Inside the Collective Unconscious
- August 8, 2020
- Erik Davis
The religious imagination has reinvented itself by finding a new home in cyberspace.
Imagine you’ve got a new, interactive, three-dimensional database called the Collective Unconscious. The machine looks like a Disney vision of the philosopher’s stone, or a data-crystal dropped by mischievous aliens on a fly-by from Sirius B. No keyboards, joysticks, or monitor screens. You just focus your attention on the thing, and your mind begins unfolding into the twists and turns of the cyberspace it contains. As you enter the database, you realize the Collective Unconscious is more than a virtual world – it’s a virtual cosmos, the mytho-poetic universe that all the gritty facts in the world cannot keep us from imagining.
It’s more a multiverse than a universe, for the imagination lends itself to contradictory perspectives and alternative histories. A myriad possible worlds. But points of resonance emerge from this vast storehouse of the engineered imagination, as symbols, myths, and metaphors cluster like constellations in the night sky. These are the archetypes you recognize from your deepest dreams and your favorite comic books: Earth Mother, Death, the Toolmaker, and the Clown. But you zoom past these figures, heading toward another, more abstract archetype, a pure point of cosmic data that, in some slippery way, is both nowhere and everywhere: the archetype of Information.
Spinning into this white-hot attractor, you glimpse a rapid-fire montage of all the ways the human soul has imaginatively embraced the problem and promise of communication: with the gods, with others, and with itself. Before a crackling fire, a feathered shaman reads the will of the ancestors in the bloody guts of a goat. In a cool temple, an Egyptian priest paints hieroglyphs that control the things they name. Outside the gates of Jerusalem, God commands the prophet Ezekiel to eat a heavenly scroll. In a musty garret, a grizzled magician invokes spirits with code words and complex diagrams. Swaying before a radio microphone, a Pentecostal preacher begins speaking in tongues. On the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Captain Jean-Luc Picard comes to a crystal clear realisation: ‘All that remains is the possibility of communication.’
Absorbing this barrage of information and imagery, you realize that, throughout history, every mode of communication has opened a new dimension in the imagination. Every new medium is a new machine of perception, inducing an almost mystical vertigo that we creatively integrate into our haphazard evolution. And yet these novelties always return us to the core of our condition, the feedback loops that drive our wayward humanity.
For along with the codes inscribed in our genes, the two forces that most shape our societies are tools and symbols, the technologies we brought into the world and the signs, languages, and gestures of our cultures. What better embodies our mutant essence than our means of communication, tools that both carry symbols and become them? Cave paintings and cuneiform, manuscripts and magic lanterns, printed books and telegraphs, graffiti and cinema and internet newsgroups – all media shape and are shaped by the collective imagination, which must grapple with their peculiar qualities, their balance of signal and noise, their blend of mind and machine.
Where does religion fit into all this? As the American religious scholar Catherine Albanese writes, ‘Religion cannot be defined very easily because it thrives both within and outside of boundaries.’ She suggests that religion first arose out of a concern with borders: the borders of the body, of familiar territory, of life and death. These ‘liminal’ spaces became charged with otherness, alien forces that can both save and harm. Religious rituals and myths served to contact, contain, and propitiate those forces. Thus religion is a deeply cultural work that imaginatively locates us and our societies in space and time.
It is not surprising that this work takes on a peculiar charge today, when boundaries are dissolving as never before – boundaries between synthetic and organic life; between real and virtual environments; between local communities and global flows of goods, information, labour, and capital. The modernist sense of time and space that replaced the old religious boundaries itself dissolves in the face of rapid change. With pills modifying personality and virtual experience creating a more fluid, invented sense of self, the boundaries of our identity are melting as well. It is as if the world itself has become a great liminal space, ambiguous and potentially convulsive, a boundary we both lose ourselves in and constantly run up against.
One religious response to these shifting borders is retreat, a conservative reaffirmation of traditional forms often accompanied by the demonising of present conditions. These reactions are not mere holdovers from an obsolescent age, the sociocultural equivalent of pocket watches or powdered wigs. The fundamentalism that infects America and the Islamic world are both modern phenomena, authoritarian ‘traditions’ reinvented in the face of a fluctuating historical landscape that they participate in, even as they reject it. This has never been more obvious than today. But the paradoxes of this stance are particularly evident in the schizophrenic attitudes of fundamentalists and religious conservatives toward the information technologies that they so often embrace. The media not only symbolise the modern era, but actively feed the moral and cultural anarchy that conservatives are so keen to control.
