Twitter and the Erosion of our Political Imagination

•February 24, 2013 • 2 Comments

photo (1)I won’t bore you by dwelling on the now familiar criticism that social media networks like Twitter degrade our decision making abilities by information overload, leading to mental exhaustion, and eventually the dreaded state of  “INFO-PARALYSIS“. Nor am I interested in harping on the lightning proliferation of propaganda warbling out of the ceaseless Twitterverse. Further, I’m not up for articulating whether the “Twitterization” of traditional political jargon represents (depending on your tastes) a more transparent form of discussion or the idiocracy of “knuckleheaded” netspeak. Rather, I’d like to draw your attention to something less obvious, and more fundamental: the extent that these rapidly chirping networks may be asphyxiating our political imaginations.

Unlike our neighbours to the South, we Canadians have had three major political options to choose between. We aren’t demanded to make a choice between clear-cut ‘opposites’, but to mull over the platforms of three distinct ideological positions. We traditionally haven’t thought – exclusively – in terms of an easily definable choice between Left and Right. In fact, our three party system may have acted as a kind of prophylaxis against the mind-numbing ‘CNN vs. FOX’ political rhetoric the American electorate is gorged with. But all the signs and portents – from the plight of our moderate political options to the establishment of SUN-TV – suggest that the allure of American-style easy choice politics is slowly winning us over. These are all complex, difficult and multifaceted issues, but what do they have to do with Twitter?

ruck-us-breaks-up-party-politics-on-the-social-web-595ee408bcTwitter is the communication medium par excellence for an electorate with a choice between POLITICAL BINARIES as opposed to (three or more) POLITICAL SINGULARITIES. Binaries are notoriously easy to articulate: when I say ‘Devil’, you think ‘is the opposite of Angel’, when I say ‘Black’, you think ‘is the opposite of White’, when I say ‘Male’, the traditional connotation is ‘not Female’. Hence, when you’re provided 140 characters to convey the day’s political news, it is not advantageous (and nearly impossible) to create a single Tweet about three (or more) unique positions. It’s in your interest to ignore the middle (or moderate) positions, and articulate the news in the form of a QUIP about either pole of a Left-Right political binary. [Quip: A clever, witty remark often prompted by the occasion] How depressing is it to see the American news media continuously exalt the ‘democratic’ aspect of  these warbling quips without acknowledging that one can be witty, charming, and timely, but remain a total numskull.

Liberal-vs-ConservativeThe 140 character limit works in some instances (breaking news, crises, etc…) but in the realm of political opinion, it reduces the complexity and robustness of our ideas. One commentator has offered the keen insight that  “Twitter is to reasonable discourse what yellow post it notes are to serious literature“. i.e. There’s no room for character analysis: everyone is either hero or villain. There is simply no space here for greys, twilights or bisexualities. And as in a FEEDBACK LOOP, the political structure adapts to its mouthpiece, and squeezes out the space for moderate policies rooted in gradual, well thought change.

Liberal-Conservative_KA robust liberalism depends on communication mediums that exercise, expand and challenge our ideas. We are rapidly losing the ability to articulate the third (and fourth and fifth) options that keep our political system from sliding into binary caricatures of Left and Right. It would be a shame to follow our neighbours to the South in celebrating the democratic aspect of Twitter at the expense of our political imagination.

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Technologies of Unreality: HD/HFR offer Fantasies so Real they feel Unreal??

•February 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free
My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real”
-Frank Ocean, Sweet Life

What does it mean for something to look so real that it appears false?

HD FOOTBALLIt’s Superbowl Sunday and we’ve gathered around the brand new, state of the art, HD television, but there is some dissension. Complaints have been launched that the display looks “too real”, so real in fact that it’s distracting from the big game itself. We try with little success to adjust the picture settings, having heard that it is possible to turn off the so-called ‘soap opera effect’ – a default feature on HD-TV’s that increases the frame-rate to eliminate motion blurring. But it’s a tough crowd and there are other, more difficult to alleviate, complaints: “You can see too much!…The coaches hairline looks too sharp…Everything’s in focus, I can see everything, I don’t know what to pay attention to!”. At first, I attributed this to a room of young people who – having cancelled their cable subscriptions some time ago – have been languishing in Youtube pixelated cat videos limbo. But was this simply the effect of their lag to catch up to new HD technology, or was there something more here? When I got home, I took to Google, and found thousands of forum threads pleading: “Help! My HD-TV looks too real” or “Help! The detail is so sharp that the movie props look fake..”

I recall in December encountering similar concerns when The Hobbit was released in High Frame Rate (HFR) – a process which projects at a higher frame rate than the ‘cinematic’ industry standard 24 frames per second (fps). [Note: 24 fps was not the result of a technological limitation, but economic/commercial decisions by film studios in the 1920s to settle on an affordable maximum frame rate that would allow for relatively realistic looking ‘motion-pictures’. While the 24 fps ‘cinematic’ look has served film making well, digital film making has opened up new opportunities: The Hobbit @ 48fps, and the possibility of Avatar 2 and 3 @ 60fps.] Despite Peter Jackson’s warning that “HFR 3D is ‘different’ — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records”, audiences and critics experienced a particularly visceral shock at the 48 fps format. In fact, some of the most aggressive attacks ever typed were launched at Jackson’s choice of 48 fps, calling it: “theme-park-ride-cinema” (New York Times), a “non-cinematic picture” (Reelviews), full of “exceptionally sharp, plasticine images…which do resemble what we see…on our HD television screens…as the ‘soap opera effect’ (Village Voice), “unnaturally crisp and clear as an over-amped hi-def LED screen” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), “so hyperreal that you see everything that’s fake about it” (Rolling Stone).

The critics were aligned in their contention that The Hobbit – when presented in HFR – was devoid of the ‘magic’ that had – for the past century – acted as a kind of filter between the world of ‘real’ experience and the ‘illusionary’ domain of cinema. With the combined immersiveness of 3D, bigness of IMAX, and the pristine hyper-realism of HFR, The Hobbit was the first, true example of the cinematic filter withering away. It was as if once the sweeping, cinematic 24fps blurriness was doubled to 48fps, audiences felt unable to experience the visuals before them as escapist fantasy. But neither were they of the opinion that they were looking at the real world of their day to day lives.

