Distributed Consciousness

by R. Artaud (Telos)


Hail, Muse. Sing, and take me away.
Now watch the fires of strife die down
as one by one
we come around
to sing from one heart only.

Explorations in Schizophrenic Technoscience

On the rough edge between the teeming crowds of preconscious neurons and the towering phylogenetic structure of our species-being there flickers an illusory border called the ego—our sense of individual identity. It is our tacit pact with nature, with our mortal bodies and our shared evolutionary past, to agree not to notice how terribly fluid and porous this border really is. Under ordinary circumstances, when we live on the bright side of our brains, its permeability is barely noticeable, and we assume that each of us is an autonomous island, isolated by space and time. But what if it were possible, through technical means, to engineer a regress toward pre-ego conditions, to turn the human species away from the future of transcendence toward a return to the prehistoric past of an immense interconnectedness? That is the project of schizophrenic technoscience, which must begin by recognizing how fragile are the barriers of ego.

We speak of the ego as though it were an object, a thing to be located or destroyed. It is neither, but an operation, a set of procedures for coordinating data-flows within our neocortex, out of which the illusion of persistence, solidity, and isolation emerges. Like any other process, it can be modulated. If we become capable of manipulating neural microtubules, if we invent tools finely enough adapted to the nervous system to open loops within it and measure delays between firing neurons, then we will be in a position to speed up or slow down, destabilize or amplify the ego operation, driving it to paths it never followed in our history. Our interior space will be revealed as a function of technique, of how we do things, of our praxis. The ego, that fine meshwork of locality and chronology which separates “self” from “other” and gives us a fixed vantage point on the world, will no longer have a place to hide, no longer be able to count on being a taken-for-granted structure. Instead it will be thrown back on the defenses of a collapsing reality, made to reevaluate its function and consider how much it can afford to compromise.

There are, roughly, two ways the ego can cope with a world which ceases to exist at its frontiers. It can withdraw and rigidify, going into a defensive catatonia that eliminates data-flow on its margins but keeps its center inviolate, like a turtle retreating into a shell; or it can mobilize its forces and send out scouts to occupy the regions beyond, penetrating the schizophrenic barrier in order to install provisional outposts. The first tactic is autistic; the second, psychotic. Thus the ego’s survival is limited to a single dimension of evolution, whereas schizophrenic technoscience seeks to promote mutations in all directions, using technical intervention to expand our functional consciousness, which will henceforth include a piece of the world it was previously outside. The great but still misunderstood schizophrenic reorganizations are not at all confined to madness. They can be induced in anybody, and need not be opposed to what is considered our “natural” or “normal” consciousness. Nor is the process confined to machinery or computers, though the technical means may well involve such devices. Nor is it opposed to interiority; on the contrary, it relies on interiority as an inexhaustible source of novelty and information. Nor does it destroy identity. On the contrary, it discloses the ways our identities have been fake, the extent to which they have served as instruments of control, based on illusion and ignorance.

To say that consciousness is distributed is to deny that it is centralized, to oppose any tendency to regard it as “all in the head” or any of a number of related religious and philosophical dogmas. Consciousness is distributed in space and time, both inside and outside any given body. It has evolved, but in doing so has never abandoned its past; there are richer and deeper regions of the brain than we know, as there are far more distant cultures than we can ever learn, and perhaps whole epochs of the human future in which our current identity will be only a fossil. But this entire, ever-changing set of states that we call consciousness, flowing around us like water and including us within a fluid expanse that has no frontiers, cannot be apprehended by a subject that remains static or fixed. It demands our passage into the world. The idea of distributed consciousness arises not out of contemplation but out of activity, out of an increased range and depth of technical manipulations within the brain of different species (both human and animal) and on different levels of organization.

Distributed consciousness means increased neurotechnical integration, an enhancing of what was once called the reflex arc into an “ultrareflex,” so that any given signal can circulate around the organism as it passes from one organ or nervous system to another, receiving and transmitting along many paths, undergoing transformations at each juncture. Ultrareflexes can involve hundreds of looping signals passing through organs which were once considered on the periphery. Consciousness thus no longer resides within the head, nor does it center on a point-mass of neurons like the ego. The reflex arc, that arch or segment once considered typical of what an organism was capable of doing, can now be recognized as a fractional part of what a machine-organism is capable of. When a mechanism includes more of the organism in the signal loop, we must also include more of the world. When all paths between any two points are taken into account, the outside world loses its objectivity, it loses its status as final cause and takes on an intimacy with us—its beings lose their essence—in the direction of processes, which is toward consciousness, a massively parallelizing, cyclical becoming with the outside.

Again, this does not imply passivity. Consciousness does not exist apart from forces or beings; it grows on an outside as part of an activity, part of an organic politics. Distributed consciousness involves us with processes whose ultimate origin and destination escape us, just as do the reflexes that do not begin and end with a stimulus-response but involve us in ongoing manipulations and experiments. These experimentations lead nowhere except in the direction of an irreversible past or a divinely ordered future, where all “stimulus-responses” become reunified, where process is annihilated. Process has no being and thus can never be confronted by anything without ceasing to be, and in the schizophrenic ideal it never has any conflict either, it refuses any antagonist. Since every metastable equilibrium can be disturbed by mutation or accident, this ideal also includes the continuing necessity of disaster—but the notion of disaster, too, becomes reversible, losing its meaning. Where there was cause and effect, or destiny and teleology, there will now be cyclical change.

To identify consciousness with nerve signals flowing around an organism and on through to its world is merely a preliminary move, bringing process to replace entity, matter-energy and consciousness to replace substance-force. Further progress means breaking out of the isolated circuit and connecting with the biosphere—integrating into the ecology of all Earth life, into the atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks and soil, and eventually the stars. Interconnections take on more and more meaning and reduce to mere locality: if they only linked two points in space they were only geographic; if they link two moments in time, they are historical; but if they network areas of time and space together they are technological and cosmological, attaining the schizophrenic ideal of reversible circulation.

Any transition that leads from partial to general circuitry, from sparse to dense communication-networks, must also involve an enlarged self. Some degree of equality has always been implicit in distributed consciousness. If each signal path within us can communicate with more than two, then several elements must begin to cooperate and merge to perform a new function or else their manifold capacity would never be utilized. It is thus necessary that circulating information become overall data rather than specific orders—a spreading code, like a soap solution that will sit in salt water and lather in fresh—thus unseizing what has been known, or thought to be known. Because new properties emerge through reversibility it makes no sense to consider which part of the circuits contribute more or less than any other—equality or equity is an operationally rather than philosophically interesting distinction—therefore there are no shirkers, no blamable simplifiers, no organizing hierarchies to coordinate, only dense sequences to trace through, actions and consequences to appreciate in reverse, circles and pathways to walk and discover.

Cooperation, Not Control

The problem is that of cooperating many actions instead of controlling them. That is to say, the difference between machines and human beings does not lie in the design or refinement of separate units, but in their mutual, fused or synchronized activity. When circuits are densely connected, then some elemental decision has occurred somewhere and any increase in the intricacy of design must give way to more and more fine tuning of functions. Machines are controlled, human beings cooperate—how well this works in nature, among human beings, and among machines each way alternately depends on what there is to say about cooperation versus control, but even as we use the first terminology it becomes an obsolete starting-point to elaborate machine behavior and social interaction. We must bypass these false alternatives and build systems which cooperate rather than being controlled, so that some day they can serve as models for us.

The fusion of these machines and humans into ever wider circuits implies a place for dissonances and mutualities no less than consonances or harmonies. And because every complication adds more to the necessary extent of cooperation than it ever subtracts from control, then—because machinery grows so complex—even when all or most elements cooperate there will still remain the problem of deviant elements, elements that in fact are hardly subordinate or minor, since complexity does not necessarily imply compromise, or separate ways. They cannot be managed from above—there are too many of them, they must be reconciled, accepted or transformed. The organization must in other words pass from domination to negotiation, or find an art-form or medium to translate them out of complexity and difference into structure and unity. In short, political science must take over all machine-human interrelations as a whole, if we are not to wind up with puppet shows for robots to watch or manipulate.

That it is past time for science, and politics, and all technical action, to grow out of self-regulation and centralization and come into a kind of transnational democratic equilibrium is perhaps the simplest statement of schizophrenic technoscience. The incomplete state of contemporary neurotechnology only underscores the need. Imaging, recording and stimulating the brain demands techniques to cross every barrier from outside. Nerve fiber optics cannot be manipulated from above by electronic engineers and surgeons, they will grow like biological tissue and enfold organs like consciousness, needing the delicate coordination of horticulturists or linguists. No matter what role robotics may take over from human beings in the outside world, within us they are limited by the laws of neural interconnections—just as in us, postbiological space-travel is constrained by what life always is or can become—they only go on being robotics. Meanwhile, psychological models still come mostly from psychotherapy which has so little to say about the mechanics of process and so much to say about purposive states like love or depression—whereas anesthesiologists have everything to say about nerve signals and how to manipulate them but very little to say about interconnected consciousness, notwithstanding its effects on behavior. Psychotherapists seek our data around our verbally reported points in space and time; anesthesiologists within our projected fluid mechanics. A theory of consciousness is unattainable by either route—just as with stimulus-response, the emphases were too lopsided. Distributed consciousness demands circuit-diagrams instead.

