Specters of the Pedantic

volvo-jean-claude-van-dam

Not good enough

“Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

“Mystical explanations are considered profound; the truth is they aren’t even superficial.” Nietzsche, Google, cherry-picked just now

Life is short, and Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas is long. However, I did have the recent good fortune of hearing a one-hour podcast interview of Jorjani with Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice Radio, and the discussion was substantive enough to respond to.

There are three prongs to Jorjani’s thesis: a prediction about the future, a conjecture about the past, and an inference from ancient lore that kind of ties the first two together. He also makes extensive use of the term spectral to mean three things: the impending supersession of the Cartesian paradigm (and a blurring of the binary distinctions implied in it) by a more “spectral” episteme; the specter, or psychic dread, of the kind of protean trans-humanism this paradigm shift will give way to; and the daemonic forces or “specters” at the root of it all.

According to Jorjani, humanity stands on the precipice of a spectral revolution centered around ongoing scientific discoveries of clairvoyance and telekinesis. He gives an overview of the research in this area since the 19th century (by William James, the CIA, the Pentagon, Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project, and the Stanford Research Institute, among others), and poses the question of why it hasn’t already resulted in a spectral revolution.

Of course, there’s more than one possible reason, chief among them that the implications of this research aren’t all that Jorjani cracks them up to be. But the only possibility he concedes is the old Foucaultian Kool Aid, i.e., “the inextricability of systems of knowledge from structures of power.” We’re supposed to believe these spooky avenues of inquiry pursued for decades at a stretch and largely in secret by some of the most august personages and lavishly funded institutions in the country represent a threat to the powers that be. Well, so did the atom bomb, and we know who got first dibs.

Granted, the revolution Jorjani anticipates would reorder the exercise of political power as we know it, for as he explains, clairvoyance would threaten to obliterate privacy and secrecy, and the ability to foresee events would alter their manifestation. But Jorjani believes the spectral revolution will alter the order of power as well. How these capabilities will slip the grasp of present elites, who are obviously best positioned to cultivate them, he doesn’t make clear, but his estimation of their research is pretty credulous.

That isn’t to say there are no extrasensory phenomena (though the production of ectoplasm Jorjani cites is real a knee-slapper, especially if you’re a South Park fan) nor to deny that they may manifest from clairvoyant or telekinetic faculties that are latent in us, and around us. It just isn’t clear how these forces might be cultivated to the point of reliable application, benefit and malleability, without some equal and opposite pitfall arising. But if they can be, clearly the human type this will most empower is the one that is least restrained by conscience, just as psychological tactics are most effectively employed today by the least scrupulous sorts.

Jorjani is unperturbed by this, seeing his spectral revolution as the Nietzschean becoming of who we are. He describes the world our primeval forbears experienced as one of intrinsically meaningful things in places, rather than deconstructible objects in a grid of space-time, but this is not the sharp distinction he takes it for, nor is it less true today, at least not for the minimally astute and spirited (fewer and fewer of those nowadays, I’ll admit—perhaps the category doesn’t include intellectuals.) Besides, binary distinctions get made viscerally all the time, quite in spite of the wall of abstraction—so how would we experience meaning without them?

Indeed, Jorjani references the apparent extrasensory faculties of animals and primitive man and conflates them with the psychical abilities he foresees being refined in us, describing them as technologies. This is where his term spectral may be particularly apt. Whereas technology is commonly thought to proceed from scientific theory, Jorjani sees the latter as a way of describing and rationalizing the order we already impose on the world with our technological endeavors, and he characterizes man (whose tendency is to impose this order on the natural world, augmenting his organic abilities by developing tools and techniques) as an inherently technological creature. Thus, according to Jorjani, technology itself, as something “more fundamental than science,” isn’t the real culprit in the attenuation of our primeval awareness, but the means by which this attenuation will be overcome and our latent powers of clairvoyance and telekinesis more fully actualized.

