During this present moment of breathtaking global turmoil that’s characterized by crumbling foundational assumptions and free-falling civilizational presuppositions, the above video, published at BoingBoing, may constitute the most necessary viewing on the entire internet. Words and narration by long-time Teeming Brain friend Erik Davis. Card manipulation by renowned magician and “magic experience designer” Ferdinando Buscema. Musical soundscape by Bluetech. Overall production and direction by Italian mentalist Francesco Tesei. All of it focused on the matter of “the ongoing pandemic, disorder, and the opportunity emerging from the entropy.” (Thank you, btw, to Teem member David Metcalfe for alerting me to the video’s existence with a tweet.)
The first part of Erik’s narration sets the philosophical scene:
Everyone knows what a house of cards is. But until recently, you probably didn’t realize you actually lived in one. Normally, we ignore the complexity of the human world around us, this network of unstable structures propped up through improvised designs and just-in-time responses. But the pandemic has now shown us just how flimsy these structures are. Now we can all sense the fragility of our institutions, especially for the most vulnerable. The mask is off. From financial markets to health care, from jobs to the food supply, from debt to news, we can feel the rickety edifice of civilization begin to wobble and crack. The rug, it seems, is being pulled out from under us. And as we hunker down, anxious and isolated, our own personal realities begin to disintegrate as well.
Erik goes on to point out that such periods of crumbling structures and their accompanying apocalyptic anxieties, which have erupted into human affairs throughout history, bring with them an unexpectedly salubrious result and a major opportunity as they deliver us from the unacknowledged prison of what we have mistakenly thought of as solid, permanent arrangements, and toss us right into the heart of “the chaos that precedes all creation.”
That particular wording brings to mind the theologian Catherine Keller and her article “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” a portion of which I used nearly 20 years ago, with her permission, as the closing epigraph to my Divinations of the Deep. More recently, in fact just last month, she and her fellow theologian John J. Thatamanil wrote an op-ed for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal titled “Is this an Apocalypse? We certainly hope so — and you should too.” Their point, which they built around the original and profound meaning of the word “apocalypse” (something I’ve talked about here many times in the past), resonates warmly with the house of cards illustration above:
Contemporaries keep using the term “apocalypse,” but literalist biblical interpretation notwithstanding, the term doesn’t mean what many think it means. Deriving from the Greek apokalypsis, the word means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Hence, the title given to the final book of the Christian Bible, “The Apocalypse of John,” is accurately translated “Revelation” not “Cataclysm.” Not “The End.” Unfortunately, this root meaning has been forgotten in popular circles.
When the term is understood as “unveiling,” we can then ask the right questions: What does this pandemic unveil? What have we refused to see about ourselves and the precarious world we’ve built, a world that now stands exposed and tottering in the harsh light of this unasked-for revelation? If we permit this crisis to expose the fissures of our failing world, this pandemic will have served as properly apocalyptic. If instead, despite its devastating toll, we return to an obsolete and unsustainable world, nothing meaningful will have been revealed. . . .
So what might coronavirus “reveal” to us? Is it at once our inescapable interdependence with an earth-full of humans and nonhumans? Does that entanglement turn deadly when we repress it? When we think we can control, commodify and consume the matter of the world, does it bite back at our own mattering bodies? . . .
Perhaps, if we are able to awaken to what is unveiled in this apocalyptic moment, we will make our way forward into a new world rather than shore up the old one. . . .
[W]hat are the chances for a habitable and hospitably shared future? Close to none, if responsibility for the damage remains concealed. Which is why, even in the midst of flood, fire, or pandemic — a way, a wisdom, can get revealed. Apocalypse after all? May it be so!
As I myself argued here some seven years ago, apocalypse, rightly regarded, is a path of spiritual awakening. You walk it when you deliberately allow and encourage the crumbling of surface appearances and seemingly solid structures around you, and even within you, to serve as spurs to awakening. When you let the death of the false, which you had formerly and mistakenly regarded as the true, wake you up to the real. When you embrace the exit from Plato’s Cave because somebody blew it up around you. When you embrace the desert of the real that came into view when you woke up from the Matrix because somebody pulled the plug.
