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The TAO of the Internet
by Jesse Hirsh
"The Tao the can be told is not the Tao" (Lao Tse, Chapter 1)
Writing in the spring of 1997 I am asked to engage a paradox: an exploration of Taoism within the context of an academic essay. Instead of conforming to the expected standard, I have chosen to use this opportunity to further develop my interest and employment of the 'Gonzo' style of exposition.
Developed primarily by the American writer Hunter S. Thompson, this style consists of the author initially submersing themselves into the subject matter, absorbing the topic to be examined, and adopting the related world view as if it were their own. The writing itself is then a spontaneous and creative process in which the subjectivity is not only maintained, but is a source of unique and invaluable insight. The literary product of the 'Gonzo' style is a non-linear dynamic play of language and culture. Thompson derived the 'Gonzo' style from the synthesis of beatnik and emerging psychedelic cultures active in early 1960s western civilization.
It only seemed appropriate to adopt this style while using the English language to explore elements within Taoist philosophy. However it is not within the scope of this paper to draw a comparison between 'Gonzo' and Taoist literary techniques. 'Gonzo' presumes the need to immerse in the subject matter, whereas the Tao assumes that immersion is inherent, and the sage an articulator of this subjective unity.
So in the interests of the audience of academics reading this paper, allow me to do the unorthodox and begin with a thesis:
In examining the relationships between western anarchism and eastern Taoism, I seek to articulate and develop a system of thought and action to respond to the global fascist coup currently being waged by elements of trans-national corporate capital. With that statement out of the way allow me to demonstrate some 'Gonzo' flare by wandering among the words, first providing a context and background, which will then evolve into an exploration of the paradox of power and freedom that I find myself currently involved in.
As the twentieth century races to a close, and the process of globalization becomes the dominant metaphor of governance, all eyes look to China. China has almost unanimously been proclaimed the hegemony of the 21st century, the single most influential player within an imploding global political stage. In order to extend the struggle for human liberation into the next century, I seek to adopt eastern archetypes and paradoxes in an attempt to articulate a rising global resistance to exploitation, domination, and authoritarianism.
Globalization itself can be viewed as a process of combining eastern form or organization with western content or communication to enshrine and secure the structures of empire that maintain civilization. In simplistic terms, Confucius organizes while Mickey Mouse distracts.
Authoritarianism, manifesting primarily through capital, has almost achieved global ascendancy. Through the commodification of all aspects of existence, power can be wielded on a global level, and seemingly no tribe is exempt from the market, the godlike power behind capital's authority.
The global consolidation of this power is being articulated through the metaphor of the Internet. The Internet as an artefact does not exist, however as a concept it has obtained a consensus among those directly involved in global governance. It seems that the brokers of power have agreed that the Internet is the way of the future.
It is within the Internet myth that globalization derives it's legitimacy, but more importantly where the ascendancy of Confucianism and the potential for Taoism arise. After centuries of expansion, the empire has collapsed on it's own weight, and the tower of babel has fallen. As a society we are imploding; we are caught in a narcissistic trance, a perpetual feed back loop, wherein we search for a self that never really existed.
The state no longer exists, what remains however is the belief in the state, and the determination of power to perpetuate the relations regulated by the state. What was once referred to as 'the leviathan' is now a corpse that decays while it is artificially enhanced and repaired. The head that once controlled this body has left, hovering as a metaphorical UFO, disconnected from the world out of which it was once constructed.
"A Group of Confucians were digging up a grave in the hope of finding old manuscripts. The leader among them said, 'It is already dawn. Have we finished?' 'No,' replied the little Confucians, 'we haven't yet stripped the dead man's clothes, and we know that he keeps a pearl in his mouth.' The group of Confucians therefore smashed in the dead man's temples, pulled his whiskers and, taking a metal hammer to knock open his jaw, they gradually tore open his cheek. But they were careful not to hurt the pearl in the dead man's mouth." (Chuang Tse, 7:6, Chapter 26)
The capital markets are no longer tied directly to the means of production nor the physical world in which it was once dependent. Capital itself is now a disembodied entity that floats freely, unrestrained by the forces of nature or nation state. Debt and speculation provide the basis for a global economy. As a civilization we have jettisoned our head in an attempt to be free of our bodies. The experiment however has backfired, as we are realizing the illusions of self and other, the paradox between being and nothingness.
"All things come to life, but we cannot see their source. All things appear but we cannot see the gate from which they come. All men value the knowledge of what they know, but really do not know. Only those who fall back upon what knowledge cannot know really know." (Chuang Tse, 7:4, Chapter 25)
The Internet is all about what you don't know, and living with it. It promises that all the information in the world is available with the click of the mouse, and eventually the will of mind. The Internet is referred to as the 'Information HighWay', the means by which we will all evolve and find the future. It is sold to the business community as the path to success and the way of intelligence. The Internet itself is something that nobody seems to be too sure about, unable to define, and yet people are determined that it exists and can be prospered from.
