Men of the Cybernetic Caves

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Hombres de las cavernas cibernéticas (Spanish)

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

Jorge Majfud

Every time someone complains about ideas that fall outside an arbitrary and narrow circle called “common sense” (also known in English as “horse sense”), they do so by brandishing two classic arguments: 1) the philosophers live in another world, surrounded by books and eccentric ideas and 2) we know what reality is because we live in it. But when we ask what “reality” is they automatically recite to us a list of ideas that other philosophers placed in circulation in the 19th century or during the Renaissance, when those philosophers were branded by their neighbors, if not jailed or burned alive on the holy bonfire of good manners in the name of a common sense that represented the fantasies or realities of the Middle Ages.

The Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, still in the name of what his detractors could frivolously call “populism” – as if a dominant culture were not simultaneously populist and classist by definition; what is more demagogic than the consumer market? – critiqued the idea that the poet must repeat what the people says when “misery attempts to pass itself off as sobriety” (Tengo, 1964). Then he recalled something that turns out to be obvious and, therefore, easy to forget: the “common man” is an abstraction if not a class formed and deformed by the communication media: film, radio, the press, etc.

Perhaps common sense is the inability of that common man to see the world from provinces other than his own. The first time that a common man like Colombus – common for his ideas, not for his actions – saw a Caribean, he saw the scarcity of weapons of war. In his diary he reported that the conquest of that innocent people would be easy. It is no accident that the violent enterprise of the Castilian Reconquest would be continued in the Conquest of the other side of the Atlantic in 1492, the same year the former was completed. The Cortéses, the Pizarros and other “advanced” men were unable to see in the New World anything other than their own myths through the insatiable thirst for domination of old Europe.

The old chronicles recall a certain occasion when a group of conquistadors arrived at a humble village and the indigenous people came out to meet them with a banquet they had prepared. While they were eating, one of the soldiers took out his heavy sword and split open the head of a savage who was trying to serve him fresh fruits. The comrades of the noble knight, fearing a reaction from the savages, proceeded to imitate him until they retreated from that village leaving behind several hundred indians cut to pieces. After a brief investigation, the same conquistadors reported that the event had been justified given that a welcome such as the one they had witnessed could only be a trick. In this way they inaugurated – at least for the chronicles or as slander – the first preemptive action on behalf of civilization. The popular idea that “when the charity is great even the saint is suspicious,” makes heaven complicit in that miserable human condition.

In the same way, both science fiction and the plundering of resources by colonizing new planets are nothing more than the expression of the same aggressive mentality that doesn’t end up solving the conflicts it provokes at each step because it is already undertaking the expansion of its own convictions in the name of its own mental frontiers. The conquistadors (of any race, of any culture) can neither comprehend nor accept that supposedly more primitive beings (native Americans) as well as more evolved beings (possible extraterrestrials) might be capable of something more than a close-minded military conduct, aggressively exploitative of the barbarians who don’t speak our language.

That is to say, mass consumer science fiction – that innocent artistic expression, made popular by the disinterested market – is the expression of the most primitive side of humanity. The basic scheme consists of dominating or being dominated, killing or being exterminated, like our ancestors, the Cromagnons, exterminated the big-headed Neanderthals – later turned into the mythological ogres of the European forests – thirty thousand years ago. This genre could be understood especially in the Cold War, but it is as old as our culture’s thirst for colonization. It is not surprising, therefore, that the extraterrestrials, supposedly more evolved than us, would be out there playing hide and seek. It is quite probable, besides, that they know the case of the Nazarene who took the precaution of using metaphors to preach brotherly and universal love and was crucified anyway.

Presently, while conflicts and wars ravage the whole world, while the environment is in its most critical state, scientists are charged with finding life and water on other planets. NASA plans to use greenhouse gases – like carbon dioxide or methane – to raise the temperature of Mars, melting the frozen water at its poles and forming rivers and oceans. With this method – already tested on our own planet – we will stop buying bottled water from Switzerland or from Singapore in order to import it from Mars, at a slightly higher price.

We are not able to communicate with one another, we are not able to adequately conserve the most beautiful planet in the galactic neighborhood, and we will manage to colonize dead planets, discover water and encounter other beings who probably do not want to be found by intergalactic beasts like us.

Nor is it by accident that the objective of video games is almost always the annihilation of the adversary. Playing at killing is the common theme of these electronic caves filled with Cro-Magnon men and women. If indeed we could imagine a positive aspect, like the possibility that the exercise of playing at killing might substitute for the real practice, there still remains the question of whether violence is an invariable human quota (psychoanalytic version) or can be increased or decreased through a precise culture, through a psychological and spiritual evolution on the part of humanity. I believe that both are surviving hypotheses, but the second one is the only active hope, which is to say, an ideology that promotes an evolution of the conscience and not resignation in the face of what is. If ethical evolution does not exist, at least it is a convenient lie which prevents our cynical involution. The Romans also used to express their passions by watching two gladiators kill each other in the arena; some Spaniards also discharge the same passion by watching the torture and murder of a beast (I am referring to the bull). Perhaps the first replaced the imperial monstrosity with soccer; the second are in the process of doing so. A few weeks ago, a group of Spaniards marched through the streets carrying slogans like “Torture is not culture.” Protest is a valiant resistance to barbarism disguised as tradition. We are better off not noting that history shows that, in reality, torture is a culture with a millenarian tradition. A culture refined to the limits of barbarism and sustained by the cowardly refinement of hypocrisy.

Bertrand Russell used to say that the madness of the stadiums had sublimated the madness of war. Sometimes it is the other way around, but this is almost always true. It is not less true, of course, that the culture of violence carries with it two hidden purposes: 1) with the supposedly violent libido sublimated in sports, films and video games, the greater violence of social injustices (injustice, from a humanist and Enlightenment point of view) remain unchallenged by the exhausted and self-satisfied masses; 2) it is a form of anaesthesia, of moral habit-forming, in the periodic return of the brute, prehistoric violence of the electronic wars where one neither kills nor murders but suppresses, eliminates. This cybernetic primitivism seduces by its appearance of progress, of future, of spectacle, of technological exploits. Human ignorance is camouflaged in intelligence. Poor intelligence. But it continues to be ignorance, although more criminal than the simple ignorance of the cave-dweller who split open his neighbor’s head in order to avenge a theft or an offense. Modern wars, like the genre of science fiction, are more direct expressions of a race of cave-dwellers that has multiplied dangerously its power to split open its neighbor’s head but has not committed itself to the courageous enterprise of universal conscience. Instead, it defends itself against this utopia by taking recourse to its only dialectical weapon: mockery and insult.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

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