Visionquest (or In Search of the Lost Horizon)

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Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding
Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.
“Peace Frog” – The Doors

by the heretick

Jim Morrison’s words stand now for the common man, for the great masses of humanity steamrolled by the juggernaut of industrial society; but “steamroll” is such a concrete word, it does little to describe the psychic reality, evoking as it does a concrete physical state. I would like to speak here of something much more ethereal, more delicate, yet more powerful, what some have dubbed the hyperreal, but could more accurately be called the irreal. Merriam-Websters compares irreality to unreality, but then unreality is something that really isn’t there, whereas irreality could be said to exist, but beyond the bounds of description or perception. Consider one’s self in a darkened room beyond the reach of cellular phones and neon lights, noiseless; when one takes a tentative step in the gloom there is just the faintest brush against the cheek, the hand reaches out to find the faintest trace of, what? A cobweb perhaps? A stray piece of hair floating on a puff of air? Or was it nothing at all? A mere will of the wisp? Humankind, at least those who consider themselves intelligent and sophisticated, pride themselves on their understanding of the world around them, of the ability to see things clearly;  to perceive reality as it truly is; yet it may be this very ability that has left us in the dark.

Long ago, in the days of yore as they say, there was such a thing as the Renaissance man, someone who was up to date and could discourse upon and practice any of the various fields of knowledge available to the species. Roman fire, crucible steel, simple pumps for agriculture, mathematics, and sturdy architecture, these technologies have been around for hundreds of years, long enough that an educated aristocrat in Colonial times could go about his estate and either build or fix  just about anything required for everyday existence. True enough, the common man did not have this knowledge, and certain raw materials may not have been readily available, but for the most part, dealing with metal, flint, wood, and plant fibers, just about the entire gamut of the most cutting edge knowledge could be contained in a gentlemans library, and most machinery could be constructed at the local forge.

If one had a wayback machine we could go even further, to primitive tribesmen who used whatever material was at hand, bone, flint, wood, plant fiber and animal hides; and knew nothing of the science we have today, who lived in harmony with nature, probably because they had no choice. Whether or not their lifestyle was a choice, or what we think of them is not the subject of this essay, it is what we have lost along the way. I would imagine that living with nature, with the absence of unnoticed and inaudible low frequency hums intruding upon the senses, no background of sirens and highway noise, and absent the glare of city lights, these people would have been keenly aware of the cosmos, and felt a connection to nature totaly alien to us today. To these people the world would have appeared as a whole, terra firma, Mother Earth, they would know where they came from, and felt connected to the whole without any intemediaries. Surely there would be specialists of sorts, those with natural talents suited to certain tasks, the tool maker, the medicine woman, the strongest hunter, but they lived as a group; if one person had it over another, then you would know that person, if you were of low status, at least you had your place. Some speculate that drawings on cave walls attempted to capture the essence of the creatures cavemen hunted, or maybe they were just pretty pictures, no one really knows what was going through these peoples minds. Maybe pictographs were the first attempts at objectification, maybe not, the point to be made here is that while prey, trees, river, woods and stream may have been appreciated as discrete entities, they were still seen as part of the whole, mystically connected to a vast universe. Today we have somewhat the same appreciation, but it is my contention that it is a counterfeit, beyond a counterfeit, an apparition, an irreal phantasm of the mind.

One of the problems with great knowledge is recalling where you heard it, read it, or viewed it, Umberto Eco, or The Readers Digest? Studies have shown that the human eye tracks movement on the horizontal axis more readily than the vertical, which would only make sense, as land animals were the most accessible prey, hunters would have scanned the horizon, pursuit would be on foot, threats to the group or individual would most likely come from the ground, leaving aside the odd leopard dropping from a tree, or cave lion leaping from a rock. Orientation has alwys been important to the human species, the landscape affects survival, and the landscape affects the way we view the cosmos, our way of looking at the world also affects our psychology, it’s a two-way street, so to speak. The eyes as window to the soul has a scientific basis as well as a poetic, the ocular nerve being considered an extension of the brain by some, and the only sense that could be considered not to be tactile.

