Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eminence and demise

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

I have been, in one capacity or another, associated to the world of science for about twenty years. In this span of time I have come across all the possible forms of human nastiness hidden behind the pretense of objectivity of the scientific enterprise, and at the same time I have also repeatedly come into contact with the beauty of science itself. It is because of the latter that I am still engaged in this profession, despite the increasingly impossible task of dealing with the first.

"The eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he can hold up progress in his own field."

It is hard to locate the exact source of this much quoted aphorism. Personally, I heard it mentioned for the first time back when I was a young physics student. At that time I heard it attributed to one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Later, I stumbled upon it repeatedly, with various attributions, ranging over a broad spectrum of distinguished representatives of various scientific disciplines. Some may think it is an expression of cynicism, but in fact hardly ever anything more truthful was said about the community of scientists.

Science, by its very own nature, is in the strongest possible terms a denial of any position of power and authority. By definition science is about questioning, about the rigorous scrutiny of all assertions, about skepticism, about bold creativity balanced by the utmost respect for intellectual honesty. In principle, in science there is no room for self aggrandizing fantasies.

In principle... that is the problem. In reality, this truthful spirit of science is continually deceived by the darker side of human nature. Despite all the mechanisms in place in the functioning of the scientific community that are designed to prevent exactly this happening, there is an endless supply of ego-obsessed power-hungry narcissists out there, who would rather run over all established conventions of correct professional behavior in order to reinforce their own feudal power structure.

Unfortunately, in certain fields of science, one such person in a position of power suffices to ruin the whole community, by actively pushing bright young people away from the field, and only tolerating those who readily submit and never dare to challenge the ruler. This can lead easily to disastrous situations by which important opportunities for scientific discoveries are lost, missed or actively prevented, because of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the dominant ruler, who, in his "knows-it-all" self-proclaimed infallibility attitude, will readily dismiss what could have been important directions of development.

Picasso, King of Minotaurs, 1958

A monstrous minotaur trapped in the center of his labyrinth of mirrors, endlessly looking at his own distorted, multiplied, and reflected images, which are all he will ever be able to see. Science, if it ever was of any importance, is reduced to a mere tool of self-affirmation. The key to the scientific spirit is that we do not project our prejudices upon what we are trying to understand. This is impossible for the kind of narcissistic character I am describing. In the way of example, if this "little father of the nation" had not been breaking into a childish tantrum whenever he would hear the word supersymmetry, and if most of the people working in the field for the past twenty years had not been shitting in their pants at the thought of crossing him, we would have had by now a much broader range of possibilities in our models and we would have credible estimates now that the relevant data are coming in. People with reasonable guts are on it now, but it won't make up for all the time lost. Or, if the same person had not been always so frightened at the thought of possibly encountering people who are smarter than he is, we would not have two completely separate branches of the same field that hardly communicate with each other and we would have made a lot more progress much faster.

"Empty space is a place where man wishes to find asylum... In this empty space he wishes to stand outside views, images, and conceptions, outside struggle and existence which has shattered into little pieces like ice that hinders his movements, pushing him in different directions... He seeks spaciousness... he will find a location that is without path..." (Kasimir Malevich)

As anyone who's been reading my blog (or who's been paying attention to what happened in the field) surely knows, I've been locked into an all out war for the past three years. I did not want it. I did not initiate it. I did not even imagine that it could ever happen, but it did, and I have learned the hard way that it is here to stay. It has worn me out, endlessly, transforming my waking hours into an inescapable battlefield and my sleep into a panoply of monsters. And it escalates, continuously, like all the strategies of tension inevitably do. My own existence has indeed been shattered into endless fragments, and I wish I could find a way to step out of all this, into that "empty space" Malevich so powerfully evoked in his paintings, where only beautiful geometry exists, away from all this meaningless struggle. "The location that is without path", without rulers who try to impose on everyone their cheap revelations. I am tired. Tired, exhausted. Tired of having to fight around every single paper, around the fate of every student. Tired of the endless negotiations with conference organizers to avoid direct (and potentially violent) confrontations. Tired of trying to anticipate the next move, or having to respond to the previous one. My mind has stalled, locked in this impossible endless siege, forever balancing a precarious equilibrium over the edge of the abyss in the middle of a raging storm.

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

In a last desperate attempt to set boundaries to the conflict, and to avoid more and more people being unwillingly dragged into the battlefield, I argued, about students and younger people caught in the crossfire, that "it is not just professionally incorrect but profoundly unjust that they should become collateral casualties in this war". There was no answer, but within days a very concrete retaliatory act aimed precisely at those people I was hoping to spare provided an eloquent answer and signaled a further escalation of tension. So, I have no choice but to escalate too, which is what I am presently doing.

