Ritual and the Virtual

Mark Pesce

In the Beginning was the Word.
John I:1

Introduction: And the Word Was God

Singular among the sciences, cyberspace has ever been a tree planted firmly in the rich soils of human mythology. The three authors who defined this field, Vernor Vinge (True Names, 1978), William Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984, Count Zero, 1986, Mona Lisa Overdrive, 1988), and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, 1992), relied exclusively upon a mythological foundation to describe the incomprehensible complexities of computer networks. This is hardly coincidental; in fact, it echoes a pattern as old as human consciousness.

The birth of language in the Paleolithic era - simultaneous with and incontestably linked to the birth of consciousness - created stresses upon the human organism which had never before been encountered. This speed-up, an exteriorization of thought which placed the internal self into the minds of the community of the newly conscious, led directly to an ingression of imagination; simulation begins as mythology.

In the Neotheric era, in which Faraday's discoveries have deterritorialized language, the ends of simulation produce new languages - for are protocols not new tongues? - and a new speed-up stress. Simulation approaches a new ingression; collective imagination electrified becomes mythology. The precedent of the Paleolithic has left in its wake a morphogenetic field of consciousness; and so, as we sweep into a new aeon of communication, we find ourselves confronted with our most ancient imaginings, closing the loop of ontology in an arc of teleology which reaches its full circle in the span from the emergence of Logos to its electric transfiguration.

Consciousness Prefigured

Man before the word was not human. To think, to reflect, requires a conception of figure and ground, the linguistic apprehension of objects, of difference, of transitivity. Whatever we may make of the proto-hominids who passed before the emergence of linguistic consciousness, we must cast them into the pit which separates the unconscious ontology of the "lower" animals from conscious being of man. The use of our word "dumb" to describe those without speech remains a shorthand for the contempt in which we hold our prelapsarian condition.

The consciousness of the animal - insofar as we might come to understand that which may not be understood - can be characterized as unmediated, direct, and bound to the objects of perception; unlike the philosophical gulf which divides the human self from the other under observation, animal consciousness regards the seer and the seen as one. It has not come to the consciousness which separates this from that.

Information flow through the unconscious organism is episodic and driven by external stimuli. The primary attitude of the unconscious is indifference; things become worthy of attention when they change - presenting either a danger or an opportunity. The perception of events is entirely discontinuous, lacking the narrative which creates causality, the internal story-telling that reifies expectation into world-view. This had been the story of nature from the emergency of life; information flow across the boundaries of organism concerned itself only with the maintenance of the coherence of the organism.

Consciousness Transfigured

No one can tell us how language began. As William Irwin Thomson writes in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

"When we try to ask unanswerable questions like 'how did language evolve?', we come to the limits of knowing, but not to the limits of being. That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth. When we come to an edge we have to shift our mode of thought, say from rational analysis to intuitive mediation."
The paleoanthropologist posits that brain size alone set the stage for the emergence of language, that as genus Homo appeared on the scene, his enhanced cranial capacity was reason enough for language to begin. But recently we have seen a mass of evidence which indicates that even highly hydrocephalic individuals, who possess less than ten percent of a normal human's brain tissue, function completely normally in all linguistic tasks. Brain size alone can not be the determining factor.

The evolutionary biologist sees language as an effective mechanism for improving the selection fitness of hominids so endowed, dramatically increasing their chances of passing the characteristics of consciousness to their offspring. However accurate, this scientistic reasoning fails to address the genesis question. Thomson again:

