by PETER ZHANG
When the velocity of progress increases beyond a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from crisis.
(Barfield 1993: 152)
When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust.
(McLuhan 1994: 70–71)
By what means, in the current climate of passivity, could we unleash a mass awakening, a new renaissance?
(Guattari 1996: 264)
Arguably, print media were the constitutive ground of humanism, whereas digital media are the constitutive ground of posthumanism. If humanism implies a picture of the world with humans at the centre, it is reasonable to associate posthumanism with a picture of the world in which posthumans are no more than nodes actualizing themselves as transient permutations in chance encounters with myriad other nodes inhabiting the same relational field. Print media created a culture of standardization, which is a recipe for competition. Digital media are a great retriever and destabilizer, and, as such, make for diversity.1 Print media correlate with a Darwinistic sense of ecology, which emphasizes competition, natural selection and survival of the fittest.2 Digital media reinforce a Bergsonian sense of ecology, which emphasizes creative evolution, differentiation and the notion of ‘different for’ as well as ‘different from’.3 A Bergsonian environmental ecology is typified by the profusion of symbioses and contrapuntal relations, just as a Bergsonian mental ecology is characterized by the proliferation of productive interfaces and negentropic encounters. Such a mental ecology affords what Flusser (2011) calls ‘a continuous cerebral orgasm’ (128). Print media intensify a sedentary mentality that prizes possessions, the actual and certainty. Digital media revive a nomadic sensibility that cherishes experience, the virtual and adventurousness.
Humanism is to Newtonian physics as posthumanism is to quantum physics. Humanism is a species of ontologism, whereas posthumanism belongs with an interological orientation. The latter is more attuned to ecological thinking of Bergson style, which foregrounds relationality, reciprocity, co-functioning and co-evolution. In terms of propensity, the culture grounded in digital media points in the direction of interology and ecological thinking. The fact that digital media have been exploited to intensify possessive capitalism is attributable to a cultural lag – ‘[w]e look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future’, as Marshall McLuhan puts it (McLuhan and Carson 2003: 386–87). We are yet to precipitate the advent of a full-fledged posthumanism, which is still no more than an imminent event on the horizon and the meaning of which is better left unsettled rather than prematurely reified. It is wrongheaded, though, to assume that digital media will simply awaken us to the relational nature of our existence without also controlling and alienating us.4 There is such a thing called digital betrayal, which is starkly understudied
Ecological awareness was triggered by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and intensified by digital media, which enhance network logic and relational orientation, and obsolesce linear logic and entity orientation. Sputnik marked the figure/ground reversal of the technosphere and the biosphere. That is to say, the biosphere has since become a figure against the ground of the technosphere. The latter has become our second nature, pun intended. As the total ground, Spinozan Nature encompasses both spheres.5 The world has since entered into a post-evolutionary era. The implication is that evolution and morphogenesis in Spinozan Nature will be driven by involutions and interfusions between the biological and the technological. For one thing, genetic engineering erases the boundary between the biosphere and the technosphere. It ‘may be defined as the attempt to store acquired information within the biomass, to transform the biomass into a cultural memory’, as Flusser (1988) points out. The human–computer assemblage has functioned as a great accelerator in this process.
From today’s horizon, an adequate discussion about ecology necessarily involves technology, which includes everything from money, the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, information technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, bionics, robotics, bioengineering, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, to defence technology and much more. The working assumption of media ecology as a style of exploration into the human condition is that a technology is a medium, and a medium is an environment. It was insightful of Guattari (1989) to see the environmental, social and mental ecologies as being in dynamic relation with one another. The picture, however, is incomplete if we do not explicitly recognize and take into consideration a fourth ecology, namely, the ecology of technologies or media, which bears significantly upon the three ecologies examined by Guattari. This is not to suggest that Guattari does not pay sufficient attention to the role played by technology in our sociality and mental ecology.6
Over the course of human history, there have been a series of break boundaries. The invention of the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, telegraphy and the computer are among the eminent ones. Each historically new technology or medium radically transforms humans’ relation to the natural environment, human sociality and the ecology of mind. In a predominantly oral society, for example, somebody who writes is presumably a posthuman. To offload one’s memory onto a surface of inscription entails not only a different way of using one’s brain but also a different mental posture towards everything else, including nature and other people. The technology of writing is more or less a Trojan Horse. Objectification, detachment, subject–object dichotomy, action without reaction, linear-mindedness and the divorce of vision from other senses are the psychic goods hidden therein.7 Historically, this psychic inclination was intensified by the phonetic alphabet and consummated by the printing press.
