objective reality—the great objectifier?

A surprising gaita adaptation.

For a long time I’ve struggled with the apparent contradiction of my political ideology and my trade.

The inherently relativist and subjective attitude that Anarchism brought into my personal political beliefs always seemed to clash with my engineering degree and a job that demands absolutely correct logic and objectivity.

The more I read about politics, philosophy and science the more they seemed to be at odds with each other: my engineering skills were funded and developed to oppress, to arm and to destroy, and the good that came of it was little more than opiate for the masses. The systems engineering I learned came from the study of ballistics—how to make a bomb hit the right place at the right time.

Computing, the apparently democratising and liberating force of the last couple of decades, was originally developed to make the said calculations faster and to decipher encrypted messages. That was Turing’s job—the scientific institutions of his day could care less about his wondrous vision for computing and artificial intelligence. Instead, they valued his insights into the Enigma ciphers and locked him up for being a homosexual.

The internet, which has been responsible for my personal success as a professional, was originally developed by a military institution, and is still owned by a US organisation (ICANN, though that might change soon). It is no surprise that this same infrastructure ended up serving a military purpose—mass surveillance of innocent civilians and theft of intellectual property from competing states. The fact that it lets us communicate to each other seems to, again, be a mere side effect of an otherwise government owned, government controlled, authoritarian and oppressive endeavour.

This has always been the most common criticism that I endured in political environments—that I, as an engineer, somehow represented the capitalist hegemony simply because I had a practical and objective attitude towards most problems, and often tried to use scientific methods to approach them.

While I’d say this is a bit unfair in the broad sense—my solar panels work after all—in a more specific sense they are true. I did, indeed, study the deadly arts of the hegemony, and the fact that I used that knowledge against it at times is little more than a curiosity. My pay check is, after all, part of the great capitalist machine.

But recently I had an a-ha moment, perhaps thanks to cognitive dissonance or simply the liberating evaporation of this contradiction. While listening to a Radio National show on a couple of Australian Intellectuals I found myself in a strange intellectual harmony—her account of being mere object at the hands (or jaws) of a crocodile made me understand (or finally articulate) how I always somehow felt there was no contradiction between engineering and anarchism, or more broadly, between technical and scientific approaches and anti-authoritarian values.

I have written often about entropy—the ever eroding, destroying force of our world. While it is an important physical concept, I never really understood the full depth of what objective reality really means. The more I got into feminist writing and anarchist writing (and I have to say my feminism is a part of the broad over-arching story of struggle of the oppressed), the more I saw what objectification really meant—and what so many political philosophers were articulating in different ways. But while objectification has always been articulated in terms of a subjective objectifier—an agent, a human being with a subjective world that decides to use another agent as a means or simply as an object to their reality—I feel there is a greater objectifier in the picture and we tend to overlook it.

Isn’t nature itself the greatest objectifier of all? Isn’t nature the most ruthless, mindless, inconsiderate agent of all? Aren’t the laws of physics themselves an expression of an authority we cannot escape?

Laws of physics apply themselves ruthlessly to every physical entity, with no consideration for their impact in that physical entity’s existence. While we tend to not empathise with a comet as it hits a star and evaporates, perhaps because we do not perceive sentience or agency in it, one could argue that the way the laws of physics ignore everything but the physical properties of objects represents the purest form of objectification: I don’t care where you have been, where you are going or the uniqueness of your trajectory, I care only about your mass and chemical composition.

Though a bit surreal, this analogy strikes closer to home when we look at anything remotely alive. What is life but a constant defiance of the objective authority of the laws of physics? When a cell uses its ion pump, perpetually pushing a chemical imbalance that without its constant effort would quickly resume chemical equilibrium, isn’t it expressing a primitive form of systemic criticism?

The idea that life is itself a climb up a ramp that has no end—a surreal attempt to reverse entropy locally when the metabolic systems used to do it contain in their very own definition the obliteration of the agent itself. What could possibly be more tragic? That a system, the natural world, would somehow have a totality that includes in it a defiance that could never succeed—life might show signs that it can redefine its surroundings, but it can never win in the long run.

I can’t help but see the parallel between the laws of physics, and how they treat everything and everyone as a mere object with no consideration to their subjectivity, and the laws of man as they exploit one another.

Consider now human beings, or perhaps other beings with the capacity for subjectivity and intersubjectivity, that is, at least capable of acknowledging another agent’s subjectivity and negotiate possible courses of action using ethics and political discussion. Isn’t our relationship to the physical world one of pure oppression, where the laws of physics override every possible opinion we might have? Isn’t it that our desire to fly, to visit the far reaches of the cosmos, dive deep into our oceans, completely ignored by the laws of physics? What is sadder than the fact that gravity always drags everything down?

I realised that Nature enacts one of the purest forms of objectification—in that to it there is no possible discussion as to whether things could happen any other way. Things go the way they go, and Nature does not care about your subjective well being. Natural laws progress and will overrun any possible attempt at subverting them.

This is where I realised that mankind’s technical ability had something interesting about it—isn’t it a form of defiance of this totality that envelops it? Isn’t it an incredible act of heroism when an entire species decides to reshape its environment to live out abstract, subjective ideas? Isn’t technology an incredible testament to anti-authoritarianism? That our planes fly us because we were given no wings, that our communication technology allows us to defy the speeds available to our own legs?

Most importantly, what could possibly be more objectifying than being given a body, a birthplace, a family, a genetic heritage prone to certain ailments, with no consideration to whether we desire it or deserve it? There is a fundamental unfairness in not choosing our birthplace, our social class, our families, our attractiveness or health. Ask anyone born with a male spirit in a female body, or anyone born with any kind of disease that causes pain, discomfort or simply prevents someone’s spirit to engage reality to the full extent that it desires, how they feel about their luck. To play on Rousseau’s words, man is born in shackles yet everywhere he touts his freedom. The shackles are our physical body, which despite being capable of tremendous intellectual feats, can do little when faced with the heavy hand of Nature, with its disasters and complete disregard for human subjectivity. A supernova does not care, it simply is what it is, and in its path it will annihilate anything in its path—no matter how cultured or beautiful.

In this sense, I managed to find a place where Anarchism and Engineering meet—the point where we choose to defy the laws of physics, not in an absolute sense, but in a locally contextualised sense, by engaging our reality proactively, fighting the lost battle against a hopeless objectified existence to which all physical things are doomed at birth. What is more defiant than to willingly face the cold death of the universe in our own terms? A cosmos that despite the odds, dares to spawn beauty and complexity?

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