As I said seven years ago, like any real spiritual path, this is ultimately not something that you choose but something that chooses you. And as it so happens, with the advent of the Coronacene, the Way of Apocalypse has apparently chosen all of us at once. It remains to be seen how many of us will prove to be like Cypher, who begged to be plugged back into the Matrix, to reenter the dream because he hated reality. How many of us will be like the prisoners in the cave who didn’t want to leave because they loved their imprisonment. We’re seeing aspects of that particular psychological and cultural tension beginning play out right now. The quote from Philip K. Dick that rounds out the house of cards video (drawn from his 1978 speech/essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” whose title helps to explain the title of the video) supplies a necessary and steadying insight for such things:
Do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.
I first heard of ibogaine from Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, even though he had previously written about it in Breaking Open the Head, which is still in my reading queue. He also talked about it in a 2003 Guardian article titled “Ten years of therapy in one night,” whose teaser reads: “Could a single trip on a piece of African rootbark help a junkie kick the habit? That was the claim in the 1960s, and now iboga is back in the spotlight. But is it a miracle cure? Daniel Pinchbeck decided to give it a go. And life, he says, will never be the same again.”
Now R.U. Sirius, the man who helped to break open my own head at the tender age of 18 when I started reading Reality Hackers, later to become Mondo 2000, later to morph, sort of, into Wired, has compared ibogaine to the wake-up pill offered by Morpheus to Neo:
Ibogaine is a hallucinogenic compound containing Iboga, a substance largely found in the African Tabernanthe Iboga root. It’s safe to say it’s the world’s least popular psychedelic substance. An Ibogaine trip lasts 36 hours and is understood to launch the deepest probe into personal psychological material available to humans on planet earth. A couple of hours into the experience, the Ibogaine tripper experiences an irresistible need to lie down and close her eyes. After than, (s)he will usually receive information — often experienced as though watching scenes on a giant screen — about all the accumulated traumatic events and the other types of awkward, uncomfortable, pathetic elements of personality and experience that the vulnerable human organism represses — partially or entirely — in order to “grow up” and maintain the socialized ego required by a complicated and competitive civilization.
What seems to emerge from these experiences is not a shipwrecked husk of a human being (as occasionally happened with LSD). It’s more like the tripper has undergone a very positive “extreme makeover” — but not one of a superficial sort. Indeed, many of those in the West who have had the opportunity (and need) to experience Ibogaine arrived at the experience as shipwrecked husks — they were drug addicts.
My sense is that most people would rather “work on themselves” for 40 years than be dragged in front of stark actuality — a terrifying something that we have no control over. So … will you take the red pill? Or will you take the blue pill … “you wake up in bed and believe whatever you want to believe” … for a long, extended time?
Full story at Red Ice Creations.
Okay, so it’s not actually “official” (since, after all, what would such a claim even mean?). But the following represents an interesting progression of an interesting idea through modern-day media culture.
1961-1964 and 1981: William Burroughs and the human virus
In his classic Nova Trilogy, published in 1961-4, William Burroughs famously developed the idea that “language is a virus.” In his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, he extended this by claiming that ultimately human consciousness itself is a virus:
Self-identity is ultimately a symptom of parasitic invasion, the expression within me of forces originating from outside. Language is to the brain as the tapeworm is to the intestines. Even more so: it may just be possible to find a digestive space free from parasitic infection, but we will never find an uncontaminated mental space. Strands of alien DNA unfurl themselves in our brains, just as tapeworms unfurl themselves in our guts. Not just language, but the whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism.
1999: The Matrix and humans as viruses
In the massively popular American movie The Matrix, the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski presented a dazzling vision of a dystopian future in which intelligent machines have enslaved the human race to use them as an energy source. One of the machine race, a sentient computer program known as Agent Smith, tells one of the human heroes at a key point in the movie that the human race is functionally equivalent in ecological terms to a virus:
For those who can’t watch YouTube videos, here’s a transcript of Agent Smith’s monologue:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are the cure.
(Fans of Thomas Ligotti, who claims Burroughs as a major influence, might be interested to hear that he once told me about the time he was watching The Matrix in a theater when the movie was in its original release, and he shouted at the top of his lungs, in disgust, “A virus!” in tandem with Smith on the screen, thus discomfiting his fellow moviegoers. As a longtime student of Burroughs, he had intuited the virus idea coming from a mile away, and was annoyed at the way the movie makers presented it with a “Hey, this is a new and ingenious idea!” tone.)