"The problem is that we can see many ways in which language might take off, once it was started, but we cannot see how it could get started in the first place. All our theories about the origins of language are really nothing more than descriptions of how language would be of use once it was there. Darwinian notions that language would help fit the survivors for survival explain nothing, since we have evidence of species surviving in the same ecological niche without the help of language."
The mythologist credits language as the gift of the divine; the Jewish Apocrypha credit the Creator as granting to Adam the gift of speech, beginning with a power to name the animals. In this investiture, Thomson shows how the linguistically adept human rises above the angelic:
"According to the midrashim, when God made Adam, He asked the angels to bow down and honor His latest creation. One of the highest archangels, Samael or Satan, refused by saying, 'You created us from the splendor of your Glory. Shall we then adore a being formed from dust?' God answered that although Adam had been made from dust he surpassed Samael in wisdom and understanding. Incensed at this slight, Samael insisted that God test him against Adam. God accepted Samael's offer, and said that, since He had created beasts, birds, and creeping things, Samael should go down, set them all in a line, and name them as He would have them named...When the animals passed before Samael, however, he could say nothing. 'God then planted understanding in Adam's heart and spoke in such a manner that the first letter of each question pointed to the beast's name.' And so Adam was able to take God's hint and name the creature."
To name a thing is to know it; in this we recognize language as the foundation of consciousness. To know the name of a thing is to have dominion over it. Verbal consciousness unleashes a force which separates man from the animals; the internal division between self and other becomes reinforced in repeated communication with other humans. If we can not know how language came to be - or even say that it is entirely reasonable to attribute it to divine intervention - we can clearly intuit two first-order structural couplings consequent to it: the birth of the internal narrative of continuity, which is the song of consciousness; and the birth of culture in the shared expression of that narrative.

Researches into cognitive psychology show that most conscious "experience" is the performance of memory; sensation plays the role of trigger - as Proust pretended in The Remembrance of Things Past - but experience is nearly always the containment of perception within memory. The conscious "self" plays the part of architect of continuity, taking the phenomena of sensation and building a story around them - a story nearly always consonant with expectation, belief, and memory. This structural coupling of the self qua the self produces the internal narrative, the sense of being in time.

Verbal consciousness has two faces, and the internal narrative is met and reified in its shared expression; to talk is to talk to. The explosion of conscious internal life is met and countered in the lives of others; from this chaostrophe a fundamental and eternal confusion begins, the experience of the self becomes indistinguishable from the experience of other selves. All knowing is bound together by narrative, the carrier wave for a new kind of experience, epiphenomenal to perception.

In the reverberation following the birth of language, narrative and culture emerge. Perception extends to include the whole of culture as a single organism, coupled into community through the self-reinforcing exchanges of narrative, placing an explosive pressure on individual perception, rendering it subservient to a heretofore unknown collective intelligence. The flow of information through the organism is no longer constrained by the exigencies of the individual, unconscious animal; instead, the entire community functions as one, hears as one, and knows as one. Moreover, it knows that it knows, both individually and collectively.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, proposed that all mediations extend an innate capability while simultaneously subjecting it to an amputation. To operate an automobile, the natural locomotive function of the legs is abandoned and replaced with a control (cybernetic) interface; language extends the domain of perception throughout the entire human community, but only because the immediacy of perception has been abandoned. The event-driven flow of unconscious perception, replaced with a growing volume of mediated representations - the shared memories and experiences of community - overwhelmed the innate ontology of the earliest humans, pushing inward, to create the expanses of imagination, and outward, into its shared expression as mythology.

These innovations are entirely conservative; under stress from the speed-up in communication brought about by the birth of language, the individual retreats into a new, internal world, both singular in imagination, and shared as mythology. Mythology allowed early humans to mediate the assault of shared perception; the richness of mythology - even in its earliest visible forms - represents the echo of the incredible stresses unleashed by the birth of human speech.

Forms tend to echo the forms that have preceded them; this theory of formative causation posits that once a form has come into being, it becomes much easier for similar forms to emerge. The transformation of speed-up stress into an imaginal and mythological space therefore created a precedent, a path which all successive speed-ups would tread.

Consciousness Unbound

When Samuel Morse translated Michael Faraday's studies in electromagnetic phenomena into a mechanism for instantaneous communication, human linguistic consciousness began an inevitable and accelerating process of deterritorialization. The tongue, unbound, could speak into a multitude of ears; the ear, unbound, could listen to a multitude of tongues. Family, tribe and nation vanished before the ultimate speed-up - to quote Virilio, "Speed equals light." A new language of pattern, beginning with the Morse Code, passing through the grooves of the phonograph, the successive images of the motion picture, the amplitude modulations of radio and the mosaic-composite of television, culminates in a singularity of bricolage, the meta-mediation of the World Wide Web.