There is a paradox here, namely that the pristine, crystal clear, REALISM of HFR left audiences with the persistent nagging reminder that what they were looking at was UNREAL. And suddenly, adjectives like like “hyper-real”, which hitherto were found in the works of French postmodern philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco began to appear in the Entertainment sections of major newspapers. The New York Times reported that the “shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction”. It was as if Hobbit audiences were confronted with a hitherto unknown feeling of unease where the qualities of a fantasy world – designed by CGI artists from descriptions in a novel – began to bear a similarity to our own real world that was too close for comfort.

[Note: Very briefly, I’d like to point out a concept called the “Uncanny Valley“, which tries to explain the revulsion and anxiety we feel upon seeing something not quite human (a humanoid robot for example) with many human features. It may also apply in examples like this, where we are confronted with a fantasy world so detailed, sharp, and lifelike that it bears a very close semblance to the real world.]

It has long been understood (and is a familiar theme on this blog) that DISTORTIONS and ILLUSIONS are vital to sustaining our sense of reality. At first blush, this may appear contradictory, but the world we experience with our minds and our senses is not the weird quantum world ‘out there’. Our senses act as a filter, letting in only some of the world ‘out there’, our minds categorize and make sense of little bits of the world. It is this filtered, delayed, categorized, mediation of the world ‘out there’ that we refer to as reality. It can be traumatic – and psychologically debilitating – when one’s ability to categorize or mediate the world breaks down, and suddenly they are awash with a sense of things in their immediacy. In this regard, consider this reflection by Vincent Laforet in his excellent article about The Hobbit:

In my opinion, film is not necessarily about WHAT you see – but it’s almost more an exercise in what you DON’T or CAN’T see. The best Directors and DPs show you only what is relevant to the story and never introduce a random shot or character if they can at all avoid it. I’ve always preached that a director or photographer should INCLUDE elements in a frame or shots that add to the story, and EXCLUDE elements or shots that detract from it.

Source: Morguefile.com

Laforet offers the reminder that “Shallow depth of field, motion blur, lack of sharpness, and movement all help to create movie magic.” Most interestingly, in support of our argument that distortions create a sense of reality, he quotes a VFX friend who exclaimed: “Motion blur is extremely important to what I do… that’s how I hide all of my mistakes and make VFX/CGI look more real.”

All in all, the ‘so real it’s unreal’ phenomena presents an intriguing lesson on the interaction of MEDIUM and MESSAGE, a reminder that the format itself is always tied up with the content the audience consumes. Perhaps with repeated exposure to HD and HFR audiences’ expectations of what cinematic ‘magic’ is will begin to alter. Alternatively, if there is something integral to the cinematic experience that relies on some degree of blurriness, delay and imperfection, we would be better off with less conservatism and more experimentation with the aesthetic filters and techniques that would ensure the sensation of unreality and escapism persists in an age speeding headfirst into crystal clear pixelation and constantly accelerating frame rates.

airbrushed-faceP.S. Another interesting factoid is that the cosmetic/make-up industry has had to keep up with constantly increasing HD resolutions and HFR frame rates. The now familiar technique of “airbrushing” was a response to actors’ every pore being featured during close ups, and the visibility of wigs and traditional cosmetics. As resolution and pixelation became capable of presenting a more ‘real’ human face, the face that viewers actually came to see became more and more ‘artificial’, airbrushed of their blemishes and flaws. On the symbolic level, each increase in resolution has caused a frantic covering up of what the increase revealed, leading to a strange dialectic whose synthesis is the creepy 21st century airbrushed face. It’s almost ironic that the drive to capture the most immersive and real experience, has yielded intolerable results, and spurred us to don artificial, inhuman, faces, replete with actual layers of HD makeup and virtual layers of Adobe airbrushing that eliminate entirely our all-too-human particularities and lines of age.

14 Recommended Blogs & Sites for the curious Techno-Humanist…

•February 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qHere’s a little secret: The best places for a taste of the direction we’re moving are sci/tech ‘newswires’ like ScienceDaily and Phys.org. From these sites you can clearly intuit the trajectory of things, without the layers of ideology (and unwarranted hype) that the internet is renowned for.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qThe New Atlantis’ Futurisms Blog: Talking about ideology, here’s a Conservative blog bent on “Critiquing the Project to Re-engineer Humanity”. Always a very fun and refreshing read.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qNew York Times Opiniontator – The Stone: Moderated by Philosopher Simon Critchley (New School in NYC), this blog “features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” While not exclusively about science and technology, keep an eye out for The Stone Links (published weekly) for some amazing curated links.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qArts & Letters Daily: Probably the best site I know of for thoughtful positions on science and technology, even though you will have to sift through other (thankfully interesting) articles on a variety of topics.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qThe Society for Science and Technology makes available articles from its journal Techne: Research in Science and Technology, where you can read from the top academic minds.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qi09: Gawker Media’s excellent Sci-Fi/Futurism blog that you’ll want to check in to from time to time, if only to make sure you’re keeping up with the pop culture end of things.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qThe World Future Society publishes The Futurist bi-monthly. Can be hit or miss, but when it’s on, it’s really on. Worth bookmarking.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qIEET: Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies – Chaired by Oxford Prof. Nick Bostrom, IEET believes “that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed. We call this a “technoprogressive” orientation.”

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qAuthor Kevin Kelly’s The Technium offers some insights uncharacteristic in their thoughtfulness for technology blogging.

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qYou should also check in with the developments on KurzweilAI and Singularity Hub for a taste of the most optimistic projections for what “advances mankind is making in stem cells, genetics, biology, artificial intelligence, aging, robotics and more.”

211166_410271942354403_586077005_qYou should also bookmark: The Atlantic / Technology Section & BBC Future

Have I forgotten any sites/blogs? Any suggestions? Comment below and let me know.

Technology, Revolution, and Education: An Interview between Dustin Cohen and Jeff Roberts (From Jan, 2012)

•December 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Back in January, 2012 I was interviewed by Jeff Roberts, Department of Communication, University of Texas at San Antonio, editorial board for the journal K-Debate.

Jeff Roberts (JR): You mention that you are “interested in thinking about technology in new ways” – how so?

