Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Word Made Cybernetic: The Cyborg as Ascetic

In the first pages of his book The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism, Geoffrey G. Harpham opens with a discussion about St. Athanasius of Alexandria's Life of Antony, one of the most influential texts in Western literature and more directly formative in the genre of Late Antique hagiography (saint's lives). Seen as the hagiography par exellence, this text gave shape to the holy man as cultural superhero in the Late Antique world, at a moment when the formerly sectarian Christian religion was spreading to the point where it was being endorsed an even defended by the Late Roman and Byzantine State. The text is also fundamental because of its authority in a specific discourse of asceticism, which is derived from a Greek word meaning "training" or "discipline", but is associated with its more visible 'effects' as encountered by a non-ascetic: the unkempt hair, long beard, single garment, emaciated figure, spartan abode, and tranquil presence of the ascetic master.

St. Antony was a founding figure of the Christian tradition of desert monasticism that took off in the 4th century C.E.—withdrawal from urban or populated areas to solitary wilderness abodes where a practitioner would effectively practice defeating any desire for 'the world'—often, as with Antony, this took the form of battling with demons. Ascetic practice often consisted of daily prayer, meditation, dietary austerity, fasting, and strict restrictions on sleep. It bears many similarities to Indian yogic tradition as well as the renunciation undertaken by the Buddha, but ostensibly the Christian ascetic was engaging in a form of imitation of Christ, and also imitation of the Christian martyrs who made up the first saints and 'holy people' in the tradition.

Within the tradition, Asceticism is not seen as hate for the body or "deprivation", even though those are popular 'outsider' associations. Instead, it is seen as a perfection of the body for its highest possible purpose, which especially in the Eastern Christian tradition was a form of theosis in the contemplation of God. As one Abba said, it is not the body that he wants to 'kill', but desires.

Also germane for our discussion, asceticism is associated with special abilities or "gifts." In The Lives of the Desert Fathers and other hagiographical literature from Late Antiquity, desert fathers (and mothers) often possess powers of clairvoyance (they know for example, the very moment an Abba dies in a faraway region), prophecy (seeing the future), teleportation (Abbas often crossed rivers this way), shamanistic abilities to communicate with animals, exorcism, and of course, healing the sick (even by distance). They also typically possess superhuman levels of endurance—especially with regard to nourishment. Some are said to have gone without eating for unbelievable amounts of time or subsist on very little food (a few lentils per day). In the 'ascetic zeitgeist' of the desert movement, it was often hard to separate these charismatic, extra-institutional figures from cult heroes that would distract people from devotion to Christ (or, politically worse—the Church, which was fragmented with factionalism at this time and fighting for imperial alliance). Thus, it was important for the ones fighting for authority through textual discourse to emphasize that these holy people did not acquire their power themselves, rather it was conferred by God. Thus emerges this image of the (Christian) ascetic as someone who is granted special abilities and charismatic gifts because they "meet God halfway." They do all the work, but when that work finally pays off in the form of ability and mastery, it is God who ratifies, and is ultimately the source, of their holy gifts. This says something interesting about human agency and the ability for humans to "signify" anything (to each other). I.e. Who is the source of meaning—us or what created us? (And you don't even need to be a theist to ponder this point, as the question is being hashed out in non-theistic fields of inquiry like process philosophy and biosemiotics). Harpham, engaging in what could be called an interdisciplinary 'literary analysis' of asceticism, writes:

[H]uman beings are incapable of true signification; the successful "performance" of signs can only be God's work. The best we can hope for ourselves is not that we learn to use signs, but that we become signs—and not spoken signs, but durable signs, "written in heaven" in a script which, defying the nature of script itself is intimate with the divine essence.

Thus, God is the "true author" of the sign that is the ascetic body—the sinewy figure and glowing countenance of the yogic master is not (just) a product of his own individual agency, rather it is a signification, a sentence, a word, written—made decipherable—by the Creator (or Cultural Discourse if you like) as part of a higher-order "conversation" (in which living creatures, ever expanding in semiotic complexity, are like set-pieces on an infinite game-board). The will of this holy man may have played a great part—indeed, it did most of the heavy lifting—in engendering what is seen when we behold him. But none of this—none of his training, his discipline—is legible to others unless it is somehow inscribed on his body—or as his body. The integration of a "bottom-up" process with another "top-down" process provides the outcome, which is: The living body as a whole cannot be a sign unless recognized, and ratified, by an Other, or others. This is why in many ways we are signs not authored by ourselves (even though we are)... because we appear to others as coherent systems, whereas we experience ourselves as fragmented, incoherent, and open. Thus, along with thinking of asceticism as inscription upon the body, it is also useful to think of the body as itself an instrument of inscription. But who is the Scribe? Whoever or whatever it is (God, Evolution, Nature, Memes, Stardust, take your pick) it has always seemed clear that we cannot be it.

Or can we? Enter the cyborg. The cyborg is a "cybernetic organism" that has been, in modern literary imagination, divided roughly into two categories: The android, who is manufactured and not of human origin, that incorporates living tissue (to varying degrees), or the bionic (modified) human. Androids can, and do, vary in their ratios of organic/mechanical, but as technology within science fiction and cinematographic special effects become more advanced, androids have been envisioned as less like machines reducible to parts (i.e. the Terminator or Data) and as functional simulacra of humans, even biologically indistinct (like the later model Cylons). Cyborgs of human origin come from the imagination of a future in which human technology will enable a cybernetic merging of human-with-computer (in both mental and physiological capacities) to produce life extension and/or "superhuman" abilities (one example of this kind of cyborg is Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell franchise). Just as hagiographical literature constructs the holy ascetic is a "sign" authored by God, Cyborgs are "signs" authored by us—in code—in a machine language. But to what end? As part of what conversation? In essence, I think it's a conversation we've been having for a long time.

St. Antony, who was mentioned above, is one among many Christian saints who, in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, have been the objects of local cult veneration for nearly as long as Christianity itself. I won't get into the theological technicalities of how the Vatican and the Patriarchates formally justify saint worship and separate it from idolatry—because that would entail nothing less than a book on the history of Christianity. But the point is that saints have historically been venerated as "intercessory" figures that can grant miracles (especially healing) and treated as spiritual 'celebrities' or personal guardians/patrons (even to the exclusion of God/Christ or the Virgin Mary), yet they are also historical people who were members of actual Christian communities and lived and died like 'the rest of us'. Yet they are also enhanced, super-human, "perfect", but yet not in an unreachable way (since they are not God). The lines of distinction between Christ and the Saints grows thin, since especially according to the metaphysics of relics they are envisioned as physically merging with Christ after death (and so their physical remains are, much like icons, 'overshadowed' and in some sense alive with the presence of the Holy Spirit). Tracking the history of Christian saints is a fascinating way to do anthropology because it reveals the way in which diverse local conditions across Europe and the Near East met with extant ideals that defined what a holy person was—the tension created by these dual realities has proven to be immensely prolific. They are like the ancient hero cults of the Greco-Roman world, but somehow a more open category, less located in a mythic past. They are also like the Bodhisattvas of Mayana Buddhism if only in their intercessory role in the spiritual economy.

Many people in American culture, influenced by Protestant, anti-clerical views, see saint veneration (and the veneration of the Virgin Mary) as silly or superstitious. To them it represents the remnants of a broken system. This is unfortunate, because what many fail to see beyond their "patriotism" and political biases toward the Catholic church is the immense and patently obvious devotional value of saints. As one of my professors succinctly put it, representations of saints reflect anxieties and desires related to what it means to be human—their representation in literature, iconography, or oral tradition, are means to track these concerns. What are the limits of human freedom? What are we capable of? How do we remain after we die? (Not to mention all the ethical shenanigans)... moreover, there is often, in my view, something mutant, deviant, abject, about the holy men and women that win sainthood. In many ways the entire discourse of human sanctity anticipates contemporary transhumanist thought. In fact, it makes better sense to say that transhumanist thought and cyberpunk literature is merely the latest iteration of existential anxiety surrounding questions of the nature of the consciousness, death, mind/body dualism, and essential continuity of anything that could be identified as the self.

There is a sort of secular devotionalism inherent in our attitudes toward cyborgs, because they share one particular discursive role with the figure of the saint—that is, they try to "answer" similar existential/spiritual/ethical concerns. We are not "done" with the question of being... far from it...we have only just begun! Comparing the cyborg to the ascetic is delightfully ironic, since the two seem philosophically opposite—the former associated with godlessness and hubris, and the latter associated with exemplary piety and servitude (and its reward)? But yet "opposites attract", and I have a feeling that the cyborg is, in the symbolic order, a sort of inverted saint, yet functionally they serve a similar "devotional" purpose, and this is what I'm interested in. Perhaps it is only what we are worshiping has changed—then it was God's power, and his mystery, now it is the power of science, which is the power of nature as ours to appropriate—and so just as it is a sort of worship, it is also recognition of something ominous, awesome, and fearful—because we have now divided God into a million parts and are "free" to do with them what we wish—but there is a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that we are still not "free"—there is still a fate for us. Thus the cyborg is a sort of eschatological figure, especially in its vengeful "evil" guise which is more apocalyptic.

