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The Scientific Story of Progress… So Far

Classic excerpts from far too under-appreciated Jean Francois Lyotard texts:

"In the immensity of the cosmos, it happened that the energy distributed by chance into particles re­grouped here and there into bodies. These bodies con­stituted isolated systems, galaxies, stars. They disposed of a finite quantity of energy. They used this energy to maintain themselves as stable systems. They never ceased transforming the particles of which they were made, thereby freeing new particles, especially photons and heat. But deprived of assignable energy, these systems were doomed to disappear in time. Energy came to be lacking. Distributed in them in a differential way to permit the work of transformation and the survival of the whole, the energy disorganized, returned to its most probable state, chaos, and spread out haphazardly into space. This process had already been identified for a long time under the name of entropy."

"In a minute part of the cosmic immensity, there was a minute galactic system named the Milky Way. And in the midst of the billions of stars that made it up, there was one star, called the Sun. Like all the closed systems, the Sun emitted heat, light, and radiation in the direction of the planets, over which it exerted its gravitational attraction. And as for all the closed sys­tems, the life expectancy of the Sun was limited by en­tropy. At the time the fable was told, the Sun had more or less reached the midpoint of its life. It still had four and a half billion years before it would disappear.

"Among the planets, there was the Earth. And some­thing unexpected took place on the surface of the Earth. Thanks to the fortuitous conjugation of various forms of energy- the molecules making up the elements of the Earth, especially water, the filtering of solar radia­tion by the atmosphere, the fluctuating temperature - ­it happened that more complex and more improbable systems (cells) synthesized themselves out of molecular systems. This was the first event whose enigmatic oc­currence would condition the rest of the story, and even the possibility of its being recounted. The formation of so-called living cells meant, in effect, that differentiated systems of a certain order, the mineral realm, could under certain conditions, such as those then existing on the Earth's surface, produce differentiated systems of a higher order, the first algae. A process contrary to en­tropy was therefore possible.

"An especially remarkable sign of the complexifying represented by single-celled creatures was their ability to reproduce themselves by dividing into two parts al­most identical to the original but independent of it. What was called scissiparity seemed to assure the per­petuation of single-celled systems in general, despite the disappearance of individuals.

"This is how life and death were born. As opposed to molecules, living systems were obligated, in order to survive, to consume external energy in a regular fashion (metabolism). On the one hand, this dependence made them extremely fragile, since they lived under the threat of a lack of energy appropriate for their metabolism. On the other hand, through this rush of external en­ergy, they found themselves exempt from eventually dis­appearing, the predictable fate of isolated systems. Their life expectancy could be 'negotiated,' at least within cer­tain limits.

"Another event came to affect living systems: sexual reproduction. This reproductive procedure was much more improbable than scissiparity, but it allowed the offspring to differ a lot more from their progenitors, since their ontogenesis proceeded from the more or less aleatory combination of two distinct genetic codes. The margin of uncertainty widened with each succeeding generation. Unexpected events had a greater chance of being produced. In particular, a 'misreading' of the parental codes could give rise to genetic mutations.

"As for the following sequence in this story, it had already been recounted by a certain Mr. Darwin. What he called evolution was remarkable in that it supposed no finality- no more than did the preceding sequence (which had led from physics to biology)- only the prin­ciple of the mechanical selection of the best 'adapted' systems. New living systems would appear by chance. They found themselves confronted by the systems that were already existing, since all of them had to procure energy to survive. With energy sources being of a limited quantity, competition between systems was inevitable. So was born war. The most efficient systems had the best chances of being selected, mechanically.

"And so it was after some time (very brief by the standard of the astronomical clock) that the system called Humankind was selected. This was an extremely unlikely system- and exactly as unlikely as it is for a four-legged creature to stand up on the soles of its rear paws. The immediate implications of this stance are known: the hands are freed for grasping, the cranial cavity restores its balance along the vertical axis, offer­ing a more spacious volume for the brain, the mass of cortical neurons grows and is diversified. Complex cor­poreal skills (techniques), especially manual ones, ap­peared at the same time as those symbolic skills we call human languages. These skills were supple and efficient prostheses that allowed the Human system, so unlikely and so precarious, to compensate for its weakness in the face of its adversaries.

