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Daniel Rourke (M, 39)
London, UK
Immortal since Dec 18, 2007
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All things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of an Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.
- Georges Bataille
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    Polytopia
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...

    The Total Library
    Text that redefines...

    Start your own revolution
    Catching up with the future. All major institutions in the world today are grappling to come to terms with the internet. The entertainment...

    What happened to nature?
    How to stay in touch with our biological origins in a world devoid of nature? The majestic nature that once inspired poets, painters and...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.
    This article was originally published at 3quarksdaily and io9

    Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine's ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

    Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time's grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

    Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

    Like the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

    Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

    In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

    “In the course of my work... I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

    In HMV and Lem’s better known novel, Solaris, the conviction that an absolute true reality exists under the dust of perception leads humanity down ever more winding labyrinths of its own psyche. For Stanislaw Lem the human mind exists in a perpetual state of archaeology, turning away from Itself in search of truth, but time and again finding Itself confronted as the very Thing that underlies the reality it is trying to decipher.

    To transcend phenomena, to clear away the dust, one must, according to Kant, think. Thus his Thing Itself, derives from the Greek for 'thought-of' (nooúmenon) and further implies the concept of the mind (nous). Kant’s Thing Itself is accessed through pure thought. A clear enough mind, devoid of the bodily shackles of pain, pleasure or emotion, might see without seeing, sweeping away the perceptual cobwebs by guile alone. What Plato referred to as the only immortal part of the human soul, reason, becomes through Kant the dominant principle by which The Thing Itself may be reached.

    In the short space I have allotted myself here, I have not the time, or the guile, to fully analyse the Kantian noumenon. Needles to say, countless thinkers, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, Hegel to Agamben, have grappled with the suppositions and presuppositions made to cohere and then crumble by Kant’s addiction to reason. What interests me about science fiction, and most readily about the works of Wells and Lem, is the attempt made to search for 'The Thing Itself' beyond the mind; beyond the human altogether.

    Science fiction allows the creation of an imaginary set of conditions by which the human being may break their most burdonsome shackle: their own mind. Human timescales, bodies, forms of thinking and perception: each of these must be circumvented if one is ever able to grasp The Thing Itself. Kant’s principle of noumenon embodies a discourse on the limits of perception that has remained relevant to philosophy for millenia. The paradox of the archaeology – the arising – of an underlying reality is the defining principle of a thousand sci-fi tales.

    For Stanislaw Lem our limitations become obvious once we are confronted with the existence of an intelligence which is not human. Lem’s novels seek to connect us with the absolute ‘other’: that most alien of Things, ourselves. Reality, for Lem at least, is composed in an indecipherable language. Humanity lives in an eternal stasis, unable to circum-navigate the new realities it constantly 'discovers' for itself. And in the end we find ourselves limited by the brains that think us, unable to distinguish the twinkle-twinkle from the little star:

    “There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural...

    Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

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    Before the printed book there was the book as relic, the book as idol to knowledge. Those who could read dictated to the masses who could not. Books were material conduits to hidden, immaterial territories, placed out of reach of the proletariat – atop the holy pulpit or concealed within the labyrinthine catacombs of the private library – books were of the other, were unreachable.

    For a long time the book’s inaccessibility is what granted it an authority. Instances from the stream of time were made real once admitted to the pages of the book. The performed biblical enumeration was a creative act, forging the words of the Priest into a material truth which the audience could almost reach out and touch, almost but not quite. As Susan Stewart notes:

    “The book stands in tension with history, a tension reproduced in the microcosm of the book itself, where reading takes place in time across marks which have been made in space.” – On Longing, Page 22 – Duke University Press, 1993

    History was true, it had form because it was manifest in the pages of the book. This belief in the formative capacity of the book created a culture of desire. It was thus inevitable that the book, once given a symbolic new life by the ink of the printing press, would find its way into the hands of the masses.

    In time written language became the omnipresent signifier of freedom, of knowledge. The authority of the book was shifted to the word itself. If one could read, one had the authority only previously wielded by the few. Reading was a powerful gesture of self-realisation. The authority was now one’s own. This self resolving revolution came at a time of even greater existential resistance in the West. Martin Luther had placed the power of religion in the hands of the individual. Continental art was developing a fascination with the Earthly human not seen since the time of Aristotle. The book still had encoded within it the authority of the word, only now it was the individual who carried the means to crack that code. Access to the highest of truths was not a privilege, but a right. David Lodge:

    “Phenomena such as memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual’s sense of self, became of central importance to the speculative thinkers and writers of narrative literature alike... The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.” – Consciousness and the Novel, Page 40 – Penguin Books, 2003

    The contents of the book became equivalent with the contents of consciousness. Words affected an inner space, twisted an internal narrative, were dictated by a clock that ticked in the mind of the reader. Books began to evolve. The novel is probably the most important of the forms which transpired. Its tendency to focus in on the mind or actions of a single individual gave readership an empathetic union with what was read. Where previously truth had been a feature of the world which stories reflected, now truth was an author’s prerogative. Stories in books were self-contained realities able to control the minds of their readers. Suddenly the authors of books were the bringers of authority, of authenticity. But not everyone agreed.

