on dada & the web: “so anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation”

from Andrei Codrescu’s The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess

 

internet(s): The electronic communication and information networks that call themselves, grandly, the World Wide Web (WWW) are the current winners of a long battle of webs. At a time when there were fewer humans and they were of necessity more aware of their environment, especially the things that they could eat or that might eat them, there was a well-functioning web of interhuman, interspecies, and interregnum communication maintained by shamans (holy men). The shamans were the servers of the prehistoric world, capable of understanding animals and reading landscape. Human thoughts were communicated long-distance by means of shaman-boosting stations (some of the shamans lived, literally, in trees or on mountaintops for better reception), and the faith of all humans in the interconnectedness of mind and habitat was unshakable. This ancient web was destroyed by greedy shamans and charlatans who began charging for the connection when people began to take their services for granted, that is to say, when their faith became so unshakable it became unconscious. This psychic web that connected all living things functioned well to the end of the neolithic, when questions about the servers arose. Why was the evident interconnectedness metered by a class of crazed bums who didn’t do anything more than pass on messages through the atmosphere? Did they not get freely fed from the community stores? The first “revolution” must have been the establishment of a set of rules for shamans, the first of which was “purity.” The shamans had to stay incorruptible, ascetic if possible, before they could be overcome by greed. Tough gig. Not long after, there arose a priestly class that not only metered intercommunication, which must have seemed to most Stone Age people like charging for breathing the air, but put actual impediments in place, making it impossible for your average hunter to have a quick conversation with his guardian-spirit without offering some absurdly expensive sacrifice. The advent of private property, and the desirability of hilltops and the consequent development of an army to guard them, made it imperative for the priestly class of web-servers to make the three-tiered alliance that held through several millennia, namely, royalty, the military, and the shamans. These last actually grew in importance since they arrogated to themselves not only planetary and cosmic intercommunication, but also the disposition of matter into the afterlife. Neolithic man would have laughed like an animal, which herm was, if the shamans of herm day had attempted such a power grab. Various webs functioned after the free, original version, in forms that were restricted mostly to the social networks of the three-tiered power structure, though the technology of access became more and more complex: gods, oracles, prayers, expensive pilgrimages, rituals, and, eventually, religions and religious wars. Numerous cultures with a good knowledge of interconnectivity survived outside the empires and held on to their knowledge through the use of plant-teachers, but they had to keep their servers hidden and couch their technology in language that obscured it. The imperial civilizations that wrote history were shaken up byintermittent revolutions that demanded the instant return of planetary and interplanetary communication to the people. The European Renaissance produced a shift in perspective that led to the creation of a new internet based on memory. Giordano Bruno’s “Theater of Memory” was an attempt to classify and hold all the world’s knowledge in one’s own head by means of an architectural image, a theater. A single person would be able to know everything possible by placing the memories of everything one had learned within various levels, loges, and areas of a grand imaginary theater that could be visualized in detail with a little practice. The placement of so much knowledge in a single image did not exactly solve the problem of how to connect all those discrete bundles in their allotted places, without creating a lot of confusion. Bruno’s Memory Theater (based on older Greek and Roman models of the same idea, and on countless treatises on Ars Memoria since) does not answer another obvious question: what play is going on onstage while all these memories sit in their seats? Or is the stage the place where they come to interconnect, which is the performance? After Giordano Bruno, who was also an alchemist, who intuited the changeability of elements and the existence of as-yet-undescribed energies, the question of interconnectivity and networking became more and more concerned with the disposition and classification of knowledge. It occurred to a few people that the vast and quickly accumulating quantity of what is still called “knowledge” in some circles was only a mountain (or sea) of storage devices for the description of the world by people: tablets, books, mathematical and chemical formulas.

