You’ll never guess what I did today.
You’ll never guess what I did today.
I’m reading Chomei’s Essays in Idleness. It reads like a Buddhist monk version of Jerome K. Jerome’s Idler. He complains about the way people wear their hats these days, appreciates a woman for complaining that he forgot to mention the new snowfall in a letter, and generally just wastes his time writing about wasting his time.
It abstracts out easily, though. He is still a Buddhist monk, though he sort of hints at never intending anyone else to see these writings. He talks about how things are ephemeral, and how one should set one’s eyes on Nirvana and away from Earthly problems and pleasures. But he certainly has his own pleasures, like moon viewing and reading books.
I once knew someone who characterized Buddhism in this way (he had a minor in Buddhist studies, so probably he knew a little about it): Buddhism doesn’t say the cookie is bad. It doesn’t say you shouldn’t have the cookie. It says it’s bad if you want the cookie when you don’t have one. You should be able to go without the cookie. Enjoy the cookie, but don’t be tempted into pining for the cookie, or running out and buying more.
Chomei goes even further. He talks about a monk who eats taro root all the time, even during sermons, and a folk tale about a civil servant who eats two white radishes every morning – and who is saved by two strangers from robbers who explain they are the radishes he has placed so much faith in for so long. So sometimes food is good, even to excess. How could we possibly figure out when it’s OK? Chomei seems to say it’s all about remembering we’re going to die, things are going to pass away, and reconciling with that. Everything else is just cookies.
This calligraphy is a line from the end of The Peripheral by William Gibson. It’s one of those overt moral statements that people can sometimes find frustrating. I’m surprised Gibson doesn’t do that more often – from what I understand he’s a fan of Victorian culture and literature (naturally, when I met him I forgot to bring that up; way to use that Victorian lit degree, me).
Anyway. The statement, boiled down, isn’t that odd or radical – it’s a traditional one, in its way. People aren’t “evil,” they’re just products of something, doing something, whatever. I recently had a student talk about how much an artist had obviously changed, because he ended his life helping his people and started it in Hitler’s luftwaffe. We (other students and I) could not get her to see that being in Hitler’s military does not automatically make one evil.
So that’s the sentiment here. But the way it’s phrased is very important. I dropped a word (sorry!). It goes like this, in full:
“It was always a mistake to believe those people were different, special, infected with something that was inhuman, subhuman, fundamentally other.”
The novel is all about people on two points of our technological spectrum interacting with one another. Over time they find they’re pretty much the same. This has a lot to do with a point Gibson makes over and over, and one I have had cause to bring up recently: our information technology is, in effect, a prosthetic memory, but that’s not new – books work that way. Papyrus worked that way (you get the point). Technology is not really changing us, it’s changing the Baudrillardian hyperreality we move in all the time. In effect, we live inside information – but given our reliance on our reality tunnels to interpret the world, we always did.
So the moral of this story, this novel, positioned perfectly like a Victorian triple-decker’s, is that you can’t tell if people are good or bad from their appearances. But really, it says you can’t decide if they’re “inhuman” or “subhuman.” Technology doesn’t really alter our humanity, it supplements that which is already there.
Earlier in the semester my students and I got into a discussion of what qualifies something as human (I love it when that happens). Eventually, after everyone else said their piece, I admitted to believing humans are storytelling animals. Even that’s questionable, with some of the stuff we’ve learned recently about whales. But I don’t know of anything else that exports its memory like we do. And as that gets more sophisticated, we won’t necessarily look the same. We probably won’t have computer chips in our heads, but we will have something, somewhere, extending our range of data retrieval, social connectivity, so on. But that’s just where we’ve always been going, not some new place.
The post-human isn’t post-human, it’s just human. And it’s always nice to see that.