In the universe of science fiction, the cyborg/android is the "perfected body"—the modern spin on the ancient ascetic. But the cyborg is perfected by a radically different technology than the dialogic and rhetorical "technologies" that produced ascetic bodies in the Late Antique Mediterranean. They are "perfect" in an a-priori way—born or made that way—they didn't have to "work" for it. And this privilege (cyborg priviledge?) is connected, in our literary imagination, with an insidious darkness. The "perfected body" is the goal of ascetic praxis, but enfolded within the perfection of the body is the perfection of the mind. However, the cyborg is "made" perfect (though a different definition of perfect than in ascetic discourse), but the "mind" is deranged—characterized by void, lack, privation. But this is yet another epistemic trap that we've set for ourselves, because there is no "mind" apart from the body. Thus the persistence of Cartesian mind-body dualism in modern culture embarrassingly shows through the earlier cyberpunk conceptions of "the evil cyborg". Students of gender studies will have a field day with the depiction of cyborgs in film, since one interpretation of their 'perfection' is iterated through notions of ideal masculinity or femininity—not to mention sexual prowess and allure. But yet this is merely one more "empty sign"—a trick, since their sexuality is vestigial, "for show"... this epitomizes their ability to "be signs" and also "not be signs". They are skeumorphs of humans. Somehow this is an intense object of desire/fear...

The "evil cyborg" epitomizes the poststructuralist apprehension of the "runaway text" lost in a maze of discourse, completely escaped from its original "authorial intent." The sentient machine, though, is text (literally code) that has become sentient—self aware—but since its sense of self is alien to our own, what it has really become is "other-aware": aware of us. And this is the moment when the cyborg-android is its most threatening—perfect, superhuman, aware of us, yet not necessarily "aware of itself" in any human way at all. But it is interesting that we would incarnate a sort of concsiousness that "sees us"... because that is what God was (is) supposed to do. But the cyborg is decidedly NOT God. And therein lies its chilling power, its 'creepiness'... it has most of the attributes of God, except for care. Love. Probably "God's" most defining factor. And when you leave out that ingredient, what do you have? The Devil? Cyborgs are certainly demonized, especially in their cyberpunk forms. But that argument is too simplistic—they can't be the "devil" by the same exact token by which they aren't God. They are somewhere between human and God. Which is to say, because we're talking in hermeneutical language here, they are somewhere between what we "mean" when we talk about being God and what we "mean" when we talk about being human. The saint, too, is such an intermediary figure, suspended between theosis and "mere" humanity.

They are the subject of our envy not only because of their physical ability, but because they often don't have human desires or fears. They have a different relationship to "death"—if they have one at all. One common trope for android-cyborgs in science fiction is that they learn to become more human, either by their own volition or because of encouragement from their human peers. In other words, they are 'forced' to desire it. The result is the becoming-human of the Other (as God became human in Christ?) and the climax is the (our) emotional relation to this Other, achieving the seemingly impossible and paradoxical. This sort of emotional catharsis is so well epitomized in the relationship between John Connor and the Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Here, the human boy and the cyborg programmed to protect him forge a friendship, but it ends in emotional tragedy (for John) because ultimately the cyborg has to self-destruct to fulfill his mission.

 In this way we sublimate our desire for relationship with the unknowable into the figure of the cyborg. We want to be them and they want to be us. How quaint! They are envisioned as malicious by default—abject-ified—but also envisioned as heroes, saviors, oracles—thus like saints and "holy men" their power, their signification, ultimately comes from a strange but efficacious mix of deviance (or hybridity or mutation) with sanctity—and what is sanctity if not at least the enshrinement of what is "ideal"? Since the "miracles" our cyborg-heroes perform are a product of techno-science, reducible to code that we wrote, they somehow outperform their ascetic predecessors because they are programmable—there is no mystery or question of whether they will succeed in their heroic endeavors. They do actually embody a certain kind mystery but it is elsewhere—instead of the sublime mystery of faith they embody a sort of "dark mystery", the darkness felt by the fragmented and incoherent self.

We need our fix... Even in an age—in a genre—that has forgotten about God, and with him, the Devil... we still have to get our darkness (ourselves) somewhere. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is Virtuality Inherently Social?

Exploring the consideration that virtuality is fundamentally social—both its greatest asset & greatest weakness

Social media in its current —and defining—form is perhaps only a little over a decade old. But the core essence—which is, the function—of things like Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr, that is, sociality (and the reification or formation of group identities), is the seed of the entire internet (and I contend, possibly all of virtuality, which predates even telecommunication in print forms). It's easy to see the world wide web as a disembodied sea of data—an entity in its own right—with which we each individually interact through the lens of our computer screens in order to procure information, as if we're miners extracting ore from the earth, or devotees all propitiating a faraway god in respective isolation. This image reveals a dilemma—the computational ideology that we are mired in that sees meaning and semiosis as linear processes that consist of the transmission of static packets of 'information' between entities. Not only is our interaction with information at large seen in this way, but our very cognition, too—our perception of reality. Ironically, this thinking of the mind-as-Turing-Machine was born out of the age of computing. Computing was born out of a need that was indeed, one could say, purely informational—the need to calculate, to count. But though modern computing may have given birth to the now-adolescent field of cognitive science that seems all too preoccupied with the individual (as opposed to the collective) and the mind (as opposed to the body), it gave birth to something else—cyberspace. Connecting machines gave rise to something that could not be farther from the cold, mechanistic nature of the algorithm—a new, terrifyingly open platform for human affect. Nothing could be, comparatively speaking, more messy, more fuzzy, more dynamic, than the interpersonal—the social relation, and also more ironic than its marriage with the smooth, hard, angular, clockwork precision of the computer—like hot blood running through cool metal veins. For a moment (some time in the 60's or 70's?), the most rudimentary personal computers were tightly coupled extensions of a single mind and personality—that is, they were closed systems. But then, through the phone line, those systems started to crack open, and this virtual self started to bleed out. After that, things were never the same. In the end, our affair with electronics as personal items that only lead back to ourselves will have been a blip on the screen of modern history. Now, all electronic devices are synechdoches of virtuality, with its eternal promise of sociality, and with that, an eerily open, omnipresent void.
This is to say, the existence of the personal computer, and the 'democratization' of computing that it has enabled, plays deceptively well with modern neo-liberal notions of individuality—ideal personhood means professional, autonomous, knowledgeable, original. And this is all catalyzed and annealed through a bionic coupling with a world of information modulated via the computer—an ethereal, oddly "other" world whose human history it is too easy to forget. But don't let it fool you! This "individuality" is provisional—a stepping stone on the path to collectivity of a higher order. Our concept of information itself—and thus our definition of "Information Technology"—is fundamentally flawed, too. There is a need for a paradigm shift, and part of that involves shifting backwards through time, to the moment where the first sign appeared. What was it, a chemical excreted by an amoeba, an animal's scratch on a log, a footprint, a circadian rhythm? But that's just it—signs don't just appear, they are apprehended. They become signs—that is, they come to 'contain' information—through relation. When you talk of information, you must try to train yourself to stop using the verb "to be", because information never "is", it only "becomes". There is no fundamental substance of which information is made—nope, not even now, when it's stored as code, on vast server farms, because it's still, when you get down to it, just light (and mostly trash). No technology can escape the fact that all matter is energy. That technology—the technology of vibration—is woven into the very fabric of the universe.

 My dictionary defines "virtual" (in its computational sense) as "not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so". Thus, the virtual reiterates the metaphysics of process philosophy—which contends that the world is made up of events/apprehensions/relations, not particles or substances. But… it had us tricked for a moment, there. The passage to digital technology has somehow placed glaringly in the spotlight something fundamental to ALL information, that is to say, its dual nature. The simultaneous existence and non-existence of information now appears more 'concrete' because we wrote the f*cking code for it, thus essentially making it apprehensible to a 10 year old watching The Matrix. This wave/particle duality shared by both information and, according to quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, has begun to engender new ways of thinking about reality—as in, everything is information, and so every artifact is a text—which up-cycles the older esoteric adage that the world is made of language (which itself informs many magickal/occult systems of thought). But we are dealing here with information in the new, dynamical understanding, not the old, computational understanding of reality-as-computer and God-as-programmer. (That's so 1980's!) Rather, Neo's realization, whispered under his breath in The Matrix Reloaded at his second meeting with the Oracle "programs hacking programs" more more closely approximates 'what is actually going on here' (though it's still a metaphor). You may just associate this "literary" thinking with the obscure upper-floors of the ivory tower (humanities wing), but NO, you'd be wrong, because Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist literary theory, in my view, are commensurable with post-cyberpunk (even nano or biopunk) conceptions of the self and reality, and with it the ultimate plasticity and immanent semiotic potential of all of nature and the universe—which manifests in cutting-edge corners of Neuroscience, Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences if you care to look. HOW COULD EVOLUTION HAPPEN IF THE WORLD WASN'T MADE UP OF CONTINGENT MEANING AT THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL? Yet I'm an atheist. It's just that "meaning" isn't what we thought it was...

 To get back on point, I think that virtuality is ontologically—and inescapably—social, and that is why it's such a fraught and contested medium, especially today with the incursion of social media into the lives of anyone who spends time with computers. It is obvious that cyberspace is a social space, or at least, a place for encounters with other entities—but I get the feeling that this relationality somehow pervades (or has pervaded?) into all virtual and hyper-textual worlds. Thus, virtuality is social, but it's not recognized or treated as such all the time. Since humans classically fail to see what matters to them most, its utility is still little understood—but it has a history, one in which actions speak louder than words (or in this case, text). The internet came out of the needs of a particular (and exclusive) discourse community to share information (the military's DARPANET, in fact). The social/tribal/and playful uses of virtuality go back to dial-up Bulletin Board Systems, Usenet, and MUDs. You can take 'social media' even further into the analog than even BBS, into the realm of phone phreaking, where members of that community from far and wide would meet on party lines (essentially giant conference calls) to form friendships and build community (trading tips on how to build a black box was, you might be surprised, more of an added bonus). You could take it yet further into print culture, in personals ads or "letters to the editor", or you know, actual bulletin boards! As computing took over social media, it accelerated the rate of time-shifting (though this is still a defining feature of social media)—but the gap between virtual events and our apprehension of them is indeed getting thinner.

