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View Full Version : War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. (absence concepts)



RichardGarfinkle
06-27-2013, 05:39 PM
This isn't a thread about Orwell, or about Big Brother.

This is a thread about negative definition, that is about concepts that are only the absence of other concepts.

Or rather it isn't about concepts that are the absence, but concepts that are not explicitly evocative of anything, rather they invoke a lack of something else.

Okay, enough with the negative cleverness (i.e. stupidity). There are some ideas that do not on their own mean anything because the words do not actually connect to anything but the lack of something else.

Note: I'm not talking about things that in reality are only the absence of something (like darkness is the lack of light, or cold the lack of heat). I'm talking about ideas that do not invoke anything in mind except the absence of something else (darkness calls to mind being in the dark, cold recalls the experience of cold). Hence the thread title. Peace as a concept invokes the lack of conflict (the absence of war). Freedom invokes the lack of constraint (the absence of slavery).

If we think about warlike activities, we think about actions directed toward war. But if we think about peaceful activities, we think about a wide swathe of unrelated things (farming, resting, reading etc) depending on our predilections.

If we think about slavery, we imagine the acts and actions of constraint, chains, force etc. If we think about freedom, we think about not being bound and doing what we feel like (which could be just about anything).

The strongest invocative elements in these ideas come with the moments of transition, from war to peace, from slavery to freedom or vice versa. In this case, again the meaning is tied not to the idea itself but to the creation or removal of the constraint.

It has been noted by people in the generations that struggled for freedom of one kind or another that the later generations who enjoy that freedom do not appreciate what was done to get that freedom. I think that points to the absence of direct meaning in the freedom, since it is the struggle against slavery that the older generations are remembering and which is no part of the experience of the younger generation (unless and until that slavery is reimposed upon them).

Warning: I'm about to jump the shark.

I think that because of the negative definitions of these ideas, the ideas acquire a sense of perfectibility that does not exist in most ideas that have positive definitions. There is an idea of perfect peace (nothing bugs you at all). There is an idea of perfect freedom (getting to do whatever you want).

This concept of perfection is the total absence of whatever the constraining concept is. Because of this negative perfection it becomes possible to be at all times dissatisfied.

A person living a safe life away from all trouble and strife can have their peace shattered by the annoyance of a leaking faucet or a buzzing fly.

A person enjoying all sorts of political and social freedoms can feel infuriated by having to wait in a line to purchase abundantly available food.

It seems to me that these negative concepts can create a vacuum in the mind, creating a sense of ongoing dissatisfaction and a pull toward an illusory perfection.

Maxx
06-27-2013, 05:56 PM
I think you are touching upon the impact of ideology, though in a way I agree, but more in terms of a concrete disjunction between ideologies based on at least superficially rallying people against the injustice of some kind of relative deprivation and situations where deprivations are of a different kind.

Specifically, I'm thinking of the rhetoric of libertarianism which posits a perfect world where the only money is gold and everyone is self-sufficient and there are no states or governments. From this viewpoint you can gripe about everything since no part of that ideal world is ever going to happen for most people. Given that the perfect state is not reachable at all, the potential for griping about everything is both infinite and motivated by an infinite potential. I won't go into what might be dysfunctional about the libertarian view, because from one point of view -- the potential for enhancing one's natural grumpiness with fantastically elaborate griping -- libertarianism is fantastically successful. Until somebody notices that its success amounts to whatever seems successful about enhancing one's natural grumpiness with fantastically elaborate griping.

RichardGarfinkle
06-27-2013, 06:01 PM
You might be right Maxx. But I was, at least in part, thinking of old ideas of Heaven as a place of perfect peace. It struck me as lacking any definite characteristics. That's curious if one were dealing with an idea with a positively defined concept.

Compare that to Valhalla, where one gets to fight all day (without any real suffering) then eat and booze the night away. That's a more positively defined (if actually pretty creepy) paradise.

Maxx
06-27-2013, 07:45 PM
You might be right Maxx. But I was, at least in part, thinking of old ideas of Heaven as a place of perfect peace. It struck me as lacking any definite characteristics. That's curious if one were dealing with an idea with a positively defined concept.


Back to Ecstasy and Bernini! This notion of Heaven as unchanging and perfect peace is, it seems to me, an attempt at representing what Neoplatonism (post-Stoicism and via Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropagite) requires of the blissful contemplation of the Perfect unity of the Trinity: a very nice, very bright, eternal orgasm of pure, blissful love. It actually was kind of specific in Neoplatonic terms at least. Or to put it another way: there's a reason that the ultimate being at the top of the Great Chain of Being has that effect on people.

The mechanics of something like that can be pretty intricate -- you can go by many routes: Baroque with Bach and Bernini, Gnostic with Valentanianism for example, Dante manages a very action-packed narrative of it etc.

But then, IIRC you won't find it in Paradise Lost or in JAckson Pollock's Lucifer:

http://uploads7.wikipaintings.org/images/jackson-pollock/lucifer-1947.jpg!Blog.jpg (http://uploads7.wikipaintings.org/images/jackson-pollock/lucifer-1947.jpg)