figment on Sun, 22 Jun 1997 02:09:45 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Technocult/Religion (2/3)


A number of people have pointed out that of all the religious, spiritual,
or mythic qualities that seem to be mobilized in technoculture, gnosticism
is one of the more predominant (by saying gnosticism, I am speaking more
about a tendency found within many patterns of religious thought, and not
so much about a specifically "Gnostic" set of groups and texts). I had
prepared a bit of historical material to discuss, but if you boil it all
down, the gnostic impulse can be defined simply as a radical dualism
between mind and body, self and world -- with the radical rejection of the
fleshy side of the equation. In "The Information War," Hakim Bey shows how
the image of disembodied spirit is mapped onto the cultural construction of
information, such that the self becomes virtualised and disengaged from a
whole set of carnal and real world relationships. This gnostic split is a
very strong temptation, both from a spiritual perspective and from the
perspective of digital subjectivity. And it is one to be heartily resisted,
or rather, transmuted into a far less naive integration of self and world.
But to do so thoroughly, we must understand its appeal.

Gnosis is not knowledge in the abstract sense of possessing a bunch of
information within an interpretive framework. Leaving aside a more rigorous
phenomenology of mystical experience, we can say that gnosis is an ecstatic
moment, one in which the conventional division between experience and
knowledge breaks down, an expansive almost "psychokinetic" experience that
unfolds itself as a kind of knowing that rewrites the boundaries of the
self. Though found in mystical literature, I don't believe that such
ecstasies of knowing and perception are reserved for the religious. A
particularly embodied example is the peak of ecstatic communion engineered
at raves: entheogens uncork your loving heart, the music is superb, the
people have hit a peak of absolute collective life -- what is that like?
Nothing is like that. Though more "pagan" spiritual modalities could
describe that moment, gnosis captures its cognitive character.

An even more technological "ecstasy of communication" derives from the
intense kinds of epiphanies that many people often describe when they first
realize the reach and magnitude of the Internet. There is a kind of
sparkling leap when you realize that the relationship of your solitary
communication and the world have radically changed, that the horizons of
communicative possibility have drastically changed, and that this new
medium of mind is both intimate and powerful. As Hakim Bey has noted,
info-gnosis arises when the self becomes recoded as information. And the
enormous temptation of gnosticism, in both religious history and
technoculture, is to hit the escape button: to reify the peak, the utopian
possibility, the promise of disembodied liberation, and to reject
everything else. In some sense, this capitulation has fueled the
Californian Ideology, especially in its more Extropian guises; more
generally, it has led to the incorporeal hubris, ecological insensitivity,
and otherworldly disassociation that fuels the cultural enthusiasm for
information technology.

It's a foolish feeling to build a politics upon, as so many have attempted
to do, but if we ignore this experience, we will never understand the
millennialism of the Net. What is going on with that moment of cognitive
ecstasy, and what is going on with the startling return of spiritual and
religious patterns of thought in the midst of technoculture? When I
encounter people who simply condemn the religious elements and spiritual
modalities they recognize within technoculture as atavistic and
ideologically suspect, I am disappointed. That such premodern material
could return with a vengeance at this late date indicates to me that we
cannot simply turn our backs on this stuff and let it fester in its most
reactionary and misguided forms. It's part of who we are, and we need to
engage and transmute, not simply attack out of some strained mixture of
Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern cynicism.

I am not going to try to defend this position philosophically, and
certainly not according to the canonical axioms of contemporary
"discourse." I am just going to say that spiritual phenomena, cosmology and
the like, as well as its perhaps inevitable reification into religious and
mythic forms, simply keeps coming up. Look at the 19th century, which is so
committed to materialism, a commitment not only realized in the near total
detachment of science from religion effected by the end of the century, but
also in the utterly this-worldly orientation of both Darwinism and
historical materialism. We only need to crack open Kevin Kelly to realize
how mystical Darwinism can become. And yet, as a pattern of social
expectation and historical thought, Marxism too was infused with a
millennialist spirit that you can trace back to Joachime of Fiore and the
pre-socialist utopias of the hermetic imagination. Though its intellectual
force has waned enormously, utopia maintained a vital role in critical
discourse throughout the twentieth century, and in headier moments it seems
to me that the image of utopia ultimately derives from an image of the soul
projected onto the immanent possibilities of the existing world. In
whatever guise, revolution cannot be divorced from an underlying wellspring
of millennial emotions, from the sense that something is just coming to be,
that the self is about to fuse with the world in some unexpected and
magnificent fashion.

