Introduction: Eschatology & Teleology
Tonight, I will throw ideas out at a dizzying clip; in part because there’s a lot of ground to cover, and in part because I want to so assault & insult your sensibilities that I literally overwhelm your critical facilities; it’s integral to at least one of the points I wish to make tonight, and most germane to all of them. So listen to the pretty music – provided profoundly by my DJ and philosophical cohort, Ronan Hallowell, and when your brain fills up or bullshit detector goes off understand that I’m not stopping until I’m through; that this is spew, uninterrupted, unadulterated point-of-view which will over the course of some sixty minutes begin to constitute an arc of its own, a teleology of teleology.
Also because you are philosophers, it is my moral obligation to fuck with your heads, assault the tidy walls that ring your cities of ideas, and, like Joshua, circle those barriers, sound the trump, then watch them fall. The one-two cannon of this pressure will be the utter equanimity with which I will handle matters both scientific and mythical, historic and apocryphal, past and still to come. For this arrangement – or rather, this disarrangement is the only way to present any picture of where we are – RIGHT NOW – and the only tool I have to surmount the parapets of your reason.
I am going to out-McLuhan McLuhan tonight; go far beyond the stratospheric view of the global village into a galactic-Gaian view of an emergent consciousness; one which may not be very well aware of our on presence within it, however much we might come to constitute its innards. After all, we are not much aware of our blood vessels, lymph nodes, and muscle tissues. So too this Noosphere might be blissfully unaware of the semi-conscious entities which give it the room to express its own morphogenesis.
I want to challenge you with three questions which of themselves form the basis of philosophy; where are we, where have we come from, and where are we going? Taking as given the fundamental unity of space and time, where is as much what as what is where.
The Spiraling Within
It being necessary to the exposition of my thesis to recapitulate the history of communication, I must begin by invoking the Egyptian vegetal god of eternal recurrence. In telling this first “Just-So” story, I assert the curve of the Pythagorean, at every point the vector turned in, upon itself, irrationally, rather than the line of the Positivist and its singular tangent, and so we will come back, like a strand of DNA, returning to our starting point.
The evolutionary biologist, looking to the root of human communication, would say that an ability to communicate confers “selection fitness”, that is, that creatures who are able to say to each other, “This is poisonous,” “I need help,” or, “Watch out! Lion!” stand a better chance of passing their genes along than creatures mute to each other.
What no one has yet been able to answer – in any substantial way – is how this capability came to genus Homo; in pieces or all at once, before or after thought, before or after the birth of sexuality and its consequent emergent culture. This is perhaps because we see at best one-half of the equation, the human half. I assert that language must be the process of some form of structural coupling – an autopoesis marking the boundary between the dumb animals and some modest verbal consciousness. I will leave this Other – the object of the coupling of which we are the subject - as yet unnamed, for I wish to draw a chalk-line around its circumference before I give it any verbal form.
Perhaps four billion years ago, underneath the oceans, another conversation developed, a formation rather more singular than human verbal consciousness. Seafloor clays – composed of long chains of basic organic molecules – entered into a structural coupling with their environment, an autopoesis leading to the emergence of self-replicating forms. The birth of life began as a conversation between the planet and itself, an exchange of vital information – literally – which ultimately changed both Self and Other completely.
Communication is the root of life; the exchange of information in structural couplings marks the broadening of the domain of forms from organic to organism, and from alive to conscious.
One ability unique to the conscious mind is the capacity to simulate – that is, to take knowledge of past events, and from that, make application to a current or forthcoming situation. We make much of this ability, christening it with the word Imagination, considering it one of the bulwarks of Mind. Imagination emerges from the plain of verbal consciousness like a ape which raises its head to scan the edges of the savanna, and dream of the beyond. In children, the imagination is prized above all other characteristics, and adults appear to be innately predisposed to encourage this characteristic in their young. More than just play, Imagination posits that the playing field itself exists only within Mind, constructed entirely from the will-o-the-wisp of verbal consciousness. We live in our Imaginations – or so the cognitive scientists tell us – houses constructed from simulation and past experience.
From Imagination, the threads of narrative emerge, spinning the tale of the conversation between Self and Other. These narratives begin as the object lessons of observation, but, as narratives are brought together, natural resonances between stories lead toward an autopoesis of archetype. The narratives themselves communicate – through the agency of human storytellers – and so emerge, first as myths, and later, as the modern myths of science.
The imagination of the organism is contained within its DNA, which represents its historical narrative. Both imagination and mythology are contained within the DNA of the organism – imagination is potential unused, but present; mythology the ontogeny which recapitulates phylogeny, like the Genesis myth, woven in matter.
