TECH & TRANSMAGIC
All that magic you read in fairytales? Seven-league boots, invisibility cloaks? It’s starting to happen. Via tech, not magic.
Though tech is a kind of magic.
The only kind that’s allowed to exist.
Magic is for cranks, fools, charlatans and hustlers in our culture. We don’t believe in magic but we do believe in books and movies about magic. We swallow those up by the bucket load.
What is magic?
It’s kind of two things:
First: ‘magic’ is just deep knowledge about nature or human nature: understanding the world in ways others don’t. Arthur C Clarke says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We could also say: ‘any sufficiently advanced knowledge about nature or human nature is indistinguishable from magic’. Think:
Cortes turning up in Mexico with armour, crossbows, horses, ships–and bacteria
metal swords versus stone age weapons millennia ago
anyone prehistoric in possession of a magnet
aircraft flying over Amazonian Moxihatetema, the villagers waving their spears
This type of magic is culture clash, with the potential to swizz. It is mass spectacle even more powerful for its unexplained theatre than for the practical advantage it delivers.
In our culture this kind of dazzling magic belongs to corporations and the state.
We nothings are only supposed to know so much about leaves and rocks and how things work: think of the massive taboo Christianity put on knowing too much about nature, herbs and potions. That’s what they burnt witches for back in the day. We reserve that wizardry for official agents: monks, academics, prospectors, corporations. Not indies brewing strange hooch in the shed.
It wasn’t always like this. Once, knowing as much as you could about plants, minerals, animals, human nature, was how we got by. This is very ancient knowledge: animal knowledge: how we survived and colonised the planet once upon a time, when we were just another clade. They say Babylonian star observation records go back three hundred thousand years. And where does that knowledge trace from, except from the pre-human nous that birds etc still navigate by?
Our lost birthright, cut from us and sold back to us in superstores, pharmacies, app stores. What are stars and plants to us any more?
All still available, at one remove: on our devices. Digital tech replicates the deep animal knowledge that looks like magic – but it binds us to external devices. What was once stored in instinct or memory is now franchised in silicon, with a steep price for its access: the price of third-parties knowing everything about you. A price we seem happy to pay.
But how will it be, the day the phones go dead?
How shorn and defenceless will we be, blind mewling kittens, the blunted? What magic is being done to us, personally and politically, now we’ve handed over our senses and souls to digital tech?
The second type of magic is more problematic. Yes, it is The Force, that digital-effects films tell us so much about. This is the stuff to make toes curl up utterly. Secret powers we could all harness were we trained enough, occult ways to bend reality, fly, morph, become immortal, achieve dreams via qi, telekenesis, powerful objects, sixth sense. This is stuff for credulous fools, not us sophisticates in our culture of logic. All cause and effect, measurable data, for us ultrarealists in our disenchanted world. Except: where are we? What is this strange world we’ve fetched up in? Where the whole shebang looks magic and illogical from the get-go, let’s face it. Where even the most materialist scientist is forced to accept that at least two magic thing happened once in the deep past: the big bang or however things got started, and the spark of life in the first cell, the moment life and death got invented, when things stopped being just atoms and rocks. We live in this big magic and it is our challenge, especially now we’ve done away with religion and become such techno-champs. Because despite all our super devices, we can’t replicate what that magic does. Our metal and silicon tools need a power source and ‘on’ switch: we can’t make soft carbon life from scratch that grows its own parts and reproduces the life spark. We can only harness existing life to make crude rigid boxes, then trash and upgrade with new models leaving a splatter of parts in our wake.And that means we can’t stop death and become immortal, which is the magic we actually want. We’re too stupid to understand the set-up we’re plonked in. We’ve tried, with religion, alchemy, science, engineering, but we’ve failed. We’re going to die without understanding it, so we’ve come to hate and cancel it and put a hex on it. Because we’ve dreamed up another plan. There’s been a sideways manouever, a shift away from truth-hunting, trying to prise open the magic our logic can’t fathom. We’ve junked the wonder of interaction with something bigger than us, traded it in for a swizz of our own. Something no one voted for, that slipped in through the back door to replace everything in the past half-century: cloned