High Earth Orbit
(Shine on you Crazy Diamond)
For Terence McKenna & Eric Drexler
I have a lot of crazy friends, their manias spanning the range from the ultra-rational to the completely unconfined, from straight-jacketed, dour-mouthed Lutherans, to extra-terrestrial worshipping cargo cultists, waiting to ascend to a dimensional space better fitting souls which have been fooled into a passage in this mortal coil. I believe them all, each one of them, as they tell me that the proper virtues are to keep to one’s self and bear your burden silently, or tell me to stretch out spread-eagled on the ground and give my rages to the Earth, who preach to me in a hundred tongues that this is the answer, they have found it. And are only too willing to share.
I have my own opinions.
Some five years ago, in the midst of all of the hoopla which had been granted my own creativity (most of it hype, mind you), I found myself in the unique position of being put before large crowds of people, asked only to speak my mind. I could have bored them, I suppose – or rather, bored myself – being safe and soothing and conservative, tight-assed in a way that would only ensure that no one would learn anything at all. But that was not the path I chose; every time, before I speak, I am seized with a light-headedness that comes on the heels of a Great Idea, something that I know I must bring out of myself, as if I had discovered a great treasure, buried deep, which I dramatically present to the world.
That might be why some people think of me as a wild ass, a crazy Fool who says whatever comes into his head. In some respects, this is quite true; I do say what comes into my head, but only when it demands to be spoken. For this, I have a reputation as a visionary, a powerful speaker who can take the complexities of the age and make them clear, easy to understand – if not easy to accept – and yet, my reputation is somewhat undeserved; I do this best only when I step aside, and let these ideas speak for themselves.
Long ago I decided that ideas belong to no one, at least no human being, and while Los Angeles principally concerns itself with the preservation of intellectual property (a conceit that San Francisco was only to eager to learn, with even more lucrative results), I have, over the last several years, tended to give my own best work away, scattering it, to see if it will grow. In this I have had some moderate successes, but even this idea was not my own, gathered from an understanding of net-logic, which states, as a basic tenet, that information wants to be free, to travel from mind to mind until it meets someone who will make best use of it.
In fact, I have tried to hold the most lucrative of my ideas close to my chest, tried to mother them into some sort of life that would bring me wealth, and have found – every time – that this only rips me apart, as if the pangs of birth come too soon. I have a host of stillborn children to go along with my acknowledged successes, each of these killed by my own hand.
I can only hope that I will not make this same mistake again.
Ideas must have an origin, a point from which they radiate, and touch the lands around. Indeed, if Jacques Ellul is correct, and all we really have is merde (politics) and technology, then the entire history of the human enterprise is a series of ideas, beginning perhaps with language, the conception of the world as a set of linguistic objects, and ending with the extensa ultima of the Eschaton. The question which must be answered, before we can conclude this age, concerns the origin of this first technology, the acquisition of language.
A friend of mine recently informed me that pre-verbal infants can easily be taught American Sign Language (ASL), and prove to be quite proficient at it, signing phrases like, “give me toy,” and, “no, the other toy,” long before their vocal cords and the nerves that control them have begun to mature. The skill we regard as learned – that is, verbal language – seems more and more to be a mediated expression of something more essential, an innate ability to communicate about being in the world. It could be that we enter the world fully able to communicate, limited only by the body’s ability to convey the content of our own understanding. If this can be proven true, we must come to accept that the “skill” we regard as the basic touchstone of humanity is, in fact, an instinctual gift.
In the field of neurology, we’ve learned just how much of the human brain gets involved in the processing of visual information. Perhaps as much as seventy percent of the activity of the brain is dedicated to interpreting and organizing retinal input, leading many researchers to believe that our entire psychology may be constructed in visual terms, that the neurological medium may in fact express the only message possible – a visual one. Are you able to see what I’m saying here?
I doubt if the blind use much less of the brain, or use it much differently, because the entire expression of neurological reality relies on the structures which process visual information, whether or not there is any external information being supplied. Lately, neurolingusts have begun to suspect that the human capacity for language is related to an “overflow” of our visual system into whatever neurological structures are responsible for communication. McLuhan wrote that the advent of print gave us “an eye for an ear”, but the truth of the matter may be that language has always been an eye within the ear.
About the only thing that can be said about language is that humanity is co-extant with it. It is impossible to conceive of a pre-linguistic humanity, because our own consciousness and self-consciousness ties into language at its essential level. The practices of Zen (and many other spiritual disciplines) identify a non-linguistic condition as the essential nature of man, unmediated by conscious thought; only in returning to the pre-archaic state, these schools argue, do we recover the totality of ourselves.
This statement, while true in some sense, invalidates the magical power of a linguistically mediated reality. A linguistic culture is – almost by definition – a symbolic culture, as words are not the things they represent, nor are sounds words. To step into language, we must step into symbol, sign, archetype and a Platonic universe of perfect forms. In this sense, Western philosophy – which, for the most part, stands as counterpoint to the Eastern schools of wisdom – has sought the solution to only one problem: the question of what language has done to us. Wittgenstein said as much.