"Along with these skills, something happened that was just as unexpected as what had happened with the appearance of single-celled life, which was endowed with the ability to reproduce by itself In the same way, symbolic language, thanks to its recursiveness, had the ability to recombine its elements infinitely while still making sense, that is, giving something to think and to act upon. Symbolic language, being self-referential, had moreover the capacity to take itself as its own object, hence to provide its own memory and critique. Sup­ported by these properties of language, material tech­nique in turn underwent a mutation: it could refer to itself, build on itself, and improve its performance.

"Moreover, language allows humans to inflect the initially rigid (almost instinctual) forms by which they lived together in early communities. Less likely forms of organization, each one different from the others, were born. They entered into competition. As for every liv­ing system, their success depended on their aptitude to discover, capture, and safeguard the energy sources they needed. In this regard, two great events marked the his­tory of human communities, the Neolithic revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Each discovered new energy sources and new means of exploiting them, thereby affecting the structure of the social systems.

"For a long time (if you count in human time), tech­niques and collective institutions appeared by chance. The survival of the unlikely and fragile systems that were human groups thus remained out of their control. So it is that it happened that the most sophisticated techniques were considered as curiosities and neglected to the point of falling into oblivion. It also happened that communities that were more differentiated than others in political or economic matters were defeated by simpler but more vigorous systems (as had been the case among living species).

"Just as the properties of symbolic language allowed material skills to be conserved, corrected, and optimized in their efficiency, so it was with the modes of social or­ganization. The task of assuring the survival of commu­nities required the ability to control the external or in­ternal events that might strike a blow at their provisions of energy. Instances of authority, charged with this con­trol, appeared in the social, economic, political, cogni­tive, and cultural fields.

"After a time, it happened that the systems labeled liberal democratic showed themselves to be the most ap­propriate at exercising these regulations. They in effect left the control programs open to debate, they in princi­ple allowed each unity to accede to decision functions, they thereby maximized the quantity of human energy useful to the systems. This flexibility turned out in the long run to be more efficient than the rigid fixation of roles in stable hierarchies. In opposition to the closed systems that had emerged in the course of human his­tory, liberal democracies in their very core admitted a kind of competition between the units in the system. This space favored the blossoming forth of new mater­ial, symbolic, and communitarian techniques. Of course, there thus resulted frequent crises that were sometimes dangerous for the survival of these systems. But, on the whole, the performativity of the latter found itself in­creased. This process was called progress. It induced an eschatological representation of the history of human systems.

"In the long run, the open systems won out com­pletely over all the other systems (human, organic, and physical) locked in struggle on the surface of the planet Earth. Nothing appeared able to stop, or even guide, their development. Crises, wars, revolutions contributed to accelerate all this, especially by giving access to new sources of energy and by establishing new control over their exploitation. It even became necessary that the open systems temper their success over other systems in order to preserve the ensemble called an ecosystem from a catastrophic deregulation.

"Only the ineluctable disappearance of the entire solar system seemed like it ought to check the pursuit of development. In response to this challenge, the system already (at the time the fable was told) had begun to develop prostheses able to perpetuate it after the dis­appearance of the energy resources of solar origin that had contributed to the appearance and survival of living and, in particular, human systems.

"At the time this story was told, all research in progress was directed to this aim, that is, in a big lump: logic, econometrics and monetary theory, information theory, the physics of conductors, astrophysics and as­tronautics, genetic and dietetic biology and medicine, catastrophe theory, chaos theory, military strategy and ballistics, sports technology, systems theory, linguistics and potential literature. All of this research turns out, in fact, to be dedicated, closely or from afar, to testing and remodeling the so-called human body, or to replacing it, in such a way that the brain remains able to function with the aid only of the energy resources available in the cosmos. And so was prepared the final exodus of the ne­gentropic system far from the Earth.

"What a Human and his/her Brain- or rather the Brain and its Human- would resemble at the moment when they leave the planet forever, before its destruc­tion; that, the story does not say."


Its just the future, after all. Although, some critics , monks, and scholars alike of Lyotard make the mistake of making a living off of making a mistake about Jean-Francois (though, I may be mistaken about that): like, f’rinstance, the author of Lyotard and the Inhuman. Case in point, & FYI, he didnt have a problem with technology, just some particular types of humans on it… technology is like language, a type of biologically driven tool that expresses something physical or psychological. No worse than a mirror IMHO, no better either.


January 26, 2004
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