Unplugging from the devil's electric nervous system
On rediscovering various textures of investments
In a children’s book no longer in print called Arthur’s New Power (1978), Russell Hoban tells a quirky story about a family of very human-like crocodiles who, at the start of the tale, have so overused and overloaded the power circuit of their home that all the fuses have blown. When the father crocodile gets home to find the place bathed in dim candlelight and everyone left somewhat aimless by the power outage, he insists that they eat out for dinner. Seated around a table at a Chinese restaurant, they discuss their predicament and what to do about it. It’s this that leads Arthur, the youngest crocodile to search for a new power.
What is particularly striking in Hoban’s telling is the fact that, while every humanoid crocodile in the household is plugged into the grid, the household itself is fragmented. Every member of the family operates independently from everyone else. But then, when all the lights go out, the family itself is reconstituted. Artificial relations give way to real relations. I’m reminded in this reconnection of the family in the wake of collapsed artificiality of a passage from Walker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer, which has the main character Binx Bolling speaking to another character, Eddie Lovell. “As I listen to Eddie speak plausibly and at length of one thing and another—business, his wife Nell, the old house they are redecorating—the fabric pulls together into one bright texture of investments, family projects, lovely old houses, little theater readings and such. It comes over me: this is how one lives!”
What would it be like to live in a world consisting only of real relations? Can any of us be sure anymore what real relations are? I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway, that deception is one of the main themes of our time. If the propaganda class once was throwing tantrums over post-truth or fake news, especially when it has not supported their rather expensive media experiments, many of them are now especially paranoid about disinformation. Social media sites, for instance, are forums of fact-checking, even though such fact-checking is often distrusted by the wider public. No wonder. Fact-checking, after all, is deeply ideological. To get around this somewhat, X has quite cleverly provided a way for certain trending posts to be better contextualised to prevent the usual misunderstandings perpetuated by context collapse. But, in the end, these things don’t manage to quell the fears that people have that they are constantly being taken in by lies. Now and then, some event will make its way onto the internet only to be met with a barrage of theories and counter-theories. We end up with more information than we know what to do with and less understanding. It’s almost as if we end up knowing less than we did before the media event. As Byung-Chul Han argues in his book The Transparency Society, information does not correlate with understanding. Often, although this is not a rule without exceptions, the more information you have, the less you are likely to have any idea of what is going on. Turns out the age of big data is also the age of ignorance.
Turns out, the theory that we can supply more information to counter bad or false information is flawed because it fails to properly account for the medium itself and what the medium does to our relationship with reality. I don’t mean the medium of the internet, here, although it just happens to be the most noticeable manifestation in this age of information and ignorance. I mean the thing that the internet relies on for its very existence, namely electricity.
If the devil has always been the father of lies, electricity is his electric nervous system. This is hyperbolic language, I realise, but it mirrors the language of Christ who was the first to connect devilry with electricity: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” What a symbol this is! Illumination is suggested by the fall of the Accuser, certainly, but only for an instant and in a way that is isolated from the whole. Perhaps there is room for hyperbole if it will allow us to see what may otherwise remain hidden. In a time of ignorance, perhaps it is fitting that our speech ought to become a bit more apocalyptic.
It is helpful, if perhaps counterintuitive, to look at the work of Jean Baudrillard to get a sense of what this image might mean. In some ways, Baudrillard is the radical, nihilistic version of the Catholic thinker Marshall McLuhan, to whom I refer later. There are, indeed, many overlaps in what these two late public intellectuals have said. But Baudrillard is more extreme. While McLuhan suggests a perspective that is not entirely entangled in the world of electricity, Baudrillard offers a kind of phenomenology of the devil’s electric nervous system as if it is a thing that cannot ever be escaped. He examines the lightning, so to speak, from within the lightning. He shows us what it means, at least up to a point, to be completely overwhelmed by the distorting effects of an electrified world.
He suggests, most famously, that the symbolic system of signs we use to make sense of the world gets so caught up in the flow of electricity, in its vortex of repetition and recycling and reconfiguring, that this very symbolic system grows utterly indeterminate. We find it difficult, even impossible, to know where ideas come from or what they could mean going forward. Signs become divorced from the world, removed from their incarnate origin. It should therefore be no surprise that we might end up with no principle to guide us in how we make sense of things.
