Title: The Nihilist’s Dictionary
Source: Retrieved on August 17, 2009 from www.spunk.org
Notes: The Nihilist’s Dictionary (1994) was published in the book: “Future Primitive and Other Essays”, by Autonomedia and ”Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed”. Contact — Autonomedia, POB 568 Williamsburgh Station, Brooklyn, New York 11211–0568, USA.
The Nihilist’s Dictionary
Tech-nol-o-gy n. According to Webster’s: industrial or applied science. In reality: the ensemble of division of labor/production/industrialism and its impact on us and on nature. Technology is the sum of mediations between us and the natural world and the sum of those separations mediating us from each other. it is all the drudgery and toxicity required to produce and reproduce the stage of hyper-alienation we live in. It is the texture and the form of domination at any given stage of hierarchy and commodification.
Those who still say that technology is “neutral,” “merely a tool,” have not yet begun to consider what is involved. Junger, Adorno and Horkheimer, Ellul and a few others over the past decades — not to mention the crushing, all but unavoidable truth of technology in its global and personal toll — have led to a deeper approach to the topic. Thirty-five years ago the esteemed philosopher Jaspers wrote that “Technology is only a means, in itself neither good nor evil. Everything depends upon what man makes of it, for what purpose it serves him, under what conditions he places it.” The archaic sexism aside, such superficial faith in specialization and technical progress is increasingly seen as ludicrous. Infinitely more on target was Marcuse when he suggested in 1964 that “the very concept of technical reason is perhaps ideological. Not only the application of technology, but technology itself is domination... methodical, ascientific, calculated, calculating control.” Today we experience that control as a steady reduction of our contact with the living world, a speeded-up Information Age emptyness drained by computerization and poisoned by the dead, domesticating imperialism of high-tech method. Never before have people been so infantalized, made so dependant on the machine for everything; as the earth rapidly approaches its extinction due to technology, our souls are shrunk and flattened by its pervasive rule. Any sense of wholeness and freedom can only return by the undoing of the massive division of labour at the heart of technological progress. This is the liberatory project in all its depth.
Of course, the popular literature does not yet reflect a critical awareness of what technology is. Some works completely embrace the direction we are being taken, such as McCorduck’s ‘Machines Who Think’ and Simons’ ‘Are Computers Alive?’, to mention a couple of the more horrendous. Other, even more recent books seem to offer a judgement that finally flies in the face of mass pro-tech propaganda, but fail dismally as they reach their conclusions. Murphy, Mickunas and Pilotta edited ‘The Underside of High-Tech: Technology and the Deformation of Human Sensibilities’ , who’s ferocious title is completely undercut by an ending that technology will become human as soon as we change our assumptions about it! Very similar is Siegel and Markoff’s ‘The High Cost of High Tech’; after chapters detailing the various levels of technological debilitation, we once again learn that its all just a question of attitude: “We must, as a society, understand the full impact of high technology if we are to shape it into a tool for enhancing human comfort, freedom and peace.” This kind of cowardice and/or dishonesty owes only in part to the fact that major publishing corporations do not wish to publicize fundamentally radical ideas.
The above-remarked flight into idealism is not a new tactic of avoidance. Martin Heidegger, considered by some the most original and deep thinker of this century, saw the individual becoming only so much raw material for the limitless expansion of industrial technology. Incredibly, his solution was to find in the Nazi movement the essential “encounter between global technology and modern man.” Behind the rhetoric of National Socialism, unfortunately, was only an acceleration of technique, even into the sphere of genocide as a problem of industrial production. For the Nazis and the gullible, it was, again a question of how technology is understood ideally, not as it really is. In 1940, the General Inspector for the German Road System put it this way: “Concrete and stone are material things. Man gives them form and spirit. National Socialist technology possesses in all material achievement ideal content.”
