“When I came upon the myth of objectivity in certain modern thinkers, it made me angry. So there was only one world for these people, the same for everyone. And all the other worlds were to be counted as illusions left over from the past. Or why not call them by their name — hallucinations?”
Jacques Lusseyran And There Was Light (1948)
Wednesday afternoons were PE. Friday afternoons, Cadet Corps. If I skipped school, it was on those afternoons. Not that I minded football, I loved it actually. But in summer, as often as I could get away with it, I would get out of there. The school was near the edge of town, and if it was sunny, I would walk to the fields and smoke cigarettes in a copse near the railway and read a book, or sleep. If it was overcast I would ride my bike into town and head for the library annex where they’d hived off the literature section from the main library in the city centre. I can only ever remember being alone in that dinghy annex. I would explore the shelves, or finger-walk through the card index and count off along a xylophone of spines.
I was reading modern poetry and drama, quite unsystematically, but I had a fetish for work in translation. Already I wanted to be somewhere else! So it was Tranströmer, Calvino, Rilke, Pirandello, Lorca… Lorca!! And Virgil, Book IV for Latin A level. Japanese haikus and Noh plays.
I didn’t read novels so much, but paperback editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been legalised after a famous trial in 1960 and, ten years on, school-friends were passing around a fat paperback that fell open at all the scenes that got the book banned in the first place. Well, banned for the plebs, the pastoral working-class heroes Lawrence was idealising. Those with means had always been able to read it in an expensive hardback edition. But — “Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?” asked the Crown lawyer. “Or your children?”
Later, I read much more Lawrence, and for better reasons. Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, The Plumed Serpent… and it’s true, if I was a member of the ruling classes I wouldn’t want my servants reading it. I wouldn’t want them reading at all.
From the annex I borrowed a copy of Ezra Pound’s complete Cantos. It was heavy — eight hundred and twenty-two pages in hardback. A doorstep, as they say. Had to be done, though — the book had been acquired two years earlier and never loaned out. Night-blue binding, just The Cantos of Ezra Pound in gold caps, and the same on the spine. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t understand a great deal of what I was reading; I’d come to Pound because of his influence on the Imagist movement, and read poetry like watching a film in those days. Any strange modernist technique caught my attention, and I was just dipping in and sampling here and there. Then I walked into the sixth form common room to find fat-boy Steve Cann — yeah, I remember his name, who wouldn’t? — throwing the book around the room with his mates. Cann was always sucking up to the hard lads and footballers who made up the elite clique, but his audience that break-time was only two or three of his mates and a few onlookers coming in and out with their bags. I came whirling in, snatched the book and rounded on Cann in white-hot fury. Yeah, I’m reading a book as fat as you are, Cann, so fucking what? waving the book in his face. Or is it because you’re too stupid to understand what’s inside it? What is this, a fucking witch-hunt? and stormed out, and I do remember the way the room had gone silent, almost as if I’d been a teacher ranting at them.
My first undergraduate summer I worked on a big arable farm, driving tractors. Nearly got my thumb taken off on the first day, loading the blade on a combine harvester. I was reading Dostoevsky — The Idiot. Old Bill saw me with it on my lunchbreak. Thaat yer ortabiography, then? But I was doing all right, and when I came back to the farm one evening carrying a big hare by the ears — I’d had to kill it with a rabbit punch after my tedder broke its leg — they started to accept me better. It was 1976, the drought year, and by the end of that summer I was nearly black from the sun, driving to my girlfriend’s house covered in dust. We had all been instructed to read Shakespeare over the summer. We’d waited, pens poised — Which ones? The question merited Dr Fleeman’s most withering look.
All, he said. Dismiss.
So I was trying to read the Collected Works my grandfather had given me as I stitched backwards and forwards across a huge field, turning the hay after harvest, bracing the book against the steering wheel. The field was so big there was no problem being more or less on autopilot, but the book had tiny print on near-translucent pages, and there was way too much vibration, smearing the letters into a blur. So I took to typing out key speeches at night and taping the sheets to the wheel, the windshield, the side windows, wherever. Then memorising, bawling out the pentameters over the noise of the engine, and extemporising pentameters of my own. It was a long shift, and nobody could hear me, after all.
