January 22, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Novus Ludus, Part IV
THE ORIGINAL Luddites were a sect of disenfranchised manual laborers who took revolt against the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the encroachment of its machine upon their proper work. Their sect did not long survive; it proved a temporary eruption, a local phenomenon, by reason of an error in its very creed. It held that the machines produced by the Industrial Revolution were inhuman slave laborers working on behalf of despotic industrialists, and it demanded that the human be given due rights over the cold and soulless mechanisms of industry. It might at first have seemed one of those very rare historical instances in which Marxist theory actually appeared to be working itself out as predicted—but then, some years on, the hitch: these machines, though they had certainly displaced many workers in their first introduction, were nonetheless quickly coming to work for the good of the same labor force which originally felt itself to be threatened by them. These poor laborers, through the artificial slavery of droning machinery, were slowly permitted to rise to unheard of material well-being in such numbers that their class—that out of which emerged the original Luddites—ceased to exist as it had hitherto. What was born in its place was the “middle class” which we know today and which, with very few setbacks, has continued to exploit the advantages of technological advancement ever since.
In the century and a half following the time of the original Luddites, the alliances of this game have shifted and settled and at last come well clarified, like a turbid stream that has finally reached its leveling. Technology does not endanger the life of the common man, neither in its means nor its aims, neither in the fulfillment of its desires nor in the advancement of its vision. Quite the contrary: technology is to the common man an inimitable boon and helper, the ideal aid in all matters concerning utility and pleasure, and thus is the greatest friend the common man, and indeed the egalitarian, has ever had, or is ever like to have. I do not believe that the coming decades will disprove me, even as technology comes to displace increasingly large swaths of the workforce. It is entirely possible that the natural consequence of these changes will once again precipitate a general redistribution of the wealth of society, which might even permit such solutions as, say, a universal income, by which the “standard of life” of the masses is once more raised, and their “leisure” augmented. No—but technology rather endangers other “classes” of human being—though in the strict economic sense, these human beings are in effect classless, dispersed through nearly all levels and parts of society. I am speaking of those human beings in whom those peaks of art or philosophy come most to rise above the clouds, or possess the possibility to do so.
We have seen how technology is developed in order to aid the functions of the human being; how, as of late, it has advanced also into his mental, even his spiritual life; how, in augmenting human functions, it tends to assimilate them and replace them, and to reorganize the human being around itself. And we have noted the danger with this, among other dangers, in what we have called the mechanization of the human.
Now, insofar as any of our functions itself is more or less mechanistic, insofar as any one of them serves merely mechanical ends, we can foresee that the introduction of technology has a right and fitting place. Using a light, for example, to illuminate the darkness that our eyes are not physically capable of piercing, or a boring machine to dig a well, are examples of technology used in a way that in many cases befits it and us. The question arises, then, a deeply unscientific question, is where our being ceases to be merely mechanical—where the replacement by a mechanical artifice begins to signify the perversion of nature, the diminution of our capacities, the dehumanization of our souls, the despiritualization of our works and our labors, and the devaluation of the products of the same. That is not a question we can answer here: it carries us far into the realm of psychology and physiology; but it is a question the urgency of which we may seek, here and now, to infuse into our daily beings. We devote ourselves here, in this final segment of this essay, to determining how we can transform ourselves the very arenas in which such a question of such great moment may begin to be answered.
The tyrants of old were bottomless wells of the appetites, and they threw whatever they could find into the hole within them until they had exhausted themselves, and cast their own hollowed husk, too, within it. I fear that democracy, which perhaps once had the aim of rising each man’s nature as near as it could be raised to aristocratic, now would turn each human being into a sort of inglorious and outwardly innocuous tyrant. It is aided in this attempt by nature itself: the common man, speaking generally, lives far more in the “mechanized” world than does the spirited man; it is only at the extremities of his existence that he touches on what is not mechanical. Technology can change him, but it cannot bring him a great deal of harm. Counter the original Luddites, it is precisely the “working class” which is best served by mechanization, and with the least degree of loss.
But for one who does not think mechanistically, one who does not react mechanistically, one who does not exist mechanistically—what must it do to him, to begin relying on machines to do his thinking, reacting, existing for him? For one who does not dream mechanistically, what must occur when his imaginings are infringed upon constantly by the often lush but always frigid world of crypto-erotic CGI scripting and photo-manipulation—where the prime aims are without fail a false and tawdry beauty and a relentless appeal to the rawest and most primitive appetites? What must it do to an artist today to watch as—in large part through the baleful touch of technology—art forgets itself completely, and sinks pathetically into the mire of mere entertainment, or propaganda of one sort or another, or into the “critical art” of such post-modern luminaries as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst? What must it do to the philosophical soul, that knowledge today is reduced to information, and wisdom to the state of “being informed,” without the essential divisions between any of these concepts ever being so much as intimated?
