Pirates of the Epistemology
From the Encyclopedia of Heresies
I should confess: I don’t always know what I’m doing with these essays, these little heresies. The idea behind this particular ramble is a simple one, but at the same time it’s complex, as is fitting for that which inspired it. I looked at one of the foremost of the founders of my homeland and a discredited Frenchman who dreamed of communal society before Marx, and I saw a kinship. That perceived kinship led me further on, to others I also thought I saw some familiar traits, and then to a friend of mine, the editor of this lovely periodical, who introduced me to gentlemen who, either directly or through their descendants, helped alter reality itself, in a manner of speaking, like epistemic pirates. And so here we begin our trip through strange places, with the phalanstere, where men will flit like butterflies from pleasant task to pleasant task and mankind will finally be perfected, in the ancient way of the alchemists.
Association was Fourier’s term for the advanced stages of society. Its basic unit, the Phalanx, requires about sixteen hundred people, and they must be carefully selected to balance personality types. Having the right people assures high productivity, and the right mix of personalities creates harmony. A Phalanx must have a variety of talents to create the musical and other cultural events that are absolutely essential to life.
Phalanx people live, work, and enjoy recreation and culture all under one roof in a huge building called the Phalanstery. An underground transportation system moves people quickly to distant locations within it, a necessity in a society where everyone, free as le papillon, switches to other work when a task becomes boring. The building’s wings enclose an open, central area with gardens, fountains, and plazas large enough for parades and mass festivities. Outside the Phalanstery walls, farms and orchards recede into the distance. Owen had a similar but less elaborate utopian palace in mind for New Harmony and showed a model to congress in 1825.
— Seymour R. Kesten, Utopian Episodes
François Marie Charles Fourier was a fascinating man, I think even his ideological enemies would have to agree. Born the son of a cloth merchant, dispossessed by the French Revolution and nearly executed, self-educated and a talented pamphleteer, he mixed interestingly telling observations about human nature and progressive arguments for total female suffrage and equality between the sexes with an internal mythology of potent strangeness and compelling imagination. Unlike Robert Owen and Etienne Cabot, his contemporaries and fellow “utopian socialists” (as later thinkers such as Friedrich Engels would somewhat derisively label them in order to foster a separation between their ideas and those of his own, “scientific socialist” friends and allies like Marx), Fourier was an outsized, grandiose writer who crafted fantastic, some would even say grotesque visions of the truth behind natural phenomena. I promise I’ll cover exactly what Fourier believed in a little bit, but I don’t want to do that until we cover his impact on the Utopians in general, and specifically groups like the Oneida and Owenite movements in the United States. Unlike Robert Owen, who while considered one of the fathers of the utopian movement was still a businessman who created textile mills according to his principles in Scotland and built practical communes in Indiana, Fourier had no patience, toleration or even much desire to understand the industrial era: he rejected it outright, and indeed all modern civilization, as a stage of “growing pains” the human race had to endure on its way from “Chaos” and “savagery” towards the ultimate goal, “Harmony.” “Civilization” was, in a Fourier-inspired view, a domestication process for the human race itself, the means by which it learned to move from untamed aggression and instinctual repression to a free and open expression of the individual self which would lead to a happy, efficient and orderly state which could produce enough to sustain itself without exploitation or suffering.
Fourier’s views on human nature and the root causes for human suffering are too complex for me to do more than summarize, so let me do so now: he believed that people were unhappy when they were forced to do work they were unsuited to, and happy when allowed to do work they were attracted to. Furthermore, as even the most dedicated human being will grow bored with any task if it is repeated enough, in order to maintain happiness (which Fourier viewed as essential to efficiency and productivity, since happy people work harder without complaint) it becomes necessary for the maintenance of an efficient society to allow human beings in said society to move to a new task when an old task has begun to bore them. This view of human nature and happiness extended to sexual relationships (Fourier’s ideas for love and human relationships are exceedingly complex and very detailed: we’ll attempt to get back to them at some point, but if we don’t make it, just know that he supported total freedom from the typical restrictions lovers must endure in Civilization) as well, to the degree that Fourier believed a society could be gauged as having progressed or regressed from Harmony in how close it came to gender equality. As intimated above, Fourier’s ideas soon became popular enough to even influence those of Owen, who had first achieved notoriety among the nascent “Bible Communists” and other utopia-leaning folks of America in the 1830s.