controllable digital man-made magic, the immortal trans magic of the virtual world. * To some degree all tech is trans magic: the (often male) attempt to ape the power of nature, a power often confused with female power: the power to create. But digital tech lets us do something else entirely. Instead of trying – and failing – to make physical machines that can understand everything about the world, bytes and screens have let us clone the world – or its visual aspect, at any rate – to make its virtual double and then move into it, lock stock and barrel, casting off the old inconvenient original. This duplicate universe looks a lot like the real world with a few big differences: • We built and control it and determine its rules • It never dies • It isn’t real • We can be anything we want here Most of our hopes and dream reside in this world now, exacerbated by COVID. What a spell its synthetic magic has cast over us, how we are entranced by it, designed as it has been by cunning psychologists tasked to thrall us by masters who want all our attention. And isn’t it a marvellous place! • Magical connections with people we’d never otherwise meet, all over the world • Endless distraction – no more boredom! • Bite-sized news and info so we can stay up to date with quick takes without having to dig deep or focus at length, making us easily offended and malleable • Death and resurrection in eternal games • The democratic possibility of instant fame for five minutes by a quick comment or image • Permanent access to our past so everyone is instantly shameable, blackmailable, controllable, and redemption is never possible because nothing, including past crimes, ever dies. It even looks like magic: information flying through the air between devices: how many of us actually know or want to know about the underlying tech? And its innate power to model, the data and analytical crunching inherent in closed systems, has let it solve previously impossible challenges in the old world, so we can now build our invisibility cloaks, shred ourselves with grey goo, fly to other planets, flee from gnat-sized drones, as Chomsky warns. We kid ourselves it may even solve the big death problem: look at how good it is at squeezing every possible drop of info out of tiny microbes, mini-creatures that are perhaps the original stuff of life snatched from extreme situations deep inside the earth to have their little bodies dissected and hollowed for gene therapies or clone-growing so we can master nature’s trick. But in our hearts we know: we never will. And we care less and less. We’ll live here, in this trans magic we never voted for that swallowed everything, where nature is scenic and animals cute for our social posts. Where we can be anything we want – because that’s a useful byproduct of the experiment: when everything’s reduced down to bytes and operations then we’re all the same: blank ice-trays waiting to be filled with whatever colours we choose from the preset carousel. We call it diversity but it’s a monoculture we’re happy to kick back in, where similar difference is supplied as illusion and real otherness is outlawed. Photoshop, tints, fiilters, for our faces and minds. New personas on demand. New sexes and races. Ever-more defined and self-policed interest groups. Plus the righteous balm of personal or social victimhood when we’re feeling down, which we often are, because it’s actually a lying horror show with no exit except the death we moved into it to ignore, which’ll get us anyhow. And chugging away behind it all: the old interests, who now run us directly, that we’re plugged into, that can read our plans, switch off true dissent at a stroke. How much more convenient this swapped-out world is for them… * The old world and its magic still exist, outside our walled garden, despised and haunting. We take selfies there. We experience it on screens or as potential screen-fodder, fiddling with image-capturing devices that act as condoms for our attention so we’re insulated from the transformative power of pure connection with what something bigger than us created. We’ve already been transformed, on an industrial and controllable scale. Our salves are shopping, fantasy and nostalgia, for the old days, before we got blunted, all those films about magic, all those ingenious heroes marshalling nature. And soon these sops will merge, when drones like Disney storks lay geegaws on our doorsteps without the need for any connection. Pretty soon they won’t need us at all…
Not for Baudrillard.
He isn’t a fan of the “woman as a projective resurrection of the selfsame,” the “twin-like, almost incestuous figure[s]” we’ve become. “We are sliding from ecstasy to metastasis,” he warns, because we are forgetting that the differences between male and female can’t be liberated, are in fact vast and asymmetrical. We aren’t different, we are other, unequal, alien to each other:
“The feminine is not opposed to the masculine, but plays with the masculine, somewhere beyond sexual difference.”
