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Logic of Modernity pt 2
Structured Oppositional Processing
I have been attempting to clarify for myself a concise description of the abstract operational principle that empowers modernity. This is my test case for a more general attempt to decode so-called epistemes, social stages, vMemes, paradigms or cultural operating systems. However I do not want to fall into the trap of simply critiquing the political habits of capitalism. To use the language of “integral theory” I require a description of systems that operates subjectively, intersubjectively and objectively.
In today’s attempt I will call it structured oppositional processing.
What does that mean?
Very generally, it signifies a system whose meta-stable operations involve a structure of two conventional opposing forces in competitive interaction. How does that look in the different facets or dimensions of modernity?
Consider the question of “enlightenment reasoning.”
The French philosopher Rene Descartes, who became internationalized (dis-identified with his ethnocentric identity as a Frenchman) during his years abroad as a soldier, is famous for giving us two essential tools for comprehending the methodology of modernity: cogito & graph.
The phrase cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am — is profound and brilliant. It resembles many forms of Eastern mysticism in which existence and consciousness are convergent at their most basic level. However it has its own distinct flavor that results in it being used to describe the assertive individualism of an ostensibly rational thinker. It is premised upon a particular style of self-reflection. Descartes says that we cannot wholly trust any form of observation aside from self-observation. Rather than simply embodying the relationship between Observed & Observer, he places them together and uses this structure as the basis of his new stability. He establishes (or inwardly institutionalizes) a flowing loop between two conventional opposites. This forms the “individual” who does the “reasoning.”
Descartes also empowers human civilization with the famous system of a two-coordinate graph. The X and Y axis! The basic oppositional forces of the Vertical & Horizontal are brought together in a single structure that opens a new plane for visualizing and calculating the trends and trajectories of phenomena that will underpin countless scientific and technological projects.
Is that not interestingly similar the system of Prosecutor & Defense Attorney that is near the heart of modern jurisprudence? The standard adversarial relationship is structured or institutionalized in a stable manner that leads to numerous improved outcomes.
The two most common forms of modern government — constitutional monarchy & corporate-representational pseudo-majoritarian democracy — gravitate toward duopolistic two-party contests. Despite the technical presence of multiple parties, the actual power system almost always coheres in two major parties or coalitions who trade official legislative control back and forth. The British phrase “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” springs to mind. Both these Left-and-Right Wings maintain a general liberal-modern governing consensus concerning military and economic matters and a joint tendency to market themselves to the electorate in the guise of competing traditional or progressive rhetoric. Competitive oppositionality is structured as the stable, basic element. And we should not think of this merely as the layout of the legislatures but also as the pattern of moral self-identification distributed through the general public.
In my previous article on the Logic of Modernity, I discussed the “18th century perpetual motion machine” of modernist economics. The point was, roughly, that the same mechanical logic applied by early modern inventors can be seen in the emergent habits of global capital. The machine is set going by an initial imbalance that is trying to be corrected. In the process there are a series of flows that can be harvested in order to do work or gain wealth.
It is not unlike building a water wheel to harvest the differential between upstream & downstream. Or, indeed, the basic modern discovery of how to exploit the electrical flow between a positive & negative terminal.
An imbalance of resources, well-being, fairness or unsatisfied desire is what sets in motion the flows of social currency that are skimmed from profit. The structure of the oppositionality of Scarcity & Plenty or Desire & Satisfaction is a recurrent, relatively stable feature of modern economics. While this has the upside of enable all kinds of resource gains for people it also hits a wall defined by what is kept external to the structure AND by the necessity of re-establishing imbalanced, unsatisfied conditions.
Public-private partnerships, supported by symbolically-opposed political centrists on “both sides” arranged to enable mass-level rebalancing flows that can be profitably skimmed, using electrical and mechanical devices — as any stable, reasoning individual can plainly see!
I am being somewhat jocular in my attempt to suggest how all these variants of meta-stable structured oppositional processing work together in a shared modernity. We could add the seminal modern distinction between Church & State. We could point to how the privileged friction between two primary ethnicities (black & white) has dominated the modern American conversation and served the interests of “both” parties. Or how the question of China is just the latest in a centuries-old pattern of constant recalibration of East & West hemispheres.
A little more, a little less. This is oppositional processing. It is very powerful in terms of the control it can give us over the world, masses of people, idea, the future. However it’s power comes at a dangerous price. It can hold itself entrenched and inhibit the progress of systemic updates that may be necessary in order to deal with externalites, new knowledge, black swans & accumulating crisis. It also is incentivized to parasitize itself (i.e. “corruption” or what Fukuyama calls “political decay”). The functions of modernity slowly unravel and oppositional processing becomes destablizing competition between various modern institutions and interests. Liberal modernists, including their conservative variant, have a very hard time recognizing this process because they are embedded within it — not available to inspect it as an object of consciousness.
This degenerative destabilization, inevitably accompanied by resurgent signs of a pre-modern social ethos, is exacerbated during shocks (from the things modernity did not prepare for) unless they are mitigated by sufficient progressive moral and economic programs of some kind.
Although the project of clarifying an underlying logic for both progressive & premodern cultural operating systems remains to be done, we can see a plausible argument for structured oppositional processing (or perhaps “institutionalized dualism”) as a description of a generative principle found in the personal, philosophical, cultural, technological, political and economic dimensions of the modern system that has dominated since the 17th century.