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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Culture as Heat.

This piece was originally published in Chaos International 14 in 1992 and is now considered to be the key text which marks the transition from pre to post modern magickal eras.

This is amusing, since the editor of Chaos International (Ian Read) just asked me for 3000 words "on any old nonsense you want" to fill up a bit of space in CI 13. I had a bit of fun using up some stray ideas I had left over from old social anthropology essays.

Culture as Heat : Science, Culture, Entropy and Chaos


It's no good. It can't be done. It is impossible, but it must be done, it will be done. Somehow out of this chaos, this confusion and madness, I will create an illusion of order. A transient flicker of illumination will collapse the quantum waveform into these words and they will live. Mor e than live, they will survive and reproduce themselves as ideas, impulses, images and sensations in the mind with pre-existent knowledge and become something else again, something unknowable and unpredictable. Thus through order chaos will engender chaos.

The problem
Trapped within the [pages of various books, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, are a veritable demonic host of ideas, theories, facts and speculations. They multiply faster than I can read them, and each fresh piece of information subtly alters the meaning and essential significance of the rest. In isolation they are harmless, in combination they are powerful. Some are grouped around the concept of information theory, where texts (genetic, algorithmic, electro-magnetic) attempt to preserve their coherence, their patterns of meaning, in situations where 'noise'; entropy, heat and randomness, threaten this coherent identity. others are grouped around concepts of human creativity, the ability to generate texts, be they myths, beliefs, ideologies or literature; and the ability of these texts to reproduce themselves via the manipulation of social realities.

The solution/resolution is difficult. one approach would be computational, to cross-reference and thus fabricate a map of overlapping references, a pattern of points in common. To first decide: there is a message here, but one disguised and obscured. And that this confusion is a form of noise which can be eliminated, thus revealing the information content of these texts. This would be an information theory approach. Shannon, prime theorist of information theory, worked on military ciphers.

In military ciphers, noise is used to disguise the message. In peacetime, noise was to be minimised to make it easy to decode the message. Already our texts begin to diverge. Science assumes, must assume, that its world-view is neutral and that the information, the facts it deals with are likewise. This is why fraud in science, the manipulation of data, is such a serious matter. It could easily lead to the creation of erroneous theories.

Decoding the text.
An example can be found in the decipherment of Cuneiform Script in the 19th century. the story is rather long and complicated, but a crucial part was played by one Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. Although a soldier with the British east India company, he spent some time in the early 1800s as military adviser to the Shah of Persia. This meant he was able, though with great difficulty, to copy three inscriptions carved on a rock face in the middle of nowhere. Compared with deciphering these texts, the rosetta Stone was a doddle. Only one of these languages, Old Persian, was even imperfectly understood. The other two, Eblite and Akkkadian (Babylonian), were totally unknown. It took nearly 20 years of painstaking work, sign by sign, syllable by syllable, word by word, before the triple text could be reconstructed.

But such knowledge is not absolute, as these two texts, reconstructed from the same Sumerian source show:

The head of a man he place in a mould. before Enlil he (Man?) covers the land.
Upon his black-headed people he looked steadfastly

In the hole (which he had thus made) was the vanguard of mankind.
And while (the people of) the land were breaking through the ground towards Enlil, he eyed his black-headed ones in steadfast fashion

The texts begin to diverge, there is uncertainty, a merest hint of chaos. Unable to replicate, the text has begun to evolve, splitting itself into variations which then engage in a struggle for survival i.e. for academic recognition as the translation, the authorised version. Fierce and bitter war is waged in the pages of obscure journals. Footnotre is piled upon footnote, reference upon reference. Fresh evidence throws new light upon the debate. Scholars die and their theories die also and are forgotten, only to be rediscovered and mocked or praised. And in time entropy prevails. The opinions, the arguments, the translations are printed on paper which undergoes chemical change, reducing the whole debate to a handful of dust...
The rock inscriptions and the clay tablets will remain, but once more cryptic and obscure. this problem, of entropy as loss of meaning, the decay of information, is critical to our existence as living beings. DNA is information, a complete and complex set of codes for the reproduction of... DNA. And as we know, the reproduction of DNA is not simple replication, otherwise complex structures (like human beings) would not have arisen. Each time the tangled strands of life divide, subtle variations arise. Tiny tendrils of chaos are present in our genes.

