Friday, February 24, 2012

On Mythology

And so I waste too much time on Facebook. Lots of that time is spent talking to genuine, real-life friends, basically using it as something like AIM with a message board. But one of my other voyeuristic habits is reading friends' political debates. I can't help it. I am a post-modern Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window.

And the conclusion I've came to is this: there should be a new discourse called "American Mythological Studies." Now America, as is often pointed out, is not an old country. The one time I was in England - specifically Oxford - I remember often thinking: "this Church is older than my country." But at the same time, countries aren't people, so perhaps the metaphor of growth is problematic. For example, I don't care how old Germany is/was, Hitler was not a good idea. (And damn you Heidegger for complicating my philosophical career.)

Okay, but my point. Our mythological creatures are often referred to as "Founding Fathers." These are our Greek Gods. I guess Jefferson might be Zeus. And let me be clear, I think the greatest and coolest thing about our country is that we are the only country - I think - that was founded by intellectuals. I mean that's really fucking awesome.

However, they were not Gods - they were men. And they were men with interests. Now if they are Gods, then by definition whatever they say is true by fiat. So it's popular in political debate these days to just quote a founding father and using that as evidence that you are correct. This is insane, obviously, because it assumes all the founding fathers agreed on everything. But worse than that it's problematic because it assumes that didn't have real, serious problems.

I think it was Jay, though it might be Madison, that said (I'm paraphrasing from memory) "The people that own the country should run the country." That's not democratic. Obviously everyone knows about the owning of slaves. Now, let's be fair, i.e., respect, revere the brilliant things and dismiss the backwards ideas. But let's admit it's insane that there was ever a time when people in power did not want to keep their power.

The latest and most interesting example is Ronald Reagan. He's become a mythological figure in 30 years. Usually that takes many hundreds of years. I guess technology has sped up everything so much that it has caused dromoscopic delirium.

Reagen the person simply isn't what's being referring to by the current all-too-popular conservative signifier "Reagan." That signifier has become totally post-modern, referring only to itself, not to anything in the world. I feel it's without point to push this argument - but if you disagree, look it up. I still believe that things happen in the world that can be described more or less fairly. If the world is nothing but rhetoric - and I'm getting a PhD in Rhetoric - then we are, to use a technical term, fucked.

Now every act is rhetorical - everything is a gesture - a way of making meaning, but that doesn't imply there isn't a world out there that we share. In fact it's the opposite: only because we share a common world can we gesture to each other in the first place. Communication assumes a common world. We share it and let's learn to share it more honestly.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Technology as Theology

I was talking with some sharp colleagues today and we were discussing technology. By far the philosophy of technology is my favorite thing to think about these days. And I'd been trying to formulate a thought for a while: what is the position of the internet in relationship to Heidegger's four-fold.

Heidegger says that objects, any THING, gathers the four-fold. The four is earth, sky, mortals, divinities. Heidegger claims this is what makes a thing a thing.

So here's his example: a jug. The jug comes from clay. Clay is nurtured by the sky, rain and what not. Then we pour wine in the jug and we get together and toast to the gods. (All toasts are to the gods - it matters not if you are an atheist.) So we have earth, mortal, sky, gods.

Okay - this all made sense to me - I wrote my thesis on Heidegger and Beckett. But during that process I could never figure out how the internet gathered. I got the earth and sky and the mortals, but I could never figure out the place for the gods.

Today in conversation the thought came together and I sort of blurted out - I imagine, until they read this it might have appeared I had worked this thought out - the internet is theological. It is both everywhere and nowhere and it has all "knowledge" contained within. (omniscient, omnipresent, as omni-benevolent as any other god, I guess) Technology has become theology. I'm not even sure that's hyperbolic. Perhaps - but I doubt it will be for long.

I can imagine living without a computer. I love it. But I don't require it. (well I do for work but not for ontological well-being) In a major sense I still see it as a tool. The generation after me, does not see the split between reality and virtual reality. I actually think they are probably more correct, but it will probably take someone from my generation to articulate it, only because we intuit a difference.

If I was looking for evidence it would be this: watch someone who is in their 20's lose their phone. They immediately experience despair. My generation often laughs at this - I mean I'm not much older - I'm 31, but I was right on the cusp; I remember not having the internet - not having a cell-phone. My generation doesn't feel as ontologically dependent. We still believe we are "selves" that use technology. The younger generation see themselves as technological beings. They are cyborgs. It just turns out that cyborg doesn't look like the movies told us it would. And make no mistake - I'm becoming cyborg - it's just going to take longer.

The architecture of my day has changed profoundly in the last 15 years. I didn't have email until 1999 - my Freshman year at college. Before that I got on the internet occasionally, but mostly found it slow and annoying. Now I wake up, check my phone, go to the office, check my email - check 4 or 5 standard internet sites, look at Facebook, scoff at Facebook, post on Facebook, and then teach.

If the architecture can change that quickly - I mean seriously, nobody my age would have ever guessed in 1995 that people would actually start sending typed script again - who knows what's going to happen in the next, say 5 years. But I know that technology is driving itself and it's agenda is unclear - is technology the kind of thing that can have an agenda? Well if it's a theological being, perhaps. Why can't objects have agendas? Magnets prove this all the time. They relate differently depending on how you turn them. They are objects that have orientations - that's close enough for me. To figure out, say, how to make a battery work you must assume that the object has it's own set of desired relations to other objects.

Certainly a lot to think about. I will leave with this - when I watched The Matrix I thought the only character that made any sense was the guy who decided to go back into the Matrix - he sold out his buddies and in the scene I remember he's eating a steak. He says something like - I know it's not real - but I experience it as real. So what's the difference. That is the merger - in that moment the real and the technological - the theological and the biological in some sense seem to come together, just not in the way anybody ever imagined. At this point the appropriate pill might just be Valium. I kid. Sort of.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kurzweil, Immortality, and Meaning

So watching Transcendent Man, the documentary about Ray Kurzweil's idea of The Singularity is a sublime experience in the truest sense - a total mix of awe and terror. Kurzweil supposes that we will be able to avoid death and aging via technology, specifically, I think, Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. The Singularity is a metaphor, as I'm understanding it, for a total intertwining of man and machine. We will be cyborgs and we will be happy about it.

Except we won't. Meaning is dependent, causally determined by finitude. Let me explain: for any event to be meaningful it must be caught up in risk. One of the meta-risks is that you will only have so many events - you may never have this experience again. So if we live forever, which means we obliterate the very notion of Time, how does any event mean anything? What difference does it make what happens? It will happen again, and again, and again.

Essentially, I think Kurzweil, if he could accomplish what he has set out to accomplish, would actually cause the very thing he wishes to avoid: the destruction of meaning. Kurzweil obviously thinks when you die, all meaning goes away. However, he doesn't seem to realize that it's only because of death, because it is an always-already present reality for us as mortals, that anything can mean in the first place.

So it is the final irony that death, the ultimate end of meaning, at least for the person who's dying, is also the very thing that constituted the possibility of meaning.

But everyone should watch the documentary - Kurzweil is exactly the kind of mad scientist whom I can't help but love.