The bizarre case of Heidegger should be a reminder to all that good intentions can go wildly astray without a willingness to face technology and its systematic nature as part of practical social reality. Heidegger feared the political consequences of really looking at technology critically; his apolitical theorizing thus constituted a part of the most monstrous development of modernity, despite his intention.
EarthFirst! claims to put nature first, to be above all petty “politics.” But it could well be that behind the macho swagger of a Dave Foreman (and the “deep ecology” theorists who also warn against radicals) is a failure of nerve like Heidegger’s, and the consequence, conceivably could be similar.
Nice-ism n. tendency, more or less socially codified, to approach reality in terms of whether others behave cordially; tyranny of decorum which disallows thinking or actingfor oneself; mode of interaction based upon the above absence of critical judgement or autonomy.
All of us prefer what is friendly, sincere, pleasant-nice. But in an immiserated world of pervasive and real crisis, which should be causing all of us to radically reassess everything, the nice can be the false.
The face of domination is often a smiling one, a cultured one. Auschwitz comes to mind, with its managers who enjoyed their Goethe and Mozart. Similarly, it was not evil-looking monsters who built the A-bomb but nice liberal intellectuals. Ditto regarding those who are computerizing life and those who in other ways are the mainstays of participation in this rotting order, just as it is the nice businessperson (self-managed or otherwise) who is the backbone of a cruel work-and-shop existence by concealing it’s real horrors.
Cases of niceism include the peaceniks, whose ethic of niceness puts them-again and again and again-in stupid ritualized, no-win situations, those Earth First!ers who refuse to confront the thorouhly reprehensible ideology at the top of “their” organization, and Fifth Estate, whose highly important contributions now seem to be in danger of an eclipse by liberalism. All the single-issue causes, from ecologism to feminism, and all the militancy in their service, are only ways of evading the necessity of a qualitative break with more than just the excesses of the system.
The nice as the perfect enemy of tactical or analytical thinking: Be agreeable; don’t let having radical ideas make waves in your personal behavior. Accept the pre-packaged methods and limits of the daily strangulation. Ingrained deference, the conditioned response to “play by the rules”-authority’s rules-this is the real Fifth Column, the one within us.
In the context of a mauled social life that demands the drastic as a minimum response toward health, niceism becomes more and more infantile, conformist and dangerous. It cannot grant joy, only more routine and isolation. The pleasure of authenticity exists only against the grain of society. Niceism keeps us all in our places, confusedly reproducing all that we supposedly abhor. Let’s stop being nice to this nightmare and all who would keep us in it.
Cul-ture n. commonly rendered as the sum of the customs, ideas, arts, patterns, etc. of a given society. Civilization is often given as a synonym, reminding us that cultivation — as in domestication — is right in there, too. The Situationists, in 1960, had it that “culture can be defined as the ensemble of means through which society thinks of itself and shows itself to itself.” Getting warmer, Barthes remarked that it is “ a machine to showing you desire. To desire, always to desire but never to understand.”
Culture was more respected once, seemingly, something to “live up to.” Now, instead of concern for how we fail culture, the emphasis is on how culture has failed us. Definitely something at work that thwarts us, does not satisfy and this makes itself more evident as we face globally and within us the death of nature. Culture, as the opposite of nature, grows discordant, sours, fades as we strangle in the thinner and thinner air of symbolic activity. High culture or low, palace or hovel, it’s the same prisonhouse of consciousness; the symbolic as the repressive.
It is inseparable from the birth and continuation of alienation surviving, as ever, as compensation, a trade of the real for its objectifcation. Culture embodies the split betveen wholeness and the parts of the whole turning into domination. Time, language, number, art-cultural impositions that have come to dominate us with lives of their own.
Magazines and journals now teem with articles lamenting the spread of cultural illiteracy and historical amnesia, two conditions that underline a basic dis-ease in society. In our postmodern epoch the faces of fashion range from blank to sullen, as hard drug use, suicide, and emotional disability rates continue to soar. About a year ago I got a ride from Berkeley to Oregon with a U.C. senior and somewhere along the drive I asked her, after talking about the ’60s, among other things, to describe her own generation. She spoke of her co-students in terms of loveless sex, increasing heroin use, and “a sense of despair masked by consumerism.”