Most of the time they exist passively, inspiring only minor changes in the appearance or behaviour of offspring, but when the times get tough, the chaos gets activated. Something extinguishes the dinosaur gene pool and whooosh- little furry mammals mutate like mad to fill all the juicy ecological niches left vacant. And then the chaos current gets turned down, as the space for innovation becomes limited and advantage shifts to the species which stick to the environment they survive in best.

Video modems
Interestingly, in these times of global warming, it may be that heat has an effect on the balance between change and stability. Scientists working video modems found that by 'compressing' the visual information in the pictures the modems transmitted, they could leave out 50% of what the eye sees. This is because the world is full of fractals, repetitions in the shapes of trees, houses, faces, bodies etc. However this effect is temperature dependant. Heat is noise, that is random energy. this randomness reduces the amount of coherence and repetition in the world. So DNA, as coherent information, is subject to similar constraints as video modems are. But with DNA, what would result is an increase in random mutation, that is a speeding up of evolutionary change.

Even if this argument seems to confuses the effect of heat on optical phenomena (video images) with chemical (DNA), it may be valid in other ways. If language is an information system with the potential to evolve and change subject to certain rules and constraints then so is human culture. Indeed, anthropologists talk of culture as an 'exo-genetic' system. We inherit not just our genes, but also our culture. Without culture (language, history, myth, art, science, social structure) we would still be naked apes, not human beings.

Information overload
Unfortunately, as the sheer volume of information (knowledge) generated by modern culture grows, so the ability of this information to reproduce itself diminishes. In pre-literate tribal cultures, transmission is limited by human memory. In early literate cultures the volume of information grows, but is limited by the need to make accurate copies, one by one, by trained scribes. Printing allows a more rapid expansion and encourages the spread of literacy. Now electronic data transfer multiplies the transmission of information almost beyond our ability to comprehend. We live in a sea of information. The economic records of Sumeria have endured for 5000 years. Economic records of today are as fleeting as the interaction of subatomic particles.

Artistic endeavours are only slightly more long lived. Paperback books in the USA are pulped after a shop-life of only 6 weeks. Fiklms are no sooner released than they slip into the twilight of afterworld of video shops. An acid house record is 'old' after a month, its very name forgotten, existing only as a 40 second sample recycled on another record. popular culture is rapidly becoming a chaotic system. Exciting for some, terrifying for others.

The question is, doe s this 'rapidly evolving cultural matrix' act as npise/ entropy and reduce the efficiency of the transmission of cultural values and meanings? Certainly, where education is used to pass on cultural values, there is confusion. The collapse of communism has created a vacuum for both teachers and pupils in eastern Europe. Suddenly nothing is true, everything that was taught before is suspect. In the West debates rage from what to teach to how to teach. Is it more important for children to be computer literate than familiar with Shakespear? Should religious education be 'mainly Christian' , or to other faiths get included. And in America, the whole question of 'multi-culturalism' threatens the certainties of academic discourse. European culture, one argument goes, derives from the Greeks. But where did the Greeks get their ideas from ? Egypt- and Egypt is in Africa. Europe stole its culture from Africa. And since Africa is the home of black people...White is really Black.

Hot chaos
So whatever the DNA equivalent which exists in 'exo-genetic' evolution is, it is inspiring some radical shifts in our cultural inheritance. Of course this is nothing new, at least for Chaos Magicians. As Robyn South put it in CI 11 :
The better we become at stepping into an astral Greek temple one night and a Toltec god-form the next, the easier it becomes to walk away from our personal definitions and masques.

