The “Transcendental Memology” of Chad A. Haag
We can change our world(view)s by changing how we power them.
There are books which make me realize I wasn’t educated until I encountered them, a realization which is both horrifying and exhilarating, for what else might be out there that “I don’t know I don’t know?” Chad A. Haag’s “A Critique of Transcendental Memology” is such a book, and for those interested I highly suggest the review found at Telosbound on the text. Trey’s work is always magnificent.
Mr. Haag emphasizes ‘memes as general shapes that structure human thought below the surface rather than just images with superimposed text shared on smartphone screens,’ which brings him to making a distinction ‘between shallow memes and deep memes.’¹ Both of these come together to create “The Meme Process,” which is ‘an isomorphic fit between the shallow meme to which [a person] has been exposed and the deep meme which, at a level unconscious to the subject, provides the underlying conditions that structure the subject’s thoughts according to a general shape.’²
I’ve been thinking about Platonic forms, geometry, and astronomy lately, and what Mr. Haag describes make me think of the orbit of planets. When space debris enters the range of a planet, that debris ends up caught in an orbit. Similarly, when we come into “the range” of a certain phenomenon in the world, our thinking ends up “caught” and thus “follows the orbit” of that phenomenon. For Haag, fuel sources are such phenomenon: when societies start using x or y energy source, they “step into its range,” and as a result their very thinking ends up “caught in its orbit.” Unfortunately, the orbits we find ourselves stuck in also shape how we think about those orbits, concealing them from notice. Fortunately, Haag manages to see what has become invisible to most.
I recently finished Ontological Design by Daniel Fraga, and the two books overlap one another in excellent ways. Fraga describes how the use of a sofa conditions us to associate the idea of “rest” with “sitting on a sofa,” which means that when “we want to rest,” we end up “wanting to sit on a sofa,” suggesting that our “free will” has been shaped by a technology and environment in ways we hardly even notice. Similarly, Mr. Haag describes how fossil fuels make possible an economic system and corresponding psychology which ‘values infinite progress,’ while ‘agricultural planting and harvesting’ in Medieval times lead to an economic system and mindset which sought to preserve and honor ‘strict cyclical timetable[s] in order to maintain stability.’³ On pages 12 and 13 of Haag’s book, there is a fantastic chart which shows how different historic periods have corresponded with different energy sources and worldviews — the chart alone is worth double the cover price.
Mr. Haag makes the powerful point that ‘completion carries the negative connotation of finitude,’ which is to say that modern progress-obsessed thinking is anti-completion.⁴ No wonder the world today is suffering a “Meaning Crisis” of depression and mental anxiety — we can’t finish anything. We’re like Kafka’s K trying to reach “The Castle,” set from the start to fail. But we can’t easily stop either, for Mr. Haag warns us that ‘the depletion of fossil fuels […] would result in the loss of the epistemological structure of the deep meme and all of the ‘truths’ it allowed to exist.’⁵ Haag says it well: ‘The loss of oil will literally transform truth into falsehood right before our astonished eyes.’⁶ This being the case, to escape our Kafkaesque situation, we’d have to give up both our ways of life and ways of making life sensible — a hefty price to pay, one that will cause an existential anxiety which can make totalitarianism appealing (as described in Belonging Again). Can we resist this temptation? Well, we’ll eventually have to find out.
I was also very impressed by Mr. Haag’s critique of Marx, which I found powerful and innovative. ‘What Marx neglects to mention,’ Haag tells us:
‘is that the industrial model of production, no matter how one chooses to pursue it, is simply impossible in the absence of crucial non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, resources that are already starting to fall into irreversible decline […] The presence or absence of a crucial resource is not an activity a human subject can tinker to fit a desired outcome, such as the shift to Communism.’⁷
Marx does not offer us a way to escape having our worldviews structured by energy sources, and so Communism will struggle to offer a deep alternative to the current socioeconomic order. The Frankfurt School attempted to explain why “the inevitable Communist revolution” never occurred in terms of Capitalistic ideology and psychoanalysis, but perhaps they would have made more progress to discuss “energy ideology?” Hard to say.
