A Dream of Reason- VI: Part 3 Plague Notes (1987)

Plague Notes (1987)

1.Opening (1995)

            This essay – a product of the age of A.I.D.S. – addresses the developing planetary crisis. We focus on global plague as a pathology on the border between our life together and apart and biological nature. [1]

2. A Brief Note on Relevant Purely Sociological-Psychological Pathologies. (1995)

            As the developing planetary crisis tightens it will be tempting but dangerous to deny our complicity and declare war on nature.

In this century millions were tortured, maimed, killed, in battles, massacres, bombings, concentration camps, gulags, ghettos.

Now in The United States we commonly interpret our more complex nuanced tolerances, insights and sensitivities as “veneer” easily removable in hard times.

Faced with unprecedented complexity, political leaders are praised for “toughness” not   sensitivity, creativity or imagination. – An increasingly emphasized aspect of “toughness” is ability to reject the helpless. From this “tough” perspective to be human is to be capable of retaliation (“to have clout,” “to be a player”). The victim qua victim is the rejected other[2].

Foreshadows of coming “borderline” disruptions trigger political repression.

It is not yet resolved whether the easing of oppression in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South Africa is a species triumph or a breakdown of regional enclaves preparatory to global totalitarianism.

If we are to survive what is coming we must explore personal-interpersonal ecologies “in their own terms,” and in relationship to biological ecologies.

3. Common Public Discourse On A.I.D.S.


            “Exclusionism,” the central pattern of common public discourse on A.I.D.S., seeks out and blames “the stranger” (e.g., gay men, Africans, Haitians, users of illegal drugs). [3] [4]


            In common public discourse “exclusionism” is opposed by a “language” of behavioral abstractions and statistical categories which – appropriate vis-à-vis its generating epidemiological problematic – is distorted when isolated in political debate.


.           The sick compromise the right to interpret their own experience and “run their own lives” in hope of cure…Legitimation through isolated technical rationality is extremely vulnerable to failures of control.

There is no cure for A.I.D.S.


           In the heat of conflict with exclusionism “statistical category” melts into “community” to suggest different species each with its own blood stream. Technically this can lead to under estimation of movement between categories (e.g., between homosexual and heterosexual).[5] Mythologically, it can suggest sacrifice of all subsidiary streams to keep “the mainstream” pure. (What mainstream? The mainstream – all Africa excluded – is “the blood stream” of white middle class heterosexual Americans and Europeans.)



            “Scientistic” rhetoric asserts itself as reasonable. Yet it disregards the inherent complexity, ambiguity and autonomy of human existence (including the sexual intimacy that is attacked by A.I.D.S). Thus it generates a powerful counter pull to misinterpret violence and other deadly modalities of unreason (including unsafe sex) as life affirming “existential rebellion.”

A public morality of exclusion, blood purity and defilement can be opposed by an ethic of compassionate I-Thou connection.

4. Pathogen Immune Ecology


            The entire planet is an ecology. Yet the core sense of ecology is a delimited location (a swamp, a forest) with potentialities for dialogical interplay beyond itself (global ecology is a unity in diversity).

We abstract from total ecology the relationship of host animals and the internal organisms[6] that prey on them: we will refer to “pathogen immune ecology.”[7]

 4.2 (1993)


            Humanity intervenes scientifically against pathogens. We refer metaphorically to “treatments” competing for survival within the ecology.

It seemed that science would soon “decode” the dynamics of pathogen immune ecology. All possible pathogenic variations would be comprehended prior to occurrence. (Even potentialities never actualized could be comprehended.) Only technical puzzles of application – almost routine – would remain to be resolved “in the event.”

A.I.D.S. suggests that the advance of scientific mastery over pathogens has been – temporarily or permanently – halted (and in part reversed).


            Science – as in preparation for biological warfare – can purposely strengthen pathogens. Such products are normally held outside the ecology. Yet they would not have been created if their intentional use was unthinkable.

Even if initial controlling commitment, technology and social organization are adequate there may be regression. (The decaying remnants of the former Soviet Union retain lethal, biological, chemical and nuclear residues.)

  1. On the Relationship Between the Sociological-Psychological Tendency Towards Increased Interdependence and Pathogen immune Ecology


         “Pathogen immune ecology” normally reaches “a stand off”. Or one side triumphs.

If pathogen immune ecologies are mutually isolated, defeat of a host population by pathogens is localized[8].

Since Neolithic times there has been a tendency towards increased personal-interpersonal interdependence. Increased interdependence connects and unbalances previously isolated pathogen immune ecologies. Now all plagues are potentially global.



All out struggle against pathogens is required even if the technologically advanced are not endangered (even against a disease affecting a hundred people in the Brazilian rain forest). It is a species passion that all should be respected equally in their humanity.

Now, with reference to some diseases and other dangers (e.g. contamination through chemical and nuclear waste) elite exemption is partially withdrawn. “What goes ’round comes ’round” becomes our law of life.


