A borderless horizon

Suffice to say a certain number of years have passed since I studied philosophy at university. And that my memory of those years of study is incomplete.

But - if you are still reading - let me just say I have never forgotten these lines written by Immanuel Kant:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

That is to say: our interpretation of the world in which we find ourselves is always conditioned by the inherent parameters of human understanding. We can evolve immensely complex explanations for the nature of things, but we can never access a transcendent reality 'behind' the world of appearances: the ultimate source of those mysterious 'starry skies', or of the faculty of discrimination that allows us to negotiate moral and aesthetic judgements. We perceive everything through the lens of human understanding, a filter that conditions all we can know, a horizon beyond which we cannot see.

While researching an article that I don't yet know how to begin writing (a task this little blog post allows me to delay further) I stumbled on a striking passage by the literary critic Fredric Jameson, from a book called Valences of the Dialectic (certainly one for the poolside), that seemed to me to extend upon Kant's insight in an interesting way, sharpening its relevance for us, here in 2014, nearly 250 years after Kant was writing:

We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling… which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonizing among poisonous colors and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid. The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy, and in its cosmos, all of it drawn from the very fibers of our own being and at one with every post-natural cell more alien to us than nature itself, we continue murmuring Kant's old questions - What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? - under a starry heaven no more responsive than a mirror or a spaceship, not understanding that they require the adjunct of an ugly and bureaucratic representational qualification: what can I know in this system? What should I do in this world completely invented by me? What can I hope for alone in an altogether human age?'

I like that stark image of humanity wandering lost through a strange landscape that we ourselves have created, a world mediated at every step by the invention of the human mind. Kant imagines us encountering a pure state of nature in an attitude of wonder. Jameson notes that we now move within a fabricated environment almost wholly mapped, organised and designed by us, for us, a human world within the world. For us almost all experience is filtered through social, political, economic and technological frameworks of our own making. And yet this endlessly complex human infrastructure seems as strange to us as any unconquered wilderness. The bureaucracies and technologies we set in motion are beyond our control, and confront us as something alien and exterior.

That sense of entanglement in a borderless human web, of being adrift on an endless sea of human invention, is particularly acute for us today, I think, now that we spend so much of our time online. How is it possible that there can be so much information? Every so often I remind myself of its endlessness by spending some time clicking on link after link, moving from site to site, each in their own constellation. I suppose it's the closest we can come to the interstellar travel imagined in science fiction, galaxy after galaxy without end. How the hell did we come up with all of this? And how can we make sense of anything beyond smallest part of it?

I don't know: it's late, and I need to get on with that article.