Dustin Cohen (DC): Technology – whether it is media, information, genetic or military based – has become our raison d’etre. On CNN.com, for example, the “Tech” news is sandwiched between “Entertainment” and “Health”. We are awash in ontic descriptions of the latest gadgets or the opinions of pop psychologists about their effects on our happiness and ability to concentrate. But there is another way to discuss technology (and “technology” is a nebulous word that risks meaning everything-and-nothing) that requires tuning down this ontic chatter and thinking ontologically. One of my guiding lights here is Martin Heidegger’s assertion that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. I look, for example, at Augmented Reality software, and ask why at this particular time, we have become interested in augmenting, or increasing, our reality. I look at the smart phones, and ask why we aspire today to being mobile, or in constant motion. Rarely do we consider what the root of our fixation with being mobile is, or what is driving us toward augmenting the world, or whether these trends toward mobility and augmentation have anything in common. Our manipulation of the world, the tools we create and desire, the techniques we design and adopt, are influenced by a whole constellation that includes our historically contingent understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘matter’, political and economic factors, and the static psychical structures that form the core of our humanity.

JR: In your more recent works (Humanizing the Avatar comes directly to mind), and in our previous conversation, you note a shift in the trajectory of your work. As the title suggests, “Humanizing the Avatar” is quite distinct from traditional Baudrillardian approaches to confronting issues of technology and exchange. Where several offer analysis of Baudrillard’s writing upon the world in terms of pure form, a showing through, possibly even implosion of meaning all together – you take the philosophy in a different direction. Why do you feel compelled to work through Baudrillard’s thought on a more content-based level? Is it possible, potentially important, for us to read Baudrillard through a lens of individual agency/political utility?

DC: I believe Baudrillard often articulated his ideas in a ‘symbolic’ language that certainly can, at first blush, appear bizarre, opaque or even reductive. For example, cloning is understood as an expression of the symbolic antagonism between Life and Death; transsexuality the antagonism between the Undifferentiated and the Differentiated; 9/11 the antagonism between the Global and the Singular… Baudrillard scrutinized our technologies, our ways of regarding our bodies, and our political ideologies through these symbolic lenses. For example, consider this description of plastic surgery in Radical Alterity:

…they take away everything negative in a face and make it ideal, in theory, with only positive, ideal traits. All of the alterity, negativity, contradiction, and asymmetry are removed from the face. Everything related to character, action, or expression is generally smoothed over in plastic surgery to produce an artificial model…The aim is to remove every figure of alterity from fate and ensure that everything that is not negotiable, that could not be negotiable, becomes negotiable for the sake of general redemption of forms and signs.

On the symbolic level we find that plastic surgery represents winning out of “positivity” over “negativity”; “ideality” over “fate”; “negotiability” over “alterity”; the “symmetrical” over the “asymmetrical”. This is not what I would describe as an implosion of meaning. In fact, Baudrillard’s ideas have made meaningful everything from the asexual ‘mother monster’ in the music video for Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” to the craze over avatars and virtual worlds.

JR: What do you think about chatroulette?

DC: Well, I’ve just gone to Chatroulette and my spin of the virtual wheel brought me face to virtual face with a couple single men bathed in an unwelcoming webcam glow, a few crotches being stroked by hairy hands, giggling teenage girls, and finally a graphic image of a prolapsed male anus. Of course, this is nothing unusual: the internet has, for as long as I can remember, been a petri dish for the human libido and all its various perversions. Today, we have higher resolutions, faster connection speeds and more complex software, so the old desires and perversions circulate faster than ever. At the turn of the century Georg Simmel noted that we act “as though the electric light raised man to a stage nearer perfection, despite the fact that the objects more clearly seen by means of it are just as trivial, ugly or unimportant as when looked at it by the aid of petroleum.” As an aside, it is not for nothing that among the most popular pornographic videos that squish their way through the fiber optics are those that deal with circumventing the most ancient taboos against incest, or are fulfilling old Oedipal fantasies involving sons and mothers.
But what is novel about Chatroulette? In contrast to the old text based chat rooms where users took screen names to chat, and were capable of using their imagination when answering the question “A/S/L?” (shorthand for “Age/Sex/Location?”), Chatroulette destroys this ability for a man to answer as a woman, or a senior citizen to chat as a twenty-something. We are dealing less with the imaginary when we are put in confronted with a parade of real faces and bodies that flicker on the screen for a moment before vanishing when either party casually clicks ‘next’.

JR: In your essay “Just doing it with Hyperactive man” you caution against universalist calls for radical change – a willing for the sake of willing – rooted in a fidelity to perpetual change and faith in some sort of utopian future to come. In todays hyper-mediated spaces, you warn that “just doing it” without plan or end point in mind risks ceding the political, or “handing over a seething mass of raw biological material into the cold hands of anti-revolutionaries brimming with plans and ends.” Given this, how would you suggest we proceed or engage the political more responsibly/effectively?

DC: A recent article by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books, reminds us that “Egypt isin’t Tahrir Square”. This was confirmed when the Egyptian Bloc, the progressive liberal, social democratic, and leftist alliance, came third in the polls, and did well only in Cairo. First place was captured by the Muslim Brotherhood, and second place to a fanatical Salafi party called al-Nour which is hostile to women’s rights and Christians. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a military junta, has assumed control in lieu of the Mubarak regime. However post-modern we take ourselves to be, we must recognize that the forces of stability, linearity and belief continue to retain their power. The media celebrated the scene in Tahrir Square as if it were an Olympic spectacle – “After these messages, we’ll return to the revolution in Tahrir Square!” – but had very few cameras elsewhere in Egypt. We have since seen how strong the old forces of stability and belief are: the stage is populated by the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nour, the Saudis, the Copts!
11-27-12-tahrir-squareFurthermore, the nebulous term “revolution”, when undefined, can mean anything to anybody. So, it is not surprising to read that the SCAF has “all but declared war on Tahrir, assailing protesters calling for civilian rule as ‘enemies’ of the revolution, which is perversely claims to embody”, or hearing Egypt’s new prime minister “blaming protesters for the violence, accusing them of an ‘assault on the revolution’ ”. There is a tremendous volatility in this trend toward permanent and undefined revolution. This is because there are anti-revolutionary forces that are more than happy to channel and direct these energies with a “revolution” of their own.
It is difficult for us to engage more effectively, because the way that we regard ends and means is changing. As Czeslaw Milosz prophesized in The Captive Mind (1951): “Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything…” We are the heirs of Futurism, and our aspiration is to dance, to be in motion, to the point where we do not realize we have actually been moving from one side of the stage to the other, or even are falling into the orchestra pit. There are no shortage of believers and ideologues licking their chops at the thought of dizzy young revolutionaries, spinning like tops into the utopia of permanent impermanence. Jacques Ellul observed in The Betrayal of the West (1974) that “…[I]t does not matter where we are going. We are caught up in the madness and hubris of the dance of death; the important thing is the dance, the Saturnalia, the Bacchanalia, the Lupercalis. We are no longer worried about what will emerge from it or about the void it points to. [E]veryone is glutted with promises and regards the mad dance as a way to authentic renewal. Yet there is no goal, nothing transcendent, no value to light the way; the movement is enough.”

