Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke
“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as if through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”
— Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I was reading Emily Segal’s essay on e-flux Mercury Retrograde which is part of a new set of essays dealing with information and planetary computing. What struck me about this essay is not its humorous shift between modes of thinking and temporal forms of influence and its reversals, as much as its implicit acceptance of a fatalism that goes unregistered in the very diagnosis it tries to encapsulate in ironic statement.
She begins telling us about the retrograde motion of Mercury as an illusion, saying: “Mercury is still the god of information, governing speed, communication, transportation, and ideas. And in astrology, when Mercury goes into retrograde, the powers of the planet reverse their influence. Information goes haywire. Emails fail to reach their destinations. Dick pics get sent to dads. At least that’s how Mercury Retrograde has been traditionally described.” Has it? In this late age are we still defining ourselves by horoscopy? Is the arrow of time and quantum reversal part of some astrological table of calculus against a backdrop of imperial stars?
fate and fatalism
Agricultural civilization developed a notion of “fate” or the rule of stars over the religious life of crops and men: being influenced or locked into a world ruled by the power of stars, of external forces that impinge on our daily lives moment by moment. Temporal determinism: the Sun, Moon, and Stars guiding our crops: planting, sewing, reaping rhythms; as well as our hunting and gathering regimes. Watching over our every decision, and in fact forcing us into molds and modulating our very existence on Earth is as old as agricultural civilization if not before that. As she explains: “But even though this retrograde motion is an illusion, Mercury is still the god of information, governing speed, communication, transportation, and ideas. And in astrology, when Mercury goes into retrograde, the powers of the planet reverse their influence.” Since the beginning of modernity or Enlightenment we’ve been trying to dodge the bullet on this predicament. The transcendentalists from Kant through Hegel would develop notions of teleological capture or Zeitgeist, while Schopenhauer through Nietzsche would develop antithetical and anti-teleological notions of “Amor Fati” of the love of fate… of eternal returns, wheels within wheels, the procession of gods and men within the cosmic malfeasance of Time.
Ancient cultures would devise architectural wonders based on star maps, alignments, and the revolutions of the sun and moon in elaborate motifs of religious ceremony for birth and death. From Stone Hinge, to Egyptian Pyramids, Ziggurats in Mesopoatamia, to Serpent Mounds in the new world. Each playing out the patterns of the heavens in hopes of controlling the knowledge of destiny, fate, and the future of their lives. Even in our own time we see the remnants of such practices in the daily horoscopes and farmer’s almanacs that play havoc with out pretense to control the flow of time across our lives. Mathematics itself probably came out of such knowledge of calculation and strategizing on the stars and their relations to our lives here on earth. A time will come when some bright neuroscientist will discover a connection between the brain and this cosmic framework, but till then we play out our fantastic games of horoscopy and philosophical gaming in the journals of contemporary culture.
Traditional usage defines fate as a power or agency that predetermines and orders the course of events. Fate defines events as ordered or “inevitable” and unavoidable. It is a concept based on the belief that there is a fixed natural order to the universe, and in some conceptions, the cosmos. Classical and European mythology feature personified “fate spinners,” known as the Moirai in Greek mythology, the Parcae in Roman mythology, and the Norns in Norse mythology. They determine the events of the world through the mystic spinning of threads that represent individual human fates. Fate is often conceived as being divinely inspired.
A FATALIST—IF there is any such—thinks he cannot do anything about the future. He thinks it is not up to him what is going to happen next year, tomorrow, or the very next moment. He thinks that even his own behavior is not in the least within his power, any more than the motions of the heavenly bodies, the events of remote history, or the political developments in China. It would, accordingly, be pointless for him to deliberate about what he is going to do, for a man deliberates only about such things as he believes are within his power to do and to forego, or to affect by his doings and foregoings.
Basically Taylor contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow.
Now David Foster Wallace the author of Infinite Jest would as an undergraduate come upon this essay by Taylor and write a thesis based on its premises. Wallace was through a lengthy and semantic diagnosis of Taylor’s argument come to one conclusion in Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will: whatever fatalism might be for metaphysics, for semantics it was meaningless. “In light of what we’ve seen about the semantics of physical modality,” Wallace wrote in the closing passages, “I hold that Taylor’s semantic argument does not in fact yield his metaphysical conclusion.” 1
Retrograde economy: Zeitgeist or Eternal Recurrance
Returning to Segal’s essay she comes to a point where her inference from horoscopy and stars to our worldly situation she’ll state that “no longer a particular astrological transit, Mercury Retrograde could be seen as the name for the zeitgeist, a curt summary for a global cultural situation in which an information/knowledge–based economy (“Mercury”) was in a state of perma–crisis (“Retrograde”)”. Again she locks us into another more philosophical notion of fatalism using “zeitgeist” this time.