So when we encounter that feeling complex, even in the most degraded of
places and in the most cynically manipulated of manners, it seems like we
miss the boat by refusing to look it in the face, to recognize the mutant
subjectivities suggested in technoculture. At the same time, I am not
suggesting that we abandon our critical attention on those institutional
and cultural mechanisms that capture, diffuse and even help engender these
subjectivities -- to "religion" in the repressive sense. We might even say
that spiritual experience, ecstasy, and vision are always captured by
belief systems and institutions, which construct themselves and their
meanings around experiences that both legitimate them and always threaten
to escape and upset their rule. Not to invoke Kevin Kelley, but spirit is
always out of control. If institutional Christianity is the archetype of
religious oppression and control, its history cannot be seen outside its
own deterritorializations: massed peasant rebellions, mystical
antinomianism, millennialist reform, the heresy of the free spirit, even
the pagan this-wordliness that lurks in the edges of the Christian
imaginary. Religion too is the story of nomads and states, the smooth and
striated spaces that commingle within the self. How often has real
immanence been produced in the name of a transcendence that never arrives?


Now I want to leave the problem of dogma, belief, and institutional control
aside, and to mention just two spiritual modalities that impact discussions
of technoculture. Both of these modalities figure in traditional practices
and cosmologies, as well as in the eclectic postmodern stew of spirituality
we too often write off under the catch-all category of "New Age." And yet
I'd like to discuss these modalities in non-religious, secular language,
because their intelligence and fundamental lack of dogmatism ultimately
escape such discourses. Those two modalities are the imaginal, and what for
the sake of simplicity I will just call attention.

Because we associate the imagination with moldy philosophies and now
fashionably denigrated aesthetic theories, our relationship to the imaginal
these days is impoverished and full of suspicion. Shredded apart by
different disciplinary machines and eviscerated of its experiential force,
we are now more likely to blame our imaginations for perceptual errors than
to claim it as an engine of what Hakim Bey would call poetic facts.

Bracketing all sorts of psychological and philosophical issues, and leaving
aside the problem of Romanticism, I would like to simply argue here that
the imagination cannot be reduced to a concept, but should be recognized as
an irreducible component of the human sensorium, as real as its siblings
dream and desire. Obviously the creative imagination is allied with the
subconscious dimensions of the psyche -- another heretical, or should I
say, "problematic" construct. But though I toy with the belief there are
some deep patterns in the psyche that are in some sense transhistorical,
the Jungians are wrong to picture it as some pure and changeless realm
where the great godlike archetypes of the past live eternally. The psyche
too moves and mutates and creates itself through history, even if its
dream-like resonances and imaginal relationships always beckon to some
eternal return just out of reach. The cavern of the imaginary is full of

All this is important because of because of course the whole motive force
of the commodity spectacle derives from its ability to invade and rewrite
the imaginal. What's happening on the Net and throughout our culture of the
simulacrum is the extraordinary technical intervention, manipulation, and
externalization of the imagination. My favorite description of this process
is "the corporate colonization of the subconscious," a phrase that captures
both the invasive quality of media viruses as well as the plastic nature of
the subconscious. But if we take the imagination seriously, perhaps even
dangerously seriously, then these imaginal relationships we form with the
mechanisms of the spectacle have real consequences.

I am quite taken with the British cultural studies rejoinder to Frankfurt
School pessimism regarding the culture industry, and unlike those who are
content to sniff out the evil hand of capitalist ideology in every crass
blockbuster or MTV video, I follow Benjamin in remaining passionately
committed to the imaginal traces that course through the media carnival. At
the same time, the narcotic, hypnotic, and coercive aspects of imaginal
control need to be considered even more seriously then ever in our era of
engineered media viruses.