JR: Would attending to blind spots of the hyperactive man require us to embrace a more end-oriented approach? Are precautionary hesitations and pre-emptive measures – such as scenario planning, risk assessment/calculation, and pragmatic policy formulation – be a necessary steps towards (possibly even prerequisite to) any hope for a successful revolutionary change? Or, do these forms of engagement risk a more suicidal implosive scenario of generalized exchange and indifference?

DC: Yes, I think there are types of precautionary hesitations and pre-emptive measures can be a corrective against the idea of change as an end-in-itself. Having said this, I recognize that one can over-assess, over-calculate, and spend so long agreeing on policy that a window of opportunity for a new state of affairs can come and go. There is definitely a big question mark hanging over the political possibilities created by the dance of ‘hyperactive man’ and dooming ourselves through it.

JR: In your article “The Two Attas?” you discuss how systems of general exchange give birth to, at a bare minimum, fragments of singularity. In reference to Mohammad Atta and the World Trade Center you explain how “Atta received a Western education and assimilated the ideas and technologies of modernity and globalization into the 9/11 plan…. We find an irreducible singularity emerge out from a system of generalized exchange, the exacerbation of an uncertain culture of virtuality carried out by a man who was produced and influenced by that very culture.” Would you mind elaborating on the relationship between education and a system of general exchange?

DC: In “The Two Attas?” I wanted to determine whether Baudrillard’s controversial ‘symbolic’ account of 9/11 could be verified against some of the factual evidence about the attackers themselves. The idea is that our contemporary Western economic system is a kind of tower of Babel where all things must be capable of being transferred and exchanged. The argument goes that this universal, generalized, system is fragile because it has no ability to digest remainders or asymmetries and no means of reciprocating to excesses and sacrifices. On a very practical level, many students today are increasingly looking for a generalized education where they are taught how to succeed in the generalized economy, an education that teaches them how to comprehend all things in terms of their exchange-value. But who has not experienced the urge to disturb this stillness of a glassy lake by throwing a stone into the water? This generalized system is blanketing the planet without acknowledgement that its agents are ultimately human beings who will, for various reasons, offer the challenge of the religious, the poetic, the unquantifiable, and the singular.

JR: In US academic debate, students are asked to play the role of the federal government and switch sides – at separate times both affirming and negating – the validity of a given “resolution” through out the course of a given tournament. For example, this year the topic/resolution positions the student on each side of the following statement:
“Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its democracy assistance for one or more of the following: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen.”
The rules of the game (understood here as distinct from laws) ask students to advocate democracy assistance as either a good or bad idea/policy, depending on which side they are assigned during a given round of tournament competition. When playing such a game, how should one proceed? Is it possible to remain outside a system of generalized exchange?

DC: A ‘generalized’ debate, functions on the principle that you provide an argument for “democracy assistance” and I give you an argument against “democracy assistance”. It can only operate on this binary logic (good/bad; 1/0; presence/absence; affirmation/negation) because both sides have agreed on what “democracy assistance” is, which presumes firstly, that they have agreed upon the definition of what “democracy” is. As anyone knows, there is a vast gulf that separates the radical on the street chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” and a hawkish presidential candidate promising to bring democracy to the rest of the world. Or, for example, I might be expected to debate with you about the treatment of “peaceful” protesters, although we may not share identical ideas of when a protest is and is not “peaceful”. We do a tremendous violence to the uniqueness of our ideas when we say require that a debate must accept one single definition. Our critical faculties become hypnotized and automated to simply exchange opposites when we engage in this type of predictable and programmable debate. I think that the key is to practice trusting in the multiplicity of our ideas and the uniqueness of our definitions, and reciting the wise old all-too-human proverb “It takes all kinds to make a world”. You may reflect: “If my whole life I have not been making a world, what have I been doing?” And then a strategy might begin to form.

Cybject Quotes

•December 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment
Apple fans celebrate new iPhone release

Apple fans celebrate new iPhone release

“neo·phil·ia (noun): love of or enthusiasm for change and what is new or novel.”
-First Known Use: 1932

“The ravages wrought by a rhetoric of good intentions: the misfortune of a few people matters little if it makes possible the advent of the celestial City or the Revolution. We are not guilty as soon as we are trying to do good. In Pascal’s Provincial Letters, a Jesuit seeks to justify misdeeds by the beauty of the end sought: ‘When we cannot prevent the action, we must purify the intention; and thus we correct the vicious nature of the means by the purity of the goal.’ We can never overemphasize the number of crimes that the love of humanity in general can inspire when it is not counterbalanced by the love of human beings in the particular.”
– Pascal Bruckner, The Paradox of Love, 2012

“In philosophy, involution refers to a situation in which a process or object is ontologically ‘turned in’ upon itself.” – Dictionary definition

“If you don’t want to feel the horrible burden of Time breaking your back and bending you down toward the ground, keep yourself drunk.
“But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, whatever you want. But get drunk.”
-Baudelaire. “Enivrez-Vous” Le Spleen de Paris, XXXIII

“Civilization commenced when man first dug the earth and sowed seeds. Religion began when man discerned the sun’s compassion on the seeds which he sowed in the earth. Art began when man glorified the sun with a hymn of gratitude. Philosophy began when man ate the produce of the earth and suffered indigestion.”
-From The Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran

“[S]omething essential is being definitively lost, a relationship to places and reality is disappearing, dissolving, evaporating. As you know, for an architect, proportions are essential. Being human takes place within 1.5 and 2 meters, not 18 meters, which would be the world of sycamores and sequoias. Looking at a computer chip, the scale is down to half millimeters… The pollution of the ‘life-size’, the pollution of proportions is nothing more than the pollution of the relationship of being in the world… We are rediscovering the hubris of the Greeks; the notion of disproportion or excessiveness is reentering history. Our difficulty is that unlike the Greeks, who staged it to distance themselves from it, hubris is now taking over. … We no longer fight it: we take pleasure in it…”
-Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear, Interviews from 2012

