Atlas Blogged #11
August 9, 2010
Part 2: Either-Or
Yes, we’ve reached the second part of this mighty tome! The title is a little odd: it’s either a bizarre reference to Kierkegaard’s work of the same name, or a poncey reference to Rand’s Manichean approach to individuals – they’re either worthwhile or they’re not.
Chapter 11: The Man who Belonged on Earth
I’ve realised, following my reading of annajaneclare’s blogging of The Fountainhead, that I haven’t been sharing with you much of Rand’s writing – which is a shame, as it’s through metaphors as brazen as the Sun that she constantly reinforces her narrative. For example, at the start of this chapter Dr Stadler is pacing his office…
‘Spring had been late in coming. Beyond the window, the dead gray of the hills looked like the smeared transition from the soiled white of the sky to the leaden black of the river. Once in a while, a distant patch of hillside flared into a silver-yellow that was almost green, then vanished. The clouds kept cracking for the width of a single sunray, then oozing close again.’
Wow. In AtlasWorld, even the seasons respond to the economic climate, as though socialism causes global cooling. Wyatt’s patch of green grass has been snuffed out. You know, in case somehow the metaphor passed you by. Perhaps you’ve been struck temporarily dead.
Stadler is raging against a pamphlet produced by Dr Ferris, the lobbyist for the State Science Institute. The pamphlet is a collection of aphorisms that Rand seems to believe count as socialist wisdom:
‘Thought is a primitive superstition. Reason is an irrational idea. The childish notion that we are able to think has been mankind’s costliest error.’
‘That gray matter you’re so proud of is like a mirror in an amusement park which transmits to you nothing but distorted signals from a reality forever beyond your grasp.’
‘So you think you’re sure of your opinions? You cannot be sure of anything. Are you going to endanger the harmony of your community, your fellowship with your neighbours, your standing, reputation, good name and financial security – for the sake of an illusion? For the sake of the mirage of thinking that you think? Are you going to run risks and court disasters – at a precarious time like ours – by opposing the existing social order in the name of those imaginary notions of yours which you call you convictions? You say that you’re sure you’re right? Nobody is right, or ever can be. You feel that the world around is wrong? You have no means to know it. Everything is wrong in human eyes – so why fight it? Don’t argue. Accept. Adjust yourself. Obey’
The ‘reality forever beyond your grasp’ bit is particularly irksome to me, because of who it’s a reference to. Rand hated Kant. Really, really hated Kant. She dubbed him a ‘monster’ and ‘the most evil man in history’. This is something of an achievement for a chap who never left Konigsberg.
However, as anyone who knows me knows, Kant is my favourite philosopher by a long stretch. Rand is here referring to Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, between the object in itself and the object as perceived. We can never know the noumena fully, as we can only access it via the modes of our senses. Rand railed against this distinction as denying one’s ability to access the objective world, thus reducing its importance. To Rand, material acquisition is everything, and denial of one’s knowledge of one’s acquisition is tantamount to labelling it meaningless.
Unfortunately for Rand, she’d radically misunderstood Kant, and placing an aphorism associated with his work alongside others proclaiming the impossibility of reason is an insult so grievous that I’m half-tempted to say that anyone who follows her philosophy should be made to suffer for it. Rand didn’t realise that saying one couldn’t know a thing in itself is not equivalent to saying that one cannot know the thing. Kant merely claimed that we can only interpret objects via the modes we use to interpret the world – you cannot consider anything without placing them into the categories of time and space, for example. You can never know an object spacelessly and timelessly. But this doesn’t mean that everything you receive from your senses is rendered meaningless – far from it. Rather, we combine information about an object to synthesise new concepts about it. Direct access is impossible, but conceptual access is available to the rational.
My little Kant rant (ooh, rhymey) over, let’s get back to the pacing Stadler. He’s waiting for Dr. Ferris, with the intention of berating him. Ferris is late, because everything’s stopping working in the absence of motive force – i.e. Rand’s aristocracy of talent. Stadler finds himself befuddled by Ferris, mostly because Stadler finds himself unable to demand that Ferris stop behaving like a little shit. Ferris acknowledges that the book is worthless tripe, but claims that it’s useful as an agent of social control.
Dagny summons the pathetic Stadler to New York, to help her figure out her magic static engine. Stadler claims that the chap who designed it ‘discarded our standard assumptions’ and ‘formulated his own premise’ – i.e. did magic.
This is not how science works. You can’t convert a lower level of energy into a higher level of energy without inputting additional work, or tearing a hole in the universe. Maybe I’m being too hard on Rand’s engine; for the rest of my readthrough I shall assume the magic engine rips the universe a new one to make itself work.
Stadler is portrayed as seeking Dagny’s approval in a bizarre way, much like the Government operative who comes to Rearden’s office to demand his sells 10,000 tonnes of Rearden Metal to the Government for something called ‘Project X’.
In Rand’s defence here, this was the 1950s and Project X was still a serious name, rather than a porno channel.
Rearden makes short work of the lackey, refusing to sell the Metal and daring him to use force. The lackey refuses, still seeking Rearden’s consent.
So non-titans need the consent of titans to take their stuff. Why?In the real world, people just take things when they have more guns than the other chap.
Dagny and Rearden spent some time enjoying themselves with the trappings of wealth – actually enjoying them mind, not like those playboys who are meant to be enjoying them.
Rearden is again a teenager, this time discovering alcohol and clubbing for the first time – ‘My enjoyment is special, because I’m awesome!’
More weird consent stuff. More insults to proper philosophers. More pathetic teenage egotism. I’m not a fan of this chapter. Can you tell?
Part 12 is here.