Chris Palazzolo meditates on 21st century citizenship.
There is a certain type of Buddhist meditation which aims to reduce our perceptions to a kind of non-judgemental screen; the world flows in through our senses – we hear it, we see it, we smell it – but our minds make no judgement about it; it is unshackled from language (silence), and all moral evaluations are suspended. Only at the more mystical margins of early Christianity was such meditative nihilism practised (before its eradication in the 4th century), and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Western philosophers developed a scientific equivalent known as phenomenology.
A practitioner of these ‘mind-cleansing’ practices will confront a set of challenges unique to the world they inhabit. The Buddhist monk in 400 BCE suspended judgement on the cold of snow, the wind off the Himalayas, the words of passing wayfarers, etc. The phenomenologist, in his study in 1911, suspended judgement on a world of human artifice – walls, ceilings, furniture, radio, a phonograph (Thomas Mann called the phonograph a sarcophagus of music). The 21st century practitioner will be suspending judgement on a very strange world indeed.
As a 21st century Australian citizen and global consumer, I can imagine myself as this practitioner. Given a 12 hour period of ‘phenomenological consciousness’ what would I ‘observe’? Or, to put it another way, what does 21st century phenomena do across that horizon of exterior and interior Husserl called epoché? My first observation would be that a large amount of phenomena is computer generated signs. Vast, oceanic amounts of signs – images, text and sounds, ceaselessly changing – emanating from a sleek little machine perched on my lap. The thinking processes that decipher these signs must ceaselessly change too. The second observation would be my Thought (logos) about this thinking – that this same destructuring thinking (the rhizomatic, ‘thinking outside the square’ thinking of Silicon Valley) is what informs the enormous industries that manufactured this machine.
Ecce Laptop, that personalised global sign node that more and more of us are obliged to use for our daily bread. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to practice Buddhist meditation or phenomenological reduction, and so we have to make do with the ceaselessly alarmed, enraged and distracted thinking that attends any internet browse. All the things we do on this little machine; our banking, bill paying, form filling and socialising (email, social media), means that it is now an electronic synapse of our citizenship. Among other things it relieves us of the need to do many of these citizenly things in the presence of other citizens. The destructuring thinking which is the mode of thinking required to operate it, then runs the risk of becoming solipsistic as it seeks to fix a ruling sign on that exhausting inflow of in-formation signs. The human mind craves rest in the same way the body does. It finds this rest in structure. So in the structureless imminence of cyberspace there is no rest. The easiest ruling sign for the tired mind to latch onto is some kind of ideology. The world torments me; terrorists are going to cut my throat, hot singles get more sex than me, robots are going to take my job. What better way to stop all the changing by giving it a grand Meaning, connecting it all up to one evil cause whose sole purpose is to ruin me and my kind (which is just Me as well – logos)? I can rest then. The world is ruled by evil, but I and my kind are good. The day of reckoning will come. But here’s the thing: because the laptop, like a synapse, is an interactive device, the net absorbs the solipsistic struggle of the operator, turns it into more signs, which are then whipped by algorithms into ideological feeds coming back up the synapse. As recent world events have shown, a myriad of these sign-struggles clump together into profoundly unstable ideological blocs, hurtling around cyberspace, destroying civic identities and turning elections. Perhaps we all need to feel to the wind of the Himalayas on our faces.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.