Atemporality My Ass

Why does Step One of the futurist’s Radical New Idea always seem to involve turning the past into an easily dismissed caricature? Take Bruce Sterling’s “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,” a speech originally given at Transmediale in Berlin, posted at Wired and linked today by BoingBoing. Here’s a representative sample:

Now, history is a story. And to write down the story of the fourteenth century, to just ask yourself – “what happened in the fourteenth century?” — Feynman style — is a very different matter from asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?’” I think we are over the brink of that. It’s a very, very different matter.

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Don’t you see, man?  Books are for squares.  Books are the tyranny of one word written after another on slips of dead trees.  Pity the people of the fourteenth century who had no way to compare multiple accounts of the past, and pity us just twenty years ago, before the internet liberated our minds, having only one Official History of the Fourteenth Century that dictated the past to us.  The idea that there might be multiple sources of information that might need to be weighed and evaluated, that idea came into being only last year, with widespread adoption of Twitter!

Futurists, hispsters, and assorted somethingpunks, let me refer you to the Malleus Maleficarum, aka The Hammer of Witches, a post-medieval witchfinder’s guide that, nonetheless, is sort of a summa of a lot of medieval beliefs, and more specifically, to said document’s discussion of whether it is possible for a witch to remove a man’s junk.*  The discussion is long and rewards a further look, but let me summarize the main points.

The question at hand is this: Is it possible for a witch to magic away a man’s private parts through demonic aid, or can she merely convince a man through illusion that she has stolen his junk?

To answer the question, the writer proceeds by examining the evidence and the major arguments systematically. 

First, the writer establishes that God has the power to take away a man’s junk:

1. If we read the glosses to Psalms, we know that God often punishes mankind with bad things, including bad things that happen to the body.  So a man’s junk would seem to be fair game.
2. And clearly, God has special power over genitalia, because of Original Sin.
3. If we read Genesis, we see God could turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt–not appear to be salt, but actually into salt.  Magicking away a man’s junk is clearly easier that turning a whole woman into salt.
4. And clearly, whoever creates a natural shape can take it away.  God created us all.

So could it be said that God, who has power over our junk, gives demons authority over our junk?

5. Demons can make natural shapes (see St. Augustine, Book LXXXIII).
5a. But they did not make our shapes, so nix that idea.
6. Further, skillful natural surgeons can remove a man’s junk.
6a. So perhaps demons can do unnaturally what man can do naturally.
6b. However, Augustine also teaches us that demons cannot turn a man into an animal, because command over the natural world is reserved for God only.

So, we may safely conclude that demons have no actual power over a man’s junk.  And if demons have no power over it, they cannot grant that power to witches.  Therefore, clearly, witches do not have the power to steal our junk.

Now we must consider whether it is possible for a witch to use illusion to make a man think his junk is gone.

1. We all know the senses may be fooled.  For example, sweet wine tastes bitter when you have a fever.

So perhaps the devil casts an illusion of smooth, unbroken flesh over a man’s genitals.

2. St. Thomas’s writings show the Devil can cast illusions generally.
2b. And he quotes Augustine, who we already know to  be awesome.
3. Add to that what Aristotle says about dreams: appearances from one part of your memory can be transposed, making you “remember” things that never happened together as happening together.
4. So, clearly, the devil could falsely conjoin the feeling of smooth skin with one’s crotch.
5. Cf. St. Isadore’s writings on glamour, and Alexander of Hales’s writings about a prestige.
6. Humans themselves possess prestidigitatory arts.
6a. If men can fool with illusion, surely demons can.
6b. See what St. Thomas has to say about making men see rods turn into serpents through the smoke of certain herbs.**
7. And clearly God sometimes permits devils to have power over the world.  Indeed, there are five specific ways in which devils may create glamours:

I’ll end it there, but it goes on like this for pages and pages.

Now, obviously, many of the sources the slightly post-medieval writers of the Malleus Maleficarum are employing are ones we wouldn’t put much stock in, but still look how often they refer their reader to other texts!  There is nothing linear about this medieval approach to intellectual endeavor.  Even when the intellect is being put to such an absurd question, the medieval mind demands corroboration, multiple sources, and the weighing of the reliability and relevance of sources against one another.

It’s not enough to say, “Oh, yeah, demons could totally enchant your junk.” You’ve got to give a plausible explanation of how it might work, properly sourced and footnoted, so that others don’t have to just trust you on your claim.

And that’s ultimately the difference between the medieval and the post-post-post-modernist. They don’t just point out that there are multiple sources and go, “Wow, man, there’s all these sources, clearly there’s no truth.” They start with the assumption that the world is multiple and discordant and then proceed to build order and sense out of the multiple discord.