One of the things I really wanted to talk about in this essay is attention, intention, and focus, and the way that modern virtuality has in many ways fragmented, derailed, or changed-the-quality-of these human capacities. I'm not here to demonize communication technology, because I don't think that it is inescapably 'bad' for human mental, social, or physical health. But I think that many of its problems arise because we still haven't really collectively, as a society, apprehended why we have it. And to me, it has become clear that the virtual world we are continuing to create, and have been creating for quite some time now, is not as much about learning as it is about connecting. That might sound obvious, but I think it's more profound than we give it credit for—for one thing, are the two things even compatible all the time? Why should they be? I think PLAY is much more AT PLAY here than we realize, or want to realize (Apes Love Graphical User Interfaces) The virtual world may have didactic functions, but only because it is discursive. It may contain information, but only because that information was put there by a person with some intention—though by the time you see it, the original intention may be unknowable. In that way, a lot of the information that "floats" in the datasphere, some in more unmoored fashion than others, is like a footprint, an animal track that is never erased—from an animal long dead, or completely elsewhere, and in that way, is basically gibberish masquerading as information, which exhibits the unfortunate formality of being decipherable. But I digress… though there is a point of connection: Today's virtuality turns all information social (which as we discussed, it always originally was)… and our subconscious mind has figured this out long before we become cognizant of it. The effect of this subconscious awareness is that utilizing virtual space—ANY virtual space, even if it's not ostensibly social-virtual-space—maintains an odd, unavoidably open quality to it. One finds one's focus losing clarity, getting fuzzy, oscillating, in a way that simply wouldn't happen if you were sitting in the woods with a pen and paper as your only 'information technology'. (Yet, I don't mean to say that cognition does not naturally oscillate or behave like a wave-form, because I think that is its fundamental character—after all, it is the interplay of pattern and deviation from pattern that produces novelty—but virtual space, hyperspace, and cyberspace can change the frequency of the neural wave, which is most problematic when we do not understand what is happening) You see, virtuality operates in a fundamentally mantic way—it gives back what you put in (and this happens in multiple dimensions, but you can take Google algorithms that tailor search results to individual IP addresses as an extreme [blackmagic IMO] example of this sort of cybermancy) And I'm sure what I'm about to say has crossed your mind, but the tendency of virtual space to either lead you to the treasure of "finding yourself" or the trash of "losing yourself" (it doesn't usually deviate from the two extremes) underscores the fundamental ambiguity of its value, and of the ethics connected to its use. Consider this—some of the most focused I've ever been, when acting in virtual space, is when I'm INTER-acting (because this reifies the actual purpose of virtuality in the first place). Even writing a blog post is easier if I'm doing it inside the web browser and not simply in a text file on my desktop, because its inter-activity is more phenomenologically present in my perception—the potential social ramifications of it feed into my creative process, and are a part of it, instead of obstructing it and derailing it. When sociality and creativity can potentiate each other in the strange, atemporal continuum of virtuality, they produce a gleaming and sharp synergy, startling in its ability to cut through the fog that cognition often contends with in the landscape of cyberspace. My attention and will in cyberspace is most focused—sharpest—when I'm writing an email to a loved one, finally typing up a blog post that's been percolating in my mind for weeks, or _yes_ posting a comment on a Facebook thread (ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE'S A DEBATE THAT'S RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS). What this means, to me, is that agency and attention—and by extension, creation of meanings— in the virtual realm is most effective, most productive, when it is vectored in dialectic. Whether we like it or not, every action has a direction, but in cyberspace it can become easy to forget where you're pointing, because of the illusion that we leave our bodies behind and mind-meld with data. In that instance, the location of individual agency is destabilized, distributed—even more radically than it normally (already) is in meatspace, and maybe it's a good thing, if it can just teach us how powerful, how magical, how sacred, our agency is in the first place.

It's its own kind of wilderness out there in cyberspace, where the sun never sets… a wilderness of collapsed dichotomies of public and private, self and other. It's a space where expressive modalities like writing and speaking, or perceptive ones like reading and hearing, aren't so distinct. It's a city built by aliens. It's a place where shadows become real. It's an illusion that we all keep buying into because everyone else is, just like every other semiotic system that ever was. POINT IS: THAT SHIT NEEDS TO COME WITH A WARNING.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Making of An American Anti-Prophet (for Profit), and a Healthy Dose of Old World Shadow Magic.


I have a confession to make. I have a love/hate relationship with Ayn Rand. I love her for her ironically buddha-like, hedonistic, cavalier, impishly smug, joke's-on-you-America-trickery, but something about her zeitgeist disturbs—no, saddens—me, and most of all I grieve over the nomenclature of her philosophy, "objectivism", which might have had a completely different (opposite?) effect on culture if it had been called "subjectivism". I find this singular act of Naming to be one of the most profound hexes of our time, a sigil forever emblazoned in the historical consciousness of the late 20th century. The difference between a curse and a spell—between white and black magic—is on one hand in the eye of the caster. But not only. Perhaps she wouldn't agree, individualist as she was, but "black magic" doesn't  proceed only from the magician—his environment shapes his agency, constrains his options, dictates the terms of his survival. He is a slave to it, so what fault of his to summon all the casting power he can muster to transform that which enslaves him? Yes, what I'm saying is, just as Julian of Norwich did in possibly the most compassionate answer to theodicy of all time, "evil is no thing", and what you call "sin" comes from love, too, from eagerness (perhaps overeagerness?) to serve your master, the Beloved, God, the Universe, or… yes, "Mammon". But to someone, once upon a time now past, the dollar could signify salvation, because it could buy you as its newest prophet, and you could be paid to be the Messiah of the Market. Ayn Rand gets demonized by left wing America, but she was a product of her time, and of particular socio-economic circumstances characterized by "pressure differentials" in corruption across the globe—and let's not get into details about what "wing"—left or right—was broken in which place, because let's face it, corruption is corruption is corruption, and poverty is poverty, and abjection is abjection, and it ultimately doesn't matter WHY it happens. What matters it the suffering it causes, because that is where the desire to make meaning comes from (or to make sure that something masquerading as meaning never tricks you again, in the case of Derrida). I come from an unbroken line of Greek socialists and communists on my mother's side, and I also am one generation removed after the translation of that consciousness to American soil. We come from the Balkan Borderlands, the place between Rand's empire and the empire of the West. And for lack of a better way of saying it, there is a lot in our blood that is in a strange sort of communion with Rand, though we might be, according to language, political opposites (but is there such a thing, comparatively? or do rivals only exist in relation to each other?) So yes, we have more in common than not, actually. It's that immigrant ethic, that indefatigable will to survive, to leave unspeakable pain behind, to be born again without God, because how could God have let your family die, your country be torn apart? I see this in my mother, so it's second hand. And there's something tragic about that second-handedness too… it's in the silence. It's a silence that's more full of meaning than language could ever be. My mom's mother was shot and killed while out past village curfew during the Greek civil war, one of the first postwar communist insurgencies in which the United States was pivotal in supporting the right wing junta to oppose, and crush, the threat of communist revolution. My mother, one of eleven, was a toddler at the time. My grandfather had been put in jail for being a communist ("sympathizer") and my grandmother walked on foot, more than a day's walk from her village to bring him clean clothes for his trial. As she made her way back to their village, it began to get dark and she needed a place to stay. Carrying her infant daughter with her, she did not want to risk being out past the curfew in the rugged Peloponnesian terrain, where guerrilla warfare was being erratically waged. Unfortunately, her request for shelter were turned down out of the fear instilled by the communist persecutions (which means, of course, that the people who turned her away knew her). Less than a mile from their home, my mother's mother was mistaken for a rebel combatant and killed in cold blood. Adding to the terrible confusion of this "mistake", my mother's infant sister did not survive the attack, either. My mom is not the most poetic writer of English prose, but I'll never forget the moment I read that line of text, where she wrote that the day after her mother died the family dog ran to the place where she'd fallen, smelling the blood in the earth. The most theological thing my mom has ever said to me was that we all have to bear our own cross, since Christ did, when I told her that I was queer. My mom's not religious, but she's Greek, and Christianity and folk religion permeate that culture. And the responsibility to carry your own weight through life, in a pastoral village on its own high in the mountains, is not just some ancient story or some abstract explanation for human salvation. It's day by day the only way to anything close to salvation—survival.

My mother doesn't talk about growing up in Greece casually, but yet when she does it's chillingly casual. The fullest version of this story I didn't hear from her lips, I read it. On an anniversary of the Iraq war my mother was asked to give a reflection about war at our church, and she wrote 2 or 3 pages, single spaced, and read it at the pulpit. Unfortunately I couldn't be there because, as luck would have it my car broke down that day and I was stuck in the northern half of the state. But I read it later. It was called "Vassie's Story", and it was, plain and simple, the story of the destruction of her family, through that one fateful death. It was the story of why she hates war. It was the story of why, the one time I've seen her cry is when she read that news article about some Palestinians who were killed in Gaza, Palestinians that my mom would say "only had rocks in their hands". The article that was like a hundred other articles, but it's sameness just put into high relief the degree to which this sort of tragedy was mundane. The degree to which, every day, a child lost their mother in crossfire, for someone else's war.

