The Epic vs Lyric Mode of Action and Innovation

A contribution excerpted from the book: The Power of Networks

Hopefully, the p2p approach can be considered to be part of the lyric approach, as explained here below.

David de Ugarte:

The lyric mode, understood as a way of projecting future possibilities from current experience, is nothing but the narrative representation of a particular ethos, a lifestyle which is seen as an option among many, and does not seek to negate or eliminate others. The lyric mode invites one to join in without becoming diluted in the whole – it seeks conversation, not adhesion. As an ethical option, it stands opposed to the excluding, sacrificial, and confrontational dimension inevitably entailed by the epic mode. It is true that this distinction is not new at all, except maybe in its application to blogging – to wit, that “I want to write a beautiful blog as part of a beautiful life” attitude so beloved of cyberpunks and digital Zionists. In any case, the literary debate is worth picking up once again.

In Of Love and Death, Patrick Süskind opposes the lyric Orpheus – the mythical if human creator of the first songs – to the epic Jesus of Nazareth. [Orpheus] has lost his young wife to the bite of a poisonous snake. And he’s so distraught by his loss that he does something which to us may seem demented, but also completely understandable. He wants to bring his beloved back to life. It’s not that he questions Death’s power or the fact that Death has the last word; much less does he want to vanquish Death in a meaningful way, to seek eternal life for mankind. No, he only wants his beloved Eurydice back, not for all eternity, but for the normal span of a human life, to be happy with her. That’s why Orpheus’s descent to the Underworld must in no way be interpreted as suicidal, but rather as an undertaking which is doubtlessly risky yet completely lifeoriented, and even as a desperate struggle for life […]

It has to be acknowledged that Orpheus’s discourse is pleasantly different from Jesus of Nazareth’s rudeness. Jesus was a fanatical preacher who didn’t seek to convince people but to impose an unconditional servitude. His expressions are scattered with orders, threats, and the constant refrain “I tell thee…” That is how those who don’t want to save a single man but all Mankind have always spoken. Orpheus, on the other hand, loves only one and wants to save only one: Euridyce. And that is why his tone is more conciliatory, kinder […]

The Nazarene makes no mistakes. And even when he appears to make them – for example, when he brings a traitor into his own circle – his mistake is calculated, part of his plan for salvation. Orpheus, however, is a man who has no plans or superhuman skills, and, as such, is liable to make a great mistake, a horrible error, at any time, which makes us like him again. He takes mischievous pleasure – and who could blame him? – in his success.

No doubt many Christians will feel alienated from Süskind’s view of Jesus. No matter – that is not what is relevant about this long quotation. Jesus can be replaced by Che Guevara or any other leader who promises salvation – by anyone who grounds his narrative of the future on the epic, the ultimate sacrifice, the desire to die for others.

What Süskind rightly points out is that the epic mode is inextricably linked to the love of others conceived as something abstract. That’s why the hero’s solution is necessarily all-encompassing, and steps over every single one in order to redeem the whole. The epic is definitely monotheistic in the same sense as all the great theoretical devices of modernity are.

Orpheus, the lyric mode, takes as a starting point the humbleness of one among many, of love and the concrete, of the person – not the individual – who assumes and projects him or herself towards everyone else from the acknowledgement of his or her own difference and that of everyone else. Orpheus offers something and innovates without trying to make others accept a single global truth.

That’s why his narrative becomes acceptable in postmodernity – because his action and his narrative are not meant to be the ending to anything, but merely a part of the great celebration that is his own life. An open celebration. That’s why the lyric mode starts a conversation – because it can accommodate both inclusion and ironical detachment, but never excommunication. The epic mode, on the other hand, can only accommodate adhesion and exclusion, for only the hero can speak, the son of the God of Logos (both reason and word) who knows no truth other than his own.

