DERRICK DE KERCKHOVE
(speaking after Mitsuhiro Takemura)
DEMATERIALIZATION, "TRANSFORMERS" AND THE JAPANESE GAS ATTACKS
In a way I was brought to this theme by a suggestion made by Konrad Becker that I answer some questions raised about my assumed theory last week by Peter Lamborn Wilson, a man who I think is extremely intelligent and totally interesting. I'm glad to have these questions. But one misconception to start with, was the idea that anything I say about digitization, dematerialization, cybertalk has to do with something spiritual, and that the dematerialization of the body, which is indeed in question, would be equated with a respiritualization of the collective, which is not happening at all. And with a bunch of attending tricky questions concerning the autonomy of individual people in a networked, externalized and incredibly efficient system of intelligence. So we have to ask ourselves some pretty serious questions about that and to do so my method has to be historical, and the historical aspect of this relationship between body, mind, language, self and technology, is one that helps to see something of what's going on today.
I like for example Prof. Takemura's idea which he expresses as a shift to more abstract information or a rather more abstract notion of information as opposed to the traditional Japanese information as feeling. It's a good point of entry, very useful, because that is what happened when people, bodies began to take control over language with writing. Until language is externalized from its deeply physical occupation of individual bodies in the oral tribe there is no real possession of our control of information or intelligence or identity or destiny or self in individual people. But the type of relationships that are established by communication in an oral society are intensely physical - based on feelings, presence, intervals, like a school of fish.
What happens when people began to read and write is that they externalize for their own use the structure of intelligence and the content of the material of information processing. And that's what happened when we developed the alphabet. What we did was to decompose language in its fundamental units, reproduce it in its fundamental divisions, in grammatical and lexical structures, that were made to serve personal needs of readers and writers. Hence the appearance of something like consciousness integrated within bodies and competing in funny ways with the physical reality of this body, resisting the body's give-away natural tendency of itself to the group.
The taking of control over language is
also on an individual basis, the taking of control over body, which happened with the Greeks, starting with the
poets - Sapho terrified of her body and its propensity to be overtaken by love and hence the loss of identity,
that is in that exchange, the need to recover control over self, which is the whole history of Greek tragedy, and
the relationship between the other and the self in competition and not any more in harmony. Hence the invention
of Eros. Eros is a late god, invented by the Greeks like Godzilla was invented by the Japanese to resolve some
of their traumatic experience.
We haven't dealt with our bodies very well in the history of the West. I can give you hundreds of examples of a disastrous relationship to it and anybody who says that we are worse off today than under the inquisition for example, or the endless wars over religious matters for another, - or the terrified relationship that we've adopted towards our own bodies that have created right here in Vienna the reputation of one very important member of society Mr. Freud - the real result of all this is that we've been, if you don't mind the expression, fucked up for a long time. So are we getting out of it? I'm not sure. How can we get out of it? I'm not sure. But what could we learn from the relationships, that could give us a hint?
So language began to occupy individuals on an individual basis. Once people began to read. With the appearance of individualized books reading became silent, and language moved up from its anchoring in the body to the mind. The Greeks - to come back to them, we can learn a lot from the Greeks - they thought that the brain was a cooling system. They didn't know, until they invented language, written language, that it was the seat of information processing. They called Psyche, the soul, stuff which was caught between the ears and behind the eyes somewhere in the brain very late, until then all was these things which came from here - the body - you breathed in the words of the other and you breathed out your sensations. Not a bad deal. But very bad in a polluted environment.
I start smoking again that's just ... Anyway . No - but it's true that we've dealt with that aspect of our relationship to our bodies - cigarettes is a perfect example for. I'm glad I was just smoking so as not to look holier than thou. But I can tell you what cigarettes do. They were invented at the time when a great majority of the ruling population was beginning to be alphabetized. Tobacco was brought from America - everything is. And people began to smoke to separate their heads from their bodies to create a radical differentiation and began to have very control over the bodies by severing their sensation and the feeling that Prof. Takemura was so eloquently presenting.
Another way of putting it is that, where as no serious distinction between - had ever been entertained between body and mind before the appearance of writing, the invasion of individual bodies by language soon began dematerializing linguistic functions. That's what happens - so that this Hegelian vision of the transmutation of the material to the spiritual begins right there. Whether that's a final end or a desirable one is very much open to question. However that is where the transmutation of the material to the - I don't want to call it spiritual, I don't know what it is, another word should be found because spiritual is another matter, altogether, and has very little business with what I'm talking about, what I'm talking about has a lot to do rather with the location of intelligent information processing, either in or out of body.
