Natalya Irtenina is a Russian science-fiction writer of traditional Orthodox worldview. This is the second half of her essay “Tradition and Fleeting Senses of Being,” as translated by Mark Hackard. See Part I.
Appearance trumps reality. “Shooter” video games are nonsense, a toy, a means of ridding oneself of infantile aggression. Virtuality is not in computers, but in our minds. It is in the grid of the rhizome, the endless labyrinth with no exit – but there’s not even a desire to leave. Virtuality comes in ready forms supplied by the fashion industry, in conceptual “values,” false realities and simulations (image, esoterica for any taste, role-playing games, special effects, fantasy literature), in the endless chase for style items, the latest buzz in fashion, simulated ideas and the ideals of mass culture. In short, the simulacra acclaimed by Jean Baudrillard, who at once joyously pronounced “our virtual apocalypse” as already “here and now.”
Our apocalypse is the advance of virtuality itself, which deprives us of the real event of the apocalypse.
And even the Dread Judgment has been substituted with some kind of pitiful illusion, a monstrous parody.
At the base of all this is that same noble metaphysical requirement for attaining meaning in one’s existence and justification for one’s being. Yet when there are so many meanings and all of them are mutually interchangeable, large, even, round zeroes appear on life’s horizon. But this is for men who are still capable of making them out. For the rest, “as soon as a sought-after meaning is discovered, we are already confident that it’s not genuine, since the genuine meaning lies deeper, and so on and so forth.” (Eco) Yet deeper is only emptiness; semiotic extremism cannot see this.
Here the information medium plays the role of a foundation (without the media there would be no mass culture) and specimen of the “new thinking.” Information flows are a separate world of virtuality. Each information block within is easily replaceable by others, and from this the consumer loses nothing. Mutual replace-ability, artificiality, an illusion of real being, virtual information – it exists, but just as easily it does not, and its absence or presence are absolutely equivalent. And isn’t it true that this resembles the conditions of existence in a repressive regime, for which “there are no irreplaceable people?” (All of this in its greater part, of course, relates to “entertainment” and “news” the contemporary philistine consumes to kill free time. And this is far from always primitive fare – intellectual information is also often the object of fashion and an attribute of “prestige.”)
Generally speaking, between virtuality and a system of total subjection to the state (Nazism, socialism), where each person answers for everything and for nothing, there is much in common. Syncretism feeds both, and both are the consequence of a disease of reason, the hypertrophy of its ability to interpret the world, an ailment Eco termed the “syndrome of suspicion.”
Hadn’t Aglie spoken of the yearning of mystery that stirred the age of the Antonines? Yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret?…And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp—do-it-yourself salvation—turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite…The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it. (Foucault’s Pendulum)
“Simulations of ideas” (a definition of Plato’s) prevail over reality, imposing upon the world their own virtual, illusory, non-existent reality and the chaotic model of the Universum.
Strictly speaking, virtuality is the dictatorship of simulacra (illusory meanings and realities), a despotic power over the human soul, a force destroying the personality, the person within a person. Absolutely subordinated to a virtual process of exchange of self for material and immaterial counterfeits of life’s meaning, “conceptual values,” virtual man is totally dependent upon his fetishes and those who supply them. Baudrillard called this process of exchanging personality for simulacra humanity’s natural aspiration to universal spiritual death, the nothingness of the soul.
Freedom, the necessity of which has been discussed so much and for so long, has become just one of many virtual realities, a space of personal nothingness where the dense winds of the unconscious swirl and voracious archetypes rove to prey upon weak, almost disembodied souls. In a word, the liberal apocalypse.
The cultural plague of “post-postmodern” society is an excess of information, a phenomenon intensified by the absence within information flows of any reference points allowing for the selection of necessary data and the destruction of the unnecessary and harmful. The consumer, not even possessing elementary skills of conscious filtration, is totally swallowed by the informational element. Already it is not he who disposes of information, but the information that disposes of him, depriving him access to his very self and thereby his freedom.
