Imperfections (Part 3: All that is Solid Melts into Lossless Exchange)

In his Manifesto, Karl Marx famously observed that “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” But what is intended by that oft quoted phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air’?

Our newest (virtual) technologies encourage a state of fluidity between objects whereby one object is understood as, and constructed to be transferable into, any other object.  We find text transferred into binary, into 1s and 0s – and then back into the alphabet familiar to us. We find that world, in the age-of-serialized-production, increasingly filled with physical objects that also exist as code-models. The next time you go to Aunt Betty’s house for Thanksgiving have a look at her kitchen and consider how many of the items you find there (chairs, plates, blender etc…) are simply physical instantiations of standardized digital models purchased from big box stores like Wal-Mart, Ikea or Costco.

We are enthralled by a lossless system, where language becomes numerals; where couches become .CAD files – and vice versa. Systems operating on the principle-of-lossless-exchange proliferate around us. Goods and services, for example, accumulate value by their entrance into a system of exchange; wealth is garnered through the exchange of stock. The object becomes, in a sense, subject to the numerals on the stock ticker board.

The greatest danger that these exchanges face is the crash: that is, the possibility that goods cannot be exchanged without loss. Is it coincidental that our vocabulary holds that a stock market ‘crashes’ and a computer ‘crashes’? It is precisely datas of loss that come to terrify us, ones that threaten, like a Socratic ethics, to poison the reigning rational and logical system of soluble and virtual exchange. Such terrifying forms take the shape of natural disasters, computer viruses and modern suicide terrorism.

This tendency toward lossless-exchange also explains the likely movement to come, a movement that might attempt to reverse engineer the brain, rendering it informatic, incorporeal and unchanging. This dream, which has been discussed in many earlier posts, of reverse engineering the seat of human consciousness, and transforming it into a virtual agent – one that can be uploaded and downloaded or read like a stock ticker, is linked through and through, with the principle-of-lossless-exchange that is spreading across our highly technological culture. The consequences of this trajectory of lossless-exchange, if left unchecked would be disastrous. For human thought contains within its very structure a loss or – to put it in Bataille’s terms – some form of expenditure. If we are blind while caught up in our libratory TEDaphors (21st century technologically inspired metaphors) to the factory labour in Asia responsible for producing our Intel chipsets, what will become obscured from us when the brain itself is rendered isomorphic with virtual/digital code?

The advocates of computer mediated communication tend to emphasize, among other things, the ability for identity creation and the possibilities of new network-influenced social formations. Yet these promising concepts rely on and are supported by virtual technologies. One wonders, and this is of the utmost urgency, whether the optimistic proclamations and hopes for the virtual future fully recognize how different the underlying (binary) ontology of the virtual-simulated is from the underlying (physical) ontology of the real-reproducible?

What can we expect when the binary comes to increasingly simulate a complex and often excessive world, whose historical trajectory is not one understood by a universal programmable code, but a historically contingent fabric of individual and collective actors, whose actions are rooted as much in economic/political conditions as the biological conditions of their bodies? This is not to deny the possibilities that a virtual-future may entail, but it is to remind us that a virtual-future is not simply one of libratory networked social relations and free identity play, but one where we come to think of ourselves in terms of data, and the world risks becoming incommensurable with feeling as it gravitates to total commensurability with calculation and computation. Hence, it is no coincidence that the history of the virtual is saturated with the logic of Western science and rationality: The dream of the virtual simulation represents the current scope and vision of the project of Western rationalism, one that evokes terms such as ‘big science’ and the massive CERN atom smashers nearly the diameter of Phoenix, Arizona.

The rationalization of the world began far earlier than the industrial revolution… It takes its roots, among other things, in the Cartesian philosophy of Descartes, the Perspectivalism of Alberti, the cosmology of Newton and the rise of Euclidean geometry. Look back to those (now unpopular) analyses of civilization that trace the progression from Mesopotamia to Semitic cultures to the Greeks as tied to increasing degrees of abstraction and written script. We might look to Heidegger’s Age of the World Picture as recognition of this trajectory. Even capitalism, often over-valuated as an explanatory mechanism,  stands as mere epiphenomenon of a broader trajectory marked by the grafting a fixed order of meanings and values onto the natural world. A fixed order that, having accelerated tremendously in the 1700s and 1800s, is symptomatic of the ‘death of God’: in lieu of there being no transcendental Platonic Forms as the ancient Greeks believed, or concentric celestial spheres as the medieval West did, we find “a psychic revolution” to graft the structure of the Incorporeal and its total Rationality on earth.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Tower of Babel (1563)

LAMENT: In the beginning there was God and it is primarily concerning Him that the so-called human order of beings has organized its fundamental conceptualizations and laws. Even when the God appears distant, shrouded beneath a veil of ‘progress’, quantitative and methodological data, empirical evidence and technical jargon, the residues of His presence – like a airy vapour – drift into the atmosphere. Age old positions continue to assert their importance. We find a grand acting troop: the politician assuming the role of the autonomous lawgiving Sovereign descending Sinai with the Commandments, the scientist (i.e. Hawking) playing the high priest conducting esoteric experiments into the ‘mind of God’ and the economist engaged in a quest to understand using formulae the supernaturalism of that mystical-alchemical transmutation of solid materials into gaseous commodities into liquid capital and back into material solids again, preferably without loss and without unnecessary expenditure. While the doctrine of Geocentrism has long passed by our school curriculum, its residues escape the confines of its heliocentric successor paradigm. It dwells within our social consciousness, effecting the psychology of individuals and subsequently the sociological elements and institutions that came (and continue to come) into contact with them. After all, the adoption of a new phraseology, a new world-view, is not simply a matter of shifting to a new order of thought or a new alphabet. Thought, after all, dwells within our communities and the material conditions one finds therein. It dwells in the banking towers and the sport stadiums, in the red light districts and the convents. The dream of a System-of-Total-Exchange, a Babel of sorts, is the dream of the Divine on earth. It is an impossible quest, and one that always suicides at the risk of its completion.

Increasingly we find ourselves noticing that spatial co-ordinates are bleeding into one another: all the personal ‘places’ are becoming impersonal ‘spaces’. We find the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ becomes thinner and thinner. We increasingly work ‘on-line’ but are often unsure of where our ‘I’ actually is while doing so. And all the while, we often forget that what we are being left with is a regime of simulation supported by a fragile and inflexible Code.

It is no coincidence that the architecture of our wealthiest cities is increasingly that of black and silver towers of glass. These are the outgrowth of a system of Total-Exchange that can tolerate no abstraction and speaks only in a language symbolized by rectangular quantification. In fact, many of the current skyscrapers only could have been conceived insofar as architects had access to digital modeling software. In a curious way, the grandeur of European wealth, replete with its gargoyles, moldings and intricate artisan design, has, in its recent formation, adopted a magnificence of dark, monotonous and panoptical rectangles, devoid of the excesses that drives us to return to the great palaces of Europe. And this extends further into our social behaviours: One wonders if it is the explanation for the gravitation toward clothing worn by the wealthy that clings to their bodies, almost as a second skin – in sharp contrast to the rich flowing garments the wealthy wore in the Renaissance or prior ages. Or perhaps we might look to the chill the protagonist of J.K Huysman’s 1879 novel La-Bas (Down-There) experiences during the climactic satanic orgy, actions that are of another time and another world-view. It is, in other words, the impossibility of comprehending the Marquis de Sade under the skyscrapers of Wall St, or Bay St.

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~ by dccohen on February 24, 2010.

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