Commentary on Bruce Sterling’s “The Blast Shack”
Since KK emailed me the link to Bruce Sterling’s “The Blast Shack“, I’ve been reading and re-reading Sterling’s sometimes witty (and sometimes not) observations about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. As much as for what Sterling doesn’t say (or contextualise) as for what he does say about the meaning of Assange, I thought I would post something about Sterling’s piece. It’s one of the better commentaries out there about the meaning of Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
“So it’s going to take me a while to explain why this highly newsworthy event fills me with such a chilly, deadening sense of Edgar Allen Poe melancholia.”
One of the first lines in the article, this one grabbed my attention and held it throughout. “Melancholia” is a strange word to use relation to the events described, but if you were with The Dark Age Blog you may recall that I discussed this sense of “melancholia” at length as it appeared at almost epidemic scale in the early Renaissance and Late Middle Ages. It reappears again today for much the same reasons, although we tend to call it “malaise”.
Melancholia, or “the black bile”, was epidemic in the early modern period. The physician Richard Burton wrote a very thick book on the social problem called The Anatomy of Melancholy in his time (1621). I’m fortunate to have a copy of it. The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) did a famous etching entitled Melencolia that captures much of the mood of it, and especially of that “dull icy feeling” that Sterling mentions as his own response to the meaning of Assange. This Melancholia is revisited upon us today for much the same reasons as then. A widespread sense of malaise that attends also a sense of loss. There is, in Sterling’s piece, a grieving for the old that is ambiguously coincident with a hopeful anticipation for the new. This is mood is characteristic of times of rapid social and historical transition. In a sense, it might be comparable to post-partum depression, which is also transitional effect. Nonetheless, in contemporary terms we would call this “malaise”, as reflected in the title of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s book The Malaise of Modernity.
“So Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability… Wikileaks is “underground” in the way that the NSA is “covert”….”
In other words, it’s simply an event whose time has come — whose time had to come. What lies “underground” is seed. What is covert is masked and camouflaged. The association of the words “volcanic” with “underground” recalls Jean Gebser’s use of the term “irruption” to describe the emergence of a new structure of consciousness, which is an in-structed way or mode of perceiving. This shift in the sensorium was already foreseen decades ago in the work of Marshall McLuhan. There has emerged an essential historical discontinuity between his “Typographical Man” of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the Digital-Electronic Man of the Global Brain. A little further on in “The Blast Shack”, Sterling describes the meaning of Assange in just those terms,
“If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange. The Internet is about his age, and it doesn’t have any more care for the delicacies of profit, propriety and hierarchy than he does.”
In effect, that is what McLuhan’s motto “the medium is the message” amounts to. A new medium introduces a new bias in our sensorium — that is to say, a new ratio between and amongst the senses which results in a new modus of conscious relationship to reality. Assange represents this, which makes him almost incomprehensible to an older sensibility. That is another way of saying that a change in media of representation also reconfigures our perception of the truth being represented, and of what is perceived as the real. Sterling’s quip about Assange being the embodiment of the Internet is somewhat to the point. For Assange, what is presently being called “the Global Brain” is the true reality. The nation-state and corporate system of fragmented, sectional, and fractious legal entities is the truly fictitious and the unreal — a mass illusion and delusion that persists only because of an implicit “conspiracy” that he feels compelled to disrupt after having ingeniously discovered a way of doing so — mass leakage of the electronic signals along its neural pathways. No one really directs or controls this conspiracy. It is more a covert rather than an overt conspiracy that functions more along the lines of “groupthink”, as discussed earlier. In fact, Sterling characterises Assange — quite accurately I think — as a “post-national” life-form and species. What would that be but what we have elsewhere called a “global soul”?
And it doesn’t really matter how open, transparent, or diaphanous the global soul is in reality. To old perception, the global soul is an opaque and imponderable mystery that must be snuffed out. And so you see Assange condemned and demonised in the most absurdly inappropriate and inapplicable terms as “traitor” or “terrorist” or “sociopath”, and so on.
If you have seen George Lucas’s early film THX 1138, the theme is much the same. I watched this again the other day. Here also there is a “conspiracy”, as such, but there are no central controllers or directors of the conspiracy. The mood of the movie THX 1138 is probably a good rendition of how Assange also feels about the nation-state system (or “international community),” insofar as the society depicted in Lucas’s film is just one great instance of groupthink which by its very functioning suppresses those things that Assange holds dear — freedom, truth, and self-realisation. It’s the totality of the social and mental environment in THX 1138 that constitutes the authoritarian conspiratorial regime. Nobody directs it. Nobody controls it. It is what is called “the System”. In that sense, the system is autonomous juggernaut. This system is pretty much what Assange refers to as the groupthink entity that functions as a single “cognitive device”.