Space for example, something that we still don't know a lot about, but we thought we did, became neutral with the Greeks - physis, nature, big container empty of its own substance but ready to receive the objects and the people, as a theater where people move with their individual heads, minds contain within their individual bodies. They became actors in a neutral space. Japanese do not believe in neutral space. Maybe they are coming to that point but certainly Ma, the interval between the people, is thick with relationship in the Japanese environment. We empty space in the West, nothing left except the objects that we classified in it. And the actors are playing their destinies of course, why not. Once you have individual control over language, you have individual control over yourself, over your destiny and you need to move. You need to have freedom of action.
Any space containing too thick a network of relationship is an embarrassment and is an obstacle to freedom. Subjecthood, democratic subjecthood or psychological subjecthood, same thing. But it's incredible that a culture that prides itself with so much scientific information and knowledge couldn't handle the simple observation that the air is made of molecules, and response to physical law. Big deal in the seventeen century, big fight among the mathematicians and philosophers according to whether nature loves or hates vacuum. Nature abhors vacuum said the less stupid of them, but those who thought that that conversation was over simply forgot to close the book on it and never exploit it again. That's how we neutralize space.
Not until the telegraph, which is the first appearance of language on line, a very interesting development, the origin of our network communications still are found in this very primitive way of translating the alphabet into long, short absence of signal. The transition between, by the way, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the zero-one of the computer. Not until the telegraph appears, did the reign of individual minds on their bodies get even challenged. The telegraph was very shy, very impersonal, very abstract and limited, there was no mind yet on line in the telegraph. Telephone instantly expanded the individual reach of language to other individuals. But again, no real threat to private minds because all telephone transactions were one to one and personal oral communications.
Radio came in with a Bang and blew neutral space away. Language, for the first time since the old tribe was collective again and no one could talk back, hence the era of the dictator and violent ethnolinguistic confrontations. That was the first time that commensurate with the enlargement of the population a medium was creating collective consciousness again. Hence the space of radio was jam-packed with waves, couldn't possibly be neutral anymore and had an incredible power of control over bodies, which militarized as soon as they had a chance whether in Japan, in Western Europe or in the USA. This was not a very nice time, and it certainly was one which we met head on with a God-awful strategy.
TV, by showing the body, turned warriors into consumers. TV put out the flames in Vietnam and again in Iraq. Language was reduced to the simplest common denominator to eliminate all confrontations. English took over via US and American television. That's where English begins, until then French was doing all right, German could be spoken, all languages were equal in the face of the earth. But, comes TV, Hollywood and the exporting mania of the Americans and the fantastic advantage they took in the second world war and you got English on your hands. It's not a bad language, I like it and I've practiced it as well as I can, but I often have the same anxiety as Prof. Takemura.
The crises of generation, the famous generation-gap which is now not around anymore. I tell you why: we are into generation-crush right now which is an entirely different story - implosions of generation, not gap. But the gap was clear. It came from the encounter between two conflicting sets of ratio distributing mind and body privileges in language management. That's what the generation-gap was. On the one hand the literate mind still firmly believing in perfect control of information by a mind well in charge of its body - and still terrified of it, of course. And then the let-it-all-hang-out crowd, you know, the Hippies, and touch-me-feel-me-love-me, lets-try-it-all-out, all that stuff which was great fun. And the other set being one, where bodies in fact have something to say instead of all let-it-all-hang-out crowd, where mind is great, but it has to be shared and where everything that, we know, we do at that time is exploring limits for the rediscovery of the body.
On the other hand at another level at the same time talking about the sixties and the early seventies
the dispute was between collective and individual information processing. There was a problem there,
not a serious problem because we got over it very quickly. But there was a problem with a society that was
homogenized to a great extent , and we're still having this problem in other guises today and where individual
response to the collective consciousness, the public mind, created by the large networks was very limited.
Limited in fact to paying for what you bought and voting for who you voted for, who you elected. That was the
configuration. And private selves, private control of language and all that were in flats.
Creating anxiety in the seventies. Then followed by the Me decade, but that is another story. But in the 70's hypocrisy, anxiety, fear of let-it-hang-all-out anymore, fear of thinking matters through, fear of language, the 70's fear of economy, not to say nothing about that - the 70's was an interesting transition period, that people don't pay enough attention to, because it was not the 60's and sure not the 80's. Entirely different mood, entirely different sensibility, one of incertitude and fear of loss of self. The self becomes absolutely pressure if you see its goal, until then you take it for guaranteed. But there was indeed in the 70's a fear of loosing selves, people were afraid.