The Perfect Crime
And that’s the joy of life, Baudrillard says. Being so different means when male and female come together we wipe each other out, we lose ourselves, which is good. Connecting with something really other forces us to go beyond our identities. And wiping each other out is good because it is the secret truth we all know: the world is nothing, we come from nothing, nothing really exists in real time, especially our identities, it’s all a bunch of crock ending in death whose only possible consolation comes from chiming that truth in a connection beyond words with each other, a connection that our lying culture commodifies and cookie-cuts from us today.
“For the secret never lies in the equivalent exchange of desires, under the sign of egalitarian difference; it lies in inventing the other who will be able to play on – and make sport of – my own desire, defer it, suspend it, and thus arouse it indefinitely.”
The Perfect Crime
2. INHERENT FEMALE PRIVILEGE
What’s the inherent difference, the inequality between men and women, according to Baudrillard?
Firstly, women grow up with the potential to give birth, with all the magic, purpose, connection and backdoor routes to immortality that entails.
Secondly, men are vulnerable to the beauty of bodies (male and female bodies) in a way that women aren’t, despite Chippendale calendars and Cosmo centrefolds. Men get off on bodies and women get off on experiencing the power their bodies have over other bodies. That’s a power imbalance with big potential for abuse.
Poor men. No wonder they’ve tried to tell us we’re dumb and docile and monogamous and less sexual and inherently powerless. No wonder they’ve rewritten history to tell us women never had power until our recent ‘liberation’. So we are shocked, for example, to read that the druids Julius Caesar fought in Anglesey in 60AD were mainly women.
It’s no wonder men have hated us and used their greater physical strength to build the modern world of production as a “phallic fortress” against us, to try to control us and our bodies and make us forget the power of our privilege by projecting their own hysteria into our motives.
“At the cost of total disenchantment, we would enjoy a total immunity.”
The Perfect Crime
And men have erections, definite visual proof of the power someone has over them. That’s the third part of our privilege. Women can keep it vague.
3. THE TURN OF THE HAND
Keeping it vague and ambiguous, not wholly buying in to ‘reality’, is women’s great asset:
“The immense privilege of the feminine… the privilege of having never acceded to truth or meaning and of having remained absolute master of the realm of appearances.”
Being master of the realm of appearances may seem like meagre gruel compared to being master of the realm of reality, as Baudrillard says men are. But for Baudrillard, appearance, the void – the knowledge that things aren’t in fact real and set as we pretend they are, that the only things we can actually be sure about are death and uncertainty – is the deep true fact about the world, as we all secretly know, the truth that always upturns everything else and seduces us. This seduction for Baudrillard has nothing to do with “rouge and lace” and everything to do with playing with the world, stepping back from the world.
“Nothing can be greater than seduction itself, not even the order that destroys it… Seduction has no power of its own, only that of annulling the power of production. But it always annuls that.”
This advice can seem perverse, wrong, insulting to very real horrors. But:
“No one has ever been dispossessed of the power associated with seduction... Yes, women have been dispossessed of their bodies, their desires, happiness and rights. But they have always remained mistresses of this possibility of eclipse… and so have always been capable of eclipsing the power of their masters.”
And to those “good apostles” who say: “you aren’t going to discredit reality in the eyes of those who already find it difficult enough to get by, and who surely have a right to reality and the fact that they exist… you aren’t going to discredit feminist and egalitarian demands in the eyes of all those who haven’t even heard of women’s rights?” Baudrillard is hardcore:
“Underlying these charitable intentions is a profound contempt... in crediting people with placing their hope only in the visible proofs of their existence, by imputing this plaster-saint realism to them, one takes them for naïve and feeble-minded.”
The Perfect Crime
Yes, men may have built and be running our whole current world, they may be richer and stronger and more powerful and better than women, they may abuse their position. But all that can be upturned in an instant by one simple hand gesture from women, Baudrillard tells us:
“The capacity immanent to seduction to deny things their truth… and thereby foil all systems of power and meaning by a mere turn of the hand...”
