Saturday, February 9, 2008

Here Be Dragons @ ScienceFutures

Hi Folks -
Here's "Here Be Dragons" as I presented it at the ScienceFutures conference at the ETHZ ("University of Zurich") on February 9th, 2008.

Welcome to dragon time, dragon space: herenow be dragons. I don’t know what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what awaits me, and trust me, you don’t know either. ScienceFutures has, I hope, been a learning experience for us all – and now, when the end is nigh, I offer some unlearning. Let’s forget everything we know, for “Here Be Dragons” is an exercise not in awareness, not in knowing, not in seeing, but in bewareness, in ignorance, in darkness. Herenow you may find the impossible, the unthinkable, the unknowable; you may find time outside of time; you may find smoke – but no mirrors.
Never look into a dragon’s eyes, for they are the mirrors of the world-soul. In them you may see yourself reflected, infinitely small, trapped in vast orbs of enlightenment, trapped by all that you know and see. When a dragon gives you advice, it knows you won’t follow it, I mean, chasing your own tail like a kitten is all well and good, but what’ll you do when you catch it? Biting its own tail like the great wyrm Ourobouros, the dragon knows where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going, while for your part, you know nothing. When the dragon speaks, it always tells the truth, for it uses the True Speech, the language of making, the language wizards and gods use to fiat lux and fiat nox, but unlike a wizard, perhaps more like a god, while a dragon always tells the truth, it may in fact be lying. The dragon is lying in the garden under an apple tree, no, it is lying to you in the garden. There is a voice walking in the garden, it is a voice covered in scales, a demonic devilish voice whipped away by the wind. Like a baby bat, the voice screams out in fright:
Turn on the dark
I’m afraid the light!
Echolocation – the world-making of bats and other creatures with bat-wings – is no use, for this is an anechoic chamber, yes, you are lost in the deepest sense of the word, that is, you don’t even know you’re lost. Whatever you do, don’t, and I mean really don’t, and the wizards of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry will back me up on this, draco dormiens nunquam titillandus. Never tickle a sleeping dragon, let sleeping dragons lie. Of course, all dragon-like myself, I know that this school of wizards exists for little else. When I give you advice, biting my own tail, I know you won’t follow it.
Lastly, here’s a few things to beware about dragons.
Once upon a time there was a conference in Switzerland, a veritable council of Rivendell where the One Ring, the ring to rule them all, the Ring of Omni Science was sorely in question. What to do with the ring? This was a ring, don’t you see and now you don’t, that made its wearer invisible. Like the fabled Science of a thing called Man, the ring of Omni Science makes you invisible, or maybe just blind. The stronger you make this science, the stronger you make your objectivity, the blinder you become.
Here’s an example. Once upon a time, sitting under an apple tree, Man hatched a devious equation. In his equation, the world was a clock, and he was outside it, placed there in the garden by a voice to see the world and make sense of it, wind it up, make it work. Man’s equation was a linear one, fully reversible, and in this linear equation the world could tick-tock in discrete steps and draw things like apples and Man and guillotines ever downward in square accelerations. So the world was a clock, always ticking along, always expected, controlled, dead, really.
Or maybe and at the same time – simultaneously, yes, for there was only one time, there in the garden – the world was a woman, and this woman he called Nature, and Man could and did lift Her veils as He was drawn down to Her, and so the equation, too, was Nature’s Rape Manual, and verily it did teach how to rape the world which could not contain him with his equation long and straight. Of course this was not rape, what am I saying? She wanted it, or well, she didn’t want anything, I mean, what does a dragon want? Only Man could want things, and if She screamed well, I don’t hear any screaming, do you? Screaming out in fright? Turning on the dark because we are afraid of the light? The world is a machine after all and machines don’t care, they only do what you tell them to do and, when the equation is long and linear, they always do what you tell them to do. Yes, with a long, sharp, linear equation the world is cleared right out of the way, known and dissected and predicted right out of existence.
Okay, bad example. Well, this is some weird stuff, and I have no idea if it’s going to fly. Of course, dragons are clearly too big and clunky to fly. You know, that dragon St. George drags around on a leash? Like a big chicken with stubby wings, it won’t fly, more of a plummet downward like a certain unruly angel, like a certain stubborn apple, falling forever through the bottomless pit all around us called outer space. Once upon a time the world was a dragon – called Tiamat, or Fafnir, or Nidhogg, I don’t know, his name is legion and please beware that dragons always hide their True Names – once upon a time the world was a dragon and Man forged a sword, a magic sword Bruno Latour named INANIMISM. Man brandished the great sword INANIMISM killed the dragon called CHAOS, making order, making a tidy space, and he lived happily ever after on the dead thing. He drank the dragon's blood and understood the songs of birds and bickering of beasts, and they were senseless, they were saying nothing, yes, they weren’t even really talking at all. That’s what it means to live happily ever after, yes, it is said of him – as is said of all those who perform similar acts of faith in the shadows of other dragons yet unearthed from beneath their hills of ordinary-seeming earth and grass, believing that their bond serves through gentle constancy to enhance and not further delimit the boundaries of this prison world – from that day forward he lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in-between.
Nothing for it but to start again, like the Midgard Serpent wrapping the Earth, or Ourobouros again and infinitely biting my own tail:
Once upon a time, when the world was a machine and Man was at the controls, dragons no longer existed. As in the delightfully frightening early twentieth-century fable, “The Last Dragon”, the world gave up being a horrific princess-abducting monster there only to be slain by scientist-princes and turned, instead, at first into a pet and, begging only to be useful, finally into a conveyance, a gigantic airplane, what Bucky Fuller called “spaceship earth”. Deprived of mind, of agency, with no eyes to see, no claws to rip, no fire to breathe, the world was full of comfy couches where Man could sit back and experience couch-potato blight and couch-potato famine in peace. The end.
Okay, not quite. If all of this seems like nonsense and after all quite impossible then beware, for things are going vaguely as unplanned. When the world was old and Man was new, ignorance was a terrible sin. Epistemophilia was the order of the day, Man had to know and know it all and I mean right now! Mapping the world, he mistook the map for the territory, the word for the things he named. He looked under every rock and lo-and-behold he found the fossilized dragons that the voice walking in the garden had put there to fool him – no, scratch that, the world was old, the dragons had lived and he called them dinosaurs and they were all thankfully dead because in dying they had made way for mammalian Man, proud to be a mammal with no scales and warm-blooded to boot! He told tall tales of the beginning of things, of the origins of Man, of how the other animals got their names. He pegged and pinned everything down with classifications and categories, entire Linnaean structures for clarity and organization. He looked down on Earth from the heavens and took pictures and sent those pictures around the world, he searched the stars and the cosmic waves to find other people like himself who cared about things like knowing and remembering and broadcasting on every frequency. He searched the heavens to find the truth of things and wrote that down in the Zodiac and the Tarot and in pyramids and towers all across the world. He killed off as many critters as he could, dragons included, to make it easier to see them all and master them and hold dominion over all he saw. He saw other men and made them animals by remarking on their skin and their bone structure, he saw women and watched them twenty-four seven, his eyes filled with the fascination of something so like man, like a broken man, like man with something very much missing and wrong. He measured it all faithfully and made maps of it all until the map itself became the territory and he had explored it all and gone to every corner of the Earth looking and looking and finding and finding. He looked at the smallest things, the tiny particles that tried to escape him and fool him by being in many places at once, he looked at light itself with his cannibaleyes and it was good.
Man looked so much, staring into the sun shining through every bit of His world, he looked so much that he made himself blind. Every system he made and every fact he proved open up spaces, vaster and vaster gaps, everything he saw made everything else invisible, unclassifiable. Man was no navel gazer because he had no navel, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin he was never borned but jes grew, he was a Self-Made Man. With his categories he made monsters, with his equations he made myths, with his microscopes he made macroscopes. He looked for gods and for himself so much that he could hardly see, that his eyes were melting in his head, that his whole world became invisible for being too visible. Just as the unknowable is never innocently unknown, the knowable was never innocently known. Man made a living hell of knowing, of curiosity, of his insatiable need to control. With stories like the one I’m telling you now he chained himself to that rock, rooted in, got stuck in the truth and the light and the beauty.
In the end there is really only one way off this rock, one way to break the chains, and that is ignorance, not knowing, not the kind of ignorance where you know what you don’t know but the kind where you don’t even know that you don’t know. Herenow in the end, in dragon time, bewareness and unknowing and the deepest ignorance is the only place to start; ScienceFutures are all impossible, unthinkable, unpredictable, we turn on the dark, give ourselves the gift of ignorance, for the only ethics of the future is herenow, in not knowing and never knowing: in the impossible future, the unthinkable future, we can find our only salvation, and know, or not know, that the gift of ignorance is too the gift of choice. The end.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Here Be Dragons: a science fantasy

