figment on Sun, 22 Jun 1997 02:05:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Technocult/Religion (3/3)


While the transcendence of the Net is false, and could not exist without
the corresponding framework of political fragmentation and the rapacious
nomadism of global capitalism, I think that there is something very juicy
and intriguing about the gnostic or mystical response to cyberspace. Again,
however we analyze, critique, and resist our digital-historical condition
as online subjects, we are also participating in it as agents, a
participation that by its very nature erodes the familiar rules about
consciousness, bodies, and the machinery of subjectivity. We are extending
our minds into machinic fields of collective information, into incorporeal,
engineered environments. For all the junk, the Internet remains an
astounding zone of connections, histories, texts, images -- and most of
all, of ever-bizarre and fascinating individuals. We are colonizing each
other's brains, and we -- at least the limited "we" with access to these
tools -- are doing it on a global scale at a time of overwhelming
uncertainty and cultural crisis. Though I am mighty wary of
techno-utopianism, Californian techno-myth, and Extropian glee, it seems to
me that we must plunge forward with imagination into this
historically-unprecedented situation -- which is hardly the same thing as
capitulating to the money-mad agenda of Wired's editorial crew.

Which bring us finally to the bizarre but nonetheless potent myth of the
Gaian mind. According to the acidhead Rebublican John Perry Barlow, as more
and more of get online, we are becoming the neurons of an enormous compex
system that is engendering an emergent collective mind, which at a certain
point will create an apotheosis of planetary consciousness. As an unholy
blend of Arthur C. Clark, Teilhard de Chardin, _Neuromancer_, and
eco-cybernetics, the Gain mind can be seen as intriguing if depressingly
unironic chunk of mystical science fiction -- a resonant image with many
forebears in the religious imagination, and metaphysical tradition of the

Of couse, we can and should critique it like hell. Besides its basic
goofiness and dull literalism, the Gaian mind naturalizes the current state
of capitalist planetization, especially through its recourse to Kevin
Kelleyish neo-Darwinian arguments and the "mystical positivism" that
Barbrook criticizes. Of course, serious mystics would have trouble with the
confusion that pattern-mad, cyber-materialists make between technology and
the higher experiential stratospheres of consciousness and Being. At the
same time, most proponents of this worldview would virulently deny the
charge of mysticism as well, pointing to a wide variety of scientific and
technological developments and research into nonlinear dynamics and the
properties of complex systems that undergird their arguments.

We all know that science is in many ways a social and ideological
construction, and it certainly seems that the moment you start recognizing
patterns and goals in nature, you begin this slide into mystical
positivism, dodgy theories of history, and ripe excuses for the abject
failure of the social imagination to grapple with the material breakdown of
our new conditions. But to ignore the substance of the paradigmatic shifts
in science by constantly invoking the invisible hand of ideology, as many
nettimers do, misses a deeper point. Which is that the Great Divide between
the productions of nature and the productions of culture, as they are
mediated through human actors, is breaking down. We are part of the welter
of cosmic phenomena, however much we also transcend it as rational
observers who like to make disciplinary divisions between regions of the
real. It is perhaps inevitable that at such a point the cosmological
imagination returns, attempting to revivify and reenchant the patterns and
logic of the material world. It seems that it's just as useful (though not
necessarily any more useful) to seize that cosmological and speculative
ground in the name of progressive, humanitarian, and ecological values as
it is to endlessly and skeptically carp about its suspect qualities.

While the new networks of "subject-objects" uncork all sorts of dangers --
social Darwinism, determinism, virulent social control -- I will remind
you, as an example, that nowhere in Deleuze & Guattari do you find a Great
Divide; instead you discover that bird songs are machinic, morals are
geological, mathematics is a monster slang. Though I certainly have my
problems with D&G, I remain deeply inspired by their distant sympathy with
science, and the almost pagan (or at least Spinozan) exuberance they bring
to the productive capacities of desire and material reality (if you doubt
the pagan charge, reread "How to Build a Body Without Organs" and Deleuze's
appendix on the phantasm in _The Logic of Sense_). Moreover, Manuel
DeLanda's work, which is both deeply Deleuzian and intimately inspired by
sober science, reminds us that these notions do not by any means
intrinsically lend themselves to the bloated and irresponsible elitism of
unrestrained information capitalism. Though I am glad old school leftists
like Barbrook are still about, I am not convinced that we are doing anybody
much good by simply retreating into Enlightenment categories of reason, at
least in so far as these categories divide nature and science from the
context of a subjective, interpersonal lifeworld that must remain always,
in some sense, imaginal.

But rather than bare my chest even more to the arrows of skeptical
critique, and risk being branded a reactionary Californian and chased off
the list, I want to look again at this striking image of the Gaian mind.
What kind of mind is it, at least as it shows itself to us online? It's a
mind full of idiocy, cant, greed, and rage; of agents seducing and selling
junk to each other; of vast apparatuses of capture; moments of clarity,
lust, and phantasm; of endless chattering debates; of secret investments in
the technologies of power; of intimacies blooming across great distance; of
boredom; of the fetishistic embrace for technique. In other words, it's a
lot like our minds, our ordinary human minds, at least as they appear to us
at this stage of the historical game.

