Primitive Peacemakers, pt 3: Water Metaphors

See Part 1 & Part 2.

The mudded path we trust to lead us back, for the first time, to the source gets muddier as you trudge along, because the source, of course, is always water.

Alan Watts

This essay has regularly resorted to liquid metaphor, to contrasting the structural stability of framed perception with the ontological fluidity of reality. (Though even our maps our mostly water.) Water metaphors are also central to Taoism, which has been called a philosophy of flow, much as Tai Chi (a regular practice, for Vervaeke) has been called a practice of flow. Perhaps the first thinker to recognize the frame problem was Heraclitus, who called man the measure of all things—man, who discretizes continuous space! man, who tiles rectangles over the earth!—and once wrote of the river that no man can step in the same stream twice, for the contents of its flow are always different. (Nor, by extension, is the man who steps twice the same man.) That same Greek pre-Socratic culture produces Proteus, the river god which Menelaus wrestles in Homer’s Odyssey, and who is defined by his slippery shape-shifting. Every time Menelaus gets a good grip, the Protean river changes form and gets away. (Is this not a predecessor to our modern understanding of how heuristic-solutions fit their problem-contexts, of how grip is fit to gripped? Do we not have, here, a simple model of the way adversarial games are defined by a continual interplay between grasping and eluding, predicting and defying, controlling and evading control? And by extension, how cooperative games require a mutual synchronization?) 

Is it a coincidence that the Ship of Theseus, and the Ship of Neurath, are both ships? A ship is a crafted stability atop a chaotic ocean; recall Chapman’s phrase, “piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.” Is it coincidence that Christianity, like so many other mythic traditions, symbolizes the descent of world into chaos as a great flood?

(More recently, Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, and its adoption by process biology, have likewise sought to replace our underlying metaphysics of “thingdom” with an ontology of change, process, and flow. The “machine conception of life” in biology, as organizing metaphor, is gradually giving way to a “stream conception of life” that puts time in its proper place as fourth dimension.)

Water, by river or sea, is always source: Mother of the myriad things, mother of the world who floods and replenishes. Auden describes how “streams descending turn to trees that climb”—how force-following flow becomes force-defying structure; how a stream of novel inputs and energy nourish that structure in its ongoing defiance.

The preservation of life, within structure, requires a controlled flowing of water, a balance of the chaotic real and the schematically anticipated. The archetypal symbols of life are on the one hand an egg, womb, and walled garden; on the other, arterial highways and vascular snaking; in either case, a system of semi-permeable boundaries which use structure to regulate a necessary, animating flow. These flows, these tides, bring novelty to our sorry shores, import and shuttle resources across the frame. Always a balancing act—always a tao—between the ossifying and the limber, between the disruptions of the foreign and the affirmations of the familiar. (See also: the fountain of life, the holy grail.)

To Watts, zen was not “a philosophy in our [Western] sense, that is to say a set of ideas, an intellectual net in which one tries to catch the fish of reality.” Rather:

the fish of reality is more like water; it always slips through the net, and in water you know, when you get into it there’s nothing to hang on to. All this universe is like water; it is fluid, it is transient, it is changing. And when you’re thrown into the water after being accustomed to living on the dry land, you’re not used to the idea of swimming, you try to stand on the water, you try to catch hold of it, and as a result you drown. The only way to survive in the water—and this refers particularly to the waters of modern philosophical confusion—is to learn how to swim. And to swim, you relax, you let go, you give yourself to the water and you’ve got to know how to breathe in the right way, and then you find that the water holds the water, and indeed in a certain way you become the water.

From the water we are born; into water we dissolve. All structure is eventually weathered down and must be built again to resist the sea. All structure is in some sense provisional. Our attempts to find a single, final, and non-provisional description of the world—rather than collect a polytheism of practice, a contingent ecology of systems and stances—are as hopeless as Ahab’s pursuit of his Whale. (Dreyfus would tell us they are the same pursuit.) Or to use Watts’s metaphor, “the problem of making sense out of the seeming chaos of experience reminds me of my childish desire to send someone a parcel of water in the mail.”

And all these insights and archetypal associations were present for Melville in his composition of Moby Dick, a story centering on the sea. Dreyfus: 

The basic dichotomy of the book, the sea and the land, is the way [Melville] expresses on the one hand the indeterminate chaos, and on the other hand the need for something solid, something you can take a stand on and count on.