He then asserts flatly that there is no theoretical model that can accommodate the data on these phenomena, and that what this tells us is that scientific theory itself is a mere cognitive frame. Can this be so in all cases? Are there no degrees? If not, what would that make the “spectral revolution” itself but theatrical, postmodern luft?

But while this line of reasoning may be high-flown, in a way it doesn’t go far enough. In other words, if scientific theory invariably represents a mere cognitive frame, what species of knowledge, perception, and interaction with nature does not? Because there’s an obvious party (famously arraigned by Nietzsche) to the attenuation of our extrasensory instincts that’s missing from his consideration, namely language—the scarcely perceptible secondary categorization of the things we perceive. The most Jorjani says in this connection is that it’s possible some black swan such as a neurologic mutation took place in the fog of prehistory to attenuate our extrasensory faculties, but this would seem to call for less, not greater certitude about who we really are. It also suggests a sharp technical/pre-technical binary, and in any case it can’t be linguistic because even primitive tribes who still possess extrasensory faculties have language. (Jorjani relates a fascinating anecdote from British explorers about the clairvoyant abilities of South Seas aboriginals that’s too long to recapitulate here; my point is, these aborigines could also talk.)

Yet the characterization of man as a technological creature would serve to qualify language as a technology the way Jorjani uses the word—the refined outgrowth of some innate faculty, which we use to reorder nature and alter perception. Again, this complicates the picture of how we arrive at the kind of advancement Jorjani is predicting, given the fact that in many ways, instinct appears to be sharpest among the least intellectually developed communities of modern people. That’s why the bourgeoisie avoids the hood, right? And the aboriginals.

Jorjani’s thesis itself is spectral as well in another way he neglects to mention. That is its congruence with the symbology of secret societies and the prognostications of tech oligarchs like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and (especially) Ray Kurzweil. Of course, there will be a who and a whom: the political power that eminent technological breakthroughs are liable to impart—whatever they turn out to be—will not be wielded fairly, nor equally by all; not even close. At least Jorjani dispenses with this pretense, for while there’s a great deal of variance to these kinds of projections, Jorjani himself claims to stand at odds with the usual ideological commitments (i.e., liberal-democratic) professed by those who tend to make them (he has actually called himself a national socialist.) So on the surface, his thesis is less depressing than theirs, devoid of paternalistic public policy pablum, appealing instead to inner, organic sources of power as opposed to strictly outward, mechanistic ones. But on reflection, the world that Jorjani anticipates is as stripped of mystery and as dreadful in its utopian hubris as The Singularity, for what they both have in common is amorality.

This brings us to Jorjani’s take on comparative religions, daemons and his “specters of the titanic.” In short, he’s both a Zoroastrian and a Luciferian, claiming that Ahura Mazda, the titan Prometheus and the snake in the Garden of Eden all represent the light of knowledge and our consequent empowerment as a species that the Olympians, the jealous Old Testament God and sticklers for the Cartesian paradigm all wish to deny us. How Zoroastrianism of all things proposes to propel us beyond binaries is beyond my meager familiarity with the subject, but the notion of ever-expanding progress and improvement sounds awfully fatiguing and looks an awful lot like self-help charlatanry, or like tikkun olam, which is to say, carte blanche. At any rate, Jorjani’s is an incredibly superficial reading of the Old Testament.

Ironically, monotheism itself is spectral in that it obliterates sharp distinctions between spiritual forces. Sites, symbols, saints—nothing is truly sacred but the one. This conviction is at the root of Atenism, of Jewish aloofness from the classical world, of Islamic and Protestant aniconism, as well as the message that Christian missionaries imported throughout Europe in the early middle ages. To be sure, these are all legacies of intellectual repression, but also certain important advances, and the authors of the Hebrew Bible (who cherry-picked a lot from the pagan cultures around them) may not have subscribed so strictly to such a leveling ethos. Indeed, if we read a bit of tongue-in-cheek into Genesis—and recall in true pagan fashion that an act of creation is also an act of destructionGod seems to be flawed in quite the same way that man is. This is what the snake represents in the creation story. If man is punished by God for defiance, that’s because it takes one to know one. We’re created in His image, after all, and if the snake is analogous to Prometheus, it would otherwise be curious that in the Greek version we’d have been created in the latter’s image. But God’s Will is compromised in much the same way that ours is; it’s an act of negotiation with us. That’s why Abraham walks before God, and why Prometheus is able to challenge Zeus at all. This is in fact far less restrictive than Jorjani’s take gives it credit for. These stories aren’t vindictive admonishments, they’re take-it-or-leave-it illustrations of the ironclad human condition.