I submit that it is to this human being that the technological revolution of these past decades is so fundamentally poisonous. Time alone may tell if the game has already been lost, or if there is yet something to be done. But this much remains certain: whatever can be done, must be done; we cannot wait for some god or star-being to step out his clouds to save or salvage us. Far from hoping in a deus ex machina to lift us into the heavens, we must dread the diabolus ex machina which is tugging at our heels. We have reached one of those historically decisive moments in which the forces of history cease to press upwards; they attain some equilibrium and stall about us; and without the most strenuous of internal force, will, discipline, and awareness must inevitably sink to decline. What makes this moment a hundred times the more disquieting than any before it—to say this again, to say it ten times, a hundred times—is the curious delusion which convinces us we are ascending, even as we begin to fall.
Complacency in the better human being must be rooted out wherever it is to be found. The human being is burdened more by his complacent faith in his own strength, than by any outward weight to rest upon his shoulders. His complacency brings him to stagnate, it brings him to decline. No matter how strange it may seem at first, no matter how depressing to our understanding of human will, the old Biblical saw “to him who has shall be given; from him who has not shall be taken away” is not a law governing this world. The most richly endowed too often grow lazy or bored and fail to exploit what they have been granted; the most complicated among us are often bewildered by their own complexity, they grow confused within their own labyrinth, they lose themselves. The highest among us teeter dangerously on their dizzy heights, and the profoundest may be consumed by the deep darkness of all subterranean places. Those with esprit in this spiritless world grow dispirited, heavy, nauseated. Meanwhile one finds among the damaged and the crippled curious prodigies: these incomplete beings compensate for their limitations in remarkable ways. A man who is blind will often be graced with extremely acute hearing, smell, and touch; a man who is missing one arm will consequently develop his remaining arm to a pitch of strength; the idiot savant, though cursed with a generally low level of intelligence, is yet blessed with a single evidently miraculous ability in some one single activity or other. Such beings are enriched by their poverty.
An analogous phenomenon occurs in evolution; the capacities of beasts in seasons or regions of scarcity are perforce honed and empowered, while those of beasts in abundant or safe environs are permitted to become lax, flimsy, and in the end altogether nonexistent. Let the perfectly innocuous and perfectly defenseless sea cow serve as symbol of this principle, as it languishes fat and sluggish in its hot lagoons, ignorant of all predation and surrounded with never-ending feed. One can indeed say that the external driving force behind the greater part of evolution has been need, rather than want—which is not at all to say that need is the engine of evolution, so much as the concentrator and director of the energies produced by that engine. There comes a point in all development when ability finds its equilibrium with necessity: and if there is beyond this point no change in outward circumstances, and no active and vital internal force of deliberative and deliberating will, development must halt altogether.
That is the principle of entropy in life. But life itself exists by the contrary principle, unrecognized by our sciences: the principle that we may call syntropy.
There is an ancient and momentous question, broached also in Thucydides’ matchless History of the Peloponnesean War, as to whether it is better to build one’s city in some cornocopic and paradisic land, in which one’s citizens are like to become soft and degenerate in the midst of their plenty, or whether better in some inhospitable wasteland, in which one’s citizens shall live harder lives, and struggle the more, making themselves perforce stronger, more capable, and more manly. The latter hardens the soul, the principles, the virtues of man; the former serves his appetites and his bodily needs, and grants him pleasure and comfort. In the latter case, he is forced to become hard; in the former, he is liable to become soft. The dichotomy could be posed also with reference to war and to peace; it is sometimes well, as many great souls have indicated, that war comes to peaceful lands, to awaken an enfeebled people to those firmer undergirdings in their own soul, which, like bedrock itself, have come to be covered in turbid rivers and soft and silty plains.
But as a complicating facet of this same problem, we must note also that the alleviation and improvement of man’s physical situation might grant him the time and the energy he requires to make numberless advances of the mind. For man is microcosm; all things being equal, his energy, like that of the universe, neither augments nor diminishes, but only alters position, focus, and direction. It may be that man in paradise is potentially greater in spirit than man in the wasteland. But that is not a potentiality which realizes itself automatically; it is granted no incitement by “evolution” or “environment”; left to itself, without the intervention of the individual or the society, it is inert. For we speak of a purely internal transformation which, as is just, can only be effected by the conscious concentration of energies within each capable individual.