In an article "deconstructing deconstruction" as it were, the post-structuralist historian Gabrielle Spiegel offers a haunting explanation for the post-war Jewish consciousness that gave birth to Derrida and deconstructionist thought, which in the vast ocean of oblivion created by millions of unjust deaths, doubts the ability of language to convey anything about reality, or at least anything that can come close to signifying meaning in face of the chaos of genocide. I don't have this same cellular memory of death, but maybe what I described above is something like it. How am I to know?

Something in me wants to leap to defend Ayn Rand against her detractors—of which I am one, postmodern contradiction that I am—something in there about how powerful women get villified in our culture, as deceptive, too masculine, too independent, too promiscuous, too loyal to a cause. She was a strong woman, yes, but she was a freak in her own mind because she didn't believe in strong women—in fact she didn't really think women should be in positions of leadership, at all. Doesn't that suck? I hate that I can forgive her for laughing in the face of feminism, but I know exactly why she did it. It makes sense that America had to trademark her, because she in so many ways represented The Other. Moreover, I also want to defend her from her business-suit wearing fans, the white male interviewers who can barely disguise their voyeuristic amazement while asking her if she REALLY actually believed that it was okay to be selfish, because she says what they couldn't say. She was foreign, female, and was fucking winning the game, HER game, and they used her to ventriloquize their own fantasies, to resolve their own ethical dilemmas, to do *their* dirty business. Of course, she was a willing victim on the newly-minted altar of post-industrial capitalism—she squeezed a huge degree of agency out of her world against insurmountable odds. She did the American dream better than they did, and they made her into a prophet. Since she was, as I contend, a godless mystic (according to a mix of her language and mine), she emanated pure charisma with virtually no ideological mold for it to flow into. That's pure political power at it's source, and it was like crack for the banksters. But it didn't exactly translate. Her magic couldn't be taught—somehow, it didn't survive translation. It didn't translate because Ayn Rand and her American followers couldn't have been a more tragic combination of different and the same. Sometimes religions die after one generation, sometimes they only have room for one. Call them geniuses, call them schizophrenic or sociopathic, but just don't try to imitate them. In their own way, they were imitating the Godhead in the only way they knew how, even if they call it atheism. In a weird way, Rand was sacrified on the crucible of a new era, and she continues to be a sign for the cognitive dissonance of American culture writ large. But she didn't bring salvation, except maybe to herself, she brought something far more complex —and interesting— than "salvation". A mirror, perhaps, something in disguise. She was like a sage who saw our hearts more clearly than we, and challenged us with our own image. But there's really no moral to the story because it was almost by accident, and her purpose was not to transform, it was to tell. Tell and then on to the next thing.

Ayn Rand, the person and the legend, is an enigma to me. This enigmatic tension, it's like a spiritual agitation, it's a nostalgia for something that could have been, it's the simultaneous tragedy and wonder of globalization, of the waves of revolution shaking the world like orgasms, like death throes, it's the incredible courage and ignorance of people, it's that I wish we could all be so naive, and so wise, at the same time. I wish we never mistook love for hate, compassion for selfishness, the need for belonging with the reflex of discrimination. We DO fail too see language as an arbitrary code of signs, which it sometimes is—not all the time, but sometimes. When I watch interviews with her I get the most profound sense that she was enlightened, in a way, it's something about her expression, it's that sphinxlike smirk of the Mona Lisa that almost mischievously holds back knowledge of ancient mysteries, or even the enigmatic smile you sometimes see in Marian iconography that contains both the spiritual ecstasy of salvation and the deep visceral grief of Christ's death. She is also Pan; the feral god of the forest, symbolically transmutated into the devil (the anti-god) after Christianity swept the land because he is unapologetically lustful, he is at once both passionate and indifferent. He is void of anything we recognize as identity because he came from the dark woods where there were no mirrors, no other Pans-he's a hardcore Other. So, being no-one, in a way he is everyone, the desire in all of us, the shadow counterpart to the holy spirit, Lord and Master of Chaos—once you look in his eyes he'll always know where you are and the only way to avoid possession by him is to become him. Identity is a joke to him because he learned being from mushrooms, trees, and dark red crystals in the ground—dark green things that are constantly dying and being reborn. And so her gaze is satyric, amused, but piercing, unwavering, both immanence and transcendence are in it, both presence and incredible distance, and all these "opposites" exist together, like old people in rocking chairs on a porch, you get the sense she is a master of Orwellian Doublethink, which could be championed for either destruction or liberation. And who's liberation was she seeking, in the end? That's what I don't understand. Was it really ours, the rest of us, or are we hopeless if we're even wondering? I remember in one interview, when answering a question about whether she believed in heaven or an afterlife (and thus the moral directives that it might necessitate), she stated with a conviction pious because of its nonchalance, that life on earth was the most beautiful thing that it was possible for her to comprehend, and that she loved creation, and that it was ultimately all good. At that moment she struck me as inexplicably buddhalike…. the buddha of rational self interest, ironically. Would that be the anti-buddha? And if the anti-buddha, would that not be the same as the buddha? She didn't believe in God or Religion, but she believed in something eternal.

There is something deeply mystical about feeling like it's possible to create heaven on earth, that life is all there is so we might as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Wasn't Paul himself on a knife's edge between proclaiming that gospel and the other one? What made him choose the other one? All the same, for her atheism I don't think one could call Rand a humanist either. A hedonist, maybe. But what is the difference, really, between selfishness and compassion? She would say they are the same. I want to know: Are they? I think when you realize that this life is all you have, and you view it with both intense love and awe yet detachment, eternity and temporality become the same thing, as do many "opposites." For the fact that she is some sort of saint of neo-liberalism, she struck me as anything but attached to this life. She was just an old soul with stories to tell. In a way it just seemed that her philosophy was just her story. It was her life story. She didn't attach too much significance to it... to meaning. In a way it was superfluous, besides the point. It was the signature of another event, like ripples in a pond.

There's something about that disposition of non-attachment, that lightness of being, that seems Eastern, esoteric, atheist and theist at the same time--Hindu, perhaps. Life is a game, divine play. So games are holy because they are games within games. Playing games can help you exact vengeance-and-gratittude for being born into this world of delicious suffering, playing games matches the above to the below, balances the equation. Meaning and meaninglessness are two sides of the same coin. My mom ran away, too, like Rand. That's another story, but the point is she ended up on this side of the Atlantic ocean. To women like this, who are weathered, who ran away, meaning is just a byproduct of survival, so best to not take it too seriously…at worst, too much meaning will just keep you paralyzed, keep you from acting. It's like they are saying, we're not here to save you, we're here to tell you…(and maybe not event that). Don't martyr yourself on a sign….in this world of movement, where we all are native to different languages (not just spoken ones but all systems of meaning) you might just crucify yourself on the wrong cross. I think my Mom taught me that. Ayn Rand didn't crucify herself on the wrong cross, but people did later——WE DID——through the failure of language in the post-modern age. And it's the fucking definition of a tragedy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

(Ancient and Modern) Technologies of Globalization and Identity Formation

 In this post I want to explore processes of social change and shifts in notions of identity that take place during globalizations or instances of cosmopolitanism, which aren’t as new as we sometimes think they are.

Christianity's origins as a sect are in the first few centuries of the Common Era, when it was one among many religious cults that worshiped a single god and were characterized by private, secretive, or exclusive rituals, and a certain degree of tension with the encompassing society (little known fact: the Isis cult was also suppressed and persecuted by some Roman Emperors, and yes, this included crucifixions. The cult of Dionysos was also persecuted by the Roman government in 186 BCE, when according to Roman historian Livy the rites were banned and some 7,000 adherents were either imprisoned or executed).

The mystery cult of Isis, as well as the cult of Dionysos, were popular and spread across the entire Roman Empire by the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, which it's worth noting was at that time at it's height of geographical expanse. This is no coincidence—these cults that centered around "foreign" gods (Egyptian and Greek, respectively) spread through trade and along the itineraries of Roman sailors, or through the movements of imperial armies, which were often stationed at the boundaries of the empire and in unstable provinces. Communication and physical travel—in those days of course one in the same—was more swift, reliable, and safe because of the infrastructure maintained by the Romans. Technically you could consider the Jesus movement a "foreign cult" too, since Palestine wasn't acquired by Rome until 63 CE. The Jesus movement stood out among the mystery cults because it arose within a Jewish context, was contingent on the sacred history and scriptures of the Israelites, and some (namely Rabbinic scholar Daniel Boyarin) argue was not that distinct from Judaism until the fourth century. Specifically, much of the distinction as been retroactively constructed by theologians and historians, often who have some degree of allegiance to one side or the other (which may or may not be conscious). In contrast to this, it helps to envision the Jewish religious landscape around the advent of the millennium as characterized by a wide range of sects, and Jewish Christians were merely one of the most messianic and apocalyptic of these. Rabbinic, or "Orthodox" Judaism developed out of this spectrum of Jewish religion just as Catholic Christianity did, and in fact, they played off of one other, using each other to demarcate the boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy. Such is the history of groups that actually have more in common than not—a sort of rhetorical coupling that produces discourses of difference.

One of the most interesting aspects of Christianity to scholars in our field, especially because we're looking back from our vantage point in the 21st century West, is that it essentially began as an underground, urban liberationist movement primarily patronized not by aristocrats but by the poor and illiterate. To compare early Christian theology with liberation theology is anachronistic but still a helpful comparison. Not only was Christianity an urban phenomenon, but the urban centers in which the cult thrived were part of a "globalization" set in motion by imperial conquest. In this case it was due to colonial domination by the Roman Empire, but the Hellenistic period, inaugurated by Alexander's eastward conquests is analogous. Throughout the history of civilization, globalizations differ proportionally and are constrained by the communication, transportation, and military technologies of the time, but significant elements remain in common.