Even as philosophers and scientists make inquiries into the structures of linguistic reality, they overlook the archaic ground of being which might be able to answer all of their questions without resorting to vivisection, or elaborate lattices of logical deduction. Humanity grew up with language, and, as such, has been entirely formed by it. Culture itself stands as the principal artifact of language; within its bounds lie all of the secrets of a universe identified by the apprehension of identifiable objects and actions.
Magic, as Crowley put it, “is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” It is my own supposition that magic – or rather, a magical view of the world – is the primary function of language, that our own interpretation of reality – entirely linguistically mediated – builds up from foundations which exist outside of – and more often than not, against – reason. Magic is not the antithesis of reason – though scientists often hold that as a conceit; rather reason could not exist without some extra-rational structure to support it. Reason, often confounded, frequently violates its own comfortable bounds in order to incorporate the perceived reality of the world. Reason must – tacitly – accept the supremacy of magic or all would quickly revert to chaos and confusion, for chaos – as we now know – is the actual, blessed, condition of the world.
While humans have only been using money as a medium of exchange for perhaps thirty-five centuries, it has been shown that computers, when connected in a “marketplace”, and allowed the freedom to adapt to the needs of their situation, will spontaneously generate a medium of exchange. Money emerges automatically from these electronic entities, which have been programmed into mirror-images of our own linguistic abilities. Computation is always symbolic computation, for computers work with the representations of objects, rather than the objects themselves, an echo of our own communicative capabilities.
Money is compact, easy to transport, and can – by definition – be translated into any real object. Over the centuries, money has evolved from specie – gold, silver and precious stones – into ink on paper. Yet the Phoenicians – the inventors of this symbolic exchange – used marks made on cow’s hides to indicate the “value” of money. Even at its inception, money had the same abstract power it has today, for the power of money is not intrinsic, but, rather, is bounded by the culture which uses it.
Ponder on all of those Confederate notes, in preposterous denominations, which can be found in collections across the United States. They claim their worth in the tens of thousands of dollars, but belong to a defunct state; the culture which used this money ceased to exist, and when this happened the money became worthless. Or the Weimar-era German stamps (of which I have an excellent collection), which boast face values of millions or billions of Deutche Marks, and are now worth less than the paper they’re printed upon. You can print money, but you can’t give it value; the creation of value is a magical act, a linguistic “blessing” which confers reality on the unreal.
We are – at this moment – becoming familiar with this particular magical work, as the long-unchanged American currency undergoes a major face-lift. The twenty-dollar bills which serve as the principle denomination of our country have become something new and alien; when one first encounters a new note, the usual reaction is shock – this thing can’t really be money, can it? At that point each and every one of us performs a major magical act, and “decides” that this new bill must indeed be money, must be treated as money, and carefully protected.
I get this feeling every time I travel to Europe, and deal with a forest of brightly colored bills of differing colors, sizes and designs. It feels like “play” money, not entirely real, and it is only through repeated cultural interactions that my reason is assuaged, and I come to endow this unfamiliar object with the properties that I would normally associate only with “proper” American money. (Even so, the feeling lingers on the edges of my perception.)
All of culture functions along similarly synthetic – which is to say, magical – lines.
The project of post-modernism, which began as an investigation into semiotics, how signs come to represent actualities, has almost consistently been a study of how value is created in the genesis of the normative, how the plateaus of assemblage come together to create the real. In one of my own first outrageous public acts, at a conference in Montreal, I drew a clear analogy between the ancient techniques of magic and post-modern practice; each shows how reality is constructed linguistically, and implies – quite directly – that the creation of culture is a primary act of Will.
The post-modernists have “deconstructed” culture into fiefdoms of power – capitalist, statist, religious – each of them reifying their beliefs by defining the meanings of the words they use, most often in opposition to other fiefdoms of power. Orwell spelled all of this out quite clearly in 1984, the language of Newspeak consciously trimmed until free thought disappeared into the semi-conscious quackings of Duckspeak. Chomsky picked up the ball where Orwell left off, for forty years writing of how consent is manufactured in the chirp of the electronic media, behaving almost as a puppy before its corporate masters.
It can be seen as magic, or as a Marxist analysis of culture; choose your own reality.
But magic survives, even today, in outrageously visible forms. Advertising uses many of the techniques of both ceremonial (“high”) and folk magic, Marcusan “false consciousness” and “fetishization of commodity” the products of magical acts intricately researched in focus groups. Magic changes the meanings of words, gives an interiority to the most commonplace of sayings, imbuing them with a substantial esoteric power. And it all happens quite invisibly and irrationally: Just do it.
Magic is the creation of language, overloading meaning, reordering the processes of thought, bringing it into concordance with a chosen reality. When paper is “blessed” by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, it assumes value, overloads from ink on the page into the vehicle of value, with everything that value implies – or rather, everything value has been defined to be.
