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.