A recency bias takes over to ensure that any sign we happen to be fixating on right now, as we overwhelm ourselves with the next barrage of meaningless information in the 24-hour news cycle, becomes absolutely everything. What is significant is no longer measured by any hierarchy of meaning or explained with any interpretive depth but is determined by fashion and fixation alone; that is, by what we have in our heads only, rather than what we are living with. The realm of meaning becomes the realm of pure simulation. The world is flattened into an image on a screen, even if it happens to be a very complicated one. Signs can no longer be trusted to have any enduring referential value. Meaning is no longer produced but only reproduced. Everything becomes a copy of a copy of a copy. But no reality behind any of the copies can be found.
Baudrillard takes his ideas as far as they can go. He doesn’t hold back. At the risk of sounding like a madman, he presents us with the notion that, in the vortex of distorted and reproduced signs, we lose any sense of the distinction between the fake and the real. Reality has been murdered and there is no way to resurrect it. It can’t be accessed as a way for us to get reorientated in the total simulation, he believes. The realm of electronic media has no outside and no beyond. The transcendent has been denied any plausibility. But power failures can still happen, can’t they? Electricity and the signs it flings around the globe are by no means self-supporting. The devil’s electric nervous system is still a creature, which means he depends on the very Creator and the creator’s reality for his existence.
In one way of reading Baudrillard, he’s essentially saying that, when reality shows up, the media vortex is so powerful that the reality of the real is effectively neutralised. Offering a fact or context to counter any lie easily becomes just another sign in the sign system, and so just another way to lose touch with the real. We may recognise the truth for a moment but the moment passes almost instantly. Like. Subscribe. Move on. Another torrent of signs will come our way whether we want it to or not. We end up with unreality as the sign system floods our senses. The point remains that we have no way to tell when facts obscure the truth in their decontextualised, disembodied form because this decontextualised, disembodied form is the new normal. We only have hints and guesses.
The trouble, as McLuhan realised, is that the medium invites us to conceive of the world in a discarnate fashion. McLuhan’s realism, rooted in Thomistic metaphysics, is a better answer to all of this deception than Baudrillard’s answer, which amounts to little more than a sort of despairing acceptance of endemic deception. The medium itself is the message, says McLuhan, much to the annoyance of people who want him to be less poetic. He means that the medium counts more than any content, which is just another medium swallowed up by the dominant medium. Electricity shapes us more than any fragment of a fact or falsehood in the turbulent and confusing sign system. Arguably, electricity demands the deterioration of meaning.
The main message of electricity, as McLuhan suggests by using the lightbulb as its archetype, is total change. Darkness is erased just like that. You get home at night. You switch on a light. And as far as your eyes and body are concerned, it’s still daytime, even though it isn’t. At one level, this miniature inversion of day and night is quite the opposite of the truth. Does this make electricity evil? Well, not in any simple sense. As St. Thomas would say, being as such is good. That electricity has existence makes it, as such, good. But when any being becomes more than what it is, in its very nature, good is warped. Evil, we should remember, is not the ontological other of the good but its corruption and distortion. Evil has no being of its own, after all, but relies always on the good.
So, of course, in one way, you’re lying to your eyes about the time of day when you switch that light on at night. But what is really at issue here, as McLuhan’s way of looking at things helps us to see, is one of scale and proportion. The trouble is, quite apart from our conscious awareness, we mistake the lightning for the sunlight; we mistake the gnostic universe within the electric nervous system for wholeness. Most significantly, electricity, more than any other medium or technology we use, distorts our relationship with the intimate and the distant. It does this precisely because of its discarnate form. What is far comes close when it should remain far. What’s close becomes distant when it should remain close.
In the electric world, we attend to matters that have nothing to do with us. In the electric world, we are distracted by notifications and emails and all kinds of other things, when we should be paying attention to what is closest. Baudrillard proposed that the simulacrum can become so totalising that we lose contact even with the distinction between the truth and the falsehood. McLuhan allows for the same possibility but also allows for a remedy that precedes the distortion. He allows for the restoration of scale and proportion. This is not a simple thing to achieve, given that we are immersed in a highly technologised world. Remove one distortion of scale and another is likely to throw us out of whack in a different way.
