Allen Tate, “The Man of Letters in the Modern World”, (1952): ‘What modern literature has taught us is not merely that the man of letters has not participated fully in the action of society; it has taught us that nobody else has either.’
Tate is fascinating for a modern reader because he comes from a position that is alien to most of us now, one that manages to be learned yet at the same time unapologetically moral. This is not in the often reactionary or defeated mode of T.S. Eliot, but somewhat closer to Emmanuel Lévinas. He calls for a distinction to be made between communication and communion, noting that what he terms secularism (as the death of the notion of “spirit”) apparently seeks to do away with all ends in favour of the absoulte of the means.
In thinking about Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, we can see how this idea is extended outward. In the “Consul’s Tale” we read in the colonization/invasion of a planet the profound cynicism of the WorldWeb. In this space opera, 28th century, the hyper-technological human society called the Hegemony has spread throughout the galaxy. Quoting from Wikipedia:
‘The farcaster network (the “WorldWeb”) is the infrastructural and economical basis of the Hegemony of Man and thus determines the whole culture and society. Also flowing across these portals are the structures of the datasphere (a network reminiscent of the Internet in design, but far more advanced). In that lurks the powerful, knowledgeable, and utterly inscrutable TechnoCore — the vast agglomeration of millions of AIs who run almost every piece of high technology of mankind. The unthinking hubris of man resulted in the death of the home-world (Earth), and this arrogant philosophy was carried forth to the stars, for centuries. The Hegemony itself is a largely decadent society, relying on its military to incorporate into the WorldWeb the colony planets, even unwillingly, and also to defend the Hegemony from attacks by the Ousters, “interstellar barbarians” who dwell free of and beyond the bounds of the Hegemony and shun all the works of the TechnoCore (especially farcasters)’
Anyway, in this tale (the first Hyperion book follows loosely the model of The Canterbury Tales or Decameron) we see the profound cynicism of the WorldWeb’s entire reasons for existence. There is no actual thought behind all the magnificent technology described to us, and this is but a cosmic extrapolation of the circumstances which confront human society today.
We have always been tool-using creatures, but the question deserves to be posed as to whether we still use tools as we did before. Do tools now begin to use us? This is one of the classic topoi of science fiction (as in The Matrix trilogy technology actively takes over, or Mockingbird by Walter Tevis where we apparently just give up, entrusting everything to our creations). Once, in conversation with a friend, I jokingly referred to my overall philosophical vision as Kardashev-Syndicalism, a mixture of the kind of alternative to state-directed socialism (because, as someone who takes the ideas of spontaneous order and emergence seriously, I would require a non-centralized form of government) with something else, a broader idea of what being human can mean. It sounds good even if you think Kardashev may have been a obscure Ukranian labour theorist affiliated with the Mensheviks. He was not.
Nikolai Kardashev is a Russian astrophysicist who developed the idea of a scale according to which civilizations might be ranked, based on their energy use. There are three types of civilization, with Type I able to use all the energy on its home planet, Type II able to use all the energy from its nearby star, and Type III thirsty or hungry enough to devour all the energy in its home galaxy. An alternative version of this taxonomy, that of Robert Zubrin puts the emphasis on extension throughout space, rather then energy usage, such that Type I has spread throughout the home planet, Type II has outposts and settlements on numerous other planets, and Type III the galaxy.
Now, the nitty-gritty details don’t really concern me here. Nor do accusations of cosmic smugness (although I may have to call my first album that). The phrase to me is more of a tool to rethink our present in the light of all the alternative paths we might take. Our thought might be better served by allowing the dynamic and daemonic power of possible worlds to explode our ideas onto a cosmic scale. Woah.
The universe of Hyperion is more than a metaphor of capitalism’s viral logic, though it is undeniably this too. The value of science fiction is that it is a truly a mode of thought, rather than adjustment or technocratic problem-solving; counter-intuitively, these latter two are actually the impulses behind all realisms, such that they basically are modes of acceptance. “Let the market take care of it.” Thought, in contrast, confronts the machine world which Allen Tate considers was born in the 17th century, along with modern science, the modern economy, modern technology. This world has ever since done its best to erase thought via standardization, universalization. In short, to destroy difference and the ability to try a new approach. This is not because of innate malevolence. It is rather the impulse of this machine logic to seek efficiency at all costs, and if that means saving energy by not thinking. The side effects of this are political, social, and cultural. Machine logic must be contextual, and there are even contexts where the logic of machines won’t suit machines.
Tate was right when he said we haven’t participated in the action of society. We have accepted what has done before because it worked. Or we thought it worked. It worked within certain limits, and with the development of a science of ecology, of non-linear logic, of ever less authoritarian theories of government, we can see ever more clearly that what was accepted in the past is insufficient now. All thought is technology, and so we can develop new technologies of thought that do not limit us, because the limitations that we imposed (for reasons of expediency) do us no great service. Boundaries are lies.