2009: James Lovelock and humans as “earth’s infection”
James Lovelock, the renowned scientist, environmentalist, and futurist who famously spearheaded the scientific study of global warming and formulated the now-standard Gaia model that views the earth as a living organism — and who will turn 90 years old this July — had a new book (his tenth) published last month titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. His basic message is that radical climate change with globally catastrophic results for the human race is now locked in as an inevitability.
LiveScience published an article about Lovelock and his new book a few days ago that imparts the flavor: “Die, Humans! Is Mother Nature Sick of Us?” The article’s opening paragraphs link up Lovelock’s thesis with Burroughs’ and Agent Smith’s famous pronouncements:
In his new book “The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning,” (Basic Books, April 2009) James Lovelock says humanity is “Earth’s infection.”
Nice. We are the viruses.
While in theory it would be extremely difficult to truly destroy this planet, it’s not such a stretch for some scientists to imagine us making it a place that doesn’t support humans. The planet would go on, the thinking goes, but it’d get rid of us much like we shake the flu.
Lovelock’s thinking is that our increasing presence is getting things so out of whack that, in the manner of a human immune system, the planet has no choice but to respond.
Or consider these choice paragraphs from a March 1 review of Lovelock’s book in The Guardian titled “Now we know why we’re all doomed“:
Unfortunately, Gaia is in trouble today, says Lovelock. It is infected by a virus called Homo sapiens. Humans are destroying ecosystems, killing off species in their thousands and destabilising climates. “We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago, but it was not until about 200 years ago that the Industrial Revolution began: then the infection of the Earth became irreversible,” he says.
Not incidentally, this is followed by stark intimations of doom:
Lovelock names this illness polyanthroponomia, a condition in which humans are so plentiful they do more harm than good. More to the point, the condition is untreatable. Renewable energy projects, cutting carbon footprints and promoting sustainable development and other green ideas are no more than the posturing of “tribal animals bravely wielding symbols against the menace of an ineluctable force.” In short, we are heading towards a climate catastrophe that will leave only pockets of humanity left alive, says Lovelock.
The reviewer describes this as “impressive, frightening stuff and all the more chilling coming from a man of such a mild disposition and of such varied credentials.”
Back to the topic at hand, tracing the “humans are a virus” meme from Burroughs through The Matrix to Lovelock is of course not the only way to do it. Variations on the idea of humans as a disease on the planet and/or of human consciousness as an alien and destructive development have appeared in science fiction and horror fiction for decades. And the idea that the human race may be a destructive species without whom planet earth would be better off, and regarding whom planet earth may be prepared to take decisive cleansing action, has wound its way through the radical environmental movement since its birth in the 1970s. For a recent example of the latter, see the widely quoted assertion by Paul Watson — militant whale protector, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and an early member of Greenpeace — that “Humans are presently acting upon [the earth’s ecosystem] in the same manner as an invasive virus with the result that we are eroding the ecological immune system. A virus kills its host and that is exactly what we are doing with our planet’s life support system. We are killing our host the planet Earth” (“The Beginning of the End for Life as We Know It on Planet Earth?” Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, May 4, 2007.)
And yet, with all of that said, it’s still kind of fun to see, to witness, to trace. The progressive adoption and deployment and evolution of the virus idea from Burroughs to The Matrix to Lovelock, that is.
As for the possibility that Lovelock is right about the inevitability of catastrophic climate change and Gaia’s likely destructive actions to protect herself against the human infection — well, that’s not nearly as much fun, is it?
Virus image by Arek Socha from Pixabay.
Yesterday I received an email from one of my former high school students. He asked me a few questions that indicated he has really entered into a reflective state of mind: Am I familiar with C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity? What do people mean when they refer to other people, situations, or anything else as “perfect”? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition of perfection? Why do most people never question the near universal assumption that life is a good and valuable thing?
I began typing my response and, as sometimes happens, saw it blossom into more than the brief note I had intended. After clicking “send,” I thought I might as well go ahead and share the letter with my Teeming Brain readers since I know they’re a reflective and philosophical lot themselves.
Note that names — or actually, just one name — have been omitted to protect the innocent.
* * * * *
Good to hear from you. Sounds like you’re in a really thoughtful state of mind lately.