I’m currently editing a paper on Deirdre McCloskey and Vaclav Smil, and Smil is extremely convincing on the essential role of energy. We arguably should replace “GDP” with “GEU” (Gross Energy Use): the productivity of a nation and its use of energy is indeed that closely related. If energy shapes ideology as Haag suggests, then changing how we think requires “changing how we produce” in terms of energy: we could say that production, progress, and ideology are “practically indivisible” (as PPI). No, perhaps not technically, but “practically” PPI is always the case. How we produce shapes how we define progress, and that in turn creates an “underlying structure” according to which our ideology forms and operates. PPI is inescapable.
If Haag is right that ‘the loss of oil will literally transform truth,’ his point proves ideology follows energy versus energy use follow ideology.⁸ Energy is deeper than ideology and/or “means of production,” and deconstructing the system which maintains the current “means of production” will not necessarily change how energy is used. A true and deep revolution will have to occur on the level of energy. Is that possible? Is that the hope of renewable energy? Perhaps, and certainly that leaves open a lot of questions, but at least Haag gives us the tools to focus on what we should focus on: energy, not so much “the means of production.” If we deconstructed “the system” today but didn’t change our energy use, a “practically identical” system would reemerge tomorrow. Change must happen on the level of energy or no essential change occurs at all.
‘[T]he deep meme is a general shape of consciousness, influenced by the hard limit of the ultimate energy source of an era’ — powerfully put.⁹ Haag continues to build his case, pointing out that ‘[t]he worldview structure by cyclical grain harvests simply has no memological resources to make sense of the logic of the machine.’¹⁰ Farmers deal with organic and living environments: the idea of something occurring and operating “noncontingently,” beyond the influences and particularities of the environment, is unimaginable. But once oil was discovered, it become possible to think in terms of constant and perpetual operation: suddenly the need for a book like In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki became unimaginable, a book which laments the loss of candles and reign of “artificial light.” Now, it can feel unimaginable that people once used candles.
Does this mean oil is bad? Well, that depends: if we’re unable to stop thinking according to oil, and thus find ourselves unable to stop using it even when it destroys the environment, then yes, oil will prove bad. Still, history is contingent. We can’t simply say things today are better or worse than the past: that all depends on us. However, I do think it’s fair to say that escaping our predicament will prove difficult, for oil has “captured” the very “background” of our thinking, and thus shapes the “towardness” of our thinking (a point which leads Haag to discussing Plato, memory, and “fittingness” on page fourteen).
I was thrilled to see Haag focus on Aristotelian metaphysics and his emphasis on how ‘comprehension is primarily an intuitive grasp of a form and only secondarily linguistic [or compositional]’ — this is a topic I think on constantly, throughout The True Isn’t the Rational.¹¹ I was also thrilled to see Haag argue that Derrida doesn’t deconstruct Aristotle, a case made in “On Typography,” as inspired by Thomas Jockin, a cowriter of The Philosophy of Glimpses. What this means is that we “apprehend” before we understand: as Haag puts it, ‘[t]he laborious task of listing out a thing’s properties with language is quite secondary to the grateful grasp of its essence through taking its form in intuition.’¹² Unfortunately, that “apprehension” is easily shaped and influenced by “the deep memes” of our age. We are influenced “nonrationally” (to use language I like to use regarding Benjamin Fondane), and that means it will be difficult for us to “rationally” combat it. We must act, not just think, and we have to act to change our sources of energy. This will change how we think, which might result in us thinking and creating new ways to deal with energy — a positive and creative dialectic.
Chad Haag has given us some of the most original and important philosophy of the new millennium, a work which I hope everyone takes to heart. Oil won’t always be here, and we ignore what that will mean for us, economically and psychologically, at our own peril. To close, I will end with Haag’s own words:
‘The abrupt onset of a new deep meme […] will bring into existence a whole range of new systems, new myths, new values, and perhaps even new non-electronic shallow memes […] At any rate, the transformation of a deep meme will literally change how one ‘understands the whole world’ by, in a very real sense, bringing about a whole new world.’¹³
¹Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 3.
²Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 4.
³Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 5.
⁴Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 6.
⁵Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 8.
⁶Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 8.
⁷Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 9.
⁸Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 8.
⁹Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 13.
¹⁰Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 14.
¹¹Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 21.
¹²Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 22.
¹³Haag, Chad. A Critique of Transcendental Memology: A Peak Oil Philosophy of Truth. Uckakkada, India, 2018: 32.
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