Advances in science in the last several hundred years have changed our view of the world in ways that may never be understood, but at least are now being questioned and commented upon . The ancient Roman Lucretius discoursed upon the motion of dust particles moving in sunbeams, 200 years ago scientists were able to view Brownian motion with the first high powered observation instruments, but it was not until 1908 that the first attempts at describing this phenomenon were formulated, oddly enough, during the same time fame Einstein first jotted down his fatal equation. When Galileo Galilei and his cohorts provided support for Nicolaus Copernicus our species horizon moved from that of the terrestiial horizon to that of the infinite, in a way different than that of our ancestors. The atomic age brought upon us a new ball game, for now our horizon shifted once again to the very ground beneath our feet, to the comtemplation of wave or particle, ten dimensions, or just a mere three. It is my belief that the shift in focus to the microscopic from the celestial is the more profound change, for while the contemplation of the heavens may lead to flights of fancy and futile attempts to reach the stars and inhabit planets which are not hospitable to our species, all while consuming precious resources, the breaking down of objects to their constituent parts may prove the most revolutionary.

Distinctions between macro and micro have become blurred, the lines between human and non-human dissolved, when anti-biotics are detected in municipal water supplies, the line between natural and artificial has been breached. We think of humans as distinct from our creations, we acknowledge the effects of our technology on the environment, as if it is something outside ourselves when it is not, we have created an artificial environment on the macro and micro level. Modern medicine has done wonders, prolonged life for many, made life more livable for others, as with any technology there is a trade-off. Medicine has allowed us to become separated from our own mortality, death has become a business, it is illegal in many places for the family to bury their own dead; doubtless there are sound reasons for this, but it is what it is. It is rare for Grandma and Grandpa to be buried up on the hill or down in the hollow, especially when so many people rent where they live and are essentially rootless, thereby further sundering them from any sense of place or connectedness. In a cruel twist of fate the use of antibiotics has had the effect of not only preserving the patient, but also the disease, for a disease must have a host, when the organism a pathogen inhabits dies, many times the disease dies also. Yes, an outlandish statement, one that goes against the grain of everything we have been taught, but an obvious working of the law of unintended consequences. Another consequence of antibiotics was foresen by Alexander Fleming, and that is mutation and resistance of disease to our medicines, the upshot is that today we have diseases which may never have occurred if we had not been meddling with natural processes. Many people believe we engender our own diseases by the use of hormones and chemicals, and they are probably correct, then we turn around and treat these diseases using ever more precise methods, down to the molecular and genetic level. At this point i must say, and it is something always to keep in mind dear reader, and that is that i am not here to make moral judgments, but simply to attempt to convey an understanding of our species place in the scheme of things, it is up to everyone to draw their own conclusions. The minutiae of medicine are so arcane, they require so much education, and most importantly, powerful and delicate machinery that the lay person has so little knowledge of, that it appears as understandable as a shamanistic ritual, most probably less so.

Consider the case of the modern corporation, and let us just leave aside the very real questions of social justice and class struggle, it is acknowledged that these entities are owned by humans and used to their advantage. Corporations can be said to be creatures of the state, they are acknowledged to be legal entities, they are granted many of the rights of humans, however if we take a closer look at their functions we must acknowledge that we are already at this time flirting with artificial intelligence on a society wide scale. Yes, these ideas are a reach, this is what understandings of the irreal necessarily are. We have an entity with human rights, but it is not human, this creature could hypothetically live forever, humans cannot; this entity interacts with the physical environment, it comprises physical assets, but yet the entity can be dissolved in an instant. Suppose this entity trades stocks, or deals in synthetic financial instruments, we have a doubling of the aritificial, an artificial entity manipulating an invented product, in this case the CDS; now we have this twice removed from reality creature running mathematical algorithms on super fast computers trading futures, in shall we say, the price of wheat, or the hedges on the price of wheat, all of these actions can be controlled to a certain extent, the program can be shut down, but it’s not, it happens everyday at near the speed of light. The most lucrative trading desks are all situated on the backbone of fiber optic networks, words describing living creatures are even used to refer to these networks, the nervous system of the exoskeleton of the human/machine hybrid. All of these systems interact with the individual human, when we buy a loaf of bread or a tank of gasoline. As individuals we may see ourselves as distinct, but the species is not distinct, the species in its current form and size cannot survive without these systems. What do we call these systems? Do the on/off gates of a supercomputer represent reality in any tangible way? Does the computer know or care whether it is running nonsense or futures in gold? How many layers of complexity, how many artificial layers before what we call an ecomomy becomes nothing more than a system representing nothing other than a method of control?