"Confucius saw Lao Tan and on his return kept quiet for three days. 'Master, when you saw Lao Tan, what kind of advice did you give him?' asked his disciples. 'Give him advice?' replied Confucius. 'For the first time I saw a dragon. When the dragon's spirit converges, you see its form, and when it disperses it gives off a radiance of beauty, riding upon the clouds and feeding upon the yin and yang. When I saw him I was aghast and could not close my mouth.'" (Chuang Tse 4:7 or Chapter 14)
The Internet represents the return and rise of the Dragon. Metaphorically the Internet represents the power and ascendancy of mind, and the mystical and spiritual attributes that accompany it. The Internet is both a destructive and creative force that absorbs and transforms everything into the image of itself. The Internet is a paradoxical metaphor that is not only self-contradicting, but inherently mythological.
The Internet as metaphor also represents the truth. Decentralized multi-point communication as embodied in the Internet almost inherently induces a state of truth. Illusions and deceptions, while nurtured, developed, and deployed by many who use the Internet, cannot compete with the resonance of truth, and the brilliance of light that arise from using the Internet as environment. The dissolution of authoritative sources and simultaneous multiplicity of meaning inherent in the Internet prevent the distortion of reality and enable the emergence of a true state of being to surround any fallacy or inaccuracy. In the environment of light that is the emerging mediasphere, truth as object reflects light stronger than it's opposite, the object of illusion. Albeit truth itself may be the illusion and perhaps the Internet is the grandest of illusions.
"'We have a little time today,' said Confucius to Laotse. 'May I ask what is the great Tao?' Laotse replied, 'Give a ceremonial bath to your mind! Cleanse your spirit! Throw away your sage wisdom! Tao is dark and elusive, difficult to describe.'" (Chuang Tse, 6:2, Chapter 22)
The effect of the Internet upon the rest of the civilization has been, and will continue to be one of disillusionment and deconstruction. As our society continues with its process of implosion, the Internet will continue to be the manifestation of this process. All of the constructs developed by western civilization are now crumbling in the wake of the Internet wave (1). Faced with the naked reality of the global village, otherwise manifest as the electronic representation of the earth, all of humanity is forced to redress their view of the world. The self-centred, static, linear constructs employed by western civilization are forcibly discarded in the face of electronic organization. In successive waves surrounding the introduction of electronic media (telegraph and the first world war, radio and the second world war, television and the cold war, and computer networks and the information war) we have experienced the clash of cultures as our society tries to adapt to a new reality and an emerging world view.
This new reality is the ascendancy of mind; mind as the primary mode of governance within a global economy often referred to as a knowledge economy. The global market is a machine whose mandate is to mimic the operation of mind and derive value from its various elements. Mind is of course a fluid and indefinable concept, in many respects similar to the Tao.
"Looked at, but cannot be seen
This is called the Invisible
Listened to, but cannot be heard
That is called the Inaudible
Grasped at, but cannot be touched
That is called the Intangible
These three elude all our inquiries
And hence blend and become One."
(LaoTse, Chapter 14)
The tsars, kings, and lords of western civilization, upon seeing their world crumble through the rear-view mirror of information technology arrive at Confucianism as a means to preserve and protect their privilege and prestige. The new monopoly of power, is the monopoly of mind. The purveyors and pawns of power in seeking a unified grip have discovered the unity of the unknown. They are confronted with the infinite and seemingly impossible power of mind, the way of the universe, and in response look towards conformity, order, and control as a means by which to maintain themselves. They are met with the paradox of nothingness in the search for the great being.
"'Not at all,' said the Spirit of the Ocean. 'Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; external limits are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too big; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end.'" (Chuang Tse, 4:11,12, Chapter 17)
Confucius is alive and on earth right now. As an archetype he is alive with the leaders of empire. Manifest as their Christ, their Bill Gates, or even as himself, Confucius is at the helm of spaceship earth. As economy unites the actions of all humans, Confucius articulates a global order crafted in his own image. Religious zeal and theological fundamentalism prepare for the holy war of wars between McDonalds, Nike, AT&T, and Coca-Cola. Consumerism is the Confucian religion that unites church and state precluding the ascendancy of the god-king, the Confucian sage, who rules not by divine right, but by divinity itself.