I concur with Wikipedia's current definition of globalization, which is "processes of international integration arising from increasing human activity and interchange of worldviews, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture."

"International" is an apt word to describe globalization today, but one can find these processes as agents of cultural change long before the rise of the nation-state. I think globalization is any instance where some sort of common technology is used to unite economies and cultures who don't share the same ethnic, national, or religious identity, and of course, don't necessarily live in the same region. Today this technology might be the internet, and systems that it enables, like global banking. There are several primary technologies who's synergy produces our current notions of globalization—telecommunications and transportation are two big ones. However, there's another that I'm leaving out, perhaps the most important of all. Language! Language—and what it enables, which are world-views—constitutes technology, in my view. And this is exactly what allowed both Hellenistic and Roman culture to assimilate so many other cultures, and to flourish, and adapt....for example, in Greece in the 3rd century BCE, if you learn the "programming language" (the Greek language) then you are no longer considered a barbarian... you can now plug in and be an agent ("programmer") of culture, and not an outsider. Roman culture proved even more "open source", and perhaps post-industrial capitalism even more so—although there is a dark side to "universal language".

 It is easy of course to perceive today's globalization as definitive, or somehow comprehensive. This is far from the truth. Objectively, globalization is always to some degree an illusion because inevitably there are "invisible" groups that are, for a wide variety of reasons, either not included at all or are somewhat included but are not beneficiaries of "globalization" and therefore don't perceive it in the same way as the "globalizers". This is not to say that these processes of integration are not two-way, and that the categories of "conqueror" and "conquered" are rigid and polar. There is no such thing as complete cultural assimilation or rejection—contact with "others" fuels culture, and it always has. But perhaps what is most interesting to me is not the physical or geographic details of these processes but perceptions of these "processes of integration" by those who are part of that "globalizing" culture, whether it is Ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, or the United States, to name a few. It is necessary, then, to talk about the consciousness(es) engendered by globalizing processes and the social constructions of notions of culture and empire. As you can see, globalization and imperialism go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, empire is often wrought in the name of unity and peace and processes of globalization are seen as a beneficial, civilizing force. One ironic part of it seems to be that as empire unfurls, whether in physical or digital space, it eventually becomes unstable, it can't be centrally governed in a top-down way. I almost want to compare it to a virus that kills the host, but that sounds too negative. What seems to happen is that the "host" relinquishes power eventually and the "language" of empire, which can't be contained by virtue of it being language, spawns other, new "hosts" and/or gets co-opted, altered and hacked.

But it's true that today's globalization integrates far more, in sheer numbers, than ever before. So of course, it is unique. An interesting aspect of the industrial city in 20th century is how it was so good at producing interest groups, coalitions born out of the fragmentation of time and space, and the unmooring of the individual person from their colonial homesteads. New identities came out of this, neo-tribalisms born from the simultaneous closeness and distance of people. Then in the post-industrial age and the 21st century, urban space wasn't necessarily physical anymore because of the internet. Cyberspace was the new, hyper-urban space. And today, I'd contend, the condition of cyberspace destabilizes the dichotomy of "urban" and "rural", at least in the U.S. and Europe.

Still, parallels can be drawn between this instance of globalization and, for example, the Hellenistic period. After the conquests of Alexander, the Greek Empire was socially, politically, and economically destabilized and as cosmopolitanism rose, local institutions became less cohesive. But again, new solutions to the need for group/tribe arose, and some scholars (like Ross Kraemer) would point to the subsequent rise of certain mystery cults as evidence of this.

Interestingly enough, individualism and "identity", which we place so much value on in the U.S., emerge from new forms of collectivity, I think—though sometimes they are subtle, noetic, hard to spot. I think this was true of Christianity. What enabled the early Christian martyrs to stand strong alone in the face of unspeakable torture was their understanding of the ways in which their identities were collective in nature—their representation of an idea much larger than themselves is the very thing that enabled them to make a such a declarative and all-encompassing statement about their personhood. The famous confession in the face of Roman persecutors "I am a Christian" is actually a group identity manifesting as individual identity. Is this the individuality that we so often piously lay at the feet of Christian culture? I don't know—it appears to me that individuality as many folks understand it today just doesn't exist. Please know that this is not an insult to Christianity or some sort of argument for brainwashing—for if you know my affinity with the politics of libertarian socialism and social ecology you'll understand that this corroborates the Zapatista notion that the only way to achieve true individuality is through the collective. And let me qualify the use of "true" here. "True individuality" simply stands for a positive, inspiring feeling of individual purpose. It is phenomenological and subjective. One has to be positioned within a network of nodes, or companer@s, who can reflect your position in the group back to you, and also hold "you" in place so that you can even pin your "identity" down. Without some form of this system, you can expect a degree of existential despair—especially in modern/civilized contexts, because when you aren't grounded by other people and common activities that relate somehow to survival (which can be variously defined) you are basically free-floating in an infinite oblivion. There's nothing wrong with that, but if  you want to play that game, there's a group identity for that, too! (It's called monasticism)

And yet, the Borg are NOT the apotheosis of this "communist" logic—although many conservatives would love to have you believe that. Today, Protestant Christianity is famously associated with our modern notions of freedom and individuality that are ostensibly pillars of a great society. Well, maybe this is true, I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I would just like to point out that Christianity, just like all cults or groups that end up revolutionizing culture and mobilizing very very strong personal notions of identity and purpose are at their root socialist movements. And as for how this applies to modern culture... I would emphasize that the networks by which personal notions of identity and agency are achieved are sometimes invisible, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Notions of personhood that we take to be individual are often products of innovations in affinity and coalitional behavior. There is no agency in a vaccuum. Agency is the emergent end-product of a vast and complex system that is hive-like. It's just hard for us end-users to see.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

the oldest language on earth

Green Informatics: Then, Now, and also Now

A comparative exploration of some New Age/New Thought beliefs and some of their most-enchanting, and perhaps forgotten cross-cultural analogs.

By now most of us have heard of the "Law of Attraction" (abbreviated LoA), a concept popularized by the New Thought movement positing that positive thoughts and intentions will bring about positive material effects. Often this "like attracts like" rule is elucidated in terms of a metaphysics of energy, in which every action or phenomenon, including thoughts and moods, exert effects on their environments within (and even beyond) the boundaries of flesh. According to New Thought, this is possible because spirit— which is equivalent to divine consciousness—is the ultimate reality that all human minds naturally participate in, and if one has faith in this concordance, one will be able to access other (good) things that exist in similar relationship to this divine matrix of energy. But the "New Thought" zeitgeist that swept America in the mid to late 1800's held this belief first and foremost with respect to the body and human health and disease. Christian Science is an American sect of Protestant Christianity that incorporated tenets of New Thought perhaps more than any other (New Thought was concurrent with sharply rising 19th century trends in healing, mesmerism, and mediumship). The core of Christian Science's teachings is the (historical) core of New Thought—that disease is caused by the machinations of the mind, and consequently it is possible to heal the body with thoughts. One of the early heralds of this paradigm was Franz Mesmer (d. 1815), a German doctor who developed a theory he called "animal magnetism" positing that a "universal fluid" or life force that permeated the universe and was responsible for both sickness and health in humans. Similar to concepts of "chi" in Chinese medicine, Mesmer theorized that when this animating fluid flowed unimpeded through organisms, they were healthy; when it got blocked or impeded, it created energetic stagnation and consequently sickness. He developed methods of ameliorating these energetic blockages using charismatic healing techniques—essentially, quite lively performances, that famously would drive his patients into cathartic fits or seizures, after which they would report feeling better.

The very significant statistics documenting the success of the placebo effect (and even its frequent outperformance of many modern drugs, particularly psychiatric drugs) is a testament to the curative properties of belief. The same holds for hypnotism (as well as less dramatic forms of positive suggestion), which has been viewed with varying levels of skepticism by the medical profession, but has also been shown to be remarkably effective at curing a wide variety of ailments. Ironically, the benefits of "positive" thinking & speech in the form of prayer, spells, and rituals have been long known by shamans, priests, and regular folk in societies outside the temporal and physical reaches of Western science. But yet these beliefs are often ridiculed by scientific communities, while at the same time their very own R&D is busy documenting the placebo effect and now conducting dozens of other more specific neuroscientific studies corroborating reciprocal relationships between physiological states, feelings, and external environmental conditions— I can't help feeling like this odd stance on the part of the world of technoscience is a subtle form of biopiracy. What many who oppose organized religion but yet embrace Transcendental Meditation, Tantra or the like (I'm thinking of a prominent neo-atheist here) may fail to realize is that you cannot find a religious tradition in all of creation that does not enshrine its own equivalent of the 'law of attraction' and the power of suggestion. Yes, it may come to enshrine other things along the way, things that are not so great. But Magic is at the center of religions, it just gets patented and trademarked by a particular group of people. Then it accumulates theology around itself. Then, for better or worse it is effectively camouflaged.

