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.