On where to put your black swans.

Posted on | March 6, 2010

Joseph Fouche has a fascinating article entitled Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization. I don’t know anything about Fouche, although the blogroll he belongs to suggests a right-libertarian bent with touches of joyful submission to authoritarianism (Althouse? Really?), but this article of his has all the makings of a classic for writers of epic fantasy.

Fouche’s starts by describing the premises of Nassim Nicholas Taleb: when historians look back on history for the cause of some famous historical catastrophe, they tend to look too far. They look for a narrative in history that connects all of the dots leading up to the horrible event they’re documenting, trying to discern which ones were causative and which ones were not. There are, naturally, academic objections to the narrative theory of history, which show that political catastrophes are not the result of long-term trends but are immediate chaotic perturbations that lead to disasters. Thus, for example, people link 9/11 to the execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966, whereas the more proximate cause of 9/11 can be found in Saudi politics less than a decade earlier. (I think I’ll take issue with his characterization of the bank disaster; many economists agree the perturbations that lead to the great recession could have been damped by Glass-Steagel.)

Fouche then says, rightly I think, that what’s missing from the argument about whether or not long-term narrative or proximate perturbations of political equilibria can be used to describe the causes of catastrophe is this: the personal narrative of the actors. His example is WWI, but 9/11 works fine. Bin Laden had little interest in attacking “The West” in the 1980s: his interest was in rooting out corruption and the invasion of outsiders within the future Caliphate, most notably the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Qutb’s opinions on America, which were substantial, were minimal to Bin Laden’s overall ideology. After the invasion of Kuwait, Saudia Arabia allowed the US to operate on Saudi soil, and that slotted itself into Bin Laden’s personal narrative about the purity of the Caliphate, and generated a response.

If you’re a writer, this is a great idea.  Instead of deep and ancient narratives leading up to the emerging crisis, what you need is a villain with some authority who has had a long-standing personal narrative– of personal greatness, of ancient darkness, of national unity, whatever– and then craft a few small events that he can, in his mind, coerce into being part of his personal narrative.  How much coercion he must do to make it fit makes a great measure of his corruption.   You can even point out failures to contain the perturbations he creates, failures of personal action or legal frames, and show how his narrative is powerful enough to infest others, overcome such objections, and lead to disaster.

On the other hand, it also reduces the idea of heroism to a counter-point.  I’m still thinking about how to contain that.

Comments

2 Responses to “On where to put your black swans.”

  1. Ketsueki Shard
    March 28th, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    Since I found this area and only associate this area with my ‘playful’ alter ego I’m using that character’s name.

    The traditional western concepts of good and evil seem to boil down to those that help others and those that harm others. You are trying to define the same roles in a different context.

    ‘Evil’ might better be refined as someone whom affects the actions of others in ways which the others do not desire; very likely for their own gain.

    Good might then be the antithesis of that definition, someone that allows others to achieve their desires.

    Yet the above definitions are lacking. What of desires that fulfilled bring sadness, or those that left unfulfilled cause greater personal happiness?

    The concept is then a highly subjective one. Those who are pleased with resulting outcomes will see the actions as good; while those whom are not will see them as evil. Applying a majority rule is also not so simple, since that still permits acts of genocide and other atrocities as long as the majority would feel a benefit; which is often the case in polarized zero-sum situations.

    The question becomes, what rights should any one have over others? The answer is, initially, none. In an ideal situation everyone has everything they want; ‘problems’, as pointed out in at least your stories that I have read, arise only from defects or maladjustment. Said problems occur in the real world because our planet has far more people than resources to satisfy demand. The most optimal approach would then be to maximize the fulfillment of as many people’s desires as possible.

    Yet at the same time, people’s instinctual desires are balanced against the drives of a different era in our evolution. The biological desire is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ that is, to distribute your genetics in future generations with as much assurance as can be possible; utterly ignoring the chances for future generations to repeat the process.

    When our species was part of a self-balancing dynamic system this approach was valid, and even helped to select those derivatives which were most fit for future iterations. Yet we’ve reached beyond that phase, at least for most of the world. Increased communication and even written language allowed ideas to persist across iterations; each subsequent generation, for the most part, building upon the wealth of knowledge left by their ancestors. We are now able to resist nearly every balance the system had; except for one which we seeming merely lack the willpower to expend the effort to surpass, limited resources. It seems that we would rather bicker over short term results than look towards longer term returns on investment.