So, what went wrong? Why aren’t we today living in a nation of strongly religious communes where all property is held in common and all sexual relationships are open and consented to by all, much like the Oneida community attempted for three decades between the 1840s and 1870s? Well, a lot of things. There was plenty of resistance to the idea of dismantling society in favor of Owenite palaces like New Harmony or, to take it even further, huge underground phalansteries like those Fourier proposed. It was hardly an alluring prospect to the mill owners of the Blackstone Valley in Rhode Island, for example, where the Industrial Revolution that had been cleverly stolen and shipped back to New England (in the head of Samuel Slater, a young Englishman who brought knowledge of the Arkwright technologies to the Blackstone River, creating water powered textile mills at the behest of Moses Brown, and then for his own sake — interestingly, the British had by 1789 forbidden the emigration of engineers out of fear of this exact thing happening, yet Slater made it through their net… a note: trade secrets never stay secret) from the old one had so eagerly been grafted. The idea that they should smash their machines, to borrow a phrase from the Luddites, and create these pastoral enclaves to live in common with all other men and women in a highly structured manner, especially to the degree that Fourier proposed (a structure decided entirely on personality types Fourier himself invented and one in which all people, male and female, were free to abandon a task as soon as he or she became bored with it) seemed alien and unusual to those who had made their way in the world through determined focus on one field of study. Robert Heinlein would argue years later that specialization was for insects, but it was specialization that helped grease the wheels of the Industrial Revolution: one considers the development by Eli Whitney in 1799 of the so-called “American System of Manufacture,” based on ideas by Honoré le Blanc, who himself may have based his ideas on the techniques of the Renaissance Venice Arsenal, but we won’t quibble too much with the nomenclature. The simple fact is that Whitney’s ideas had caught on, especially because they were being used in the manufacture of weapons, and the idea of the United States’ abandoning its burgeoning industrialization and specialization of trades for Fourier’s butterfly approach to work was a hard sell as it is.
But Fourier made it an even harder sell himself.
Does it really matter that he believed the stars to be animated beings like ourselves, or that he credited the planets with an androgynous nature (although he also suspected them of having intercourse with each other)? In what way are his very interesting observations on human nature discredited by the belief that the moon was once a lady named Phoebe and that her death caused the Flood reported in the Old Testament? These and other fantasies, too numerous and grotesque to be listed here, surely point to nothing more alarming than a hidden vein of poetry for which he had found no suitable outlet. They should not be allowed to take precedence over his prophetic warning that real progress was something other than the mechanical confection of instruments for destroying human happiness.
— George Lichtheim, The Origins of Socialism
All of this might have been delightfully amusing to most Harbinger readers if not for three things: (1) the mind from which those thoughts sprang had been absolutely serious; (2) that mind was supposed to guide them in what leaders of Association called “the science of society”; and (3) Fourier’s invasion of a sacred precinct, creation according to scripture, alienated allies both committed and potential, and it placed another powerful weapon in the hands of those opposed to social reorganization.
Negative reaction to “Cosmogony” appeared quickly from both inside and outside the Associationist camp. From the outside, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of Oneida, said in his Bible paper The Perfectionist, “If the Fourierists received this as a direct revelation, we have no fault to find, except with their credulity. But if it is to pass for the result of human investigation, it is evidently very silly, impudent stuff.”
— Seymour R. Kesten, Utopian Episodes
Noyes was the founder of the Oneida community, a more than thirty year experiment in the creation of an ideal Christian commune, “Bible Communism” at its most developed. This is a man who developed the concept of complex marriage, where every man and every woman in the community was considered married, and who put into practice the eugenic concept of stirpiculture, wherein the actual breeding of children by the community was carefully selected. (Noyes’ community managed to take all of the fun out of being in a community where everyone was considered married to everyone else, since in order for members of Oneida to consummate their sexual relationships they had to ask an elder first and they had to stop before the man could climax, so even there they fell far short of Fourier’s ideas of freedom, liberation and pleasure in novelty being important to the maintenance of a stable society… but the potential was there.) Noyes had first attempted to practice his ideas of Bible Communism in Putney, Vermont, alongside his rich wife Harriet (who he married either for his high-minded ideals of the communal love of all of God’s children for each other, or because he needed her cash to publish his Perfectionist newspapers, you make the call) but was ultimately forced to move to Oneida in New York to avoid public outrage over his intent to completely change the very nature of marriage and society. Undaunted, Noyes continued his quest to create a perfect union with God in Oneida, by creating perfect Christians via stirpicultural breeding, ultimately selecting a crop of young followers to sign oaths and undergo the process. A committee was set up to approve or deny the requests of later members of the community as to having children, and sometimes the committee would tell young members of the community to have children who had not considered or intended it.