            We are at an early stage of the universal interdependence inherent in late-industrial constellations. It is commonly recognized that A.I.D.S. will probably be followed by other universal plagues, and that some (unlike A.I.D.S.) will be passed through casual contact.[9]

6. The Local and the Universal (1995)

6.1. Section Opening


            The strength of exclusionist discourse suggests that incorporation of previously autonomous patterns into a more inclusive unity is powerfully resisted. (Resistance is predictable theoretically. All patterns within our life together and apart naturally seek to survive and to assert themselves.[10])


            The present leap in interdependence far exceeds all but the two earliest leaps: from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, and from tribe to proto-state…. Now there is less scope for survivable disaster. (Imagine the Assyrian Empire with hydrogen bombs.)

This leap is unique. Universal planetary interconnection foregrounds the species.

6.13. (2000)


            Until now the species perspective (e.g., that all human beings have “an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) appeared naturally attractive and beautiful, yet unrealistic. Now the struggle to actualize this potentiality against extreme resistance is life or death.


The emergence of “civil society” did not entirely replace face-to-face “primary group” connectedness. The emergence of “the national state” did not entirely replace civil society… “A species world” that does not respect personal and group unique existence would be an endless nightmare (Dostievski’s “iron cage”).


             The local or the universal could establish exclusive dominion. Neither extreme would permit us to humanely and effectively cope with worldwide plague and other potential species threats.

6.2. The Local

6.21. In Dialogical Interdependence

            The local in dialogical relationship to the universal foregrounds unique existence as a species trait (to be human is, whatever else it also is, to be unique) and asserts the human right to home.

6.22. Fragmentation: the Tyranny of the Local

            The local in one-sided triumph is fragmentation. – A common fate cannot be humanely[11] and coherently engaged by unmediated “group wills” pursuing their narrowly conceived self-interest in a context of unequal class, power and status.

A devolving fragment of the decaying Soviet Empire, with residual advanced technology, on the edge of anarchy, and with a failing economy, might solve some immediate local problems by running a black market in advanced weaponry. It might seem “progressive” for a so-called “developing nation” (actually devolving through tribal conflict, indebtedness and corruption) to sweep aside residues of mythical linkage to nature (including “human residues”) and “harvest” the rain forests. It might seem in the “national interest” of industrial nations to trap the “hungry world”[12] in debt. The long-term effect of these decisions would be destructive, potentially terminal.

Fragmentation can become an autonomous pattern.[13] Each level asserts itself against the level above and below. Often those who begin by resisting an empire in the name of a historical “national individual” end by resisting a region and/or tribe on behalf of the nation. Such destruction and reassertion of political integration is almost always brutally violent.[14]

6.3. The Species Universal[15]

6.31. In Dialogical Interpenetration

            Humanity is such that to lose the individual in the species would destroy the species[16].

The universal in dialogical relationship to the local is unity in diversity and permanence in change

6.32. The Tyranny of the Universal

            The universal in one-sided triumph is the rule of one or more “great powers” disguised as embodied reason and species actualization. Opposition to the regime is interpreted as opposition to humanity and reason. Opponents are interpreted as species exiles…as “non-persons.”

Oppression can become a “pure form,” a principle of organization.[17]

Information in an interconnected world cannot be retained without “leakage.” It will pass from great powers to their agents and collaborators in the hungry world. “Cutting edge” technology is no longer required for dangerous striking power. Soon terrorists with atomic and/or biological weapons will be serious “world class” threats.

6.4. Pathological Interpenetration

            Pathologies of the local and of the universal potentially interpenetrate. It is a classical sociological-psychological insight that extreme fragmentation by “refusing” all subtle dialogical order moves naturally to rigid, hierarchical, tyrannical control. Tyranny by repressing patterns that struggle ceaselessly for autonomy leads naturally to anarchy.

7. On Ecological Consciousness as an Intermediate Construct (1980)


            A reasonable dialogical species universal cannot be a translation of the notion of God. It must be open to external as well as to internal diversity.

Ecological consciousness seeks an I-Thou relationship to nature. Yet this I-Thou connection is also instrumental. One respects “in order to”: not only for the sake of nature “as an end in itself” but also – and primarily – to survive and flourish (e.g., in order to avoid entrapment in the unforeseen consequences of our actions).


                     We briefly explore a constellation in which unintended consequences have arisen. Antibiotics defeat many bacterial infections and contribute to the evolution of resistant, more virulent, strains.

We may move the struggle to another level by attempting to inhibit bacterial adaptability and/or increase our speed of biological adjustment. Yet to attempt biological self-reconstruction would place ourselves fundamentally at risk (as would less directly any mistake in the reconstruction of bacteria).

In general, the more profoundly our interventions engage nature, the greater the potential for disaster. Disaster may be immediate or long term. (Nuclear fission did not as some feared erase the planet in instantaneous explosion. Yet our use of atomic energy might eventually destroy us.)