While the conservative dimension of the religious imagination solidifies boundaries at any cost, its more magical and mystical tendencies thrive beyond boundaries, in ecstatic realms of the otherworldly, the more-than-human, the dreadful, and the ‘blissed-out’.
These protean, alchemical, often nebulous visionary strains of the religious imagination cannot be identified as easily as a fundamentalist jihad, for they often avoid obvious religious language and imagery. But as you comb through the fringes of technoculture – dub music, UFO cults, psychedelia – there appears an anarchic, bohemian, even explicitly technological spirituality as potent as any prophecy.
These phenomena suggest how the religious imagination reinvents itself in a changing world. These days, that imagination also has powerful tools to do so. Hippie astrologers and Nation of Islam numerologists have embraced the data-crunching capacities of computers, while groups as diverse as chaos magicians, Tibetan Buddhists, and fundamentalist Christians all use multimedia and the internet to spread their words. Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists in the United States and abroad turn Western media technology against Western values. Freethinking seekers across the globe wrestle with information overload as they attempt to streamline a flood of traditions, technologies, and teachers into a postmodern path grounded enough to walk upon.
By seizing technology for its own purposes, the religious imagination not only bootstraps itself into cyberspace but reconfigures the deeper meaning and nature of the new machines. The very ambiguity of the term information that makes it such an insidious buzzword also allows groups and individuals to sneak in old dreams under the broad new category, and to reinject their post-industrial lives with digitally remastered forms of hope, community, ecstasy, and vision. After all, religions are deeply pragmatic: as Karen Armstrong points out, ‘It is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it be logically or scientifically sound.’ William Gibson’s famous observation about new technologies – that the street finds its own uses for things – applies to religious technoculture as well, which in its pragmatic, frequently evangelical drive, fashions a symbol from the mode of communication it employs. From hieroglyphs to illuminated manuscripts and satellites, the medium becomes part of the message.
Religious thought works in part through imaginative resonance, calling up earlier images and experiences in order to deepen and reconfigure the present world. So, for example, the Hebrew experience of slavery under Pharaoh becomes a mythic map for antebellum blacks in Christian America, who sang out its metaphors not only to express their longing for freedom, but to send coded messages along the Underground Railroad. But the religious dimension of contemporary technoculture is not often so obvious. As Mircea Eliade noted, ‘In a desacralised world such as ours, the ‘sacred’ is present and active chiefly in the imaginary universes.’ In other words, the search for mythologies of information leads one to scour the esoteric dimensions of contemporary culture high and low: electronic music, science fiction, computer games, film. Over the centuries, just as human beings have ceded their memories to books and other storage devices, so, too, have we externalised much of our imaginative life into the myriad worlds of the media.
Searching comic books and CD-ROMs for signs of the new mythologies, we cannot forget that most contemporary culture is bound up in one way or another with the culture industry’s commercial and corporate concerns. While boundaries between market-place and sacred space have always been porous, mainstream culture today has in many ways simply collapsed the distinction between the two. Golden arches, Trump Towers, and Las Vegas pyramids now tower over the landscape of imaginative desire, and the most obvious information myths are consumerist. With unintended cynicism, Disney calls the industrialisation of fantasy ‘imagineering’; others simply call it the corporate colonisation of the unconscious. If our collective symbols are now forged in the multiplex, then our archetypes are trademarked and sold: unconsciously collect them all!
However, media is not just passively consumed; to varying degrees it is actively spliced and reconfigured by the needs and desires of its audiences – needs and desires strangely familiar to students of religion. It is no accident that the word ‘fan’ derives from a Latin term indicating membership in a popular religious cult – nor that a dead Elvis now serves the religious and imaginative needs that Jesus once did. Star Trek is a mythology not just because its scriptwriters have read Joseph Campbell, but because the organic subculture of Trekkers has given the show resonance and historical depth. Trekker conventions are not only orgies of commodity consumption, but costumed carnivals of the imagination, devoted to the political and social invention of a media folk culture – what Trekkers call, in a slightly different context, ‘filking’. And the world popularity of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films has injected a powerful current of pre-modern, if not pagan, nostalgia into the contemporary imagination.