Which is to say that even if we are hardwiring a great collective Mind, it
is pretty foolish to believe that this medium is going to get us out of the
problems that our individual minds already encounter and create as they
navigate and constellate social and interpersonal reality: those perennial
emotional traps, anxious ego-projects, power games, and immense conflicting
drives, none of which can be honestly written off as the alienated effects
of an admittedly overwhemlingly degraded social condition. As long as we
don't change, become wiser and more compassionate and more imaginative, the
change certainly isn't going to come through some extension of instrumental
rationality. In fact, it will just amplify the ills that already beset and
delude us.

So I'd like to counter the Gain mind with another image of networked unity,
one that comes to us from the remarkable imaginary of Hua-Yen Buddhism,
perhaps the most philosophically sophisticated Chinese sect, and one that,
like much Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, is permeated with the immanent
flux of the Tao. With its extraordinary emphasis on the immanent and
profoundly productive networks of multiplicity, along with more perrenial
Buddhist notions of emptiness and fundamental unity, the Hua-Yen school in
many ways strikes me as the most Deleuzian of Buddhisms. Sects of Chinese
Buddhism tended to cluster around one particular Buddhist sutra, and the
Hua-Yen scripture, known as the Flower Garden Sutra, is an immense work of
visionary ferocity that easily stands as one of the most psychedelic
religious documents of all time, a kind of Eastern _Finnegan's Wake_.
Unlike all the other sutras, which are said to have been written for beings
already mired in samsara, the Flower Garland Sutra preports to issue
directly from the world as directly perceived by the dropout Gautama in his
moment of enlightenment, when he sat beneath the bodhi tree with a diamond
mind and an utterly broken heart. The text blows the mind.

The central organizing image of Hua-Yen philosophy is the Net of Indra, the
ancient sky-god of the Vedas. Indra's Net is an infinite lattice of
connections, a great web. And at each node in this vast web of
multiplicity, at each juncture point, there is a jewel, and each reflects
all of the other jewels, all the other nodes in the network. In a sense it
is like Leibniz's monadology, an important precursor to cyberspace, except
that here the monads are *nothing but* windows. Indra's Net captures the
infinite extent and endlessly combinatory set of relationships found in
multiplicity, and at the same time suggests a kind of unity through
reflection, and all-in-oneness that does not dissipate the all. Like
ourselves, the jewels are empty of any abiding substance, and yet they are
still constructed in relationship. Their lucid emptiness allows them to
reflect the totality of this network of relations without collapsing that
network into a monarchical monad of the Western religious imagination, an
overly synthetic unity, the great transcendent Hegelian Overmind that now
promises to digitally coalesce into some kind of paternalistic all-being.
It's not that kind of unity at all.

Whenever Mark Dery bumps up against folks who profer the spiritual
conviction that we are all connected, he likes to quote P.J. O'Rourke's
snide line about the hippie notion that there is "a throbbing web of
psychic mucus and we [are] all part of it somehow." Deployed as an
argument, as a working concept of philosophy or politics, the notion that
"we are all one" is generally worthy of mockery and contempt. But unless
the countless mystics scattered through the wisdom traditions of the world
for millennia are fibbing, than the Net of Indra is not just a concept, but
a perception, a state-specific realization about the nature of reality that
inevitably sounds lame when translated into our chattering daily
discourses. Moreover, such a transpersonal realization, at least in the
Mahayana tradition and in today's new school of "engaged Buddhism", compels
a radical commitment to the world. It encourages a commitment to healing
the suffering of others, a broadening of identification, and a stark
recognition the fragile, non-commodified networks that still bind us to
other humans, to the nonhuman world, and to the world -- forgive me --
beyond representation. In this sense, one is reminded of the etymological
roots of "religion," which have to do with binding and connecting -- not as
in some authoritarian machine, but as in the anthropological matrix that
Latour discusses, an endless animated web of hybrids.

And so the next time you log onto the Indranet, you might consider: what am
I connected to? What is my computer connected to? It's connected to phone
lines, to electrical grids, to the Internet, to the World Wide Web. It's
connected to all these different minds in a historically unprecedented
fashion. What else is it connected to? As historical materialists and
Buddhists both recognize, it is connected to its own conditions of
production, political, social, ecological. This is its "karma." How far can
I follow this hyperlink? Do I stop with my online discoveries, or with the
Malaysian factory that helped build my machine, or with the stock market
fluctuations that brought the factory there, or with the working conditions
of the women who soldered the circuit boards, or with the poisoned ground
that my CPU leaves in its wake?

Sober and concerned people often bring these questions up in a banal,
hand-wringing way, but they are very real. That's what's "online". That's
the web. That's the Net of Indra. It is the conditions of causal production
in our world that make us "one", and those conditions are mighty dire these
days, whatever goodies the techno-utopians have up their sleeves. So even
if I accept this goofy, gooey, very Californian idea that we are all
connected and that the Internet has something to do with it, that doesn't
really let me off the hook. If I really reflect on our condition in the
mindful, compassionate, and witheringly self-critical way that the sharpest
spiritual teachers encourage, I come to the conclusion that the only thing
of real validity is to work on the networks that compose the here and now,
the networks that most hopelessly embed and bind bodies and minds and
spirits.  Thank you.


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