Therefore, in alienating Noyes, Fourier had basically (and unknowingly, since Fourier had by this time been dead for well over a decade) helped drive a stake into the utopian movement in the United States. I’m sorry to tell Mr. Lichtheim this, but for the strongly religious folks who composed the Bible Communists and others who were similarly willing to listen to Fourier’s message of sexual equality, social liberation, and efficiency by way of planned communities (like then-minister John Murray Spear of the Universalist Church, who would become famous later for his own eccentric views), Fourier’s arguments that, say, the aroma of the planet Jupiter created oxen or that the moon had caused the Great Flood did matter, and as much as any of the other reasons, be they economic or social, utopianism died as a result of the schism between Associationists, Owenists and Bible Communists that followed the publication of Fourier’s more fanciful theories.
Which is a shame, because they’re excellent in their detail and insanity. I mean, the stars and planets getting it on in a vast asexual celestial orgy, transmitting the matter of creation via cosmic smell? The oceans, Fourier told us, would be transformed into lemonade and 37 million Newtons, 37 million Molières, and 37 million Homers (the poet, not the Simpson) would come into existence. I mean, this is some kickass stuff, and I think it’s a damn shame that the American Utopians didn’t roll up their sleeves and put some of that gumption and determination into making it happen. But instead, it’s as if Fourier’s more unconventional thoughts poisoned the sugar, as it were, of his more coherent social theories, and the movement floundered. Their worldview, or paradigm if you prefer, couldn’t swallow the whole of the man, since it had been originally formed on just his writings on the phalanstere and the attractive labor theory: even Fourier’s American defenders were ignorant of much of the man’s writings.
Note, for example, that if oxygen were dephlogisticated air for us, we should insist without hesitation that Priestley had discovered it, though we would still not know quite when. But if both observation and conceptualization, fact and assimilation to theory, are inseparably linked in discovery, then discovery is a process and must take time. Only when all the relevant conceptual categories are prepared in advance, in which case the phenomenon would not be of a new sort, can discovering that and discovering what occur effortlessly, together, and in an instant. Grant now that discovery involves an extended, though not necessarily long, process of conceptual assimilation. Can we also say that it involves a change in paradigm? To that question, no general answer can yet be given, but in this case at least, the answer must be yes. What Lavoisier announced in his papers from 1777 on was not so much the discovery of oxygen as the oxygen theory of combustion. That theory was the keystone for a reformation of chemistry so vast that it is usually called the chemical revolution.
— Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
It’s interesting to consider thought, and how thoughts affect other thoughts: in essence, everything we think is part of a constantly weaving pattern of thoughts interpolating with both all our own thoughts and all the thoughts we come into contact. The process Kuhn describes as a change in paradigm is in essence a total alteration of the mind. You can describe Lavoisier and Priestley’s achievement not so much as a discovery in positive as much as it was a discovery in negative, a destruction of phlogiston itself. Of course, today we know (thanks to Lavoisier and Priestley, even if Priestley could scarcely believe it) that phlogiston does not exist: that when an object is burned, its essential phlogiston (from the Greek word φλογίζω, meaning, well, to burn stuff, basically) does not escape into the ether. Therefore, thanks to Lavoisier and Priestley, we know that there’s no phlogiston to restore to the ashes of a burned object and thus recreate it exactly as it was before it was burned. This idea, born out of the works of Johann Becher and George Stahl, was an adaptation of Paracelsus’ notion of the internal essence of an object being visible through its external state (including notions of alchemical sulphur and purification) as well as explaining much of what the chemists of the time saw when they burned things.
For roughly a century, from the time of Becher and Stahl until 1774, Stahl’s proposal of phlogiston (that is, that phlogiston existed in all flammable objects, and was released from them by the process of burning them, so that ash would not burn because its essential phlogiston had been released by the fire itself) existed as dogma within chemistry. Its hold was so strong that when Priestley first experimented on red oxide of mercury and released oxygen from it via the application of fire, he called the gases released by the process dephlogisticated air and not oxygen: to Priestley, the presence of phlogiston was such a given that there was no possibility that it didn’t exist.