Now we enter nearly modern time. Technology, emerging from science as the narrative of matter, brings us the mastery of electricity, and its consequent transformation of all human communication. McLuhan correctly characterized electrification of culture both as an exteriorization of the human nervous system and as a gathering in of all humans into a ubiquitous aural/oral space he termed the “global village”.
When this innovation meets the myths of religion, history and science that have colonized human communication before it, it births a new form – journalism. Schopenhauer correctly characterized journalists as “professional alarmists”, for, as the outposts within the early one-to-many form of this network, they served the role of sensors in an electronic body politic. But this pales before the certain knowledge that, from 1844 onward, we have increasing been directly involved in each others’ lives, coupled by bonds of information which tell us more and more about the Other. The field of Imagination explodes instantaneously from the individual to the planetary; thus we see the birth of the tabloid newspaper as the first and most immediate consequence of the telegraph; install a nervous system and it will ring the alarm.
The subsequent innovations of telephone, radio, and television reinforce rather than disrupt the unification within the global village, but each has qualities peculiar to itself, owing both to its degree of fidelity – that is, as participatory “cool” or non-participatory “hot” media – and also its degree of multi-laterality. The telephone and television represent antipodes of multi-laterality; the telephone encourages participation, while the television encourages pacification. Neither can escape the participatory quality of electric media, but the qualities of the couplings they engender, and the cultures that emerge around them, are quite distinct as a result of these differences.
Electrification of the organism produces autopoesis, actualizes entelechy, giving it coherence beyond the collective functioning of cells in a system. The difference between the hydra and the sea slug is qualitatively greater than the difference in mass; the electrified organism is involved with itself, behaving as a coherent, cohesive unity, in the say a simpler creature can not.
While electrification made it possible to speed human thought across the planet, it did not immediately make it possible to distribute any intelligence through it. Electrification served as a carrier wave, a pure replacement for the air wave. Yet, since the birth of the steam engine it had been known how to construct machinery that could “govern” its own behavior, taking its output and feeding it back in to produce some limited range of self-organizing behaviors. Charles Babbage constructed his “Difference Engine” along similar principles, but the concept had to wait another century, until the exigency of the Second World War provided the stimulus for Alan Turing and John von Neumann to develop the foundations of electronic mutation, or, as it’s more commonly known, computing.
The essence of this mutation lies in its ability to monitor outputs as inputs, using this loop of communication – yet another structural coupling - to produce some limited self-governance. As this intersects the electrified field of communication, it engenders a new form of Imagination, electronic simulation.
The quality of any simulation can be improved only by the quality of information communicated to it. Thus does this snake eat its tale; for now, we come back to the essential, communication. Mutation without communication is powerful but sterile; mutation with communication is what we now call computer communication, or more properly, the Internet. We have returned to our starting point, but the landscape is different; coupled to something that I have not yet named.
To continue on this circle – or rather, this spiral – we come again to the place of Imagination; this Imagination in the context of the Internet is known simply – and powerfully – as cyberspace. William Gibson put his finger right on the beating heart of an in-folding revolution in mediation, placing the locus of our electrification squarely within our imaginations, as had Vernor Vinge before him, and Neal Stephenson, after. The essential quality of cyberspace is that it is entirely Imaginary; thus, myth is the natural narrative form to describe such a space, and – as we find from the many depictions of it – myth has most often served the creative talents of the individuals who have articulated experience within the medium.
All of which brings us to where we are right now; eternal recurrence bringing us round one and one-half times, back again to electrification. But we are already electrified. How can we re-electrify ourselves? To do this we must leave the domain of OSIRUS and enter the dominion of his brother, his nemesis, SET.
The Engines of Amputation & The Myth of the Borg
SET is the archetypal evil twin, the bad brother, the curse of limitation, of finality, and death. He is malevolence embodied, pathology in flesh.
Before we succumb to the myth of infinite progress, I want to present another “Just-So” story – a rather more sinister tale – about the transformations in human ontology as a consequence of changes in human communication. At every notch on this cheery wheel of communication we mark a death and a birth. McLuhan noted that all technologies are substitutions of an innate ability for a greater power; that is, all technologies are amputations. The automobile, which substitutes the control interface of wheel and petals for the innate interface of locomotion, augments the locomotive ability many-fold, but at a cost, for, in their cybernetic function, the legs are essentially stationary.
Writing is an amputation of memory – of course, we’re so many thousands of years past that innovation, we can not recognize what was lost to it. Imagination is an amputation of the imminence of reality; and verbal communication is an amputation of instinctive behavior. Yet as much as these amputations limit us, they define our unique points of excellence; our heroic strengths and tragic flaws are one.
Electrification – as the exteriorization of the nervous system – amputates personal space completely. The world has come to live within our heads, both individually and collectively – while our minds have come to reflect the world. The global “homogenization” of cultures, decried by those who hearken back to an “authenticity” of dubious actuality, would require that the “on” switch of the electric era be conclusively flipped “off”, reversing a process not so much culminated in MTV as irreversibly initiated by the first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?”. What, indeed?