Yes, I’ve read Mere Christianity three times in its entirety and then gone back to reread selected passages many more times. For a few years Lewis was one of my favorite writers. I still have great affection for him even though I’ve don’t hold his actual ideas in as high a regard as I once did. As he aged his writings grew more and more entrenched in a kind of puritanical Protestant morality. That’s why I like his early work better than his later work, since the early stuff is more filled with a general sense of exhilaration about ideas, philosophy, spirituality, and religion in general. Mere Christianity stands at about the halfway point in this evolution of his work. The three sections of it were originally published as three separate pamphlets before being stitched together to form of a single book. I personally find the final section, “Beyond Personality,” to be far and away the most brilliant, valuable, and exciting one. It also happens to be the most purely philosophical. Lewis’s superstar status among contemporary American Protestant Christians seems to be based largely on a love of the first half of that book, since it’s material from that part of Mere Christianity that you almost always hear quoted in churches or on the radio when somebody brings up the man’s name.
As for questions about the nature and meaning of perfection, the value or nonvalue of life, etc., it sounds like you’ve awakened to the basic philosophical cast of mind. As you may know, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” The subject itself, which nowadays the majority of people study only for a single semester in college so they can earn a required credit to graduate, is the king or crown of all the intellectual disciplines. It’s not “about” anything in the way that history, science, mathematics, literature, economics, and other classes are “about” something. All of those other fields deal with specific subjects and content, e.g., what happened in the past and how it affects us today (history), the way the physical world works (science), and so on. But philosophy is about all of them. It asks, “What does all of this mean?” Philosophy raises the question “Why?” and applies it to everything. It tries to figure out, or at least it calls into question, most of the things that almost everybody takes for granted every day, in just the same way that you’re now asking some pretty radical questions that you felt it necessary to soften with a p.s. assuring me that you’re not contemplating suicide.
So this is all to say that I encourage you to continue your questioning. You’ll find over time that you’re experiencing a shift in your perception of absolutely everything. It begins to feel a lot like waking up from the Matrix. You start having a “Holy crap!” reaction as you realize that all of the ideas and points of view that you’ve always taken for granted are entirely up for grabs. Your whole outlook, the mental and emotional basis for the way you’ve lived your entire life and made important choices and wanted some things while rejecting others, is revealed as arbitrary. You come to recognize that you’ve believed things and held values not because you know they’re true but because you were programmed to do so by the environment in which you grew up.
This awakening is a very good thing.
You asked for advice about books. I suggest that you find a good introductory book on philosophy. One that comes to mind because it’s very accessible, and also amusing, is Does the Center Hold?: An Introduction to Philosophy. You can buy a fairly cheap used copy through Amazon. I’ve never read the whole thing myself but I’ve browsed it in college bookstores and found it highly engaging and informative.
I can’t think of any books at the moment to suggest for your specific questions about the meaning of “perfection” and the question of life’s value, but I can suggest some books that were valuable to me vry early on in my own awakening to a general philosophical cast of mind:
– The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
– Walden by Henry David Thoreau
– Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
– Irrational Man by William Barrett
The Watts book is particularly accessible and readable. The Percy book may be a bit more difficult, especially in the middle section about the philosophy of language, but early sections are especially valuable as Percy paints all sorts of hypothetical life circumstances and situations and then considers different points of view from which they can be interpreted and understood.
Since you asked me specifically about Lewis, I can recommend another of his books for you: The Abolition of Man. You might find it difficult reading. But then again, maybe not. It’s a bit different (that’s an understatement) from Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis sets out to disprove the modern idea that human ideas of morality, value, etc., are just that: human ideas. He tries to prove that there really are objective moral truths. Following him in his exploration of the issues is a very educational and mind-expanding experience, regardless of whether you agree with his arguments and conclusions. You can find used copies of the book online and in bookstores at bargain-basement prices.
Finally, I strongly urge you to read a little bit about Socrates, the ancient Athenian Greek who, for us members of Western civilization, pretty much started the whole philosophy thing. There are some good, brief online biographies. The one at History for Kids makes for extremely easy reading. Some others are more lengthy and dense.
Oh — and really finally, since I mentioned The Matrix I may as well direct you to the Sparknotes page about some of the movie’s philosophical influences. It may give you some ideas for further reading.
Good luck! I hope I haven’t blown your mind (or bored you to tears) with my reply-on-steroids to your short questions.