This is interesting to me on several levels. For one thing, these little gedankenexperiments into our Encyclopedia of Heresies often come in the form of thoughts that don’t really fit anywhere else. For instance, in Priestley’s mind, the idea that there was no phlogiston didn’t fit, and as a result, he couldn’t see what he’d accomplished. The nature of his achievement was hidden from him by his preconceptions about what it was. It fell to his rival and correspondent Lavoisier to put the big picture together, to understand what Priestley had done. Lavoisier is today credited, in my copy of The Penguin Desk Encyclopedia of Science and Mathematics (and man, I knew there was a reason I loved the clearance table at my local used book store) as “the first to have a clear concept of a chemical element and the first to list the known elements. He also developed the idea of naming compounds from elements.” Apologies to Kuhn and his excellent Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which does make the point that things are rarely that simple, but it’s useful to consider the difference between Priestley and Lavoisier here. Both were gifted chemists, both were intelligent men, both were accomplished scientists: while today phlogiston is often derided as a pseudo-scientific concept, it’s not fair to hold that against Priestley. It was as accepted as Newton’s theory of light as a material corpuscle was in its time, and no scientist would abandon it lightly. It would be like a modern scientist arguing that the laws of physics themselves are habitual, that they follow some kind of selective force. (Yes, I did work Rupert Sheldrake in again, my apologies to you who aren’t fans of Morphic Resonance.) But both Priestley and Lavoisier were living in an age where such arguments were advanced again and again, as the very nature of the chemical revolution with its distinct elements and compounds, named and ordered, would make clear: a derivation and elaboration of distinction that would make the hermetics weep with envy and lead the way into atomic science and the principles of how atoms affect each other. (If you think about it, Paracelsus’ idea of how the internal essence of an object is expressed externally works pretty well in that context.) And it was hardly the only such revolution coming down the pike: the triumph of Darwin was close to hand, and it was but recently before the development of the oxygen theory of combustion that the disparate threads of electrical experimentation worked on by the self-styled “Electricians” were beginning to come together in a unified school.
When it began, there was no single paradigm for electrical research. Instead, a number of theories, all derived from relatively accessible phenomena, were in competition. None of them succeeded in ordering the whole variety of electrical phenomena very well. That failure is the source of several of the anomalies that provide background for the discovery of the Leyden jar. One of the competing schools of electricians took electricity to be a fluid, and that conception led a number of men to attempt bottling the fluid by holding a water-filled glass vial in their hands and touching the water to a conductor suspended from an active electrostatic generator. On removing the jar from the machine and touching the water (or a conductor connected to it) with his free hand, each of these investigators experienced a severe shock.
— Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
What’s amazing about all this is that several of these men were members of a little social club headquartered in Birmingham, England, known as the Lunar Society: just on a casual perusal of their membership roll we can find luminaries like Erasmus Darwin (ancestor to Charles and Sir Francis Galton as well, that popularizer and namer of the Eugenics movement); the aforementioned Joseph Priestley; William Withering (who discovered digitalis’s effect on heart disease); Josiah Wedgewood (if you like pottery, Josiah’s the guy who figured out how to industrialize their manufacture). And their correspondents and casual members included figures such as Thomas Jefferson (acquainted with the school via his teacher and mentor William Small) and Benjamin Franklin (whose experiments in electricity were first published by Priestley roughly a decade after they’d been conducted). And there were several others worth mentioning, like architect James Wyatt and Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame that Samuel Slater brought in his mind from England to America.
Between the Darwin-Wedgewood line that spawned both Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, the work of Priestley and Lavoisier in the discovery of oxygen and the development of the oxygen theory of combustion, and Priestley’s publication of Franklin’s experiments (which even Kuhn credits with helping to end the idea of fluid electricity and setting electrical research on the path picked up by such figures as Faraday and Hans Christian Ørsted), these men did more than the accomplishments in science and industry they’re credited with. They helped set the stage for not one, not two, but three shifts in the very nature of thought in these selected fields within one hundred years, successfully manipulating the rising cultural impetus towards the justification of industrialization towards their own ends both material and intellectual. It’s one thing to help create whole industries, as several of their members did, but to alter the very way men and women of science thought was a far more incredible achievement, which is demonstrated by how very difficult it was even for them. Even Priestley, who was involved not once but twice in these impressive shifts of the established paradigm (to use Kuhn’s word) couldn’t quite believe it: he never fully abandoned phlogiston.