Going back to the video modem discovery, the linkage would seem to be : global economic activity leads to global warming. Global economic activity also leads to global culture. And all of these factors lead to a breakdown in the ability of local cultures i.e. belief systems, to reproduce themselves since the information/ meanings/ values they contain are distorted by noise/ randomness/ chaos. Therefpre the world is becoming more open to chaos. Therefore Chaos Magick should become both easier and more effective.

Holy Roman Empire
What I find fascinating is the possibility of looking at history as the complex interaction of exo-genetic structures. that 'ideas' (memes as some call them) compete for influence in the form of religions, empires, sciences, myths and other belief systems. So that, for example, the idea of the Roman Empire, its information structure, survived the barbarian influx. indeed so persuasive was its influence that the barbarians attempted to imitate it, to revive it as the Holy Roman Empire (encouraged by the Christian church of Rome). But what emerged was a new a form, a new idea - medieval Europe. Or the way the Persian (sassaniain) Empire shifted the centre of Islam away from Arabia to Bhagdad. Or the USA's attempt to revive the Democracy of Athens.

The carnival
The attempt to decode this hidden text (or texts) is covered by the second grouping of sources for this article. Here the approach is more literary, psychological and anthropological. Science is here a cultural artefact. Scientific abstraction, suggests Julia Kristeva , derives from the structure of the Indo-European sentence. Language imposes a framework upon the world, so that any attempts at an objective description of reality is the pursuit of an illusion. Kristeva suggests the 'carnival', where the distinctions between performer and spectator dissolves, as an analogy for 'poetic discourse'. It is through poetic discourse that language and therefore ourselves are liberated from this illusion of objectivity.

Objectivity is often linked with rationality. It is useful to bear in mind Kristeva's suggestion when considering the problem of rationality which puzzles anthropologists. Why is it, they wonder, that the belief in magick is so widespread in non-western cultures? At one time it was explained as the existence of 'pre-logical thought' or 'primitive mentality'. But it became clear that the belief in magick coexisted with perfectly logical and rational behaviour. In other words, 'primitive' people hunt, grow crops, build houses, conceive and raise children quite successfully. Pre-scientific cultures built large enduring structures such as stone circles, pyramids and temples, navigated oceans, developed complex irrigation schemes and generally were sufficiently competent to convince many naively credulous people today that they were gifted with superhuman or extra-terrestrial powers and intelligence.

For French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl the issue of rationality was critical. How could a witch be a leopard or a crocodile, or sleep at the bottom of a river. Or rather how could anyone believe such claims? The mystical world, says Levy -Bruhl, is unintelligible and induces in our minds sensations of 'discomfort, confusion and perplexity'. He cites Eienstein as a witness, quoting an article in which Einstein discussed the comprehensibility of the world.

What is a world which is not rational and intelligible ? It is a world which is imaginary, arbitrary, fabulous, not real. A world which would not be comprehensible (begreiflich) is senseless (sinloss) and could not be real.
(From Zeitschrift fur Freie Deutsche Forshung, Paris, 1938)

Levy- Brhul was trying to use Eistein to illuminate his difficulties with African Tribal ('primitive') thought. Eistein, however, was troubled not by the unreality of mystical worlds, but by the problem of quantum descriptions of reality. Or rather the loss of any objective reality. Eisntein was discussing Physik und Realitat and quoting Kant's dictum that it would be absurd to postulate an entirely incomprehensible universe. But, as we shall see, this is precisely the problem we must face, since the universe / reality postulated by science is no longer comprehensible by a culture and language still rooted in the sense-perceptions of a Newtonian reality.

Meanwhile, back to the anthropologists in Africa.

Paganism- the enemy
The scene is a village in Northern Rhodeasi (now Zambia) It is 1953. Two female missionaries have come to visit the anthropologists, fund-raising for the local hospital. Unfortunately, the anthropologists have just taken part in a 'native ritual' and a headless chicken surmounts a shrine outside their hut.