Meanwhile, massive denial continues. In a recent collection of essays on culture, DJ. Enright offers the sage counsel that “the more commonly personal misery and discontent are aired, the more firmly these ills tighten their grip on us.” Since anxiety first sought deliverance via cultural form and expression, in the symbolic approach to authenticity, our condition has probably not been this transparently bankrupt. Robert Harbison’s “Deliberate Regression” is another work displaying complete ignorance regarding the fundamental emptiness of culture: “the story of how enthusiasm for the primitive and the belief that salvation lies in unlearning came to be a force in almost every held of thought is exceedingly strange.”
Certainly the ruins are there for everyone to see. From exhausted art in the form of the recycled mish-mash of postmodernism, to the poststructuralist technocrats like Lyotard, who finds in data banks “the Encyclopedia of tomorrow...’nature’ for postmodern man,” including such utterly impotent forms of “opposition” as ‘micropoliticS’ and “schizopolitics,” there is little but the obvious symptoms of a general fragmentation and despair. Peter Sloterdijk (Critique of Cynical Reason) points out that cynicism is the cardinal, pervasive outlook, for now the best that negation has to offer.
But the myth of culture will manage to survive as long as our immiseration fails to force us to confront it, and so cynicism will remain as long as we allow culture to remain in lieu of unmediated life.
Fer-al adj. wild, or existing in a state of nature, as freely occurring animals or plants; having reverted to the wild state from domestication.
We exist in a landscape of absence wherein real life is steadily being drained out by debased work, the hollow cycle of consumerism and the mediated emptiness of high-tech dependency. Today it is not only the stereotypical yuppie workaholic who tries to cheat despair via activity, preferring not to contemplate a fate no less sterile than that of the planet and (domesticated) subjectivity in general. We are confronted, nonetheless, by the ruins of nature and the ruin of our own nature, the sheer enormity of the meaninglessness and the inauthentic amounting to a weight of lies. It’s still drudgery and toxicity for the vast majority, while a poverty more absolute than financial renders more vacant the universal Dead Zone of civilization. “Empowered” by computerization? Infantilized, more like. An Information Age characterized by increased communication? No, that would presuppose experience worth communicating. A time of unprecedented respect for the individual? Translation: wage-slavery needs the strategy of worker self-management at the point of production to stave off the continuing productivity crisis, and market research must target each “life-style” in the interest of a maximized consumer culture.
In the upside-down society the solution to massive alienation-induced drug use is a media barrage, with results as embarrassing as the hundreds of millions futilely spent against declining voter turnout. Meanwhile, TV, voice and soul of the modern world, dreams vainly of arresting the growth of illiteracy and what is left of emotional health by means of propaganda spots of thirty seconds or less. In the industrialized culture of irreversible depression, isolation, and cynicism, the spirit will die first, the death of the planet an afterthought. That is, unless we erase this rotting order, all of its categories and dynamics.
Meanwhile, the parade of partial (and for that reason false) oppositions proceeds on its usual routes. There are the Greens and their like who try to extend the life of the racket of electoralism, based on the lie that there is validity in any person representing another; these types would perpetuate just one more home for protest, in lieu of the real thing. The peace “movement” exhibits, in its every (uniformly pathetic) gesture, that it is the best friend of authority, property and passivity. One illustration will suffice: in May 1989, on the 20th anniversary of Berkeley’s People’s Park battle, a thousand people rose up admirably, looting 28 businesses and injuring 15 cops; declared peace-creep spokesperson Julia Talley, “These riots have no place in the peace movement.” Which brings to mind the fatally misguided students in Tiananmen Square, after the June 3 massacre had begun, trying to prevent workers from fighting the government troops. And the general truth that the university is the number one source of that slow strangulation known as reform, the refusal of a qualitative break with degradation. Earth First! recognizes that domestication is the fundamental issue (e.g. that agriculture itself is malignant) but many of its partisans cannot see that our species could become wild.