I could frame a whole autobiography around books — and I don’t just mean books I’ve read but books I’ve carried, stolen, snatched back, unwrapped, lent to friends, lost, sniffed, written in, discovered in second hand shops; books which really did change my life, not just my thoughts… lethal texts, vital codes… the books themselves, not just their contents; real books, their weight and aroma, their history, their dog-ears, coffee-stains and pencilled annotations. My Chaucer at Oxford — the May Day dream poems! A paperback copy of Kundera, too big for my jacket pocket, bumping my hip on a street in Dublin; curled pages and the smell of a cigarette as I absorb a passage that still haunts me to this day. Finding Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots sitting squat on the shelf at Waterstones, after I’d sprinted out of my apartment to the tram-stop before the review programme I was listening to had even finished talking about it. I already knew I could use it to reframe my literature courses, creating coherent, active structure, and I did. Narrative archetypes, deep structure, the seven great themes of human existence. And first is the hero story, Overcoming the Monster. But how do you do that when you’re already inside the monster?
Or, worse, when the monster is already inside you?
And I could go on, almost throughout my whole life — almost, because I shed all my books during a chaotic period a few years back. Heavy volumes tend to go overboard first when the ship is sinking. Since then I’ve found a number of books I wanted to read archived online as (unsearchable) pdfs. And I appreciate being able to access so much. I reread George Orwell’s essays and reviews recently, and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for the first time. Right now I’ve got Jung open — The Integration of the Personality — and Derrida, The Gift of Death. And I don’t have to get on my bike in the rain, or jump on a tram up to town before the bookshops close.
The quotations in italics are from a talk given by Yuval Noah Harari, lead adviser to Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, at Google in 2015. Professor Harari writes books I have no interest in reading. I’ve read a few of his articles and listened to interviews and lectures. It’s enough. You get the gist quickly enough and gist is really all there is. It’s only his role as chief propagandist of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and biodigital convergence that makes me take any interest in this historian-turned-futurist at all. He has insisted, in response to a surge of critical interest in his transhumanist message, that “this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto.” This seems to me a very thin cover at this point, about as convincing as claiming the architect’s blueprint was an amazing premonition of the building.
It’s as obvious to this observer as I’m sure it is to you, that Gates, Fauci, Schwab — and Harari their pet ‘historian’ — are giving us sneak previews of that blueprint, projecting their planned future into the present, for their own reasons, perhaps like a torturer showing the instruments to the accused, or for who knows what other weird karmic or occultic reasons — and this has has long been the way with parasitic elites working consistently and more or less openly towards a post-human future.
I find the disturbing quality of that thought mirrored in Harari’s marriage of a flat, Dick-and-Jane prose style to a nihilistic hyper-atomised vision of humanity and of nature itself. The word ‘reductive’ fails to capture the impact of this depressing marriage of style and content; the word ‘blasphemous’ — if not against some deity then against life itself — comes closer, even to non-theists. The vengeful triumphalism with which he parades his future-primitive, mechanistic-materialist ontology as the ultimate truth while simultaneously admitting that ‘science isn’t really about truth, it’s about power’, reflects a fairly impressive facility for doublethink, but also a surprisingly narrow and outmoded knowledge-base and frequently questionable epistemology. The deployment of pseudo-science — and pseudo-history of course — is familiar to authentic historians of the totalitarian phenomenon: Hannah Arendt’s phrase for it was ‘ideological scientificality‘: science, that is, as a ‘surrogate for power’, and of course the phenomenon is not confined to totalitarian movements. She quotes Eric Voegelin (‘The Origins of Scientism’ in Social Research, December 1948) —
“Scientificality of mass propaganda has indeed been so universally employed in modern politics that it has been interpreted as a more general sign of that obsession with science which has characterised the Western world since the rise of mathematics and physics in the sixteenth century; thus, totalitarianism appears to be only the last stage in a process during which ‘science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.’” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) [The quotation she incorporates is from Eric Voegelin, ‘The Origins of Scientism’ in Social Research, December 1948.]
George Orwell covers the same territory in fiction:
“Comrades!” he cried. “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us.” (Animal Farm, 1945)
Harari himself was predicted and described by greater minds than his: he is Squealer to Klaus Schwab’s Napoleon; even better, he is Gollum — and what a splendid little Gollum he is, stretching out his bony fingers to grasp the prize. For didn’t Tolkien, too, see all this coming? One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them...
Harari is useful simply because he is less mealy-mouthed than his boss. His dehumanisation of the masses goes beyond bestialisation — where elsewhere he has announced that humans are now ‘hackable animals’, now in front of the Google audience they become ‘a collection of biochemical algorithms’, which must defer to Google’s superior, god-like algorithm and the ‘wisdom of data’. So it is that the grotesque Cartesian error rebounds to subsume humanity.
But one passage jumped out at me like something out of a Steven King story.
Books that read you.