So the message of Genesis is not that exertion of the will or the pursuit of knowledge are wicked, but that they’re tempered by nature, because the ineluctable pull that novelty exerts on the human psyche lends itself to hubris and destruction. If Eden is not suited to our inclinations, neither is Babel hospitable to our constitution. One can even argue that the Bible is in favor of the cultivation of human intellectual capabilities, to which its God gives His blessing. Again, if we avoid reading Genesis too literally, we can see that Jacob, as Prometheus was to the Greeks, is the archetype of foresight, which Genesis portrays as key to human striving (as Jacob strives with an Angel and extracts a blessing) and a fundamental element that distinguishes reflective man from reflexive brute as represented by the archetype of Esau (and from sheer control-freak avarice as represented by Laban in the same several chapters of Genesis.)

Jorjani, on the other hand, holds up Drs. Faustus and Frankenstein as representative of the Promethean struggle for enlightenment. Once this struggle is won, then what? Wasn’t it Goethe himself who said that happiness consists in facing and overcoming difficulties? In any case, this would be an odd kind of enlightenment to extol, because Faust loses his mind and then begs for God’s forgiveness, and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is repulsively deformed. It will be interesting to find out whether Jorjani addresses these inconsistencies in his book, but in the podcast they seem to elude his awareness.

Those who cast doubt on the possibility of knowledge due to its alleged inextricability from power dynamics seem to always view those dynamics as fixed, the antagonists perennial. For the postmodern left, this means the forces of goyische Ward Cleaver and Cecil Rhodes arrayed against hapless Emmett Till and Lenny Bruce (or something.) Jorjani inverts this dominant paradigm—pointing to the fact that Prometheus was chained by Zeus to a Caucasus mountain—to make his case that Prometheus is the god of the Caucasians, i.e., the Nordic races most in need (due to environmental exigencies) of fire, who’ve made the greatest intellectual and technological leaps lo these past several millennia. Of course, Greece, Italy and Persia aren’t the snowiest lands, and while the suggestion that the disproportionately Semitic forces of ressentiment and priestliness represent the perennial adversary of enlightenment is certainly truer to Nietzsche than the postmodern left, it’s equally oversimplified, and woefully….. binary. So it doesn’t seem to me that Jorjani is denying the possibility of knowledge; rather, he’s claiming that knowledge as we know it is abstract, and that the genuine article is being denied to us. This is a terribly low estimation of man and his present abilities.

Ironically (for someone so power hungry), Jorjani himself looks as though he’s never been punched, but sounds like he needs to be, his lithe, Dennis the Menace countenance emitting a nasally voice with a smarmy, pedantic inflection. I don’t say this to be mean spirited, but in the spirit of Tyler Durden. That a wheezy, narrow-chested academic with a balled-up sphincter would be an incubator of the Nietzschean actually makes perfect sense. Brilliant though he was, when reading Nietzsche it gives crucial context to recall that the man was a sexually maladjusted autist. Someone strong and self-assured could never call man “a laughingstock and a painful embarrassment,” but neither do school shooter types revel in themselves, they only anticipate doing so. So I’m not interested in becoming who I am, I’m interested in being who I am. If as a species we’re well on our way to anything like Jorjani’s spectral revolution, it’s because the vindictive fantasies of software developer nebbishes and pencil-necked money shufflers are precisely the architecture of our post-meta-narrative, post-binary, peeping Tom corporatocracy. At least the Nazis put real skin in the game.

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