Moby Dick lectures

Land is closed; sea is open. Land is marked (“landmarked,” signposted, that “turnpiked earth”); sea is unmarked, and “permits no records.” Static versus dynamic, stable versus chaotic, solid versus liquid, fixed versus shifting. The sea is therefore uninhabitable; habitability requires regularity, and so human niche construction creates reliable recurrence that scaffolds and supports its habits. (We refer to stability as solid ground beneath our feet, in contrast to “oceans of complexity” and “seas of information.” ) “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” Melville writes; “shoreless, indefinite is God.” No doubt this perspective was informed by Melville’s journeying years and by his autodidacticism; to be homeless and autodidactic is to renounce any one tradition of being and knowing, and to instead sample many traditions freely. Like the young Melville, Ishmael is nomadic, spiritually unhoused, and de-provincialized by his endless criss-crossings between ports of that roiling, undulating ocean. 

The structuralists, too, noticed the way that man erects and mistakes his limited life-world—defined by closure and insulation—for the infinite world of being. Barthes, in Mythologies, treats Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island, and it is no coincidence that the structure of stability on which Verne’s protagonist rests and resides is an island—a small patch of land surrounded by endless ocean. (Not so far from: a walled garden.) Barthes:

Verne has built a kind of self-sufficient cosmogony, which has its own categories, its own time, space, fulfilment and even existential principle. This principle, it seems to me, is the ceaseless action of secluding oneself… from a common delight in the finite, which one also finds in children’s passion for huts and tents: to enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne. The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Île mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain. Verne had an obsession for plenitude: he never stopped putting a last touch to the world and furnishing it, making it full with an egg-like fullness. His tendency is exactly that of an eighteenth century encyclopaedist or of a Dutch painter: the world is finite, the world is full of numerable and contiguous objects…

Barthes associates this literary impulse with the “progressive lineage of the bourgeoise,” what we might today call a rationalist or Apollonian emphasis on man’s conquest and domestication of nature, and of the world’s resulting order, in contrast with the mystical, Dionysian emphasis on the extent to which nature refuses to submit:

…his work proclaims that nothing can escape man, that the world, even its most distant part, is like an object in his hand, and that, all told, property is but a dialectical moment in the general enslavement of Nature. Verne in no way sought to enlarge the world by romantic ways of escape or mystical plans to reach the infinite: he constantly sought to shrink it, to populate it, to reduce it to a known and enclosed space, where man could subsequently live in comfort: the world can draw everything from itself; it needs, in order to exist, no one else but man.

Barthes, too, recognizes the symbolic nature of the ship—an ark in a flooded world—as a habitable, finite, island amidst a sea of uninhabitability. “Closure” we can understand partially as a biological strategy by which an organism maintains homeostasis, and regulates inputs and outputs—but also as a psychological property of the frame, the digitization and discretization of continuous space which makes the world countable, logically operable, and finite within the lossy compression of a model. (There is a reason it is called “bounded” rationality.)

The image of the ship, so important in his mythology, in no way contradicts this. Quite the contrary: the ship may well be a symbol for departure; it is, at a deeper level, the emblem of closure. An inclination for ships always means the joy of perfectly enclosing oneself, of having at hand the greatest possible number of objects, and having at one’s disposal an absolutely finite space. To like ships is first and foremost to like a house, a superlative one since it is unremittingly closed, and not at all vague sailings into the unknown: a ship is a habitat before being a means of transport. And sure enough, all the ships in Jules Verne are perfect cubby-holes, and the vastness of their circumnavigation further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their inner humanity.

When Peterson describes the peacemaker as bridge-maker, he is building upon this rich metaphorical and mythological foundation, atop of which he might leave marks and make sense. The word “rival” comes from Latin “rivus,” or stream; rivals are parties that have been ecologically isolated by a water boundary and develop in relative independence two different cultures, two different sets of primarily frames or cosmogonies, just the same way that one species of bird, split by a mountain range, or the water barriers of the Galápagos, will develop different beak shapes. To build a bridge is to allow sexual exchange of memetic information, but hybrids do not come easy. Anyone who has dealt with APIs before understands that different ways of structuring data need to be inter-translated; a common language serves as a bridge across a data stream, from origin structure to destination structure. And this same compatibility problem poses itself to would-be biological hybrids.

In human cultures, adaptation involves significant work and also the sacrifice of parts of one’s culture one finds sacred. A culture—like a person—will not relinquish its frame, or modify itself for compatibility with other cultures, unless it really wants to. A power struggle, an inertia, a stand-off ensues. The bridge, if it is built, will remain guarded. Both sides must want compatibility, must want peace; and then they will require a mediator who can provide a fair and positive-sum, mutually desirable solution. Otherwise, any merger will look like conquest, loss, and destruction—rather than symbiosis, gain, and construction.

What if the facts would not come into alignment, between antagonists, until they wanted the same thing? For the facts to come into alignment, the antagonists must want something that transcends the local, even the local victory. They must want peace, more than dominance. They must want peace, more than succession… more than security, more than charisma. 

Peterson, “Peacemaking”

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