t byfield on Wed, 25 Sep 96 08:18 METDST

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Re: nettime: Philip K. Dick's Divine Interference - Erik Davis

At 11:02 PM -0500 on 9/24/96, Erik Davis wrote:

> I realize that Nettime owes much of its coherence to the lack of
> interminable back-and-forth nitpicking or the even more horrible flame
> wars, but I must respond to some of ted's comments.

        Likewise; the one thing I've found most lacking about nettime is the
_lack_ of back and forth (maybe I'm not alone?), so I hope the list
subscribers will indulge me.

> False my friend. Basilides, Marcion, and Valentinus are real historical
> figures, living and working in Alexandria, and they had real working
> groups. If they werent gnostics, no-one was [see The Tree of Gnosis by Ioan
> Couliano, student of Eliade and one of the great scholars of Gnosticism
> before he was (probably) bumped off by Romanian secret police]. The very
> Hellenistic Plotinus would not have written "against the gnostics" if there
> had been no gnostics around. Ted also makes the strange assumption -- which
> he would describe as "extremely dubious" -- that Gnosticism has little to
> do with "platonizing Christians," when much of Gnosticism can be defined as
> a radical Neoplatonic interpretation of certain Christian ideas. This of
> course begs the larger question of what constitutes a gnostic, which is
> such a cantankerous debate that the headiest scholars can barely come up
> with handy working definitions. For the purposes of my essay, I choose not
> to enter into that briar patch, but to ride with the ideas. And in the case
> of the demiurge, the material we have clearly indicates differing ways of
> interpreting his motivations, with varying degrees of dualism.

        Shall we assume that the US was crawling with "commie pinko spies and
saboteurs" ca. 1952 because Joe McCarthy made a career out of finding them
under every rock and damning them to hell and back? Or that thousands of
heretics _swam_ from Spain to Sardinia and infected the masses with satanic
beliefs in the later middle ages because a heresiological text claims that
they did? Heresioligists and polemicists--like Plotinus--are infamously
unreliable sources for the existence, practices, and beliefs of the
(alleged) groups they harangue.

>  My reading has led me to conclude that there were "real" gnostic groups,
> or at least groups of folks who incorporated what we consider gnostic
> material into their trip.  But thats really beside the point. I am not a
> Near Eastern scholar, but an essayist, and am compelled by ideas and
> images. The texts are there, and even if they were written by 2nd century
> kooks or science fiction writers (wild-eyed Philip K Dicks), the ideas and
> imagery of gnosticism entered the history of religious thought. There are
> overwhelmingly clear structural parallels between the Nag Hammadi material
> and later groups like the Manicheaens and the  Mandeans (50,000 of whom
> still live today in Iran). Ted seems hung up on the notion that for any
> reference to the Hellenistic gnosisticsm must proceed by historical proof
> of the existence of "hegemonic" groups. The real weight of gnosticism is
> intellectual and mythic. For me it is sufficient that these ideas were out
> there, that they resonated then and that they resonate -- at least for the
> more half-baked among us -- now.

        You're absolutely right that gnosticizing tendencies--dualism,
elaborate cosmologies, variously rigid or dialectical theodicies--played
(and may continue to play) a huge part in the elaboration of "Western"
religions, ethics, moralities, and notions of societies. For the rest, I
spoke of hegemonic _structures_, not groups, and by structures I mean
pervasive ideologies, which can be as historically distinct or continuous
as anyone chooses to see them; I prefer specifics and ruptures, but that's
just my taste.

> So what? If by "rhetoric" you mean that I am playing with ideas and
> language to suggest certain imaginative connections and alternative ways of
> looking at technoculture, I stand accused. What do you believe the purpose
> of thinking and writing are? Besides, as my essay shows, Dick certainly
> made these connections -- in his "non-fiction" writings moreoever, writings
> which, like mine, attempt to grapple with contemporary issues that nobody
> understands by looking through the cracked glasses of the religious
> imagination.

        Claims like "the demiurge is alive and well and living in
technoculture" seem to me to draw more force from a slippery
reductionism--heavy with moral baggage--than from a descriptive analysis
that might lay the basis for an ethical response. That's not a blanket
denunciation of poetics--far from it.

> "radically different in every way," "false master narrative," "utterly
> false." "extremely dubious" -- you must be a rationalist, because you love
> absolutes! I would point out that my piece implied no such grandiose
> argument about the progressive history of representation -- even my own
> rhetorical cues like the deliberately folksy "alive and well" indicate that
> I am playing with certain notions, not speaking in the hard and bitter
> language you favor. And if you deny that part of the pleasure and selling
> power of virtual reality does not derive from the sense of entering another
> world, well you've never played Battletech or been addicted to a MUD.

        You may not have intended a grandiose historical narrative, but I
found one; so I'll reread your essay, and you should too. For the rest,
"virtual reality" is a very vague name with which to lump together MUDS and
shoot-em-up games. Most of the MUDs I've mucked around with have been torn
part by explicitly social debates and questions of consensus; Donkey Kong
Country involves no such dynamic. They have little in common beyond the
fact of computational horsepower.

> FYI, your final comments about "God games" and their connection to military
> strategy games had very little to do with my article. If anything, they
> support the notion that the demiurgic mode of technoculture is, as Dick
> implied, rather bad news. Besides, I am genuinely surprised that you think
> the transition of  strategy games to digital space and proto- A-Life
> environments is really so trivial, or that the relatively complex dynamics
> of SimEarth (which does not involve killing off opponents) is just a hopped
> up game of Battleship.

        I've spent a fair amount of time meditating on "complex dymanics," in
a vague way for about a decade and very explicitly since I spent a long
summer editing De Landa's book, and in sum, no, I don't think "complexity"
remotely as important as people are making out; if it's always been there,
it won't go away anytime soon, so I'd rather see effort expended on much
more basic questions--whether someone was trained to be a militarist by
Battleship or Battletech seems mostly immaterial.
        I'd be happy--and curious--to chat about it off nettime.

        Anyway, cheers.


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