Now we occidentals are alive today—all our frequent and sometimes mewling protestations aside—in a time of unbelievable abundance, a moment of abundance absolutely unparalleled in the known history of the world, in which disease, starvation, and all manner of historical fatigues and hardships, have been, if not erased from the West, then reduced to a point at which they almost no longer enter even the daily perceptions of remarkably large segments of our population. We of the present day have built our city in the midst of the fruitland, or have sown our fruitland about our city. We have indeed fabricated our plenty from the very waste around us, drawing honey from the subtle sunlight itself and squeezing milk from the stones. That is our pride in this our epoch, and it is that for which we shall ultimately suffer. We have reached such a degree of absurd pampered luxury, indeed, that we come even to speak of the “desperation” of individuals who are evidently not earning enough, though they be provisioned with car, television, Smartphone, and never miss a single meal. We are living in a kind of garden which we, even as Adam and Eve before us, but ingenuously take for granted.
Supposing there is something in us of the warrior’s spirit: supposing there is still in our souls something deep down that does not rest easy with the soft lapping of these waters at our gentle bark; something that finds all this silk and down abrasive, and feels itself impoverished for all this wealth; something that perhaps even cries out for a test, a trial, a war, an awakening—well, shall we find anything in the aspect of the times to lament? Are we not born into an era of matchless good fortune, that we should be offered so inimitable a challenge in the very lack of such? For here is a warrior’s logic: to be born in a desert makes one strong, while to make oneself strong in the garden is a task of Herculean difficulty: ergo, the garden is more a desert than the most hostile and inhospitable of deserts. And here is a warrior’s task: while Chaucer and Shakespeare after him urged man to make virtue of necessity, we must learn, or else we must invent, the art of making necessity of virtue.
That is a wide errand: its greater explication is the stuff of another essay than this. But here, I submit, is one of the first and fittest arenas in which one may commence one’s training: by stablishing, with all the ruthlessness of one’s heart, one’s right relation to technology.
The Luddites did not survive, because they were fighting their very ally, though it appeared on stage dressed as a sheep in wolf’s clothing; and today, naught remains of them but the name. From them the word “luddite” comes down to us to mean one who opposes technology in its very principle. I would reassess this word, and I would seek to rechristen it.
I lay it down as a good general rule that one should strive never to use any form of digital technology, which one is not able in good cheer to do without. That man who is not at his liberty to detach himself for a week from his computer, his “blackberry,” or his “twitter account” without slipping into a nervous and almost panicked sense of loss and worry, simply does not have a right to it. The thing should be of the man, and not the other way round. There is no ownership where the most ephemeral withdrawal makes for confusion and pain, there is only slavery. There is nothing useful about addiction, nothing pragmatic in dependency. If these artifacts of our human ingenuity really are nothing more than tools, as their proponents never weary of insisting, then it should be possible to lay them down or pick them up at our perfect discretion, and without sacrificing our equilibrium.
I think it will be found, by most of us who really put ourselves to the test in this, that matters do not stand so simply. We are all of us more entrenched in this novel world with each passing day. We are like vagabonds who have wandered far into the tar pit; the longer we moil in it, fascinated by the play of light upon its ooze, the harder it becomes to drag ourselves out of it again. I even suppose there are a great many cases amongst us—more perhaps than any of us cares to acknowledge or to dream—of individuals who have already been lost to this new day, who simply cannot retract themselves again, unless the most dire and universal emergency should one day force them to do so. They are addicts, every bit as much as the hophead or dopester, and the effects that their drug wreaks on them, though they are subtler and less disruptive to the practical tasks of daily living, are not for that more superficial nor less terrifying. Nor does it bring anyone but the blind any degree of peace at all, the extent to which our modern world maintains so utter a silence on what is, by now, become a pandemic.
It is not the purpose of the present essay to list the specific actions which might be taken to engage the process of extracting oneself from the nets about us, or to employ them for the tensing of our beings and the exercise of our strength, our balance, and our dexterity; that would rightly be the labor of a work its own, and it is, moreover, one that each person must largely see to individually, even as each individual must see to his virtue. We are embarked here rather upon the question of principle, without which the practical half of our work, personal or public as it might be, cannot so much as commence. We are in need of a new ludism.
