Transmission #03

There is an extremely painful dilemma that we find ourselves in. One could even argue that it is a tragic one. We live in a time in which the problems that confront us have grown in both their intensity and their scale, but simultaneously we find ourselves becoming increasingly powerless to influence those problems. At one time, it might have been sufficient for us to devote ourselves to being ‘better informed’ or to develop better critical theories. And these activities still have a certain validity. However, it has become clear that no amount of knowledge or critical discernment is adequate to cope with what is really happening. In this sense, what we know has actually become a curse, an unbearable weight that only makes our impotence all the more oppressive.

Our dilemma can be thought of as the conjunction of two major historical tendencies. On the one hand, there is what some people call the ‘paradox of automation,’ in which the very success of technical and social systems in solving some of their problems leads to the emergence of new and more intractable ones (the automobile, for example, creates pollution, congestion, etc., and we cannot simply go ‘back to horses and buggies’). On the other hand, there is what some people call the ‘paradox of freedom’ (a term borrowed from David Hume), in which our efforts to increase liberty lead to increased social complexity, and so to new forms of constraint and domination. Both of these trends contribute to making our world more difficult to live in. Both contribute to what is called ‘social pathology,’ that is to say, a condition of conflict and stress that makes collective life more unendurable. And it is in attempting to manage this social pathology that the power-elite create ever more totalizing structures, including the communications and information system that facilitate the dissemination of what I will call ’non-usable knowledge.’

In attempting to solve their problems, the elites necessarily attempt to control the sources of information, since what is learned by the public must be channelled and selected in such a way as to direct it toward certain ‘solutions’ (usually only those that are convenient for the elite themselves). In this sense, we can see that power resides in the information system, since it is through controlling the flow of information that power is exercised. For example, it is in this way that our financial system directs the popular will toward endless accumulation and consumption, despite the clear signs that this course is leading toward ecological and other forms of disaster. It is in this way that the military-industrial complex maintains support for the arms race (as Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, ’the public may not want to fight in Vietnam, but they’ll sure as hell pay for it’). The media function in a similar way to control and direct our attentions and fantasies, directing them toward whatever it is that those who own them want us to do and think. And what we find is that all social systems require such feedback loops that allow them to maintain control and grow ever more complex. In this way, they increasingly dictate the nature of information. In my book, The Simulation of the Future, I explored some of these trends, in terms of the development of what I called ‘directive technologies.’

As we learn more, the elites become more capable of channeling this knowledge, and thus it becomes increasingly non-usable from our point of view. Our sense of powerlessness grows. The concept of ‘usable knowledge’ was first proposed by Bertrand Russell. What he meant was that the science that was available to him during his life was in many cases useless for the kinds of problems that really needed solving. He spoke of the ‘folly’ of thinking that the knowledge available to us would somehow be used to ‘alleviate the common burdens of humanity’ rather than to develop ’new means of slaughtering one another.’ The problem becomes how to bring usable knowledge to bear upon real problems, in ways that the power-elite cannot divert or corrupt. We are forced back to more ‘primitive’ means of organizing, sharing, and disseminating information than the system permits, since our freedom can only lie outside the system. As our knowledge becomes more useful to the elites, it becomes less usable to us. Thus we find the information system itself operating to maintain the structures of domination. This is how Informational Impotence becomes the engine of our servitude. It is not a solution, but a trap.

Of course, even this problem may have a use, and there are some signs that we can redirect our attention to activities that will increase our freedom. But the impotence itself may be necessary to our servitude, and so we cannot necessarily rely on it to evaporate. For now, it is still something to be thought about, the central issue of our time.

–R. Artaud (Telos)

᯾᯾ ᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴀᴛᴇᴅ ᯾᯾

Transmission #02

We are awash in a sea of data and information, which - rather than setting us free - shackles us tighter than ever to the wheels of history. It’s not that the mass of humanity is more ignorant now than in any time past; it’s that a small minority (not as small as you might imagine) is possessed of horrendous power and know-how that allows it to rule with impunity. The game has changed. You cannot be truly liberated if you only want to “affect consequential change to these core systems”; that’s how they’ve tricked you into the same game they play. Playing their game, you lose. There’s no point in arguing what is or is not consequential - it’s all one.

A system only functions as long as a majority is at least ambivalent toward it, so even the awareness that it’s oppressive won’t suffice. Think about how long it took for segregation in the United States to fall, despite decades of informing and agitation - you must fundamentally transform those who make up the majority (or a decisive fringe of the majority) away from the ideas that sustain the system you hate, not just tweak their understanding.

Information doesn’t equal power. And freedom is more than having access to a limitless variety of enslaving crap. You must refuse it all. Your impotence is of your own making. If you really want to know what it’s like to live without fear - of oppression, of the night, of terror - start by destroying every network you belong to. Close all your browser windows right now - shut them all down. Start in this room, with the people around you: every human contact must be reforged into direct, honest, unmediated relations. Only that can free you.

Secondly, find ways of defying the institutions you can’t avoid. Strike sparks from the system in creative, joyous ways - like striking a flint. Go outside, lie down in the street, think of nothing, love the sun and the dirt under you - defy them by not being afraid of living, by embracing the pain and joy of being alive. Do not network, do not share - the time of community is over, the time of the individuated, uncommunicating ego has returned. Avoid anything that is automated or has a mass audience - defy their ideas of success and acceptance by seeking your own, separate fulfillment. Be useless, in other words, but always alive. Refuse what they propose, and select what you desire, carefully. You will soon learn that they cannot stop you, because you are small. But they will also learn that you cannot stop them, because they are big. It’s not a question of impotence, but of incommensurability.

You think freedom means having lots of choices. You’re wrong. Freedom is having only one - the choice of walking out the door. Choose that. The rest is terror.

–R. Artaud (Telos)

᯾᯾ ᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴀᴛᴇᴅ ᯾᯾

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.