Souls, Cyborgs and Symbiotes

I’ve been reading Donna Haraway again and that leads to certain reflections.
The three terms – ‘souls’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘symbiotes’ seem to summarise different approaches towards the body and the world, and I suggest that the idea of ‘symbiotes’ suggests a fruitful way of acting towards the ourselves and the world, which could provide a better framework for problem solving and general understanding.
‘Soul’, as the term is usually used, implies that everything important (or eternal) about the human is separated from, and independent of, the material world. Usually with this theory the world and the body are obstacles to the perfection of the soul, distractions at best, to be dominated or despised in any case. The body and nature tend to be seen in terms of ‘their’ unholy demands and needs, even as inherently hostile. They must be shut up, shut down or disciplined. Death opens the way to freedom, as the world is a prison and punishment.
In this theory, the soul seems usually to be assumed to be what I’ll call ‘the ego’, clear conscious thought untroubled by the world, independent of all physics. The “I am”. Things that disrupt the imagined perfection and singularity of the soul are usually held to stem from the flesh… sex, hunger, pain, disease and so on.
Oddly, there is plenty of Christian theology which suggests that humans are trinities (soul, spirit and flesh) not binaries. However these variants easily get lost despite the importance of their writers (St Paul, Augustine etc). Furthermore, the idea of the resurrection of the dead implies that the Christian God wants us to be a body, so bodies could be holy. Other religions are equally flesh despising: some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism for example. Christianity is not altogether to blame for this situation.
Some post Jungians (Hillman, Moore etc) use the term ‘soul’ to emphasise the mystery of the psyche, its messiness, and the importance of image and feeling; but it is probably never a good idea to use a familiar term for an unfamiliar meaning, as the old meanings can come through implicitly. I’d prefer to stay with Jung’s ‘psyche’, as that is much now a rarer word and can be given precisely these connotations and does not have to make claims to immortality or purity of some sort or other.
The cyborg idea seems to derive from soul tradition. In it, the human, is independent of any particular body. It can be downloaded into machinic immortality. The body becomes a tool to be engineered or altered to have new capacities, subject to the demands of the ego. Nature has no independent rights. “Pave the earth” seems a cyborg slogan.
Cyborg theory like soul theory, implies that intelligence can be disembodied (‘light’) or unaffected by embodiment. Yet, it seems reasonably obvious (assuming evolutionary theory) that all intelligence must have developed to deal with ‘real world situations’, and these include the exploratory capacities of bodies, interaction between bodies, and the range of sensory inputs available.
This does not mean that intelligence is transparent and accurately perceives the world, just that it has been good enough to solve the problems of previous evolutionary paths (not necessarily the problems of future or current paths).
Haraway, as I’ve argued elsewhere, used the cyborg manifesto to argue against a ‘goddess feminism’ that stripped women of technology and idealised nature, but she got caught in the soul trap of cyborgism. She has over the last 10 or so years, revised her metaphor to talk of companion species, or of symbiotes.
Her point is, that in a ‘natural’ world people depend on other creatures and ecologies, they exist along with other beings/events. We have relationships with pets and other animals. Sometimes deep relationships, relationships of unknown complexity and mutuality, even with predators. Bodily, we are composed of cellular and sub cellular life forms existing in colonies. Our mind is multiple, composed of many functions acting together and apart. There is no clear point of ego; mind exists in the circumstances, or contexts, of its existence; it is not separate but dependent. We are part of greater social intelligences as well. Everything is diffuse with strange boundaries. This does not mean that we, and others, cannot try and enforce boundaries to protect ourselves, that too is natural, but it is hard, sometimes self-destructive, and not always necessary.
This realisation is important for the way we relate to our bodies and nature. In soul theory bodies are slaves, obstructions, or illusions. The normal mode of response in this framework, is to despise them, and drive them to labour under the dominance of someone’s ego.
In cyborg theory, nature, the self and the body is a tool to be exploited, and abandoned when it fails the utilitarian demands of the ego – again labour is the metaphor and relationship.
In symbiote theory, we depend on our body and the world. That body and world has its own multiple intelligences and imperatives. It does not always do what we want (what we want may be incorrect, we may need to talk with and learn from our obstacles. ‘The body’ may have its own paths to healing, it may rebel intelligently against our slave-driving or our enforced refusal of relationship).
At worst our body is like a pet; we can love it and pet it, relate to it, look after it (as it looks after us). We can treat it with respect as a symbiote, a fellow creature, and we open ourselves to relationships of many kinds, not just labour.
Most pet owners will probably treat their pets better than they treat their bodies. Perhaps they should extend that affection, love and care to ‘their’ bodies and the world, and see what happens?
It will be hard and will take time, but this might be an idea which transforms everything.

