My Fellow Asian-Americans, Dare to Be Avant-Garde (Part 2)

An Essay on Art, Science, Literature, Philosophy, and the Psychopathology of Asian America

(9 min read)


“The enemy is not the other.  The enemy is you.”
— Krishnamurti

But enough about the French!  I harbor no special love for the French people, especially when their racist cops fatally shot a Chinese man in 2017²⁰ while he was holding a pair of scissors to prepare fish.  This sparked mass demonstrations that injured three police officers, left 35 people detained, and set cars on fire, turning them into smoldering smoke signals to the world in protest against anti-Asian injustice and brutality.  China’s foreign ministry, in an unusual move, lodged an official protest concerning “the security and rights” of the Chinese diaspora in France as a result of the uproar. Any real avant-gardist would’ve been proud. It is important to note that France was also a white supremacist, anti-Asian Imperial Empire in its own right, one that got its butt kicked by Koreans in 1866²¹, after they sent their navy to Ganghwa Island in retaliation for my people killing seven of their colonialist Catholic missionaries, and was finally expelled from Vietnam in 1954 after a 4-month siege held by Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu.²²

This does not mean that I do not respect select French individuals, of course.  This includes renowned mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, philosopher of science, and all-around universal genius Jules Henri Poincaré.  Published as Dadaism was just beginning to take root, his 1905 book The Value of Science makes a keen insight into epistemology, which is the nature of human knowledge and how it is acquired:

“The syllogism can teach us nothing essentially new, and if everything must spring from the principle of identity, then everything should be capable of being reduced to that principle.  Are we then to admit that the enunciations of all the theorems with which so many volumes are filled are only indirect ways of saying that A is A?”

What does Poincaré mean here?  “A is A” is known as an axiom, a statement that must be taken to be true to serve as a premise and starting point for future reasoning and arguments.  Other classic examples include 2 + 2 = 4, all the angles of a triangle adding up to 180 degrees in trigonometry, and so forth.  In the Declaration of Independence, axioms are those sets of postulates listed under “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  A “formal system” consists of three components: 1) axioms; 2) logical statements that can be inferred from those axioms, otherwise known as theorems; and 3) a set of rules for how to derive those inferences, otherwise known as a system’s logic.  Well-defined systems of abstract thought that do not contradict themselves (i.e., there exist no statements that can be both true and not true according to the rules of that system) are also considered “formal systems”, like Spinoza’s Ethics, which imitates the form of Euclid’s Elements.

Poincaré is ultimately posing the question: is there ever a case in a formal system of non-contradictory thought, where every statement is not simply reducible to axioms?  Or, to put it another way, can there ever be a statement, or a set of statements, in a formal system of logic that cannot all ultimately be inferred from axioms?

Well, according to Austrian-American logician, mathematician, and philosopher Kurt Gödel²³, the answer is “yes”.  In 1931, as Dadaism was transitioning into Surrealism, he published his two famous “Incompleteness Theorems”. Gödel’s theorems were able to demonstrate that no consistent set of axioms whose theorems can be listed by a set of rules — i.e., a formal system — is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of positive whole numbers.  Or to put it another way, in any formal system of logic which can be used to add, subtract, multiply, and divide positive whole numbers, there will always arise true statements about natural numbers according to those rules of logic that are not provable or disprovable by the axioms of that system. This occurs as soon as a system includes self-referential statements²⁴.

Perhaps the best layman’s example of self-referential logic is the “Liar’s Paradox”.  The Liar’s Paradox is simply one line: “This sentence is false.” This puts us in a logical quandary.  If the sentence is true, then it must be false, as it asserts. If it is false, then it is also true, as it asserts.  You cannot use any logic related to the sentence to make a firm distinction of whether it is true or not because of its meta, self-referential nature.  In other words, the sentence is self-aware.  And when you become self-aware, suddenly, you begin to violate the limits and laws that define your state of being.  You are then able to introduce ambiguity, logic that allows for multiple, equally valid interpretations of statements under the governance of a formal system, and therefore Choice.  Do you believe the Liar’s Paradox or not?  Since there is no formal logic within the sentence compelling you one way or another, you suddenly are now confronted with a personal decision in the face of ambiguity, otherwise known as a Moral Choice.

This startling finding crops up repeatedly in the physical sciences.  Maxwell’s Demon²⁵, a thought experiment by the physicist James Maxwell in 1867, is one such illustration.  The second law of thermodynamics ensures that when two bodies of different temperatures are brought into contact with one another and isolated from the rest of the Universe, they will always evolve towards a thermodynamic equilibrium in which both bodies have the same temperature (entropy, the asymmetry between past and present, never decreases).