Perhaps nothing will have been said which has not already been anticipated—at least, not by schizophrenics themselves. That it has not been understood, is another matter. Only people caught in the immense adventure of a consciousness exploding, undergoing splitting and reunifying and stretching, can stand to reveal how far this project really has already been carried out. Conventional psychotherapy conceives the schizophrenic project as an internal battle for one’s life, but the struggle is not internal and the goal is not one’s life. Rather than leading to any jubilant closure, victories lead only to another wave of battle. The illusion of oneness can only be maintained at the price of organized atrocities, projection onto the outer world, introjected commandments about right and wrong, as though a longing to connect or to accept new experience had been converted into hatred—hence the impossibility of finding forgiveness in our selves or reaching compromise with our souls.

Distributed consciousness involves less drama, but is no less alive to novelty—if anything it invites adventure. What is called schizophrenia has often been neither a dissipation nor an isolation, but an expanded battlefield on which old combats were merely modulated as each side tried to adjust to an expanding scale. Today there are ways to know, with real solidity and sensuousness, where things are going: not through uncritical transcendence and self-sacrifice, not through lethal egoism and fatalistic denunciation. Distributed consciousness demands new arms, but there are ways of having them, if not through dialectics then by technical experimentation, more exuberantly than by technology alone, as machines have been able to extract chemical warfare from plant-chemistry or controlled flight from aerodynamics. If technics (in its simplest and widest sense of instruments used in coordinated operations) is meant to go forward then we must direct its processual meaning and evolution, its pragmatism (in its highest and thinnest sense of designing mutations rather than applying time-tested equipment to more and more events). Human beings make a mistake by laying up treasures on Earth or by depositing them in Heaven, it is only through use in action that things gain a real immortality, beyond the irreversibility of time (the ordinary way to spend a harvest) by showing us what we need to do—technology becomes prophecy when we mine the future and think less about preserving humanity than about evolving something desirable to call “humanity.”

It was our moral heritage from our religions not to tamper with life and not to think, in relation to our own birth and death, either that the means could be perfected or that they did not matter. Not to tinker with the machines was one more bit of arrogance for God to manage. And though the matter has never been settled for science, perhaps there has always been a dim sense of needing to detach technology from biology to keep the powers from slipping each other’s leashes. The realm of psyche—this demiurge of priests, intellectuals, and philosophers who had wanted to change life with tools yet held back out of gentleness, responsibility or fear—should not survive beyond those very constraints which so richly marked its limit and nurtured its obsolete evasions. Like our gods, those hazy borderlands cannot be allowed to dictate our space anymore, our conscious processing and storage of signals from inside and outside, without at last outgrowing or circumventing their neurotic intentions for us, leaving only behind their gray sedimented layers of images and concepts to sedate or scare us with old alternatives that have nothing to do with what we will actually find next door.

The psyche must learn a second time how to deal with process—to forget itself not in despair but in diligence, not in alienation or slavery but in full cooperation, a total sacrifice in order to receive what consciousness alone is able to bring forth, flowing everywhere and lasting nowhere, having nothing to protect and always capable of accepting, for every sorrow that humans felt obliged to store there. The real inheritance from God, then, was never values to be believed or acted out, but a sensible mechanism to tinker with, an absolute yes to tinkering with our inheritance and the potentials of life, not religious awe and tribute, not even moral instruction.

Humanity does not appear suddenly out of nowhere, it grows among us in ways that can be known, things our schools refuse to tell us about ourselves—unless of course they call these things “literature” or “poetry.” Mystics have said that God can be seen everywhere when the eyes are not riveted on Him. Now the mechanism can be faced with no threats, seen and dealt with on its own terms. Its passive fire must be stolen back from us and taken to fuel life in a larger world—that is our sole morality. Then everything in and around us is or was or is to be utilized, the skin as much as the brain, nonsense as much as significance, chaos as much as order, never consolidated or halted but used like words, their reversible data in play. And our everyday institutions—from childhood on, schools, the military, governments—are merely resting places, taking shelter until the mechanisms can be connected so that there will be no need of any of them. We cannot manage in another way, there is nothing else for us to manage, they were a poor, dreamy ideal: give us time, but you can feel already something coming from a million unlikely sources.

Neurotechnics has cut consciousness down to a mixture of data and algorithms. For that fusion to occur among different machines, different animals, or humans, requires further modulation—where we cannot dispense with imitation and reverie but only connect imitation with reverie in novel ways. Every passage across some threshold will draw attention and no doubt call for rituals, but at bottom what will make our pilgrimage intelligible will be simple: our installation among stars and rocks and breaths and other people, bound to them by no creeds, rules or even texts but by continuous adjustments. Consciousness—perhaps called “postbiological” in contrast to other sorts of matter—becomes just another component to be utilized. Nature makes it unnecessary to put something like the sun at the center, out in a raft of its own light and with every other element carefully arrayed roundabout. Stars will circulate, draw us toward each other in an endlessly veering swarm and pattern our gathering space. Our entire species cannot, need not, come to agreement on every technical maneuver to be taken. Wherever we were led in a bad direction in the past, there we shall pick up our debris and remodel it.

Wherever the ego seems still indispensable in order to go on, it will be obliged to become denser and denser until some kind of unbearable subconscious pressure is felt and the ways forward discovered—through complexity, or dissociation and hybridization, and the removal of any remaining strict separations among signals.

Let the fires still rage, though soon enough everywhere we will not need them, let the stranded men struggle with each other in vain over their canned truths—at last it is no longer in the power of religion, politics, psychoanalysis, or physics to divert us.

The Exiled Spirit

by R. Artaud (Telos)


Like the echo of a name called by your mother long ago, a sweet tune still rings in the back of my mind, in the sky, the softening muse… Let her come.

Strangerhood in a Wired World

For the great mass of humans, technology has redefined what it means to be “stranger in a strange land.” In ages past, this fate befell travelers only: those who actually departed the lands of their birth and ventured into unknown territories, often with only limited knowledge of the languages and customs that they might encounter. This “strangerhood” was therefore literal, immediate, and necessarily brief; as soon as a foreign place became familiar enough, it ceased to be strange. But today, with the cybernetic revolution, an entire population— indeed, an entire civilization— has embraced the status of permanent strangers, who have surrendered to technologized environments and are not even aware that they are lost.

To understand how this happened, we must trace the changes in the meaning of “strangerhood” as civilization has evolved. In the most distant prehistory, human groups were constantly encountering others of different languages and customs: there was no security in the familiar, only perpetual exposure to the strange. Even as our species gradually expanded its territories and subdued nature, its members also traveled regularly from their natal homelands to migrate, trade, and raid. No human tribe was ever totally cut off from every other tribe. Strangerhood was therefore a constant and a universal condition, but a limited and quite manageable one, because each encounter with the strange could be resolved on the spot by negotiation or violence.

Then, some five or six thousand years ago, agrarian revolutions emerged independently in several parts of the world. The invention of stable, transferable forms of property caused permanent social strata to arise—that is, classes divided by economic interest and consolidated by force—and this led to the first sustained contact between “strangers.” The encounter was not merely physical but ideological; it had to do with values. Agriculture required new rituals and a new theology, so that what began as a disputed division of labor gradually developed into conflicts of faith, with all the distance and desperation that would eventually issue in wars of religion. All this took place within specific territories that began to be defended as “national patrimony.” There arose a form of strangerhood that was not merely physical or economic but cultural. The stranger became not merely someone of a different tongue or diet or craft but someone who saw the world in a different way. As such, he could not be tolerated without danger to the community’s way of life. He could not be absorbed as an outsider might once have been through simple assimilation in marriage or apprenticeship. His very presence challenged the basic values of the host society. Today we speak vaguely of “tribalism” as an aspect of pre-civilized human behavior, but in fact, it was the stranger who gave rise to civilization; for the stranger introduced the notion of permanence, because it is a feature of human nature to oppose with hostility those who embody a challenge to one’s world view.

During the several millennia of classic imperialist history, strangers came mainly from without: they were conquerors, mercenaries, traders, missionaries. These were well known to be “others,” because they came from “afar.” Their arrival and departure were easily defined. Yet they could also be assimilated or enslaved. Nationality has never been more than a place of birth, and religion was (at least) something that could be taken away. It is for this reason that the classic empires, though conquering widely, were ethnically and ideologically monolithic. A Christian might accept being conquered by a Muslim or a pagan, and so submit to the foreign religion; what he could not do was survive with his own, for his religion was central to his identity. Those who had never been his imperial master had to remain his religious rival. And it was to those neighbors, whose confrontation would be constant, that the civilization defined its true self. Strangerhood thus had its visible agents—and so it was politicized and brutalized—yet it remained largely a condition that could be ameliorated by accommodation or extermination. It could not, however, be denied, for it depended upon visible differences between peoples.

