Politics is Life: Tim Morton explains the Mesh

13 Jul

Politicians give politics a bad name. That’s not how politics is, deeply, it’s just what it’s become in this money-driven death trap we saddled ourselves with in the last century or so. We need to rehabilitate our sense of politics so we can pursue it with joy.

Let Professor Morton begin the rehabilitation.

* * * * *

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010, p. 29:

The ecological thought does, indeed, consist in the ramifications of the “truly wonderful fact” of the mesh. All life forms are the mesh, and so are all dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more about how life forms have shaped Earth (think of oil, of oxygen—the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural election implies extinction.

If that isn’t politics, I don’t know what is. Not politics in the sense of Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Tories, nor feminists, plutocrats, and anarchists. But politics as negotiation, coalition, and competition. We’re all trying to survive here, make our nut, live and die with grace.

There’s the math: game theory. The great John von Neuman—and he was great, believe me, the Einstein of the 20th Century—invented it as World War II—the great political maelstrom that also gave us the atomic bomb and the digital computer, both of which had von Neuman’s fingerprints all over them—came to a close. Game theory is a mathematics of rational agents in interaction, generally competitive, but not necessarily purely. And the rationality, that’s a peculiar abstract notion not quite the same as the ordinary language word of the same pronunciation and spelling.

Game theory quickly became a tool of economists and political scientists. Pentagon planners used it in war games and plotted strategy against the Russkies, who, I am sure, returned the favor. No mere abstract mathematical exercise that, not when it was that close to the finger poised above the Hot Button to nuclear disaster. And if game theory had urged the finger to depress that button?

BOOM! Massive environmental impact event. Some live, some die, life goes on.

And then John Maynard Smith retooled game theory into evolutionary game theory. In this interpretation of the math, the players are no longer human individuals or collective actors. They are species, species considered as collections of genes, those ‘selfish’ strivers that Dawkins writes about, seeking to exist from one generation to the next. They ‘act’ as individual organisms reproduce or die. As evolutionary games play out over successive generations species change, some become extinct, and others morph into new forms.

And so the ecological mesh ripples and tears, breaths and decays, evolves. Politics.

Morton again, p. 30:

The mesh consists of infinite connections and infinitesimal differences. Scale is infinite in both directions: infinite in size and infinite in detail. And each being in the mesh interacts with others. The mesh isn’t static.

The mesh, of course, includes nonliving beings. Nonliving beings are consumed by the living, pushed around and molded by them, but also excreted and exhaled by them. The living decay into the nonliving.

Here’s the question: Before there was life, was there the mesh? It depends on what counts as “infinite connections and infinitesimal differences.” Turbulent flow, nonlinear dynamics, self-organizing systems, they do not require life. The mathematics was developed for systems consisting of huge numbers of more or less similar particles in quasi-autonomous interaction with one another. In such systems infinitesimal differences can cascade through infinite connections forcing large-scale changes in the whole system: bifurcation.

Bifurcation upon bifurcation (différance upon differance?) weaves the mesh. And so life emerges. Is life the first fruit of politics in the mesh? Is life therefore politics through and through?


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