Then comes the computer - the PC - "Personal Computer" that's very nice. Computer selfhood regains its
control of itself, language recovers control of the mind on a private basis. For a while you would think that
self-individuals had recovered and that the collective nightmare was over. For a while it was possible to think
that computers were putting us back in charge of information processing in an autonomous way. We were talking
back to our screen. We've been trying to do this since the middle 70's but zappers, you know, when you were
zapping, that was a form of answering back to the screen, not a great one. But a better one was VCRs, thanks
to the Japanese, and of course camcorders, all these ways of making the screen say what you want instead of
saying what it wants - matters like that. And of course keyboards and mice and glances to your screen, now you
can do it with your eyes, this was great, I mean you know, every bit of that was interactivity.
Ouhh - interactivity! (Did we ever hear about interactivity at some point - it was some kind of .... but it was later than the 70's, mind you.)
But that was a form of recovery of control of, or an illusion of recovery of control over the instrument. But two
things happened with computers, two very serious things: Thinking became shared with software. Thinking
process, all the contents of our literate mind were poured into applications because that were the first things
that we knew. That was what we put the computers to work on. How to reproduce information processing
strategies, contain within the mind, make them mechanized and externalize them out of this beloved old thing.
That's what happened. We started sharing with our screens the information. But more importantly, the locus of information processing moved out of there and went into right there or on that screen. The locus, the place where information is processed, that was already a lesson taught to us by TV. That was the problem of TV. TV basically was replacing your imagination with its system. Well, when you read books or papers, you have to translate all the stuff inside there, make images inside there. TV was making them all available to you in front and was telling you to shut up and to listen or see or watch or buy, whatever it is. I'm not attacking TV, I think it has helped us and got us out of radio for instance, this was a good idea. But where we hadn't seen the real danger was, that the information process was happening outside our minds. If it happened this way, we would loose more control out of that exchange than we would on any barrage of publicity, propaganda, all that stuff.
The second thing is what concerns us today - of course - what we are all talking about all the time is that computers became network, that was their destiny. It was quite impossible to think of computers not being network but once computers were network - they became an entirely different medium. They started doing things that we don't even know what computer really qualifies for. And again the externalization of this intelligent processing, that was going on once in our own minds, multiplies exponentially by the internetworked computerization of human activity - meant that something fundamental again was happening to language.
Remember what I mean by language - is
not this, everything that so many not that interesting philosophers are trying to say - but very specifically, the
interaction between words via grammar, in the expressions, phonemic structures. No computer yet has
anything close to the power of a simple natural language to process the extraordinarily complex levels of
information. So language is much more powerful than computers. Issues of the differences between language -
you can write 3 or 4 thousand years of fundamental differentiation in the structuring system of your linguistic
That's the problem, that's the real issue today of not just Boolean logic, not just anglo logic, but vocabulary, but all the edges of each, all the history of each word and each interaction with each context. It's an amazing story. And so what I'm saying is happening now, is that language is regaining the kind of autonomy that it enjoyed in tribal way, in a tribal environment. And we are indeed in some concernable situation that we stand to become bodies again feeding a collective mind with very little individual input. I say we stand in a concernable situation, I'm not saying it is a danger. Why?
Because we don't have to let it become a danger, because we can do something about it - I think we can. I think we are doing it by the way, but we don't want to get lost in such nonsense as spiritualization or in that level of fundamentalism. What we want to do is to have a very precise understanding of the relationship between language and intelligence, and how self-organizing linguistic and intellectual processes can take off and spin so fast that they will fly us out of control. Fast forward and out of control - that's what's happening, but it's a linguistic process. And that's what's interesting and fearful about it.
The consequence number one:
Language regains its autonomy as a processor away from physical, organic bodies. Intelligence begins to invade what was once considered as neutral space. Consequence number two:
Collective and individual access to and control of language coexist for the first time in the same technological environment. That's amazing.
Remember books: you are on your own guys, there is nobody out there, God disappeared by the way. God was eliminated by books - that's very simple. He may come back - we don't know. But he certainly didn't last long when books came around.