“If you smile at me, I will understand, ‘Cause that is something,  Everybody everywhere does in the same language” or so the old song goes, back in a more idealistic time, but is even that really true? Perhaps smiling could be construed as baring one’s teeth, a threat display. But let’s leave that aside, let’s pick on something that should be simple, money for example. An agreed upon medium of exchange, a bushel of wheat represented by a certain shape of clay tablet, it is a sign that stands for something, something definite, you have that clay tablet, you know what it’s worth. What happens when that clay tablet is good for exchange one day, but the next has only half it’s value? You would feel ripped off, you would lose faith in that sign. What happens when a I-phone is said to be worth $600 dollars, but really is worth nothing as it has no utility value? What is this medium of exchange based upon? Or suppose said I-phone’s value depends upon interacting with some other part of a coded system? A code you personally do not understand, of what value is the entire system? Take the example of highway signs, we believe that this exit leads to such and such a street, just suppose it doesn’t, you would very soon be lost, disoriented. Let us consider the Zeitgeist, “the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time”. Words matter, another old saying, they represent our mental concepts, they are signs and symbols we use to describe and interpret reality, deeper than words is how we view ourselves and those around us. Do we see ourselves as distinct individuals worthy of respect? Or do we see just a collection of cells, the end result of a biological process? How do we view the Cosmos? As simply forms of matter to be twisted, turned, and transformed into whatever we wish them to be? It has taken this planet 4.5 billion years to get to the stage of refinement we see around us everyday, a span of time which we cannot begin to grasp; i don’t care to do the math, however even considering the dawn of the Australopithecine’s as a starting point it is a tiny fraction of this history, how much smaller a slice is the industrial revolution? Or the dawn of micro-biology? We are truly at the very barest cusp of a totally new era of human history, yet we are still like little chidren, sad little children playing grown-up games. We tend to think of understanding at the level of experts, to insert the “we” into discussions, when the truth is, it is the few. With mass production, dissemination of mass media, modern psychology, signs and symbols lose their meaning in any meaningful social sense. With dimly understood concepts and infrastructure which we have little or no control of affecting our daily lives, we as the  philosopher said,

I will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of usóbecause the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sandóthe jungle of signs is equal to that of the forestsóthe vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of natureóonly the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains, in which work buries work, in which value buries valueóleaving a virgin, sacred space without pathways”

Jean Baudrillard –  Simulacra and Simulation

We have more and more information, less and less meaning, to paraphrase. When the universe stretches to a supposed infinity, we can no more grasp that concept than the man in the moon, we have imagined things we cannot understand. When the horizon stretches to the infinitely small, when we smash atoms while not knowing what it is that transmits gravity? Perhaps we have taken a step too far. Too much information can be as deadly as too little, when we unleash technologies and rush headlong into the void without considering the consequences, we may lose what makes us human, we may turn into something that we do not recognize, and do not like too awful much. Who knows? Could wind up in the Desert of the Real, on a Visionquest, In Search of the Lost Horizon.

17 Responses to Visionquest (or In Search of the Lost Horizon)

  1. Disaffected says:

    How many layers of complexity, how many artificial layers before what we call an ecomomy becomes nothing more than a system representing nothing other than a method of control?

    Not sure when, but I’m pretty damn sure we’ve passed that point already. 2008 was certainly the watershed conformation year for that kind of stuff, when having “blown up the world” with their imaginary derivatives trading (casino gambling buy any other name), Wall St banks’ were rehypothecated using federal funny money. There’s no turning back from here it seems.

    • Disaffected says:

      By the way, GREAT POST there HT!

    • Disaffected says:

      Looks like my spelling has turned to shit this morning.

    • the Heretick says:

      a form of mass psychosis where the people manipulating these entities get to the point where they believe their own lies, or don’t care. so, we have these securities and hedges out there supposedly equal to $77 trillion? whatever the latest number is, and these are considered valuable, denominated in legal tender? it’s not such a leap to irreality.

      when a culture accepts certain concepts and builds a reality upon them and perceived reality does not correspond with the physical circumstances, that society may be in danger of catastrophic failure.

      it’s a hard idea to put across, i deliberately avoided references to my favorite cultural theorists. such as……..