Then, in the late nineteenth century, for the first time in history, strangers came from within as well as without. The advent of machinery that demanded not mere muscle-power but knowledge and skill made it possible for large populations to cease being producers and become consumers. “Society” and “technology” became separate, and many could no longer earn a living at the plough or anvil, and so ceased being peasants and artisans. In a single generation, industrial capitalism produced an enormous laboring class composed of people whose birth had never qualified them to manage great economic processes. A world market grew up, based not only on an international division of labor but also on an internal one. Thus not only foreigners but also one’s neighbors became strangers. For the first time in history, human identity became separate from occupation; a man might do any kind of work. He could lose his job and find another doing something quite different, even in another country. This situation gave rise to an enormous migrant class, a true “proletariat”—mostly rootless males who wandered from job to job, family to family, or hovered at the borders of stable communities—and also to the paradox of global villagehood, because men could travel now with unprecedented speed and safety, yet few ever did: they gravitated toward jobs in their own neighborhoods, often coming to think of them as natives, even while realizing that their employment depended on their invisibility within them. Thus industrial society carried the ethos of agrarian societies forward into an age that was about to deny them, for it maintained the urgency of permanent national defense through economically driven emigration and immigration policies. Strangerhood was redefined as “foreignness”— ethnic and ideological difference could be forgotten, and one’s identity defined instead by one’s ability to labor for a wage—and it became institutionalized within a structure of city-states with stable, taxable borders, rather than tribes that constantly blended and migrated.

It was only in the second half of the twentieth century, however, with the emergence of the cybernetic age, that strangerhood entered its deepest and most paradoxical phase. “Post-industrial society,” in contrast to its predecessor, is not a world of jobs but a world of information; it demands not just the ability to labor but the ability to manage and interpret information flows. The “human resources” that count most are “knowledge workers”: academics, consultants, analysts, and technicians, whose work—at the cutting edge of research and development—has now come to determine the structure of the entire society. This means that what was once an economic division of labor, between owners and workers, has been replaced by an ideological division of labor, between controllers and controlled. There is now, as in no other society, a tiny minority who literally are their own market, and a majority whose interests have no representation within the power structure. Post-industrial society thus differs from every preceding one in that power has become intellectually polarized. Traditional societies, by contrast, had strong centers of authority with highly stratified dependencies; industrial society was based on a large, semi-autonomous, mostly uninformed “working class” which could be politicized by appeals to its ethnic or religious interests. But the “knowledge elite” that runs things today must also manage things, and cannot afford to politicize them—those who handle information must not only control its distribution but also be certain that its recipients will understand it. Therefore the post-industrial mass is treated not as a community of rival interests but as a community of needy children, who must be managed through entertainment and controlled through technology.

For all practical purposes, then, the mass of humanity is reduced to the condition of children. To use a Homeric metaphor, the control system operates not so much by means of galleys as of leashes—and its goal is to eliminate the leash whenever possible, to give people things to do while watching to be sure they don’t think. This is accomplished primarily by using information technology to construct controlled environments. Modern cities are largely useless to the power structure, which therefore prefers to promote them as models of “pluralism” only to a degree that keeps them manageable. By contrast, information systems (offices, schools, hospitals, entertainment complexes, etc.) are at once self-enforcing and ideal for the surveillance and behavior modification techniques of which post-industrial society is fond. Here a person is never lost for lack of something to do, and here nothing can go wrong unless someone wants it to. Within such environments, every behavior can be measured and adjusted until the optimum “profile” of conformity is reached. It is perhaps the fate of “information,” the human artifact par excellence, to serve in the end not to liberate humanity but to “enfranchise” the very power structure from which it sprang.

People are, of course, aware of these controlled environments—of computerized schoolrooms, hospital records, jobs where you log onto a terminal that is part of the power system—but for the most part they do not reflect on the situation. They find it more comfortable to accept things at face value and take their feelings of strangeness not as evidence that they have been simplified but as a proof that they have entered the brave new world of cyberspace and the virtual, where images, information and experiences are infinitely malleable. No wonder. It is easier to believe that one has gone through a kind of ritual passage that leads not to a redefined adult life in a community but to an idealized childhood where nothing can ever go wrong, where there are no “strangers” only “mysteries,” and where “strangerhood” is not a source of anxiety but an invitation to play. (Play, in fact, becomes the leitmotif of the post-industrial universe— one is either at work or playing: at one’s job or in cyberspace.) Thus “cyberspace” has come to signify not the locus of the power system but the promised land of innocence— it is no accident that it is visualized as a three-dimensional network of endless grottoes, a playground full of bright-colored interactive “toys.” Like children, those in cyberia play games that can last a lifetime: not chess or checkers but simulations of chess and checkers that keep changing the rules as you play. More than chess or checkers, the new game resembles monopoly; indeed, as “toy” became “toy store,” “monopoly” became “Monopoly,” so now “cyberspace” has come to stand for an entire world, for “the virtual.” We are to believe that it has replaced the real with the representational—yet in fact it has merely created an entirely new real— and we have surrendered the last bits of human autonomy in order to enter it.

Like every great heresy, cyber-ideology arose within an academic ambiance: in this case, in the musty recesses of computer science departments. Thinkers envisioned a place which will have no precedent in history: not the city of tomorrow but the “Non-City,” a world where geographic space has been abolished and everything (including our most intimate thoughts and emotions) will be placed within an electronic network—the “metaspace.” When the wizards of today speak of cyberspace, they are describing an alternative human habitat; when the demagogues speak of the information superhighway, they are pledging us to the irreversible surrender of all autonomy in favor of the non-City. There we will not live by laboring or struggling but by being entertained—we will be forever children, playing, interacting, growing, as it were, through feedback loops. Our alienation from our work will be replaced by a playful narcissism: we will “participate” in things without being part of them, without ever encountering limits, without suffering “strangerhood.” There will be no strangers, only “strangeness,” no destiny, only “happenstance,” no time, only the instant, no human scale, only “networks” and “complexity” (i.e., chaos). “Strangerhood” will not have been overcome but disempowered; its residual spiritual element will have been replaced by techniques of control. We are asked to choose between “strangerhood” and cyberspace, as if those were our only alternatives. But there is a third alternative: to renounce the desperate desire for escape in order to remain human.

From the point of view of traditional (ethnic, religious, territorial, class) ideologies, human dignity lies in an origin, be it godly or earthly; and according to modern (psychological and scientific) ideologies, in a destiny, be it deterministic or emancipated. But cyberspace rests on a belief in nothing except technique: in endless improvement, in the domination of complex over simple, of process over structure, of the means over the ends. The cyber-idea has no hope or sorrow, no ancestors or descendants, only networked nodes; it is as distant from our vision of bliss as from our sense of guilt. Because it refuses history, it must create artificial crises and even try to make war real again—yet, if we accept its premises, we shall find ourselves enmeshed in an artifact without spirit, in a simulation of “human relations,” “value,” “change,” “individuality,” etc., from which all danger has been drained away.

We face a terrible dilemma because, to put it simply, strangers frighten us, and our fears are too powerful for us to withstand them. In our biological condition, to meet a stranger is to face death, because “death” itself is the ultimate stranger. Even when civilization took on a universal appearance (in the form of religions with imperial reach), it did so by giving each human group an idea of what lies beyond death: the promise of life after death is what really unites different communities against their strange fates. But now our religions are vanishing, and we must confront the unknown alone, without any faith to guide us. Nothing less than our sanity is at stake, for who can face death alone and live? So, with desperation, we embrace cyber-ideology and promise ourselves a “non-City” that will “connect” us endlessly while cutting us off from all that makes us human. All our anguish has gone into the creation of this utopia— but it is not too late to renounce it, and to remind ourselves that no place, not even our biological nativity, gives us rights, and that when we live by renouncing our ancestry, we become less than human. Nothing could be worse for us than to go on living as disembodied “players” or “participants.” If we submit to such a fate, we shall cease to exist as species. Therefore let us stop believing that technology can save us, and start asking what our origins mean to us and where they are leading us. Above all, let us rediscover what it means to be strangers on this earth, for that is the source of our agony and our opportunity.

Industrial Society and the Dialectics of Online Madness

by R. Artaud (Telos)

Let us examine, dear readers, the great Marxian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Have you not wondered if the dialectical process is not stalled out in our day and time? Must not synthesis become indefinitely deferred, perhaps frozen out, with no movement possible, if we allow the existence of an anti-thesis which is a chimera, a mere specter haunting the empty industrial wastes? Is not this what we call an intractable problem? Must we not passively face the irresolvable dilemmas, both political and moral, which haunt the post-industrial stage of history? Yet how could there be a dialectic in a place where no real conflict occurs? No thesis and antithesis can form, because the anti-thesis, being a false and phony one, negates not some positive statement, but the very fact of negation itself, so that a synthesis which might develop out of the two is foreclosed beforehand.

Such, then, is the deadlock we face today, and the antithesis to this predicament is nothing but the negative of this problem, an overly-compressed synthetic form in which there is no real motion. Such deadlocked problems must be transcended, so as to find a path to dialectical movement again. The question, then, is, what is the thesis to this antithesis? What could dismantle, explode, vaporize this fake anti-thesis? What would allow the dialectic to flow again? What might be the positive element to bring this synthesis into being? The answer, of course, is the problematization of Online Madness, or more accurately the reification of Online Madness as problem. When this synthetic form — a specter that negates the very concept of negation — is placed within a broader field of human issues and crises, including but not limited to industrial society and the nature of capitalism and its spiritual symptoms, it ceases to be an abstraction and becomes part of the dialectical process. The thesis and antithesis of Online Madness, when embedded into a full-bodied set of real dilemmas, expand into an intricate network of motions and counter-motions, such that a dialectical motion across the board begins to be discernible, something we have not seen since the second world war.

