Saturday, August 04, 2007


Rage Within the Machine

As it appeared, originally, a couple of years ago in Volume 6 of Marlow Peerse Weaver's "In Our Own Words" series (which, by all appearances, the website has gone down since, though you can still, ostensibly, order the book through ('tis no great shakes, literarily, though it's documentary function provides something at least mildly interesting.)) As it was published, but as I doubt many who stumble across this blog--or did, anyway, before I went silent--have read it, and as my contractual obligation not to republish has expired, I'm parking it here, as much for myself as for anyone.

Rage Within the Machine

We all know, in our own particular, stubborn way, that any attempt at exchange between humans inevitably entails stripping the matter down—-simplifying what does not merit simplification—-that between any event and the representation of same lies a space so saturated with the vagaries of our senses as to make of any claim to truth a laughable pretense. Saturation being the word for our particular times, feeling the pressure of ten billion plus human feet upon our Earth, hearing the familiar rumbling of those machines, the way we extend ourselves into our world.

It is June 5th, 1989, and even in this middling Oklahoma town, innocence is not a virtue to be pursued. We seek the death of our own innocence consciously, not through the fault of any system, but as a result of our own humanity, the natural expression of an unbounded and unbindable curiosity. The celebration of our own coming of age—a sudden shift from one age to the next marked by a single day on the calendar—one single, sleepy instant in which we both breech and acknowledge those boundaries under which we thrive, not merely a matter of shattering illusions, but also of choosing which ones we will continue to believe in. The End of an Era. The End of Communism. The End of History, discarded in the offhand flourish of a four-word headline.

Now you see it. Now you don’t.

It is not my birthday, but were I to put a definitive date on my own passage into adulthood, this would be the day. Behind me, the eighties, the cultural unit used to describe my coming of age, another illusion, upon which the curtain falls six months too fast for the calendar. WarGames, the Atari 2600, MTV grown from cutting edge to mass-marketing dinosaur in the space of just eight years. Even now, in some far removed point of space, marketing agents are wrestling toward the one phrase that will encapsulate "my generation," the phrase that will fit into the tidy edges of commercials for carbonated beverages, tennis shoes, candy bars.

I don’t know it yet, but I’m preparing for my future, engaged, as I am, in a proto-typical version of multi-tasking as I read Crime and Punishment during commercials. My reading is obsessional, dredging the tributaries of literature for corpora gleaned from casual adjectives, Kesey to Tom Wolfe to Kerouac, the present volume chosen on the basis of Kerouac’s use of the adjective "Dostoyevskian." An unofficial education, associative in nature, again unwittingly preparing myself for a hyper-linked future I’ve yet to envision. I feel, in preferring Raskolnikov’s justification for murder over adverts for mutual funds and products to staunch the odious by-products of being human, more distance between myself and twentieth-century Madison Avenue than I do between myself and late ninteenth-century Russia, the words before me speaking directly to my own awakening desire for greatness: "In my opinion, if the discoveries of Kepler or Newton, by some combination of circumstances, could not have become known to the world in any other way than by sacrificing the lives of one, or ten, or a hundred or more people, who might have hampered or in some way been obstacles in the path of those discoveries, then Newton would have had the right, or might even have been under an obligation…to remove those ten or a hundred people, so that his discoveries might be revealed to all mankind."

The television is tuned to CNN Headline News. Real News. Real Fast. The world condensed to thirty minutes of breaking news, distant lands bleeding into my living room via satellite. For the last seven weeks, beginning with the mid-April death of Hu Yaobang, who served, until his ouster in 1987, as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the drama has been building to a slow climax. The spark provided by this death, the death of a prominent man who may well have shared a common logic with Raskolnikov, ignites a gathering flame, now the conflagration of a million Chinese citizens standing in Tiananmen Square, demanding nothing short of Democracy. Guiding light of our century. Every bit as elusive, in practice, as were the more admirable aims expressed in the writings of Marx. Yesterday, that demand was met by the awesome force of the Chinese army. Today, I sit here, half a world removed from the events keeping me riveted to the screen, months shy of my own arbitrary passage into adulthood, watching as a different vision of greatness is played out in my living room: one man, daily shopping in hand, confronting a long line of tanks, bringing the machine to a halt with his demand to know what they are doing in his city.

Here is the reason we mourn, again and again, the loss of innocence: it is simpler. Easier by far to take our first, visceral reaction as truth. Easier to pretend that this moment extends no further than this present, simple, immediately digestible image of power; one human, armed with courage, making a difference. Easier to just believe. By the time my majority is recognized, the Berlin Wall will have fallen. In two years, the word "Balkanization" will enter the common lexicon. Within five, the word "internet." Download, storage capacity, planned obsolescence—entire paradigms framing politics, economics, human cognition discarded like a locust’s exoskeleton. Future shock is now. We have left our homelands, and in our absence they have ceased to exist.

Easier to believe in the strength of one human voice bringing the machine to a final, glorious halt. Easier to divide along the lines of human virtue and machine malevolence. Easier, by far, to forget where these machines came from—their dark, metallic lines every bit as balanced, as carefully executed, as a line of poetry, the composite parts of their engines working within the same framework of tension and release informing our philosophies. Easier still to measure the distance between our selves and our machines by opposing spirit to matter—-and here, the image truly begins to break down, for it is an image, filmed by a machine, transmitted by a machine, received and translated by the machine I now watch. One human’s courage in the face of an awesome machine, a machine explicitly designed to control and destroy, carries no meaning if not communicated. In my very ability to see this one instant, this one human finding the courage to transcend his self and communicate, through action, the collective desires of a million other humans, there remains in myself a less innocent strain, in which the eye guiding the camera demands recognition.

Tension. Release. Both contained in hard matter formed to our specifications, driving the engine forward, bent to our will. Any question framed in the self-limiting terms of morality—-right and wrong, vice, victor and victim—-recognized as an ongoing inquiry into whose will this individual machine is serving. And we all build machines.

It is June 5th, 1989 and it doesn’t matter, really, that Crime and Punishment lies not in my lap, but on my bookshelf, having been read some months previously. Simplicity’s the thing, and the twinned visions of greatness, one Raskolnikov’s deadly hypothesis, the other an anonymous Chinese citizen’s actions, are both straining under the weight of the present moment. Doesn’t matter, really, that I—-a bookish, Okie kid, bone-weary from another nine hour shift feeding the metal components of a machine I will never see into other machines I do not understand—-know already that tomorrow I will return to my work, and will make no inquiry into the nature of the machine I am building. Doesn’t matter, finally, that I understand, in this silence, my own desire to build my own machine. Machines of words. To truly understand a machine, you must build that machine. Few of us have access to a foundry, but we all have access to our voice, and for one voice to alter our world is less a result of the quality of that voice than it is the result of the compressed explosion of that voice within a charged context.

Tension. Release. Can we get along here? Can we all get along?

Arms sticky with the lubricants used in the factories to keep one machine from destroying itself as it fashions parts for another machine, the air of the room petroleum-heavy, charged, compressed, pressurized, waiting for a spark. Context weighs on every atom we breathe, summer flaring from the hard mirror of steel rails as the machine of history slips its well-laid tracks, and what will do I attribute to our collective machine, that language we use to set boundaries, to collaborate, to conspire, to oppose? It is June 5th, 1989, and I don’t know it yet, but I will never know what happens to one man in China, will never know if he knows what I have seen, do not know now what eyes, what wills, what cameras are recording what words and works, pushing back against the heft of history as it presses hard upon our need to speak.

We are but sparks.

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