Bonnita Roy on Grand Narratives in the P2P Age

In June 2013, I had asked Bonnitta Roy an essential question related to communication and paradigm change, but which I then forgot to publish on our blog. The answer is still relevant.

The Question was the following:

Dear Bonnitta Roy, I need your lights on the following issue: it is often said that post-modernism killed grand narratives yet post-post-modernism is about synthesis, integration and looks a bit like grand narratives … my own feeling with constructing p2p theory is that it was necessary to reconstruct after deconstruction, but with the following caveats the theory has to be empirical, you must be willing to change through facts it must be coherent internally, though paradoxes and contradictions may occur and must be recognized it must be integrative, non reductionist and invite people to ameliorative action nevertheless, these approaches may look like grand narratives .. so how do you explain this type of approach to sceptical postmodern academics who always come with this argument?

The Response:

“From my own view, the problem is with the conceptual limitations of the dualistic categories of dialectical mind. For 2000 years, dialectical reasoning has grown in sophistication by creating synthetic (or transcendent or meta-) narratives to reconcile contraries. Postmodernism comes along and points out that meta-narratives aren’t really doing the work that we supposed them to do. They don’t really solve the dichotomies, they basically take one of three ways out

1) reduce them to conceptually more foundational dichotomies — such that, for example, you have the ultimate contrasts in Buddhism “emptiness” and “form” and two truths doctrine (relative and absolute) , Schopenhauer gives us “world” and “representation” for Derrida we have “sameness” and “difference” or the ultimate contrast in Hegel “matter” and “spirit” or in Bhaskar “absence” and “identity” …. or

2) hold paradoxes simultaneously– as “two sides of the same coin” — this is Wilber’s tetra-emergence, or Heidegger’s paradoxical thinking, and also Nishida Kitaro’s answer to Hegel, or

3) establish a meta-theoretical framework upon which the endless synthetic narratives can be adjudicated — hence Integral theory is a meta-theory which contextualizes ‘green’ narratives as “higher” than “blue” narratives — the problem is, a different meta-theoretical framework such as Critical Realism can, through explanatory critique, counter the Integral meta- framework, and so one is left with the frustrating position of having to formulate a meta-meta framework to contextualize the meta-theoretical frameworks. It is easy to show that this pushes the situation of “grand narratives” up a notch in terms of conceptual sophistication, but it does not solve the problem of grand narratives and as such is still subject to the post-modern critique (IMO).

Now, the problem is that the only way dialectical mind grows in conceptual sophistication is through these synthetic complexifications. We have the trap wherever there is “difference” we bump it up to a “higher” or more “complexified” sophistication, of “sameness.” We are trapped into this construction where conceptual sophistication grows from difference to sameness, multiplicity to unity, concrete and particular to abstract and universal.

Adding to the problem is the shadow of post-war humanism, that embraces post-modernism and “difference” but it strives for some grand unifying principle (contract, identity, global commons) because it is afraid of “difference” and incommensurability. Hence it becomes the handmaiden of capitalism. This is why, IMO, when we have had a flourishing of pluralistic values, we have parallel with this the rapid globalization of new-liberal mono-culture. This is the big “holy fuck” of post-post modernism — because it engages capitalism in a way that paves the way for capitalism. It creates the internet (so we can all be connected) which is the best invention that global finance ever discovered. It creates the metaphor of “hive mind” and “global commons” — which is the exact structure that allows capitalism to capture the commons and the imaginations of people. It conflates the global view of humans with the planetary ecology of nature– the one a unifying principle (the image of the earth in space) at the center of an anthropocentic view, and the other a dizzying diversity of non-linear dynamics with absolutely no fixed perspectival or agentic center. This is why the grand global interventions of the environmental movement arise simultaneously with the accelerated destruction of the planet.

Something, Michel, has gone terribly wrong!

There are a few people just beginning to re-wire our conceptual software, and open up a larger choice field for problem solving without relying on grand narratives or unifying principles. Whitehead set the stage, Charles Sanders Pierce showed up how it was wrong, and Hartshorne integrated the field. Why process philosophers? Because the only way dialectical mind can conceptualize contraries is by assuming that reality is fixed and thing-like, not fluid, dynamic, and transformative. Prigigone showed us why dynamic systems have an arrow of time. Therefore, when you include time as part of the process, you have to contextualize the contraries in a temporal framework, rather than in an integrative or synthetic framework. As an example, when we think of conceptual contraries such as “subject” and “object” or “unity” and “diversity” … we can, as good paradoxical thinkers, see that they are co-dependently related. But we tend to see them as “equal” and “simultaneous” opposites — as Wilber does. But this requires us to abstract the processural nature of reality, and fix it into conceptual categories. If we add back the processural nature, then we see that the contraries are actually asymmetrically related, such that the subject depends on the object and the object depends on the subject — but the subject depends on the object in a difference way than the object depends on the subject. For example, the parent and child arise simultaneously as abstract categories (they self-define), but it is obvious that the parent depends on the child in a different way than the child depends on the parent. Once we start using the categories to represent concrete actuals in a generative process with an arrow of time — we can no longer structure the way we use them in simple dialectical ways of reasoning. We can’t force ourselves to “see” the parent and child as symmetrical contraries — we “see” them intuitively as generative structures in a process. The terms I use is that the parent is “onto-genetic” to the child (the parent pre-constitutes the child) and the child is ontological for the parent.