The computer makes another good example. Without the computer, the invention of the atomic bomb and the decoding of the human genome map would be unthinkable. To use Paul Virilio’s vocabulary, the information bomb catalyzed the advent of both the atomic bomb and the genetic bomb (Virilio and Lotringer 2002: 143). The natural environment has now been turned into the content of an information environment which resides largely between computers. The socius has more or less been reduced to a mediated metaphor of itself. Thanks to computer networks, mental ecology has become a tangible sensation. Guattari (1996) points out that as a result of new computer technology, ‘intelligence and sensibility have undergone a total mutation […] We are currently witnessing a mutation of subjectivity that perhaps surpasses the invention of writing, or the printing press, in importance’ (268).
Media ecology, however, has its own deficiencies. For one thing, it concerns itself mainly with the psychic and social consequences of technologies or media, but does not pay as much attention to their environmental impact, even though it has been inspired by the root metaphor of ecology. Furthermore, it takes the human body–mind, with its myriad capacities, potentialities, extendabilities and affectabilities as the etymology of technology. As such, it betrays an anthropocentric, anthropotropic and humanist bias. It is time for us to make a strategic shift of perspective and envision the world in terms of the ecology of machinic assemblages, which encompasses all four dimensions, namely, the environmental, the technological, the social and the mental. For the Spinozist, the four dimensions are really one. Culture is simply nature becoming self-conscious and self-reflexive. This is an at once monistic and pluralistic view of the world, a view that is thoroughly Spinozan and Deleuzean.
A recurrent example in Deleuze’s work is the contrapuntal, or symbiotic relationship between the wasp and the orchid, which forms a miniscule rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 10). Counterpoint is a root metaphor in Jakob von Uexküll’s work, which has deeply informed that of Deleuze. The wasp is part of the orchid’s reproductive system, whereas the orchid is part of the wasp’s digestive system. To use Samuel Butler’s logic, the wasp is the orchid’s way of making more orchids. This logic applies to the relationship between humans and machines. Humans are machines’ way of making more machines. Put otherwise, humans are the sex organs of machines, ‘permitting [them] to reproduce and constantly evolve to higher forms’ (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 264). The prospect of love and sex with robots simply adds another wrinkle to the picture, calling to mind Shakespeare’s title, Love’s Labour’s Lost. If the celibate machine interrupts reproduction, the noncelibate machine interrupts it even more. McLuhan takes the reasoning a step further when he points out, ‘Projecting current trends, the love machine would appear a natural development in the near future – not just the current computerized datefinder, but a machine whereby ultimate orgasm is achieved by direct mechanical stimulation of the pleasure circuits of the brain’ (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 253).
Over the course of history, humans have had symbiotic relationships, and co-evolved, with everything from birds, dogs, horses, bacteria and crops to medicine, cars, computers, smartphones, primitive, modern and digital megamachines as well as intrusive micromachines.8 Staring at the smartphone while walking, for example, may end up enhancing our peripheral vision. Flusser (1999) suggests that there is a difference in kind between the hand-man, the tool-man, the machine-man and the robot-man (44–45). To use Deleuze’s language, the difference resides in the nature of the machinic assemblages that take up humans as their constituent elements. Humans have participated in the ecosystem as elements of machinic assemblages all along. The hyphen in the phrase, ‘the human-technology assemblage’, is intrinsically interesting. It denotes an interface, a middle, implies co-functioning and interbeing and points in the direction of involution and becoming. As the hallmark of interology, it is synonymous with Deleuze’s notion of ‘AND’. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) point out that the middle is where things pick up speed (25). The human-technology assemblage is a recipe for acceleration, thanks to which humanity is now pausing on the threshold of another break boundary.
The human-technology assemblage has diversified and evolved so much that there is barely any natural enemy to hold it in check anymore. Darwinian natural selection has relaxed and yielded to artificial selection (Virilio and Lotringer 2002: 103–05). Evolution has been rendered obsolete by postevolution.9 Bergsonian differentiation has been largely overtaken and superseded by teratological experimentation (Virilio and Lotringer 2002: 114–16). Put otherwise, creative evolution has given way to the making of monsters through runaway prosthetics and ethically glaucomatous genetic engineering. Peter Sloterdijk responded to the genetic reform of the species’ properties by announcing the end of the era of humanism and the beginning of the ‘human park’ (Virilio and Lotringer 2002: 144). Virilio’s deep anxiety about the creation of superhumans and subhumans, the pluralization of the human species and the rise of super-racism is highly warrantable (Virilio and Lotringer 2002: 107– 09). The anxiety has been haunting humans for a long time and manifests itself in a whole series of sci-fi narratives, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ray Kurzweil’s futuristic writings on singularity have been born of the same anxiety/prospect, regardless of his stance.10
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) indicate that, when involution transpires between two terms, both terms will end up being transfigured (306).11 Involution is a matter of double becoming, so to speak. The man-horse assemblage makes a good example; the hyphen in between may well stand for the stirrup. Double becoming occurs in this assemblage, so does the release of a speed vector. The reasoning applies to humanity AND technology. In Bergsonism, Deleuze (1991) points out, ‘Evolution takes place from the virtual to actuals. Evolution is actualization, actualization is creation’ (98). This is essentially a nutshell statement about élan vital (the virtual) and creative evolution (actualization). The idea is somewhat analogous to the notion of totipotence. Perhaps Zennists would say the essence of the virtual is sunyata. As a life form, humanity is full of versatility and potentiality. That is to say, the life impulse that manifests itself as humanity is open-ended and spontaneously self-recreating. Its encounter with technology, which is an artificial environmental cause, will bear upon the form it assumes. Élan vital is precisely what Zennists call ‘self nature’ and what Taoists call qi, which has the natural capacity to intuit and self-intuit, and which is to be intuitively grasped. The encounter with technology not only gives humanity an opportunity to intuit its self nature but also sets up the conditions for involution to transpire between its self nature and second nature.
