Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order

Order is something we take for granted. That’s the mistake, the grand error of modernity.

In his 1966 work The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes in his preface a passage from Borges to establish his objective. Quoting Borges, who in turn refers to ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, the section describes a classification of animals as being ‘divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In a later lecture recalled by Laurie Taylor, Foucault lambasted the impulse to capture and mount every butterfly in a genus and lay them out on a table, to highlight minute differences in form and colour, as if trying to solve God’s puzzle.While one might suggest that Borges classification was absurd, it was the ambition of Foucault to place it alongside the rational classifications that torture mankind and its image of itself. This week, at the Economy and Society Summer School in the sylvan river promontory of Blackwater Castle, when I mentioned the library in our home of which I am immodestly proud, the question came up more than once ‘…and how do you organise the books?’ Whether or not it is a natural instinct in humans to seek order from chaos, to deny the State of Nature in favour of a life that is less nasty, less brutish and not quite so short, it does seem to be our instinct, and certainly mine too. That our library is not in fact ordered is in no way reflective of any enlightened Foucauldian disposition of mine; indeed it is the cause of occasional mild discomfort when I can’t quite put my hand on something, and am forced thereby to spend a little more time in that room. It is so disordered at the insistence of my more artful and assiduously republican wife, in something of a post-colonial mini-revolt against the English imposition of systems. It is the English who are like that, you see.

The text in Foucault reminded me of a short paper I wrote in my final year as an undergraduate, Chaos and Order in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (that work is long since lost!). Malory’s book was a strongly political work even as quasi-mythology, and the Chivalric order was important at the level of Civilization. The succession of the king, and his legitimacy, were central to the good health and wellbeing of England. It is unclear when such ordering became de rigeur in western thought, though Lewis Mumford in his Technics and Civilization (1937) dates it to the invention of the clock. Mumford is talking specifically about the ordering of man himself; a recognition of Celestial Order did pre-date the clock, of course, in architecture such as the Pyramids and the tomb at Newgrange, a recognition of a universal cadence that was existentially foundational and often worshipped. This was a cosmic order, a cosmos of things.

Technology, of course, is order. It is the shaping of the natural world to both reflect that order, and allow for human influence and power over environment and other. Bureaucracy too, even before the application of communications and counting machines and other devices, is a technology of the State, a gaggle of institutions constructed to channel control. Order has a cosmological genealogical root, and as quantum physics has demonstrated to us the imperfections in our physics, it getsfuzzy. This is something we can’t rationalise, a fly in the ointment. Traditionally, we have turned to God for answers at this point – though Darwin and the butterfly hunters insisted on there being turtles all the way down, leading to the absurd taxonomy of Foucault and Borges.

Even neoliberalism, or the less pejorative late-modern capitalism, has its philosophical roots in a kind of alchemy, or magic. Hayek’s Spontaneous Order relies upon the mysterious forces of the market to overcome the hubris of ‘values’. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations referred to the invisible hand, that famous metaphor that we think of when we consider the power of markets, only three times in his core text, and only once as the market: the other two were attributed to God, and to Jupiter.

Theologies of politics and economics are increasingly being recognised as legitimate analytical structures, to my mind as if there has been a rehabilitation of the theological. From my personal perspective, the theological had surfaced unthinkable compromises, intellectual bypasses that seemed to me to be dogmatic, inflexible, and that undermined the entire exercise. When stumbling upon podcasts about dead philosophers from seemingly legitimate universities, only to realise after listening for a while that the perspective is that of fundamentalist Christianity, I pull the earbuds from my ears as if poison were dripping along the cord. And yet after this week, considering anew Carl Schmitt (the political is the theological) and Giorgio Agamben, alongside Stefan Swartzkopf’s fabulously creative juxtaposition of big data and the algorithm with the imperative to count angels, the concept of the theological appears to have new attractions.

And so the idea of a theology of technology appears to have some merit. There are countless references already to technology itself as a kind of religion (Wieseltier’s high priests of tech, Rozak’s cult of information, etc.), even though it is essentially a part of us. As Leah Schade said in her review of one attempt to theologise technology, ‘[t]echnology is too much a part of who we are because it is who we are. It may be worshipped (technicism) and is indeed necessary to human survival. But it is does not have the capacity to transcend humanness, thus disqualifying it as a religion per se’ (her emphasis). A critical genealogy of technology, however – a Foucauldian architecture, so to speak – might benefit from some theology, a return to God! The alternative it appears is to persist with an absurd etymological wasteland of theory, plunging forward into the miasma of progress, simply ignoring the hard questions in favour of an abstracted historical materialism.

