On May 15th, together with the geneticist dr Paweł Golik I've moderated a session dedicated to the idea of the unity of knowledge as expressed in Edward O. Wilson's new book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). At least Wilson's chapter was the suggested reading, even if we quickly went beyond, seeing the obvious shortcomings of his vision, firstly for his striking lack of intellectual sophistication. Against his belief in the reductionist paradigm of formulating basic laws of nature (such as equations looking nice on a T-shirt), another point of view, issued from social sciences, must be brought about: this is so called Thorngate's impostulate of theoretical simplicity (or postulate of commensurate complexity). "In order to increase both generality and accuracy, the complexity of our theories must necessarily be increased", Thorngate claims, and I believe to find a great illustration of this postulate in the finest part of the humanities. Wilson, who just throws all Derrida to the dustbin in the span of a single paragraph, seems unable to grasp such subtleties.
Complexity is undoubtedly the motto of the day. Certain ideas Wilson mentions (in this book and elsewhere) may offer in fact a consistent basis for new humanities, also in my own theoretical perspective. First of all, I believe the theory of complex systems is a great field to which I myself belong with my vision of transculture. I gladly admit the concept of culture as a tool of survival, as much as the idea of continuity between cultures of the animal world and the human ones - a continuity split apart by the emergence of new levels of complexity. The birth of language - as well as two other symbolic systems: the music/dance complex, and the visual arts - opened a field for a further linear increase of complexity, preparing another emergence, a passage into a new level of complexity: that of a global system of interacting cultures.
The evolutionary perspective on cultural matters opens yet another set of questions: the understanding of cultures - and, if we want to use the term, civilizations - as homeostatic systems suspended between continuity and repetition, and, on the other hand, adaptability and change. What is the survival of the fittest in the world of competing cultures? Is treating them as super-organisms - or perhaps as a specific kind of super-ecosystems - something more than a mere metaphor?
I think this question opens a special field of reflection in globalization studies. Human cultures face a stage of increased facility of horizontal transfer: not only transfer of contents and symbolic forms from one culture to another, but also transfer of human individuals from one culture to another. In other words, we benefit from an increased facility of abandoning obsolete cultural forms. The accelerated extinction of cultures that marked the colonial period since its beginnings in the 15th and the 16th century has been often bitterly regretted. But what does this process mean and imply, when it becomes an expression not of symbolic violence, but of free choice and human spontaneity breaking through repetition into radical innovation? In contemporary world, I wouldn't speak any longer about cultural extinction. I would speak about an unprecedented acceleration of cultural evolution. Against all those who preach the necessity of revitalizing cultures, languages and other forms of human symbolic activity. The horizontal transfer of memes between cultures accelerates the evolution as much as does the horizontal transfer between bacterias that become resistant to antibiotics at such an exasperating pace. In both cases, for good and for bad, the phenomenon increases homeostatic and resilient properties of the systems. But once again, what is the heuristic value of such a comparison between cultural and bacterial forms of life?
Let's come back to the main idea of the seminar. At least in my mind, the idea of the unity of knowledge inevitably brings about the association with Islam and the strong presupposition of essential identity of Creation and Revelation. The whole question of lacking or deficient or problematic unity of knowledge is far from universal. Quite the contrary, I see it as eminently characteristic for the European civilization issued from Christianity. The whole question appeared in the consequence of a certain intervention of Paul in Athens, who presented the Christianity as a radical rupture in relation to pagan science and wisdom. Curiously, the Church Fathers were the first ones to capture the essence of the scientific attitude and to oppose it frontally to the immutability of the Christian revelation. Behind the famous interrogation of Tertullian ("What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?") there is a kind of mental exasperation of late Antiquity with the ever-shifting proceedings of philosophical reflection. Human science, as a constant procession of doubt, hypothesis and refutation, appears as a mere "writing on water", contrasted with immutability of truths revealed by God. The same state of mind, and the same longing for reassuring stability, is strikingly contemporary.
This move has never been repeated in Islam. Coming from the desert peripheries of the Mediterranean world, it avidly adopted the scientific heritage of the Antiquity, hardly ever finding any reason of clash between it and the new monotheistic system. These historical facts are often ignored. Yet it is through the Arabs that a substantial part of the ancient heritage has reached us, and quite a lot of things have been added in the process of transmission. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, science didn't start neither with Newton nor with Galileo. What is more, I believe this essential unity of Creation and Revelation (treating the physical reality as an utmost testimony of God constantly revealing Himself in and through the universe, and its study as an act of religious contemplation) is once again productive nowadays, or starts to be. No discussion on the contemporary globalized science is possible without taking Islam for a factor in the equation.
Yet the golden age of the Islamic science eclipsed somewhere around 1400 AD. If one considers the general panorama of the last few centuries, the productivity of the Western world has been unique and beyond comparison with any other cultural area. I'm inclined to believe that this unique phenomenon wouldn't be possible without the deep fissure splitting it apart, and its agonistic dimension. Once again, the theory of complexity offers a handy metaphor for both things: the Islamic world might have come too close to the perfect order of a crystalline structure; the Western world oscillates on the productive brink of chaos, partially kept in a scientific order, and permanently unbalanced by the forces that never put up with science. Too much unity of knowledge, I suppose, may spoil the scientific broth.