As mass culture goes molecular, multiplying channels of delivery and feedback between fans and producers, such active “cults” will complicate any vision of a unified, manipulative “culture industry.” Many-to-many media like the internet or the experimental collectives of electronic dance culture also exemplify “information communities” that erode the differ- ence between creation and passive consumption. At the same time, any visions of the liberating, democratic, interactive potential of new media must confront the ominous fact that only a handful of gargantuan corpo- rations now dominate media traffic across the planet.
Interestingly, the very notion that computers will deliver a wondrous world reflects a deep assumption that the religious imagination has snuck into contemporary ‘secular’ consciousness. After all, the myth of progress, the great secular vision of historical and scientific evolution, first sprouted from the soil of Christian eschatology and the hermetic utopias of Rosicrucians and Freemasons. Though the astounding, persistent savagery of the 20th century has done a thorough job of eroding collective hopes for genuine social and political progress, this millennialist spirit continues to animate science and technology, and accounts for much of the utopianism in information age rhetoric.
There is nothing ‘natural’ or even particularly reasonable in this myth. Until the end of the Renaissance, even the West tended to locate the Golden Age more in the past than the future. But since the rise of Enlightenment science, Western civilisation has held itself to be qualitatively different to previous cultures, as if the very nature of human society had shifted into an eminently superior gear. Bruno Latour, a French sociologist of science, suggests that this post-Enlightenment perception rests on what he calls the Great Divide: the artificial sundering of nature and culture. Nature exists ‘out there’, an objective world whose hidden mechanisms are increasingly exposed to the detached reason of scientists, while politics and culture lies ‘in here’, a field of narratives and power struggles that develops without natural restraint.
Latour contrasts this paradigm with the ‘anthropological matrix’ of traditional, pre-modern peoples, a world composed of ‘hybrids’ that are both subject and object, natural and cultural, real and narrated. In this world, myths, tools, medicine, sexuality, rituals, and trees are all woven together in a sympathetic webwork of hybrids. While not frozen in history, this matrix is inherently conservative, for the changes introduced by any new hybrids ripple through the whole webwork.
The West never stopped living among its own hybrids; it just denied their existence as they were multiplied at an astounding rate. But Latour suggests that today, as we face increasingly complex, demanding exchanges among science, law, culture, and the environment, we can no longer sustain the Great Divide. ‘We too are afraid the sky is falling,’ he writes in We Have Never Been Modern. ‘We too associate the tiny gesture of releasing an aerosol spray with taboos pertaining to the heavens.’ The eruption of new hybrids returns us – with obvious differences – to the old anthropological matrix. ‘It is not only the Bedouins and the Kung who mix up transistors and traditional behaviours, plastic buckets and animal-skin vessels. What country could not be called ‘a land of contrasts’? We have all reached the point of mixing up times. We have all become premodern again.’
If Latour is right, then the question of how machines function within hybrid and ‘pseudo-scientific’ paradigms, including esoteric and religious ones, becomes a crucial cultural story – one that will only become more pertinent as people’s daily lives grow increasingly surreal, as new and powerful technologies penetrate the quotidian sphere. As the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick noted in his 1972 speech ‘The Android and the Human’:
…our environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components – all this is in fact beginning more and more to possess what the…primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive…
Latour would agree, for he shows that in the world of hybrids, all artifacts and technologies possess a degree of agency. Marshall McLuhan also spoke, with typical overstatement, of how ‘so-called primitive man’ approaches machines: ‘he regards it as we do a pet animal, as integral and alive. Assuming its total unity, he apprehends it as such…and this is the only kind of approach that will work under electric conditions of our new environment.’
We often err in assuming that the cultural experience of tools and machines necessarily implies a strictly rational, reductive, or utilitarian worldview. Humanity has always built a technoculture, but only very recently (and only fitfully) a scientific one. Human beings constructed, manipulated, and culturally engaged impressive tools and machines millennia before Enlightenment science arose to stamp out the old superstitions with what William Blake called its ‘single vision’.
Even before the rise of Greek rationalism, which led to the construction of everything from astronomical computers to pneumatic automata, the ancient poems of Homer drip with a pagan materialism that exults in technology and cares little for the eternal rhythms of nature. As Samuel C. Florman writes: ‘We emerge from the world of Homer drunk with the feel of metals, woods and fabrics, euphoric with the sense of objects designed, manufactured, used, given, admired, and savored.’ In a famous passage in the Iliad, the crippled blacksmith god Hephaestos hammers out a great shield for Achilles, a bronze beauty decorated with all the heavens and the earth. The shield’s intricate scenes of battle, harvest, and celebration come to life like a metallurgic cartoon, and I can only see the first virtual technology, a most ancient artifact of ‘imagineering’.
