselves, then post it so everyone can see how plugged in they are. Browse Tinder and a shocking number of young people just want you to follow them on Instagram. They're not looking for dates, for company, or even for money: they want those likes and followers to quantify how plugged in they are.

If it were all about getting paid, I'd readily understand. I've never been part of a cultural imagination free of monetary concerns. No, I understand wanting to get paid — but so that I can unplug! So that I can stop interacting with all this nonsense, this noise, these screens, these ads, all this inanity, all this bile, all these great TV shows, all these decisions, all these frets and pleasures and pains. I don't want to browse Netflix, Hulu, and Prime for another fucking second. I don't want the relative sanity of Kanopy or the Criterion Channel which just add to the mayhem. I want to be free of it all! I want quiet! I want never to see that glow of blue light again!

I grew up with Timothy Leary in my ear telling me to turn on, tune in, drop out. That falls on deaf ears today. In Williamsburg, there's a billboard declaring the new triple dictum: Live. Work. Create. The youth today yearn for participation in the engine — to work for the big brands or start their own. But it never occurs to them to drop out. Drop out from what? To where? This is an image that they can't imagine. They want to work.

I remember when Burning Man was all the buzz with my San Francisco friends. It was early internet days, maybe 1999. And while I had no interest in going — I'm a bit agoraphobic and misanthropic — I loved that it existed. Here, it seemed to me, was an extension of the mythos I'd grown up with, the myth of the outside.

Watching its growth over the years, I have a different take on it now. It was always a bit of the Carnivalesque in the Mikhail Bakhtin's sense of the word. Burning Man was a temporary overthrow of the reigning order, the introduction of play and chaos into the normal run of things. And like the Carnival of old, this was never intended to be revolutionary per se. Rather, Carnival functions as a temporary respite from the everyday not so as to overturn it but to restore it: we'll break the rules today so we can go back to the order of things.

Today, Burning Man is not about an outside and less about Carnival's temporary reversal of order than it is about the techno-colonization of the planet. If at one point Black Rock City was an outside, a remote place of freedom, today it's proof that we can wire anything anywhere, turn it into a gridded city, light it up, plug it into the internetworked matrix. Just look.

The mesh network of of Burning Man, proof that we can techno-colonize anywhere and everywhere — even this remote, unlivable part of the desert. If people like me and my contemporaries want to imagine Burning Man as outside the machine, the reality is it's just the opposite: it's the plugging in of every last square inch.

Mind you, despite my tone of anger and despair, I am not criticizing this new will to be plugged in. In fact, I'm more prone to critique my own imagination which is premised on a faulty, if seductive, metaphysics. Like McKenna and Leary, I imagine a place free of the bullshit. But we are of bullshit. There is no outside, no Garden of Eden, no unsullied place. The planet has been colonized, everyone jacked in thanks to the ubiquity of the smart phone.

There is no outside anymore. The ubiquity of smart phones has ensured we're all "connected."

The fact is my mythology of an outside has the whiff of nihilism — a will to the deep sleep. This desire to stop playing the game is actually a bit adolescent, a kind of tantrum in the face of reality. And while there is something depressing to me about these kids — about my kid — who want nothing more than to be jacked in, they live in the world as it is. The trick, for them, is not to escape the hegemony of the techno-global culture machine but to game it, to find their way in it, through it, to maximize their pleasure and reward (even if many of their attempts at pleasure are ill conceived).

In any case, once I recognized this dramatic shift in cultural mythos, in generational imaginations, it helped me understand my son and his cultural taste. Which made me realize how much of our conversations — political, economic, existential — are premised on how we imagine the world, what our mythos of the good life is, what challenges we believe exist.

As parents hailing from Gen X, we crave unplugging. But our kids live in a different world, a different imagination, in which our admonishments are, well, demented. Our kids are trying to create a good life within the machine precisely because there is no such thing as being unplugged. Think of what we tell our kids: Stop looking at your screens and go outside! But, for them, there is no outside.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...