Wilson himself is a good example of this, after all. Would he ever write all these things we have been busy reading, if he had no intent of writing against an adversary stance? To put it in simple terms, is Wilson imaginable without the creationists? This agonistic dimension of his intervention becomes particularly clear when he is read in the context of the Polish academia: the accidents of History made us all educated in the dogmas of "the materialistic world view". This is why we feel so clearly how American, and how hemmed by his American polemics he is.
I'm glad to say that the council of the Faculty "Artes Liberales" accepted to offer its academic patronage to the conference "Falconry – its influence on biodiversity and cultural heritage in Poland and Europe" that will take place in Supraśl (eastern Poland) on 16th-17th October 2015. I'm also very glad to participate in the scientific committee of this event.
The international conference will put into the limelight the existence of "Sokolarnia", an ecological educational center of the Podlaskie Museum, made possible thanks to the support received in the framework of the Norway Grants and the 2009-2014 European Economic Area Financial Mechanism. This project is "an important undertaking aimed at the popularisation of predatory birds' protection and increase of awareness in the society regarding the role of these animals in maintaining the biodiversity of our natural environment". It is thus mainly a center of breeding birds of pray in order to strengthen their wild population. On the other hand, "Sokolarnia" also organizes numerous events, such as classes for children, adolescents and adults concerning diverse species of birds of pray: falcons, hawks, eagles, and owls.
Any contemporary attempt at breeding birds of pray is obviously based upon - or would have a great interest in - the knowledge and expertise accumulated throughout the centuries of intense relationship of man and the falcon. The culmination of this cultural development is located between the end of the Middle Ages - when the flourishing of falconry coincides with the birth of a new spirit of curiosity towards nature - and the Renaissance. An abundant literature of falconry treatises has been composed both in Latin and in the young national languages. I believe the activists and ecologists working with birds of pray may benefit from my philological competence and get access to this accumulated heritage of detailed observation and expertise, that may not always be completely obsolete. On the other hand, a confrontation with contemporary practitioners and their expertise may help to solve many riddles that concern a medievalist and a science historian.
The late Middle Ages and the Renaissance are the times of a true "falconry craze" throughout Europe. This is also a part of our own cultural heritage in Poland and a proof of our deep connection to the finest of the European culture, both in its proto-scientific and aulic aspect (falconry was a field of intense experimentation and a forge of empirical mind that later on gave birth to science; at the same time, it was an important part of the courtly life, an emblem of power and symbolic supremacy). This is why I hope this conference will enlarge the scope of the educational actions to include elements of culture and history. The place of falconry in the historical context, so important for the medieval and early modern culture, is still largely unknown to the general public In Poland. This is why I'm very happy that the project is not limited to its main scope, connected to biodiversity and the target of reintroducing or actively protect critically endangered species, and includes a larger awareness of the cultural and historical context that is to be traced behind the silhouette of a bird of pray.
As for myself, I'm quite embarrassed having to chose just one topic for my presentation. Of course, I've gathered many of these medieval falconry treatises and I've been working on them. On the other hand, I would like to prepare a presentation issued of the experience of introducing falconry into a transdisciplinary curriculum of studies at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Warsaw. Many aspects of this experiment are larger than falconry itself. The main question, from the perspective of the university teaching, is to know how to join two spheres of expertise that usually go separate: science and humanities. Theoretical basis of such an endeavor has been given in such works as Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson (1998), yet the practical issue of building a "consilient" syllabus is still open. Falconry is a pretext for giving a practical answer to such a question.
I'm thinking about the experimental seminar for the next year - something to complete the cycle of my own research and to attract people to my class. I hesitate between two ideas. The first one is the notion of "critical nomadism" I've found in the new edition of Guattari. Some recent Polish materials, such as Dzień na ziemi, a book by Michał Paweł Markowski, might be material for such a reflection. Yet I'm a bit reluctant, because Markowski's book, as close as it might come to my idea (migrant, unattached subject fluctuating in the world, seeking no community and no inclusion), becomes in some moment very flat indeed. Of course, other bibliographical references might be found instead; Agata Bielik-Robsons Na pustyni would be a must once again.
On the other hand, I wonder if its a good strategy to build on such an idiomatic concept. Perhaps something more general should be given as a starting point. Something cross-sectional.
And indeed there is a cross-sectional concept I might be interested in: the eroticism. To avoid misunderstandings, as far as possible, the seminar might be called "Eroticism: a notion in cultural theory and criticism". Perhaps that would do. And as innovative content of the seminar, I might build up something like a new, evidently post-Freudian conceptualization of the term. Yet once again, there is a gap between this idiomatic conceptualization of mine and all the obvious materials people might feel like bringing in...
Well, I've built up a syllabus putting some classical works in the limelight. Starting with Denis de Rougemont seems safe enough. But this is not the only reason why I privilege older (or very old) humanities against the recent developments (perhaps making an exception for Agamben, but also in this case I go back to his earliest publications). It seems very clear to me that I step into a field that has been abandoned for a while. As I've promised on more than one occasion, I go against the predominance of politically oriented humanities, I long for humanities exploring the private, the individual, the intimate worlds of man.
The sketch of the problematic field is already on its own separate page: