nettime mailinglist on Tue, 16 Jan 96 19:11 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Net-religion, a war in heaven - Peter Lamborn Wilson

Islam and the Internet 

a War in Heaven 

Lecture by Peter Lamborn Wilson 

I don't even own a computer. Is there anybody else 
in here who doesn't own a computer?  It's interes-
ting to watch the net and to approach media eco-
logy, and the internet, specifically from the point of 
view of what I do. Which is essentially the study of 
the history of religions, or histories of religion.  It 
is extremely obvious to me that the internet is a re-
ligious phenomenon. This may not have occured to 
everyone who is closer to it than I am.  First of all, 
all technology can be analized according to religious 
principles. When I speak about religion, I am not 
speaking from the point of view of religion. In fact, 
I prefer to be an outsider there as well. However, in 
some points, unavoidably, I will express myself as 
if I were thinking from a religious point of view. 
Please understand that I am not supplying any 
dogma or article of faith, I am simply trying to ana-
lize the phenomenon in a purely structural way and 
if that is useful for me in my own search for truth, 
maybe it's useful for you.   Please accept what I 
have to say on that basis. 

All technology is a religious phenomenon: Why? 
Because unless you belong to the human condition, 
you cannot have technology. What is the human 
condition? What makes a human being different 
from an animal? I would say consciousness or self-
consciousness, perhaps. Not awareness though, we 
know that animals are aware, but what we don't 
know is whether they are conscious. And we cer-
tainly don't know whether they are self-conscious. 
One of the symptoms of consciousness, or self-
consciousness, is technology and it is impossible, 
structurally or historically, to separate technology 
from consciousness when we try to imagine what it 
is to be human. As soon as we see in the archeolo-
gical record evidence of a Simian or a similar crea-
ture that we could identify as human, then the only 
reason why we do so is because there are some bro-
ken stones next to the bones, that look like they 
may have been intended to be tools.  What separates 
animals from humans is technology. From one 
point of view, that is religion. Because you cannot 
have technology unless you can extricate con-
sciousness outside the body. If you cannot under-
stand that consciousness is something which pro-
jects outward into the world, you cannot create the 
prothesis, the extension of the body, which is 
techology, be it a broken stone, or a computer. 

Because there is this intimate relationship between 
technology and consciousness, technology itself is 
always threatening to take the place of religion. 
Technology is always becoming confused with reli-
gion - the marxists used to call this reification. Not 
a bad word. 
It means making an intuition a "thing," making it 
"thingy," or giving it "thinginess." If we want to 
talk about the Greek word techne, it would be use-
ful to describe the whole range of prothesis of con-
sciousness. But, if we want to talk about techno-
logy, then we are moving into different ground. 
Technology is techne plus logos in Greek. Techne, 
the technique or the mechanic principle plus the lo-
gos, or the word. If we  are trying to find out what 
the first technology is, in the strict sense of the 
word, you would have to answer that it is writing, 
which adds the mechanic to the word. Therefore, 
there is no techne, but technologia. Then we see the 
process of reification that works immediatly here. 
Writing itself defines words. Words do not define 
writing, but immediatly a paradoxical feedback co-
mes up, where writing defines words and words de-
fine things. Logically, it should be the other way 
round, but we know that language is a double-edged 
sword. As a means of communication, language 
leaves a great deal to be desired.   

One of the speakers yesterday, Heath (Bunting), I 
think it was, said  that communication doesn't al-
ways communicate, and this is so clear. I don't 
know why this was a surprise. Everyone can under-
stand this immediatly: a map is not a territory. As 
soon as you mistake the word 'Budapest' on the 
map for the city of Budapest, you are in deep trou-
ble. You have got a cognitive problem. If instead of 
talking about Budapest, you want talk about love, 
or patriotism, or valour, or truth, or communica-
tion, or the net, or freedom, or any words like that, 
which have very few references in the world of 
thinginess, you have a problem. We reify those 
concepts and solidify them in writing, in sign sys-
tems. Then they influence consciousness as you 
grow up, as a child learning language.  All of these 
signs are imprinted. Writing begins with pictures, 
than we have pictographs, pictographic writing like 
ancient Armenian, or Chinese, or Egyptian hiero-
glyphics. Then some of those signs are chosen to 
be phonemes. For example, a very common word 
in the indo- european language is the word for foot, 
which always sounds something like paw or pede or 
pedes. A picture of a foot becomes a P. If you turn 
that upside down, it is still like a P,  and that P 
still looks like a foot. Even the alphabet, alphabetic 
writing, which is supposedly free of images, is not 
of free of all images. 

When you move from  the alphabet to binary wri-
ting, this is also not free of images. It is a very 
simple image system, black-white-yes-no, but it is 
still an image system. The computer is still a ma-
chine of inscription, it is still a writing machine, in 
fact for most of you it is just a glorified typewriter. 
There is going to be a gradual process in the realm 
of technology of the reduction of the sign: from the 
complexity of a representational picture to the ab-
straction of a binary sign system which apparently 
no longer contains pictures, although we can see 
that the pictures are just more deeply buried. 

The Greek word for symbol, symbolon, actually 
means, an object which is broken in half. That is 
why communication systems are not monodic or 
unitary, they are always dual or diadic. I prefer to 
say that all communications are diadic, it involves 
two-ness. There must be a speaker and a hearer, 
then these relations can be reversed. The breaking of 
the symbolon symbolizes the split in human con-
sciousness itself. A split between the animal inti-
macy, which we can hypothesize as our Semian 
heritage, and the idea that consciousness and self are 
two different things.  As soon as that split occurs 
we have a symbolic system at work, where one 
thing stands for another.   The same holds true for 
all language systems, all musical systems, all dance 
systems, anything which can possibly communi-
cate on any level whatsoever. These are all symbo-
lic systems. Language is a symbolic system. All 
computer programs are symbolic systems. 

It is important to remember that in any symbolic 
system this split, the doubling of consciousness, 
the hypothesis of consciousness which is actually 
prothesis, obtains something which is outside the 
body and which can act in the world.  In the history 
of religion, this desire for lost intimacy, this desire 
to recapture unified consciousness, is the cause of 
yet a further split. We see the whole idea of sacri-
fice that is meant to heal this wound in the cosmic 
structure. Sacrifice appears very early in human re-
ligion, at least as early as agricultural systems in 
the Neolithic Age, if not sooner, and it is violent. 
Initially, it probably involves human sacrifice.  I 
see this as a violence of the sacred. Whatever is re-
ligious is also inherently violent, because it's based 
on the split. The split consciousness, the act of 
splitting is violent, and so the act of repairing the 
split is also violent.  In fact, the word religion, "re-
ligio," in Latin, means to re-link, which is really 
the same as the word in Hindi "yo go" which means 
yoke, as the yoke which connects two oxen. 
Religion itself, at its very base, is about this re-
linking of consciousness. It is an attempt to over-
come the split of consciousness and to unify what 
was doubled and make it one. This is a very violent 
process throughout human history, and it is not an 
accident that religions were associated with vio-

If we're going to talk about belief systems, then I 
include all belief systems under the group of reli-
gion, including ideology, then we are going to be 
talking about violence. There is no way out of it. 
The initial split of consciousness can also be seen 
as a split between nature and culture, and in bet-
ween nature and culture comes an ambiguous, mar-
ginal space, which is neither nature nor culture. In 
all folklore and in all methodological systems we 
have this moment where the ocean of primordial 
chaos is separated from culture.  Eventually this 
split between culture and nature also applies to 
primitive systems like shamanism. The split be-
came more and more severe, and instead of being 
layed on a horizontal level, with nature over here 
and culture over there, the whole thing moved on to 
a vertical axis, and culture and consciousness are 
now reified as heaven. Nature, what is left below, 
what is not saved, what is not taken up into hea-
ven, is this body, this physical body, which can 
die. Nature is conscious of death, which is probably 
at the root of all consciousness, but consciousness 
of death by itself can only be negative. 
Consciousness has to be turned, paradoxically, 
away from its original object, which is death, and 
focused on life, which is also death.   

This is what fails to happen in most religions. 
Most religions are systems of death consciousness 
because they posit a radical split between body and 
spirit, but they are no longer upset about it. They 
are not interested in reconciling the body and the 
spirit anymore. They are interested in  eliminating 
one of those factors, the body, and perpetuating the 
other, the spirit, or mind or perhaps information. 
So you have spirit and heaven at the top and nature, 
body and earth at the bottom. It becomes associated 
with the feminine; the catatonic, the chaotic, the 
uncultured, the uncultivated. It is associated with 
tribal societies, with hunting and gathering, with 
everything primitive, with everything despicable. 
Mind or spirit, which is now separated from the 
body, is associated with maleness; with power, 
with structure, with culture, with civilisation, and 
with religion itself. What is in between is now 
only a technology of the sacred, the actual workings 
of religion itself. The ritual, the sacrifice, the 
priesthood, which is now a completely privileged 
closed-off class; you now have class structure. 