When you were excited, when you were bored. When you laughed, when you cried. Synced to facial recognition, and soon, under-the-skin biometric read-outs. Your heart-rate, breathing, brain waves, electrical state, hormonal levels. Your emotional responses. What you love, what you hate, what you baulk at, what disgusts you. What inspires you.
And Harari delivered this speech seven years ago.
One man who did predict, in outline at least, the cultural moment we have arrived at was the literature professor turned media guru, Marshall McLuhan.
McLuhan — an English Literature specialist with a panoramic cultural-historical perspective — told us in 1962 that we were already at the onset of a fourth epoch in the history of culture, with each successive technological transition — from oral/aural to manuscript to print cultures — triggering radical social, cognitive and perceptual changes over time. He proposed in The Gutenberg Galaxy; the Making of Typographic Man (1962) that the character of the medium itself is therefore more consequential than the content it carries, and should be the primary focus of study.
“When technology extends one of our senses, a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorized.”
A new medium has a ‘gravitational’ effect on human cognition and sensorium, and gradually restructures individual minds and whole social systems around it. Oral culture communicates in the ‘languages of the heart’; print takes these languages and turns them into archetype and cliché, splitting head and heart and creating a ‘fixed observer’, as in perspective art, with a personal, individualistic or specialist outlook. Thus it is print culture that creates not just the possibility of individualism but the concept of the individual itself, in our modern sense. In fact print culture makes possible most of the salient features of the modern period, including individualism, democracy, Protestantism, nationalism, capitalism, human rights and the ferment of democratic debate.
“Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such.”
The reading of books was considered so great an influence in the formation of an individual perspective that there was a civilised habit of writing one’s name, the place, and the date inside the front cover. This meant that you could lend it to friends in the hope of getting it back. But it wasn’t so much a possessive instinct as a gesture of respect to the book and of gratitude for the one-to-one meeting of minds outside of time. One day, the book would pass into other hands. A stranger, perhaps, or a descendant, would open it and see your inscription.
However, McLuhan knew that he had arrived on the scene towards the end of the print era, and that a fourth wave was already on its way. He predicted that print culture would soon be replaced, along with all the social structures it gave rise to, by the advent of ‘electronic interdependence’ which would replace individualistic print culture with a new tribalism, and the individual with a collective identity. Electronic communication, long before the internet — McLuhan was writing in the newness of the satellite era — had wired the planet up to itself, meaning that ‘The human family now exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.‘
Though he doesn’t ever reference McLuhan as far as I know, it’s as if Harari’s role is to announce the fulfilment of these predictions, though the reality, according to Harari, will make all prophecies pale by comparison.
God, nation, private property, the individual, are waved away by Harari like a movie actor minimising a window on an invisible touch-screen — ‘That’s over’ — like the ‘whole idea that humans have this soul, or spirit, and that nobody knows what’s happening inside them.’ In his lexicon these are ‘fictions’ and ‘delusions’. Such fictions were the key to our success as a species, enabling human beings to cooperate flexibly in large groups, and dominate all other species. But they are no longer needed. It’s a pure totalitarian power-assertion — not a proposition so much as a decree, an edict, and certainly an ideological position. The subtext: there is no need to prove by argument what will be imposed through googols of terabytes. It’s not a prediction, not a debate, not even a threat. All of that is simply over. If you want depth, analysis, or even history (the subject Professor Harari professes to profess), you’ve come to the wrong place. All that crazy human shit, that’s over. Forget it. Who needs archetypes when you’ve got algorithms? That’s over. Ideas? They don’t exist. All that exists is data.
But ‘this is a historical prediction,‘ he insists, ‘not a political manifesto.‘
If he’d read Hannah Arendt he might have some inkling that in totalitarian terminology, there is no distinction between these two things.
Books that read you: a Satanic inversion, indeed. They will weaponise even the books against the us. Already have, in all likelihood. These programmes have probably been running for years. We thought the problem with electronic libraries was that texts could so easily be suppressed or altered, and that is true. But it’s worse than that. Books will be, or have been, incorporated into the panopticon. Why burn books, when you can turn them into spies, hacking the human mind? It’s all SIGINT from now on — HUMINT is a dying trade. Like so much else — government, police, teachers, doctors, soldiers, spies — we’re not going to need it, once the biodigital convergence is complete, and your responses to every word reduced to data to be sold and used, and used against you. Best to stick to the books that Amazon recommends, then. After all, the algorithm ‘knows you better than you know yourself.’