Mutation marked an amputation of a cognitive ability; how many of you can actually remember long division? Of course, we’re all taught it, in case of some emergency when we might be caught without calculator and need to know pi down to 13 digits, but it’s a vestigial practice, an appendix of learned culture, but, in fact, the massification of computation has pushed the four-banger into the humus of intelligence, delegated to a lower phylum, much like photosynthesis.
But how much can be cut, before nothing remains? Are we become, like some mad soldier stitched together after an apocryphal battle of the First World War, nothing but a paralytic, faceless mass of flesh, without senses, without affectors, perversely possessing an ability to think, but no need?
It’s come time in this monologue to frame a system which describes our relationship to the artifacts of the various couplings between ourselves and our mediations.
[ Here's a link to work of mine which covers this is great detail. ]
The unspoken end of all mediations are to smooth the passage across Fx; to get the message across. The stated end of virtual reality – my own field of research – is to mediate away the boundaries imposed by the “meat”, and present a clear channel from the physical to the psychic. Your next guest, Jaron Lanier, termed it “post-symbolic communication”, but we have a word for this state of being, a turn of phrase somewhat older, and altogether more evocative – cyborg.
More than just the mix of man and machinery - which I would claim for myself with this exosomatic appliance (at this point I motioned toward my eyeglasses) – the cyborg loses its individuality in agreement with a larger mechanism. The cyborg is the final amputation, an inversion of the without and the within, producing a hybridity which is necessarily a collective form. From McLuhan:
The Web emerged from the chaotic fabric of the Internet as a single, unified entity; further, it emerged simultaneously and instantaneously across the entire breadth of the network which supports it. I can only compare this most singular event to the gastrolation of the zygote as it differentiates and transforms into embryo. This unprecedented modern event has all of the hallmarks of a structural coupling producing an autopoesis of common mind.
So now we find where this has been leading. That chalk-line, drawn so clearly around some thing whose main function is to be coupled as Other, has come to embrace an innovation as unique as any that preceded it, for the Web, in its role as common mind, produces something that simple electrification could not. Electrification produced unification of sensation, whereas the Web produces unification of understanding, establishing a stratum of factuality which forms the base of twenty-first century civilization.
And so we must come to name that chalk-line, that Other which engages us in a structural coupling from the inanimate clays of a pre-biotic planet to the singular Web of a unified, conscious super-entity. It is none other than the planet itself, which has for some four billion years engaged itself in a conversation of increasing subtlety, has nursed both voices of this fugue into some sort of adulthood.
Of course, none of this can be proven; incompleteness reigns here. We can see these footprints in the sand, and can suspect the existence of this Other, but it can in no wise show itself in any terms that are meaningful to us as individuals, or even as scientists; from our viewpoint as incorporations, the cybernetic super-organism is effectively hidden from view. All of this might be happening by itself, just the random processes of intelligence through time. But someday – rather soon, I believe – Occam’s Razor will come to rest in a different position, where the coordinated efforts of billions of intelligences – synthetic and natural – will seem common sense, even if the ends of that coordination are beyond our ability to know. We are limited, and the puny world of reason has an edge; beyond it lie the dragons of the supra-rational.
Yet, despite – or perhaps because of - the failure of our reason, our intuition informs. Thus, we see cultural manifestations of the horror of the collective, most manifest in our own society as the Borg of Star Trek, who never fail to elicit a shudder from an audience which perceives itself as highly individuated beings, blissfully and perpetually unaware of the intense pressures of collection and unification that have brought them into intimate communion with this common mind. Cultural historian William Irwin Thomson has noted that the forms of the next culture are always perceived as demonic by the culture that precedes it. The Borg occupy that place for us, for in them we see what we have already become, but refuse to accept.
Even as much as we might individually possess free will – and I have no opinion on that – I think it inconceivable that we possess any measure of free will within the Noosphere; if one cell runs amok in the body, its peers will come to fill its appointed task. There is a power in the redundancy of large numbers, both in the human body, and the Noosphere, which relegate individual human action to a second stage, a smaller show, one where the Ego might still reign, in the nightmare from which we try to awake, but humanity is no longer at the center of things – if ever we had been. However integral to the Gaian teleology, humanity has no conscious role to play within it.
The curse of SET is that we know our limits.
Mens et Manus: The Ontological Convergence of Doing
The Hermetic axiom goes “As above, so below”. In this poetic framing of Mandelbrot’s logic of the fractal, the processes of the universe are self-similar and scale-invariant, every event an archetype possessing its own dynamic range within the cosmos. In harmony with this, Rupert Sheldrake’s theories of formative causation posit that the appearance of a form makes that form more likely to appear in the future, giving time a fractal dimension which plays out in the organization of matter.
