The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: June, 2017

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

Book Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction

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Elliott Liu’s 2016 book attempts to present a simplified synthesis of recent scholarship on Mao’s China as well as a historically-founded critique of the politics that issued from that period. There are a few provisos to consider when discussing this work, however. The first is that the Maoism Liu engages is not the Maoism of current revolutionary movements nor does it fit in Moufawad-Paul’s recent philosophical definition. Rather, Maoism for Liu means the politics of Mao himself and of the CCP from the mid-1930s to 1976. Insofar as the book criticizes core Maoist concepts like two-line struggle and certain conception of dialectics, it is still a useful intervention in the activist space. However, those who follow a modern form of Maoism will doubtless take the line that the book has nothing to say about their traditions since they are supposed to have transcended the politics of the Chinese Revolution proper. Nevertheless, the book, taken on its own, has quite considerable value to both interested students of the topic and, more importantly, to activists and revolutionaries.

Indeed, the book’s final chapter, which breaks down some of the more important Maoist concepts and evaluates their relevance to today, indicates that leftist activist circles are Liu’s primary audience. Still, in order to mount a critical argument, the author has to delve into history. The history of the Chinese Revolution and the Maoist period has recently been enriched by studies from Joel Andreas’ Red Engineers to Yiching Wu’s monograph about the dynamics of class and marginalized people during the Cultural Revolution. Liu
draws on all of these books as well as more general histories from the likes of Arif Dirlik, Maurice Meisner, and more classic texts like Bettelheim’s 1970s study of industrial organization during the Cultural Revolution. The resulting synthesis, evaluated on its own, draws entirely from secondary sources like those just mentioned but manages to present a coherent narrative about the vacillations of Chinese revolutionary activity from the 1920s up until 1976. Even separated from the “critical” part of its title, the book is an adequate summation of recent China scholarship, which earns it at least some points for those who are not familiar with the field.

Of course, the book is not marketed as a progressively-bent historical pocketbook but as a “Revolutionary Pocketbook,” which has slightly loftier goals than simple summation in mind. Liu draws a few core conclusions from his historical study. The first is that the People’s Republic of China was fundamentally a state-capitalist entity. By that, he means that the state functioned as the primary and dominant agent of capital accumulation during the drive to industrialize the country. As a corollary to this, he argues that the industrialization plan rested on the hyper-exploitation of the peasantry and the imposition of strict control and austerity over industrial workers. Even from the limited swathe of examples he employs to support this argument make a fairly airtight case.

Although property was theoretically controlled and owned by the entire people and used to benefit the entire people, the reality was more harsh and exclusive since workers and peasants did not have effective political authority over their lives. Resources that were technically nationalized were at the beck and call of central planners and workers’ and peasants’ access to their own produced goods was strictly limited by state regulations. Even during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese army and other armed forces were used to quash workers’ revolts and strikes, and the country essentially revolved entirely around building up the national economy with little regard for quality of life or autonomy of the workers.

Liu’s second argument is about Mao as a theoretician and leader. Mao himself, Liu contends, never broke from a Stalin-derived synthesis that equated simple empirical observation and study with dialectical investigations and movement. Mao, he argues, tended to see dialectics as a series of mutual oppositions that were fairly static and could be resolved from the outside by policy interventions. A more robust and nuanced picture of the dialectic, he contends, would emphasize the processual and dynamic character of the dialectic as well as the way in which dialectical oppositions constitute and support each other.

In other words, Mao misses that there is a spontaneous and energetic play of oppositions that can generate real insights even from unlikely sources. Liu links these problems to the general failures of Mao’s leadership and the CCP’s role in Chinese society more generally. In brief, he notes that the CCP and Mao’s administration were essentially bureaucratic, centralist, and often chose to crush the very popular movements they summoned to attack other, more conservative party actions. Liu is not uniformly negative in the book, especially when crediting Mao’s strategic and political gifts, but he takes a dim view of Mao’s philosophical and ideological contributions to radical politics.

Finally, the book’s most important conclusion or set of conclusions concerns the applicability of Maoist ideas in current organizing projects. He acknowledges that there are a number of live Maoist projects currently claiming to carry on Mao’s legacy in politics today, mentioning the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and revolutionary activity in Peru, Nepal,India, and the Philippines by name. He breaks down a number of core Maoist concepts including mass line, different kinds of contradiction, united fronts, new democracy, two-line struggle, and “putting politics in command.” Though he credits many of these ideas as general principles, he argues that Mao and many other organizations took these rather vague concepts and
took them in anti-people directions.

For example, in his discussion of the mass line concept, he notes that the concept could be used simply to drum up populist consent for central state policies or mobilize authoritarian campaigns. To be valuable, he argues, the concept has to be tied to a political programme that ensures that the revolutionary organization is actually listening to ordinary people and taking input from them rather than just gathering evidence to support preexisting political ideas. Each of his evaluations is fairly nuanced considering the small space in which he is operating. There are certainly much deeper criticisms or supporting arguments to be made for or against these concepts, but his conclusions are useful in that they accurately portray each concept and lay out potential pitfalls and opportunities associated with each one.

I would recommend Liu’s book to all those who have a cursory or even more intense interest in the Chinese Revolution and its politics. That sequence of events, the process of political and economic transformation in the world’s most populous state, was one of the key events of the 1900s. The book is not a deep critique of Maoism as it is currently practiced in organizations from North America to India, but it does serve to outline some of the limitations and potentially powerful ideas that such movements can carry forward. Neither
abjectly hostile to the Chinese Revolutionary project nor an advertisement for Mao and the PRC, the book accomplishes its limited goals with aplomb. I hope that it leads many people into some of the better recent literature on the Revolution and believe that it provides a good basic primer and criticism of an important revolutionary process.

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