Given all we have said, it should be clear enough what this new ludism will demand of us: a total revaluation of our position vis-à-vis, not just technology, but also the science that produces it. More: it will demand of us a self-disciplining, and an advancement of our will, through, say, “fasts” in which we consciously forgo some element of our technology on which we have grown too dependent; or as when we now and then elect to perform some hard physical task without the aid of machinery in order to master our patience and augment our strength, our manual adroitness, our tolerance of travail and our resolve in carrying out our objectives; or as when we refuse the use of some unnecessary medicine or the alleviation of some painkiller, in order to reorient ourselves with regard to suffering. Now and again it will ask of us that we cloister ourselves, turning off our computers and our cell phones and passing some day, some week, some month in isolation and meditation. Or perchance it will ask of us to employ precisely these practices to whet our powers of promise, our ability to make guarantees to ourselves and to others. And it will require of us over all a wakefulness and awareness to which we are no longer accustomed, for we will be forced to ask ourselves, in increasingly unprecedented situations involving novel technologies, just what the influences of such and such a technology might be on our lives, our minds, our souls: aye, it will require of us that we ask these questions ruthlessly, and that we confront the necessities implied by the answers.
It is perhaps easiest to understand the new ludism by imagining such individuals as might best manifest it. And so we ask: what might characterize a “new ludite”? If there are some of them even now rising amongst us, even now beginning to take on self-awareness and even now beginning to define themselves, how might we recognize them for what they are?
What really makes them stand out, I might anticipate, is not the refusal to use this or that element of modern technology—though I can predict that the new ludites will, in general, interdict certain manifestations of the digital age, and eschew certain of its terms—it is rather and very much more an attitude, a feeling, a sense. There will be something old-fashioned about such a person, something almost archaic to the eyes of the youngest generations, as when such a one does not respond every time his cell phone rings during a conversation, nor sets himself to reply immediately to this or that happenstance text message or email; or as when no television can be found in his home, no microwave in his kitchen; or as when he insists on doing certain things “the old way,” like carrying a paper agenda or taking his bearings by the sun and the stars. He will atimes, simply and calmly, forgo the use of this or that latest time-saving machine, and the justifications he offers will seem increasingly frivolous to this frenetic new world. “What, he does not mind the work? He has no better things to be doing? He is in no hurry?” So one will ask of him, as he takes his hoe to the garden, or writes his letters by hand, or walks his way to the market. For one will not understand that he has reclaimed the meanest activities of life for contemplation and for art, and has retransmuted them from functions back into deeds.
Yet at the same time his attitude will have about it something decidedly new, as well, something that makes novel use of existing materials, and does not shy also from bending technology itself to higher and unprecedented ends, by forcing it to its position of strictly subservient usefulness. There will be a way in which this person, this new ludite, approaches and handles these technological things, with a demeanor of simple nonchalance, as if to say that he might take it or leave it, but is in the end largely indifferent. He will not shun these things, because he will be rich enough to use them, when it suits his will or his pleasure. For the rest, such gadgetry and toolery will be neither the object of his curiosity nor his desire. He will not patronize mistechnia, the visceral loathing for technology, though he may detest certain of the consequences of our technification; but he will reveal himself best through his carelessness as regards these things. For carelessness, too, can be one of the key signals, and keystones, of human liberation.
The new ludites will be in all things slower, and indeed, with each new generation, will seem slower yet, though they have not altered their pace. They will live by a tempo diverse from that which governs the day, and they will take a certain pride in their rhythm, and do what is necessary to defend it.
They will be much betrayed by their language; for, disdaining many of the most hypertrophic developments in communications technology, they will be immune to some of its most invasive erosions. Their tongues will be increasingly strangers to the new terminologies and “memes” which come more and more to mark the interactions younger generations; and one might sometimes see a puzzled look cross their face as they hear some sample of the freshest lingo. But there will be subtler and more important differences yet: for they will probably not speak or write with that corrupted syntax which is the consequence of ever denser and ever more rapid volleys of internet communications, and they will not neglect the difference between reading and scanning. When they must write text messages, for instance, they may refuse to abbreviate their words, or they may shun the use of verbal shortcuts. One can expect from them sentences entire, both in speaking as in writing, even as it becomes more commonplace to expect from their peers fragmented and stuttering utterances, conditioned by the modish techno-speech into which they have so utterly submerged themselves. The new ludites will not forget the depth of language; and that will be audible in their speeches and visible in their writings.