I saw the two faces staring fascinated at what had been planted between them and the door. A change came over their faces; a decision to ignore what they saw, and with controlled expressions, the ladies slipped past the bloody shrine, holding their blue dresses so that the spikes of the sticks would not catch them.

After accepting the donation, the good missionaries left.

The doctor recoiled involuntarily as she came into the open. As I watched I saw her acknowledge her enemy - the Paganism against which she had fought all her life - with one glance of hate.

The anthropologists were a husband and wife team, Edith and Victor Turner. The husband observed the ritual which lasted for several days, whilst the wife took part. At one stage she found her status reversed. One of the African women played the role of European in the ritual of 'dinner' Edith tried to observe, everyone was shocked.

Europeans do not like to be watched while they are eating. the Turnaround was dizzying me. I was no longer European, Manyosa was.

The ritual worked
For Edith Turner, it was sufficient that the ritual worked. 'It cured', and she went on to have the two children she had asked for in the ritual. For victor the issue was different. he felt the need to 'extend the limits of the sayable by active contemplation of the unsayable'. And to recognise 'the universal fact of human experience that reality is continuous, while language and the systems which depend upon it, are discontinuous'.

This leads on to structuralism, which attempts to uncover the structure of human thought. one method is through the analysis of myths and their relationship to language. It does not matter, for example, that the mythology of the shaman does not correspond to an objective reality. The myth 'makes it possible to undergo in an ordered and intelligible form a real experience that would otherwise be chaotic and inexpressible'.
The main-man ion structuralism is Claude Levi-Strauss. he was influenced in his approach partly by linguistics, but also by what was then called 'cybernetics' back then in the late 40ies and early 5oies. this led him to develop an analysis of myth based on binary pairs of oppositions, such as nature is to culture as raw is to cooked (or as kinship is to marriage).

Almost touching
At which point the two textual groupings almost touch. The linguistic theories Levi-Strauss elaborated and transferred to the analysis of culture were derived and from Jakobesn and de Saussure. These theories were independently elaborated by Chomsky in a sufficiently ;scientific' form to be compatible with Information Theory and linked the structure of language with genetic structures. In particular the ability of both languages and genes to be 'creative', to say new things, to evolve new species. But the breakthrough never happened and structuralism remains a magnificent edifice built on rather shaky linguistic foundations.
The underlying problem is between a literal and a poetic understanding of reality. The literal approach is legalistic. the attempt is to arrive at truth by excluding ambiguity. Noisefree information, exact replication, a set of universal laws eternally valid and an assumption of reality as in some way static and fixed. the model derives from monotheism and still haunts much of science. This should not be entirely surprising since what is now called science began as natural philosophy, the attempt to know the mind of God the Creator through the study of creation. By unravelling the mysteries of this world as created by God, one could hope better to understand the purpose of god and so better serve these purposes.

The poetic approach, however, depends upon ambiguity. Reality, the world, is acknowledged to be complex, even contradictory. The quest is not to uncover the single truth or the Immutable law, but rather to explore an ever changing carnival of multiple truths and many laws. Uncertainty is not an evil to be eliminated, but a possibility to be lived.

Non-visual imagination
I suspect that is why Eisntein was forced to fall back on Kant in his rejection of a world which is neither intelligible or rational. His concern was that quantum theory seemed to undermine any belief in a solid fundamental 'reality' which could be scientifically (i.e. rationally) established. he hoped that quantum theory was only a temporary position in a long-term progress to some more coherent 'grand unified theory' which would justify his faith in a non-random universe.

The difficulty is that the world of the physicists still 'radically resists the visual imagination and is fundamentally alien to the human mind. Science is now beyond public knowledge'.

Or so a review of The Matter Myth: Towards a 21st Century Science claims. The Newtonian world view, with its clockwork billiard balls remains the universe of common-sense, of rationality even, since visual metaphors shape the way we think, and our belief in an 'objective' or observable reality. Why not extend Levi-Strauss' insight into shamanism so that it is science that is now the possessor of a myth-of-meaning, a language which 'makes it possible to understand in an ordered and intelligible form a real experience which would otherwise be chaotic and inexpressible'? A language of myth which does not need to conform to objective reality. An objective reality which we are no longer able to believe in.?