Utopias of True Speech, objectivity, and invisible unknowable knowers have ghosted human science from the get-go. Be it mathematics, physics, or the scientific method itself, the One Ring to Rule Them All shifts the wearer out of the physical plane, makes them invisible, forces others to submit to their will – and submits them in turn to the power of miracle and danger, the danger and miracle of power. Having survived – or have we? – the Age of Miracles and Dangers, of artificial and augmented intelligence, of robot persons, of nanofactures and nanoplagues, of gengineered cyborganisms and well-nigh immortality, having made it out, over, beyond and through all the monsters we made, I take this opportunity to look back, and to dwell for a moment in dragons. Polemical, yes, to root a vision for the Science Fiction (sf) of Science Studies in Fantasy – sf’s classic other – but, as Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law reminds us and everyday life testifies, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, any vision of either the futures or pasts of technoscience and Science Studies must take magic, mystery, and the impossible very seriously indeed; “Here Be Dragons” proposes to do just that.

Once upon a time human people didn't believe in dragons; once upon a time, they did. “Here Be Dragons”, citing popular histories of cartographic danger, riffs on dragons as depicted in the ancient works of Ursula K. LeGuin and John Gardner, exploiting and expanding on the philosophical old-worldings featured in LeGuin’s Earthsea series and Gardner’s Grendel respectively. In LeGuin, while human mages use the True Speech to cast spells and form the world to their will, they cannot tell lies in it. Dragons, however, whose native tongue is the True Speech, can; like the technoscientists of elsewhere and yesteryear, they twist the True Words to deceptive ends. In Gardner, as Isabelle Stengers indicates in her Penser avec Whitehead, the dragon ventriloquizes the Whitehead of Modes of Thought. Outside of time, beyond the limits of the all-too-human modes of memory and perception, this dragon remembers, like the demiurge-demon of Laplace, the futures. His advice to the monster Grendel? Find a pile of gold, magic rings and all, and sit on it - advice he knows, of course and in advance, that Grendel will not follow.

Knowledge is power: all knowledge is dangerous, self-knowledge doubly so. Here, at this Council in Switzerland, I wonder what is to be the fate of the One Ring, the science (studies) of the futures? Dangerous knowledges, dangerous unknowings, uncertain futures: somewhere between anecdotal theories and situated knowledges, “Here Be Dragons” presents a strange, impossible ethics of knowing alongside an equally strange, equally impossible ethics of ignorance.