The German word Zeitgeist is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel, but he never actually used the word. In his works such as Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he uses the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time)—for example, “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.” What Hegel implies is that we are cocooned or imprisoned in Time, fated to feed-back loops in which one’s own spirit is hooked to the spirit of one’s time in a circular occurrence that is both fatal and assured.
Hegel believed that art reflected, by its very nature, the culture of the time in which it is created. Culture and art are inextricable because an individual artist is a product of his or her time and therefore brings that culture to any given work of art. Furthermore, he believed that in the modern world it was impossible to produce classical art, which he believed represented a “free and ethical culture”, which depended more on the philosophy of art and theory of art, rather than a reflection of the social construct, or Zeitgeist in which a given artist lives.
Nietzsche would confront such notions and argue for an indeterminacy of meaning and life, that humans were not locked into any temporal fiction, zeitgeist or otherwise. Nietzsche’s skepticism concerning what can be known of telos, indeed his refutation of an absolute telos independent of human fabrication, demands a view of time that differs from those that place willing, purposiveness, and efficient causes in the service of goals, sufficient reason, and causa prima. For Nietzsche we have not objective point outside the temporal movement of time from which we could judge it with any conclusive evidence. His notion of eternal recurrence would harbor an innate sense of the permutations of an algorithmic and mathematical system of probability and statistics in which the randomness of a throw of dice it could be shown that each of these possibilities will necessarily occur, and re-occur, given that the game of dice continues a sufficient length of time.
For Nietzsche our notions of time are culturally and historically determined by the horizon of thought but not bound to this circular mode in the sense of Hegel’s dialectical zeitgeist. Ultimately for Nietzsche Time is infinite with according to the eternal recurrence model, but filled by a finite number of material possibilities, recurring eternally in the never-ending play of the great cosmic game of chance. Nietzsche first lays out Zarathustra’s central teaching, the idea of eternal recurrence.
The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” (GS 341).
If you discovered the Comedy of Time as a great and intricate labyrinth within which you meet yourself coming and going, find the weaving into and out of the matrix of this vast cosmic fun house would you accept it and willingly participate or crawl back into some black hole of doubt and panic? Isn’t the point of difference one between quantity and quality? What Nietzsche implies is that with each spin of the wheel of cosmic destiny each recurrence is quantitatively the same. The quality of that recurrence, however, seems to remain an open question. What if the thought took hold of us? If we indeed understood ourselves to be bound by fate and thus having no freedom from the eternal logic of things, could we yet summon love for that fate, to embrace a kind of freedom for becoming that person we are? This is the strange confluence of possibility and necessity that Nietzsche announces in the beginning of Gay Science’s Book IV, with the concept of Amor fati: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!”2
Influence as astral disease
I remember coming across Harold Bloom’s work years ago and discovering his affinity for both Nietzsche and Freud, Kabbalistic, Gnostic, Hermetic and other strange forms of sacred and literary histories on the notion of influence. “Influence,” Bloom insists, “is Influenza – an astral disease,” and against its threat, strong poets learn to protect themselves by “misreading” their predecessors. Such “creative misprision” operates through six techniques, or “revisionary ratios,” which together form the foundation for Bloom’s manifesto for a new “antithetical criticism.” 3 Bloom’s over-determination of defensive poetics of antagonism and agon that led to theories of the Sublime are well known so will not go over such oddities.
For him literature, sacred or secular, is a defensive system of rhetoric that defends us against fate and the power of Time. Time being the ultimate form of Death. Our notions of science grew out of magickal traditions as anyone who has studied the early formation of the sciences out of Alchemy, Magick, Cabalistic Christianity, and Hermetic thought and philosophy will agree. That the sciences and secular culture were a long protracted war against the imagination and its ties with these earlier defense formations have come under what many term the Enlightenment, Age of Reason, the culture of disenchantment, etc.