    This leaves us set with an interesting stage. Actors may not even be aware of their true desires, merely the ways which ‘have always worked before’ to attain them. Other actors will be aware of their desires; yet the uncertainty of answers to the problem will cause them to have divergent, perhaps even incompatible, solutions. Some actors will even grow sick of how broken they realize things are, and simply live their lives ignoring the system as much as possible.

    With this cast, I think I can derive a more comprehensive view of Heroism and Villainy as being two interpretations of the same actions. There are every day heroes who mostly do the normal expected thing, but occasionally make an impact on other’s lives; yet there is a lack of greatness. They are not enough to, alone, alter the flow of events around them; merely to stack the deck a bit.

  2. Ketsueki Shard
    March 28th, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

    Since I found this area and only associate this area with my ‘playful’ alter ego I’m using that character’s name.

    The traditional western concepts of good and evil seem to boil down to those that help others and those that harm others. You are trying to define the same roles in a different context.

    ‘Evil’ might better be refined as someone whom affects the actions of others in ways which the others do not desire; very likely for their own gain.

    Good might then be the antithesis of that definition, someone that allows others to achieve their desires.

    Yet the above definitions are lacking. What of desires that fulfilled bring sadness, or those that left unfulfilled cause greater personal happiness?

    The concept is then a highly subjective one. Those who are pleased with resulting outcomes will see the actions as good; while those whom are not will see them as evil. Applying a majority rule is also not so simple, since that still permits acts of genocide and other atrocities as long as the majority would feel a benefit; which is often the case in polarized zero-sum situations.

    The question becomes, what rights should any one have over others? The answer is, initially, none. In an ideal situation everyone has everything they want. ‘problems’, as pointed out in at least your stories that I have read, arise only from defects or maladjustment. In the real world our planet has far more people than resources to satisfy demand causing conflicting desires. The most optimal approach would then be to maximize the fulfillment of as many people’s desires as possible.

    Yet at the same time, people’s instinctual desires are balanced against the drives of a different era in our evolution. The biological desire is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ that is, to distribute your genetics in future generations with as much assurance as can be possible; utterly ignoring the chances for future generations to repeat the process.

    When our species was part of a self-balancing dynamic system this approach was valid, and even helped to select those derivatives which were most fit for future iterations. Yet we’ve reached beyond that phase, at least for most of the world. Increased communication and even written language allowed ideas to persist across iterations. Each subsequent generation, for the most part, building upon the wealth of knowledge left by their ancestors. We are now able to resist nearly every balance the system had; except for one which we seeming merely lack the willpower to expend the effort to surpass, limited resources. It seems that we would rather bicker over short term results than look towards longer term returns on investment.

    This leaves us set with an interesting stage. Actors may not even be aware of their true desires, merely the ways which ‘have always worked before’ to attain them. Other actors will be aware of their desires; yet the uncertainty of answers to the problem will cause them to have divergent, perhaps even incompatible, solutions. Some actors will even grow sick of how broken they realize things are, and simply live their lives ignoring the system as much as possible.

    With this cast, I think I can derive a more comprehensive view of Heroism and Villainy as being two interpretations of the same actions. There are every day heroes who mostly do the normal expected thing, but occasionally make an impact on other’s lives; yet there is a lack of greatness. They are not enough to, alone, alter the flow of events around them; merely to stack the deck a bit. Those who regularly go out of the normal conventions to make an impact would be the true heroes/villains. Super might be tacked on to indicate an exceptional ability to strive for the desired goal. The undercurrent though, of action duality remains.

    Your work is but one method with which to communicate ideas to others, possibly even trying to convince others that an idea should be seen as good or bad. Yet readers are by definition not blank slates. Their existing viewpoints define if they will feel someone is a villain or hero. I think that for a writer to be a hero, for a writer to express something truly interesting, they should help their reader’s consider ‘corner cases’; the really tough decisions that they might not have considered, or which they might consider differently from a fresh viewpoint. However more than that, a writer that is a hero would also cause a reader to recognize the actions that they would consider heroic as such, and/or those that they would consider villainous as such from the viewpoint of altering the world in the way they would find most pleasing to live in themselves.

    PS. Sorry for the double post, I accidentally hit submit comment in the middle of editing.

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