They will probably not be alien to the natural world, but might know the names of the winds and what news they bear, or the virtues of the plants at their feet, or the ways of these beasts around them. Many of them will rediscover the charm of the natural world—indeed, this is one of the great boons that our modern world of concrete and plastic and steel has given to us—and they will no longer take for granted the simple beauties and the most human pleasures that can be gleaned of landscapes and sunsets. They very well might prefer natural and fresh food, not out of this curious ultra-liberal moralistic “health food” attitude which is cropping up today, but simply because they have relearned the voluptuous art of enjoying the senses, and because they have a natural feeling for the wholesome, that which does their bodies and their minds well. They will put value in the objects of artisans, those things made of non-artificial materials and wrought by hand, and they will scorn what is mass-produced and made of laboratory synthesis; they love what is unique. Their aesthetics, in general, will stubbornly resist the influence of the digital modifications of beauty which have been made possible in our photography and in our cinema. They will have a diverse cannon for the beauty of men and of women, and of the natural world.
They will increasingly decline the more invasive of the alterations that our rampant technology will soon be offering to us, as surgeries to implant computers into the human being, or surgeries to implant the human being into computers; and they will not be able to resist a smile when some technophile or other speaks of the immortality which technology will soon grant to human beings. They will not fall prey to this modern disease of taking science as a surrogate for religion, nor will they forget the gratitude, gratitude in life and in the world, which is precondition to wonder.
Not all of these traits, of course, must be found in any one of the new ludites; this is not some list of mandatory morals which they must faithful-like adopt in order to belong to an arbitrary category. Many of them will appear in many ways differently, and many of those who are submersed more completely into our technological world will show some of these traits even as symptoms of their disease. But these are tendencies, and the consequences of tendencies, which one can well imagined aligned with the new ludism.
When I think upon the new ludite, no single word characterizes the vision more clearly to me than this: liberty.
We are still very much in the first waves of incredible changes, and much has yet to be sorted out and to find its place. I can predict in coming times however that those of whom I speak will be marked out ever and ever more greatly. In the present moment, most of those above fifty years of age, who were already more or less adults by the time the greater technological innovations of our day came to reign, were not so essentially modeled by them, and preserve to themselves a more natural gait, speech, and rhythm. Some of the younger generation, and certainly many of those to whom I most directly write, will sympathize when I say that the elder generations for us are thus more accessible, more pleasant to speak with and to be around, than are many of those nearer our age, or those who distant from our age on the other side. Yet man is mortal, despite what the transhumanists say, and in not so distant a time the majority of living human beings will be those who grew simultaneously with these novelties, or who found them already extant at their birth. Come that day, that time, it will matter essentially the spirit that one holds in one’s breast, and it will be ever easier to detect the mark of it upon one’s brow. Already we might begin to recognize each other by certain sure and definite signs—time is upon us when these differences will be inescapably clear.
For I do not expect things to improve amongst the common run of human beings much in the decades that are now upon us. Indeed, I expect that things will much decline. There are prospects in the technology just of tomorrow which make me shudder and which fill my heart with dread. But among them is not necessarily, or not entirely, the growing submersion of the many into the functional hierarchy produced almost automatically by this technological world, or the fracturing of human talents, skills, and knowledge into specialties, or the intensifying estrangement of most human beings from their nature and from the natural world as such. I do not fret over all of this, first because the world that must issue from these changes is counterbalanced by the possibility of a paradoxical rebirth of natural rank, and a contrary movement, propulsion, impulsion and need, toward that human greatness which, I predict, will be ever more clearly lacking in the sterile pseudo-world emitted by science. But more importantly, I do not yet despair, because the world even now arising, is as fine an arena as could be devised for the training of new hearts, new nobility of soul and new heights of spirit—in short, it may become the school and recreation for a new greatness which, if greatness is destined ever to spring once more from this human soil, can come only from our disciplined will and our honed intent. And only insofar as we are deviant and devious enough to invent for ourselves new virtues, new challenges, and new need in this new age upon us, can we prove once more to belong essentially to the very humanity which we have inherited.
To repeat—though I am without much optimism for the future, I am equally without despair. Precisely because the future brings with it unheard of dangers, it might for that bring unheard of promise. This essay has been, if nothing else, an attempt to contribute to the bringing of the one from the other, by indicating, to wakeful eyes, where those promises truly might lie, in some realm distant from the glistening metallic cities of these meretricious technological marvels which so easily mislead and misdirect us. For I say that everything depends decisively now on the degree to which the best souls among us are able to perceive, before the time has come and gone, that our modern technology is nothing more and nothing less than the greatest enemy to human liberty the world has ever seen.
Return to Novus Ludus, Part III.