 

 

Means of organizing this “knowledge,” such as taxonomies and grammars, were greeted with howls of delight by the custodians of institutions charged with storing all the information. Interconnectivity, which used to be a matter of cosmic understanding and telepathic transmission, applied for at least three centuries only to connecting recorded information. The sentimental and social life of people still asking about God, nature, and the cosmos went unaddressed by the new priests ofscience. Mystics and philosophers stumbled occasionally on some part of the old Web and inferred from that the existence of a much vaster and older network. Teillhard de Chardin, a Christian philosopher, posited the existence of the “noosphere” (from the Greek for mind, nous), a thought sphere that connected all people for the purposes of helping divinity evolve, giving shape to Le Christ-Evoluteur. Others, like Madame Blavatsky, a theosophist, simply traveled back and forth between virtual worlds, like a hot-air balloon without a navigation system. Still, neither mystics nor philosophers could correct the great misunderstanding beginning to take root in Europe after the Enlightenment: scientists were beginning to, literally, mistake their mountains of description for the world, to substitute descriptive virtuality for reality. This was the hubris at the start of the “communication” revolution. In 1934, a Belgian eccentric named Paul Otlet “sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or ‘electric telescopes,’ as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a ‘réseau,’ which might be translated as ‘network’—or arguably, ‘web.’”59 Paul Otlet’s project, called “the Mundaneum,” collected an extraordinary number of documents and images, but was forgotten after the nazis occupied Belgium and destroyed most of his work. Ahead of the discoverers of the present-day internet by Americans like Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee, who released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet envisioned not only the information highway, but also the hyperlink, by means of which, he wrote, “anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.” Otlet, like the creators of the World Wide Web, solved the problem of what to do with the accumulated records of humanity. In a very short time, the advent of the modern internet made it possible for individuals to communicate with one another in a pretty fair simulacrum of the original interconnectivity of the Neolithic. The modern internet is, however, only a simulacrum, no matter how fast or efficient it gets, and no matter how quickly we  internalize it (which is only a matter of seconds). So what’s the problem? The problem, said Tristan Tzara in his essay “Francis Picabia, pensées sans langage,” is that “The philosophical myriapoda have broken some wooden or metal legs, and even some wings, between the stations Truth-Reality. There was always something that could not be grasped: life.”60 Indeed. The question is: can anyone enclosed in and in debt to a network still experience life? Or is our new interconnectivity the actual parenthesis or quotes around life, a.k.a. nature? Has the time come to stop communicating and start looking? Someone born before the internet, like myself, is experiencing as excess of communication, but this is surely just a result of fatigue and the big learning curve. Or is it? My students, to whom the internet is second nature, feel liberated by their ability to go anywhere for a description. The problem, exactly. Even if total immersion becomes possible, virtuality will only lead its resident to another virtuality. Let’s say a flesh-and-blood networker meets another virtually-conditioned real human over the network and, let’s say, they have sex, they make a baby, they live in an automated house and society, they have a seamless web of a life . . . until. Until Catastrophe. Storms, marauding dadas, bored speed freaks . . . something unvirtual breaks upon them. Then what? What happens then is that their social network cuts them off. Real victims do not exist in the virtual world. In the virtual world there are only happy endings: there is no room for either Catastrophe or Miracle. The internet will be (if it isn’t already) just another (re)distribution of power among social networks that have the fatal weakness of being virtual. Happily. Happily, virtuality is the fatal weakness of virtual communities and their members. Why happily? Because we are artists, that’s why. We have no taste, but a stubborn desire to make you taste something else. We will not perform virtual theater because it’s redundant. We like contradictory warm-blooded people who have a thing for rocks and animals. Not a thing about knowing things about rocks and animals, but a thing for the actual real rocks and animals. Do we have an epistemological problem? Yes, we do. Take a dada to bed and see me in the morning. We are in a very strange place in the new euphoric world of interactivity in which, as I said before, everyone is an artist. That means the following: any signal articulated by anyone into the World Wide Web becomes instantly linked to everyone else’s, making it not only