      ““With the industrial proliferation of visual and audiovisual prostheses and unrestrained use of instantaneous-transmission equipment from earliest childhood onwards, we now routinely see the encoding of increasingly elaborate mental images together with a steady decline in retention rates and recall. In other words we are looking at the rapid collapse of mnemonic consolidation. This collapse seems only natural, if one remembers that seeing, and its spatio-temporal organization, precede gesture and speech and their coordination in knowing, recognizing, making known (as images of our thoughts), our thoughts themselves and cognitive functions, which are never ever passive.”
      ― Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine

      “the rapid collapse of mnemonic consolidation”

      disorientation, wandering in the electronic wasteland.

      and yes, i did actually read the book some years ago, although i did cherry-pick the quote.

  2. Malthus says:

    Wow. Really good writing, no great writing. By reading this I realize how confused I am over just about everything. I am always looking for an answer to the mess we have created and now know there is not answer or solution. We will just keep running towards the cliff not even knowing the why of things that got us in this situation. Its like Richard Feinman the physicist said about quantum physics. “No one understands it.”

    • Disaffected says:

      Its like Richard Feinman the physicist said about quantum physics. “No one understands it.”

      The key is in understanding that no one understands it (which should give us GREAT pause), which we definitely do have the capability to understand. I think the reason we ignore it goes back to what Archdruid refers to as the ‘secular religion of progress.’ We’ve decided to take our hands off the controls and let fate take us where it will because we’ve become so enamored with the idea of the infallibility of our technologies. Even worse, the farther we go in that fashion the more enslaved we become, until finally, we’re helpless to regain control again even if we wanted to, which is the state I believe we find ourselves in today, practically speaking at least.

      • the Heretick says:

        “helpless to regain control” which scares us even more, and drives us deeper into denial. but what if it’s not denial, as much as seeing things that aren’t there?

        • Disaffected says:

          I think you’re crossing over into faith and religion there HT, which as well know is not the exclusive provenance of organized faith and religion per se. The denial of one perhaps more “rational” world view in favor of another more irrational one. World views being inherently internal, mostly personal constructs, what matters most in the end is which world view fits the observed physical circumstances at the time. See Einstein’s Spacetime construct.

          Is the fabric of space actually curved (or, for that matter, is there actually a “fabric of space” in the first place?) We’ll probably never know, and if we somehow devise an instrument to show it to us, how will we know that the instrument itself was not subliminally constructed to show us something we were already convinced was true? The point and the value of the theory is that it works (for now) to explain observed phenomenon, albeit also based on previous theories. A form of secular religion? Take a look at the mathematical hieroglyphics on that Wiki page and try to explain it any other way.

          Accordingly, the entire economics “profession” was constructed by stealing physics equations and applying them to the mental circumlocutions of frustrated would be “economists”, in an effort to force fit them into a coherent theory of how homo economicus operates in the physical world (and that’s the charitable view!). So to carry your metaphor further, has anyone you’ve ever met actually seen or observed a GDP in the wild? How about a NPV. Or an actual FV of a stream of cash flows discounted at the prevailing IR? In short, ALL a load of shit that is only apparently NOT a load of shit because they’ve constructed an (mostly) internally consistent system around it all and wrapped it all in the scientific/mathematical symbols of faith to keep the rubes from questioning it all. Does it match the observable physical reality before us? Are you kidding? The exponential growth function, the root “scientific” premise for capitalism, has been a proven repeat disaster and curse for all of humanity, and yet the belief in something with no validity whatsoever (or should I say, proven invalidity?) lives on. Apparitions indeed!

        • Disaffected says:

          Speaking of apparitions… I work with/on/for computers at least 8 hours a day five days a week. I’m pretty damn good if I do say so myself, but I’m also a true love/hater when it comes to same. Among my many pecadillos is that I talk to my monitor/computer, especially when it’s acting up, which is pretty much all of the time these days. Do I view my computer as an actual rational living entity? The “rational” part of me says no, of course not. But the irrational part of me, which is what actually exercises control of my behavior most of the time (so much so, that my rational side even openly acknowledges it) says “Oh HELL yes I do!!!” I could tell you a story about a current computer meltdown (as in, just recovered from it 10 minutes ago), but I’ll save it for another day. Once again, apparitions? Are you kidding me? I think they’re mostly normal now. I think many of us will have to raise the stakes another perceived reality or two to catch up.

