Sunday, March 19, 2006

Secret Agency

I finished two books -- "Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross and "Declare" by Tim Powers. Both are espionage books with supernatural elements. "Declare" is by far the better of the two -- rich detail, complex characters and backstory -- it has a gloomy mood openly similar to John LeCare. Whereas "Atrocity Archives" is campy and rompish, saved mainly by moments of humorous hyperbole. Despite Stross' effort to back the Lovecraftian magic stuff with scientific explanations, the novel evokes no suspension of disbelief. "Declare" does achieve that, not with explanations, but through construction of a world that seems quite real.

Both books play on a couple of themes, or wishes, that seem to pervade the human psyche:

1. The important forces of history are hidden, secret, accessed only by a select few. The more potent the forces, the more secret they are. (The more secret they have to be to protect the ignorant public.) And these hidden forces are directed by agents, human and supernatural.

2. Words and symbols have a direct relationship with reality. They can conjure and influence physical forces in ways beyond just influencing other minds.

Both of these themes (wishes) are misguided.

I use "wishes" because the themes seem to reflect a desire of many people, a desire that there be some kind of agency behind events -- God, demons, angels, aliens, Illuminati, smoked-filled rooms of conspiring oligarchs.
And there is an associated desire that these agents can be communicated with, influenced, evoked, commanded to some extent with ritualistic use of symbols.

Of course, the world isn't like that, really. Agents or agency, such as they exist at all, are limited in scope. The truly potent forces that shape the world -- those related to such things as thermodynamics, climate, ecology and culture (yes, culture) -- can't really be categorized as having agency, not in the anthropomorphic sense that a person has agency (even this kind of agency may not hold up under critical scrutiny). Nevertheless, these non-agent forces defy ready understanding. Close analysis reveals layers of complexity -- each category we apply contains yet more orders of complexity *and* breaks down at the boundaries of the category (things that don't fit, what Jacques Derrida would call undecidables -- is a virus living or non-living. What about a prion?).

It's frustrating. As deeply social creatures we're geared to understanding things in terms of human wants, i.e., in terms of interacting agents. But this type of understanding, when applied to the greater reality out there doesn't map very well. The world is beyond the grasp of this kind of understanding.

But for some reason it's comforting to think that some behind-the-scenes agent, or agents, do grasp the greater reality and can bend its currents to their will. Why is it comforting? I don't know. Maybe it relieves a sense of loneliness, grants the illusion that the world in some way cares in the same kind of way that we care.

Also it feeds back to the use of symbols to directly influence reality. Really, however, a symbol has meaning only insofar as a perceiving mind can comprehend it. The word "stop" on a red octagon is only so much white paint without someone to comprehend its meaning. The word carries no meaning in and of itself. But if the forces of the world are marked by agency, if an agent or agents governing the world can comprehend our symbols, it opens the possibility that we might be able to influence the course of events with petition, summons or command.

It's an attractive idea but, sadly, futile. And, I believe, a barrier to understanding what kind of creatures we really are and what kind of world we inhabit.


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