As an aside, the whole Darwin-Wedgewood line reminds me of Wold Newton a little bit. But let’s keep that between you and me, shall we?
So what? you may ask. What does a social club in Birmingham in the late 18th- and early 19th-century, even one as compellingly stocked with outsized characters who would come to have a dramatic effect on scientific thought and our culture, have to do with a French maniac who in many ways repudiated everything they stood for? Let me have yet another one of my little digressions here, and I’ll start to bring our cast of characters together, I promise.
I mentioned briefly, while discussing the Bible Communists and other consequences of the religious flourishing called the Great Awakening in the wake of the spread of industrialization in North America (caused in part by that crafty Samuel Slater, with his head full of the designs of Richard Arkwright, former partner to the man Slater was apprenticed to and also member of the Lunar Society… you see how these things become recursive , don’t you?) a man named John Murray Spear. Spear, like Noyes, was the product of a religious New England upbringing brought suddenly into violent relief by the waves of epistemic change radiating out of the Blackstone Valley and across the countryside: Spear’s reaction, like Noyes’, was to become involved in revivalism and the Universalist church, although in Spear’s case his religious path was almost hereditary. His brother Charles, whom he would work alongside in apostolic zeal for the abolition of slavery, was also a Universalist minister and would become famous for his work in attempting to abolish the death penalty. Yes, a fervent Christian who opposed the death penalty. It was a different age, I suppose, one where the terms “Bible” and “Communism” were often said in the same breath and not as antagonists. At any rate, John Murray Spear would serve, during the period of time in which Noyes decided to move from the sinful works of man and the belching demons of “progress” into a strange mix of Rousseau- and Christianity-inspired communal living, as a pastor, a social reformer, a zealous advocate for woman’s suffrage and the end of slavery, for which he was attacked by mobs in Portland, Maine and even forced to resign his ministry in New Bedford. In many ways, John Murray Spear was on a trajectory that would eclipse Noyes and take him further into realms of eccentric behavior that the dreamer of the phalanstere would have approved of. Spear’s Unitarian Universalism would mutate into something else entirely… a conversation that would lead to construction.
He soon declared himself the chosen medium, or “general agent on Earth,” of the spirits of John Murray, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and other distinguished departed who had together formed a “Congress of Spirits.” Spear let it be known that the “Congress” would deliver plans, through him, for the remaking of society. Through Spear the spirit of Jefferson discoursed against slavery. Universalist physician Benjamin Rush’s spirit directed him to give lectures on health and medicine. Scientific spirits, like Franklin’s, relayed information to assist with advances in technology, including a perpetual motion machine, an electric thinking machine, an electric ship, an intercontinental telepathic network, and an improved sewing machine. The “Congress” also urged the foundation of spiritualist utopian communities in Kiantone, New York and Patriot, Indiana.
Spear’s new view of the universe led him into communion with Franklin and Rush, or so he claimed (both were friends of Joseph Priestley, and in Rush’s case a co-religionist with the man, who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1793 to practice his own particular brand of Unitarianism), and the advice of these dead men in their “Congress of Spirits” was to lead Spear to attempt to develop what Spear dubbed “the New Messiah” based on what he called the designs of the “Band of Electricizers,” another name for his congress of spirits, or a subdivision therein. (Other parts of the collective seemed to include the “Healthfulizers,” “Educationalizers,” “Agriculturalizers,” “Elementizers” and “Governmentizers”) In 1853, Spear and a handpicked group of followers of his new beliefs (now much more akin to Spiritualism than even the most imaginative version of Christianity ever developed, as Spear continued work based on the idea that he was in direct contact with the spirits of dead luminaries and scientists) attempted to bring the “New Messiah” into physical existence by building it. Spear’s mission on earth to recreate human society, complete with grandiose plans for vast circular cities (familiar in design to anyone who’s ever read Plato’s Timaeus, I’d suspect) could only be brought to fruition by the construction of this mechanical god, whose new motive power could be used to bring the plans and schemes the “Electricizers” beamed into Spear’s receptive brain into fruition. If this reminds you of Edison’s belief that one could build a telephone that ghosts and spirits could use to communicate with this world via electromagnetic interference, well, maybe there’s a good reason for that. Spear’s machine god was apparently a huge collection of metallic shafts and uprights holding spheres and fixtures containing quite a few magnets, as described in a Fortean Times article. To get an idea of the kind of lunacy surrounding the device’s creation, with Spear done up in a complex apparatus like a 1930s pulp mad scientist while the Mary of the New Revelation (and to this day no one knows who she was) came to the experiment by spiritual order due to her signs of pregnancy and the assembled believers attempted to pray and shock the mechanical god into life, you should read that article. At any rate, ultimately the machine god didn’t ever display enough new motive force to spin a top, was dismantled and shipped to Randolph, New York, where a mob (possibly of the same mind as those that drove Noyes to Oneida) tore the thing apart as an abomination. Thus died the electrical messiah.