James Burke and Robert Orenstein suggest that the synthesis of technology and pre-modern styles of thinking may offer hope. They relate a double-edged history of technology, showing that the tools that have enabled us to splice and control nature have led us to the brink of environmental collapse. The liberating effects of technologies are overshadowed by the powerful forms of social control and economic injustice that they allow. Burke and Orenstein lay part of the blame on our own minds, which, through a complex adaptation to axemaker tools, have honed their sequential, analytic skills at the expense of what the authors call ‘arational thinking’: intuition, imagination, rough guesses. It’s their way of describing Aristotle’s forbidden middle way, the fuzzy logic that leaps across Latour’s Great Divide.
Looking for a way out of this impasse, the authors paradoxically turn to that fat calculator known as the computer, which they claim ‘might take us back to what we were, mentally, before the axemaker’s first gift changed the way our minds got developed and selected.’ They point to the strange resonance between arational thought and the more inspiring, interactive capabilities of information technology. ‘The ability to see relationships and move things around in space may be intellectually as valuable with iconic computers as learning quadratic equations or remembering the table of elements was once with print. When much of the routine drudge-work of the mind is automated, the spatial, intuitive, ‘navigational’ talents may well be much better adapted to accessing knowledge that is structured more like the natural world rather than being reduced to alpha-numeric codes.’
Burke and Orenstein’s image of hypertext nomadism, of information processing as a kind of shamanistic journey through the electronic astral plane, is inspiring, but we need Marshall McLuhan really to translate this poetic vision of the return of tribal thought into the information age. We all know McLuhan’s mantra ‘the medium is the message’ – it is lodged in our brains right next to ‘I think, therefore I am.’ McLuhan meant that the shape and structure of media, not their content, directly influence the shape and structure of our minds, perceptions, and societies. From this he concluded that electronic media were rapidly eroding the linear, abstract, rational mindset hammered out by writing, both through recomposable units of alpha-numeric characters and the ‘segmenting and fragmenting’ influence of later print technology.
Believing that every new medium resonated with an older form of social experience, McLuhan saw the new electronic environment as conjuring up the collective, oral, even magical consciousness of pre-modern peoples: ‘Civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy, and as it dissolves with the electronic revolution, we rediscover a tribal, integral awareness that manifests itself in a complete shift in our sensory lives.’ This sensory shift McLuhan described as the rise of ‘acoustic space’ over and against visual space. He pointed out that our contemporary concept of ‘space’ is basically visual: an objective, homogenous field organised by the linear, logical, and sequential perspective of the Cartesian coordinate system. (The image of cyberspace sketched by Gibson in Neuromancer seems entirely Cartesian.) But McLuhan believed that electronic media were instead producing the sense of space we experience through hearing: multidimensional, resonant, tactile, ‘a total and simultaneous field of relations’. We do not relate to acoustic space as detached analytic observers; it swallows us whole, like the oracular environments that characterise Latour’s ‘anthropological matrix’ or the esoteric cosmologies that underground hermeticists have kept alive.
McLuhan has come in for a great deal of criticism from media theorists, and many of the same criticisms can apply to the contemporary ‘spiritual’ manifestations of technoculture, especially in its more utopian guises. As technological enthusiasm rises like a mythological balloon over a dark landscape of crumbling inner cities, poisoned oceans, and third-world industrial shantytowns, technology critics and deep ecologists have every right to try to pop that balloon with pointed facts. By forming the nervous system of an increasingly nomadic, unaccountable global economy, some assert, information technology intensifies the rising social and economic inequities of the New World Order. In the United States, we see clear signs of the structural banishment of whole chunks of the population from the orbiting palaces of increasingly privatised banks of information. Even more profoundly, the shift into atomised virtual experiences erodes our face-to-face experience of nature and physical communities at exactly the moment when those spaces are most threatened.
From this perspective, liberating or utopian visions of technology are at best a mythic delusion, at worst a sham. Langdon Winner condemns ‘mythinformation’, which he defines as “the almost religious conviction” that widespread adoption of computers, communications networks, and electronic databases will automatically produce a better world. In his The Cult of Information (1994), Theodore Roszak castigates society for ceding cultural and political authority to computers and the corporate and scientific elites who control them. Besides cataloguing the more insidious uses of computers in war, business, and surveillance, Roszak argues that this cult mystifies and falsely elevates the power of computers by imagining them as ‘thinking’ machines. He worries that by doing so we undermine those aspects of human consciousness – wisdom, understanding, experience – that don’t fit the dominant paradigm of information.
