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.