The scale of post-modern development is eternal. The actions we seek to articulate in the present, represent phenomena that may last for millennia. It's as if we are standing on a cliff overlooking the synthesis of our past and future as they meet in the center of infinity, the ultimate expression of the paradox of time. We have positioned ourselves at the center of paradox, the convergence point between all polar opposites. Everything seems obtainable from this point, while at the same time we are surrounded by nothingness. A duality exists simultaneously wherein power seemingly grows while it dissolves. The great imperial project implodes rapidly as a means of obtaining the divine and eternal.
"Stretch to the very full, And you will wish you had stopped in time.
Temper a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the edge will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them safe.
To be proud with wealth and honour Is to sow the seeds of one's own downfall."
(Lao Tse, Chapter 9)
The last gasp of power is the loudest and most violent. The drama of the fall of babylon is an epic of irreversible change and transformation. We are witnessing the evolution of consciousness and the maturation of our species. The effect of this change upon the societal institutions will be severe, if not entirely destructive. However the most devastating effect will be that of disillusionment. The discovery of power as illusion, state as illusion, authoritarianism as illusion. The social constructs that have been used to divide, conquer, and rule, are now becoming as transparent as the sky.
Taoism emerges as the viable alternative to the Confucian beast that hungers for global power. There are no actions in the infinite environment represented by the Internet. Confucianism is the reaction to the disillusionment and deconstruction of the electronic maelstrom unleashed through our media. With the state destroyed, Confucians scurry to consolidate all the various forms of power left amidst the rubble. They become drunk on their own gains and dreams for immortality and divinity. The Taoist sage on the other hand just laughs as the Confucians run hand over foot to win an imagined race for global prestige.
"The Usefulness of Not Being. When the eye is cleared of obstacles it sees sharply. When the ear is cleared of obstacles it hears well. When the nose is not blocked up, it smells well. When the mouth is cleared, it tastes well. When the mind is clear, it thinks well. When knowledge is cleared of obstacles, one attains the character of Tao" (Chuang Tse, 7:8, Chapter 26)
The Taoist sage understands that through non-action, one is able to find peace in this Brave New World. The empire is constructed on illusions, and these illusions are themselves becoming clear and ineffective. The Confucian's power rests with their ability to create and draw out reactions. Reactionaries become the fodder for new policies of exploitation, domination, and authoritarianism. They are players on a stage trying to control an audience that controls the stage. Trapped in a narcissism that reinforces itself. A negative feedback loop of existence that forms the basis of a reinforced power structure.
The civilization was once based upon a state of being, and is now based upon a state of mind. It is through the articulation of the universe as illusion, and the doctrine of non-action as resistance, that Taoism represents a viable response to the global power manifest in Confucianism. It is difficult to escape or find refuge from a state which only exists within the imagination of its beneficiaries. However by embracing the Tao in the tradition of Lao Tse and Chuang Tse the individual is able to remove themselves from the horror of empire that is manifesting through the new state of mind. While our consent may be manufactured, and our desires packaged and delivered, our will remains our own. We can choose to dissent, and more importantly we can choose to detach, to remove our participation from the project. If it is all illusion than whatever control is required, surely we possess it already.
If Confucius is alive, then so is Lao Tse. Confucius embodies himself in an elite, or even supreme ruler. Lao Tse however is the masses, the being expressed by all. It will take the movement of the masses to defuse the bomb laid by Confucius called 'The Apocalypse'. Our culture of narcissism is inducing tension and anxiety, and it is Confucius with his emerging state that prevents our natural release. The culture of death that plagues the remains of Babylon threatens to eliminate indiscriminate amounts of our being. As a society we must collectively let go of our tension and neuroses, rediscover the spontaneity, creativity, joy, and peace of our being. We need the archetype of Lao Tse to rise within the hearts of all, shedding the mental chains that internalize our pain, and allow the Tao to shine through.
Embracing the Tao is embracing paradox. It is accepting that what you perceive on the surface does not necessarily represent the whole. The Tao is a theory of communication: a theory of change. This paper is an articulation of change within the context of a universal constant. In writing this paper I adopted a process of open mind and open direction in which spontaneity and creativity became the definitions of my narrative path. I was determined to confront and deal with a number of neuroses that I was aware of and engaged with that existed both within my self and the planet. This paper is a paradox of Confucian illusion surrounded by Taoist truth. I wrote it for a faceless audience of friends and strangers whom I wish to share mind with. If any of you seek to place a value on this paper, whether grade or monetary, I assure you it is of no concern of mine, in so far as you inform me of your perceptions.
"The life-force of Tao is profoundly mysterious; its extent is lost in obscurity."
(Chuange Tse, 3:7, Chapter 11)
(1) Please note that when I use the term Internet I am speaking of a much larger process that began in the late 19th century with the introduction of the telegraph and continues at the end of the 20th century with the deployment of electronic mail and the world wide web. This process is the shift towards electronic forms of communication as a means by which to organize the society.