Language mirrors reality
There is reality as our senses perceive it, a familiar world of solid objects, rocks, houses, plants, animals, cars, people etc. This in turn influences our language, made up of words to represent what we see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and words to describe inner states - thoughts, emotions, ideas.
This system moves round and rounds, improving the language / reality match via ideas like mathematics and reality until... reality no longer matches our descriptions of it. The world has become stranger than we think, or even than we can think. Human culture is a language / reality learning system. but now...

As the system becomes chaotic, strictly by virtue of its unpredictability, it generates a steady stream of information. Each new observation is anew bit. This is a problem for the experimenter trying to characterise the system completely. he could never leave the room, the flow would become a continuous source of inspiration.

Our innate assumption as a species is that reality is ordered. Night follows day, moons wax and wane and so on. Even our mystical worlds, despite Levy- Bruhl, are essentially ordered places. But what if reality was a 'continuous source of information', an expression of chaos containing not the absence of order, but infinite orders, which our sense-organs reduce to the limited ordering of our familiar world?

One result would be in the link between reality and language/ culture. A chaotic reality would begin to generate chaotic languages and hence cultures. Indeed we have created 'continuous sources of information', through 24 hour news networks and the global stock market which links trading centres around the world's time zones. Surely these information networks are as much part of our world as the more familiar sense perceptions of Newtonian reality? They may be intangible, but they are powerful forces which are shaping the physical reality of our cities, as the huge office block called Canary Warf in London's docklands illustrates. (Frankfurt possess a similar erection).

Reality is chaos
However these are only surface expressions of a chaotic reality. To experience the essence requires an act of magick, in this case an invocation of Tiamat. Tiamat is appropriate since 'she is the raw and chaotic energy of the universe itself before consciousness divides and classifies it'. As such Tiamat is 'perhaps the most difficult of all god-forms to work with... the mind will tend to react against Tiamat since it cannot grasp her'

I am that which cannot be known for in speaking my name you destroy my essence
My power lies in words unspoken, sounds unutterable and gestures unmade.
I am the roar that is not and the silence that is.
Tanith Livingston

Enuma Elish
In the myth, the destruction of Tiamat by Marduk is equated with the creation of the world. Out of the watery abyss is made a solid world, by means of division, separation. The act of creation is an assertion of human consciousness as power in itself. The beginning of history. 50000 years on we once more face Tiamat,. However we cannot see her, she is a reality 'beyond the visual imagination' or can we describe her, since our languages, our systems of thought and belief, exist only in the physical space within her body. If 'science' is no longer able to communicate with our collective reality (public knowledge), then we have reached the limits of that reality.

Entropy and culture
To try and pass beyond the limits of human-defined reality via magick is disconcerting and disturbing. It is also vitally important. Life exists in the form of what Prigogine terms 'dissipative structures'. Life forms absorb low entropy energy and discharge high entropy energy. This is a constant process. Human cultures are the products of life and consciousness and as such must absorb a continuous steam of information from their environments. To the extent that they can successfully absorb fresh information, cultures grow and expand, change and evolve.

But should a culture fail to do this, should fresh information be rejected as being too strange or contradictory or absurd, the culture will cease to evolve, will become static and may even collapse. If, as I suspect, Western, rational, scientific culture has begun to do this, to turn in on itself by rejecting its self-generated insights, then we can begin to understand the attraction of magick. In particular of Chaos Magick.
By consciously seeking out sources of chaos - continuous streams of information- the Chaos Magickian maintains the continued evolution of human culture. Not out of altruism , but out of enlightened self-interest, since a dynamic culture provides a more stimulating environment than a static or declining one. We choose to define our humanity not on the basis of our genetic or cultural inheritance, but on the basis of our creative potential. Thus we perceive Tiamat not as a solidified world of dead matter , but in her chaotic beauty, coiling and uncoiling in the abyss of the quantum ocean all around us, yet equally within us. This culture may no longer be able to visualise a reality it perceives as too chaotic. But our truth is not limited to mere observation. It is rooted in the direct experience of reality as Chaos. Chaos is not the absence of Order, rather it is the simultaneous existence of all possible Orders. The ordering of reality that humanity perceives is an artefact of limited consciousness. To expand the limits, to expand the sphere of conscious intelligence is no more and no less than our fate.