However, even post-modern analysis has its limits; Jean Baudrillard recently noted that it may be impossible for any deconstructive analysis to occur in the midst of the of a regime of power, that this analysis is only possible ex post facto. In this, post-modernism has something to gain from the older arts of magic, which can both protect against these regimes of signs, and accelerate their passage through the world, undoing their spells. Culture jamming, in its rawest form, is magic against magic.
Mind orders the world; as mind sits atop a substrate of syntactical hypotheses concerning the nature of reality, the world conforms – insofar as it is able – to this sensibility. The oldest items shaped by human hands, the baton de commandmentof the Magdelenian era and the cave drawings of the early Neolithic possess putative magical qualities, acting as mediators – linguistic objects – which translate the cycles of life, death and rebirth, and the shamanic journey, into objects of culture. In this, the objects must necessarily be less than what they describe, exoterically, but have been overloaded through ritual application to become more than what they appear. These are not simply the images of the hunt, this is not just a carved section of bone; rather, both spell out the concrete nature of the unseen world, and – most importantly – provide a bridge between the visible and the linguistic.
In these earliest sacred objects, the great project of Homo sapiens begins.
From the earliest times, the concretization of language as artifact served to exterorize the magical world of human consciousness; these objects became reflections of the inward understanding of man, and imbued manus – the hands – with the power of mens – the mind. This is the flashpoint of techne, the creative catastrophe which pulled Homo sapiens into civilization. As the artifacts of language, these objects, gathered into their own syntactic configurations, produced an explosion in ontos – being – releasing it from its confines within the skull to transform the world around. The magical technology of the artifact became the foundation of an entirely new – human – environment.
The technologies of communication – sign language, the voice, and, much later, the written word, acted as the principle elements of a magical education, which, as it passed through waves of communities, engendered a cultural transformation into forms which – although ancient – remain recognizable today. Humans who performed the magical assignment of object into symbol are the same humans who have, many thousands of years later, refined their linguistic constructions, so that now their syntactic precision reaches toward an absolute limit, nearly able to define the absolute arrangement of the universe. That the Eschatological period – which is to say, the present-day – has consumed itself with communication as the sine qua non project of the human race only implies that we end as we began, but now know the space entirely.
If such an important institution as MIT would have as its motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hands), it becomes clear that humans have engaged in a relationship across two axes; we have learned how to talk with each other, and through this conversation, we have learned how to talk to our hands, to utter the magical words which bend the real to our Will. Of course, the scientifically trained mind has learned – through hard, repeated practice – to regard science as solid and magic as pure fantasy, without considering the ontological nature of all belief, which supports itself through the magical creation of value. All “knowledge” is the product of some value relationship, prized or despised in fair proportion to its relationship to the culture from which it issues.
So our science increasingly becomes more explicitly magical, all the while denying the wonder of the linguistic construction of reality, yet constantly adding new words of power to the grimoire. We can speak to agents, and bid them our will, we can push atoms around to create objects d’art, we can even leave the tenuous frame of the Earth behind, and occupy the heavens. It all seems so commonplace, but each of these sorcerer’s gifts represent knowledge hard-won, built up from Democritus and Aristotle, who began in a denial of magic so that we, in the end, could recover it in an extensive epistemological Anschluss. For science has, in some broad ontological sense, overreached its own ability to describe the world. The forces of order do not exist, law is nowhere applied; from chaos comes the reality and beauty of the world. The human endeavor of the sciences – the highest magic – has taken the bait, gobbled chaos, seeks to digest it, and, surprisingly, finds that chaos tastes a lot like the magic forgotten so long ago, that chaos embodies an indigestible reality.
Now chaos sits in our guts and sours, as the world disappears into an absolute collection of linguistically apprehensible objects that display an impressively complex internal ordering, the dimensions of which once again transform the notions of value.
We are chasing up the tree in the wrong direction, when we should be working our way down from the leaves to the roots. Science will uncover the only thing it can uncover, which is the linguistic nature of reality, the only answer that’s really believable – and fully supportable – in the light of recent neurological discoveries. In uncovering the makeup of the world, we end by studying how words make the world. But this lesson we received as we became human. Perhaps, this time, we will remember the full power of the logos.
If this seems too interior or psychological, why – if one were to venture a guess – would interiority be exempt from the biophysical laws which lend us to think in a certain way? The entire world, linguistically constructed, presents itself to human culture only in translation away from the material into the magical universe. This is not solipsism, but it isn’t logical positivism, either. The world has an extent; to some degree this extent can be known, and – to the degree in which it is linguistically pliable – that extent can be determined by force of Will. That which can be spoken for in its entirety lies completely within the magical space of human culture.
Given that nanotechnology sweeps the universe into the domain of those objects which portray absolute linguistic pliability, we can easily deduce that the physical world, in toto, will soon & utterly enter the domain of human culture. In this Eschaton, imagined and real worlds exchange their ontological ideals of possibility and impossibility, and the real – which is to say, the natural – becomes thoroughly impossible; all physical acts will, by this point, be identified as syntactic constructions.
Words have given us the world, and now the world gives itself to us.
9 Cib – 12 Cauac (31 December 1998 – 3 January 1999)