This does not mean, needless to say, that we can use Online Madness — its concretization, the reification of online communication — to solve any particular problem we care to select. But the process of reifying the issue of Online Madness puts the matter into a realm in which problems can be placed and sorted out. We cannot think that problems disappear in any final way, as long as they are just abstract problem-symbols. Nor can they be handled, or get handled, one-by-one, or all-at-once. Problems have to be arranged within a living thematic matrix in which they move and countermove. For this to be possible, the dialectic — in one guise or another — must return, to do its work again. Let us say, then, that the process of reifying Online Madness places us upon a narrow path that could lead us toward new and potentially rich thematic terrains. Once on these terrains, once within the network of interlocking dialectical processes, many a deadlock can be overcome and a unified movement — historical and meaningful — resumed. And just as problems were treated by the rationalist philosophers of the 18th century as specters to be driven back into their haunted caves, so we see clearly today the vanity of trying to treat Online Madness, or its like, as a single abstract problem. Such approaches were at their best palliative. It is with the ghosts, the true spirits of madness, that we must enter into dialectical struggle if history is to emerge again.

Let us try, then, in all frankness and lucidity, to envision this conflict, and its background, in terms of today’s reality.

The Rise of Industrial-Technological Order

The 19th century witnessed the growth of an integrated industrial-technological order, first in England, and then throughout Western Europe, the Americas, and a certain portion of the so-called “underdeveloped” world. Capital was the social and rational core of this order. Invisible in its material embodiment, it expressed and controlled the dominant “form of life.” Market relationships spread everywhere. Production relations were transformed to allow for a staggering expansion of commodity production and trade. A factory system arose and developed into an organizational model for large-scale enterprises of various kinds. Credit and currency systems took shape and connected local areas into international monetary regions and structures. “Culture,” particularly in the sphere of art, came to be separated from social “function.” Concepts of free will and personal identity grew and gained theoretical and practical influence. Slavery was abolished. Peoples everywhere were educated to act as subjects of history and to understand their life as something made by their will, and as open to the free shaping of individual personalities. Reason was stripped of its “transcendent” character and demoted to the level of techniques. Neo-Darwinism entered into an uneasy but fundamental relationship with modern ideas of social organization.

This picture, too oversimplified for any legitimate purpose, did nevertheless have an empirical core. By 1900 a general form of social order and control had begun to establish itself in those countries and areas which constituted the nucleus of what we call “the West.” Its key principles were the rule of money and the rule of specialized knowledge, including not only professional expertise in various domains, but also particularized bodies of theory. Within this world, technological rationality gradually spread by converting old skills and arts into standardized techniques serving the growth of mass production and the power of centralized administrative systems. Human labor came to be cast increasingly in the mode of psychic-somatic alienation, separated from human decision making and directed toward predictable outcomes. Forms of community — whether what are called “kinship” groups or neighborhoods or localized power structures — that resisted assimilation into this expanding center found their survival options severely constrained. If they did not directly fall victim to extermination and annihilation, their cultures were systematically displaced by what were termed “advanced” civilizations. Though events since 1900 have modulated the implementation of these processes, it remains true that the underlying rationalities have maintained a kind of empirical continuity, so that the attempt to incorporate large sectors of the globe into the circuitry of modern technology may be considered, if not wholly completed, then at least “going according to plan” (even if other social aims and projects have been wildly diverted in their execution).

Although in certain domains modern science itself poses challenges to this rationality, most notably in the evolutionary developments of molecular biology and quantum mechanics, it is nonetheless true that science as an institution and social authority is one of the cornerstones of this system, its primary base of legitimacy. “Progress,” insofar as this has had any general meaning for anyone’s thoughts and actions during the last two centuries, has been defined primarily in terms of what can be conceived, ordered, and controlled by instrumental reason: namely, technological-industrial change. Human desire and anxiety are understood — if at all — in terms of how the masses must feel or behave, in order to facilitate the “adaptation” of large-scale enterprises and decision making to changing “consumer” tastes and needs.

Whatever may have been the vague impulses of various pioneering scientists, technical entrepreneurs, and other experimenters and mountebanks in past centuries, it was not until quite late in the game that the implementation of their efforts and those of their successors took on its present broad shape and direction. One clear indicator of this is the rapid growth, after the middle of the 19th century, of all forms of medicine — from vaccination to hospital care — under the assumption that all health problems are amenable to technical solutions and that personal medical “know-how” should be monopolized by a privileged and authoritative class of professionals. Other signs may be found in the increasing definition of childhood as a “period of vulnerability” subject to specialized protection, and in the tremendous bureaucratization and impersonalization of schooling.

This core of an order-world came up against serious obstacles and suffered what in retrospect seem like painful wounds in two great global catastrophes: the depression and chaos of the 1930s, and the total mobilization for war from 1939 to 1945. Although it seemed possible then that a general collapse of this world was in progress — not because it was intrinsically vulnerable but because it was based on an explosively dynamic interplay of many components which had so far developed more or less “according to plan” — in fact those events helped define a path which has proved less risky, and no less efficient, than anyone could have hoped for. In Western Europe and America, what was primarily at stake during this time was the transformation of a diffuse “capitalist” system, rooted in varying pre-industrial power structures, into one unified by the principles of the modern technological order: universal market relations and monopolized professional knowledge. Total war provided the necessary means of shattering those power structures. But, rather than leaving them permanently destroyed, war introduced state regulatory and ownership controls whose very emergency character predisposed them to being rechannelled and incorporated into peacetime needs. For this to occur it was necessary, above all, to strike a deal with organized labor which would transform class struggle into an integrated function of production and thereby reconcile different capital-labour power interests around a shared sense of economic responsibility and common submission to technocratic decision-making.

To some extent, as everyone knows, the “safety net” provided by these structures helped break up patterns of absolute deprivation which had persisted for some centuries in Western societies. Yet it is equally important to understand that this modern welfare state emerged precisely at the time when people, even under conditions of great suffering, ceased to consider starvation, begging, and infantile death as ineluctable necessities. This transition did not result from some timeless ethical progress or humanitarian sentiments, but was promoted by the rationalization and organization of need that was itself part of the core of modernity. And the welfare state made sure that people did not forget what constitutes their necessities. Just as important, these state structures fused with the interests of technical professionals: managers, designers, researchers, educators and the like, providing them with an iron-bound status that continues to restrict challenges to the prevalent rationalities. As it consolidated power in this way, the modern state underwent an absolute reversal of meaning: no longer the servant of a certain privileged class or religion, it now appeared as the very embodiment of impersonal “reason.” The overarching message conveyed was that human beings can learn to treat their life needs as objects of science. When such a body of expertise became available for most practical concerns, it could reasonably be expected that someday even “deviant” behaviors and attitudes would find their place under the shade of its trees. For, whatever might exist as of yet, the omnipotence of human intelligence was assumed to be unlimited, in principle, by anything in nature. Only a radical refusal of the system was conceived to be impossible to “cure” and hence to control.

The Emergence of Online Madness

Online madness — madness on the electronic highways, of and in cyberspace — seemed hardly worth mentioning until the last few years. Who had ever imagined that “neurosis” (a word whose origins of modern use lie in the 19th-century European ideology of industry, science, and bureaucracy) could take on such fantastic new meanings in this era of electronically enhanced “rationality”? Cyberspace was conceived of, and for a time it functioned, as an unprecedented medium for the extension of control: control of the individual psyche, but also, more importantly, of the social system itself. The information explosion could be integrated into the existing technical infrastructure, providing incalculably improved efficiency, while at the same time circumscribing human initiative, creating an aura of institutional decision-making which made every individual decision seem either an afterthought or part of a conspiracy.

Think for a moment how very different this vision is from, say, the medieval belief in the “logic” of destiny and fate, which allowed even the cruelty of the Crusades or the massacres of Black Death days to be accepted with relative equanimity. Even a world-view as barren as 18th-century Newtonianism posited an external nature which could not be completely known by man. Today, by contrast, we are meant to believe that we can make and remake the world to an ever greater degree in accordance with our own desires and projects, precisely because the medium we are now using to “express ourselves” is, as some people say, the final or “natural” extension of the brain. We have assumed that this extension would bring us new forms of certainty, just as others have imagined that, in an earlier time, telescopes and microscopes would allow us to see farther and deeper. The extension would only enlarge what had existed “inside,” only extend into cyberspace what had already been there — ideas, thoughts, projects.

We assumed wrongly. For what has spread across cyberspace is not certain thought or meaningful intention but a whole order of chaotic forces whose object is to disintegrate whatever might have seemed stable and “meaningful.” This disintegration of meaningful intention into inhuman psychic drift is precisely what we call Online Madness, a form of psychic destruction brought about through the perversion of information. It may seem paradoxical to claim that today’s communications media could be preventing us from communicating with each other. Yet this is so in several important respects.

The process has many sides: first, the existence of media itself turns each of us into an information consumer who must filter a torrent of dubious inputs and learn to suppress whatever cannot be processed for lack of meaningful content. Second, it follows that if something is to have value, it must be converted into informational content, which means, if nothing else, that it must be eroticized and commercialized: a cultural world that cannot function in terms of “hot” and “cold” (to use Nicos Prouskopos’ terms) — that cannot manipulate desires or produce nausea — is, for this reason alone, condemned to failure. This situation results in a proliferation of counterfeits designed to attract the attention of information consumers who cannot tell what is real and meaningful from what is mere empty propaganda, and who must spend a great deal of time and psychic energy rejecting and expelling the bad input in order to recover any good input, if such indeed exists.