Individual vs Collective?

I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of thought. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.

To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life, when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness, this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately, and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.

This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.

At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being. At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.

We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.

We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working together is working against each other.

Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.

First point seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict it – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).

Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.

Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think, or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why the techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.

Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.

Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).

Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can see more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.

Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss.

This is not a protest against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.

However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others. The more understanding we have, gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.

Trump and the magic of information

President Trump’s victory will have massive consequences for the Anthropocene, and I’ve been suffering a lot of criticism, and dismissal, from friends over the last year or so for predicting a Trump victory. Now it’s all over, I guess it’s time to explain the logic of the prediction. My basic point is that to understand Trump’s victory, you have to understand how information and knowledge works in contemporary Information Society.

Most of the theory is argued at greater length in Disorder and the Disinformation Society: The social dynamics of information, networks and software. Routledge 2015.

1) The first point is simple. Information is primarily about power and persuasion. It is about shaping the world another person perceives and getting them to see themselves in a particular way, so as to act in a particular way. Information is not primarily about truth, but about magic. Repeated items, from respected sources, become taken as truth and create perceived reality.

2) There is too much information to uncover it all. Consequently people filter information by general knowledge (other already accepted information) and by group identity and belonging processes. In the Information Age good information is often drowned by easy to process information that meets the requirements of group identity.

3) When Trump got involved the election was never going to be about accuracy, but about magic and his puissance, or his status as a ‘man of power’.

4) Both candidates have a long term media history, which shapes the general knowledge people have to filter (or ‘frame’) information about them.

Clinton has been smeared for over 30 years by the mainstream media. Unfounded accusations have been reported and discussed repeatedly. The Republicans have spent millions trying to convict her of anything, and in both making the accusations public and a repeated (and therefore ‘verified’) part of public discourse. She is their number one villain, and the media has played along – in general giving small coverage to her victories, or any of her achievements. You have to be a fanatical Hilary fan to know anything good about her. Everyone else ‘knows’ she is suspicious, and criminal. At certain levels, the lack of criminal convictions proves that she is a form of superpowered evil, who escapes repeatedly (like Batman’s Joker or Poison Ivy). She is a strong evil woman; she is a witch.

Trump on the other hand has a long-time mainstream media coverage depicting him as a powerful, successful all-American businessman. His very name is promoted as an icon of luxury and success. He can sometimes seem a bit of a buffoon, but that humanises him and makes him a regular guy. In the US, business is generally conceived of as good, with successful business people almost always portrayed as having massive special and inherent talents which set them apart and make them a success – even the ruthless ones are ‘colourful’. In this filtering Trump become superhuman. A veritable god. Everyone who knows a little about Trump will know he is a great success, a triumph of the American Dream. You have to work much harder if you want to uncover the trail of failures, dark deals and privilege – this is usually hidden in the boring business pages, where some form of accuracy actually counts.

At a mythic level, or the level of ‘general knowledge’, the campaign was being fought between a crook and a hero or, if you prefer, an evil woman and an exemplary man.

5) As said previously, information is also filtered by group identity. Information is political and forms selves.

In Information Society people tend to form ‘information groups’, which are based upon their identities and general knowledge. The purpose of the information group is to filter and gather information together; this reinforces group cohesion, and group and personal identity. It is a necessary artefact of information society with huge consequences.

The group can, and often does, ‘protect’ people from the information possessed by other groups – it helps shield members and provide arguments to show how evil the outgroups are; to block flow and attempts at communication. These groups may overlap, but they tend to fall into exclusive categories.

The strategy of getting people worked up about how evil the outgroups are, and not letting them hear the views of real outsiders, is a good marketing strategy and is employed by some media outlets to keep and capture their audiences (profit reinforces lack of accuracy). It makes disloyalty hard. It reinforces group identity, and keeps people fixated on hearing what they want to hear to make sense of the world. Again, it keeps people ‘engaged’ and inhibits them from questioning the reality of what they read.

6) This occurs for both left and right groups. However, the right is much better at manipulating it – and this is the source of their magic.

They rigorously police speech, and make sure people are on target and repeating talking points. It is amazing how quickly the same meme will be everywhere on the right, giving it the appearance of inevitability and truth. They are not frightened of encouraging rage, because that keeps people engaged and unlikely to actually converse with outsiders. They drive out outsiders.

Repetition and reinforcement creates perceived reality. Eventually everyone just knows Clinton is a criminal and should be jailed, even if they are not sure what for, or reiterate that she was responsible for things that she has been cleared of or was never involved in. Her innocence in any one particular disconnected case does not prove she was innocent of all the charges (there are so many). General knowledge becomes personal knowledge.