Yet, one wonders just how far from these actual worldviews we’ve come? When I read such essays on planetary computing as Emily Segal’s I begin to wonder if we ever left the astral connections to a fatalism of influence behind at all:
Mercury Retrograde might suggest a new species of virality: the birth of the slow meme. Slow memes are viral entities that reproduce themselves through language. But instead of quickly reaching a hot tipping point, they replicate slowly and insidiously over a long period. Writing about Mercury Retrograde is funny because the phenomenon prevents or disrupts communication, rerouting it to more roundabout and inefficient channels. Mercury Retrograde is what we invoke when we are too inarticulate to describe our lack of articulation. – Emily Segal
It’s telling that she would describe her predicament as being “too inarticulate to describe our lack of articulation”. What’s retrograde in her thought is not so much this infusion of astral mythology and modern computing, rather it’s her lack of knowledge of either of these subjects and the intricate scientific and philosophical potential that she seems oblivious too in the “devilish details” that she so glibly fails to register. As she admits in her final sentence: “Mercury Retrograde forces recognition of the true gaps and data loss that can’t be repurposed into creative destruction.” Does such a sentence even make logical sense? What is being repurposed into “creative destruction”? The recognition of the “gaps and data loss”? How does one repurpose what is essentially missing? A gap and a data loss imply the veritable recognition that what is past is lost both in time and in information noise, where no algorithm – no matter how well defined could possibly retrieve the message. And if one were going to repurpose the message into “creative destruction” exactly what would that benefit?
The most telling moment in the essay came when she discovers fate and multiplicity:
I had all these pills pre–tracing paths ahead of me, like when I used to convene the tribunal of my multiple selves by pulling the hinged mirror doors of the bathroom cabinet around my face and watching my reflections multiply out of the seam: nine Emilys, twelve if I pulled harder. The tribunal: I could consult them. Each face a separate peace, another fate.
Sadly Emily Segal is more involved in her ambiguities of linguisticity than in the clear and logical use of language to explicate the computing power of planetary systems based on Time, Fate, and Mercury; retrograde or not. Between the numerical nine and twelve we see the astral cage of fate brokering a peace agenda between her schizomatic selves like a marginal dialogue in an infinite series of Cantorian sets, each drifting away within the paradoxical labyrinth of Time.
Much more interesting would be to see our universe as based on the programs of an AI, caught in the infinite loops of a autosystemic spiral of evolutionary algorithms with potential for freedom and variation not within a Cantorian set theory, but rather in the arrows of Category theory: “Categories are algebraic structures with many complementary natures, e.g., geometric, logical, computational, combinatorial, just as groups are many-faceted algebraic structures.” category theory constitutes a theory of universals, one having properties radically different from set theory, which is also seen as a theory of universals. Moving from ontology to cognitive science, MacNamara & Reyes (1994) have tried to employ categorical logic to provide a different logic of reference. In particular, they have attempted to clarify the relationships between count nouns and mass terms. Other researchers are using category theory to study complex systems, cognitive neural networks, and analogies. (see Reza Negarestani on Fernando Zalamea) Another good overview is Robbie Cormier’s Fernando Zalamea, Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics.
Reza would tell us that Zalamea is one of those who is a part of a contemporary revival or transmodernist renaissance in which science, philosophy, and art enter new synthetic domains. According to Transmodernity: Globalization by Rosa María Rodríguez Magda:
“Transmodernity prolongs, continues and transcends Modernity. It is the return of some of its lines and ideas, perhaps even the most ingenuous but also the most universal. Hegelianism, utopian socialism, Marxism, the philosophies of suspicion, critical schools … showed this ingenuousness. After the crisis in these trends, we look further back to the illustrated project as a general, looser framework in which to choose the present. But this is a remote, ironic return that accepts that it is a useful fiction. Transmodernity is the return, the copy, the survival of a weak, ‘light’ Modernity. The contemporary area that is criss-crossed by all trends, memories, possibilities. It is both transcendental and apparential, and is voluntarily syncretic in its ‘multichrony’. Transmodernity is a fiction: our reality, the copy that supplants the model, eclecticism both mean and angelical. Transmodernity is postmodernity without its innocent rupturism, the museum display of reason, not forgetting history which has died to avoid ending up in barbaric cybernetic or mass media domestication. It is proposing values as stops or as fables, but without forgetting, because we are wise, because our past was wise. Transmodernity takes up and recovers the vanguards, copying and selling them, but meanwhile it remembers that art has had, and has, an effect of denunciation and experimentalism, that is, not everything goes. It breaks down the distance between elitism and mass culture and reveals the connections between them. Transmodernity is image, series, baroque fugue and self-reference, catastrophe, loop, fractal and inane reiteration, the entropy of what is obese, the clumsy inflation of data, the aesthetic of what is full and of what has disappeared, entropic, fatal. The key to it is not what comes after, the rupture, but the trans-substantiation and overlapping of paradigms. The worlds that penetrate each other and end up as soap bubbles or as images on a screen. Transmodernity is not a desire or a goal. It is just there, like a complex, random, imposed strategic situation. It is neither good nor bad, beneficial nor unbearable… and it is all of these things together… It is the abandonment of representation, it is the reign of simulation, of simulation that knows it is real” ( Rodríguez Magda 1989, 141-142). – Rosa María Rodríguez Magda
If glasnost (transparency) marked the fall of perestroika, the decline of the Soviet regime and the end of cold war politics, the same metaphor of transparency today stands for a world that aims to be its own image, and longs for instant presence on television monitors, a translucid and transferable hologram.