Radical environmentalists appreciate that the turning of national forests into tree farms is merely a part of the overall project that also seeks their own suppression. But they will have to seek the wild everywhere rather than merely in wilderness as a separate preserve.
Freud saw that there is no civilization without the forcible renunciation of instincts, without monumental coercion. But, because the masses are basically “lazy and unintelligent,” civilization is justified, he reasoned. This model or prescription was based on the idea that pre-civilized life was brutal and deprived-a notion that has been, amazingly, reversed in the past 20 years. Prior to agriculture, in other words, humanity existed in a state of grace, ease and communion with nature that we can barely comprehend today.
The vista of authenticity emerges as no less than a wholesale dissolution of civilization’s edifice of repression. which Freud, by the way, described as “something which was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means to power and coercion.” We can either passively continue on the road to utter domestication and destruction or turn in the direction of joyful upheaval, passionate and feral embrace of wildness and life that aims at dancing on the ruins of clocks, computers and that failure of imagination and will called work. Can we justify our lives by anything less than such a politics of rage and dreams?
Com-mu-ni-ty n. 1. a body of people having the same interests. 2.[Ecol.] an aggregate of organisms with mutual relations. 3. a concept invoked to establish solidarity, often when the basis for such affiliation is absent or when the actual content of that affiliation contradicts the stated political goal of solidarity.
Community, by which one obviously means more than, say, neighborhood, is a very elusive term but a continuing touchstone of radical value. In fact, all manner of folks resort to it, from the pacifist encampments near nuclear test sites to “serve the people” leftists with their sacrifice-plus-manipulation approach to the proto-fascist Afrikaaner settlers. It is invoked for a variety of purposes or goals, but as a liberatory notion is a fiction. Everyone feels the absence of community, because human fellowship must struggle, to even remotely exist, against what “community” is in reality. The nuclear family, religion, nationality, work, school, property, the specialism of roles-some combination of these seems to comprise every surviving community since the imposition of civilization. So we are dealing with an illusion, and to argue that some qualitatively higher form of community is allowed to exist within civilization is to affirm civilization. Positivity furthers the lie that the authentically social can co-exist with domestication. In this regard, what really accompanies domination, as community, is at best middle-class, respect-the-system protest.
Fifth Estate, for example, undercuts its (partial) critique of civilization by upholding community and ties to it in its every other sentence. At times it seems that the occasional Hollywood film (e.g. Emerald Forest, Dances With Wolves) outdoes our anti-authoritarian journals in showing that a liberatory solidarity springs from non-civilization and its combat with the “community” of industrial modernity.
Jacques Camatte discussed capital’s movement from the stage of formal domination to that of real domination. But there appear to be significant grounds from which to project the continuing erosion of support for existing community and a desire for genuine solidarity and freedom. As Fredy Perlman put it, near the end of his exceptional Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!: “What is known is that Leviathan, the great artifice, single and world-embracing for the first time, in His-story, is decomposing...lt is a good time for people to let go of its sanity, its masks and armors, and go mad, for they are already being ejected from its pretty polis.”
The refusal of community might be termed a self defeating isolation but it appears preferable, healthier, than declaring our allegiance to the daily fabric of an increasingly self-destructive world. Magnified alienation is not a condition chosen by those who insist on the truly social over the falsely communal. It is present in any case, due to the content of community. Opposition to the estrangement of civilized, pacified existence should at least amount to naming that estrangement instead of celebrating it by calling it community.
The defense of community is a conservative gesture that faces away from the radical break required. Why defend that to which we are held hostage?