A question arises, though: ‘Is the human form a contingent manifestation of élan vital or is it simply a prison house for the latter?’ Deleuze’s vitalistic corpus seems to be ambivalent about this, and rightly so. As such, it lends itself to divergent appropriations. For one thing, the sophistical-minded Deleuze shows an interest in reversing the Platonic hierarchy between model (e.g. God), copy (e.g. humans) and simulacrum (e.g. posthumans), which automatically puts him in the camp of posthumanists.12 An adequate way of thinking about the question hinges on the fundamental difference between Darwinian evolution (the gist of which is the sifting out of difference) and Bergsonian evolution (the essence of which is the proliferation of difference).13 The human body–mind is a singular outcome of this proliferation and in turn furthers and accelerates the proliferation. In this sense, humanity’s pursuit of singularity is more or less a folly, since it is always already singular. All it needs to do is realize its singular nature. To pursue singularity when one is already singular is to look for one’s donkey while riding it, as the Chinese idiom has it. Humanity needs to awaken to the fact that it is in lack of nothing and therefore there is no point seeking anything outside itself. Instead of adding anything to its nature, humanity should eliminate all the blinders that prevent it from seeing its nature, and all the hindrances that keep it out of touch with its nature. Resingularization as a legitimate and necessary ethical project means nothing else.
The discourse of technological singularity is misled and misleading precisely for the above reason. It embodies an interest in augmenting life all the way to a turning point, where the ‘unnatural nuptial’ between technology and the élan vital supposedly trapped within the human form begets an eternally blissful species of life dubbed as posthumanity.14 The assumption is that life made from eggs and sperm is pathetic and inadequate. Absent critical engagement and meaningful re-envisioning, the discourse of technological singularity can easily become hegemonic and block our ethical vision. We are better off without being single-mindedly wedded to such a discourse. Paradoxically, singularity is supposed to be radically plural.15 To grasp singularity adequately means to become awakened to the infinite virtualities beyond the reified version of singularity valorized by the high priests of the technoscientific formation.
McLuhan points out, ‘Any new technology is an evolutionary and biological mutation opening doors of perception and new spheres of action to mankind’ (McLuhan and Carson 2003: 67). One thing this quote indicates is that McLuhan holds a nondualistic view of biology and technology. Likewise, ‘Leroi-Gourhan has gone the farthest toward a technological vitalism taking biological evolution in general as the model for technical evolution’, as Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 407) point out. Post-evolution, however, is not simply the technologization of evolution. Rather, it is better conceived as the evolution of machinic assemblages that take up elements in the biosphere and technosphere as their components. The protagonists in the story are no longer individual species but bio-techno-socio-semiotic assemblages forming their own phyla but communicating transversally with other assemblages. The motive force of this process is no longer simply élan vital (i.e. life impulse, life force, life energy, qi/chi/ki), which intuitively and spontaneously differentiates itself to occupy available niches in nature so life forms end up being different both from and for each other (this idea about élan vital is in perfect accord with Zhuangzi’s notion of natural diversity). Rather, the process is increasingly driven by the combined follysophy of humans and their cerebral extensions, including super powerful computers, big data, mathematical models, algorithms, bots, artificial intelligence, and the like. The tragedy is that Spinozan Nature has reached the point where robot bees have to be built to pollinate crops. Bergson (1911) sees intuition as superior to the intellect, which ‘is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life’ (165, original emphasis). This understanding is in perfect accord with the Zen sensibility. Our ecological crisis is more or less attributable to the dominance of the intellect, which is a passive term as compared with the more active ones like reason and intuition (Burke 1945: 148). Humanity has long passed its age of innocence, when the idea of ecology never stirred in its consciousness. We have gained abundance at the expense of plenitude. The top imperative of our age is neither production nor consumption, neither calculation nor computation, but the reenchantment of the world. We have much to learn from Vico’s poetic wisdom, and the so-called ‘primitive thinking’, among other things.