possible, but mandatory, to be other people. If theater in the past involved the rather time-consuming arts of costuming, from inventing and playing the character to making herm clothes, the Web assembles the dramatis persona on the spot, returns herm to the sender and to herm’s potential audience without delay; the audience feedback is instant; from conception to feedback and back and then back and back again through an infinite hall of (re)invention and feedback, any original intention can be turned into a surprising objet. In effect, the objet hardly matters, except to people who like to collect things (i.e., stop the process at some more-or-less solid stage), because the conceptual machine set in motion by anyone’s desire, or any desire at all, will run on forever. The Dada job now would consist of the disruption of networks, an incredible effort of the imagination at a time when social networks are proliferating at the speed of light, literally abolishing time. My Face, My Space, My Body, My Soul, My Idea, etc., are really everybody’s face, body, soul, ideas, and will eventually pixelate and automate its members, unless the virgin microbe confuses them. Why should it? Because an actor in the past could step out of herm costume and get drunk in the demimonde, while the morphing hyperlinked entity can no longer disengage. Networking now is like superglue: look at all the flies trying to get their feet out of the screen! Try to remember what your name was before you signed on. Can’t? Try “No One.” We are now art whether we like it or not, making the revolt against art more urgent than ever, which is exactly what Tzara meant when he said, speaking of Tristan Corbière: “Words no longer seemed to him anything more than derisory or criminal instruments. But Corbière himself, who everywhere discovered signs which remained pure in primitive cultures and in folklore, would obviously never have thought about it if he hadn’t first loved these people for themselves, people who in their popular expressions have nothing but themselves to give.”61 Lucky Corbière! There were still primitives about, filled with the freshness of expression that still carried something of the ancient web about it. Are they still about? One could make a case for religious fundamentalists as the exponents of the last romantic revolt against the promiscuity of information, but this is hardly the case. Religious guerrillas today are fighting for control of state power, like the bolsheviks; the texts that legitimize their leaders for the ignorant are read no more literally than Lenin read Marx. The Dada (missionary) position on this is that the genuine work now would be to return individuals to themselves with time to germinate in the dark, without being part of everyone else in the world. Is this even possible? It certainly isn’t desirable from any reasonable point of view, except the absolutely negative opinion that a vast extortion of human energies is at work, for purposes not clearly understood. Today’s internet is an impersonator of the ancient web and is still in the hands of techno-shamans who still charge for the air. I am Dada-bound to suspect the enterprise of demonism. A dada must battle the obvious, especially if it’s inevitable. Futility tastes like (insert innocence-metaphor here) mother’s milk, first taste of peach, an unusually long and salty word spoken late in the night outside a shady bar. To love singular people with primitive connections to the divine, and expressions that are still unmediated (or only humanly mediated) in an intensely e-mediated world, involves, first of all, stripping yourself down, getting rid of all your screen-names and personae, and then finding other people unmediating themselves while living in trees they won’t allow to be cut, like my hero, Julia Butterfly.62 This is the opposite of seeing your reflections in My Space. Making yourself up for fun, which was the old Dada, has now come up against the new Dada, which is the necessity to strip down to whatever self you once had, and become a tree.

 

NOTES

 

59. Alex Wright, “The Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium,” New York Times, June 17, 2008. 231

 

60. Tristan Tzara, “Francis Picabia, pensées sans langage,” translated by Barbara Wright in Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries.

 

61. Preface by Tristan Tzara to Les Amours Jaunes by Tristan Corbière (Paris: Le Club Français du Livre, 1950).

 

62. “For 738 days Julia Butterfly Hill lived in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree, called Luna, to help make the world aware of the plight of ancient forests. Julia, with the great help of steelworkers and environmentalists, successfully negotiated to permanently protect the 1,000 year-old tree and a nearly three-acre buffer zone. Her two-year vigil informed the public that only 3% of the ancient redwood forests remain and that the Headwaters Forest Agreement, brokered by state and federal agencies and Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation, will not adequately protect forests and species.” http://www.circleoflifefoundation.org/inspiration/julia/.

 

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