Sterling turns to the figure of Bradley Manning, summarising his feelings for the soldier’s fate with the wonderful metaphor,
“I don’t have the heart to make this transgressor into some hockey-puck for an ideological struggle. I sit here and I gloomily contemplate his all-too-modern situation with a sense of Sartrean nausea.”
Manning has become that, of course. The metaphor is apt, and it points also to one of the central critiques Jean Gebser has of the “deficient rationality” of the mental-rational structure of consciousness in its present decline and decadence (Sterling’s phrase “all-too-modern” has the same feel to it as Gebser’s “deficient rationality”). We have called this our “post-Enlightenment” rationality. Rationality, become deficient, is less concerned with truth or falsehood than it is with winning or losing, which are issues of power and will to power. This is one reason — maybe the main reason — why so many people today sense the Wizard of Oz and Alice-in-Wonderland character of the Late Modern era. Describing and de-personalising Bradley Manning as a “hockey-puck” in an ideological struggle makes this into an issue of winners and losers, and the “hockey-puck” is the manipulation of images and symbols as a means to gain ideological advantage rather than as a means to disclosing or revealing the truth or falsehood of our human situation. Assange is principally in the unveiling business, which is why, Sterling notes, he doesn’t give a fig for “profit, propriety and hierarchy”. You may note the these three values are, in some ways, the inverted or perverted forms of the triad of values that Assange holds ultimately dear — freedom, truth, and self-realisation. These values are now on a collision course, just as the patriot mentality and the global soul are on a collision course (as is “mentality” and “soul” as values). These are two different forms of self or identity in terms of a modern self and a transmodern self.
(You may also ask yourself why it is that such declarations of values always seem to come in triadic form — or appear in pyramid form. Here we have “profit, propriety, and hierarchy” contrasted with “freedom, truth, and self-realisation” — or, in other terms equally triadic: “truth, justice, and the American Way”, or “liberty, equality, fraternity”, or dialectically in terms of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”. Although three is also the number of magical incantation, and is also the shape of a pyramid and the dimensions of space, it is also the form of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I suspect that there is still an ancient religious impulse that, subliminally, still directs our thought and action and which provides an unconscious blueprint for understanding and representing values.)
The impending collision of the nation-state supremacy model and the ascendancy of the global brain is also well expressed by Sterling,
“Unfortunately for the US State Department, they clearly shouldn’t have been messing with computers, either. In setting up their SIPRnet, they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange.”
The real “clash of civilisations” is not what Samuel Huntington believed, whose thought is still mired in increasingly and desperately antiquated and obsolete models. Huntington wanted to deflect and divert the internecine “culture war” in the West into the international arena as a global ideological war between peoples rather than conflict between past and future in time. It’s an old con man’s and pick-pocket’s trick, after all, called “direction by indirection”. Divert the sucker’s attention elsewhere while you pick his wallet. But the real clash now unfolding is the conflict between the future and the past — between planetary civilisation and “the international community” — the nation-state system and its partnerships in the corporate-state constellation. (We’ve already witnessed the corporations defensively circling their wagons around the state — Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Apple, Bank of America, etc in reaction to what Assange and Wikileaks represent).
There is now no way to avoid this confrontation. It will be a brutal and feral struggle between old power and new consciousness, between the Nation State and the Global Brain. This is the Clash of the Titans in our time. As new consciousness becomes more confident of itself and its resources, it will also become more effective and lethal in the struggle with old power. This alignment is already taking shape and was taking shape before Assange and Wikileaks appeared on the scene. What Assange has done, in effect, is to bring it into focus with amazing perspicuity. He’s called out the whole notion of “the international community” as being a fraud and has challenged the nation-state system to justify itself and its legitimacy. In fact, he’s challenged pretty much the whole Modern Era to justify itself. That’s pretty bold. I don’t know of any precedent for this except (as noted earlier) man’s challenge to the gods to justify themselves and their claims to dominate and regulate human life. He’s not acting as an individual, though. He’s acting as a representative and agency of the global brain. But, as Sterling put it,
“I don’t even think Assange is all that big on ego; I know authors and architects, so I’ve seen much worse than Julian in that regard. He’s just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for.”