Accelerationism has been a buzzword in the air for a while. If the intention is to stick it to capitalism, then accelerationism is more or less a species of sociopolitical jujitsu. Or, it can be heard as an apocalyptic discourse, with ‘apocalypse’ to be understood as a revelation, as Virilio (2009a) suggests (43). It bears mentioning that Deleuze rarely puts one-sided emphasis on acceleration alone. Instead, it is almost always coupled with deceleration: ‘speeds and slownesses’, which together give rhythm to life, and mark the (optimal and pessimal) thresholds of perception.16 For Virilio (2009a), speed betokens the aging of the world (41). As a conservative thinker, he is interested in conserving the youthfulness of the world. Surprisingly or not, the sentiment is shared by Flusser, the predominantly sanguine futurologist and visionary of the telematic society. Consider this quote:
Today, to engage oneself with freedom, and more radically, to engage oneself in the survival of the human species on the face [of] the Earth, implies strategies in order to delay progress. This reaction is today the only dignified one. We can no longer be revolutionaries, which means, to be opposed to the operative program through other programs. We can only be saboteurs, which means, to throw sand on the apparatus’ wheels. With effect: every current emancipatory action is, when intelligent, a subversive action.
(Flusser 2013: 127, original emphasis)
The point is that, with our total situation in mind, both Virilio and Flusser lean toward deceleration. To use Virilio’s words, ‘the purpose of ethics is to slow down the rate at which things happen’ (2006: 27).
As a species, we are faced with an Aristotelian problematic like never before: what is the phronētic thing to do? How shall we become? The phrase ‘life on the threshold’ precisely captures a Kritical moment, which is necessarily a pluralistic moment with inexhaustible virtualities.17 If we read singularity simply as a turning point, as Deleuze (1990) teaches us to, then this moment which Spinozan Nature now confronts is a singular moment in and of itself (52). A turn may well be a return (a chiasmus), or a right-angle divergence. Awakening to the Kritical nature of the moment humanity is facing entails an attitude of prudence, which means selective affirmation in light of the total ground. Insofar as we choose to live by a vitalistic philosophy, the affirmation of élan vital will be the only affirmation worth affirming (Nietzsche’s double affirmation). There is only one true religion which is the religion of life.
Élan vital craves only its own intensities. It naturally desires singularity, if we understand singularity as the turning point or threshold of intensity which marks a qualitative difference. In a sense, in envisioning ‘a continuous cerebral orgasm’, Flusser (2011) is already talking about singularity (128).18 For what is an orgasm if not the crossing of a threshold of intensity. In this sense, singularity connotes plenitude, bliss, intensity taken to a bursting point, the suspension of time and the sensation of freedom. In the same vein, the flow experience theorized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008) is an instance of singularity. The chapter in A Thousand Plateaus on ‘becoming intense’ (both words are essential) embodies a will to singularity. So does the entire book, as the title implies. For Zennists, singularity means satori. In the eyes of neurophysiologists, singularity means a specific mental catastrophe, which is to say, an improbable event that transforms the brain for good. Nietzsche reached singularity in his raptures (Marsden 2002). Michelangelo savoured singularity in his ecstasy. The Buddha achieved singularity the moment he was enlightened. Confucius achieved singularity when he attained the Tao at the age of 70.19 A jazz band may reach singularity in a good jam session. Postwar history reached singularity in 1968, which unleashed far more becomings than 1989. The movie, Across the Universe, is commendable precisely because it is about singularization, as opposed to conformity.
Virilio teaches us to imagine life in terms of intensity rather than longevity. As he puts it, ‘What does it mean to live a day intensely? I would say it’s to put your finger on relativity. A day can last a thousand years, and a thousand years can last a day’ (Virilio and Lotringer 2008: 150).20 To use the words of the epileptic Dostoevski, ‘for that moment you’d give your whole life’ (Virilio 2009b: 43).21 No creature intuits this ethos better than the tick, which, once awakened by a mammal, displays an astounding intensity of life. It spends almost its entire life craving that singular spurt of intensity. The immediacy of death after that does not make its life any less complete. In the immense cosmos, it knows no other time except for its own duration, and it cannot care less about the time it spends on waiting, which can last a good number of years. Per this understanding, life extension, especially the kind pursued by technological singularitarians, is pointless. As Flusser (2013) puts it, ‘openness to death is the real dwelling of man’ (74).
It is true that Virilio associates intensity with speed, as the following quote indicates: ‘Being alive means to be lively, quick. Being lively means beingspeed, being-quickness’ (Virilio and Lotringer 2008: 150). Yet he cautions against the ‘fatal coupling’ between ‘metabolic speed, the speed of the living, and technological speed, the speed of death which already exists in cars, telephones, the media, missiles’ (Virilio and Lotringer 2008: 150).22 The more we shift toward technological speed for thrills, kicks, highs and intensities, the less life’s native liveliness is called upon. This understanding is in line with McLuhan’s point that technology has a narcotic or numbing effect (McLuhan 1994: 41–47).23 When film images are shown at 60 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24 frames per second), viewers are no longer able to process them. They will be influenced at a subliminal level. Speed conditions us, so to speak. When the speed of communication approaches that of light, humans are turned into paralytic, phototropic, hallucinated idiots. Mediated immediacy and instantaneity induce reflex but preempt reflection, thus setting up the conditions for a communism of affects while liquidating the democracy of reflection. The affective turn in the humanities is but a symptom of and delayed response to the acceleration and proliferation of communication, especially communication by means of technical images.