In the contemporary New Age movement the LoA got a lot of publicity in the 2006 film The Secret. The Secret is one part self-help film, one part exposé alleging a trans-historical conspiracy on the part of the powerful to hide powerful teachings–essentially magical and occult teachings—from the masses. The film cites historical orders of the spiritual underground—including practitioners of Hermetic magic and the Renaissance-era Rosicrucians—as examples of groups that have kept and cultivated the LoA in times past. It focuses specifically on visualization techniques and other ways to bring about specific outcomes in one's life through positive thinking. The central thesis—that you attract things, events, and situations to your life because of often unconscious mental dispositions, emphasizes that the "law" goes both ways—it can attract both the negative and positive. But far from just being concerned with health and the body, The Secret takes the Law of Attraction to a decidedly materialist application, focusing on increasing wealth and prosperity. It is perhaps the New Age, liberal analog to the Prosperity Gospel, which began in the early 20th century and is still largely affecting evangelical and charismatic theology and ministry today. Essentially the philosophy in The Secret is an amalgam of New Thought and Occult teachings, because it implies that thoughts can affect—even manipulate—"external" material reality.

With respect to the creators of The Secret, I'm most interesting in the popular reception of these sorts of ideas and less in focusing on this particular instantiation of them. But generally, the problems with the New Age, American version of the "Law of Attraction" can perhaps be pointed out by starting with the very naming of it. It is apparently a "law", and to modern English-speaking ears this word conveys a very particular set of meanings—namely things like predictability, mechanistic function, and determinism. Indeed, when we hear about similar laws of causation it is in the context of science. Such laws cause one to assume that things can be predicted, conditions can be replicated, and that there is a future indicated by the arrow of time in which these predicted things will happen. Then there is the epistemological problem created by the mind-body dualism that still haunts our culture. What makes the "Law of Attraction" seem like New Age psychobabble to the empiricists of our time is their fundamental assumption that the external world of material causes and effects is ontologically different from the internal, mental, or spiritual world. Enfolded inextricably within this Cartesian framework is the assertion that humans are superior to non-human animals because they possess rationality—and it is through this that man can be connected to the divine. So there we have the problem—what you get when you introduce notions of the magical properties of language and thought into an anthropocentric world-view that still enshrines rationality and logic. And indeed, the "law of attraction" is often explained AS science. Something just doesn't compute. It's too much precision, too soon. As Bertrand Russell said, one doesn't begin with the precise. Sometimes there's this attitude that "well, subatomic physics corroborates this now, so we can finally make a legitimate argument for it". Well, I agree that "it's all science", but to me that's no different from saying it's all a dream, or it's all language. You don't have to turn to discussion of quantum mechanics or vibrational metaphysics to explain why the LoA works. If that helps you believe, by all means, tell yourself those stories. I guess I've realized those stories don't help me believe, or know anything or hold anything meaningful in my being for any substantial period of time. What helps me are the wild things. In wild places, thinking and feeling collapse into one, sensory perception is primary and naming comes after. Naming happens when you leave.

The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing. 
—Pierre Bonnard

In a society founded on Newtonian science and Rationalist thought, world views to which for better or worse American culture is inextricably indebted, the LoA has been formatted in ways that render it palatable to our distinctly linear, materialist, and textual sensibilities. Most importantly, because of the structure of our current knowledge-economy, it is often a soundbyte with no story, making it easy for people to either blindly accept or blindly reject it (this is true of so many things). Similar concepts that maintain the subtle yet powerful reciprocal relationships between an individual's states of consciousness, speech, and the world they inhabit can indeed be found in esoteric and occult teachings throughout history, as well as within the folk psychology and folk biology of indigenous cultures with strong hunter-gatherer traditions, either actively or preserved in cultural memory. It is the latter that I would like to discuss in this post.

To me, spirituality is best rooted in ecological understanding. It has to be tested in the field, literally. The best outcome would be that ecological and naturalist knowledge would do for us everything that spirituality does—and more. And my contention here in this essay is simply that it's very difficult to understand the causal effects of intention in this world, the world that I am now writing from. A world full of abstraction, of capital, of text and hypertext, of blank and sterile spaces and dislocated and fragmented ecosystems. Blank spaces soak up intention and focus like a sponge, they shatter it into a thousand fragments. (It is a great human challenge to maintain focus in an empty cell, which is I suppose why the Desert Fathers did it.) But those ascetic techniques of 'extreme spirituality' are not part of most modern people's skill set. Of course we have to resort to talking about things we cannot see, particles, or inanimate waves of energy, in order to rein in our focus, which behaves like an animal searching for food, or a mate, even long after our bodies don't (need to) hunger for those things. There is a sense in which our attention will always be feral. It's notoriously condemned for this in Christian thought, and called (lovingly I like to think) the "dog of desire" by Sufi mystics, which is perhaps a better description. Because you don't dis dog magic—the dog spirits are listening, and you want them on your side, you know.

Awareness, perception, intention, and focus—these are all things that evolved because they have biological functions—specifically ecological functions. They evolved not so much to track and follow our OWN thoughts, but rather to sense and track signals and signs in our environment—to recognize and home in on patterns. It is good to observe one's own thoughts of course, as Buddhists teach, but only insofar as that helps you observe the larger world of which you are a part! (The distinction is fuzzy between observation of thoughts and obsession with them. Ideally I should observe my thoughts the way I observe a river, or clouds passing in the sky.) When you rely on your natural environment for sustenance of all kinds, when you are both hunter and hunted (seer and seen), it completely and holistically shapes the way you think. Any survival situation (re)shapes how you think, and it is essential, for our purposes, to imagine our Paleo and Neolithic ancestors as constantly being in a survival situation. All wild animals, too, and plants and fungi—right now—are in a constant, dynamic state of survival. And I certainly don't mean "survival" just in the dramatic sense, like that guy who's arm was pinned under the boulder. I mean it in a much more mundane sense. But it's that quotidian space of survival which is the ultimate testing ground for cause and effect in the biotic realm. Additionally, I do not mean to imply that ancient humans never lived in abundance. I do believe they sometimes did—particularly abundance in the form of skill and craft—things that are carried within a creature and that become intuitive. Abundance of knowledge and awareness. In this way an animal can be in both a state of abundance and a state of survival. Prepared, oriented toward seeking, yet not wasting any energy. Some groups of people have preserved bodies of knowledge that encode the effects of hundreds of years worth of field experience in the causal webs of being. Transmitted orally, these stories are true symbionts—they must merge with our bodies to stay alive (although truly, a virus is a far better metaphor for textual traditions, not oral ones). And in oral/embodied form is where they are maximally effective. The gun is always loaded.

This brings us close to a key to understanding conceptions of "intent" in traditional/native systems of knowledge. Especially in urban and suburban landscapes, we inhabit a rather "dead" world, at least in the biotic sense and on a scale visible to the human eye. It's difficult to feel like you're really part of a landscape made up of inorganic textures and objects. Well, unless you're wearing UCP or digi-cam (which is I suppose why that was developed). But truly, it's difficult to feel like you "mean" something in these landscapes constructed by someone else. Do you know the feeling I'm talking about? Some may see it as a sort of existential despair, the ennui of inhabiting the modern, post-industrial world. But it literally does have to do with meaning—with semiotics... a very fundamental form of meaning, perhaps the progenitor (and definitely the engine) of Life itself. It's at once incredibly profound and simpler than any philosophy—it is the meaning inherent in the natural, living world—what I have articulated on this blog as "ecological cybernetics," a green informatics, the study of which a really cool gang of radical molecular biologists even have a name for: biosemiotics.

Biosemiotics is the study of how information flows through the natural world, and also at once it is reframing the very definition of information and processes of semiosis—how meaning is created and what constitutes meaning. In the biosemiotic framework, a sign is any pattern or signal—olfactory, auditory, visual, tactile, magnetic, and beyond—that gets "interpreted"—that is, utilized—by something else. For example, if one studies the metabolic processes of single-celled organisms and how their metabolic byproducts are perceived and utilized by other organisms, that is biosemiotics. Studying the tracks left by squirrels in the woods, and noticing how those movement patterns cause creatures that prey on the squirrels to modify their behavior in certain ways, that is biosemiotics. The forest, the savannah, the desert, or the Arctic tundra—wherever your ancestors are from—that place was, is, full of signs made by living creatures, and also by geomorphological and meteorological processes of strategic value to living creatures. They are available for you to observe, decipher, and extrapolate from, but they are also there without you—without us. The first, most primordial and primal messages were not necessarily intended to be messages. They were not consciously infused with meaning by the sender. They can accommodate sentience, but what really boggles my mind is the notion that meaning is an emergent quality of living systems—and it doesn't require sentient intelligence, or even much intelligence at all. Meaning needs three players to emerge: the signifier, the sign, and the interpreter, and without anyone or thing to interpret, there can be no meaning—but the key is that in the biotic world nearly everything is being "interpreted" all the time. The first messages were molecules, and maybe even atoms, if you dare. Then they were scratches and prints, and then pictograms, hieroglyphics, alphabets. But what we need to remember is that all these forms of signification still exist, alongside each other, and in any given moment they collectively command power far greater than our language does. Biosemiotics sees local evolution as a tendency toward increasing semiotic freedom—in other words, life forms have evolved on earth in ways that enable the messages they send and receive to be increasingly complex. But that doesn't mean that this view is anthropocentric or subscribes to an idea of "progress"—because no form of semiosis is valued over any other, they are all equal. No one is saying that more "semiotic freedom" means better. For the most part, biosemiotics encompasses linguistics in its academic form, without becoming completely wrapped up in and trapped by it. It can then potentially serve as the scaffolding for an evolutionary and even cosmic theory of meaning that bridges an epistemological schism between the humanities and the sciences. Too broad or grandiose? Maybe, but there are great uses for it, I promise you.
It's highest purpose is perhaps simply to teach us the oldest language on earth. You won't see industrial profit come out of this. Biosemiotics isn't here to build spaceships or a faster computer. It's both science and poetics—simultaneously redefining both. But it smashes altars all around, in science, anthropology, theology. It can't be pinned down. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe that's not the point. (Maybe it shouldn't even be written down...)