By taking the creative powers of the imagination seriously, we also open up
its social and democratic potential, as well as its ability to revivify our
fractured lives and fragmented subjectivities. The imagination is not some
aristocratic faculty reserved for poets and artists, which allows them to
make art that the rest of us consume in our poverty. To varying degrees, we
all have the capacity for imaginal action, no less than we do for rational
action. One of the things we love about subcultures is that ordinary people
create, in however degraded a guise, a space of the active imagination
within the spectacle's clamoring mall of glittering images.

One quite technical example of this active imagination, culled from the
increasingly popular culture of alternative healing practices, is guided
visualization, which, though now associated with New Age self-help
practices, can be traced through esoteric and mystical traditions of the
past, like hermetic magic or the Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism. These
traditions indicate that the imagination is an internal generative force,
that we can improve and shape it, and that we can achieve some autonomous
power over its products. At the same time, the unleashed imaginal always
overleaps the mechanisms of control, internally or externally imposed --
that is its "magic."

Living in San Francisco is very interesting because often one sees early
glimmers of technical developments. Most of these things will fizzle out,
but it's still interesting because even the false starts are symptoms of
the evolving logic of dominant technoculture. I am particularly fascinated
by the psychedelic freak culture which has driven the technocultural
machinery of the so-called Californian Ideology in such extraordinary and
bizarre ways. This freak spirit, which has much to do with technically
stimulating the magic of the imaginal, through LSD or electric guitars or
virtual worlds, is now focusing on avatar and VRML-based worlds.  These are
graphic, three-dimensional, networked environments where you construct or
adopt an avatar -- an image that represents yourself and allows you to
navigate and move around the space. It's like a MUD, except with graphics,
and some worlds even have little microphones that sound just terrible. The
ones I've seen are crude and rather stupid, with extremely chintzy
graphics. But though full immersive virtual reality on the Net remains a
pipe dream, it nonetheless seems that we may eventually be treated to
extremely addictive virtual worlds that people will pour a lot of time,
energy, and imaginal force into.

Speaking from personal experience, I'd say that low-bandwidth, text-based
MUDs are already remarkably addictive, partly because they sink their
talons into the imaginal. Something about the combination of implied space
and textual constructs, the interpersonal play of personas, the
amplification of the imaginary potential of writing -- all of this allows
you to lose and remake yourself inside these occasionally dreamlike worlds
of text. (Of course, that may simply reflect my own peculiar temperment,
and obviously many, many other things are going on as well -- which is what
makes MUDs to my mind the most interesting sociio-cultural petri dishes on
the Net.) And these avatar VRML worlds may very well produce similarly
evocative, complex, and addictive realms of phantasm -- except now they
will be delivered to a mass audience currently alienated from textual
production. And of course, these junky strip-mall astral planes will be
brought to you by the same old bastards, littering their products and icons
about, manipulating and capturing the revolutionary potential of imaginal

So the task of revivifying both our conception and practice of the imaginal
becomes non-trivial task, if only to understand the underlying nature of
technocultural transformations. The imaginal will continue to be a dominant
factor in the mystification of the Internet, in the future possibilities of
play and phantasmic resistance, and in the re-engineering of the psyche by
the new mechanisms of spectacular communication. I suspect that a frank,
paradoxically demystified look at mystical traditions, including shamanic
practices, popular occultism, and esoteric religions, may well come in
handy, because it is there that we can investigate imaginal technologies
without having to fully tangle with aesthetics, Romanticism, surrealism,
etc. Moreover -- and in this I could certainly be accused of my own brand
of romanticism -- the synthetic and spontaneous qualities of the imaginal
may very well suggest their own avenues to overcoming Bruno Latour's Great
Divide with crafty grace and vision, enabling us to wisely play with the
emerging patterns in the networks of thoughts, practices, images, and
technologies we now, by necessity, must weave.