Or perhaps not. Here’s where things get weird, so please bear with me, as I attempt to drag all of the preceding together into a knot: what if Spear was in contact, in a manner of speaking, with the spirits he claimed? Thinking about it from this point of view, we begin to make strange connections. Franklin, like Newton before him, was a man of prodigious self-education and many social connections, intimate with political, social, economic, and scientific power. He was the first to create a public library in the United States, he was instrumental in the development of both electrical study and meteorology (the study of climate and weather), which is one of the fields of study that has so influenced modern chaos theory… he was a member of the Royal Society, was acquainted with Walpole and his Hellfire Club at Strawberry Hill, where one of John Dee’s shewstones was a primary attraction. He was given an honorary doctorate from Oxford, home of Raleigh and his fellow conspirators in the School of Night. Through his diplomatic efforts in France, beginning in 1767, he gained such respect that his presence helped secure French aid during the Revolutionary War, even engaging the services of Giuseppe Balsamo as a physician while he was in France. Yes, Cagliostro himself. Well, they were both freemasons, so it’s not that surprising. (We could go on and on about the obverse side of the great seal of the United States, that all-too-familiar pyramid with the eye, claimed by some to be the eye of Providence… like, say, Providence, Rhode Island, the capital of that state where Samuel Slater first grafted the product of the mind of one of the Lunar Society, Richard Arkwright, onto American soil, and of course that infamous saying novus ordo seclorum, the new order of the ages… an epistemic shift, one could say. But while Franklin was on the committee to design the seal, it’s hardly clear how much he really had to do with it.)
He knew Priestley well, his theories of electricity being published by the man, and had made Lavoisier’s acquaintance as well. He was obsessed with information, with propaganda, with the physical world and its improvement. He never sought high office in the nation he helped found, yet worked tirelessly for its benefit and expansion through alliances and diplomacy… through the persuasive force of his personality and his arguments. He dallied with the self-styled wizards of the libertine Hellfire Club, men like Walpole and the Earl of Sandwich, all the while learning the way their minds work while opposing them in Parliament right up until the eve of rebellion, and he was their better at quickness of mind. He was the Poor Richard of the Almanac, a master of the pithy saying. He re-imagined electricity itself. Furthermore, he was famously eccentric, a deist who flirted with atheism, a sexually liberated man who pursued pleasure where he could attain it (and his natural charm allowed him to attain more than his share) and whose only acknowledged son, former Royal Governor of New Jersey William Franklin, was born a bastard. Herman Melville described Franklin as “everything but a poet” and herein I suggest that he was something else in addition to being a printer, a publisher, a journalist, an essayist, a scientist, a philosopher and an inventor and a diplomat: maybe he was a magician, too.
Magic was originally conceived of as a study of the natural world and the way to manipulate it via will: alchemy, for example, that field of study that gave us the phlogiston theory that Priestley would die believing in, was a quest for purity, for perfection ultimately of the self. The study of the elemental forms of the universe was a study of the self, an attempt to learn the old Hermetic lesson of macrocosm, that as above, so below. Franklin was known to have stated that he believed it was possible for man to live forever so long as the will was present. Perhaps he had a plan to achieve it, a plan that involved his huge web of correspondences and contacts, a great varied series of precise alterations to the world itself? Keep in mind that Franklin was intimately aware of information, of its storage, of its dissemination, and of the effect it could have on the minds of others.