What is happening in fact is that for the first time we are now capable of individual input in an environment - that's what the good news is and every thing else is pretty bad news, but that's a good news. We are capable now of individual input in this network environment without it being wiped out systematically by a louder collective voice - radio or TV. And we can speak and be heard. So the opportunity is still there. And the personal local input, the affirmation of local identity and local languages, is still possible on the condition that we accelerate at top speed our consciousness of what is happening and how it is happening.
So basically what I want to show is the problematic. The real problem now is to identify the connections
between language, intelligence and mind. How much autonomy is still left there and how can we use it? How the
intelligence and informed judgment of local bodyground intelligence as opposed to self-organizing structures
which can bypass the individual - how can that be put forward?
And I think that that's where a lot of political discourse gets terribly confused. People say: deregulate! People stay off with the nation and the legal system, let it all hang out, in a different way this time, let it all happen, let it self develop.
Oh maybe, just maybe. But I'm not sure - I'm really not sure. I'm very concerned about that because I think the American model is not one that I would like to see unfold. I think that the Canadians are confused but are one the way to understand something fundamental about this. I think Europeans should get on with the business real fast because otherwise they will stand even less of a chance of opposing the American way of life and the American way of processing information. We should just find out more about how all these self-organizing systems are working.
That's where we found very interesting criteria (on the board of Prix Ars Electronica/ WWW) to deal with, judging intelligent applications basically. In a way our comity ended up favoring intelligent self organizing mixes of human input and technological processing systems. We ended up favoring this in the name of community minds unfolding, structuring, discovering themselves, working out some of their possibilities. It was an important issue because an understanding, not through the lens of efficiency, the market, or the technology for technology's sake - an understanding of the metaphorical implications which is what art brings to these matters of how intelligence is indeed growing out there, how it's unfolding and what are its shapes. Some of them are very beautiful - really - some of them are very moving. Others perhaps are not so beautiful or moving.
But the Japanese - to come back to Prof. Takemura - say that quality - the word quality is represented
by to signs: one that represents something like efficiency and appropriateness , and the other aesthetics.
Am I correct that there is quality made of two concepts - efficiency and aesthetics?
I find that a very balanced view of our understanding, of our technology and a balanced basis from which to judge their value ultimately for us as people. So what we found was, that provided we felt quickly tuned in the self organizing elements of the intelligent system that we were exploring, we could take them or leave them. We could somehow escape their infinitely more powerful grip than anything to do with the traditional market economy of the consuming society or anything to do with the Fascist economy of a society that suddenly takes on a monumental neurosis.
By the way the reason I felt that Mr. Takemura's presentation was so urgent is that the borderline situation in which Japan finds itself as one of the most intelligent and powerful societies in today's world is extremely unsettling. You don't need the atomic bomb anymore to express your emotions. But that's enough - isn't it?
There's a lot of questions, I'm sure, I left a truckload of holes - one of them was a question that this gentleman said that he assumed that I was enjoying, rejoicing in the dematerialization of the body. Correct, that was really - by the way Mc Luhan said the same thing. As the not self-appointed, as the reluctant - one of the reluctant successors of Mc Luhan, I say reluctant not because I don't agree with the old man, but because I don't like the responsibility of that role - number one. And also because I didn't agree with some basic things that Mc Luhan said and - I tell you what they are: One that the electricity is meant to wipe out identity - I don't think it is so or should I say I don't hope it is so. I've to be honest, I don't like the idea. I think that identity has been a very comfortable and useful thing to do, as long as we share it, as long as we can share the coexistence at various levels. There are lots of directions there that would require a long time in any case - when I was saying that I'm not rejoicing in dematerialization. I think it is ridiculous.
Pascal said it all very very well. "L'homme ni ange ni bête, le meilleur que qui veut faire l'ange, fait la bête . - Man is neither angel nor beast, the trouble is that who so ever wants to play the angel becomes the beast". He said it all.
There is a lot of this stuff that's going on today. There goes the spiritualist danger again. Somebody is
going to say I am quoting Pascal, so I'm selling religion to you - no I'm not - what I'm saying is that I don't think
that we are loosing our bodies - I'm not sure we are loosing our minds either, I don't agree with Mc Luhan's
saying - we're wiped out.