Meanwhile, there are journal editors who would not handle my papers for fear of retribution, and others that are so inactive that young collaborators are losing their jobs because of papers being buried for years in the refereeing process. I cannot blame them though for chickening out: I know how impossible a struggle it is to sustain, and I understand very well how others may fear going through it themselves. I would not wish this nightmare upon anybody else. I would have gladly avoided it too, if only I had been given the choice, but not at the cost of having to disappear.

There are conference volumes (for which, incidentally, I did the entire editorial work) in which the official photographs of the event were printed so carefully cut, that neither I nor persons close to me would any longer appear in the same frame with the overlord (I have the originals of the pictures for anyone who cares to compare). I mistakenly thought that only Stalin was in the habit of making people disappear from official photographs, once they had fallen out of grace. From what I hear, at the conferences in the field, where I no longer go, it has become highly undesirable for my name to be publicly pronounced. There is a very interesting book, called "The commissar vanishes" dedicated to the Stalinist art of "removal" of undesired former comrades from all the official records. I could easily write a similar volume: "The collaborator disappears".

The problem is exactly that I did not dutifully disappear when the ruler so wished: in an unexpected act of defiance, I continued to exist. Surprisingly, I am still here, alive and working.

...hija de una voluntad para la que no se conocen palabras de este lado del delirio... (Julio Cortázar, La prosa del observatorio)

Well, if one can really call this working, this desperate rush to fight back on all fronts. It has very little in it left of what I always felt scientific work should be. It has none of the pleasure of savoring the learning of new things, the slow developments of new ideas, the sudden burst into light of unexpected connection, the flash of recognition, none of the exhilarating sense of freedom in thinking about what one likes, in doing what one enjoys doing. There is hardly any room left for that, when one is locked into a fight like this: there is no way one can lower the guard for even a single moment, to create room for oneself to enjoy the peaceful contemplation of a thought. One can only fight on, blow after blow, bloody wound after bloody wound. otra manera, desde otro punto de partida, hacia otra cosa hay que emplumar y lanzar la flecha de la pregunta... [op.cit.]

An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, the Mahatma rightly said, but here it is an impossible lose-lose situation. If I quit the field, he wins. That's what he's been trying to achieve all along over the past three years. Plus, I give up nearly fifteen years invested in this work and I leave behind younger people who have put their trust into the mentoring I promised to offer them, for what it's worth. If I don't give up, the struggle carries on, which is all very well as a political program, but in practice it means he wins also, because he's keeping me prisoner of a defensive structure inside a world of his own creation.

...sus máquinas hicieron frente a un destino impuesto desde fuera, al Pentágono de galaxias y constelaciones colonizando al hombre libre, sus artificios de piedra y bronce fueron las ametralladoras de la verdadera ciencia, la gran respuesta de una imagen total frente a la tiranía de planetas y conjunciones y ascendentes; el hombre Jai Singh, pequeño sultán de un vago reino declinante, hizo frente al dragón de tantos ojos, contestó a la fatalidad inhumana con la provocación del mortal al toro cósmico... [op.cit.]

The only possible future is in the continuation of the present. The only hope is in trying to hold the ground, one day at a time, while slowly trying to explore other less threatening territories, not yet littered with corpses, without the acrid stench of a bloodied battlefield. Holding out, day after day, for as long as it will take for time to run its course, orchestrating eminence's demise (egestatem, potestatem, dissolvit ut glaciem), provided I can survive that long. It already felt like an impossible task to hold out for these past three years. I cannot bear to imagine how this can continue to drag on, day after day, for a decade. My own creativity, not to say anything of general mental well being, has already suffered an enormous amount in getting this far.

...habrá que seguir luchando por lo inmediato, compañero, porque Holderlin ha leído a Marx y no lo olvida; pero lo abierto sigue ahí, pulso de astros y anguilas, anillo de Moebius de una figura del mundo donde la conciliación es posible, donde anverso y reverso cesarán de desgarrarse, donde el hombre podrá ocupar su puesto en esa jubilosa danza que alguna vez llamaremos realidad. [op.cit.]

The struggle carries on, because there is no other choice, really. And in the process of attending to my survival, maybe, just maybe, I can still try to rediscover, once again, what it was really all about, to begin with. What it really meant to do science. I am still hoping to find the door that will lead outside of this impossible situation, and back to that healthier state where science can once again be science, and be filled with pleasure and not with anguish.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

Jaipur, Observatory

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

the challenge of Job

Perhaps Antonio Negri, better than anybody else, is the philosopher who can speak the words of Job in our modern time. The atheist, communist philosopher who spent a good part of his life in jail for crimes he never committed, gives us a compelling reading of the biblical text as a metaphor of labor relations, of relation to power and authority. In Negri's reading Job views God as the Antagonist, as the exercise of an empty and unjust command, as the ultimate abuse of authority, unmitigated by any moral value. In that, he sees the struggle of Job against God as an image of the struggle of labor against capital. At the same time, of course, one reads everywhere in between the lines the more personal suffering of the author at the hands of and unjust and repressive power that locked him away for decades, to eliminate an uncomfortable intellectual presence. Job is "beyond Stakhanov" in surpassing the socialist retributive theory of justice and in his determination to challenge the measure of value, in the face of God's sarcasm. He remains unmoved in his challenge, in calling out the injustice of God, in front of a world of Behemoths and Leviathans. In Negri's words: "Every illusion or utopia of a common measure has dissolved. Hence the relationship is one of conflict, of war."