There is even evidence that these same characteristics are built into the nature of the perceptual process itself. In a psychological experiment that deserves to be far better known outside the trade, Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. Each experimental run was constituted by the display of a single card to a single subject in a series of gradually increased exposures. After each exposure the subject was asked what he had seen, and the run was terminated by two successive correct identifications. Even on the shortest exposures many subjects identified most of the cards, and after a small increase all the subjects identified them all. For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades of hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience.
— Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
In 1931, the Czech-born mathematician Kurt Gödel demonstrated that within any given branch of mathematics, there would always be some propositions that couldn’t be proven either true or false using the rules and axioms… of that mathematical branch itself. You might be able to prove every conceivable statement about numbers within a system by going outside the system in order to come up with new rules and axioms, but by doing so you’ll only create a larger system with its own unprovable statements. The implication is that all logical system of any complexity are, by definition, incomplete; each of them contains, at any given time, more true statements than it can possibly prove according to its own defining set of rules.
— Judy Jones and William Wilson, An Incomplete Education
So what if you control the defining set of rules? It’s one thing to be on the cusp of a shift in the way things are conceived of, especially if you can imagine well enough to foresee the way the shift will shift everything around it… the seismic impact of the Industrial Revolution on religion, on philosophy, on social theory, on the way we examine our own biology and our origins, the makeup of the physical world down to the nature of electricity, the chemicals that make up our existence, the existence or nonexistence of phlogiston (which, if we remember from our original alchemical speculation, was an undetectable field or presence within all things that could be returned to them, recreating them after it had been released, so that if you could introduce phlogiston to a burned object that object would be recreated, similar to Paracelsus’ true essences, that which was reflected by the exterior appearance of an object… sounds vaguely like, you guessed it, one of those morphic fields, that old Quantum Darwinism of Bohm and Sheldrake. The phlogiston was a casualty of the shift of mind the same way the etheric vortex would be later)… in short, if you can perceive the epistemic changes, and even figure out the exact crisis points and work to direct them properly then you can control not what people think, but what people can think, the very nature of their reality. One of the most interesting consequences of the card experiment Kuhn mentions above is the ten percent of the people who “cannot accept the shift”: if they notice the anomalies, they won’t be able to make the jump to a new paradigm of thought. A direct quote from one of the subjects of the experiment: “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is or whether it is a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!” The process is fascinating because it reveals much about how we think, that the information we process as we develop shapes our minds to such an extent that some of us become incapable of accepting any information that contradicts that worldview: shape the worldview and you will be able to prevent certain people from coming up with certain ideas.
My theory is this: Franklin, Jefferson, Lavoisier, Priestley, and others involved in the Lunar Society had no intention of dying. Franklin himself stated that life could be extended indefinitely, while Lavoisier was so indifferent to the idea of being beheaded that in one famous apocryphal story he had an assistant on hand for his execution during the French Revolution (an execution that led to two famous aphorisms, one being the judge at his sentence of death stating, “France has no need for geniuses,” and another being Joseph-Louis Lagrange’s even more widespread, “It took only a moment for this head to fall and a hundred years will not see its like”) and as Lavoisier’s indeed brilliant head fell into the basket, his assistant counted the number of times the head blinked after decapitation. It takes a pretty tightly wrapped mind to come up with that idea while waiting to die… unless death wasn’t considered a permanent problem, just an inconvenience to be overcome. And how were they going to overcome it?
By becoming phlogiston.
Imagine that the cabal of the best and brightest in Birmingham came up with the following idea: they would bring down the current worldview they found themselves part of, indeed, the very traditions they themselves worked in: Franklin would destroy the fluidic nature of electricity, Lavoisier would wipe out the various alchemical secrets of the past and replace them with chemical elements and the oxygen theory, creating a chemical revolution, and the Darwin-Wedgewood-Galton alliance would breed champions of evolutionary theory. (That’s right: they got together and deliberately bred their extended families together to create Charles Darwin. They bred Darwin. Think about that one too hard and your brain might melt.) Together, these actions would seize the Newtonian initiative from the previous century, the first hammer-blow of the great man’s shock to the system of established physics, and channel it to exacting specificity in exactly the directions they wanted it to go. Within a century, it would be a rare mind indeed that could conceive of the world as it had been imagined in their time, and since they stood outside the set of reality being absorbed into the minds of those to follow them, they were in essence both immune to its preconceptions and able to exploit them. If one considers the origins of Priestley and Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen… that they were experimenting on red oxide of mercury, a component of the infamous red lion of the alchemists, connections almost seem to force themselves onto us. This is a very subtle and sensitive alchemy being worked, not the dull alchemical japery of tricksters like Johann Becher and Georg Stahl… this is the quest for the perfection sought by Paracelsus, the true philosopher’s stone, making manifest outside what is within.