The promise is that *everything modern people have done in the past 200 years* needs to be re-composed outside of dialectical mind — but this is an extraordinary opportunity!

It turns out all the conceptual categories are asymmetrically contextualized by an implicit arrow of time. Hartshorne showed us that each dipolar construction can be seen to take the form of an absolute term and a relative term. “Sameness”, “unity”, “whole” “transcendence” “object” “emptiness”– are all absolute or a-terms. “Difference”, “diversity”, “parts”, “immanence” “subject”, “form” are all relative or r-terms. When we put them back into usefulness as representatives of actual reality, which is an on-going generative process, we find that all a-terms are, like “parent” onto-genetic to all “r-terms”, like “child.” And we discover our discourse, science and philosophy turn into generative systems, not meta-narrative or synthesizing systems!

Anyway, the point of all this, is that the only way to satisfy the post-modern concern with totalizing narratives is to develop a whole new mind, which does not operate under the conceptual limitations of dialectical mind. There are some immediate consequences of this.

A whole new cosmology: we see the absolute certainty that we are unified in the ground source, or origin of becoming, and therefore realize that we are not separate, and that the universal trajectory is toward increasing complexity AND increasing diversity (uniquification)

We see that the “fear” of fragmentation or separation is a by-product of establishing a static universe, where thing-like categories represent reality within the systematisizing program of dialectically structured reasoning.

That at every level or domain of existence there are exclusionary principles which are the principles which guarantee difference and generate increasing levels of uniqueness. So for example, at the quantum level there is wave-particle uncertainty, at the atomic level there is Pauli exclusion, at the level of abiotic there are things like laws that govern crystals, handedness, etc… at the level of plant there is the exclusion of space, at the level of animals there are incompatible goods, and at the level of humans there are incommensurable beliefs.

The most complex and most unique entity is forever in the future, and the ultimate unifying principle is forever grounded singularity of ever-presencing origin. (This one tenant in itself precludes synthetic grand narration)

So how does this play out existentially? Well, let’s take the domain of animals. Hartshorne said there was too much emphasis on evil and not enough emphasis on “incompatible goods.” We have the situation in nature where it is “good” for the fox to catch the rabbit to feed her pups, but it is also “good” for the rabbit to get away and go home and nurse her babies. We have ways of understanding why we cannot adjudicate between mutually incompatible goods in the animal realm — and we understand that there is something inherently creative and generative about this. As part of the animal realm, we share with animals the situation of incompatible goods. We have to eat animals. But as humans in the human sphere we have the situation of incommensurable beliefs. But there is something about post-war humanism that rejects this principle. There is always this need to adjudicate between and among incommensurable beliefs with some implicit or explicit grand narrative. And if the post-modernists of us don’t have an explicit narrative that adjudicates incommensurable beliefs, then there is just the shadow lurking there.

The truth is, we have not yet come to terms with diversity, difference and incommensurability. We believe that things will only get better if there is a flag, a truth, an economy, a religion, or a values-system that we can become unified under. Of course there are temporary unifying principles created all the time. But *the* unifying principle is a singularity– it is ontogenetic to every entity, not waiting for us somewhere in the future or on another, metaphysical plane. In fact, every unifying principle actually increases the diversity of the system, because it does not transcend and resolve the differences, it preserves and adds to them, so we are not left with a magic “third term”, as if the cosmos were a linear algorithm, no – we are left with “three terms” instead of the original two!

I can even argue, that the only fear we have, and the origin of all our pathologies as a species, is the inability to realize ourselves as the unity prinicple, in continuous process of diversification — instead all our efforts to “capture” or “achieve” unification somewhere in the future, is a consequence of amanesis, or forgetfullness, that we are not separate, that we come from unity and grow toward diversity. Every re-presentation of universality is a unique particular, because universality, origin, is not repeatable in a ever-transforming, creative universe!

I could go on and on — as there has been a lot of research and work done on this over the past 14 months. I am including Anne and Mushin on this thread because they, more than any other people I have worked with, are starting to figure this stuff out too!

As an aside — because Helene brought this in. It can be shown that there is a strong “developmental bias” that comes along with dialectical reasoning. And of course we see this developmental bias everywhere –even where people use the term “evolution” or “emergence” — they are thinking accumulatively as in development– IOW, they are implicitly ordering the system in a constitutive trajectory, that looks translate into “linear progress.” Hence, I have a system called “Generative Process Analytics” that helps make explicit what we mean when we are utilizing different process terms to describe or prescribe systems. You can’t move to a genuine evolutionary narrative if you are trapped inside dialectical categories. This is the problem that Teilhard de Chardin had, that Darwin avoided, that the evolutionary spiritualists fall prey to, and that Stephen J Gould fought against his entire career.”

More information on Bonnitta Roy’s work on post-dialectical thinking is available here.

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