All of this indicates that the couplings between ourselves and our Other extend beyond us spatio-temporally, conflating in one direction to the rim of a cooling Big Bang and its first precipitate, the universal forces, reaching in the other to a heat-death in the pan-galactic noos, which sounds more like the Buddhist conception of underlying reality than the theological speculations of a Jesuit paleontologist.
In the last of these “Just-So” stories we are the unconscious agency of this conversation between space and time, as expressed in the conversation between mind and hands. Embedded in artifacts, our language and our learning becomes concrete; indeed, we claim to know our own prehistory from the study of artifact, from the excreta of Mind, as formed by the sphincter of hands. Yet this “concrete mind” has the curious quality of engaging us in a coupling – relieving us of our own being and replacing immanence with artifact. From the moment we consciously shit in the sands, we were entranced and hypnotized by it – and if this discourse seems overly laden with scatological references, it is perhaps because we’ve turned to eschatology, the tailings of time.
The arcs of teleos – of destinies – pass beneath us, as the bacteria self-organize, inoculating themselves against our antibiotics, taking a further step in their own inward spiral; pass above us, as the Gaian super-mind reaches toward communion with entities alike to itself; and through us, as humanity races towards completion in its own work of doing.
The archetype of magical reality – a dream-time, if you will – is ubiquitous to our species, and fills not only our mythological space, but also – from Roger Bacon forward – has been presented as the ultimate justification for the scientific endeavor – its raison d'être. Both thought-forms define a teleology of a world conformant to will, where the Logos is spoken and objects assume their given places. For this reason, science was able to replace alchemy as a defining myth of willful process; each articulated a teleology essentially magical, but science, looking to the without of things, proved a more fertile ground for the collective mind, where alchemy, concerned with interiority and transformations of the soul worked only within the individual. Scientists could one day bombard lead with protons and create a fleeting, toxic gold, but – in an inversion of Midas’ curse - the gold of the Philosopher’s Stone existed only within the heart of the alchemist. Alchemy failed us because its individuality inherently precluded the kind cultural structural coupling which produced the Enlightenment and the modern era.
Now, after five hundred years of dedicated studies, science shows us a Janus-like visage, two fronts converging like pincers on the real. At the furthest corners of the imaginal, our ability to simulate rapidly approaches believability, as if, soon we’ll cross a threshold between what is real and what we believe to be real, never again sure of the difference. While, at the far reaches of the technical, our ability to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter, and the forces which control them, approaches its own apotheosis. Years ago, UCLA Philosopher of Science and Technology Katherine Hayles noted the apparent convergence between virtual reality and nanotechnology; I assert that this convergence is the consequence of an imminent redefinition of our collective ontology, that who we are is becoming identical to what we believe.
And once again, this seems less Extropianist fantasy than pure Buddhism, yet, as we talk to the hand, as that hand fashions artifacts which change the definitions of ourselves, as that definition changes our language, we can see ourselves trapped within a coupling that – like the first which brought life to the planet – seems intent on embedding the intelligence we so covet into the very structure of matter, so that humanity will imminetize – or perhaps, recognize – a universal intelligence.
So this arc of our own teleology loops back upon itself; if we embed intelligence everywhere, are we not also embedded intelligence? Is this a new idea or the fractal reflection of a process constant and universal? And can we ever know?
At some point even the solipsist must take the leap of faith and grant that there is an reality. We may be inside our heads, but these heads can not be different from the world they perceive. “As a man is, so he sees.” But the converse must also be true: “As man sees, so he is.”
One myth of human teleology breaks time into three great aeons. First, and most ancient, the time of Isis, of the Great Mother, of matriarchy and mythology. Next, the time of Osiris, the Heavenly Father, of patriarchy and the positivist philosophies of science. Finally – currently – the aeon of Horus, the supremacy of the individual magickal will. Yet this can not be correct; the last of this now seems overthrown, the human displaced before the Gaian; that is, if you term the individual as identical to the human being. Which may not be true. This teleology might be pointing to something that we must remain forever incapable of comprehending – a will which both includes and subjugates us, where we find the end of our development in the flower of something far greater.
Against this, I set another teleology, invoking OSIRUS: To know this progression, the inward spiraling and eternal recurrence; SET: to follow it to its limit, to know our own limit; and HORUS, to play within it. At the end of doing, Homo Faber must pass away before Homo Ludens; that is the final message of Millennial ontology, for we now take ourselves too seriously, have forgotten to remember that our myths gain their mana from our belief in them, but – as we come to know that nothing is true, and everything permissible – we remember that this is just play, the play at the end of time.
4 – 6 May 1997