“[T]here exists only one reality, and that is me, my own life, this fragile gift bestowed for an uncertain time, which had been seized, expropriated by alien forces, and circumscribed, marked up, branded – and which I had to take back from “History”, this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone, and I had to manage it accordingly.”
-Imre Kertész, Nobel Lecture, 2002

“The quality of silence is organically linked to the quality of language. You and I are sitting here, in this house surrounded by a garden, where there is no other noise other than the sound of our conversation. Here I can work. Here I can dream and try to think. Silence has become a huge luxury. People are living in a constant din. There is no more night in cities. Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman?”
–George Steiner, A Certain Idea of Knowledge, Interview 2011

“Reality has lost much of its constancy and invariability, events of recent years are mocking it, the way the waves do a boat; nearly every day the papers give waking up a new reality, whereas dreams … Haven’t we managed to unify dreams? Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity? Flags the colour of poppy-petals flutter above the crowds. Reality is fighting back. But its blazing suns don’t frighten the newly ascendant underground. Sleepers’ eyes are sheltered by eyelids. Yesterday’s utopia has become today’s science. We’ll break the backs of facts. We’ll rout their status quos: you’ll see those status quos turn tail and run. If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we’ we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst. We’ll hide the sun behind black blots, we’ll plunge the world into a deep, static slumber. We’ll put even the idea of waking to sleep, and if it resists, we’ll gouge out its eyes.”
-Krzhizhanovsky, The Branch Line, 1927, Moscow.

“For in a community in which the ties of family, of caste, of class, and craft fraternities no longer exist people are far too much disposed to think exclusively of their own interests, to become self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good. Far from trying to counteract such tendencies despotism encourages them, depriving the governed of any sense of solidarity and interdependence; of good-neighborly feelings and a desire to further the welfare of the community at large. It immures them, so to speak, each in his private life and, taking advantage of the tendency they already have to keep apart, it estranges them still more. Their feelings toward each other were already growing cold; despotism freezes them.
Since in such communities nothing is stable, each man is haunted by a fear of sinking to a lower social level and by a restless urge to better his condition. And since money has not only become the sole criterion of a man’s social status but has also acquired an extreme mobility—that is to say is changes hands incessantly, raising or lowering the prestige of individuals and families—everybody is feverishly intent on making money or, if already rich, on keeping his wealth intact. Love of gain, a fondness for business careers, the desire to get rich at all costs, a craving for material comfort and easy living quickly become the ruling passions under a despotic government.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolution, 1856.

“It is true that we shall never reach the goal; it is even more than probable that there is no such place; and if we lived for centuries and were endowed with the powers of a god, we should find ourselves not much nearer what we wanted at the end. O toiling hands of mortals! O unwearied feet, travelling ye know not whither! Soon, soon, it seems to you, you must come forth on some conspicuous hilltop, and but a little way further, against the setting sun, descry the spires of El Dorado. Little do ye know your own blessednes; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson “El Dorado” in Virginibus Puerisque, 1878

“As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness. In Gibbs’ universe order is least probable, chaos most probable. But while the universe as a whole, tends to run down, there are local enclaves of whose direction seems opposed to that of the universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase. Life finds its home in these enclaves. It is with this point of view at its core that the new science of Cybernetics began its development.”
-Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 1954

“So this, thought Jan, with a resignation that lay beyond all sadness, was the end of man. It was an end that no prophet had foreseen – an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike.
Yet it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art. Jan had glimpsed the universe in all its immensity, and knew now that it was no place for man. He realized at last how vain, in the ultimate analysis, had been the dream that lured him to the stars.
For the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears.”
-Arthur C Clarke, Childhood’s End

“[N]ow men resemble each other in the ways that they try to set themselves apart. This desire to dissociate ourselves is precisely what brings us closer, and it is this distance that confirms our conformity. Romantic fascination with exceptional beings – with the insane, the criminal, the genius, the artist, the pervert – stems from our fear of being lost in the flock, in the stereotype of the petit-bourgeois man. ‘I am different from the rest.’ That is the motto of the man of the herd.”
-Pascal Bruckner, “The Victory of the Individual, or Crowning the King of Dust”

“Our affirmation is despair, our negation is despair, and from despair we abstain from affirming and denying. Note the greater part of our atheists and you will see that they are atheists from a kind of rage, rage at not being able to believe that there is a God. They are the personal enemies of God. They have invested Nothingness with substance and personality, and their No-God is an Anti-God.”
Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, 1912

“[W]e begin to suspect that the numberless Cassandras who prophesy all around us do not intend to warn us so much as to condemn us… These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy. It is a short distance from lucidity to bitterness, from prediction to anathema.”
-Pascal Bruckner, Apocalyptic Daze, 2012

“The soul sees nothing that does not distress it on reflection.”
-Blaise Pascal

“Today man believes there is *nothing* in him, so he accepts *anything*, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone.”
-Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, 1951

“You always think in too short terms, Little Man just from breakfast to lunch. You must learn to think back in terms of centuries and forward in terms of thousands of years. You have to learn to think in the terms of living life, in terms of your development from the first plasmatic flake to the animal man, which walks erect but cannot yet think straight. You have no memory even for things that happened ten or twenty years ago, and so you keep repeating the same stupidities you said 2000 years ago. More than that, you cling to your stupidities, such as your ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘nation’, religious compulsion and suppression of love as a louse clings to a fur. You do not dare see how deeply you stick in the morass of your misery. Every once in a while, you stick your head out of the morass to yell, Heil! the croaking of a frog in a marsh is closer to life.”
-Wilhelm Reich, Listen Little Man, 1948

‎”…I read the criticism by a German who lived in Russia, on our students of today. ‘Show a Russian schoolboy’ he writes, ‘a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, and he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it.’ No knowledge and unbounded conceit…”
-Dostoyevski, Brothers Karamazov, book X, chap 6

‎”…instead of asking whether God is dead, we might better raise the question whether Man is dead.”
-Erich Fromm, You Shall Be As Gods, 1966. p.180

“Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all
Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun
But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death
And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.”
-Theognis of Megara, 6th Century BC

“When truth conquers with the help of 10,000 yelling men – even supposing that that which is victorious is truth; with the form and manner of the victory a far greater untruth is victorious… “
-Soren Kierkegaard, ‘Journals’, 1847

“One of the great unresolved psychological enigmas of the modern western world is the question of what or who has persuaded us to accept as virtually axiomatic a self-view and a world-view that demand we reject out of hand the wisdom and vision of our major philosophers and poets in order to imprison our thought and our very selves in the materialist, mechanical and dogmatic torture-chamber devised by purely quantitative and third-rate scientific minds.”
– Philip Sherrard, Human Image: World Image – The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology

“Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed — a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh.”
-Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, 1975.