In truth, there is no community. And only by abandoning what is passed off in its name can we move on to redeem a vision of communion and vibrant connectedness in a world that bears no resemblance to this one. Only a negative “community,” based explicitly on contempt for the categories of existent community, is legitimate and appropriate to our aims.
Division of Labor
Di-vi-sion of la-bor n. 1. the breakdown into specific, circumscribed tasks for maximum efficiency of output which constitutes manufacture; cardinal aspect of production. 2. the fragmenting or reduction of human activity into separated toil that is the practical root of alienation; that basic specialization which makes civilization appear and develop.
The relative wholeness of pre-civilized life was first and foremost an absence of the narrowing, confining separation of people into differentiated roles and functions. The foundation of our shrinkage of experience and powerlessness in the face of the reign of expertise, felt so acutely today, is the division of labor. It is hardly accidental that key ideologues of civilization have striven mightily to valorize it. In Plato’s “Republic”, for example, we are instructed that the origin of the state lies in that “natural” inequality of humanity that is embodied in the division of labor. Durkheim celebrated a fractionated, unequal world by divining that the touchstone of “human solidarity,” its essential moral value is-you guessed it. Before him, according to Franz Borkenau, it was a great increase in division of labor occurring around 1600 that introduced the abstract category of work, which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modern, Cartesian notion that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness.
In the first sentence of “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labor represents a qualitative increase in productivity. Twenty years later Schiller recognized that division of labor was producing a society in which its members were unable to develop their humanity. Marx could see both sides: “as a result of division of labor,” the worker is “reduced to the condition of a machine.” But decisive was Marx’s worship of the fullness of production as essential to human liberation. The immiseration of humanity along the road of capital’s development he saw as a necessary evil.
Marxism cannot escape the determining imprint of this decision in favor of division of labor, and its major voices certainly reflect this acceptance. Lukacs, for instance, chose to ignore it, seeing only the “reifying effects of the dominant commodity form” in his attention to the problem of proletarian consciousness. E.P. Thompson realized that with the factory system, “the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial labourer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive individual worker.” But he devoted amazingly little attention to division of labor, the central mechanism by which this transformation was achieved. Marcuse tried to conceptualize a civilization without repression, while amply demonstrating the incompatibility of the two. In bowing to the “naturalness” inherent in division of labor, he judged that the “rational exercise of authority” and the “advancement of the whole” depend upon it-while a few pages later (in Eros and Civilization) granting that one’s “labor becomes the more alien the more specialized the division of labor becomes.”
Ellul understood how “the sharp knife of specialization has passed like a razor into the living flesh,” how division of labor causes the ignorance of a “closed universe” cutting off the subject from others and from nature. Similarly did Horkheimer sum up the debilitation: “thus, for all their activity individuals are becoming more passive; for all their power over nature they are becoming more powerless in relation to society and themselves.” Along these lines, Foucault emphasized productivity as the fundamental contemporary repression.
But recent Marxian thought continues in the trap of having, ultimately, to elevate division of labor for the sake of technological progress. Braverman’s in many ways excellent Labor and Monopoly Capital explores the degradation of work, but sees it as mainly a problem of loss of “will and ambition to wrest control of production from capitalist hands.” And Schwabbe’s Psychosocial Consequences of Natural and Alienated Labor is dedicated to the ending of all domination in production and projects a self-management of production. The reason, obviously, that he ignores division of labor is that it is inherent in production; he does not see that it is nonsense to speak of liberation and production in the same breath.
The tendency of division of labor has always been the forced labor of the interchangeable cog in an increasingly autonomous, impervious-to-desire apparatus. The barbarism of modern times is still the enslavement to technology, that is to say, to division of labor. “Specialization,” wrote Giedion, “goes on without respite,” and today more than ever can we see and feel the barren, de-eroticized world it has brought us to. Robinson Jeffers decided, “I don’t think industrial civilization is worth the distortion of human nature, and the meanness and loss of contact with the earth, that it entails.