So, futurist wannabes, let me offer a new standard for your discussions. I call it the “Pre-Post-Future Phallomimetic Standard of Credibility”–please, start using it. In short, before saying things like, “Networked culture has forever altered the way we gain knowledge” or whatever awesomely outre thing you want to argue, you need to spend as much time thinking about and backing up your claim as the medievals spent thinking about whether the devil could magically remove their penises and give them to witches to keep in trees.

*This is possibly relevant to the marginal image of the phallus-plucking nun from last week, by the by, even though it’s pretty clear that’s a nun and not a witch.
**That seems to imply exactly what you think it does.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bruce Sterling

    Can medieval scribes actually show up *right after you post your text* and point out that you're beating a straw man? — Bruce Sterling

  • Got Medieval

    Be fair. I'm not just beating a straw man.

    I'm also showing that the supposed linearity of pre-networked ways of thinking are your straw man, man.

    If your point is "stuff moves faster now," then so be it. But you act as though your point is "stuff moves in ways it has never moved before."

  • Got Medieval

    …assuming you're "you" and not some clever hoaxster–oh, dear, that's just proven your point, hasn't it?

    Oh, wait, no it hasn't. I've confused meta with deep again. Moving right along.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    The guy who wrote Islands in the Web has got to be smarter than the quotation would indicate. Doesn't he?

    If you want a generally good author to be disappointed in re the 14th century, read Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book, where scientific time traveling historians seem to be completely unaware that there are books full of all sorts of information about the periods that they travel to, especially the poor badly-documented 14th century sniff sniff.

  • ncm

    Eventually, of course, everything left of what was written in the 14th century will end up in Google, except what various curmudgeons keep from it. But it won't all come up when you type "fourteenth century" in the search box. And what does come up, you won't understand without Carl explaining it to you.

  • Foxessa

    The true historical approach is Postmamboism.

    Sorry, all the collector edition Postmamboism tee-shirts are gone.

    However, we have created the second edition with the new design, which will be produced next month when the royalty checks arrive — for those history texts created out of research in print, music, art, etc.

    Love, C.

  • Christopher

    The stuff Mr. Sterling says about art is interesting, and the stuff he said about Feynman is boring as heck, so I'm a bit baffled that Boing Boing chose to quote the Feynman bit.

    I mean, that entire list of things an Atemporal Feynman would do about a problem pretty much entirely amounts to "Ask other people what they think of the problem" and call me crazy, but I think most temporal types would do that too.

    It's sort of like the web 2.0 thing: In web 1.0, you go to "fansites" and post your own opinion on "message boards" on web 2.0 you go to "blogs" and post your own opinion in "comment sections", which is somehow totally different.

    Efficiency is nothing to sneeze at, but I don't get this compulsion people have to declare that the internet is a colossal break from every other aspect of human culture and history

  • tenthmedieval

    Hey, can I have a go too?

    The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

    But the real geeks of course know that even Codex 1.0 was such an advance on the old Scroll 5, and now we're on Codex 8.9 or whatever with your glue bindings and so on, really, most of the userbase have never even tried anything else. It's like they don't even consider the operating system as a choice…

    (See also Thomas Elrod's "Introducing the iCodex".)

  • Bruce Sterling

    "That was "Islands in the Net," Steve, as you woulda known from 120 seconds on Wikipedia, if medieval scribes had a Wikipedia, which they didn't.

    *I'm quite the fan of medieval intertextuality, but pretending that this was like the modern web is like pretending that Greek Fire was a cruise missile, only slower.

    *Wait'll the Humanistic Heavy Iron finishes mulching your medieval studies scene, and you'll be able to abandon that kind of posturing without a pang. Not that you'll get a choice about that, or anything.

  • Got Medieval

    I don't know what a Humanistic Heavy Iron is, but come on. My point isn't that the medieval cross-reference style of argumentation found in the Malleus is formally the same as web-style hyperlinking–though there are scholars who have made exactly that point using things like Gratian's Decretum as evidence–but rather that the relationship to authority and multiplicity demonstrated by the style is not fundamentally different from the relationship you claim has now suddenly come into being with the advent of comment threads attached to YouTube videos.

  • Derek

    "That was "Islands in the Net," Steve, as you woulda known from 120 seconds on Wikipedia"

    Wow, that sure sounds like some temporal thinking there. (Indeed with its time-indexed version control and the temporally minded ClueBot, Wikipedia itself is far to 14th century for the brave new world we live in).

    Doesn't this (reverted) entry represent the real future of a truly networked culture?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Islands_in_the_Net&oldid=347551729

  • halojones-fan

    Also, in classic "Communication2.1" style, The Guy Pretending To Be Bruce Sterling screws up his punctuation.

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