Monday, June 4, 2007

Zero, One, Many

I am of the opinion that Western culture has focused for too long on the distinction between "the One" and "the Zero," where One corresponds to things like God, the Oversoul, humanism, etc. and Zero corresponds to meaninglessness and nihilism and the kind of existential doubt that characterized the first half of the 20th century. Please try to understand my terms.

But sometime during the 1990s, the cultural tide started to change. Someone remembered the "Many," which corresponds to diversity. More accurately, the Many achieved a threshold status that allowed it to spring to life in mainstream Western culture. Things must've looked grim before those days, when all anyone thought about was whether or not existence had any "higher" purpose. Logical positivists. Camus taking suicide to be the only significant question for philosophy. Wallace Stevens' poems. Kafka. Cold War. Then Diversity was offered as a panacea--the Many had arrived on the stage for the first time in centuries. One could fortell the future by listening to the complaints of conservatives: "Well, but--that's moral relativism!" The accusation of "relativism" was meant to communicate a metaphysical objection to the Many, but had not been needed or employed in so long that it fell flat. Things were not meaningless (Zero), and everyone was not the same (One). Diversity triumphed. Schoolchildren swallowed it like yummy cough medicine. The Many was rising.

And please don't misunderstand. This essay isn't against Many or against diversity, but should be read as a kind of hesitation -- time to take our collective temperature again. We recall the down sides to both the Zero (much lamented by existential Christians like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, as well as by orthodox Christians trained in argument) and the One (which manifested itself as political fascism more than once during the last century). But is there any down side to the Many? Take a look at my chart, devised to help me get through a dissertation chapter on Herman Melville:

We know the old dichotomy of Damnation and Salvation, which constituted the whole field of interest of the Western world from about 400 A.D./C.E. until at least a thousand years later. By the time of the founding of America, the Many had begun to show itself again, manifesting itself in the form of political "faction," which frightened the founders into arguing for a strong central government (i.e., a "One") in The Federalist Papers. In political terms, it is easy to see: on one side, a fear of anarchy (Zero) -- on the other, warring factions (Many). Union was the answer for those who wrote America into existence.

But as usual, I'm not so interested in discussing political points -- the negative points are easy to discover on every side of the argument. Note one thing, though: in political terms, it is easy to see the difficulties with either extreme (Zero & Many). In psychological/spiritual terms, however, it is not so simple, because we tend to have an impulse to see in dual terms, even though there are three possibilities (Zero, One, Many). Almost everyone perceives the universe as an opposition between two forces, forgetting a third way.

For some, that forgetfulness means a rose-colored glasses look at nihilistic meaninglessness, the Zero; for others, it means a rose-colored glasses look at schizophrenic detachment, or the Many (also called Buddhist Enlightenment).

I have Christian friends who are worried about the Zero (about what they perceive to be the meaninglessness of the world without God) without thinking about the Many. I also have atheist friends who are worried about the One (what they often call "fascism" or "tyranny") without facing the Zero. On the third hand, I know very few people who are equally fearful of of schizophrenia, or factional barbarism. This suggests to me that we are in a phase where we have recently rediscovered the Many, but have not yet collectively faced the problems associated with it. Thesis: And that is only because the Many has not yet entered the Western world, has not yet been made flesh.

The problems with the Zero have been nihilism and meaninglessness, or spiritual damnation. The One was offered as the antidote against the Zero. But somewhere along the way, certain thinkers, poets, scholars, etc. started to notice that the One was not a perfect solution either (see Captain Ahab, whose white whale is the perfect problematic One). Since that rediscovery, other thinkers have suggested a solution: the Many! That will fix it. They see the problems of the One (tyranny and closed perception) and offer to fix it with the Many. Democratic political structures and "open-mindedness" have been the aims of the pushers of the Many. Have we reached the end of history? Or are there problems with the Many?

Trusting nothing is the Zero. It has its problems. Trusting only a single Holy Text or one's self is the One--it also has its problems. Listening to everyone is the Many. Have you ever really listened to everyone? Have you tried to open your mind to the Many? I'm interested. My own experience has been that the Many is no more or less a solution (or a problem) than either the Zero or the One. In fact, I want to suggest that the line that looks like this:
Zero-----------One-----------Many not really a line at all. Instead, this is a kind of loop of history, and that it is through the Many that the Zero manifests itself in the world. When all is considered, when everything is granted coequal authority, the Zero is made flesh. It is our nature to rage against the One, and so we shall.

How unimportant it is that you accept my argument!--I am only concerned that you have understood my terms.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

Good post, and I agree that any kind of utopian image of the many (diversity, difference, postmodern theory, whatever) is greatly misguided. Although, your post seems to imply that the American Union is a manifestation of the one... that I would disagree with. Rather, the Union was a rhetorical solution to a philosophical problem--the Union provided a flexible approach to negotiating the inevitable conflicts inherent in the Many. It was, after all, a union, not a synthesis. One nation, many states.

And there's a third kind of forgetfulness. One and zero are integers, whole numbers, and so long as we view the equation with this in mind, they can prove useful. But we should also remember that an infinite series of numbers (many, many, many) exist between zero and one. There's always third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighty-ninth possibilities. We simply have to write them into existence.

For some reason I feel compelled to cite the following passage from Burke's Rhetoric of Motives:

The Rhetoricmust lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, teh flurries and flare ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the Wars of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcendening of itself. In a way of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment... Rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall. (23)

One more thing--your discussion of history as something akin to the Mobius strip reminds me of the metaphysical tension of Yeat's famous two volumes: The Tower and The Winding Stair

Casey said...

Santeezee--interesting. That part about the places between 1 and 0... I'm not sure. I'm using these numbers to represent ontological assumptions, not really as numbers. Between non-existence (0) and existence (1), I'm not sure there is .733-existence. We all know the old line about "a little pregnant," for example.

I like Burke, though he's a little wordy...

And I need to read more Yeats. I've heard something about him and the idea of "gyres" or something like that? -- it has always been an appealing image to me; I just haven't studied it. On my list now.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

To tie Yeats and 0 and 1 together:

The Tower represents a dualistic universe: either you are at the top or the bottom. The Winding Stairt is a reminder that, between (perhaps underneath) the two positions is a gradation. But I'm a quasi-existence kind of guy, we're always in between (Many) positions. Being v. BeComing.

One more thing: I just drove Mxrk home, during the drive we were talking about this conversation and then the course we're teaching... I was thinking how, in a past course, students considered sensitivity and diversity more important than free speech--that is, if speech is offensive to a group, then that speech should be banned from the classroom. This seems to me to be a [terrifying] change in ethics--though Mxrk suggested this might be more a product of our geography than a product of some kind of postmodern shift toward differance.