The Republican party also could run memes in their groups to see which were likely to take off, and they did nothing to correct memes they knew where untrue if that brought them party loyalty, anger against Democrats and votes. They manipulated the system successfully, at the cost of not having policies based on reality – but fantasy has a greater pull (as it often does with sex, for example). The Democrats seemed constrained by an ideal of truth, and ideal of politeness (although this was the rudest election I’ve seen from the left- the relatively closed information group was having an effect, and groups are polarizing or defining themselves by opposition.)

People on the Democrat side, don’t find it easy to be as isolate. They generally, have to have to be involved with at least mildly right wing media, as the corporate sector controls the media, and pays for the media through advertising. It does not have such a ‘closed box effect’  in the same way; it gives light right views, seeks balance etc. This media emitts plenty of pro-corporate right wing material – it seems ‘left’ because, in comparison with the mainstream right media, it’s not completely without a moderate perspective. However, this has also meant that the left have tended to accept the comfortable idea that neoliberalism was ok in principle, and that fighting it was problematic or extreme. The Right, in its more isolated media, managed to both promote corporate dominance and denounce its consequences.

7) Information groups tend to manufacture scapegoats to help form unity

These scapegoats can be blamed for all the ills of the world, and attacked/sacrificed, while keeping group members pure and unified. Scapegoats are often said to be from information outgroups.

On the right you have a range of choices to suit your placing; blacks, latinos, migrants, commies, liberals, godless liberals, wicked liberal business people, educated liberals, liberal women, femininazis, Hillary Clinton, or the interfering State.

Pro-democrat information groups tend to scapegoat the uneducated, or the really wealthy. In the US, few really believe that wealth is bad, so that position has little appeal, and the first simply proves the right’s point about educated elites. The left has no effective scapegoats to blame or sacrifice, so their groups are less tight, less bonded, less passionate and less integrated.

8) The faults of exemplars appear small
If a person is defined as exemplary of an ingroup, then their faults tend to be ignored or diminished in respect for their apparent virtues. Indeed faults may be seen as ‘things-everyone-does’ even if you don’t know anyone as bad as the exemplar. By becoming presidential candidate Trump, with his supposed business ability, was able to become an exemplar of the ingroup, and his faults excused – even if most Republican men and women would be horrified to meet an ordinary person who contemplated grabbing their daughters, or who appeared unable to tell the truth or make a consistent story. If a person becomes an exemplar of an outgroup (as Clinton did for Republicans, and Trump does for Democrats) then their faults become exaggerated and obscure their virtues – having anything openly to do with them shows massive disloyalty.
Clinton could never get herself defined as an exemplary Democrat, because of the mainstream media’s promoted general knowledge about her, and because many Democrats wanted a more obviously radical candidate – as said previously, you had to work to find Clinton’s positive record. This helped make her faults more visible to everyone, and lowered enthusiasm for her amongst nominal supporters, and this feeds into point 13 below.

9) Falsehood is expected

People in information groups are also not frightened of making up fiction, which sounds plausible. If caught out, the groups will either ignore the failure, reiterate their falsehood more strongly, forget it for a while and repeat it later, accuse the revealer of unspeakable crimes, or say that everyone lies and the outgroup members are much worse. Once issued, a pleasing falsehood can separate from its refutation and easily be reaccepted.

People play the game that they know information is likely false. Everyone can say they are suspicious and smart, while accepting ingroup crap. This move effectively reinforces the idea that their opponents lie constantly, but they are clever and can see through this, as well as see through the few lies in their group. This keeps people loyal and on topic.

That Donald Trump made unreliable statements, was secondary to him making pleasing statements for his followers. He was also vague enough for his lies to be justified or ignored, should they ever become a problem. It also appears likely that because his followers did not expect him to tell the truth, they could select out the statements which were pleasing to them as being true and dismiss displeasing ones as strategic lies. Given Trump’s insistence on success, and the media’s promotion of his success, this made Trump an almost blank canvas for fantasies of success however that appeared to his audiences.

Being wrong involves a loss of status in this information world. So not admitting being wrong or failure is a mark of strength – of puissance if you like

10) The right pulls together. The left factionalises

The right have been pulling together for years. There should be nothing in common between libertarians and Christian fundamentalists, but they get on to keep power. The Christians have been taught to accept capitalism as part of Christianity. White supremacists can also get on with libertarians and non-racist Christians for the sake of power. There has been an effort to promote solidarity (often through scapegoating marked outgroup members), which is missing on the left.