But I'm saying something which you better enjoy because it is enjoyable: In the future fare from loosing our bodies we are understanding and our sensitivity to the complexities and the unspeakable intelligence of the body - we'll go and increase exponentially. Our bodies are extraordinary entities that we are part of it and it is part of us completely. The rejoining of body and mind from the old split is not the elimination of consciousness of one or the other but a combination of perception, sensitivity and information taking not just making from this physical reality that we have. And it still remains an organic complexity that is now - once it knows what is really happening with all this system - regaining and retaining a form of authority that a machine can not have. But we have to know things as network arts and information processing, self-organizing systems. We have to know those so that we can get this consciousness stop being so terrified. Because now we are going to move, we are going to just shift our terror from our body to our terror from the big mind out there. That's going to happen.
You know Godzilla and the gas attacks. Dr. Takemura is absolutely right, that is one of the sure types of neurotic
reaction of a society in the grips of the loss of its identity so fast, so quick - they cannot handle it. It is absolutely
true Godzilla - I had once great hopes for Godzilla.
I did some work on Godzilla because I felt that it was indeed an absolutely Japanese myth, and a powerful one, perhaps combining dragon tradition with the Chinese perhaps, certainly dealing with the bomb - unquestionably. But, you may agree or not with me, also representing the motorcar industry taking over the space available for human living in a rather small living space. Producing a lot of pollution, the breath of Godzilla squishing cities, Godzilla is so ... maladroit - clumsily crashing buildings shahh booom.
And I had hope for him because very soon after the Japanese produced Godzilla, they invented Transformers. Transformers is the recovery of the Japanese sensibility from the motorcar industry. Instead of letting yourself be crushed by the machines you just put them on. And how those transformers work, and I owe this to a Canadian friend Steven Klein, Transformers change from one form into another, not to fight an individual war but to combine together as a wall. That is Japanese - instead of fighting with terror, technology and industrialization which is the first stage, the Godzilla's stage, the Japanese get into the second stage of absorption.
There is a third stage coming and I've been trying it to figure it out and I think that you have proposed it this evening by talking about this very interesting desire of the Japanese to somehow plug into Cyberspace without putting on as Transformers, VR masks and data-gloves and the suit. But getting into it in a way that allows them to connect without loosing something which is of their own. And I was fascinated by the image you brought out of the whole man-machine interface being the relationship between two surfaces, which very much all the work on tactile technology seems to indicate if you can translate touch into a surface, you have indeed removed the depth. But I'm not entirely sure that the recovery of our real sense of our bodies will not provide us one avenue to recover the depth.
And I give you an example for that. While we were working, Morgan Russell, Takemura-San and myself , along with Joichi Ito and Franz Manola we had moments of exhaustion coming from waiting forever for the pages to appear, which is an extremely frustrating experience. While this was happening every time then we managed to produce a sound out of the Web, something happened that was not happening with anything else. Because I think that one thing very surprisingly, a very physical kind of thing that the Web was giving us, was sound, was a sense of depth that came from sound. A strange kind paradoxical depth. But then all electronically, technologically enhanced sensory perceptions have a paradoxical depths to themselves. I think that in a way we have to understand that the difference between volume and surface, perhaps in the geometry of Cyberspace, have lost some of their importance. That perhaps that is not the proper discourse anymore to talk about the kind of interfaces that we entertain with network communications.
What is happening is that a lot of our sensations are representations. If we can simulate the representation mechanism, we can also stimulate or trigger the representation response. We have never done anything else. And the way we consume reality has never been any other way than by culturally and technically managed representation. Whether the technology was fire or whether it is the Cyberspace. We always had this kind of interface of internal representation. That's how the brain and nervous system works.
So that these weird extensions that the Now people are talking about - have been talking about some time really - processing directly images into your retina. Your retina is the most external essence of the nervous system and the brain right there in contact with the world. If you can effect it so directly through a system, then you basically have your representation of mechanism coming from outside and the brain responds. The eternal response reacting to them as they would to the self control representation economy or ecology that happens in the various areas of the brain.
So there is a narrowing of the interface gap between technological stimulation and organic response. It is a source of concern. But if we know how it is working then we can start taking decisions about it - we can start accepting it in some ways, negotiate with it. But to prevent ourselves from looking into it - to say: oh stop this - you're loosing your body, your mind or this is terribly dangerous or this is wonderful - are all equally futile and ineffective strategies.
You've got a really look at it and that's why I'm glad we have got so many artists looking into it now, because they are the only ones who can do anything about this. Psychiatrists, psychologists are completely lost. They are no better than our governments with their information-highway fantasies. It's really a problem - I am telling you. It's a very serious issue and thank goodness we are learning very fast.