Increased understanding of (physical, chemical, biological, personal-interpersonal) universal dynamics – while invaluable – should be complemented by increased sensitivity to local dynamics, to universal/local interplay and to our suffering, imperfect, mortal beauty.[18]

8. Conclusion in Process


            An interdependent world is not the only possible future. Industry might “drown” in its own waste. Humanity might return to “primitive” kingdoms, to isolated villages, to hunting and gathering bands. – Wide spread atomic mishaps, global plague, contamination carried through wind and water through the world, “the green house effect,” might abolish the personal-interpersonal universe.


            There are neurological pathologies in which body parts are experienced as “not self” (Sacks 1987). Yet if the exiled hand is severed, the blood of the entire body will spurt from the stump. If the abandoned arm contracts gangrene, it will infect the whole.

Not only plague and “drugs.” The waters of the world once polluted will in ebb and flow as ocean and as rain infect the whole.

9. Epilogue (1995)

            Planetary ecology – personal-interpersonal and biological – remains complex and diverse. There are lions, tigers, whales and elephants…. Skies are “bird enchanted,” oceans full of life. Immediate lived existence, the unique moment, personal style, authentic dialogue remain.

The foundations, however undermined, still hold. We are not entirely “system components,” not entirely abstracted from each other and ourselves.

Public discourse on A.I.D.S. is not entirely overwhelmed by pathological abstractions. There is compassion.

We remain within the gravity of historical experience. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Socrates, Chuang-Tzu, Homer, still touch us.

There are no “iron laws of history.” We have not reached the point of no return. 

Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of ReasonVI: Part 4 A Thread in the Labyrinth 

[1] The focus of this manuscript is on the foundational reconstruction of a unified sociology-psychology as an autonomous discipline and a distinct modality of theoretical reason. Here we are drawn by “the gravity of the situation” to prematurely address interdisciplinary problems.

[2] The refusal of the Allies towards the end of World War II to speed liberation of the concentration camps is an instance of such “toughness.”

[3] The primary issue is not presence or absence of prior knowledge. Infected gay men are considered guilty perpetrators even if they were infected and infected others before the disease was identified.

[4] Many variants assert against both expert testimony and common sense that A.I.D.S. is transmitted through casual contact. Expert testimony is available but not required to disconfirm that hypothesis. The two patterns are qualitatively distinct. If A.I.D.S. were transmitted through casual contact, we would almost all be ill. The streets would be littered with corpses. Disconfirmation is available to “common reason.” Common reason is not consulted.

[5] Here common discourse apparently distorted technical analysis.

[6] Including, but not limited to, microorganisms.

[7] (1995) I am not a biologist. I wrote and now retain those sections to meet “architectural requirements” central to a sociological-psychological consideration of personal-interpersonal pathologies on the border between “our life together and apart” and “external nature.” Reading Laurie Garrett suggests that relevant personal-interpersonal patterns are often interpreted by natural scientists and journalists outside dialogue with explicit anthropological, psychological and sociological theory…. Disciplines are reaching out towards one another.

[8] (1995) I am not a biologist. I wrote and now retain those sections to meet “architectural requirements” central to a sociological-psychological consideration of personal-interpersonal pathologies on the border between “our life together and apart” and “external nature.” Reading Laurie Garrett suggests that relevant personal-interpersonal patterns are often interpreted by natural scientists and journalists outside dialogue with explicit anthropological, psychological and sociological theory…. Disciplines are reaching out towards one another.

[9] (1995). See Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, N.Y., 1994, and, more generally, William Mc Neill’s Plagues and Peoples, Doubleday, New York, 1976.

[10] One complication is that the person as a sociological-psychological constellation does not necessarily make primary identification with him/herself as a biological individual. Thus pattern continuance does not preclude “altruistic suicide” (in Durkheim’s sense): does not, more generally, preclude the judgment that the pattern of one’s existence requires for completion its premature termination.

[11] It is no more (and no less) problematic to take the position of “humanity” than that of “the social system”…or of any other theoretical notion.

[12] In referring to the poorer nations of the world I prefer the “hungry world” and “external reservations of neglect” to the anachronism of “the third world” or the overly optimistic ideologically mystifying “developing world.”

[13] In Simmel’s sense “a pure form.”

[14] (1996) The relatively peaceful dissolution of the former Soviet Union is exceptional. One contributing dynamic might be that all regions – including the Russian core – participated together at the moment of dissolution in the overthrow of a state regime almost entirely estranged from society yet identified with empire. It remains to be seen whether the normal terror and cruelty of dissolution has been permanently avoided or merely deferred.

[15] This planet is less in its interstellar context than is one woman in the terrestrial scale. Yet to an embryo mother is universe entire. – The global (still) includes all members of the species and represents the universal.

[16] Inwardness, unique existence and autonomous personal activity are extremely difficult to destroy. Were they destroyed we would no longer be recognizably human.

[17] It strengthens pathological tendencies that universal interdependence will probably be first sytematically addressed by multinational corporations. Personal rights and freedoms laboriously worked through in the explicitly political realm have been traditionally neglected in “corporate culture.”

[18] These notes are within sociology-psychology. We are not direct concerned with how (natural) science is or should be constructed.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 + 1 =

Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

Reflections on life, paintings, theory, conversation.

Follow and share Avron’s posts

Subscribe to Avron’s blog