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan, Book of Job, plate 15 (detail), 1826

Job has the courage, in the face of immense suffering, to challenge God, to call him out for the brutal dictator he really is, the Great Fascist, the ultimate self centered Narcissist who does not care about what damage he unleashes in the world, how much suffering he causes. Job stands his ground against the omnipotent: first by speaking out and then by holding his indignant silence and not breaking down, despite the immense and completely undeserved suffering that the divinity imposed on him, purely to prove his own indifference to human suffering and total lack of empathy. What kind of a divine being is that? Can't one imagine a more benign divine form? Part of the message of Job is that this is an inevitable part of the structure of power embodied in the divine principle. When Yahweh appears in the whirlwind and mocks Job asking him whether he has ever had the experience of authority that God has, he is precisely making the point: what makes the divine a Great Dictator, an authoritarian principle gone horribly bad is precisely his grip on power, his position of absolute unchallenged ruler. The challenge of Job is at the cost of immense and unbearable pain, of the kind that in all real life situations those who challenge dictators and narcissist rulers are likely to suffer endlessly. Yet, revolutions happen and dictators fall, when finally the lone voice of Job challenging the absolute ruler is joined by the many, until the challenge becomes a chorus of voices so loud and so powerful that it forces change and the absolute God finally crumbles and dissolves.

C.G.Jung also had his take on the book of Job, in his famous "An answer to Job", where he comes out full force about "the evil face of God" and the landmark position of this ancient text as the first open "criticism of God". In terms of Jungian psychology, the evil side of God is the shadow, the fourth person of the trinity or the fourth function of the psyche. Perhaps he has a point there: the exercise of power brings out the shadow, the inner darkness. As Victor Serge recalls in his beautiful novel "The conquered city", about the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionary Anarchists victoriously entered Ekaterinoslav, they carried large banners with the words "No Poison is More Deadly Than Power!". They were right, but if it is so, then an omnipotent God has no other face but the evil face and no other substance but shadow. There is but the evil god and it is the duty of humankind to fight against him for their own existence.

William Blake, Book of Job, plate 16 (detail), 1826

While in the biblical text Job falls short of cursing God, the reader inevitably goes one step forward and recognizes the divine principle portrayed in the scriptures as harmful to humankind. This already happened in antiquity.
In the Gnostic tradition (by which Jung himself was profoundly influenced) the Biblical god is transformed into a lesser god of the inferior world, the ruler over matter, sometime diluted into the plurality of the Archons. This lesser ruler, Yaltabaoth, is "ignorant of the force of Pistis", the higher principle of knowledge who reigns in the higher worlds above the veil of Maya (a concept conveniently borrowed from Hinduism), and whose personification is Sophia. The Biblical god is here a dark and almost malignant entity. In "The hypostasis of the Archons" and "On the origin of the world", the two main texts of the Nag Hammadi library, one finds a very interesting twist of perspective on the book of Genesis. Adam is a lesser creation of the lower gods, while Eve is the higher manifestation of Sophia. They are saved from captivity in the garden of Eden, imposed on them by the ruling Archons, through the serpent (who is the hero in this version of the story), who gives them access to the tree of Knowledge, which is also the tree of Life.

Mondrian, horizontal tree, 1911

In the higher world there is Knowledge, that is where the Science we wish to pursue for its intrinsic beauty resides, the attractive and peaceful world of Pistis and Sophia. Its image reflected on the waters of the lower world attracts all the Yaltabaoths, the power hungry Archons, who see the beauty of knowledge reflected in the pool of water and imagine that they see themselves. They imagine themselves gods because they have the strength of power. They see the embodiment of Sofia and they can only think of defiling her. They live of power and of their own aggrandized self image. In this world beneath there is no more pursuit of knowledge for its own beauty, no more pleasure or enjoyment in the making of science, but only struggle and suffering for those who follow the call of Sofia and eat of the tree of Knowledge, so that they may see the deception of Yaltabaoth, or fake earthly paradises for those who wish to remain ignorant and continue to follow blindly the dictatorship of the Archons.

Antonio Negri's book on Job is dedicated "to the few who did not repent" and "to the new generations". This is indeed what one can hope for: the last survival of resistance that cannot be crushed, joining forces with those who will have the advantage of time, because the omnipotent but not immortal Yaltabaoth will eventually have to disappear and give way to the future. Let Pistis return.