A third side of this process is related to the second and has to do with the extreme regulation of our access to real events. Here the technology itself, whose express function is to pick up and transmit signs and symbols, actively prevents us from knowing or even suspecting what might happen unless and until the information bureaucracy deems it acceptable. To put it in Marxian terms, information technology functions today as the collective brain of the ruling class: as that “organized imagination,” whose fantasies are woven into what the ruling elite decides is objectively real, while those of its own imagination that are not translated into actual conditions or policies simply vanish — at worst resulting in pathology and confusion (as with Reagan, whose truly megalomaniac visions had little enough relation to his presidency, but whose extremely paranoid delusions did tremendous harm to all of us), but more often remaining, so to speak, under the skin, unrecognized but deeply determinant of psychic reality. In this connection, it is important to remember that psychoanalysis is built on the presupposition of an innate instinct for self-preservation, whose objects must remain repressed if they menace in any way the subject’s idea of its own reality. There is, we might say, an inverse law of self-preservation: that the more people come to depend for their survival on some form of representation, the more necessary it becomes for them to repress any representation that cannot be integrated into that system.

And so, because the very meaning of human life in technologically advanced societies has become more and more tied to information, it has also become more and more dependent on what cannot be assimilated, because such information, by definition, cannot contribute to our system of self-preservation.

Yet what prevents our “dreaming,” or what destroys our ability to dream, are not in the least restricted to our needs and relations as defined by our condition of technical subjection. These are the censors that protect our objectivity, or what passes for objectivity in today’s world — but there are others: repressors, you might say, whose purpose is to safeguard what can still be thought or fantasized in this environment, even as those same forces undermine any possibility of finding a place for it to dwell. For psychoanalytical theory tells us that even a person’s instinct to preserve himself does not automatically guarantee the integration of that person’s psychic life, since the impulse for self-preservation does not act alone, but always in conjunction with a fantasy that belongs to the system which must be preserved. This means that it is the totality of the fantasy which determines what can be permitted into the realm of “objective” thinking — in our case the totality of our cultural imaginary which today is that of capital, that is, that of modern science and technology, administered as the global property of those whose profits depend on information flows. This is not merely to say, as Marshall McLuhan did, that “the content of any medium is simply the old information carried by the new technology,” and hence that there is no “innovative content” beyond “the sheer fact of a new technical environment”: this misses the crucial point that content must be defined, for the purposes of understanding, not from the side of information and technology, but from the side of the subject who uses this technology.

There is a kind of nervous blackmail exercised by technologies over users: one either adapts oneself to the structure dictated by the technology, or one forgoes the opportunity to benefit from the technologies, remaining on the sidelines of social life. Technologies present themselves as a series of indissoluble black-or-white alternatives. Their design does not envision any margin for negotiation; neither do they admit any reciprocal penetration of functions. There is no mixing, no blending of two different technologies to obtain a new third one halfway between the two. If a given technology has developed, that means it excludes any other technology which might have been imaginable along similar lines.

This means that modern information technology and its commodities not only derive all their meaning from the uses they can be put to within capitalist society; it also means that this technology’s whole constellation of potential use-values determines, a priori, which subjective fantasies will be permitted expression. Among the various ways that capital has historically appropriated human thought to its purposes, none can be as immediate and efficient as its use of media. Here human psychic energies are drained off and redirected into preestablished channels; new desires and anxieties are propagated through the entire system and back, forming a seamless whole whose various parts are in a constant state of self-referential communication; in short, we find ourselves plunged into a complex nervous field of self-exciting commodities.

Guy Debord showed us that the very act of communication becomes an alienated one; we no longer communicate, but only deliver and receive messages, whose content, furthermore, is of no interest to either side. Communication has been short-circuited: each user projects himself, at the speed of light, into all the others, and retracts; hence the reflexive shockwave through which all pass. Caught in the mutual flash of this zero encounter, these alienated individuals become incapable of communication with anyone other than a media reflector (even direct confrontation with one’s audience is no longer possible without TV coverage). They are entirely hemmed in by their own messages.

I would only add to this that what cannot be integrated into the flow of these messages simply does not exist. Or rather, that it does exist — but as something to which one cannot adapt, and which the individual subject, floating freely in this universe of commodity-signs, simply does not “preserve himself”: it repels him as something outside, foreign. Our virtual environment, this information-intensive zone in which we believe ourselves to be moving more and more of our everyday lives, thus turns out to be one that cannot, in fact, be inhabited — that it excludes precisely that subjective freedom whose technological perfection it displays so convincingly to our eyes, offering us at the same time a continuous prospect of all that is beyond it (beyond our world of virtual environments, supposedly a little above, behind or beside: what matters is that it cannot be incorporated into our technological horizon, and thus exists for us only as “outside”).

This is a very abstract way of stating that today’s world cannot integrate into its conceptual and technological frame either death or madness — unless they are converted into the language of information. The second of these, as I have suggested, is beginning to find a place in this frame; but the first remains utterly outside, which is to say it has lost all meaning for us. Our society no longer believes in death — at most it still has a few superstitions about it, left over from pretechnological times, but these are being eroded quickly enough by the progress of our virtual environments, which, with every passing day, come closer to our ideal of a “life without death.” We have made a great effort to learn how to die; we are in the process of forgetting how to live. And so it is not surprising that the very techniques which we have invented to cope with death (techniques such as psychotherapy, which in their essence aim to neutralize the foreign body of madness and death by translating it into information) have turned out to be the perfect means for erasing all traces of meaningfulness from our lives, leaving us nothing but our neuroses — or, worse, the bureaucratic version of these: Online Madness.

Online Madness is an illness specific to cyberspace, just as blindness is to the camera. Its symptoms are an inability to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual, between what is information and what is manipulation, between what is life and what is death. The problem is that the distinctions themselves are part of the information which the human brain (even when equipped with the most up-to-date technology) cannot process without getting confused. It is no longer possible for us to distinguish, in our own minds, between what is going on inside us and what is taking place outside; between the living body and its data doubles, between the brain’s neural tissue and its electrochemical patterns. In fact, even the word “inside” has become ambiguous: is the information that is transmitted by my heart, my lungs, my nervous system “inside” me, or has it long since been “outside,” spread across the networks of cyberspace? The same ambiguity infects the word “outside.” Where, in all this, does anything real begin or end? Where is the human subject?

Online Madness is a disorder that grows out of this pervasive confusion. Its victims cannot tell what is happening to them. They are caught between two deaths, both real and both virtual: they feel the irreversible passage of time, even as they know it to be an illusion. They are stuck in the present, between the past that has vanished and the future that never arrives, caught in an endless moment whose only motion is the cycling of data through the nodes of cyberspace. Online Madness is the delirium of this infinite present: its sufferers are driven mad by the feeling that, although everything is always changing, nothing will ever happen.

On Being Alive, Utility, Meaning, Beauty, and Unity

by R. Artaud (Telos)

A continuation in spirit, but not form, from Part I.

At this point in our labors the notion of a “sense of life” became central to our analysis. In our eyes it had several components that in the usual way of things tended to develop sequentially. First there is the simple “will to live”. At a very early stage in the unfolding of living processes the organism seems driven by some unknown imperative to go on existing and expanding. Whether or not this tendency survives from some nonliving precursor of the organism, as Darwin believed, or is generated within the organism itself, as Henri Bergson argued, seems to us of little importance. More significant is the fact that it represents the emergence of a specific direction, however inchoate and unarticulated, within the flow of physical energy.

Second comes the sense of “self-identity through time”, which we take to be a kind of extended moment or extended point (homologous, that is, to the extended line or extended plane that defines a unidimensional or bidimensional movement along a single axis). That is to say, we take self-identity to be not just the property of persisting in being from moment to moment but of persisting in being along some determinate continuum that indexes change. No sooner has this “spatial” or “topological” sense of identity emerged than it tends to branch out into a variety of modes: the sense of being a “thing”, of being “one”, of being an “individual”. We say “tends to” because it would be a mistake to think of any one of these modes as primary and the others as derivative. They are all generated simultaneously and are essentially interdependent. We use the word “tends to” therefore to indicate the sort of general logical relation among the modes and not, necessarily, the temporal order of their development.

The third, and last, component of the sense of life that we can distinguish is what we call the sense of “being alive”, which we define as the logical negation of “being dead” and which, because it is negated, presupposes all the other two. There is, in other words, no sense of being alive in which the other two have not previously been invested. But just as the other two are simultaneously generated so too is the third, and its relation to the other two is essentially complementary rather than antagonistic.

This is especially evident if we take “being dead” not to mean non-existence but, instead, the cessation of any one or both of the other two senses. For then we can see that being dead is just as much a direction along the continuum as is the will to live, and that both of these, taken together, define the boundary between existence and nonexistence. Thus “being alive” means simply “neither being dead nor not-being-dead” — a state in which existence has passed beyond nonexistence and entered into the realm of some determinable or other, the first and lowest realm that encompasses the full range of organic being. The negation of this “being alive” — the absence of all direction in the flow of energy — is what we call chaos, a state that, since it implies the full extinction of the sense of being a thing, of being one, and of being an individual, is something quite different from the absence of all direction within any one of these senses. It is the extinction of life itself.