We now have the pyramidal structure, we now also 
have cyberspace. We have the concept of the vir-
tual.   Heaven or paradise, the mind principle, sepa-
rated from the body, becomes cyberspace. 
Cyberspace is a version, paradoxical, or even a pa-
rody, of heaven. It's a place where your body is not 
present, but your consciousness is. It is a place of 
immortality, of not being mortal, of having over-
come death. There is a view that cyberspace is a 
salvational reality, that it saves us from our crude 
shit- filled rotting bodies, and that we will transcend 
into an angelic sphere of pure data where we will 
download consciousness and never die. If you have 
read William Gibson, the image is very clear: You 
have the hacker, who is jacked in, literally jacked 
into the computer. The body is rotting, but the cy-
berpersona is clearly immortal. 

Actually, Gibson is heavily ironic about this. The 
problem is that what we have been promised is 
transcendence through techno-mediation. It is a false 
transcendence. Formerly, in religion we said that 
God, who has been stripped of all material, beco-
ming, and is now pure, being a transcended God.  
It's actually not interrelating with the material 
world.  If we have a god, as in some forms of paga-
nism, that has a material nature, the god is a re-
birth. We will call that an emminent form of deity, 
as opposed to transcendent.  What we are are being 
offered in the net is not emminence, not a true em-
minence, but a false transcendence. It is a dange-
rous, gnostic fallacy. Cyberspace is spurious im-

This brings me to the point of the military aspect 
of the net, because the net is actually a war in hea-
ven. What else would the phrase "information war" 
mean than a war in heaven? A war which would 
take place in this spurious heaven, this false trans-
cendence of cyberspace. We know that the net ori-
ginates as a military space. The original ARPA-net 
was designed in order to avoid the physical disrup-
tion which would have been involved in atomic ex-
plosion. The net itself is a very gnostic invention 
since it transcendentalises matter in a very rapid and 
effective way. Basically, we are looking at a war in 

Kevin Kelley likes to say that this technology is 
out of control. This is bullshit, it's not out of cont-
rol. It's something very different and much more in-
teresting.  A brilliant French anthropologist, Pierre 
Clastres, wrote one book called, "Society against 
the State," and another, which we (Autonimedia) 
were very proud to publish, called,  'The 
Archeology of Violence.' I follow his thinking very 
closely on a number of points. He makes a distinc-
tion between two kinds of warfare in human his-
tory: There is primitive war and classical war. 
These are not at all the same thing. It cannot even 
be said that the classical war is a developement of 
the primitive war, it's rather a betrayal of primitive 
war. If the sacred is violent, then violence is not 
always negative, unless we believe in pacifism. 
There are certain kinds of violence which are posi-
tive, and primitive warfare is positive in this one 

Clastres uses the metaphor of centrifugal and cen-
tripedal. The centrifugal machine is one which pus-
hes out from the center, and the centripetal machine 
is one which pulls in towards the centre.  First of 
all, there is really no such thing as primitive so-
ciety anymore, there are only societies which have 
retained primitive forms. The rest of the world has 
moved on to culture and civilisation. Clastres be-
lieved that this was a chosen path on the part of 
these societies. Consciously or unconsciously these 
societies developed certain social functions to cen-
trifugalize power, they don't want power, they re-
fuse power. They want a society, but they don't 
want the state. They don't want the centrilisation of 
power, they don't want class structure, they don't 
want economic hierarchy. They want egalitaria-
nism, they want democracy. 

Trancendentalism, which is that mysticism and spi-
ritual experience should be available in an egalita-
rian fashion. The shaman is not a specialist in 
ecstasy, because these tribes themselves specialize 
in ecstasy. At some point in the history of human 
society, some society rises where primitive warfare 
changes. Some society rises where primitive 
warfare is paradoxically changed into it's opposite 
and unfortunately Clastres died before he was able 
to really explain this. You can say that particularly 
wicked and clever people saw that violence could be 
used to centralize power as well as to disperse po-
wer. Or you can say that maybe there were popula-
tion problems, or climate problems. Some explana-
tions have given the switchover of the hunting-ga-
thering societies which are egalitarien without ex-
ception and do not practice sacrifice, with agricultu-
ral societies which are non-egalitarian and almost 
invariably do practice sacrifice. 

We are still living in the Neolithic Age. We are 
still basically living in the agricultural-industrial 
period and we still practice sacrifice. If you don't be-
lieve it, come to New York State, where they just 
reintroduced the death penalty, a symbolic sacrifice. 
At some point primitive warfare turns into classical 
warfare, and here is the interesting thing about the 
net. The net is born much more like a primitive 
warfare structure than a classical one, because of