There is no conclusion to a continuous flow of information. Successive editions of New Scientist (25 Jan and 1 Feb 1992) suggest i. that carbon dust molecules falling from space were an important source of the molecules that gave rise to life and ii. the same carbon molecules play a role in the formation of stars and hence black holes. Black holes in turn contain 'singularities' which give birth to new universes, which by Darwinian evolution, leads to universes rich in black holes and carbon dust molecules.
Thus the information which encodes us, DNA, shares its origin with the information which encodes and evolving universe. Threads of Chaos, the Coils of Tiamat, join us with the stars. The magick of Chaos gives us the ability to experience and become a continuous flow of information, even if the limitations of language prevent us from being able to share with others the fierce ecstasy of such a gnosis. So magick exists beyond the limits of reason. Not incomprehensible, merely inexpressible.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a very interesting text and very much of its time but I disagree with as much of it as I agree with, and from a number of different angles, so its hard to write a single comment. So I think I'll just make a few brief challenges in seperate comments for you to pick up on if you wish and see what develops.

Kao23 :)

7:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, firstly I find basing your critique on Post Modern Social Anthropology a strange position to take on Magick. The two have a very different logical, metaphysical and ontological assumptions, and both are pseudo-sciences of equal value, so privileging one over the other, begs the question and distorts the other doesn't it?

To take Social Anthropology as your foundation negates the value of Magick doesn't it?

Why not do a critique of Social Anthropology in terms of Magick? Especially as you were writing for a Magickal publication.

Is it due to a lack of confidence in Magick?

8:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do however make some fascinating points on the ambiguous nature of cultural meaning and the indeterminacy of translation. As well as the way dominant forms emerge in this play of meaning. And I like the way its related on to the generation of social reality.

This is the positive side of post structural thought. However, aren't you also making the post modern error? You're assuming that absence of a ground of ontological reality beyond the cultural reality. In the same way we are said to have an access to reality only through language? So language structures are said to falsify our sense of objectivity? This just seems to relativize everything, with all the attendant problems that entails.

I would agree we have no unmediated access to reality, but I would't agree language is the only mediator or even the most foundational.

Or mental categories for instance seem to be prior to language.

Also there are two forms of objectivity that may be present here. One is the reality that is being represented which presumably has some correspondence with the representation.

The other is the real possibility that our representations shape the ontology in a partially Idealist way. A stronger objectification.

Reality isnt a free-floating set of ideas though, its a changable objective continuum isn't it?

8:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally for now a simpler point.

The Cultural Relativistic mode of Multiculturalism is a bit of a weak and dangerous stance isnt it?

We want to respect all cultures but don't we need to respect them by assuming they reflect some shared objectivity too? And don't all cultures thus have a unique objective standpoint too?

I think the Greeks ARE the foundation of European Culture, for good and ill, but I think though they obtain ideas from Egypt they used them in a unique way and created an original cultural set not found in Egypt or easily derivable from it. So Egypt isnt the origin point its a completely
different culture.

This is not to say our Greek culture is superior or truer as over sensitive PC liberals might fear, but simply to say it was better at producing the kind of civilisation we now enjoy. Which is not all that great a civilisation.

So perhaps cultural imperialism still lies behind liberal PC dogma.

If the Egyptians had of invaded Greece we may have had a very different culture, perhaps better in some ways and worse in others?

8:37 am  

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