But perhaps there is at least one way to consider, all the better to correct, the distorting effect of electricity. It is by no means to explain everything that it does to us or to suggest that noticing this is a cure-all. But if there were one place to start to get to the distinction between truth and falsehood that Baudrillard believes we have lost, it would be, to my mind, in what I’m about to say. When you turn on a light, especially a bright light, notice how sharp the contrasts are between where the light touches and where it doesn’t. In the daytime, powered by the sign, light is more vignetted, and the gradations between light and dark even in shadows are subtler. This is not what artificial light does. Flash photography reveals this clearly: reality is flattened out. Shadows are sharp, clear, and distinct. This is a helpful analogy for what electricity does in general. It throws some things out into consciousness but at the expense of the subtle variations and disclosures that shadows and shades provide. In the sharp light of the electric screen, for instance, I see what is on my flat screen with great vividness. But everything else in my world is, in a significant sense, gone. It can sometimes practically disappear from my mind.
This is why even something as ingenious as the context provided by certain posters on X tends to fail in an ultimate sense. It offers the bright, artificial light of a dialectical context. But the gradations and nuances of reality as we experience it remain out of the question. We are therefore still pulled into any given factoid or bit of information, away from our daily lives. But this is only truly noticeable in a power failure.
For well over a year now, South Africa has had power failures. Every. Single. Day. There are reasons for this but the main one is that our government has been lying, and eventually their lies have caught up with them—and us. Lies are told for the sake of instant believability. Truth is told for the sake of future believability. Well, the South African government has made claims to be running things honestly when what they’ve been doing is siphoning money from the only power provider into their personal bank accounts. Much-needed maintenance simply wasn’t done, among other things.
We have ways to cope with this, given that we have all been born into a world in which it has been taken for granted that electricity is a normal thing. So we use rechargeable lights and additional power supplies like generators and solar panels. I have sat, like the crocodile family in Hoban’s parable and like so many other South Africans and wondered what the solution to this loss of power is. And yet, in many ways, it’s become easier to see that electricity itself is a kind of problem. So in recent times, I have been trying to do more work offline. Just pen and paper like in the old days. And when there’s little light, I allow sleep to hit me more naturally. I’ve tried to see what it’s like to be less reliant on the devil’s electric nervous system. Admittedly, there’s no way I have the perfect rhythm yet but I’ve started to notice a shift in my perceptual framework away from the gnostic detachments that so readily extend my senses and sensitivities far beyond any human capacity. I’m no Luddite but there is a kind of wisdom in Luddism that we can all learn from.
And the wisdom, especially concerning electricity, is this. Electricity represents a world of rationality and rationalisation. It provides a world of data and information and transparency. But when it is gone, and I mean properly gone—I mean, when the magnetic pull of the lightning and lighting no longer captures our attention—it is easier to recover a sense of the mysterious and the inexplicable. The gradations and proportions and subtleties of the real return to consciousness.
But then, there’s been something surprising that has made itself known to me as I have thought about what electricity means for faith. A sense of Incarnation is central to a proportional, healthy faith. A sense of the nuances of the real is good not just at the level of some wider perception of material things but is good at the level of perception itself, including of spiritual realities. Arguably, electricity is a kind of fake spirituality: light at the cost of illumination. Yes, this is still hyperbolic speech and I know that it’s not the whole story. But it is worth pondering in our age of information, disinformation, and ignorance. What if the lie is not in some explicit text but in the grossly disproportionate lives we are so tempted to live by the devil’s electric nervous system?
A sense of faith is easier to locate, I have found, when I am not fixating on the specific vividness that a screen or a lightbulb is bringing to consciousness. Even reading my bible on a phone screen somehow has the effect of keeping me somewhat at a distance from a certain “texture of investments.” Electronic technology, in general, seems to me to force a certain shrunken world upon us. It squeezes the world into a set of restricted expectations. What is deceptive in this is that it gives us data and information. These may not even appear to us as falsehoods because they do reflect something about reality. But the deception is one of scale and proportion. But to see this particularly clearly, we need the eyes of faith. And the eyes of faith are often best exercised when you’re not looking at the world in a flash of lightning. The eyes of faith are often best exercised when you’re wandering around in the dark. Faith is the new power. But in the electrified world, it may look a lot like powerlessness.1