Issue 2 Takes
To The Editors,
I was praying in Jerusalem the other day and I thought of The Bad Version. Perhaps a circuit lit up in the mind of God that let these very letters flow—through my hand, out my pen, onto thepage, and at a mysteriously linked moment on a very distant page into your eyes, through your “code,” to your soul. I thought of James Somers’ article, “A Better Question,” and how it might hold the seeds of a better version for us all. My intention here is to share my thoughts, not to program you, but I won’t complain if these letters just happen to light you up.
We are not the first to dream of revealing and reveling in the secret inner workings of things. Such longings animated not only the boy-tinkerers who came to define our age but also the political-aesthetic program of radical thinkers and artists, and, long before this, the spiritual strivings of certain sages, towards whom my mind has recently turned.
Natural processes may seem to have become disenchanted, but they are still as fantastically complex, hierarchical, interlocking, and ultimately mystifying as ever before. What is different is our relationship to the grand mystery, and the fact that we no longer look for, or believe in, unity of our knowledge with its power. This is reflected beautifully in Somers’ evocation of the dominant system of our day, the computer, whose “layers of special-purpose machines” form a vertical universe defined not by integration but by the input and output of autonomous modules. This is indeed a metaphor, whose code could be “reused,” but it also seems to be a governing mythology, indeed a cosmology of our time. For has not the economization of the cultural sphere, the computationalization of the human sciences, and the specialization and bureaucratization of intellectual work brought us to a similar pass with regard to what was once perhaps more of an integrated “lifeworld”?
This is not so different from the Kabbalistic perspectives I have been studying, except in one important regard. Here too there is a vertical series of (four or five) worlds, which span the gulf between the Endless One and our physical reality. These worlds are in play at every moment on the macro- and micro- scale as potentiality is actualized and the light of the unknowable God emanates, forms, conceals itself, and prepares to enter our lowly sphere. But these worlds are not separate modules. The bottom-most receptacle (malchut) of the higher world becomes the top-most, transmitting attribute (keter) of the world beneath, so that the layers are truly interwoven. Furthermore, these worlds are structured around the ten attributes of God, each of which reflects within itself the rest of the attributes, the whole in the parts.
This is a description of the present universe, the universe of tikkun (rectification), in contradistinction to the originally created universe, the universe of tohu (chaos), where the attributes were more independent, like codes, or memes, or Scrabble tiles in a sac, each pushing its individual point value. The molecules of creation, the letters, were unable to work together to form stable vessels for divine light, and so they shattered and were scattered into this latter world, where they await the opportunity to be raised up—along with man, Adam, who ate the fruit, and tried to master the universe with his own mind.
But we are not alone. There are higher intelligences at play, denizens of these other worlds, and the simple fact that in recent centuries we have turned a low handful of these into robotic fellows does not change the animacy of those in the higher realms. Unlike computer modules, these ministering agents exist as the limbs of the integrated “machine,” with total subsumption to the King and no independent “identity” of their own. By reducing our angels to transistors and parsers we eliminate the possibility of supplicating them with anything but an ironic song. The mystery of what we could be, and sing, and share, retains its sovereign seat, but we deprive ourselves of the joy of channeling its prophetic, category-crossing light. We fail to see the input and output for more than its utilitarian face, as a figure of the generosity of spirit and mutual responsibility that is the prerequisite for all towers of knowledge and action aspiring to integrate truth. Thus our sages become specialists, our machines become gods, and we lose the model for knowledge and self-knowledge that is predicated on the mobilization of all our modules for a blessing, a gift from the one in whose hands this all is.
The cosmologies of our shattered times, more esoteric than the sages’ dreams, seem devised specifically to leave us cold, no matter how many codes we acquire. Thus the problem may not be that we are fooled by the spectacle of the “what” and need a dose of the “how,” but that we have lost the essential human value for the living sum of these hows, that can become our ally not through analysis and explanation but by binding ourselves every day, with humility and love, to its mystery, through integrated/integrating praise and prayer. It is only a matter of which phylactery we choose to reach for when we wake. Teetering from contact with the dream-world, that terrifying domain of private cosmic symbols that defines “code reuse,” and confronted with the rising sun of a new stab at linear time, we naturally look to letters to orient us, to comfort us, to bind us to truth, and to bless our day—or else to flatter and confound us, and then to throw away: the crumpled newsprint, the pixeled feed, the beloved poem, the sacred song, the prayer, or something in between—perhaps The Bad Version—that leads us in a better direction and in its small way helps to infuse our world-whats with dream-oughts.
We must see the typewriter in the computer, and the pen in the typewriter, and the quill in the pen, and remember that we run dry without constantly returning to the source—of our own individual potentiality and the potentiality of the world. As ensconced as we may become in the apples of our day, and as utterly saturated by wikipedic worms, the true source beyond layers of code will never be disenchanted—and, thank God, with our gratitude, will only grow, until that day that our true unity is revealed.
With blessings from Jerusalem,
—Jorian Polis Schutz