July 4, 2009

Bigger the Punch I'm Feeling

The idea (roughly) of consilience -- or perhaps I should say the hope of this theory -- is that a defined set of principles underpins and unifies all areas of human knowledge. I have as hard a time agreeing that this can be true as I do agreeing that my siblings and I have the same memories and perceptions of our parents.

And though I am always interested in the discovery of interconnectivity between two things previously seen as disparate (like the genetic overlap of certain mental disorders) I tend to feel unease when these get translated into universals or generalizations about human beings. This is the same unease I feel when people refer to God as a universal "known" while claiming simultaneously that their own perception of or relationship to a god is personal, individual. After watching the Mark Sanford meltdown and the Sarah Palin resignation "speech", this also made me wonder about the toll that the desire for universal applicability or unity, contrasted with the subjective and inconsistent reality of, well, reality, takes on a person, or a collection of people. Because as these recurring meltdowns (personal, political, economic) attest, there is a toll.

Perhaps the feeling of separation from self (expressed by both of these pols, in different ways) is an aspect of our time. In The First Moderns, W.R. Everdell's history of modernism in art, culture and thought (an almost entirely male domain, by his narrow reckoning) he describes this problem of internal division:

"High on the list of the classic complaints of modernity is the one about the failure of integrity of modern life, and particularly of modern lives, fragmented and inharmonious, their activities asynchronous and divided against themselves. The complaint is old and was probably first heard in the 1820's when railway passengers were warned that speeds of twenty miles an hour might ruin their health. At the great World's Fairs of the turn of the century...visitors were warned about the dizzying effects of seeing and doing too much, deranging the senses and bringing on neurasthenia. We call it 'museum fatigue' and do not think of it as being modernist. In the 'post-modern era', in fact, fragmentation of lives has been not only touted as inevitable, but even hailed as a new sort of virtue."

But if personal time/life/activity fragmentation is a modern virtue, then what is consilience? If dissipation is now a goal, then why do people also strive for a unified vision of a god? And if streams of science, from physics to psychology to genetics, are daily revealing that there is overlap and interdependence even among the most complex systems, then why are we simultaneously defining improvement (or modernity) as being about segmenting ourselves and lives into discrete portions?

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