Many self-proclaimed neo-luddites follow the lead of Jacques Ellul, who proclaimed in The Technological Society (1958) that the forces of ‘technique’ would expand and invade all spheres of human activity. For Ellul, ‘technique’ described not just technologies, but the rational procedures, languages, and constraints of bureaucracy and modern institutions. In his eyes, the forces of technique have become autonomous. Where once we humans exercised choice over our lives, now we have been swallowed by a behemoth of our own making. This behemoth follows its own relentless logic, reducing human will to a switching circuit in a vast machine. In the 1990s, this image of Big Brother was complicated by the decentralised, privatised, increasingly diffuse and interactive nature of technologies. Now, in the era of Homeland Security and corporate control over intellectual property, we witness a rising spectre of massive instrumental surveillance and control.
But we should not forget that the absolute picture of technological domination sketched by Ellul and many other neo-luddites is itself a myth, a story that organises the chaos of social reality with a ‘big picture’. This big picture makes fundamental assumptions about the nature of humanity and the world, assumptions often rooted in the religious imagination.
Although the technological fetishism of much high-tech consumerism can certainly be criticized as a form of ‘magical thinking’, many neo-luddites make a similarly magical move when they ‘ensoul’ technologies with a nefarious, autonomous force of their own. Beneath the TV that turns us into passive mush brains lies the old sorcerer entrancing his zombies. In the final sentence of The Cult of Information, Roszak (who also wrote a novel based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) warns us to guard the human mind from ‘demonic misuse’. Jacques Ellul, himself deeply rooted in Catholic theology, shows a disgust with technique that seems tinged by the Christian critique of man’s Luciferian rebellion against the divine order. Everywhere among the neo-luddites, we hear echoes of Faust, who sold his soul to Mephisto for knowledge and power. The battle that deep ecologists and other environmentalists wage against industrial technoculture is often explicitly spiritual, relying on a romantic Manichaeanism that sets the sacred experience of wilderness and the belief systems of traditional societies in moral opposition to the ravenous robot of science, technology, and urban culture. Although there are a growing number of Green Christians in the so-called ‘stewardship movement’, deep ecologists like Roszak also attack Judeo-Christian assumptions about nature and the body which, they persuasively argue, still drive the juggernaut of Western civilization (Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, thought it was fine to exploit natural resources because Armageddon was coming).
On the other hand, the activist Jeremy Rifkin has enlisted the help of Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic leaders in his attempt to shut down the patenting and manipulation of human and animal genes. Both attempts indicate the strong evangelical dimensions of the environmental movement, as eco-activists attempt to convince the rest of society that wilderness, animals, and perhaps even genes possess intrinsic, even sacred, value – the kind of value not easily reckoned on corporate ledgers or accepted by sceptical intellectuals who distrust all absolute claims of value.
But the point is not simply to ‘expose’ the mythic dimensions of contemporary views of technology as a way of discounting them and reinscribing the critical gesture. William Irwin Thompson may have been right when he wrote about the emerging planetary culture that ‘only man’s religious myths have been thinking on a scale large enough to deal with what is happening.’ Technological myths, both pro and con, play the role that strong religious myths have always played: They re-orient us with a story of who we are and where we are going.
Of course, commercial websites and the advertising in Personal Computing also tell such stories, and the very transparency of these mythologies makes them dangerous. While we need critical thinking and alternative sources of information in order to break through the pernicious, banal myths of the information age, that does not mean we should abandon the active imagination. I am reminded of what William Blake proclaimed in Jerusalem, his great poetic attack on industrialism and the ‘Vegetable Eye’ of Enlightenment science:
I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare: my Business is to Create.
Certainly we cannot abandon reason and comparison. Perhaps we are too enmeshed in the satanic mills for the imagination to make much difference. Still, contemporary religious visions – in their ability to reorient consciousness in a mad world, to reconfigure boundaries, to question society’s basic assumptions – offer to even the most secular of us powerful, illuminating, and seductive models of a techno-cultural transformation that exceeds all easy imagining.
This essay originally appeared under the title Reverse Imagineering: Technoculture and the Religious Imagination in The Future of Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2001.