    Books were now seen as having such power over the individual that they could be banned, burned en-mass, wiped from history. All the major political, psychological and intellectual upheavals of the 20th Century came with their associated book, whether actively chosen or emerging in retrospect. And with the power of retrospect many claimed that books had foretold the World Wars, the rise (and fall) of Communism, the death of history, the death of the author - even the death of the book itself. Books from the past were re-examined via new theories, new technologies of the intellect. Marxist, Freudian, Post Modern... In a world where the individual ruled, books had become the ultimate artefacts of history. A new code emerged, one which an everyday reader would not necessarily understand. A book could not merely be read anymore, it must be examined under the most explicit of conditions in order to tease apart the infinite tangles of culture that had accumulated within it. In the latter half of the 20th Century a new view began to consume the academic establishment, that truth was a misnomer.

    Since that time many arguments have been fought over where true authenticity lies, and how to mediate the multiplicities that the book encompasses. In the past ten years or so it is the masses that have been given the privilege. The internet binds us together and explodes readership. For the first time in history the act of reading can be considered a truly communal experience. Web-entities such as Wikipedia and Blogger have allowed information and knowledge to authenticate itself. Cultural evolution can occur at the click of an 'edit' link, and if it doesn’t exist in the pages of Wikipedia, well, then it isn’t worth noting.

    But what now of the book? That tome of knowledge, of history, of somewhat questionable self-located truths? Once again the book is emerging as an idol, only this time to itself. As mass produced information slowly moves from the printed page to the computer screen, to hand-held digital-ink devices, so the value of the printed word will transmogrify. Books will re-assume an identity that revolves around their individuality rather than ours. Artists books, self-published limited prints, historically significant palimpsests – these are the books we will come to register our faith in. Books will no longer represent a simulacrum of the idea they encompass – as in the mass-produced paperback – instead they will act as archaeological signifiers to otherwise un-locatable pasts. The internet contains buried beneath its surface a copy of its previous selves. Browsing the ‘history’ section of any Wikipedia article is like projecting your perspective back a few edits. Take time to navigate through The Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine and pristine, perfect versions of internet history will find their way into the archived menus of your internet browser. The data we perceive in books is very different. Each copy of a book is different, it has a history beyond the content it attempts to justify. My copy of Gravity’s Rainbow is a microcosm of the journeys I have taken it on/it has taken me on. Particles splashed onto it from a Croatian sea shore, specks of my sandwich from Venice airport, pencil scribbles and every single word they circle in an order I defined as I sat and took in some of the words, misread others, allowed other still to fall through the sieve of my conscious mind into the unconscious well beneath.

    And books can be re-read in ways as yet inconceivable for the internet. Take The Archimedes Palimpsest for instance, a text of significance for its archaeological value as well as for the fresh insight it gives scholars into the mind and works of the ancient mathematician. Contained within its multiple, physical layers are histories that scientists have had to design new technological means to access. Shine a laser onto the calcified pages and beneath each a multi-verse of forms emerge, each layer needing to be decoded separately, each signifier spanning off into infinite possible meanings beyond. Books are crucial to our understanding of our place in time and space, because they are fundamentally composed of time and space. They carry with them the history of thought, of physical presence and of psychological evolution that created them, moved them forward and now sends them explosively back into their own pasts. To understand ourselves we need to understand our pasts, to understand our pasts we need to examine the artefacts we carry with us, which carry us forwards:

    Michael Shanks: A lot of people think that archaeology—archaeologists—discover the past. And that's only a tiny bit true. I think it's more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past—maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery... but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what's left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We're all archaeologists now, working on what's left of the past.

    ... as we explore this stuff, we figure out how to bring it forward, first into the present, through our interpretation of it...

    Lynn Hershmann Leeson: Exactly. Revitalize the past, inserting it into the present, which gives direction to its future.

    Michael Shanks: Yeah. Displacement is another key feature of this archaeological sensibility. What happens when old stuff—remains—are shirted into new associations...

    And, actually, this is what archaeological science has always offered—accounts of everyday life with which we can all identify and yet find uncanny. It may simply be a thumbprint upon an ancient pot that connects an inconsequential past moment with the present; it may be the evidence of the lives of those who built a place like Stonehenge. It is the archaeological focus on the everyday that many people find fascinating.

    Lynn Hershmann Leeson: Because these are the relics of ourselves.”

    – Archaeologist Michael Shanks in discussion with artist Lynn Hershman Leeson : Extract taken from Seed Magazine, October 2007


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