Meanwhile, the continuing myths of the “neutrality” and “inevitability” of technological development are crucial to fitting everyone to the yoke of division of labor. Those who oppose domination while defending its core principle are the perpetuators of our captivity. Consider Guattari, that radical post-structuralist, who finds that desire and dreams are quite possible “even in a society with highly developed industry and highly developed public information services, etc.” Our advanced French opponent of alienation scoffs at the naive who detect the “essential wickedness of industrial societies,” but does offer the prescription that “the whole attitude of specialists needs questioning.” Not the existence of specialists, of course, merely their “attitudes.”
To the question, “How much division of labor should we jettison?” returns, I believe, the answer, “How much wholeness for ourselves and the planet do we want?”
Prog-ress n. 1.[archaic] official journey, as of a ruler. 2. historical development, in the sense of advance or improvement. 3. forward course of history or civilization, as in horror show or death-trip.
Perhaps no single idea in Western civilization has been as important as the notion of progress. It is also true that, as Robert Nisbet has put it, “Everything now suggests that Western faith in the dogma of progress is waning rapidiy in all levels and spheres in this final part of the twentieth century.”
In the anti-authoritarian milieu, too, progress has fallen on hard times. There was a time when the syndicalist blockheads, like their close Marxist relatives, could more or less successfully harangue as marginal and insignifcant those disinterested in organizing their alienation via unions, councils and the like. Instead of the old respect for productivity and production (the pillars of progress), a Luddite prescription for the factories is ascendant and anti-work a cardinal starting point of radical dialog. We even see certain ageing leopards trying to change their spots: the Industrial Workers of the World, embarrassed by the first word of their name may yet move toward refusing the second (though certainly not as an organization).
The eco-crisis is clearly one factor in the discrediting of progress, but how it remained an article of faith for so many for so long is a vexing question. For what has progress meant, after all? Its promise began to realize itself, in many ways, from history’s very beginning. With the emergence of agriculture and civilization commenced, for instance, the progressive destruction of nature; large regions of the Near East, Africa and Greece were rather quickly rendered desert wastelands.
In terms of violence, the transformation from a mainly pacific and egalitarian gatherer-hunter mode to the violence of agriculture/civilization was rapid. “Revenge, feuds, warfare, and battle seem to emerge among, and to be typical of, domesticated peoples,” according to Peter Wilson. And violence certainly has made progress along the way, needless to say, from state weapons of mega-death to the recent rise in outburst murders and serial killers.
Disease itself is very nearly an invention of civilized life; every known degenerative illness is part of the toll of historical betterment. From the wholeness and sensual vitality of pre-history, to the present vista of endemic ill-health and mass psychic misery-more progress.
The pinnacle of progress is today’s Information Age. which embodies a progression in division of labor, from an earlier time of the greater possibility of unmediated understanding, to the stage where knowledge becomes merely an instrument of the repressive totality, to the current cybernetic era where data is all that’s really left. Progress has put meaning itself to flight.
Science, the model of progress, has imprisoned and interrogated nature, while technology has sentenced it (and humanity) to forced labor. From the original dividing of the self that is civilization, to Descartes’ splitting of the mind from the rest of objects (including the body), to our arid, high-tech present-a movement indeed wondrous. Two centuries ago the first inventors of industrial machinery were spat on by the English textile workers subiected to it and thought villainous by just about everyone but their capitalist paymasters. The designers of today’s computerized slavery are lionized as cultural heroes, though opposition is beginning to mount.
In the absence of greater resistance, the inner logic of class society’s development will culminate in a totally technicized life as its final stage. The equivalence of the progress of society and that of technology is becoming ever more apparent by the fact of their immanent convergence. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin’s last and best work, contains this lyrically expressed insight:
“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
So-ci-e-ty n. from L. socius, companion. 1. an organized aggregate of interrelated individuals and groups. 2. totalizing racket, advancing at the expense of the individual, nature and human solidarity.