“If our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some potentially significant points. Of course, a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case of our country. But, it is also demeaning for it to stay on such a soulless and smooth plane of legalism as is the case of yours. After decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.”
-Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address at Harvard University, June 8, 1978.

“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

“The corruption of the Best is the Worst”
– Ivan Illich

“Rabbi Pinhas said: When a man embarks on something great, in the spirit of truth, he need not be afraid that another may imitate him. But if he does not do it in the spirit of truth, but plans to do it in a way no one could imitate, then he drags the great down to the lowest level—and everyone can do the same.”
– Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters, 1961

“Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles – my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst. We want to clean up the world, make it perfect, keep it safe for democracy or communism, purify it of the enemies of god, eliminate evil, establish an alabaster city undimmed by human tears, or a thousand year Reich.”
-Introduction to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, 1973

“Victor Segalen observed that from the moment we became certain that the Earth was a sphere, travel ceased to exist – for to leave any point on the surface of a sphere is also necessarily to begin the return to that same point.”
-Baudrillard, Transparency of Evil

“Since the seventeenth century we have been living in an age of system-makers, and what is even worse, system-appliers. The world has been divided first of all into two general parties, the conservatives and the radicals, or as Comte called them, the party of order and the party of progress – as if both order and change, stability and variation, continuity and novelty, were not equally fundamental attributes of life”
-Lewis Mumford, “The Triumph Over Systems”, The Conduct of Life, 1951

“…[E]veryone who has set out to create heaven on earth has brought only hell.”
-Karl Popper

“The democratic socialist Eduard Bernstein issued a warning at the turn of the nineteenth century to his fellow Marxists. The danger of a ‘truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force,’ he prophesied, is that you begin by doing violence to reality in theory, and end by doing violence to people in practice. What distinguishes the new communism is that its leading partisans are fully aware of that potential…and embrace it as a strategy.”
-Alan Johnson, Resurrecting the Utopian Delusion

“Claim too great freedom, too great license, and too great subjection shall befall you.
Alexis de Toqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution

“If there were ever to come a future in which every stumbling block were smoothed away, then, indeed, mankind would be as one flock; but then, no longer like men but like a flock of innocent brutes they would feed on the good things provided by Nature, with the same unconscious simplicity as they did at the beginning of [the] long course of civilisation.”
-Hermann Lotze, Microcosmus, Vol. II, Bk. VII, Chap. 7.9, 1885.

The Road to Hell

•August 18, 2012 • 1 Comment

Another version of this article appears also at Provocative Penguin: http://provocativepenguin.com/2012/08/the-road-to-hell/

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in”

– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

During revolutionary times one usually finds lurking the utopian tendency: the urge to perfect the world and the expectation that the Kingdom is at hand. Although it is has taken different guises through the ages – from Plato to Christ to Marx to Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists – the Kingdom is epitomized through the words of the prophet Isaiah: a paradise where the lion lies down with the lamb, and Man having recognized the image of God within his soul attains perfection (Isaiah 11:6). The dreams of these utopian revolutionaries are often about a new dawn, a new man; freed from ignorance, sin, and alienation.

In the present day, when the political left and right, as well as the religious fundamentalists hostile to both socialism and capitalism, all herald the revolutionary coming of a new, better world, I feel compelled to breathe life into an old, but important, lesson. But you will have to go against your inclinations, as I am confident you will be reluctant to hear me. It has to do with good intentions, or, in the words of Pascal Bruckner,“[t]he ravages wrought by a rhetoric of good intentions”.

In the shadow of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and other of the twentieth century’s myriad horrors, Karl Popper reflected on the utopia outlined in Plato’s Republic: “Everyone who has set out to create heaven on earth has brought only hell.” Flashes of the Terror during the French Revolution, where, amidst the cries of “liberty, equality, fraternity”, the injunction against murder – the First Commandment – was suspended, and even the Marquis de Sade was given shudder. When Moses returned from Sinai to find the Israelites’ golden calf, he immediately called for the people to separate into believers and the non-believers, and the non-believers were slaughtered (Exodus 32:26-28).

Popper, late in his life, reflected on this massacre of the Israelites who rejected Moses very simply: “That perhaps was how it all started”. Jesus Christ, who found himself a carpenter in this world, famously explained his mission in this way: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Whether Christ was advocating ideological or physical violence is of little concern. What is of concern is the sense of antagonism and divisiveness that pervades his words:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)

There are echoes here of Moses’ call for the Levites to set themselves against the non-believers, and murder of their own ‘family’, upon finding the idolatrous golden calf at the foot of Sinai.

We see that the urge to graft the perfect ideal onto the imperfect actual is most often carried out through violence, division, and discord. Alexander Solzhynitsyn – the great historian of the Soviet Gulag – lived the violence endemic to Marx and Engel’s ideas, and wrote about the necessity of war for Marx’s communism. And despite that we have the world’s history in sanguine detail at our virtual fingertips, a recent article on the new rise of Marxism in theGuardian quotes a liberal arts student who “wasn’t around when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union”, and who “tends to see [Marxism] more as way of understanding what we’re going through now”, untainted by the Gulags. Solzhynisyn quotes Lenin himself, who somewhere between 1914 and 1915, said: “We cannot support the slogan ‘peace’ since it is a totally muddled one and a hindrance to the revolutionary struggle.”; “To reject war in principle is un-Marxist. Who objectively stands to gain from the slogan ‘Peace’? In any case, not the revolutionary proletariat.”  Violence and utopianism, seemingly paradoxically, have gone hand in hand from the very beginning. But why is this the case? Was the Psalmist wrong when he penned the famous verse Mark the perfectman, and behold the upright: for the end of that man ispeace.”? (Psalms 37:37)

There is a curious passage in the works of Immanuel Kant which has stuck with me over the years that goes: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” And yet, the Utopian – often uninterested in man’s nature, or unwilling to investigate this ‘crookedness’ endemic to our souls – spends his days laying the groundwork for the coming of a Perfect Kingdom, where all that is bent and unequal will become straight and equal. The Utopian takes it upon him or herself to declare war on the timber “from which man is made”. The arrival of the Kingdom, I hope you can discern, requires a new type of transformed human being whose timber is perfectly alike and easy to work with. A firm pair of carpenter’s hands is thus needed to knead out our ‘all too human’ kinks and knots.