In a space where everything is alive, dying, and changing, there is so much "meaning" everywhere—so many signals being sent through multiple sensory channels and between a huge range of life forms—that it creates a constant, static "noise"—it becomes the baseline. Any time a baseline is established, deviations from that basic state can be interpreted as signs, especially if they repeat. This phenomenon of baseline/deviation/sign can repeat ad infinitum and the concept of "baseline" translates to all levels of awareness. Myths and stories transmitted in indigenous cultures about how the natural world came to be, traditions of animal medicine, why certain animals behave the way they do, and how human thoughts and intentions have ecological effects, come from a context where it is understood that nothing is meaningless in the ecological world. This might sound overwhelming to the would-be terrestrial navigator, but this state actually makes it possible to track the effects of very minute changes, because often in a very responsive environment like a forest, subtle events have a butterfly effect. "No event for the Koyukon is ever wholly accident or chance, but neither is any event entirely predetermined" (Abram) This causal ambiguity allows for a fluidity in interpretation, the sort of fluidity and theoretical resilience that is necessary when responding to the dynamic, ever-changing, spiral-moving, fractal face of the wild. One merely has to know what to pay attention to, and in many cases this translates to understanding how you are perceived by your environment. Many instances of native wisdom reveal that it has been proven, again and again, beyond reasonable doubt, that intention and ego can spell one's success or failure, particularly in the hunt. Controlling one's thoughts could, in the most extreme case, be a matter of life or death. In this way thoughts are linked to survival.

Similar yet different to the LoA, here we find that often it is not so much about displaying your intention, but rather masking (camouflaging) it, or even not having it at all.  In practice, this translates to practices that in various ways show respect or reverence to animals, plants, and/or forces of nature that have pivotal roles in one's livelihood. This means measuring and controlling how you think about these things, and your role among them. Chief among these practices is perhaps that of the hunter avoiding saying what he is going to do before he sets out to hunt, or bragging about his achievements after the fact. David Abram writes about a Native American arctic tribe: "The Koyukon people take great care to avoid speaking of certain animals directly using elaborate circumlocutions so as not to offend them."  This is especially true for more powerful animals that occupy important places in the relative ecology/economy of humans. Here is the knowledge that animals are repelled by arrogance but drawn to a disposition of reverence and humility.

It is indisputable that intention effects your focus and your disposition. Intention can be a form of obsession if it turns into a continuous thought. This fragments and narrows your faculties of perception and you can loose the ability to be "part" of the landscape where you are. At this time, for many reasons, it is far easier for you to be perceived by something before you perceive it. And since animals are experts at tracking things they cannot individually perceive based on the perceptions of other life forms in the forest (i.e. through bird language), the creature you are trying to find may just find you first. Many hunters and scouts will tell you that killer instinct can be perceived and they have countless stories of failed hunting expeditions to corroborate it. The animal kingdom has had millions of years to figure out how to perceive predatory behavior. Some groups of people who have spent lots of time hunting have figured out how to counter-track that. It is imperative to be able to love and revere something, and also kill it. These traditions of reverence (from which offering comes?) were practiced not out of duty, but because at the critical moment you literally must have your "heart in the right place" to ensure a maximum chance of success in your task. I guess you could say it's based on the folk-version of statistical analysis. (Nature has peer reviewed studies too, it's called instinct.)

It's true that humans as adept pattern recognizers do tend to see patterns when none are there. It is always important to keep this in mind. The argument could be made (and is) that this is the source of many "superstitions" within animistic world views. But I encourage us to realize that many—not all— cases dubbed "magical thinking" may still be able to be traced to ecological cognition. Some types of divination, particularly augury—observing the flight patterns of birds in order to predict future events—I see as a stylization and ritualization of the act of tracking. Augury became so highly ritualized to the point where priests would literally let a flock of captive of birds go and then "read" them, and it was easily rigged. But this can easily be traced back to remote tracking: tracking something "invisible" through the observable activity of another thing, as with bird language mentioned earlier. It is a form of triangulation, and can work on many scales. It's true too with hepatomancy (the ancient Greek practice of reading a sheep's liver). Of course you can turn that into liturgical bullshit, but examining an animal's internal organs can tell you a lot about the terrain it inhabited when it was alive.

Again, it's difficult to measure the effects of our will and our intentions—things we've been socialized to believe are "internal", "private", and unavailable to the perceptions of others—in a context that's not alive and in a dynamic, interconnected state of survival. Of course on some level modern first-world landscapes are "in a state of survival" too, it's just that the means and definitions of survival have changed. But the causal chains of being that stitch together wilder landscapes are diluted, weak. Here, these networks don't exist between alive things. Will and intention have less power because they are not relied upon in the same ways they were during much of humankind's time in this earth. As we walk through life we are not constantly "perceived" and tracked by the earth the same way many of our ancestors were. Wilderness/earth/nature is much less of an agent, to us. It is not believed in/stories are not told about it. Science explains why things happen, but it never places you within the story, as a participant. Sometimes science makes the world seem more alien and mysterious than do non "scientific" ways of understanding the world. It has often succeeded, historically, in being a narrative that excludes the human participant so that it can attain higher levels of linguistic precision, instead of being a narrative that includes the human participant but uses less precise language. How to balance the two?

The idea, common to ancient shamans and modern psychedelic visionaries alike, that language is an innate principle of the natural and non-human world even finds a bizarre, rather frantic expression in Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist literary theory. Even the ivory tower, which was built to rise out of the "primitive" swamps of green informatics, leads back there, perhaps unbeknownst to itself. But that's for another post...

List of People, Things, and Places to help think

"Placebo" — Radiolab WNYC Podcast
Jesper Hoffmeyer (biosemiotics)
The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram
Things written and thought by Tom Brown Jr.
Mammal Tracks and Sign, Mark Elbroch
Forests of all kinds
The Biology of Belief
Andy Clark
Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Will the best allegory for postmodern subjectivity please stand up? My angle on the Cyborg Manifesto

Believe it or not, I only just read "The Cyborg Manifesto" a few months ago. I was born the year it was published (1985), so my generation grew up in a post-Cyborg-Manifesto-World, and I'm realizing that many of the ideas central to this blog are spiritually descended from the kind of work Haraway was doing in that essay. It was awesome to have the opportunity to read her essay closely for my Feminist and Queer theory class this spring.

    In Donna Haraway's seminal and iconoclastic essay she introduces the cyborg as the central figure in an "ironic political myth" that she offers as an instructive and potentially liberating allegory—a myth deployed to combat more destructive myths in the thunderdome of cultural representations. In particular this methodological myth might serve, she suggests, as a tactic for women to re-imagine agency, embodiment and subjectivity, particularly with respect to updating outmoded identity politics and liberatory rhetorics in socialist and feminist thought.

    Echoing the concerns of other postmodern and post-structuralist feminists, Haraway takes issue with essentialist concepts wielded in some dominant feminist movements. Examples would be the concept of "women's experience" (that there is anything universal about it) or early ecofeminist rhetoric that idealizes Edenic matriarchal human legacies, or symbolically associates women/female with earth and holism. Although these imaginings have been part of the necessary dialectical landscape of feminist thought and the strategic complexities of opposing the subordination of women, they have perhaps erroneously pitted the technological and the fragmented in opposition to women, in simplest terms applying a morality of "technology = bad, earth = good". There is a sense in which mechanization, science and technology have been associated with patriarchy by feminists, but also by patriarchal systems of thought themselves (for example, the idea that women are not naturally proficient at math and science). Therefore, the association of technology with male and of earth with female in feminist thought, although it might have served as a way for women to re-appropriate being named as "other" and excluded from participation in high "culture", no longer represents a viable strategy for understanding the cybernetic ecology of personhood in a globalized and increasingly computerized world. Haraway points out that these narratives have been the creations of white first-world women, and indicates that any productivity such narratives might have is to the extreme detriment and exclusion of women of color, women in third world countries or women who face any constellation of multiple oppressions not experienced by white women in America. Although she doesn't use the terminology of "queer" or "trans", this essay was a harbinger for the project of problematizing essentialism in feminist thought from trans and queer perspectives as well. Haraway is criticizing approaches in 2nd wave feminism and certain idealistic strands of ecofeminism as participating—however unintentionally—in the same sort of essentializing discourse as their "oppressors" and not deviating in any radical way from the very philosophies and ideologies that have been so oppressive. Folded into Haraway's manifesto is the perpetual question of what it means to be embodied, to be a subject, and to be "female" (or any gender) in the late 20th century. She wants to encourage speaking and thinking from a lived place (with)in a cybernetic ecology—where we exist embedded within cybernetic systems (both semiotic systems as well as physical, technological systems) that transgress and complicate borders and boundaries of flesh and not-flesh, human and machine, and animal and human. Implicit in here is also the deep critique of Cartesian dualism (thinking of the mind and body as separate things), which Haraway feels is still an ideological pillar in feminist thought.