    • the Heretick says:

      well thanks, i’ve got to admit though, i really wasn’t as pleased with this as some of my others. the concept is very hard to get across as it has to do with general concepts, psychological states, and basic perceptions of reality.

      perhaps the only response to our cultures warping of the meaning of people, places, and objects is just a sort of silent protest, a mental attitude which insists upon common sense.

      for example, the Mars Rover is presented as having almost transcendent significance, “a step forward”, when in reality it may just mean profits for some corp. somewhere.

      • Disaffected says:

        I still remember when young Master W delivered his hilarious toss-off line about sending a manned mission to Mars in one of his later State of the Union Messages. No one in the room, least of all him, believed it of course, which is what made it so surreally funny. Just another slip of the tongue by the one of the DC elite to indicate that he and they could give a fuck less about any of it (or us) and that they had long since resorted to just slinging fabricated shit against the wall to see what stuck and daring any one of us to call them on it. National pride having long since been replaced by personal wealth.

        • the Heretick says:

          yeah, but maybe he really believed it, point of my post. when a certian way of viewing the world is the prevailing (dialectic?), well this is what we get, it’s not surreal, surrealism is distorted reality, irreality is not a counterfeit, a counterfeit has substance. why we see school shootings, many of the ills of our society, people are afraid, the streets are flooded with neon light, but people are alone in the dark.

          • Disaffected says:

            I think you’ve overthought it. In the case of GWB, I’m not sure he was ever capable of “believing” anything (seriously). In the case of the rest of us, I’m not sure we believe in anything anymore. Irreality – the belief in that which is not real? How about simple nihilism instead? Isn’t that a much simpler explanation?

            • the Heretick says:

              no, it really isn’t. books ask what’s the matter with Kansas? why do people vote against their own interests? why do people hold such wildly divergent views on things which are scientifically proven? answer, a constructed reality.
              for instance, climate change, i tend to think it’s happening, as i just do not see how the planet can absorb the amount of gasses we are producing. i talk to people who are intelligent, and they just don’t believe it. it’s not that they’re stupid, it’s because we live in such a synthetic reality that they can’t see it.
              i would say nihilism is caused by the air of irreality, not the other way around.
              remember Bageants Simulacrum Republic?
              http://www.joebageant.com/joe/2005/12/the_simulacran_.html
              he got as close as anybody to getting it, i wish i could write like him. it was when he died that i started.

              more learned people speak of signs, symbols, syllogisms; to the common folk we just look around at what’s happening and try to figure it out. this estrangement from our own nature didn’t just happen yesterday, it’s been built brick upon brick for thousands of years.

              crude prices are up, stock market tumbled, milk is over $4, but yet on the Newshour the experts drone on about early childhood education, when the truth is that the system, the economy, is producing exactly what it is supposed to, given it’s nature. denial of reality?
              vested interests? or just out of touch?

              if you look at my posts the constant theme is the nature of our synthetic society. i think this post was a miss, i attempted to write above my levels, i tried to sound erudite and reasonable instead of smooth and flip. probably better the old way.

              • Disaffected says:

                When it comes to writing, I try to follow one simple rule: write like you talk. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.

                But frankly, I think people are just dazed and confused in a world they no longer understand. Yeah, it’s synthetic in that sense, since they have to piece together a worldview to try to explain it. But lacking the information and capability to understand the complexity and disinformation they see, they simply give up and go along with whatever bullshit the powers that be are peddling. And the powers that be know that all too well. 9-11 is a case in point. The evidence of the conspiracy and coverup is out there for all to see and is undeniable to anyone of reasonable intelligence after a simple perusal of the facts, but the powers that be knew that Americans could never come to accept that elements of their own government would do something so atrocious (they’d already been doing it since at least Kennedy), so they did it anyway. And they were right, we couldn’t accept it. We’d MUCH rather live the lie, with all its implications, than accept the truth.

  3. “””Too much information can be as deadly as too little, when we unleash technologies and rush headlong into the void without considering the consequences, we may lose what makes us human, we may turn into something that we do not recognize, and do not like too awful much.”””

    Already done, for most people. Periodic vision quest highly recommended.

    WHD

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