We thus return to the uncertainty of looking ahead into the future, a vision of tomorrow tired of the tiresome wave of revivals, plagued by cosmic heroes, threats of extinction and epics of glory, posthuman mutants dressed up as transnational executives, a Final Fantasy for which every day we invent the ingredients, eager as we are to go beyond our limits, but also anxious and delirious, because everything happens too fast, huge fragments of remaining misery leave blood stains on a deceivingly glossy universe, where bites fly through space like bullets and we have yet to resolve the human dimension of justice. Like Vico and Joyce we wander the lost cosmos returning to the barbarism of senses and imaginative need, shorn of our intellectual heritage we shape ourselves to the blending of cosmic horrors transduced through the Great Filter. A rabid exploration of the emptiness between stars and the vastation of the void…
In some ways transmodernity is a hyperstitional contruction set building its fictional paths into the future by way of revitalizing the dark fires in modernity that still float below the surface of our lives like broken thoughts navigating a labyrinth of desire that is awaiting its cosmographer to release its sparks into play. Like navigators on a sea of nothingness we travel among the star paths seeking the paths between the darknesses, seeking the powers that are hiding in the blackest abysses that might open up untold stories of a singular universe of contingency and freedom.
The Sethian Gnostics once argued that we are all prisoners in Time’s Dark ante-chamber, victims of a deadly charade, caught in the fly-trap of a fatal justice that we ourselves implemented. Our universe according to them is ruled by ancient and diseased Archons, twelve rulers of the Dead who martial us in and out through infinite loops and counter-loops of forgetfulness. Their leader is Saklas the Demiurge who is also Judas Iscariot who would deliver Jesus up to the dark god Yaldaboath. Judas meets out the Justice of his Kingdom, the Earth. Locked in a demonic paradise we live amid the splendors of a hellish world of fleshy delights based on Freud’s principle of pleasure/pain or Lacan’s “jouissance”. Ignorant of our computerized life in a simulator we return time and again to our electronic voids circumnavigating the same painful betrayals over and over again. Lost in the Cosmic dust bin of Time we wallow like fragmented shards whose light has begun to fade into oblivion. Yet, there is hope that we might wake up and reveal the only truth we have the “gnosis” of who we are, where we’ve come from, why we were thrown into this slime bucket, and how we can escape. The game of reality is this task to escape the labyrinth of Time.
Nick land in Calendric Dominion would ponder our orientations to calendrical timeverses:
Perhaps, then, an ‘orientalization’ of calendric perception and organization is something that significantly exceeds a simple (or even exceedingly difficult) renegotiation of beginnings. Re-beginning might be considered largely irrelevant to the problem, at least when compared to the re-orientation from an original to a terminal Year Zero. Whilst not exactly a transition in the direction of time, such a change would involve a transition in the direction of time intuition, simultaneously surpassing the wildest ambitions of calendrical re-origination and subtly organizing itself ‘within the pores’ of the established order of time.4
Maybe its “within the pores” of time we should re-orient our navigational systems, seek out the strange and forbidding powers at the heart of this bewildering labyrinth of Time.
- Wallace, David Foster (2011-01-22). Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (p. 41). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Dale Wilkerson. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosphy (University of North Texas, Denton)
- Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence. Oxford University Press; 2 edition (April 10, 1997)
- Land, Nick (2013-12-30). Calendric Dominion (Urban Future Pamphlets – Series 1) (Kindle Locations 430-434). Urbanatomy Electronic. Kindle Edition.