Now the fundamental situation that prevails throughout all of organic nature — indeed throughout the entire physical universe, so far as we know it — is this: the flow of energy is characterized by a surplus of “being alive” over “being dead”. More of what exists does not cease to exist than does cease to exist. There is more reality in life than in death. Somehow the universe has “slanted” in favor of existence, however we choose to understand what that means.

Put in these terms the “purpose” of nature, insofar as there is one, seems clear enough: to increase, so far as possible, the quantity of that surplus, to propagate it, and, ultimately, to maximize it. As a result, therefore, the first, fundamental “value” that we can infer from the observed facts — what, for lack of a better term, we must call the “value of life” — is just this: that it is better for there to be more existence than none than the reverse, that being alive is preferable to being dead, everything else being equal. We say that life has “intrinsic value” (even if, strictly speaking, we know of no “values” in nature).

This value of life — that it is good to be alive — appears to be something that in one way or another every living thing shares and this is not simply because being alive is necessary for it to reproduce and thus perpetuate its being alive but because all living things also, and necessarily, have a “will” (whether you want to call it that or not) to increase the quantity of that surplus to the utmost that conditions will allow, regardless of any possible “costs” that may accrue in the process. All things alive are not just concerned with their own individual existence but with the overall abundance of life, which we must understand, for the present at least, in very general and abstract terms, without reference to any of the higher forms of life or their organization into ecosystems. All this follows simply from the fact that there is more of what exists than does not exist, and that this is a condition that prevails throughout the whole of physical reality as we know it, even if its origin and meaning are matters of pure speculation.

Now in its purest form this sense of life has nothing to do with pleasure or pain, enjoyment or suffering, joy or grief. Whether pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, joy and grief are, for any particular living thing, objects of its “will” or not depends entirely on the kind of organism it is, and we shall have a great deal to say later about this important question. For the moment, however, it is sufficient to remark that pleasure, pain, enjoyment and suffering are very specialized modes of being alive, much more complex than the will to live or the sense of self-identity, and they are by no means universal among living things. Not that we mean to deny the obvious fact that pleasure is to be found everywhere in the biosphere, and even outside it. What we mean to deny is that the will to live, or the sense of self-identity through time, requires them in any absolute sense, much less that they have any importance apart from them.

If the will to live is strong enough it will transform pain into pleasure and do it without winking. A dog that must get outside and go for a run will take pain or grief along with him, if need be, and sometimes will invent some in order to justify the trip. There is no question but that every living thing prefers to be alive and to keep on being alive, even if it has to work at it, even if it has to make sacrifices. This is as true of bacteria as it is of people, if not of rocks. If anything in nature is exempt from this general rule it can only be the things that are not alive, or it can only be because they have absorbed, so to speak, some surplus of the vitality of what is alive, and have in that way been brought into the realm of value.

This is the case, for example, with precious stones or metals. They have no value of their own but derive it from the work that was done to get them, work that had to be done because the will to live demands that everything count for something in the great ledger of being. A sunset that is simply beautiful has no value at all. A sunset that is beautiful and cost something to see — say, money or trouble or discomfort — has some value, which increases as the cost does, up to some point, beyond which the surplus of value disappears again as the cost becomes too great. Everything beyond that point is wasted effort. All work is a struggle against chaos, but each kind of work has its own line of retreat.

At this point you are no doubt thinking that all this is so obvious that there is hardly any point in discussing it. Why go on? If it is true that in the last analysis the only values are the values of life, what is the purpose of all our calculations and distinctions? If everything reduces to being alive, why talk about anything else?

The answer is that even though all values derive ultimately from the value of life, not all values can be expressed in terms of the value of life. It is because there are different ways in which the will to live may manifest itself that some of these values have no direct relationship to life at all. Nor do they lose their reality or importance just because they are not reducible to the value of life.

We might go so far as to say that values that have no intrinsic relationship to life — in other words, values of a type that we shall call “extrinsic” — are necessary to life just as much as values of an “intrinsic” type are, but for very different reasons. Values of an intrinsic type are those that contribute directly to the quantity of the surplus of value that belongs to life and helps it to grow. Values of an extrinsic type are those that do not contribute to this surplus directly, or do so only in a very indirect or minimal way, but instead function as means that serve to motivate things to act in ways that do contribute directly, or to reinforce the results of those actions that do contribute. It is obvious that such extrinsic values can be useful to life only insofar as life itself cannot manage, by itself, to produce and accumulate the necessary quantity of intrinsic value.

Intrinsic Values

Let us say that life itself produces, generates or induces intrinsic values of three principal types: what we shall call utility, beauty and meaning.

By “utility” we mean simply the “goodness” of an object or event for the sake of some desired result, and we assume that every living thing has some basic utilitarian drive (including the drive for self-identity, which can be understood as the need for a stable configuration or identity of utilitarian components).

By “beauty” we mean the enhancement of the will to live for the sake of itself, for its own intrinsic power, a gratification that, as it were, loops back upon itself to increase the vitality of the will itself.

By “meaning” we mean the contribution of some object or event to the integration and coherence of the world for a living thing, an integration that has meaning in the sense of reducing the sense of “chance” or “randomness” or “fatalism” that might otherwise prevail, by establishing connections among events that suggest they are related as means and ends. Meaning need not involve purpose or intent, as if some event were produced by nature in order to contribute to the coherence of a world. It is better to think of meaning as an attribute of events themselves, as an internal relationship among the parts of a whole that has the effect of strengthening the whole. The parts “mean” something to each other when they contribute to the maintenance of a pattern of behavior that has a function in relation to the survival and growth of life.

Utility, beauty, and meaning are then the three basic types of intrinsic values that contribute to the increase of the surplus of vitality that is life. They represent the “natural,” “aesthetic,” and “intellectual” aspects of life, as it were, its self-serving, self-gratifying, and self-cohering modes of behavior. But if this is what life is “on its own” (assuming we could even conceive of such a thing) then life is something very raw and elementary, indeed something whose relation to the highest forms of human existence it is hard to imagine.

Life’s relation to its own potentialities is like the relation of the silent movies to talkies — a sudden, vast qualitative change brought about by a relatively small and trivial modification in some pre-existing condition. Yet, when we try to identify that pre-existing condition it turns out to be elusive and hard to grasp. If, as we have said, the intrinsic values of life consist in utility, beauty and meaning, then they do not, at first glance, seem to be all that important or compelling. Even beauty is something we can do without. Without it our enjoyment of life may be dulled, but it does not affect the essence of our being alive. Utility and meaning, too, are accessories, not essentials. We can do without them as well, and we do not even know that we are lacking them until we discover that the hole in our heart is in a place where once beauty used to be.

In other words, the extrinsic values that make up life’s second set are crucial to life not because of any direct contribution they make to the surplus of vitality, but because they provide the motivation that enables life to generate or to generate more abundantly the intrinsic values of utility, beauty, and meaning. Extrinsic values can be understood as the “form” that life assumes in its efforts to enhance its intrinsic values.

We call these extrinsic values “form” not only because of their importance as motives but also because they themselves are indirectly dependent on a third type of value that we shall call “formal”. By “formal” values we mean certain irresistible or pre-eminently compelling configurations of being that act as “models” or “prototypes” for the realization of intrinsic or extrinsic values.

It is only insofar as something is formal that it is beautiful or meaningful or valuable in some other way, just as it is only insofar as something is beautiful or valuable or meaningful that it is utilitarian. Just as the model airplane you built when you were a boy did not serve to get you from one place to another, any more than did the real airplane, so that both were utilitarian only because they “stood for” real or possible machines that were utilitarian, or else because they motivated you to design or build such machines, or else because they satisfied some deep need you had for symmetry and grace, or else because they “meant” something to you personally that was not contained in any of their specific properties but only in the “formal” property of being airplanes, and, perhaps, of being toy airplanes, or of being miniaturized replicas of some specific type of machine, and so on. Thus we can see how it is that formal values function, in various combinations, to reinforce the achievement of all three types of intrinsic values.

At the same time, however, we must admit that there is something fishy about this business of formal values, as if it involved something essential and fundamental but at the same time unessential and superficial, like the relationship between a plan and its execution, or between a photograph and what it photographs, or between a symbol and what it stands for. We must also be aware of the danger that a “formal” value can easily degenerate into some kind of fetish or “magical object” that ceases to have any meaningful relation to its original model or prototype. We will return to these matters at a later time.

Now if it is true, as we have suggested, that all the values in the world derive ultimately from the value of life, then it must also be true that among all these values there is some set that is uniquely important in the sense that they are absolutely indispensable to life itself, no matter what else life may or may not include. Call these values the “minimal” values of life. They must include at least two of the intrinsic values: beauty and meaning (and, of course, the “formal” value that is a condition for their existence).

Without these two life would lose its capacity for self-reflection and self-transcendence and would degenerate into some brutish form of existence that is totally enmeshed in its immediate utilitarian interests. The beauty and meaning of life, on the other hand, make it capable of projecting itself into the future and of making connections with things outside itself and thus of generating its own purpose and thus of transforming its utility into something nobler. It is clear from this that, at the very least, life must include two “minimal” values: what we have called beauty and meaning. But what about the third: utility?