Psychedelics add a peculiar wrinkle to the picture since ‘[a]ll drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speed’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 282). Watts (2007) implies that psychedelics tend to speed up one’s consciousness, relative to which time seems to slow down: ‘[o]ne’s normally compulsive concern for the future decreases, and one becomes aware of the enormous importance and interest of what is happening at the moment’ (83). In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley reports how mescaline makes him singularly perceptive and intensely aware of inward and outward reality. Yet he reminds us, ‘What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin [sic], the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time’ (Huxley 1990: 33). In the same vein, Chogyam Trungpa, the late Tibetan Buddhist guru, ‘did not change in the slightest’ during his LSD trips (Hayward 2008: 68).24 He did not need mind alteration to see reality. After all, it is not about psychedelics, or even the state of consciousness induced by them.25 Deleuze (1990) observes, ‘To the extent that the pure event is each time imprisoned forever in its actualization, counter-actualization liberates it, always for other times’ (161). Singularity is to be liberated from its psychedelics-induced actualizations.
If psychedelics afford microperceptions, the effect can be achieved by other means as well. Zen meditation, for example, has the potential to lower one’s threshold of perception significantly. Certain Zen practitioners are said to be able to hear their own blood flow, heartbeat, and ‘bowel movement’ (in a literal, non-euphemistic sense) while covering their ears. William Burroughs has it right: ‘Imagine that everything that can be attained by chemical means is accessible by other paths’ (cited by Deleuze 1990: 161). That is precisely the attitude of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), and the attitude promoted in this article: ‘To succeed in getting drunk, but on pure water (Henry Miller). To succeed in getting high, but by abstention [sic]’ (286). ‘Changing the means’ is essential (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 286). Deleuze and Guattari (1987) point out further: ‘Drugs are too unwieldy to grasp the imperceptible and becomings-imperceptible; drug users believed that drugs would grant them the plane, when in fact the plane must distill its own drugs, remaining master of speeds and proximities’ (286). To paraphrase the point, the plane of immanence must develop its internal alchemy.
Guattari (1996) associates singularity with alterity and nonconformity to standard models (131).26 His thinking is in line with Bergson’s notion of élan vital as movement of differentiation and Deleuze’s point about difference and repetition – only the adequately different repeats itself, only the vitalistically virtuous returns. In this sense, singularity is intrinsically at one with the political philosophy and ethics of vitalism, which resides in the affirmation of the active force of life and the elimination of hindrances. It is never simply a technological matter. As a matter of fact, technology more often than not is deployed to block the paths of singularization, to condition people, to keep them from exceeding the norm. It takes an infant, a minorized psyche, or an awakened mind–body with a rigorous understanding of the innocence of becoming to achieve singularity.27 Singularity is more spiritual and ethicopolitical than technological. In an age when marijuana is legalized in one place after another, the qualitative difference between singularities and petty stoners confronts us ever more urgently and publicly. There is a world of difference between marijuana and Mahayana. Singularity through smoking some substance is literally a pipedream.
