Idolism. Homo idolans.
Human being imagines generally that it is the master of its inventions, but in fact everywhere it is measured, deployed, expended, and cultivated by them. I do not believe in universals or constants, for I am resolutely and to the most fundamental core of all my actions historical and historicist. And yet everywhere I have yet looked I have found images and tools (but I repeat myself) sending men and women where it serves the end of their (the tools’) propagation and development to send them (the people). Indeed pursuing this haunting impression back into “the past” (another image-tool, the idol deputized by us all to dominate me and to develop my utility as its instrument) one only finds periods in which the iron domination of human artifice was weakened because of its underdevelopment. Our images, cruder, controlled us more weakly because the net or cage thrown over the living remainder, the unassimilated, that we actually are, was more coarsely gauged. Our experience was more schizophrenic, less refined – in the manner of alloys, not in the manner of manners – more wild, less useful, more dangerous.
The simple fact is that this formulation of human history and society and being is but a macrocosm of how the human brain actually functions. It has been scientifically established that one of the brain’s most important functions is the editing of sensory experience into coherence, what may be consciousness itself. The brain organizes memories of all kinds for storage and retrieval, a process which obviously involves much forgetting and much damage to the “actual content” of the experience remembered. All of this is well-known. It also edits the “live feed,” so to speak, of sense data. The eyes and ears and nerves are not the perfect and stable diagnostic instruments our experience invisibly and endlessly suggests they are. They are machines in space and time. They stutter, jump, short-circuit, skip, fail, and so on. Foreign objects become lodged in them. The corrosion which is the corollary to all complex functioning everywhere impedes them. And the brain takes this mass of confused, sometimes-contradictory, always-damaged film reel and stitches it into a coherent, logical, predictable, efficient-exploitable product that tends towards the production of additional cameras – additional human mind-body apparatuses. Functioning in the high-end, super-charged mammal dreamworld (requiring an engine of blood, oxygen, electricity, and nutrients unparalleled in power consumption and miniaturization and complexity) made it more likely that a particular category of objects on the savannah-forest borderland would reproduce themselves, and whatever evolutionary lags or hidden, crippling, slow-to-develop flaws may be nestled within this apparatus it has continued to reproduce powerfully ever since.
So in a very real sense the development of culture – of information stored in the emergent network of electricity and chemicals playing across the surface of the brain rather than in genetic code – is both the first shift from animal to human, in an evolutionary sense, and the natural development, that is to say, intensification, of the human, in a technological one. That this process is both emancipation and slavery, existential personal transformation and cold industrialized production, actualization and perversion is the mystery I hope to understand, to develop, to intensify.
In asking this question, I place myself along an immense expanse of human thinking that has in many places and times, understood that this question is the fundamental one and asked it. The Axial Age thinkers of a half-dozen civilizations grasped this when they invented rituals to control their gods and redefined humanity as a disembodied mediator linking unchanging infinity to the mutating particular. In instrumentalizing those gods, the human stock of tradition, culture itself, they sought to free human being from subjection to its own tools and to reestablish the natural order, in which the inventions of human being – gods – served human being. The Abrahamic revolt against idolatry, too, sought to escape the control of the usurping and misunderstood sign. The idea of a contract or covenant with God again instrumentalized Him, and would in time be understood as a revolt against the usurpation committed by human cultural artifice. The Reformation and the Enlightenment only developed-intensified this revolt against its institutionalized and ossified earlier iteration. Marxism put the problem most clearly for the now-living modern mentality – that human being risked becoming the slave of its own productive complex. And postmodernism has carried this fight staunchly into the realm of art, logic, and thought generally, seeing in rationalism, text, and perhaps in any system/structure (understood in the structuralist sense, for postmodernism is unquestionably a direct response to structuralism) at all the idols of an earlier age, the usurping sign, the god-to-be-harnessed-through-new-ritual.
The historical record thus indicates that true change on this score is exceedingly unlikely. With better lights and more developed-intensified method we chart the inside of the cave in which we are imprisoned ever more precisely. This project is, in the long run, indistinguishable from refining the gauge of the net our being throws over itself. By understanding better today our prison, we tighten its grip on our descendants.
Human being is embarked on the project of building a destiny for itself. Does it also, simultaneously, disassemble that destiny? or develop the potential tools for such a disassembling?