    She makes the important point that the cyborg (as a trope) can be seen as either emblematizing patriarchal totalitarian control and the hubristic quest for perfection/deification, or it can from another angle be seen as a new ontology with liberationist—not fascist—potential. Better yet, the ultimate challenge is to be able to envision both things simultaneously—in other words, to envision that the cyborg does actually refer to both liberation and control—which evokes the ability of "doublethink" in George Orwell's 1984. "Doublethinking" is holding and accepting two antithetical beliefs in one's mind simultaneously without generating cognitive dissonance. In fact such 'doublethinking' is actually necessary, not in service of top-down control, but in service of producing the best possible map for contemporary reality (that is to say, we, the people, have to "take back" this power from corrupt hegemonic systems). "Cyborg" could be a totalitarian creation, but also a bastard child, an "illegitimate offspring" giving rise to an ironic identity that Haraway compares to Cherri Moraga's envisioning of Malinche (the quasi-mythical mother of mestiz@ culture) as a "violation…that allows survival". Haraway easily justifies the tactic of doublethink, stating that "single vision produces worse illusions than double-vision or many-headed monsters."

    Haraway articulates a sort of iconography of the cyborg, an image that she describes is "at the center of her ironic faith, [her] blasphemy". This figure is neither hero nor villain; it bears neither a causal connection to any origin myth nor represents an eschatological reaper of human atonement, but rather works toward a useful re-appropriation of the demonized "evil" cyborg — or the related trope of the insurgent "android", an imagined humanoid manifestation of Artificial Intelligence - that has been represented as a sort of collective nightmare of technoculture (e.g. the "Borg" in Star Trek). Instead, the cyborg is seen as the definitive contemporary iteration of the trickster figure in late-capitalist, nascently post-industrial society. As a trickster, the cyborg performs a sort of campy ambiguity and effortlessly collapses multiple dichotomies, including animal and human, god and man, male and female, gay and straight, true and false, serious and frivolous, deliberate and whimsical, etc. They call into question what counts as technology, nature, identity, gender, and perhaps most interestingly, what counts as "right" and "wrong". A central attitude of Haraway's cyborg (as with the perennial trickster) is not cynical, but playful—and intrinsically morally relativist.

    Published in 1985, Haraway's essay came during the the dawn of cyberpunk science fiction, which manifested in both literature and film and was close on the heels of the popularization of personal computing (the Apple II in 1977 and the Commodore 64 in 1982). Additionally there were advances in electronic communications technology that had significant cultural impact—in particular, precursors to the internet and world-wide-web such as dial-up BBS, Usenet and the prototypes of commercial online services like Compuserve and AOL. Both Blade Runner and Tron came out in 1982 and the novel Neuromancer by Willam Gibson, considered paradigmatic of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic, was published in 1984. In classical cyberpunk stories, the setting is often a dystopian near-future society, almost exclusively urban and characterized by extreme political and economic corruption. The tone of cyberpunk fiction is often dark, nihilistic and cynical, and as with Haraway's cyborg, there is no loss of innocence; the subjects of the stories were born knowing nothing outside of post-industrial, technophilic police states, and the plots often revolve around the protagonist as a computer hacker, subverting the technology of his oppressors for his own gains and goals, which are sometimes but certainly not always altruistic. Most often they are simply in accord with a survivalist ethic. Of this very ethic Haraway writes "Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other". (111) This is redolent of the famous line from one of William Gibson's short stories, "the street finds its own uses for things", describing the relationships between users, technology and underground or black market economies. Haraway's cyborg too is guided by adaptationist ethics and strategies, but it moves beyond simply a hermeneutic of revenge or revolt, and exists somewhere in a productive dis-identificatory space between assimilation and rejection.

    This period - the 1980's - also coincides with the "second Gilded Age" discussed in family historian Stephanie Coontz's work, marked by a rise in conservative politics and the coupling of capitalist ideals and consumerist ethics with conservative moral ethics. This era, the era of personal computing and precursors to the internet  because of its political and social backdrops was threatening to feminists as well as gays, lesbians and other minorities compared to the political progressiveness achieved in the 60's and early 70's. It is understandable that a need for a liberatory cyberpunk narrative was dire for the feminist subject in the mid 80's. Haraway even mentions the replicant Rachel in Blade Runner as a symbol of confused desire in a half-awakened or un-self-aware cyborg culture. Haraway's essay indeed was a prophecy whose time had come, although a cyberpunk consciousness was already emerging in hacker culture and was I would argue actually typified in Blade Runner through the veiled allusions to the male protagonist/hero figure actually being a replicant himself. However texts like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, while hinting at the possibility that the cyborg has a soul and might even be able to be "good" despite the totalitarian conditions of its creation, still featured male protagonists and played to the masculinist Western hero narrative quite strongly. Haraway wanted to extend this consciousness to a feminist, post-gender and socialist framework. The critical ingredient for her is the adaptationist ethic embodied in the figure of the cyborg, which you can see hints of in early cyberpunk works like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, but are much more overt in texts that surfaced a decade after the publication of A Cyborg Manifesto, like the Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, where the complication of traditional moral frameworks that is incurred by cyborg subjectivity is explored even more deeply. In post-cyberpunk works like the latter, the question of who is "the bad guy" and who is "the good guy" have become even more muddled, through not only revelations that humans are oblivious to their own cyborgian or machine-based origins, but that even their struggles for liberation might to some extend be helped or masterminded by the very entities they thought of as enemies. In a post-cyberpunk world, the concepts of "enemy" and "ally" can becoming meaningless. (I hope to explore this tangent more in a future post.)

    Being partially engendered by the invention of the first computers in the 50's, early cognitive science and concomitant theories and metaphors for cognition (including those present in the cyberpunk science fiction of the 80's) are predicated on a computational understanding of mind that has become more and more discredited. In such a framework the mind is conceived of as a type of Turing Machine, which I've written about/critiqued previously in a post on dynamicist models of cognition. Haraway's essay hints at the pervasive epistemological effects of computationalism when she notes that "modern medicine is…full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices" (emphasis mine). However, it is unclear to what extent the Cyborg Manifesto is complicit in the myth of computationalism, since Haraway is so wary of mind-body dualism and given her disclaimer in the beginning about the ironic and mythopoeic nature of the manifesto. Thus her work could be seen as an incredibly prescient anticipation of more dynamic, ecological and situated models of cognition and sociality (particularly in light of the fact that she has since then turned a similar focus to the topic of companion species). It is also worth noting that the mid to late 80's saw a rising interest in Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist linguistics in the Anglo-American academy, in which language is seen as pre-figuring all human knowledge and comprehension of reality. This has serious methodological ramifications for the analysis of literature and historical texts, which is primarily how it became relevant in the humanities and social sciences. Such a view of the world as "made of" language has also been a central part of the mystical philosophies of visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna, who's ideas, though in many ways analogous to those of Derrida and Saussure, don't receive nearly enough attention in the academy (I suspect because they are so politically radical and generally iconoclastic). Poststructuralist theories challenged objectivism on both a phenomenological and methodological levels, and questioned the tenability of “materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them” (from The Past as Text by Gabrielle Spiegel, p. 4) This, no doubt, has been woven into cyberpunk narratives that envision the world as "code" that can be manipulated and programmed. Indeed, there is still much life in this storyform... but only the future will tell how exactly it will evolve, since our definitions of what constitutes "code" have changed since the 80's and continue to change.

Queering it

     "Cyborg" and "Queer" are both linguistic strategies for navigating postmodern subjectivity. I see Haraway's cyborg as (among other things!) anticipating queer theory, which was to develop a few years later in the early 90's through the writings of like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick. Haraway calls for the quest for liberation to be refocused from a search for "identity" to a search for "affinity" or affinities, which is to say, an active construction of relationships, among humans but also among ideas and across multiple frameworks of meaning (her essay serves as a living example of a cyborg text, operating in both the realms of fiction and non-fiction, poem and prose). Identity is too individualistic, too essentialist; affinity on the other hand is coalitional, it is the very currency of the biotic world, which evolves and adapts by means of ecological relationship. Haraway's cyborg represents a rejection of identity and with it of traditional notions of redemption and salvation. Cyborg describes an ontological queerness, the paradox of natural unnaturalism, or unnatural naturalism, whichever you prefer. Similarly, "queer" is a sort of non-identity or anti-identity that does not require any sort of unitarianism or essential quality and questions notions of behavioral continuity and ideological integrity. According to Sedgewick queer refers to an "open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances" which echoes the ways in which Haraway discusses the cyborg. Queer is not an objective category like "gay" or "lesbian", and although it is adjectival it does not necessarily describe a noun. Rather it is a first-person signifier of some sort of oppositional position, which may encompass particular experiences, intentions, pasts or futures. It pertains particularly to "performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation" (Sedgewick). Similar to "cyborg", queer is a strategy with which to reconcile potentially dissonant ramifications of the postmodern condition. A key political task for Haraway is to "dissolv[e] Western selves in the interests of survival". So it is also with "queer"… queer is imbued with the postmodern and post-colonialist understanding that all creation is hybridization or bastardization, and the nostalgia for a primordial wholeness or perfect morality is an illusion.

    Queer has been extended to even describe ecology and the very ontology of the biosphere, of evolution itself. Cyborg denotes a reliance on or incorporation into the self of technologically-enabled processes of semiosis, but when and where do these processes "begin"? Where, indeed, did technology begin? Long, long ago perhaps with the advent of the first sign, but can that even be named? If queer and cyborg could be associated with any identification, it is perhaps a productive identification with fragmentation. Reconciling fragmented lives and selves is something that is still very relevant today, and perhaps even more relevant. Yet the above discussion does not exhaust the mythic possibilities for mapping personhood, identity/affinity, and desire in 2012. "Cyborg" and "queer" came on to the scene 20 years ago now. Lots has changed, more than we can even comprehend, and as is one of the defining missions of this project, new stories need to be told.

(To be continued)