For Deleuze (1997), singularity connotes becoming, its grammatical marker is the indefinite article and ‘indefinite’ implies ‘non-actualized’. In minor literature, language itself undergoes transmutation or minorization and becomes syntactically singular and inimitable. In Pure Immanence, Deleuze (2001) associates singularity with the event and the virtual, as distinguished from the actual (29–31). The actual belongs with the Buddhist notion of ‘it is’, whereas the virtual belongs with the notion of ‘it is not’. In this negation resides the highest affirmation, which is the affirmation of the virtual and openness. The capacity to intuit the virtual in the merely actualized is a mark of awakening. The whole notion of immanence means nothing else. Deleuze (2001) calls this mode of consciousness ‘transcendental empiricism’, which has a striking resemblance with the Zen sensibility (25). If we take virtual to be more or less synonymous with spiritual, singularity is then at one with the spiritual. The word ‘spiritual’ literally has qi (at once spiritus/breath and élan vital/life energy) in it. This train of thought is circular, and necessarily so. And the expression, ‘spiritual singularity’, is usefully redundant or tautological – useful as an antidote to the discourse of technological singularity. Spiritual singularity is to technological singularity as taiji is to boxing. The former in each pair maximizes the virtual, which is the very essence of élan vital, whereas the latter in each pair exploits and exhausts it.28
Spiritual singularity takes preparation to reach and time to ripen. The rate at which technology evolves, however, tends to surpass the rate at which our spirit matures. The lag is being amplified as we speak. If humanity’s future rests on a mass singularization or spiritual awakening, the total ground we are facing today seems to necessitate the precipitation of such awakening. People need mediators, if not daemons, to singularize. Digital media by nature are unfit for serving this function. One needs to unravel their false promises. With their maximalist bias, digital media have made a vast amount of spiritual knowledge available to the greatest number of people ever. Apparently more and more people have access to the resources for spiritualization and singularization. But one needs to realize that digital media also amount toa new hindrance. There is a crucial distinction between spiritual knowledge and spiritual life. The latter is a matter of ritual, and enactive cognition, rather than mere information. Digital media motivate a new stripe of conformism precisely at the level of ritual rather than content, which has become fabulously diverse. The irony is that preparing and posting images of their spiritual lives have become an incorrigible ritual among many spiritual practitioners. The consequent busyness is nothing unfamiliar. Spiritual praxis as a deeply contenting ritual culminating in nothing but itself has been coopted as the content of the ritual of image making and sharing. Life as aesthetics yields to life for aesthetics, thus losing its sacred aura. The former is nondualistic, whereas the latter dualistic. Digital megamachines like Facebook, for example, deterritorialize spiritual practitioners from their ritual spacetime and reterritorialize them onto cyberspacetime, which is vampiric and sacrilegious in nature. Facebook is a vanity fair that feeds off people’s mimetic desire. A karmascape is pure and simple. It is a spatiotemporal black hole that drains people’s life energy and hinders them from potential spiritual awakening.
1. However, as the lingua franca of the digital age, the digital code also reduces everything into ones and zeroes.
2. It bears pointing out that there is a subtle distinction between Darwin’s own thought and Darwinism. In a sense, Darwin’s thought is to Darwinism as Plato’s thought is to Platonism. The latter in each pair tends to be more reified or caricaturized than the former. For one thing, Darwin himself puts as much emphasis on symbiosis as on competition and natural selection.
3. Hershock (2012) offers a nutshell version of this Bergsonian vision Although it is possible to see species within an ecosystem as in competition with one another over scarce environmental resources, it is more accurately reflective of evolutionary dynamics to see species as distinctively freeing up environmental resources and placing them into effective circulation. Evolutionary niches are not constrained spaces in which species take refuge, but rather resource frontiers opened through creatively expanding the scope of relationalities activated and maintained within a given environment. (50) He points out further, ‘Change-from does not simply imply change-to, but also change-for’ (75). The irony is that although digital media cast a favourable light upon and afford the valorization of this Bergsonian vision, the digital age is also a time when the intuition or creative intelligence native to élan vital is overshadowed by computational or algorithmic intelligence, which derives from the intellect. Notably, intuition is a species of intelligence that precedes the evolutionary emergence of the brain and therefore does not rely on the brain. It is superior to the intellect. Our age is dominated by computational intelligence. We idolize what is inferior, so to speak. Therein lies our folly, if not perversity.
4. A tentative tetrad on digital media is in order here. Digital media (1) Enhance speed of calculation and computation; retrieval, remediation; simulation; structural, systems-analytic, cybernetic thinking; and the experience of time as the eternal present. (2) Obsolesce historical consciousness; the experience of time as a straight line; processoriented, ‘progressive’ ideologies; (3) Retrieve magical, mythical consciousness, and nomadism; (4) Pushed to an extreme, reverse into hallucination, somnambulism; global surveillance, creepiness; and the becoming-functionary of humans. This understanding is Flusserian for the most part. If McLuhan’s root metaphor for the electric milieu is Poe’s maelstrom, then Flusser’s root metaphor for the digital milieu is the hurricane, the whirlwind (Flusser 2003: 44–45).
5. This understanding is shared by Deleuze (1995), who points out, ‘Guattari and I want to get back to our joint work and produce a sort of philosophy of Nature, now that any distinction between nature and artifice is becoming blurred’ (155).
6. For instance, Guattari (1996) points out, ‘The physical and mental activity of man finds itself in increasing adjacence to technical, computer and communication devices’ (269). This quote points to the zone of proximity between humanity and technology and their co-functioning.
7. McLuhan and Logan (1977) attribute such psychic impacts to the phonetic alphabet only, calling them the alphabet effect (373–83). This view has been criticized as being ethnocentric.