Desmond Morris recently wrote an odd essay on happiness: The Nature of Happiness. He defines happiness as the sudden burst of pleasure that one feels when something improves, and argues that it is an evolutionary achievement of our species, the genetic prize granted to the members of a species that became curious, basically peaceful, cooperative, and competitive in order to adapt and improve in a diverse, changing environment.

Morris argues that happiness is fleeting because it’s linked to change.

Thus, Juan Urrutia’s oft-quoted motto

– “Allow yourself to be seized by change” would sum up singularly well the attraction of the lyric nature of innovation and its joyful outlook on the future. The lyric nature of networks is based on joy, on the happiness brought about by change. It is rebellious in that rebelliousness is a component of social network theory: by singing of the happiness caused by change, by innovation, by increasing the expectation of a prize for those who join in, the lyric of networks encourages listeners to lower their rebelliousness threshold, leading to the expansion of the new behaviours, and thus of social cohesion.

Within this framework, the lyric mode, understood as the narrative of happiness, which takes as its starting point happiness or the expectation of it, is an encouragement to change: examples of it are the explorer or the cartographer who minimise risks by experimenting – to their own cost – in order to make their results public. This stands opposed to the epic mode of the conqueror and the combatant, who prefigure a society of sacrifice and conquest, of suffering individuals struggling to attain the plus ultra of a final victory which will give a meaning to the Passion undergone. By contrast, the lyric mode of social innovation looks more like the passionate tale of the naturalist who is experiencing a permanent, progressive discovery, who knows about the infinite beyond and values the journey in itself as a complete work, a permanent reinvention, a joyful Resurrection.

The epic mode is ill-suited to networks – at least Southern ones – because epics are about individuals, about solitudes. Prometheus undergoes his punishment in isolation. The epic, martyred Jesus, is a lonely Jesus (“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?”) The Resurrected Christ returns to establish links with others, visits his mother and his friends, rebuilds the network that was broken by the exhaustion caused in those he loved by his own sufferings, bringing back the depleted faith, and foreshadowing the great Pentecostal miracle: speaking in tongues for every member of the original cluster.

It is hard to say to what degree, from the point of view of networks, the individual is an aberrant abstraction. We are not individuals – we are persons, defined not only by our own being but by a set of relationships, conversations, and expectations, which together constitute existence.

That which applies to individuals does not apply to persons. The enemy is not your mirror when you are not one but many. The epic task is the task to achieve a coherent confrontation-based identity, to turn one’s enemy into everyone’s enemy. That’s why the epic simplifies and homogenises. But the lyric mode tells us that our identity lies not in what is, but in what can be achieved, in the happiness of the next change, of the next possible improvement. It encourages us to define ourselves by our next step – it encourages everyone to carry the banner of their own course. It encourages everyone to lead their own way, not to accept a single destiny or destination.

That’s why the epic mode sees the collectivity as an organisation, a mould, an army, the result of a plan or a tragic will. Che Guevara talks about Bolivia like a suffering Christ talking about his Fatherpeople.

The lyric mode, by contrast, narrates collectivity from commonality, in the form of magic (the invention of which, by the way, was attributed to Orpheus by the Ancient Greeks), as the image yielded by a reshaping of practices, experiments, and games. Nothing is farther from the Kabbalistic and Messianic Shekhinah that culminates in the New Jerusalem than the right to seek one’s own happiness – which provides the subversive, lyric counterpoint to the modern order of the American Constitution.

This is the framework within which power is defined in completely opposite ways in both forms of discourse. In the epic mode, power emerges as the result of battle. After the battle there remains a void, or a new fractal war cycle on a new scale. The Iliad is followed by the Oresteiad. From Iphigenia’s sacrifice to Orestes’s persecution by the avengers of his own mother, through Agamemnon’s triumph: Troy betrayed, sacked and razed to its foundations.

In the lyric tale, power emerges consensually, as the collective result of an experiment tested by many, the end of a road which is for many the way of building an existence seized by change. The power of the lyric mode comes from its ability to generate new consensus and design new games, new experiences which many or all in a network will regard as an improvement and a source of happiness for every one.”

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