In extending my work on the politics of technology, which led me into critical theory, Andrew Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology demands extension in considerations of artificial intelligence, temporality and memory. I have written before about the Temper of the Machine, an acknowledgement that temporality is crucial to the human condition. More specifically, human civilisation is in a sense a managed forgetting, or a selective remembering. We do this as groups in storytelling, myth-making, nation building and media; and we do this as individuals every day. E H Carr described history as an unending dialogue between past and present, and our present is a construct of all those dialogues. What we remember today, in our context of today, we may forget tomorrow, in our context of tomorrow – and vice versa: memory does not insist on a linear chronology. How many older people have we met who may not remember what they had for breakfast, but smile when reminiscing about their childhood pet? Similarly, we have qualitative remembering; we remember smells, but not scenes, and can be jolted into a memory when triggered by that smell. We have vague recollections of some things, and vivid remembrances of events that did not happen the way we remember them. In a distinctly human (it seems) paradox, we can even sometimes fake our own memories. Our memories are no mere ordered storage systems, but ways of being. Computers, on the other hand, are historical materialists that remember in binary, and never forget. These machines are, as one delegate suggested to me this week, autistic savants, an extraordinary condition ‘always linked to massive memory’, according to Treffert. This is hardly the basis upon which future systems of governance should be built, but we are nevertheless advancing in that direction – accelerating even! – with some enthusiasm.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order”

  1. Your talk of memory and knowledge systems makes me think of Lynne Kelly’s research on traditional mnemonics. We moderns think that the impulse to name and categorize everything is more about the rational and scientific intellect that was intensified during and following the Enlightenment. But it’s actually rather archaic. Kelly describes how some traditional people, including hunter-gatherers, amassed and maintained knowledge that would fill entire encyclopedias.

    In some ways, they had more knowledge about their world than we do today. This did include naming things. Some tribal people had a name for everything in their world, including life forms that had no practical value or use, but also names for every location, rock, bend in a waterway, weather pattern, and on and on. Some tribes even accurately kept knowledge of the landscape of areas that hadn’t been above water since the last ice age. They also passed on detailed knowledge about animal behavior, the sound wind makes in different plants, etc.

    To do so, they used not only language but also dance and musical instruments to convey meaning. An example of this is the Australian Aborigines. Each of their songlines is a self-contained knowledge system that describes in great detail a particular area they could pass through. Even when no one in a tribe had been to a songline region in living memory, anyone who knew the songline had a map of the terrain and knowledge of everything in it, including how to identify and use resources they had never seen before. The songlines also taught a specific mindset and way of being in the world, and in enacting a songline individuals would even change personality.

    Such oral cultures would be unlikely to think of this as “to seek order from chaos, to deny the State of Nature in favour of a life that is less nasty, less brutish and not quite so short” Instead, it would be “a recognition of Celestial Order did pre-date the clock, of course, in architecture such as the Pyramids and the tomb at Newgrange, a recognition of a universal cadence that was existentially foundational and often worshipped. This was a cosmic order, a cosmos of things.” Kelly also discusses how megaliths were probably used as mnemonic devices, and this closely relates to the vast celestial knowledge many traditional cultures kept. The Mayans famously kept detailed calendars going back into the distant past and distant future allowing them to make astronomical predictions, even though they lacked books.

    The main change isn’t that we are now more obsessed with knowledge but that knowledge has become abstracted and disconnected from our embodied experience, from our daily lives, and from the immediate world around us. That is primarily a change from an oral culture to a literate culture. We now maintain our knowledge systems primarily outside of ourselves, in books and computers. Removing knowledge from the world, this makes the world less alive. Oral cultures arose out of animistic culture and, according to Julian Jaynes, later developed into bicameral cultures. In this oral perception, the world is alive with beings and voices. To remember knowledge is to invoke ancestors, spirits, and gods — that is to say to alter the state of mind and way of being. Each knowledge set was a living system, something to be respected.

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