8. Such symbioses are not unproblematic. Mumford (1967) draws our attention to megamachines taking up capable but resistant human bodies as their constituent elements (188–94), whereas Virilio (Virilio and Lotringer 2002) calls attention to micromachines intruding into and augmenting the human body (100–01). In the former case, there is machinic enslavement, whereas in the latter, endo-colonization. McLuhan is more concerned with humans becoming the servomechanisms of their technological extensions. As he puts it, Whenever we watch a TV screen or read a book, we are absorbing these extensions of ourselves into our individual system and experiencing an automatic ‘closure’ or displacement of perception; we can’t escape this perpetual embrace of our daily technology unless we escape the technology itself and flee to a hermit’s cave. By consistently embracing all these technologies, we inevitably relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Thus, in order to make use of them at all, we must serve them as we do gods. The Eskimo is a servomechanism of his kayak, the cowboy of his horse, the businessman of his clock, the cyberneticist – and soon the entire world – of his computer. (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 264) Becoming-machine is a problematic brought up long, long ago by Zhuangzi: does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. (Zhuangzi re-cited by McLuhan 1994: 63) The challenge, as Zhuangzi teaches us, is to thing things rather than being thinged by things. A passage in The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts addresses and points beyond this problematic and is worth contemplating: Haven’t you seen a man riding on a horse? The man who rides well runs the horse to the east and west, but his mind is tranquil and his unhurried body is unmoving and at peace. Seen from the side, the horse and the man seem to be firmly fastened together. And if he simply restrains the horse’s errors, he will be doing nothing contrary to the horse’s nature. Thus, though the man is mounted on the saddle and is master of the horse, the horse is not troubled by this, and moves with its own understanding. The horse forgets the man, the man forgets the horse, and their spirits are one and do not go in different ways. You could say that there is no man in the saddle, and no horse under it. (cited by Wilson 2012: 90) This mode of horse riding is characterized by wuwei, effortlessness and nonduality, and calls to mind the image of the centaur. Riding becomes nonriding and turns into a spiritual practice. Put differently, the man-horse assemblage has crossed a threshold and reached singularity. Similarly, Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1953) offers an enlightened narrative of the author’s apprenticeship in the art of archery and the spiritualization of archery and archer alike. Eventually, duality is overcome, the subject–object dichotomy is dissolved, shooting is transformed into nonshooting, and the archer-bow-arrow assemblage (which is what we really mean when we speak of the bowman) crosses a threshold to become singularity. The title of the Zen classic, The Gateless Pass, precisely implies that to achieve satori is to cross a seemingly impassable threshold and reach singularity. What comes off as a supreme spiritual achievement in the eyes of Zennists, McLuhan sees as nothing more than robotism, which is an anachronistic view of things in this context, to say the least.
9. For one thing, ‘[b] iological engineering is making possible unlimited remodeling of life forms’, as Guattari (1996) points out (103).
10. Kurzweil (2005) foretells that something like a cosmic awakening will happen in what he calls Epoch Six (21). But the kind of awakening he envisions is more informational than spiritual. It also smacks of technological determinism. Lanier (2013) associates Kurzweil’s vision with Alan Turing’s trope of futurism, according to which ‘[p]eople might turn into information rather than be replaced by it. This is why Ray Kurzweil can await being uploaded into a virtual heaven’ (127). Speaking of Bay Area culture, Lanier (2013) points out, ‘the new attitude is that technology is selfdetermined, that it is a giant supernatural creature growing on its own, soon to overtake people. The new cliché is that today’s “disruptions” will deterministically lead to tomorrow’s “Singularity”’ (217). Lanier (2013) suggests that what Kurzweil offers is more or less a new iteration of technological nirvana but the kind of extreme artificial longevity will be selective and inaccessible to the demos (327, 367).
11. Here is the original wording: deterritorialization is always double, because it implies the coexistence of a major variable and a minor variable in simultaneous becoming (the two terms of a becoming do not exchange places, there is no identification between them, they are instead drawn into an asymmetrical block in which both change to the same extent, and which constitutes their zone of proximity).
12. Taking this quote, ‘God made man in his image and resemblance. Through sin, however, man lost the resemblance while maintaining the image. We have become simulacra. We have forsaken moral existence in order to enter into aesthetic existence’ (Deleuze 1990: 257). Posthumans constitute a further departure from the model and fit the category of ‘aesthetic existence’ perfectly well. The sophistic impulse is a negentropic impulse. It is culturally productive, rather than merely conservative.
13. A line by Deleuze (1983) supports this idea: ‘Nietzsche criticises Darwin for interpreting evolution and chance within evolution in an entirely reactive way’ (42).
14. This understanding is supported by Lanier’s point that with the advent of the idea of singularity, a rapture, messiah or other supernatural discontinuity in the future has become part of the discussion of the natural future (Lanier 2013: 125).
15. It is notable that Kurzweil and Lanier both have a singular (as against plural) understanding of singularity. They both spell it as ‘the Singularity’, which is telling. Here is a line by Deleuze (2001) that offers a clue as to the pluralistic nature of singularity: ‘One is always the index of a multiplicity: an event, a singularity, a life […]’ (30).