While combing through a book by the French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, I came across a wonderful quote by a little known author named Francois Leplantine, which goes: “Utopists abhor what the poets love: the fauna and flora, the trees that send their branches outward in such an unpatterned, capricious way, the bridge and the streams, and the untamed instincts of men”. You can see the distinction between the utopian-planned-rational and the poetic-unplanned-instinctual very clearly by contrasting one of the few remaining trees left in the glass mausoleum also known as your downtown core.  Allow a branch, growing haphazardly, grotesquely, every which way, with its tumorous knots, and freakish families of sprouting buds, to appear in relief against your utterly planned downtown Kingdom, replete with geometric traffic grids, precisely rectangular glass skyscrapers, and monotonous condominium cocoons.

The idea is that when the Kingdom arrives, all that was barred will be open, all that was limited will be unlimited, all that was opaque will be transparent, and all that grew grotesquely and uncontrollably will be designed and set down according to the plan devised by our human will. But the challenges we encounter, the limits of our bodies, the opaqueness of our minds, our radical diversity and our unwilled grotesqueness are integral to our humanity. In fact,at the close of the 19th century, Hermann Lotze observed that “If there were ever to come a future in which every stumbling block were smoothed away, then, indeed, mankind would be as one flock; but then, no longer like men but like a flock of innocent brutes they would feed on the good things provided by Nature, with the same unconscious simplicity as they did at the beginning of [the] long course of civilisation.”

Rather than attempting to build in the difficult key of humanity’s distressed leitmotif, we have – time and time again – characterized it as an off-tune aberration to be corrected. Throughout history, our human imperfections have been understood as terrible stains and distortions of an otherwise pure, inhuman, realm: our political structures as impoverished reflections of an unchanging idea of Justice, our limited bodies as vessels for a truer divine Soul, the hellish means of history as a slaughter-bench toward the germinating end of history where all contradiction has been ironed out… Can we blame ourselves? The greatest religions and philosophical systems are attempts to offer a straighter, truer Ideal, against inequality, the sad limit of the flesh, and having to say a final ‘good bye’ to the ones we love.

In his Penses, Pascal offered a fascinating maxim: “The soul sees nothing that does not distress it on reflection”. The most optimistic in our human family are interested in a future without the limitations and imperfections that lead to having to tarry with pain, anxiety, sorrow and affliction. In their own ways, these ‘do-gooders’ promise pharmacologically induced perpetual euphoria, germ line engineering to perfect the genetic makeup of a child, and quiescent culminations of political and social contradiction.  But students of literature know best that it is the imperfect characters, replete with their cleft lips and chronic moroseness, which appear most clearly to our souls. Indeed, it is a dark thought that the artifacts that persist through time in moving us – from the sunflowers of Van Gogh to the symphonies of Beethoven – are borne of tears, longing, uncontrolled passions, and unfulfilled desires.

But the answer is not to romanticize our imperfections, or become content with the status quo. The drive to intuit and interact with Ideals, such as Perfection, Universality, Freedom, Justice and Peace, is one of our most important conceptual moves. Problems arise, however, when we attempt to bring these Ideals directly into human affairs – in the case of the new biosciences, the sculpting of the genome itself into perfect, Ideal, forms without blemish. We bring violence into the world when we attempt to complete it, to perfect it, to remove once and for all its imperfections, faults and defects. The Sun provides warmth, but would destroy the Earth were it to draw too near. Likewise, culture remains intact so long as we are content withapproximating, but never desire to arrive at, ideals. While the ideal of Freedom has been one of the primary animating forces of history, can we even imagine a world of absolute and total Freedom? Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about the French Revolution, offered this reminder:‎“Claim too great freedom, too great license, and too great subjection shall befall you.” When Ideals are brought down to Earth, and the Utopian carpenters begin untwisting and unbending life, unbearable terror and violence follow in the wake… Yet life without the guidance of Ideals glimmering on the horizon would be unimaginable.

Repent for your Humanity!

•December 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

R3p3n7 f0r y0ur Hum@n17y!

A more current version of this article can be found at PROVOCATIVE PENGUIN

You’re sitting on a train at the station. Another train slowly passes by on the next track over. You feel yourself leaving the station, only to realize – once the other train has passed – that you haven’t moved an inch. While illusions of motion and directionality are most often associated with spatial location (“Am I going up or down, shifting to the left or to the right, moving forwards or backwards”), we are often victims of illusions regarding the progression and regression of our culture and our inner lives: A culture celebrates its progressiveness, its forward thinking attributes, however this optimism can obscure revelations of a nationally sanctioned genocide or atrocity; an individual feels exceedingly active, strong and free, only to find some months later that this period of euphoria has betrayed a destructive psychological pathology.

Today, our clearest illusion of motion is demonstrated by our orientation to technology. Fervor over the latest gadgets permeates our popular culture. Spinning through the whirlwind of digital do-gooders promising a freer, more connected and transparent future, it is difficult to determine whether we are being propelled forwards or dragged backwards. We are usually told we are marching forward, but what if we are the victims of an optical illusion?

Our most aggressive technophiles, the Transhumanists, pine for the glorious day when human beings will be H+ : having overcome our tragic old selves, the limits of our imperfect, fleshy bodies, and our endless lamentations on the horizon of our eventual death. When this new, endless day dawns, our mind (synonymous with our ‘self’ for the Transhumanists) will have been transformed into a code capable of being uploaded into virtual worlds and synthetic bodies. Likewise, advocates of radical body modification strive to extend our limited human morphology into unlimited formations and combinations. The always gusty and unpredicatble wind of technology has gained tornadic intensity, and all around us crackles the lightening of technical wizardry, the thunderous crash of our subsequent inventions and the howling hysterical cries that we are moving beyond the human.

But how are we to tell which direction humanity is moving from within this violent funnel? Has this disorienting condition finally knocked directionality – and thus the question of human progress – out of our skulls altogether? Is this great trans-formation, this next Great Exodus of Man, allowing us to stand firmer, freer and more independent on our own two feet, or returning us to crawling on all fours at the throne of a cruel Sun God?