In one of his long-ago interviews, Eco drew an analogy between a 500-page Sunday edition of the New York Times and the Soviet Pravda. In both needed information was inaccessible, from its chaotic surplus in the first case and censorship in the second.
The parallel between chaos and an absence of freedom is clearly seen here. Chaos is not freedom – it is total anarchy; principled disorder; a lack of any internal structure and system; a semantic (ideational) lawlessness, under which the meaning and significance (value) of any element of this chaotic anti-system can be subjected to doubt. A precarious existence – and almost an illusory one. To be or not to be is not asked here, for to be or not to be are absolutely equivalent modes.
Three to four decades ago, the idea of chaos became fashionable. Chaos theory, substantiating principles of a non-linear world and having initially appeared in the sphere of natural sciences, then migrated to into humanities projects. It particularly became the basis for the philosophy of open semiotic systems and the “emancipation” of semiotic methodology. The fundamental concept of chaos theory consists of the recognition of the simultaneity of the rise and existence of both order and chaos in the world. Along with this, priority in development belongs namely to open, i.e. unstable, systems in disequilibrium, where the element of chaos predominates. Having become enamored of the ideas of randomness and unpredictability in the 1960s and developing on their foundation his model (and philosophy) of “open production,” Eco was among those who studied the problems of mutual relationships between culture and chaos, bringing them to a new level of scientific comprehension.
In those years the idea that an element of chaos is necessary to culture proliferated widely. Chaos was seen as the very impulse that disorganizes a system, thereby acting as the “perpetual engine” pushing it forward to positive changes and further development. For example, a society not recognizing the beneficent role of chaos, leading it to cling with a “death grip” to “obsolete” and “lifeless” customs, is for Eco primitive and incapable of adapting to the world’s changing realities. It isn’t difficult to notice that by formulating the problem in such a manner, sufficiently conservative societies oriented toward sacral truths, ancestral heritage and irrational values and norms, i.e. first and foremost traditional societies, fall under the definition of “primitive.” The space of the Universum of such a society (culture) is wholly organized and structured according to the principle of the tree. And it stands to reason there is no place for the disorder (chaos) of the rhizome. Chaos can break through only from the outside – in the form of pretty slogans about liberty, equality and fraternity, for example.
However, can it be that chaos (its element) is actually that perpetuum mobile that creates human history, endowing everyone and everything with energy (Gumilev’s passionary force) necessary for development? And does its presence in culture not signify a backward movement to a degraded state, the impoverishment above all of the realm of the spirit and creative will? It’s probable that this happens within the parameters of given historical time intervals. But whether we can speak about progress (positive development) as applied to all of human history is an open question.
The nature of chaos as an unstable anti-system is such that the tendency to the slow, but sure, progressive expansion of its scale is laid within. If chaotic phenomena could earlier be fully overcome and neutralized in the framework of a culture (or one of its individual spheres), now, in the era of total nullification of cultures and the universal integration and dissolution of borders, these destructive influences have attained a planetary scale, having encompassed almost the entire sphere of rational human activity. What will follow after the current era of universal virtualization? A new and unprecedented (and also planetary) – in the sense of “higher poetry” and “higher politics” – rise of culture? Up to this point, times for consolidating forces relieved years or centuries of “dark” stagnation. Or will the energy of chaos outstrip all conceivable assumptions and finish us off once and for all? This is also unknown; both options are entirely real.