But how can this be? The verb ‘to know’ requires a ‘knower’, and ‘knowing’ requires consciousness. Computers compute, they do not know. Waze doesn’t ‘know’ which way to go, and Google doesn’t ‘know’ you: data doesn’t deal in the qualia, only the quanta. It doesn’t know how anything feels; it doesn’t know the meeting of minds, writer to reader, outside time. The soulless machine doesn’t ‘know’ you any more than a chess engine ‘plays’ chess.
Books that ‘read’ you. Books that spy on you. Books that sell you out. To quote de Sade, again: — ‘All freedom shall go by the board, that of the press, that of worship, that simply of thought shall be severely forbidden and ruthlessly repressed; one must beware of enlightening the people or of lifting away its irons when your aim is to rule it.’ (Juliette, de Sade, 1797-1801)
Or Huxley: ’The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf.’ (Aldous Huxley, letter to George Orwell, 21 October 1949)
And that’s what totalitarianism is all about — gaining the immunity the Marquis craved and never found; that’s what the Sadists mean by ‘freedom’ — freedom from justice, judgement, guilt; from the near infinite liabilities, moral, financial and spiritual, that they have run up over their lifespans. And that’s why they’re going to have to find a way to live forever, so they never have to repent of anything. (In Sapiens Harari claims at one point that the ‘Gilgamesh Project’, named after the hero who set out to destroy death, is ‘the leading project of the scientific revolution’: to give humankind eternal life or ‘amortality’). Freedom really is slavery: their freedom, that is, and your slavery. One of the few things Elon Musk has ever said that struck me as perceptive was that ‘AI isn’t formed, strangely, by the human limbic system. It is in large part our id writ large.’
The id. The ‘it’ inside you. The IT inside you.
Google ‘knows’ you like a tapeworm or a tick ‘knows’ you. You are the Umwelt of the parasite.
The machinery of furtive power goes inside.
Somewhere deep within, a hidden spark… a soul, a spirit…
A theological error made two thousand years ago.
You don’t need nuance when you speak for power.
Anyone remember what Prince Hamlet did to spies?
Not that one expects Harari to reference Shakespeare or even McLuhan, relevant though these contexts are. Too confusing for him or his Google audience, I suppose, and hard to incorporate into the reductive rigmaroles of his speaking style.
I’m sorry, but when the books start to read me, this gets personal. Always was, of course. But when the books start to read me? The books? In this new world they are building, it’s not just that someone like me would not be permitted to exist. It’s that someone like me would just not be possible. I simply would not occur.
And that, I think, is the idea.
‘The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace… and do pronounce by me:
Lingering perdition, worse than any death
Can be at once shall step by step attend
You and your ways…’
The anti-human, anti-cultural, anti-natural, anti-spiritual burden of Harari’s brutalist materialism celebrates the commodification of everything, the weaponisation of everything against a deluded and denuded humanity, and reveals him as nothing more than a barker for technocratic totalitarianism. He is not predicting but announcing the end of individualistic print culture — the culture of which I belong to the last generation.
But human beings, driven by their ideals, their aesthetics, their faith, their love for others — all those fictions and delusions — are capable of extraordinary acts of resistance.
Under Stalinism, Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam who disappeared into the ‘other world’ of the gulag, memorised his greatest poems word for word and kept them alive during her own years of wandering exile. Later — after Kruschev had renounced Stalinism — she was able to reconstruct her husband’s poetic heritage with the help of other writers and friends. It was an extraordinary return of medieval scribal culture and the Ars Memoriae.
The poems were published in a wonderful translation by Clarence Brown and W S Merwin, with a cover featuring the chained goldfinch of the Dutch artist Fabritius, almost all of whose work was destroyed, along with the artist himself, in the famous explosion of the armoury at Delft in 1654. This book, which influenced me so much, represents something which had flickered out like a flame and then burst into life again many years later.
Mandelstam had given his freedom away by reading aloud to a group of trusted friends, one of whom — nobody knows which one — turned out to be an informer. Thus Mandelstam’s story successively embodies all three cultural epochs of human history — oral/aural, manuscript, and print. In the fourth epoch, the poet will be incorporated into the Stasi machine and weaponised against his readers.
When the books start to read me, I will stop reading them. I will throw my computer in the lake and recite, as the herons and cormorants take off in alarm:
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.
In the languages of the heart, I will compose a hymn to Heraclitus, an elegy for Osip, a paean for Nadezhda. And a prayer for my children, held hostage by another tribe, far away.
And one for myself, typographic man, as I swim across the lake.
لا اله الا انت سبحانك اني كنت من الظالمين