4. THE POWER OF TABLES
We must feel sorry for western men, Baudrillard shows us. Their neurotic quest for a defence against this hand gesture has led them to simulate reality, to make themselves the all-powerful subjects obsessed at all cost with ruling objects – people and things. And where has this great project left them?
In our indifferent world of mass-production and simulacra that reflects back the “eccentric, paradoxical, paranoid and tiresome masculine state.”
In our world of too many objects than we know what to do with, where actual physical things themselves–tables for example–take their revenge on their masters by glowering back: “objects thumbing their noses at us” with “tiny ironic glimmer”.
At least tables have a job to do, a real purpose, Baudrillard says. And they may yet take over from us in the end. In this confused, ill-made world, that means a table has more power than your average western man. At least it has a use.
5. WHAT MEN WANT
What western men secretly want, Baudrillard says, is to become objects themselves, to be penetrated, put to use, relieved of responsibility at last. To search for things unaffected by their project they have imprisoned us all in, to be taken back to “the attraction of the void.”
6. PLAYING WITH DEATH IS BETTER THAN SEX
How very capitalistic and production-based, Baudrillard shows us, to think that sex is the thing when it is just a “disenchanted form of seduction”.
“A culture that produces everything, makes everything speak, everything babble, everything climax… In the absence or denial of the orgasm, superior intensity is possible… There is something stronger than passion: illusion. There is something stronger than sex or happiness: the passion for illusion”
Sex is part of nature and we must not trust nature.
“One must rid oneself of the idea that all happiness derives from nature, and all pleasure from the satisfaction of a desire.”
Nature wants us to procreate, like animals do. But we have built a more complex culture than other animals, we are – perhaps – more aware. And the awareness of where we are and where nature is taking us is pretty bleak. How much more charged to use awareness and attraction as a game, where, locked in with another like-minded participant, we can enact a ritual that ducks out of the ‘real’ world to toy with what nature and the ‘real’ world want from us:
“an ironic alternative form that breaks sex and provides a space, not of desire, but of play and defiance.”
“We seduce with our death, our vulnerability and with the void that haunts us. The secret is to know how to play with death.”
7. DON'T DO IT
The best relationships these days are never consummated, are never even formally acknowledged in words, according to Baudrillard. The purest thrills are to be found in the “seduction of the eyes.”
“Where looks alone join in a sort of duel, an immediate intertwining, unbeknownst to others... a single subtle instant, as in a stroke of wit… the sealing of an indestructible pact amongst the participants… Once the delightful tension of the gaze gives way to words or loving gestures the intensity declines.”
8. DON'T SETTLE
We must not fall for the cold seduction of our current twinned, cloned, incestuous, screen-based reality of egalitarian difference and simulation: that’s a given. But above all, in the face of overwhelming message and tech, we mustn’t give up, we mustn’t settle.
“Existence is something we must not consent to. It has been given to us as a consolation prize and we must not believe in it.”
The Perfect Crime
And we must fight back: we must be passionate. Once there was value and style in detachment, but no more:
“Now what good is it being passionless in a world without passion, or detached in a world without desire?”
The Perfect Crime
“This reconciliation of all antagonistic forms in the name of consensus and conviviality is the worst thing we can do. We must reconcile nothing. We must keep open the otherness of forms.”
The Perfect Crime
And how do we do that? Like all great dating guides, Baudrillard has his rules:
“The absolute rule is to give back more than we were given. Never less, always more.”
The Perfect Crime
We mustn’t settle. We mustn’t give up hope of the fellowship of the void. We must deal with relationships as Baudrillard suggests we deal with radical thought:
“Promote a clandestine trade in ideas, of all inadmissible ideas, of unassailable ideas, as the liquor trade had to be promoted in the 1930s. For we are already in a state of full-scale prohibition. Thought has become an extremely rare commodity which has to be cultivated in secret places following esoteric rules.”
The Perfect Crime
Or something like that…