The postulates of thermodynamics hold that chaos – the instability of a system – enables the surplus growth of energy in this system. And in contrast, within stable systems a maximal loss of energy, entropy, takes place. So a question arises in connection with this: is the phenomenon of virtuality a product of an abnormal, if not pathological, excess of energy, the reason for which is the chaotic state of the cultural Universum? After all, we are in large part provoked to protect ourselves (escape) from reality by the insane tempo of modern life, constant stress, dizzying technologies, depression, the obligations of information, etc. Usually this escape is justified by the necessity to “get rid of negative energy,” i.e. aggression, accumulated in everyday life. But energy as such is not negative or positive; it is characterized by quantity rather than quality. Shedding negative energy simply signifies ridding oneself of its surplus in states of relative equilibrium (relaxation and entertainment, including “journeys into other realities”). Using the terms of physics, the output of energy back into the external environment takes place in the form of work, and there is now every basis to say that “active relaxation” in the spaces of virtual systems of various calibers has become actual work for the majority of people. This is work in its narrow sense as “labor,” “service,” and “socially useful activity,” propagated by all the channels of the media (within the parameters of the modern liberal-humanist paradigm).
And Lev Gumilev’s theory of ethnic passionary tension is only partially applicable here. The contemporary excess of chaotic energy in the world, in our view, does not have any relation to the process of ethno-genesis. It is sooner worth speaking of humanity’s psycho-social genesis, as one and the same process is now occurring across the planet regardless of ethnic differences, various stages of ethno-genesis, the specific mentalities of various cultures, etc. Chaos is the great cultural unifier. Everywhere it settles, an ethnos (people and culture) loses its countenance (its defining ethnic feature), and is overcome by a surplus of anti-systemic energy. It at once destroys its defining sacral feature – its own sense of God – and hems away at the threads that tie it to the Transcendent.
There is no point in speaking here about any Tradition, at least on the one hand. On the other, in our present conditions of swelling chaos, Gumilev’s passionary (the shatterer of old traditions, but the founder of new ones) is an extremely rare breed. This chaos is the native element of sub-passionaries, those whose vector of passionary force is directed not toward the conquest and transformation of the external environment, but toward their beloved selves in order to exist in the world at the world’s cost. In Russia’s present conditions, almost to a man they become bandits and engage in the business of criminality. Those who don’t join the mafia prefer to expend their superfluous energy, as we have previously said, on journeys into virtuality. Into, for example, the “worlds” of role-playing games or the labyrinths of computerized combat simulations. “In history the group of sub-passionaries is most colorfully represented by ‘wanderers’ and mercenaries” (Gumilev); role-playing games and computers are convenient substitutes for one and the other social medium in accordance with the progressive spirit of the era. The serial killers that have proliferated over the past decades are also cut from the same sub-passionary cloth (an excess of psychic energy astray in the unconscious).
Gumilev was a fatalistic optimist. That, however, did not stop him from recognizing the existence of a “great vacuum lying in wait for Life at every step.” And nothing stops the no less fatalistic author of the Apocalypse from recognizing the coming triumph of this chaos vacuum (a triumph, of course, that is temporary – but after it there will already be another earth and another heaven). The motif of chaos is one of the few that reconciles scientific knowledge and religious metaphysics. Chaos theory and representations of a world under the power of the Prince of Darkness are speaking about the same thing: the aggression of chaos that rages across the world leads to disorder in men’s minds.
The practical philosophy of the 20th Century – “left” existentialism – revealed to the world the “greatest secret” – the same one that adepts of Hermetic knowledge had chased after for ages. This secret is the final and definitive emptiness of a Universum created by a cunning Demiurge who condemned an inquisitive humanity to solve its riddles; the secret is that these riddles of the Demiurge are but dust and darkness. And the Book of Genesis hardly speaks about what its creator wanted to say, for his intentions as the Author are nothing in comparison with the intentions of the reader of the Book, who has nonetheless deciphered the final and genuine meaning that lies deep under an assemblage of meanings transitory and untrue. This secret – and it is the final meaning – is Absurdity, the meaning that rejects itself, a secret meaninglessness that thanks to the stirrings of French existentialism has been made manifest.
The reader of the Book of Genesis, seized by the demon of hyper-interpretation, has deprived the Universum standing day and night before his eyes of the right to meaning, and he has affirmed at its base emptiness and absurdity, rejoicing at his insightfulness. For he now can sleep soundly, not worrying over the riddles and final questions of being. Now he has the whole world in his hand, and he can do with it whatever he pleases. The liberally organized space of the rhizome permits this; its relative humanitarian values do not hinder it, and the absurdity of existence in its endless democratic “field of possibilities” the more so demands we put an end to it all – that is, an end to ourselves.