As impossible as it is for us to imagine the ontology of the pre-electric world, it rapidly becomes impossible to imagine being in a pre-Web world - even if we have spent most of our lives there. Increasingly, our experience has become conditioned by and coupled to the world created within the Web; the more we refer to it, the more we tend to refer to it, in a loop of reinforcement which marks the Web as unique among electronic media: it expresses the ontology of the irresistibly seductive, and we all desire it, or have desires in relation to it.

Despite the nearness and singular nature of the event, we can not even begin to guess why the Web emerged, and why it caught hold in such an absolute way, instantaneously transforming every medium which had proceeded it (all of which are now viewed as subservient to it). The explosive transfiguration of the sphere of human communication did not begin with Berners-Lee's first experiments in 1989; in fact, the Web grew negligibly for almost five years. But when Berners-Lee's seed encountered the fertile imagination of Marc Andreesen - who had been heavily influenced by William Gibson - the Web acquired both an internal language (HTTP) and an external form (HTML). The unification of connectivity and interface, figuring as internal and external languages, led to the exponentially increasing structural coupling that occurred simultaneously and ubiquitously across a still-tiny Internet. It was as if the entire Internet, as a whole, simultaneously decided that the Web should be; then, it was as if the entire world, as a whole, simultaneously identified the Web as cyberspace.

The Web has created a new kind of interiority and a new exteriority; a foundation of shared factuality forms the nascent basis of a unified human knowledge. It is not so much that this base represents the final truth as that it represents the de facto truth, and - within a generation - it will be seen as the only truth. Conversely, this new exteriority presents an inherent multiplicity, both of factuality and personality; we are no longer of one voice, but all voices, and these voices need not agree, but can remain dissonant, subjective, and fragmentary. The unification of artificial intelligences Wintermute and Neuromancer breaks apart into the anarchic loa of Voudon; the singular voice of Enki is shattered by the Nam-Shub: these Neotheric myths reverse Babel, and find their completion in the chaotic. It is not that nothing is true, but rather, that everything is permissible.

Possibility unbounded by expectation reverses the current of narrative; to be anyone, anywhere, at any time requires that the self become self-less, possessing at one moment the dispassionate attitude of a Buddha, and, in the next, all the attachments of a being hypnotized by the play of Maya. This implies that the next state of genus Homo is as much beyond our own understanding as we are beyond the preconscious strivings of the proto-humans, but if Turkle's insights about the ontological similarities between Multiple Personality Disorders and on-line role-playing prove to be more than coincidence, then we can already see the knife-edge which separates us from our post-historical descendants.

The question, "What hath God wrought?", can only be answered in a language that we do not yet know how to speak. No one knows how long it took language to spread across the Earth; whether it happened in a million years, or a thousand, or inside an afternoon. Neither do we know how to measure the interval between the pre- and post-historical hominids. At the end of this interregnum, we watch as the deep transformations of seductive couplings sweep across the face of consciousness, but, as we are both seduced and seducer, it is difficult to apprehend the scope of its effect. But within a few years we will be utterly unrecognizable to ourselves in this present moment.

Ritual and the Virtual

The deterritorialization of the self is the essential feature that marks human entry into cyberspace. In the universe of infinite connection and possibility the only possible ontology is magical; reality as that which is invoked, the world conformant to will. The techniques of magical will, quintessentially linguistic, require a conscious mastery of the relationship between word and world. At the end of history comes the Word.

Ritual is the communication in a mythic tongue, the expression of a universe of experience, compressed into an economy of symbols overloaded into archetype. Ritual is the performance of myth that binds (religare) the individual and the specific to the universal and archetypal. Ritual is the bridge between the ego and the post-historical self.

The speed-up stresses of cyberspace, unleashed on the island self, force being to seek shelter in the enduring forms of myth; neither one nor another, but this and that, choosing milieu over destination, multiplicity over deterritoriality, and subjectivity over factuality.

The gate between the historical self and post-historical post-humanity, the passage between a particular island of factuality and the absolute subjective, is ritual. Now we enter our closets and bend ourselves to the dictates of fashion and gender, language and culture. Soon, we cast magic circles in sacred groves, speak the Word, and bend the World to our ends. The ego can not survive this burst of power, any more than the animal survived the flash of consciousness; what follows us we can now hear, but we can not speak of it.

Mark Pesce
London & Caer Leon, Wales

July 1997