Now I'd like to turn to the second spiritual modality I mentioned above,
which is attention. Though the gnostic inflection in cyberculture is for
the most part a dangerously dualistic tendency, it arises at its core from
something very profound. To put it baldly, even willfully naively, I would
say that it is the recognition that individual consciousness, or mind,
cannot ultimately be reduced to anything else. We are used to collapsing
consciousness to another level of reality and explanation. From a political
cultural perspective, we reduce it to a symptom of ideology. From a
poststructuralist perspective -- with its horror of the untheorized subject
-- we reduce it to an effect of the networks of language and difference.
>From a cognitive science perspective, we reduce it to a symphony of neural
chemicals, an epiphenomenon of the Darwinian expansion of the brain pan.
There are many ways of demystifying consciousness, and though I'm not
interested in remystifying it per se, I do think that from a certain very
important perspective one cannot afford to reduce it to anything else.

Whatever I conceptualize about the "true" mechanisms of power, authority,
and causality, I still have to engage my own existence as an awake and
aware being with an active self-consciousness about my own subjective flux
unto death. How much can I afford to ignore that, in myself and in others?
The gnostic temptation, as we are characterizing it here and as you find it
expressed in the history of religion and mysticism, is to identify solely
with the observer level of consciousness, which becomes a kind of
internalized transcendent principle. The body, the physical world, the
world of power -- all that becomes a prison for the free light of the mind.
And while we are hardly experiencing a mystical renaissance these days,
much less a mature one, this gnostic spirit charges the digital air,
because, as Hakim Bey has explained, the Internet and our hyperreal media
simulations hardwire a crude and technological analog of the gnostic split,
whose ultimate example is the Extropian dream of downloading consciousness
into a machine. And Bey is quite right in bringing attention to the
dangerous and disassociated aspects of this impulse.

Of course, for critics like Barbrook and Dery, all this simply reaffirms
the essential pathology of the spiritual imaginary. And yet many esoteric
religions, hermetic practices, and wisdom traditions also have ways of both
critiquing and integrating the gnostic tendency into a more mature and
transformative view of the world, of infusing body and world with the
alchemical potentials of consciousness. We could certainly discuss both
Bey's and Peter Lamborn Wilson's work in this respect, but I am going to
switch gears and talk a bit about Buddhism, which is very much a religion
of gnosis, one whose phenomenology and philosophy rest upon the radical
recognition and technical exploration of the liberatory potentials of
consciousness -- potentials that have as much to do with immanence as
transcendence, bodies as minds.

As a historical religion, some dominant forms of Buddhism have certainly
drifted into hardcore asceticism and otherworldly flight, but many of its
more Tantric and Taoist-inflected forms, as well as its current Western
manifestations possess encouraging this-wordly elements. What moves to the
fore in many of these Buddhist mutations is attention, mindfulness, and a
commitment to the spontaneous clarity and emptiness of the mind as it
reveals itself to us in everyday experience. This quality of attention has
the ability to de-reify the given reality of ordinary experience, which in
some sense is the first step on the ladder of gnosis. And yet, as a
practice, the work of mindfulness and attention also revolve around a
radical embrace of the passing present, and serves as a hedge against both
the constant temptations of delusional fantasy, and the instrumental
machinations of the anxious clutching ego. It is not an escape so much as a
letting go, a renunciation of already habitual forms of escape.
Renunciation does not just mean a quiescent refusal to act; one can also
renounce those very illusions that prevent on honest appraisal of the
reality of our condition, socio-historical as well as subjective.
Gurdjieffians say that "There is no God but reality. To seek Him elsewhere
is the action of the Fall."

One of the ways these considerations can fit into the question of
technoculture, media power, and the Internet concerns the psychodynamics of
attention in the empire of signs. How do you move in a hypertext
environment? How do you filter a suspect media glut? What draws you through
the digital garden of forking paths? How do they sink their talons in? The
answer in part has to do with the tactics of attention. As Bruce Sterling
has pointed out, one of the secret equations that defines the future of the
Net is that money is attention. Attention is the evanescent point of
capture and resistance. The more awareness you have about the way your
attention works on a moment-to-moment level, the more suppleness, the more
space will form around that activity. Your tactics change. It's not that
you are no longer captured, seduced or compelled, or that you escape
somehow to some realm where you can completely control your experience of
the world. But psychodynamic practices which deepen your awareness and
attention, whether from Buddhism, or other contemplative traditions, or
purely secular techniques, give you a sort of edge, a more fluid and
tactical intelligence. And all this has nothing at all to do with religious

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