16. Speeds and slownesses are a recurrent motif in Deleuze’s corpus. They both go beyond the thresholds of perception. As Deleuze puts it, they have in common the imperceptible, like the vast slowness of massive Japanese wrestlers, and all of a sudden, a decisive gesture so swift that we didn’t see it. Speed has no privilege over slowness: both fray the nerves, or rather, train them and give them mastery. (Deleuze and Parnet 1987: 93) In a sense, the capacity to perceive speeds and slownesses is a mark of singularity.
17. The spelling ‘Kritical’ invokes the original Greek sense of Krisis, which implies that the body or body politic is suspended between life and death, and that some urgent intervention is called for. A Krisis is a singular temporal juncture that is at once a risky moment and an opportunity.
18. Here is how Flusser (2011) puts it, What I have tried to put into words here is both a feverishly involved and a passionate state of mind, something like a synthesis of what absorbs people in artistic and scientific creativity, in political activism, in revolutionary proclamations, in chess and roulette, in the stock market, and in libidinous dreams. It is state of mind that does not intensify and then fall away, as in an orgasm, but that maintains itself at its orgiastic climax without interruption through a lifetime. For this state of mind is not physical but cerebral. Images are steering the telematic society in this direction: toward a continuous cerebral orgasm. (128) What Flusser envisions has a striking resemblance with what Deleuze and Guattari mean by ‘a thousand plateaus’. The main difference is that for Deleuze and Guattari, this state of mind has nothing to do with technical images. Artists (per Huxley) and Zen masters remain in this state of mind all the time (the true Zen master has the capacity for unconditional happiness, which is to say, regardless of external circumstances). Victor Turner would call it a liminal state. Liminality and interality are synonymous terms. This passionate state of mind is arguably the summum bonum (i.e. highest good) of interology.
19. This understanding is based on a line from The Analects: ‘At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right’ (Waley 1938: 88).
20. The same sentiment is crystallized by a Japanese poem: The morning glory blooms for an hour, Yet it differs not at heart From the giant pine which lives a thousand year. (Cited by Watts 2003: 19)
21. Epileptics tend to experience a moment of singular intensity prior to the onset of epilepsy (cf. Virilio 2009b: 19–50).
22. Cars, for example, deterritorialize us from the earth but reterritorialize us onto themselves. As a result, we are put into a state of paradoxical sedentariness.
23. Readers of McLuhan tend to overemphasize technology as extension and enhancement and underemphasize technology as anaesthetization. A line by Flusser (2011), if repurposed, captures the latter quite well: ‘as soon as the body is anaesthetized [by some technological extension], consciousness becomes quiet and numb: an-aesthetic’ (145). McLuhan gives a lucid explanation in ‘Playboy Interview’: all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a selfprotective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it. It’s a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression. I call this peculiar form of selfhypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 237) A line in The Gutenberg Galaxy puts this idea in a nutshell: ‘Every technology contrived and outered by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization’ (McLuhan 1962: 153).
24. For Chogyam Trungpa, LSD was ‘interesting, not as a way to genuine spiritual experience, but as a way to encounter “supersamsara,” in other words to exaggerate our normal minds so much that we could see their insanity as vividly as in a mirror’ (Hayward 2008: 67).
25. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) put it, To reach the point where ‘to get high or not to get high’ is no longer the question, but rather whether drugs have sufficiently changed the general conditions of space and time perception so that nonusers can succeed in passing through the holes in the world and following the lines of flight at the very place where means other than drugs become necessary. (186)
26. As such, singularity belongs to the simulacrum. Like Deleuze, Guattari displays an interest in reversing the Platonic hierarchy among model, copy and simulacrum.
27. As Guattari (1996) puts it, ‘infants, precisely they are the ones who are able to assume difference and singularity’ (131). This immediately calls to mind a line by Laozi: ‘Rely exclusively on your vital force, and become perfectly soft: can you play the infant?’ (Lynn 1999: 65). The implication is that the infant is closest to élan vital. Notably, ‘vital force’ is a translation for the Chinese concept qi. All is to suggest that there are strong resonances between Taoism and Bergsonism. A line by Deleuze (2001) belongs here, too: ‘Small children […] are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss’ (30)
28. It bears mentioning that the virtual as Deleuze means it bristles with virtue (i.e. puissance or power as potential), whereas the virtual as IT people mean it (as in ‘virtual reality’) saps virtue (i.e. what a body–mind can do). The former is ethically loaded, whereas the latter is ethically neutral at best, if not draining.
The author thanks Kenneth Surin, Robert Ivie, Peter Hershock, Joff Bradley, Blake Seidenshaw and Peter Berkman for offering helpful input as the article was being composed. He also thanks Gregg Lambert for sharing a Whiteheadian understanding of life: life craves only its own intensities; life desires.
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Peter Zhang is Associate Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.
Contact: School of Communications, 273 Lake Superior Hall, Grand Valley
State University, Allendale, MI 49401.
Peter Zhang has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.
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