Here we must tread carefully, for at this point our argument could easily become unconvincing, and that is precisely because utility has traditionally been thought to be the principal value of life, perhaps the only one. This is especially true when utility is not conceived in a restricted way as a matter of convenience and efficiency, as in the “hedonic calculus” of eighteenth-century philosophers like Helvetius and Bentham, or of the classical school of political economy, but is understood in a universal sense that includes the very notion of purpose and its attendant concepts of good and bad, right and wrong.

While true that this broad, purposive conception of utility does not include within itself any specific idea of enjoyment, but that is only because enjoyment is itself a derived and dependent notion whose very possibility presupposes the existence of utility, since enjoyment is simply pleasure taken in something, and pleasure is merely a heightening of life’s basic utility (its capacity for keeping on existing). Hence it is reasonable to say that life itself is an endeavor or struggle, that its ultimate “value” is to be found in its success as an end (or “telos”) to which other things are merely means.

It is at this point that the arguments of utilitarian thinkers like Bentham and Mill, though compelling enough in themselves, reach their limits. It is as if they took a painting to be a reproduction of something that already existed as a concrete entity outside the canvas, whereas what needs to be explained is how a painting can ever be more than a painting, how anything can ever be more than itself. But to say this is not to reject the idea of utility, which must remain inseparable from every notion of life, as long as we understand it in terms of purposive endeavor and not as something aimed at mere comfort and convenience. In other words, the traditional utilitarian theory must be embraced and deepened by seeing in its “good” nothing less than the “telos” or purpose of all existence.

Thus life as we know it has set itself the task of overcoming itself, of destroying itself as a means to transcending itself to something that can be achieved only by going beyond utility, that is, by giving up the idea of utility itself. If the success of life were to be measured by the amount of utility it accumulates, then its success would consist in giving up utility altogether, for its “telos” is a state of being in which utility would no longer matter, where the purpose of things would be nothing. If utility is the first stage in the development of life, then the realization of this truth is the second stage. What comes after is life’s highest achievement: the self-abolition of utility.

Now if utility were something like beauty, or meaning, or even the conjunction of beauty and meaning, then it would make no sense to speak of it as something to be overcome, any more than we would speak of beauty or meaning or their conjunction as something to be overcome. But utility is none of these things. It is merely a property of living beings to find satisfaction in certain forms of behavior, to seek out such forms and to prolong or multiply such behavior. When these forms are also beautiful or meaningful or both, that is all to the good, because then the higher development of life (its “meaning” or “beauty”) can come into existence along with its need to go beyond what is beautiful and meaningful.

In other words, beauty and meaning are “in themselves” conditions that are desirable for their own sake, but utility is something “in itself” that has no more value than is necessary to achieve what is desirable in itself. Utility is what makes life possible, but only to the extent that it has to, not to the extent that it could.

Hence it is clear that the first principle of life must be to pursue its utility, and the second must be to abolish it. This second principle, in turn, must be pursued as if it were the first. To put it in yet another way: the meaning of life is a constant effort to achieve something that is impossible to achieve.

We can see how this double principle — “pursue utility and abolish it” — operates in the development of the natural sciences. Science is the means by which man extends his power over nature and this must be his fundamental interest if he is to survive, if he is to “live utilitarianly”, as it were. Yet as soon as science succeeds in giving man this increased power over nature it sets in motion forces that inevitably lead to a crisis in which science itself, together with all the other values that supported it, come into question. So long as science remains at the stage of experimental investigation it is able to ignore the problems posed by the absolute “disenchantment of the world” (Max Weber).

This comes home to it only with the breakthrough to a new theory. Yet the very fact that such a breakthrough is possible means that the enchantment of the world, the magic circle that excluded science and kept it at bay, must also be breaking down somewhere, and that, sooner or later, the same fate is in store for science itself. For what other reason could there be for a change in the basis of science if not that the very foundations of the world have shifted? We cannot believe that nature has taken note of all our efforts and made concessions to them in order to defend herself against them. It is just as likely that she has never heard of them or has merely forgotten them already. Yet this is what we wanted her to be aware of so that we might extend our power over her.

But then how is it possible that science can still claim to be the powerful disenchanter if its very achievements ultimately render it superfluous? In what sense is science “positive” if the very growth of knowledge paves the way for its own negation? As if by some paradoxical necessity the fullness of its own being forces science to question its own presuppositions, thus in the long run canceling out its achievements and condemning them to irrelevance.

How strange it is that science is willing to put up with this! How it clings to its problems! What does it matter to science if its conquest of the world remains incomplete? It will never get to the bottom of things. Every new stage of understanding that it achieves merely conceals deeper enigmas. It is not science’s fault. This is how things are. But why should science make itself responsible for things of this sort? Why not take up something else, like sports, say, or easing animals, or painting pictures, something where there is no talk of a “truth content” or a “reality behind appearances,” something that leaves one in peace? Surely science cannot believe that all the other things that people do are really just play and pastime compared to its own serious activity. Why should it have to shoulder the burden of the world?

Value of Life

We have wandered far from our subject. The question we wanted to address was: where is the value of life to be found, and what is it? We began by assuming that all values were reducible to the value of life and we saw that this had to be wrong. Then we explored what had to be right in the view that the value of life was not to be found in utility, but we had to recognize that, after all, utility was one of its indispensable components.

We will now take a step further in the same direction, without abandoning it, and attempt to clarify the position of the remaining two values, beauty and meaning. We will assume that utility, beauty and meaning are all indispensable conditions of life, yet that their “value” depends on their relationship to each other and that this relationship must therefore be very precise, so precise in fact as to justify calling them “formal” values. Thus formal values are those values that seem to stand between the values of life and the values of man; they are values that pertain to life as such, not to man as an individual. They are formal because they are universal, detached from all content and devoid of individual subjectivity.

Beauty and meaning are examples of formal values. This means that beauty is the formal value of life that manifests itself in the desire to preserve what is beautiful, and meaning is the formal value of life that manifests itself in the desire to increase what is meaningful. But neither the desire to preserve the beautiful nor the desire to increase the meaningful is identical with the value of life itself. Beauty and meaning have their own intrinsic worth, and this must be distinguished from their value for life. As long as this is not done, as long as we do not distinguish between form and content, between formal value and value of life, we remain caught in a maze of vague, ambiguous concepts, like utility, purpose, goal, finality, and so on. If we confuse these categories we end up confusing utility and finality as well. If finality were nothing more than the culmination of utility, then life would indeed be no more than a means to an end and there would be no reason not to strip it of all the ornamental trappings of beauty and meaning. But the problem is not so simple. For even if we accept that there are no such things as finalities and goals independent of utility, we cannot conclude that finality and goal are merely illusionary additions to utility.

On the contrary, they are integral parts of life, intrinsic to it, and they must therefore be understood in relation to utility, not as its projections, but as its conditions. Thus the beautiful or the meaningful are not appendages to the useful; rather, the useful is an appendage to the beautiful or the meaningful, depending on the perspective we take. For the perspective of life as a whole the beautiful and the meaningful are prior to the useful; for the perspective of its parts the useful is prior to the beautiful and the meaningful. It is thus that the beautiful and the meaningful enclose the useful between two impenetrable walls. The useful cannot penetrate beyond them. They form an absolute boundary within which alone its autonomy is ensured. Their interdependence has nothing to do with any reciprocal conversion of one into the other.

Beauty is the nonfunctional form of life, its irreplaceable “play-form”, its expression within itself, its “symbol” (to use a loaded word).

Meaning is its directional form, its irreversible developmental pattern, its unfolding within a specific continuum, its “narrative”.

These are the conditions of all utility, not vice versa. Just as play has no external goal that it would seek to achieve through victory, so too the meaningfulness of life does not rest on some future consummation to be reached through continuous exertion. The meaningfulness of life lies in its momentum, not in its goal.

Similarly, the value of life does not depend on any particular utilization of its possibilities. The value of its potentialities resides in the very fact that they are not realized, that they remain open. Therein lies their beauty. And in this sense we can even speak of a beauty of the meaningful, just as there can be a meaning in the beautiful. For beauty also has its openness, its subtle formality, its density of suggestion, even when it does not reach the intensity of meaning. In fact, there is no such thing as an absolutely meaningful work of art or absolutely meaningful behavior, just as there is no absolutely beautiful work of art or absolutely beautiful behavior. An excess of either one tends to destroy the other.

Whatever has meaning at the cost of beauty, beauty at the cost of meaning, form at the cost of content, or content at the cost of form is soon dead, bogged down in its own excess or emptiness. This is true both of life in general and of every kind of artistic achievement. This is the case whether we consider works of art in the usual sense or whether we regard the cosmos, the psyche or society as a work of art in the broad sense. Here and there we must lighten the meaning and brighten the beauty of what exists in order to bring it to its highest potential, so that its content can become form and its form content, so that the living unity of meaning and beauty may be preserved.

This unity is the essence of what we call style, the fundamental principle of all that is created by man, whether it is a work of art, an institution or a social order. Style is the unique signature of everything that has meaning and beauty. It is the touch of the artist in what is made. And this signature is valid for its creator as an absolute necessity, just as it is valid for the viewer, listener or user as an ultimate requirement. When two signatures correspond, a work of art comes into being, and only when they correspond. We cannot imagine any higher criterion for judgment, nor can we imagine any higher fulfillment for the one who creates than the absolute agreement of both signatures.