Of course, there were consequences. It took time for the new shockwaves to sweep the globe, and not all minds could or would absorb them… Franklin and Arkwright had to arrange for Samuel Slater to arrive in the Blackstone Valley and Jefferson had to introduce Eli Whitney to the assembly-line concept, infecting him with the ideas of Honoré le Blanc: in this fashion, both the conceptual primer for the later shocks was set off and the later Great Awakening of religious fervor was understood and even utilized by them. When Fourier’s keen mind was exposed to the incomplete new way of thinking, it simultaneously accepted and rejected it, applying rigorous and logical scientific thinking to the matters of human behavior and social theory while at the same time rebelling by creating a mad fantasyland of natural science where the smell of a planet could create livestock or bring oranges out of permafrost and icecap. (Fourier and Franklin were both self-educated, keen witted, from a mercantile background, and I can’t help but notice that Franklin repeatedly visited France up until 1775 when he was recalled to America, and Fourier was born in 1772…) Without the complete set of preconceptions in place, Fourier was free to believe such fancies, and in fact that might have been part of the program as well, since it certainly served to prevent the Bible Communists from dismantling the growth of the industrial-materialistic mind virus as conceptualized by the Lunar Society and spread by their proxies. Likewise, possibly due to his head injury, Spear was the right kind of mind, so open to the neurolinguistic messages encoded in the new set of reality, that he heard the general message for mankind and embraced it, interpreted it as a direct communication for him and him alone from Franklin and the others, and set out to build the “machine god” a century and a half too early.
After all, Franklin’s many obsessions included the storage of knowledge, its controlled application as propaganda, and even its dissemination, begun while acting as Postmaster for the whole 13 colonies before the war, and the free and open distribution of his inventions, like the Franklin stove or the bifocal eyeglasses. What does he remind you of?
Imagine the Lunar Society working to etch their very obsessions into the minds of those who would come after them, to edit their worldview, to impose a pre-planned epistemic shift on the whole world. Canals and firearms and chemistry and electrical static… dispensing with ideas like the fluid transfer of energy, etheric vortices of matter, the phlogiston that departs from a destroyed item and which can recreate it. Jefferson died on July 4th, 1820, but before he did, his friend and correspondent John Adams, who died that same day hundreds of miles away, exhaled the proclamation that “Thomas Jefferson still survives”: did he know because Jefferson managed to expel his phlogiston from his dying body and visited him? Did Lavoisier treat death lightly because he intended to will his internal essence forth from his disembodied head as soon as he was done with it? Imagine these giants of invention and science gathering themselves in the imprints they’d left behind: there was no storage medium then large enough to hold a human essence save the minds of the multitudes to come after them, and so the phlogiston of the Lunar Society stored itself in those thoughts they allowed us to think. (Shades of Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and its role in suggesting the internet to come.) And as the Industrial Revolution gave way to the Information Age, that mindset is still fully in effect throughout much of the world, as the great storage medium, the machine god is carved like circuitry onto the skin of the world and beamed through its air. The epistemic wave is rolling back in, and we’re seeing new consequences as ideas like morphic resonance, implicate/explicate holomovement, and quantum Darwinism actually bring the old ideas, the ether, the essence back into our lexicon in new forms. The astral plane, the Akashic record of the human mind is beginning to understand that there are things it cannot explain using its current set of axioms.
And the mad electrician from Philadelphia slouches toward the transfer hub of electrons, perhaps, to be reborn in the machine god.
Discuss this and other heresies at Matthew Rossi’s message board.
Matthew Rossi is the author of Things That Never Were (MonkeyBrain, 2003). He has work forthcoming in Peter Crowther’s Postscripts magazine, and a new collection of essays, titled Bottled Demons, will be out next summer from Prime Books.
Copyright © 2005 by Matthew Rossi.