Thinking What We Are Doing
Part One of Three (projected).
Writing near the midpoint of the last century, Hannah Arendt worried that we were losing the ability “to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” The advances of science were such that representing what we knew about the world could be done only in the language of mathematics, and efforts to represent this knowledge in a publicly meaningful and accessible manner would become increasingly difficult, if not altogether impossible. Under such circumstances speech and thought would part company and political life, premised as it is on the possibility of meaningful speech, would be undone. Consequently, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.”
Arendt was nearly prescient. She clearly believed this to be a dystopian scenario that would result in the enslavement of humanity, not so much to our machines, but to one narrow constituent element of our humanity – our “know-how,” that is our ability to make tools. What Arendt did not imagine was the possibility that digitally, and thus artificially, augmented human thought might avert the very enslavement she foresaw.
On the eve of the 21st century, similar concerns were articulated by Paul Virilio who believed that our technologies, particularly the Internet, created a situation in which a total and integral accident was possible – an accident unlike anything we have heretofore experienced and one that we could not, as of yet, imagine. Virilio termed this possibility the general accident. Like Arendt, Virilio believed that the emerging shape of our technological society threatened the possibility of politics; and if politics failed, Virilio claimed, the general accident would be inevitable. Again, like Arendt, Virilio too seems unable to imagine that the way forward may lay through, not against technology, particularly the Internet.
If the concerns expressed by both Arendt and Virilio continue to resonate, it is because the structure of the challenge they articulated remains intact. The pace of technological development outstrips our ability to think through its attendant social and ethical implications; moreover, the political sphere appears so captivated by the ensuing spectacle that it is ensnared by the very problems we call upon it to solve. We are confronted, then, with a technologically induced failure of thought and politics, along the lines anticipated by Arendt and Virilio.
Gregory Ulmer is likewise concerned about the challenges presented to our thinking and our politics by technology, specifically the Internet; but Ulmer is more sanguine about the possibility of inventing new forms of thought adequate to our circumstances. Electracy, according to Ulmer, will be to the digital age what literacy has been to the age of print: an apparatus of thought and practice directed toward the perennial question: “why do things go wrong?”
Ulmer further elaborates the function of electracy in reference to subjectivity:
If the literate apparatus produced subjectivation in the mode of individual selves organized collectively in democratic nation-states, electracy seems to allow the possibility of a group subjectivation with a self-conscious interface between individual and collective . . .
Ulmer begins Electronic Monuments with a discussion of Paul Virilio’s general accident because, in Ulmer’s view, Virilio has “most forcefully” articulated concerns about “the Internet as the potential source of a general accident.” Unlike Virilio, however, Ulmer believes the best response to the potential of the general accident lies not in opposition to Internet, but through the possibilities created by the Internet.
In The Human Condition, Arendt set for society a very straightforward goal: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” While Arendt goes on to help the reader understand “what we are doing,” the matter of thinking what we are doing remains an elusive task.
Ulmer attributes our inability to think what we are doing to the blindness that plagues us, both individually and collectively, and he draws on a combination of Greek tragedy and psychoanalysis to frame and theorize this blindness. Reflecting on Greek tragedy, an “oral-literate hybrid” bridging oral and literate forms of problem recognition, Ulmer explains, “The aspect of tragedy of most interest in our context is (in Greek) ATH (até in lowercase), which means ‘blindness’ or ‘foolishness’ in an individual, and ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’ in a collectivity.”
The sources of ATH, according to Ulmer, are “those circumstances already in place and into which we are thrown at birth, providing the default moods enforcing in us the institutional construction of identity.” Marshall McLuhan captures a similar point in characteristically pithy fashion when he observes that, “Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure and overall patterns elude easy perception.”
In the concluding chapter of Electronic Monuments, Ulmer further clarifies the concept of ATH with reference to Jacques Lacan’s exposition of Antigone: “Lacan is interested in ATH as showing that exterior that is at the heart of me, the intersubjective nature of human identity.” Ulmer also refers to the intersubjective nature of human identity in describing the Internet as a “prosthesis of the unconscious (intersubjective) mind.” On more than one occasion, Ulmer identifies this metaphor – the Internet as prosthesis of the unconscious – as one of the key assumptions informing his development of the apparatus of electracy.
Taking Ulmer’s discussions of ATH, intersubjectivity, and the unconscious together, the following picture emerges: For Ulmer the unconscious is not necessarily a realm of repressed trauma or libidinal desire, but rather is shorthand for the countless, unarticulated ways in which subjectivity is constructed by the social world it inhabits. From one angle, Ulmer has given Freud, not a semiotic spin as Lacan had done, but a sociological spin. The unconscious names the group subject – the exteriority at the heart of me.
The Internet is a prosthesis of this unconscious in the sense that it is a virtually limitless digital repository of all of the features of the social world that have imprinted themselves on the subject. On Youtube, to take one example, a viewer can locate the toy commercial from their childhood that is still vaguely remembered, and then have links provided for a multitude of other more forgotten commercials, themes songs, and cartoons that, once seen, are remembered, and whose significance can be startling. Like T. S. Eliot’s “unknown, unremembered gate” in “Little Gidding,” the Internet operating as a prosthesis of the unconscious allows the user to “arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
This collective element of group subjectivity, until it is made accessible through the practices of electracy Ulmer develops, functions as a blind spot (ATH). It is a source of judgment and action that remains hidden from conscious thought analogously to the traditional psychoanalytic unconscious. This blindness, therefore, presents a powerful obstacle to Arendt’s plea, that we think what we are doing. Ulmer’s project, then, may be understood as an attempt to employ the Internet in an effort to make conscious thought aware of the way in which it has been constructed by the social.