Maxwell’s Demon is like Neo in the Matrix, Breaking the Laws of Physics

Maxwell’s thought experiment imagines one container divided into two parts, container A and container B.  Both containers are filled with the same gas at equal temperatures and placed next to each other. According to the second law of thermodynamics, these containers should continue to have the same temperature as one another forever.  However, Maxwell also inserts the presence of an imaginary demon, who guards a trapdoor between the two containers. The demon opens and closes the trapdoor in order to let faster molecules from Container A fly into Container B, and to let slower molecules fly from Container B to Container A.  Since average molecular speed corresponds to temperature, the temperature decreases in Container A, and increases in Container B, leading to a system where you have two bodies of different temperatures. Introducing a component into the system that is aware of the properties of that system, and has the ability to manipulate those properties, such as the demon, allows for the possibility of that system violating the laws of physics.  

The same power of self-awareness to bend the behavior of real-world systems can be found in the double-slit experiments²⁶ in quantum physics.  American physicist Richard Feynman was fond of saying that all quantum mechanics can be gleaned from carefully thinking through the implications of this single experiment.  In the experiment, a laser beam is shot at a plate pierced by two parallel slits. The light passing through the slits is then observed on a screen behind the plate. If light consisted of particles, one would expect to see a pattern on the screen corresponding to the size and shape of the slits.  Instead, what actually ends up happening is that a pattern of light and dark bands appears on the screen, known as an “interference pattern”, which is more characteristic of light being a wave. The important wrinkle here is that when we include detectors at the slits to observe the behavior of light, each observed photon only went through one of the slits, like a particle.  However, the very presence of the detectors results in the interference pattern not appearing. Observation changes the character and nature of light.  Once again, paradoxes and unpredictable outcomes — Freedom — arises from introducing a component into a closed system that is able to observe that system’s behavior and attributes, which causes elements of that system to change Itself.

Observing Light changes its Nature

Why is the nature of Self-Awareness, and the possibility of Free Will that emerges from it, important to us as Asian Americans?  Because the same laws of Self-Reference also apply to human beings! In psychology, the term “Metacognition”²⁷ refers to “cognition about cognition”, or “thinking about thinking”.  Knowing how you think and habitually act, as well as being able to psychologically access that information in a wide variety of different contexts (Self-Awareness) and physically enact new ideas and strategies in contradiction to those thoughts and behaviors (Self-Initiative), gives rise to the emergent property of Moral Agency.  This allows for an infinite range of Ethical Decisions that are not predetermined by your own personal Nature or your circumstances and surroundings. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, and you also observe that every day, you snack on free candy in the office around 3 o’clock when you get hungry, you can then begin to execute a host of different maneuvers to circumvent you gaining weight: stuffing more healthy snacks in your desk, throwing all the candy in the office out, burning down the whole building, etc.  Self-Awareness and Self-Initiative allows for a highly personalized degree of interstitial Freedom, in contradistinction to the physical and manmade laws, social norms, and material, real-world boundaries that govern us.

This is the only real way to escape the unenviable condition of simply being one of the “masses” — an inert object that is only pushed or pushed around by external forces²⁸ and is not a living organism capable of higher-order thinking or intelligent long-range planning in pursuit of its own objectives and interests.  And that is important because research in developmental psychology demonstrates that we internalize our oppression or our superiority by the age of THREE, with television acting as an important medium of white male supremacist messaging. The only way to escape the visible and invisible fetters of Racist Love, is to refuse to internalize that racism ourselves to prevent it from unconsciously operating on our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors.  As Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

We, as a Community, must learn to recognize ourselves as autonomous individuals, and an autonomous class of people, and have both the Self-Awareness of our own inherent empirical tendencies, influences, and overall social, political, economic, and cultural context, and learn the Self-Initiative to collectively overcome them through discipline.  We must, both individually and collectively, embark on the journey of Self-Discovery, the only journey worth taking, which consists of creating and placing yourself in a wide range of real-world situations in order to practice in-the-moment Self-Observation and Self-Initiative, as the French Situationists did.  This is to cultivate the necessary habits of practicing Agency, which over time, gives birth to a real Character capable of pursuing its own Destiny.  

Only then can we ever hope to lose our chains.  Only then can we ever hope to lead a life of any real Meaning, which is fundamentally predicated on Choice.

Ataraxia: I’m afraid of heights, but no longer afraid to fly.  Why? Practice.

(Part 1)
(Part 3)

Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur

[Edited by J]


  9. The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset (1930)

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