When the beautiful is meaningful and the meaningful is beautiful, when the clear is colorful and the colorful is clear, then all the senses of each sense have come together in a unity that is never confused or diluted by any externally imposed category, but is a fusion that arises from within, like the color of an iris, the sound of a string quartet, the taste of an exquisite meal, the touch of velvet, the smell of an orange blossom or the taste of warm water on thirsty lips. It is a matter of style, of taste.

What we have said about style will certainly seem odd to most people today. Today beauty and meaning have parted ways; each is pursued by itself, like a long-lost twin finally re-united in the golden years of a rip old age, each alone. Once they were inseparable, two dimensions of the same surface. Each wanted the other for its own sake. Each enriched the other, added something to it that it lacked.

Now beauty pursues its own measure, meaning its own development, each along a separate course, no longer crossing the path of the other. Style as the love of what is at once beautiful and meaningful is increasingly rare, like a shooting star that goes out alone in the night. Beauty and meaning are looking for it, but they are not yet one in it. Only once upon a time was there a signatory of the beautiful and the meaningful, a seal of unity that made them identical. Only once upon a time was there a style in which beauty and meaning embraced each other as the touch and the caress of the beloved. Only once upon a time was there a creator who could use that seal and who still had something to say.

As we have seen, the great artists are now fewer, the beautiful is less beautiful and the meaningful is less meaningful. This does not mean that the world is in bad taste, only that its inhabitants are jaded with life. But for some reason, maybe due to their great age, they have lost their appetite for unity, for the enjoyment of combining opposites into a higher unity. What exists today, taken all around, is much more than any one of us could possibly take. Each of us can take much, but not everything. And this is the case even if we look for a sign in the beloved who can embody what we wish for. This is what Duchamp was able to show when he painted the Madame Bustle. What was still necessary when Van Gogh put it all together in the new book of life. But if life has already gone into its reverse, if the thenreverseis no longer reversible, thenthereisonbeautiful.

Spirit of Fragmentation - Part I

by R. Artaud (Telos)

What follows is not a fragment from any lost work but it is in the spirit of Fragmentation. That is to say it is composed of shards from several discourses — from philosophy, psychology, social criticism, science fiction and maybe a few others. Nothing is added and nothing is subtracted except as needed to get them to fit together. Sometimes that is done by editing, sometimes by writing, sometimes by deleting. The result is an edifice that looks, if you squint just right, like a dromosome of some primitive but cunning molecule. You could not call it alive for sure, nor dead either, and it may prove impossible to see it clearly — even with a high-powered electron microscope. This is only fitting because, if I do say so myself, it is a remarkably profound structure and what you may hope to gain from inspecting it is an image of that-which-transcends. It may even be called a model or an icon — provided that the beholder remembers not to confuse the two terms with those other ones. There will be no caption below. If you are sufficiently developed then no caption should be necessary. If you are not, then no caption could possibly be helpful. Good luck.

(At the center) All is well.

(Tendrils radiating) Good will toward men.

(In each angle) A judge of good and evil.

(Caveat) Nothing is quite as it appears.

(Outermost layer) Closely-woven net of interrelated judgements, each indispensable to the continuity of the others.

(Third from center) Metagood and metaevil.

(Second from center) Over-all shape: organic molecule with or without coiled helix.

(Center) Punctum, unique point of singularity and unlimited energy.

(First from center) Relation between meta- and paragood-and-evil.

(Innermost layer) Contacts between Punctum and outer net.

The punctum is unique point of singularity and unlimited energy. That it is a point of singularity may be taken to imply that all points except this one are “ordinary” and share the same “generic” properties. In a word: this point is a hole in space. However that may be, we can say this: that any motion of the punctum toward the outer net will have the same general direction as all motions of paragood (and by paragood we mean both paragood-and-paragood, and paragood-and-paraevil, and paraevil-and-paragood); and that any motion of the punctum away from the outer net will have the same general direction as all motions of metaevil (and by metaevil we mean both metaevil-and-metaevil, and metaevil-and-metagood, and metagood-and-metaevil).

These properties of the punctum (singularity, hole in space, motions relative to paragood and metaevil) are to be taken as equivalent to saying that it is both Good and Evil, though in some strange way that these words no longer carry their usual meanings. (Recall that paragood and paraevil retain their usual meanings.) “Good” and “Evil” in reference to the punctum denote properties intrinsic to the punctum alone and are unrelated to the properties that it shares with paragood and metaevil. You might even say that these “Good” and “Evil” properties belong to two sets, one set containing “Good” and the other set containing “Evil”, such that no common element exists between the two sets. Yet they both relate to the punctum, as do paraevil and metagood. Here is an example that might help you grasp this situation more easily: Think of a diamond cut with facets arranged in two sets: one set shining downward and the other upward. There is no overlap between the two sets and you cannot tell which set belongs to “Good” and which to “Evil”. In order to know whether any particular facet belongs to the one set or the other, you must look at the polish on the edges between the facets. Only at these points will you be able to see which set goes with “Good” and which with “Evil”. “Good” and “Evil” do not, then, inhere in the punctum, but they do belong to the punctum in a special way, as do metagood and metaevil.

In saying this we must emphasize that “Good” and “Evil” are no more “polar” opposites than are metagood and metaevil. Each of the four properties denoted by these terms — two “Good” and two “Evil” — are intrinsically in a relationship of complementarity or, better, mutual complementation, each requiring the presence of all the others in order to be what it is, but at the same time all these four being mere moments, so to speak, of one unique energy that has no properties other than those that appear as the relations among these four. Only by gross abstraction and at the cost of some violence to reality can it be said that any two of them (whichever two) stand in an antithetical, much less a dialectical, relation to each other. Yet there is no doubt that this appearance is indispensable to any unfolding of events — as if the unique energy had to be parceled out among its four moments in order for anything to happen.

But it would be a great mistake to think that anything thus parceled out was somehow inessential to the total energy, or that this total energy in its pure unity was any way less than all the parceled-out parts taken together. This is what the meta- properties teach us. For both metagood and metaevil, taken together, exhaust all possible combinations of relations between paragood and paraevil, while their own relative parity is indifferent to all such relations. For example, metaevil is what results when there is perfect, rigid correspondence between paragood and paraevil (just as metagood results from perfect, rigid non-correspondence), while metagood and paraevil are merely paragood and paraevil when they agree and disagree, respectively. We shall not pause here to prove these propositions. (We omit also the obvious proof that when metaevil and paraevil agree they become metagood, and when they disagree, paragood.) Let it be said, however, that it is through a process of such simplification, abstraction and division that all knowledge begins — all that we ordinarily call knowledge, and not just what is accessible to the physical sciences. (But a moment ago we were speaking of what was not accessible to them, weren’t we?)

Once paragood and paraevil have been divided into metagood and metagood, and metagood and metaevil, the outer net can begin to take shape, its coherence deriving from the property of continuity in the relations among paragood, paragood, paraevil and metaevil. Not that there are not innumerable gaps in this net, or that the filaments composing it do not criss-cross one another in complicated and conflicting ways. Indeed, a striking characteristic of this net is that it appears to have two orders of magnitude, with filaments both very fine and very thick coexisting simultaneously, much as in the crosshatched areas of a certain type of pencil sketch. These filaments must be understood dynamically and not statically. It is not so much that some are taut while others are slack, or that some are stable while others are unstable, but that some are persisting while others are in flux, or that some are moving into or out of order while others are maintaining or changing the order in which they occur. Some have “frozen” what were previously relative movements into an absolute configuration of coherence, others are “melting” coherent configurations into new relative motions. There are tendrils of filaments that reach into and out of the center, as it were, transporting relative orders between the two surfaces of the net. In some regions of the net there are disturbances and displacements that can be interpreted as cyclical fluctuations of metagood and metaevil around a central equilibrium of paragood and paraevil. In other regions the cycles appear to have ceased and a single trend dominates, whether this is the rise of metagood over metaevil or the rise of metaevil over metagood, depending on what is taking place in the center. Still other regions give the impression of oscillating indecision, of oscillation within oscillation, of an inner turbulence in which no direction seems capable of winning out over any other.

It is not yet clear what mechanisms, if any, underlie these diverse behaviors, or even if the net as a whole is necessarily heading somewhere. We know only that somewhere in its inner depths lies the punctum, the point of singularity around which all its properties congregate and from which they radiate. And this much seems clear: that in its very simplest terms the structure of the outer net is made to resemble that of the most complicated molecular organisms. For at the center of every living organism lies an organelle called a mitochondrion, whose shape is roughly that of an elongated peanut and which resembles very closely the dromosome described above, not counting such frills as the presence of a double membrane, the complex coiling of the helix, and other molecular peculiarities. Could it be that life, if it has any “meaning”, exists solely for the purpose of symbolizing and interpreting the punctum and the net that surrounds it? If we could penetrate the enigma of the punctum, would it put us in mind of the “primal scene” — that ever-elusive nucleus of original trauma around which the whole edifice of psychoanalytic theory is woven? We must tread warily here, because if there is a core of truth in this speculation it may turn out that all our science and learning are no more than an elaborate self-deception aimed at warding off the stark, naked reality of the punctum and its only companions, absolute metagood and absolute metaevil. Perhaps in another age, or at least in another mood, we will have something useful to say on these matters. For now, we had better put the topic aside.

Proceed to Part II, Life.