That’s to the point, actually. And that apparent fearlessness makes Assange a frightening figure to many — a blasphemer and heretic even — who can’t find words for this “something” which Assange is, even to his friends and confidantes. And apparently, to Sterling as well, who fumbles the ball and stutters for the right words here by taking Assange all-too-personally (none of which is the point). It’s not ego that drives Assange, it’s the absence of ego that makes him appear “chilly”
“Furthermore, and not as any accident, Assange has managed to alienate everyone who knew him best. All his friends think he’s nuts. I’m not too thrilled to see that happen. That’s not a great sign in a consciousness-raising, power-to-the-people, radical political-leader type. Most successful dissidents have serious people skills and are way into revolutionary camaraderie and a charismatic sense of righteousness. They’re into kissing babies, waving bloody shirts, and keeping hope alive. Not this chilly, eldritch guy.”
Ah well… Assange doesn’t fit the mold of man or of our primitive expectations of what man is or should be by dictionary definitions. So, even Sterling lapses into nostalgic stereotype, even though he sees this distancing being not in any way an “accident” on Assange’s part. But if it’s not accident, isn’t it then a deliberate distancing — a protective distancing perhaps? The alleged iciness of Assange — his apparent indifference to his own safety in drawing down upon himself the wrath of the State is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s instruction to his men and women of the future — to become hard, to become icy, to become remote — which is to say resilient, durable, and enduring because they would have to bear and suffer much for the sake of the transhuman future.
It’s interesting that Sterling, sensibly, sees absence of egotism in Assange’s motives where others — less astute and discerning — charge Assange with self-aggrandising egotism. But it’s actually the absence of such egotism that allows Assange to be enduring and resilient against the kinds of pressures and stresses that would make any ordinary everyday ego — such as our disapproving and timid scribblers in the mainstream press — break down, collapse, and grovel at the feet of power. Lucas has that kind of faux dissident character, too, in his film THX 1138 — the man who breaks down and grovels when push comes to shove.
But Assange is a man who is responding to an overpowering sense of calling. That calling gives him a sense of mission and purpose. That purpose is his all and it overrides self-interest. And only people without any sense of calling, task, or great purpose themselves would mistake that as egoism or as a vain quest for personal martyrdom. Assange is a man who feels personally called (the “vocation” in the true sense). And that sense of vocation or calling changes everything. Yet even a sympathetic Sterling gets this wrong because he, too, probably could never understand why early Christians, for example, went willingly to the lions in the Roman Colleseum, or why the great Sufi Al-Hafiz danced in his chains to his torture and execution for his blasphemy of declaring “I am Truth!”. That is how decadent a merely calculating rationality has become that has confused means and ends.
Assange, on the other hand, has not confused means and ends. This enrages those who have confused means with ends.
“He’s a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a “terrorist,” because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a “spy,” because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us.”
Julian Assange’s extremely weird version of dissident “living in truth” doesn’t bear much relationship to the way that public life has ever been arranged. It does, however, align very closely to what we’ve done to ourselves by inventing and spreading the Internet. If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange. The Internet is about his age, and it doesn’t have any more care for the delicacies of profit, propriety and hierarchy than he does.
So Julian is heading for a modern legal netherworld, the slammer, the electronic parole cuff, whatever; you can bet there will be surveillance of some kind wherever he goes, to go along with the FREE ASSANGE stencils and xeroxed flyers that are gonna spring up in every coffee-bar, favela and university on the planet. A guy as personally hampered and sociopathic as Julian may in fact thrive in an inhuman situation like this. Unlike a lot of keyboard-hammering geeks, he’s a serious reader and a pretty good writer, with a jailhouse-lawyer facility for pointing out weaknesses in the logic of his opponents, and boy are they ever. Weak, that is. They are pathetically weak.”
They are pathetically weak in the face of Assange’s mental onslaughts only because they have confused means and ends. Always the man or woman of the new historical type is interpreted as a “sociopath”, a “traitor”, or even a “terrorist” — the loner, the outsider, the genuinely creative human being who challenges the rules and turns history on its head. We are back to the deficient logic of the Inquisition. And if indeed Assange is “something we don’t yet have words for” (although I might suggest a few), then it is pointlessly misleading and vain to use all the old words to describe this “something”. And if Assange’s “living in truth” in fact “doesn’t bear much relationship to the way that public life has ever been arranged”, that’s no argument against this “living in truth” at all.
It may well be an argument, though, against the way that public and social life has hitherto been arranged in historical terms. And that is Assange’s whole point.