Because Trump was centred in right wing media, the general informational and identity group pull would be for those who felt Republican to move towards cementing their loyalty towards the Republican party. Very few Republicans who had anything to lose really disowned Trump, when it came down to it; they joined in with their own side. Despite his lack of religion, Evangelicals supported him because the Republican party is their sole power base, he was not the evil witch and was a man who held the right opinion on abortion. No other issue was allowed to matter. They have a long history on this as well.

Followers of Bernie Sanders appear not to have done the same (I suspect Republican provocateurs stirred up dissension between Clinton and Sanders supporters; certainly there was a lot of rather peculiar fighting going on). Many people on the left could not bring themselves to say “I don’t like Clinton but Trump is so bad I have to vote for her”. Whereas, on the right, “I don’t like Trump but I won’t let Clinton get in”, seems to have been common.

11) Trump’s communication style fits in with this basic paradigm of communication

Trump stays on topic: “Make America Great Again”, “I’m a success. I can solve these problems”, “Things are bad and I’ll fix it”, but he is rarely specific. People can agree with him or think that what he says is good, but he produces few splits amongst his audience over matters of detail. He does not say what a “Great America” involves, which could cause disputes. He does not say how he will solve problems. He repeats himself frequently, as with “Crooked Hillary”, where he makes the unfounded charge part of her name, part of her identity. This reinforces the ‘general knowledge’ people have, and creates the ‘crookedness’. Similarly dwelling on “success”, as an undefined category when attached to himself, appeals to all audiences who want to absorb their own success from him. He makes himself a ‘man of power’. People talk of his ‘genius,’ – another suitably vague term loaded with meaning.

He, and his audience by proxy, engage in magical evocation. He makes his audience passionate, angry, involved, entranced. He attacks the scapegoats he borrows from their information groups. He is the strong man who will protect his audience from the nightmares he evokes. He motivates anyone prepared to respond to his key trigger words. He creates his temporary reality, and carries an audience to their reality in which he becomes central.

Clinton goes on and on, believing in truth, planning and inclusion. Consequently, people in her audience argue about little things with her. They may get the impression they disagree with her a lot, she seems to have no sense of who to blame, or of who her ingroup is, so they don’t know what they are fighting against. So while you can’t altogether trust her, Trump says “a lot that makes sense”.

12) Fictional Demographics generated by information groups

Pro-Democrat people frequently told me that nobody could vote for Trump because he was clearly a manipulative braggart who knew nothing, despite similar facts not stopping people from voting for Bush Jr. twice. However, they could say this because they were in their own information world in which this was impossible. Not in reality. People would say women would not vote for Trump, but pictures from his rallies were full of women. People said that educated people would not vote for Trump, when a few minutes on facebook in right wing groups would have shown them otherwise. Trump’s potential demographic was always bigger than Democrats seemed to suspect, because the people they knew who were not going to vote for Trump anyway, were not going to vote for Trump.

13) Non compulsory voting

If people generally disliked Clinton, for no particular reason, they would not feel compelled to vote for her. However, Trump voters were passionate. They would go out and vote, and organise others to vote. There might be a whole body of people who had never voted who would vote for Trump. This discovery of previous non-voters was incredibly unlikely for Clinton, because of the general knowledge about her. That Clinton had a machine, simply reinforces the idea that she was compelling people to vote, not allowing spontaneity. Without voter enthusiasm, and with the general doubt about Clinton, she risked being lost beneath passion of Trump’s magic.

14) Surveys were undecided

Pro-Democrats would repeatedly point to surveys. However they nearly always forgot to report that sometimes these surveys showed 25% undecided. Unless one candidate is more than 25% ahead of the other, such a survey tells you nothing. If surveys two months out from the election still have huge numbers of undecided voters then that should worry people, but it didn’t – they took their reinforcement from their information group, not the data. People decided not to accept the uncertainty, or work with it, but to resolve that the uncertainty did not matter.

15) Surveys are not accurate anyhow

Old Anthropological issue. Particularly, if people think you are official, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. In general they will not tell you the truth if there is much of a chance they will be blamed or ridiculed for it.

When Clinton had been portrayed as the face of the system, then the likelihood people would lie or misdirect about their intentions towards her is huge. There was a large possibility that most of the undecided people had already decided to vote Trump, or were inclining that way.

16) Conclusion

Trump was a master of informational magic. He may not understand how it works, but it uses it to persuade and involve people, to shape their view of the world, through vague impressive terms, without giving them handholds to criticise him. The effectiveness of this technique is is reinforced by the dynamics of information in Information Society.

Information is primarily about making groups, reinforcing views of the world and persuading people to act. It is only about ‘truth’ or accuracy in specific, and often hard to maintain, circumstances. Eventually, false information will cause upset and unintended consequences, but that may well be less important to those using it, than its socially more pleasing and empowering aspects.