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard, surveying the technological tornado, observed that “the human does not give way to the superhuman, as Nietzsche had dreamed … Rather, it gives way to the subhuman, to something not beyond, but underneath the human, to an erasure of the symbolic marks that make up the species”. Instead of moving toward the overman, our trans-, or post- humanity, Baudrillard suggested that we may actually be moving us into the realm of the subhuman, that which is under man. In this critical light, the liberatory deathlessness of the Transhumanists becomes the creation of digital sarcophagi (“deathless alter-egos”) for the human species; the morphological freedom of the body modification advocates becomes destructive self-mutilation.

Keen detectives of popular culture know better than to take “the new” at face value. Simply because a consumer or cultural product is released this year does not require that it has gesticulated wholly in the womb of present day techniques, habits and practices. Consider our robust nostalgia industry and the myriad ‘new’ product that emerge from it. We find ‘new’ products that are not simply marked by nostalgic yearning, but the drive to identically simulate an earlier form. The word “nostalgia” itself derives from the Greek “nostos”, usually translated as “homecoming”. While we tend to use nostalgia to describe a temporal looking back, it originally described a spatial returning home; rather than a time-sickness (yearning to repeat the experiences of an earlier time), the term originally signified a home-sickness (the motor behind Odysseus’ journey home).

A homecoming, returning-home, a home-sickness. But what is our true home? And how long are the tendrils of nostalgia? Baudrillard answers that “Contrary to everything that seems obvious and ‘natural’, nature’s first creatures were immortal. It was only by obtaining the power to die, by dint of constant struggle, that we became the living beings we are today … [F]irst the reign of the immortals, than the mortal and sexed beings overtaking the immortals”. Our original home was an indivisible one, an immortal one, an identical one; there was no division, no sex, no alterity. (Residues of the journey away from this originary state exist in the Old Testament, where Eve and Adam are barred from access to the Tree of Eternal Life, introduced to the nakedness of the distinct sexes and the burdened with the cultural differences that provide the basis for human history. God scolds the first humans thusly: “I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers.”)

Humanity is a celebration of endings, distinctions, duality and differentiation. Baudrillard’s warning was that we often believe post-humanism to be creating new types of life, when it is in fact a nostalgic homesickness for our distant past as inorganic, unsexed, undying creatures. The unpopular contrast to today’s post-humanism, whose aims include exploding the male-female sex binary as an artificial and unnecessary construct, was voiced by Michael Valentine Smith near the conclusion of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land: “Male-femaleness is the greatest gift we have—romantic physical love may be unique to this planet. If it is, the universe is a poorer place than it could be … and I grok dimly that we-who-are-God will save this precious invention and spread it. The joining of bodies with merging of souls in shared ecstasy, giving, receiving, delighting in each other—well, there’s nothing on Mars to touch it, and it’s the source, I grok in fullness, of all that makes this planet so rich and wonderful.”

What is curious about our popular culture, our collective subconscious, is our romanticizing of infantilism and intoxication leading to the loss of consciousness and the control of motor reflexes. Consider Breathe Carolina’s ‘Blackout’, which begins: “Caught up and I can’t feel my hands, No need to chase. Can you relate?” or Taio Cruz, who in ‘Hangover’, wants to “[G]o until I blow up. / And I can drink until I throw up / And I don’t ever, ever want to grow up / I wanna keep it going, keep it going, going, going”, or the anthem of our gurgling age, located in Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’: Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! Roma-Roma-ma-ah! Ga-ga-ooh-la-la!

The music video for Lady Gaga’s (her name is itself evocative of an insecurity about the demarcation between infancy and adulthood) song ‘Born this Way’ begins with a transparent, antiseptic looking, glass throne floating through space, followed by the birth of a new, asexually produced, race. The narration over this curious mythical scene – which must be quoted in full – tells us: “This is the Manifesto of Mother Monster. On G.O.A.T, a Government Owned Alien Territory in space, a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. But the birth was not finite. It was infinite. As the wombs numbered and the mitosis of the future began, it was perceived that this infamous moment in life is not temporal, it is eternal. And thus began the beginning of the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bares no prejudice, no judgment but boundless freedom.” The sexless, deathless Mother Monster: indivisible, immortal, identical, floating on its throne through infinite space, enclosed in antiseptic, transparent, glass.

Baudrillard’s warning was that today “the [ancient] immortals are avenging themselves through the [technologically new] process of sex and cloning, through interminable reduplication, through the obliteration of sex and death”. After the revolutionary advent of sex and death, which freed us from our originary incest and primitive entropy comes the liberation of sex and death, which is “recreating precisely these [pre-sexual, pre-mortal] conditions”. After the revolution, an involution: the process whereby when something turns upon itself. “Liberty is hard to take.” From immortal to mortal and back to immortality – asexual to sexual back to asexuality – total to individual and back to totality – indistinct to distinct and back to indistinction.

We are homesick, are repentant for leaving our origin, and have embarked on an involution back to our home port.  But on the journey “backwards” we are surrounded by things that are associated with being “forwards”: cloning, simulation, programming, and genetic management. Around us are minstrels singing ballads about the loss of individual consciousness, about blacking out, and worshiping at the indivisible, immortal, throne of Mother Monster, at upwards of 170 BPM (beats-per-minute). We may believe we are setting out further beyond the Pillars of Hercules, into wholly uncharted waters, when we are actually returning home. Teenagers aboard this ship spend their evenings in the Church of the Undying Vampire, using their parent’s Visa Infinite card to purchase a ticket to the latest ‘Twilight’ film Breaking Dawn, whose tagline is: Forever is only the Beginning. They avoid sleep with Red Bull and dance the night away to the music video for Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”, which begins with Mother Monster’s cellular mitosis and concludes with a skeleton that is very much alive.

We are in motion, that is certain, but whether we are the victims of an illusion obscuring the amplification or attenuation of our humanity is a question for us unrepentant humanists, increasingly few and far between, who are not “sick of sex, of difference, of emancipation, of culture” and who remain able to defend our diversity, our complexity, and our alterity.

Special thanks to Alison Cohen for bringing to my attention to the obsession with infantalization and getting black out drunk on the Billboard top 100. 

All Baudrillard quotes are from “The Final Solution: Cloning Beyond the Human and the Inhuman” in The Vital Illusion (Lectures given in May, 1999)