anathem and the consolation of rhet/comp

With the semester over, I finally got the opportunity to read Neal Stephenson's Anathem. If you like Stephenson's work, particularly his more recent work, I think you will enjoy this novel. It is science fiction, but it often reads more like a Platonic dialogue with extensive philosphical conversations about time, space, and consciousness, generally articulated in mathematical terms. The novel is also interesting for its alternate world take on academia. In this world, the work of intellectuals is carried out by monks, male and female, who live a seriously cloistered life. There are different orders. Some get to come out once a year (these are mostly students). Then there are those who are in for a decade, a century, and a millenium (yes, the last one is a bit of a mystery revealed through the narrative). The novel describes how the average folks, the extramuros, are not interested in the abstractions or even the complex technologies developed inside. As is articulated a couple times in the novel, some people burn with the curiousity to understand, to seek out the secrets of the world. Most people, however, have no such interests and are satisfied with pursuing more immediate desires.

Anyway, the novel resonated well with the In Our Time podcast I heard the other day. It was nominally on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy but was really a broader conversation about philsophy ranging from Plato to Camus (just about as far as one can go actually).Generally speaking, Boethius is a neo-Platonist who articualtes the Platonic ideal in Christian terms. The book is written while Boethius is imprisoned and awaiting execution and essentially explores the solace or consolation philosophy might offer one in such a position. Anathem pulls out a similar discussion with different orders of monks. Some believe in an essentially Platonic notion of a higher plane of ideal forms. Some might even attribute a divine quality to this world, in neo-Platonist fashion. Still others, who are termed Rhetors, view knowledge and truth as discursive and culturally constructed. Classically, we know that philosophy and rhetoric can be opposed, so all this got me wondering what the "consolation of rhetoric" might be.

Of course, when I hear the world consolation my mind leaps to consolation prize. FYC is often viewed as a kind of consolation prize… not as one's first choice. Philosophy is perhaps also a consolation prize, given to those who cannot find happiness in ignorance.

But as the In Our Time discussion addressed, philosophy need not (or in some view should not) be simply an abstract way to relieve sorrow. Philosophy becomes a means for engaging in the world. If, from a Camus-like, existentialist position, the world has no intrinsic meaning, then it falls upon the philosopher to produce value through action in response to one's cultural-historical conditions. In such conditions one can see the subordinate role the rhetoric has played since Plato in leading one's audience to the Truth or at least to a truth.

However I wonder if a different compositional consolation might not be available. Stephenson's novel speculates on the possibility of multiple universes, narrowly separated by quantum differences that lead us to spin off in slightly different directions. The characters speak of these as different narratives. I was thinking of choose-your-own-adventure or hyperfiction. The act of composition offers an affective encounter with this quantum-virtual-undecided experience. In the compositional event, many virtual possibilities exist. The potential for different worlds stand before us. Different verisions of ourselves stand before us. Yes, perhaps the differences are modest, but we encounter the potential for mutation.

Given the choice between the speculative contemplation of an ideal other world, the consolation of philosophy, and the meditative reflection on the virtual possibilities of the moment, the consolation of composition, I will take the latter. Of course no choice is necessary, so one might as well have both.

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