So shall we annihilate ourselves, or still seek out the Great Meaning?
Traditional thought has long been characterized by the demand to acquire namely such – Meaning with a capital “M”; the basis, the Absolute, the higher principle, divine Providence, the Transcendent. In other words, a requirement for personal immortality and unification with Eternity. But immortality is the attribute and privilege of transcendental spheres, and one must find it there, not here, and in the metaphysics of things, not in the physics of phenomena. For the traditional consciousness, the fundamental principle of being can only possess the attribute of “supra-humanity,” transcendence and divinity. The anti-traditional consciousness does not ascend so high, and it does not seek a unitary, eternal meaning for everything and satisfies itself with every-day, and at a maximum life-spanning, meanings and values. It’s enough; the man not convinced of the existence of metaphysical, transcendent (not occult!) principles but believing in cultural “eternal truths” can be labelled anyway one likes – a conservative, a commonsense thinker, a patriot, etc. – but in no way is he a traditionalist.
Because “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” And “everything is permitted” is the laconic formula describing the rhizome’s principle of action. Higher priorities and higher values can be changed like gloves. Yesterday one pair, today another. The moral law is not taken into account. For if there is no God, then each man has his own moral law, and where can only one come from? Not from archetypes – for them, moreover, no laws are written.
But He is, and there is a one and only eternal truth given to the world in His Revelation.
In one of his essays (“Ur-Fascism“), Eco gives a rather harsh and uncompromising answer to this assertion:
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message. One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements…
No advancement of learning. Nothing to be done with that. The development of spiritual knowledge has actually ceased, and this is far from the fault of traditionalists. The matter is simple – what can we add to that said by God? Only interpretations, or hyper-interpretations.
But might the discussion concern rational knowledge? Its development, after all, takes place according to the very plan of the rhizome. Eco himself admits that the making of modern scientific rationalism was enabled by nothing less than Hermetic, syncretistic “methodology” and the model of “fleeting meanings.” And the heir to Hermeticism, the new Hermetic irrationalism, is the same game of the “free-thinking mind,” that very labyrinth of the rhizome, the same method of “peeling the Universum like an onion, the center of which is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere.” (Foucault’s Pendulum) And this knowledge will always find “advancement” for itself; there’s no reason he should be upset over it.
Besides, the plan of the tree hardly presupposes intellectual and cultural stagnation. The tree grows, its buds swell, new branches emerge; young and gluey leaves creep out and gain strength, rustle in the wind, and grant their salutary shade in the heat and their calm to the troubled soul. And after fall, as is assumed, they fall to the earth, are blown away and splendidly blanket an earth fast asleep for winter. And in the spring all of this happens again; everything grows and lives. So how is there “no advancement”?
Generally everything essential, though, has indeed been said. Precisely this allows Eco to mistakenly equate traditionalism with “obscurantism,” confusing it with Nazi occultism. Both one and the other appeal to eternal (sacralized) paradigms of culture. Yet the difference between them is that traditionally oriented culture is synthetic, i.e. it contains within itself the idea of “internal unity of existence,” while the neo-pagan is truly syncretistic, dealing with the “realm of pure quantity formed from odd and isolated elements.” (Guenon)
And finally: many of today’s psychiatrists (those for whom it isn’t characteristic to leave their own professionalism behind the closed doors of their offices, along with their lab coats) see in the contemporary civilized world a hippodrome of schizophrenic passions. And not only psychiatrists; perhaps only a blind man could not spot these symptoms. The ongoing “work” in culture and society strikingly resembles a progressive disease of the soul – a movement toward the schizophrenic disintegration of the personality. The soul of the world is close as never before to disembodiment.
Yet this is still not a sentence, but only a diagnosis. The question is whether we want to recover.