Society everywhere is now driven by the treadmill of work and consumption. This harnessed movement, so very far from a state of companionship, does not take place without agony and disaffection. Having more never compensates for being less, as witness rampant addiction to drugs, work, exercise, sex, etc. Virtually anything can be and is overused in the desire for satisfaction in a society whose hallmark is denial of satisfaction. But such excess at least gives evidence of the hunger for fulfillment, that is, an immense dissatisfaction with what is before us.
Hucksters purvey every kind of dodge, for example. New Age panaceas, disgusting materialistic mysticism on a mass scale: sickly and self-absorbed, apparently incapable of looking at any part of reality with courage or honesty. For New Age practitioners, psychology is nothing short of an ideology and society is irrelevant.
Meanwhile, Bush, surveying “generations born numbly into despair,” was predictably loathsome enough to blame the victimized by citing their “moral emptiness.” The depth of immiseration might best be summed up by the federal survey of high schoolers released 9/19/91, which found that 27 percent of them “thought seriously” about suicide in the preceding year.
It could be that the social, with its growing testimony to alienation-mass depression, the refusal of literacy, the rise of panic disorders, etc.-may finally be registering politically. Such phenomena as continually declining voter turnout and deep distrust of government led the Kettering Foundation in June ’91 to conclude that “the legitimacy of our political institutions is more at issue than our leaders imagine,” and an October study of three states (as reported by columnist Tom Wicker, 10/14/91) to discern “a dangerously broad gulf between the governors and the governed.”
The longing for nonmutilated life and a nonmutilated world in which to live it collides with one chilling fact: underlying the progress of modern society is capital’s insatiable need for growth and expansion. The collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe and the USSR leaves only the ‘triumphant’ regular variety, in command but now confronted insistently with far more basic contradictions than the ones it allegedly overcame in its pseudo-struggle with ‘socialism’. Of course, Soviet industrialism was not qualitatively different from any other variant of capitalism, and far more importantly, no system of production (division of labor, domination of nature, and work-and-pay slavery in more or less equal doses) can allow for either human happiness or ecological survival.
We can now see an approaching vista of all the world as a toxic, ozone-less deadness. Where once most people looked to technology as a promise, now we know for certain that it will kill us. Computerization, with its congealed tedium and concealed poisons, expresses the trajectory of society, engineered sleekly away from sensuous existence and finding its current apotheosis in Vrtual Reality.
The escapism of VR is not the issue, for which of us could get by without escapes? Likewise, it is not so much a diversion from consciousness as it is itself a consciousness of complete estrangement from the natural world. Virtual Reality testifies to a deep pathology, reminiscent of the Baroque canvases of Rubens that depict armored knights mingling with but separated from naked women. Here the ‘alternative’ technojunkies of Whole Earth Review, pioneer promoters of VR, show their true colors. A fetish of ‘tools’, and a total lack of interest in critique of society’s direction, lead to glorification of the artificial paradise of VR.
The consumerist void of high tech simulation and manipulation owes its dominance to two increasing tendencies in society, specialization of labor and the isolation of individuals. From this context emerges the most terrifying aspect of evil: it tends to be committed by people who are not particularly evil. Society, which in no way could survive a conscious inspection is arranged to prevent that very inspection.
The dominant, oppressive ideas do not permeate the whole of society, rather their success is assured by the fragmented nature of opposition to them. Meanwhile, what society dreads most are precisely the lies it suspects it is built upon. This dread or avoidance is obviously not the same as beginning to subject a deadening force of circumstances to the force of events.
Adorno noted in the ’60s that society is growing more and more entrapping and disabling. He predicted that eventually talk of causation within society would become meaningless: society itself is the cause. The struggle toward a society-if it could still be called that-of the face-to-face, in and of the natural world, must be based on an understanding of societv today as a monolithic, all-encompassing death march.