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Canetti’s Insight

In August 1945, the novelist Elias Canetti wrote the following in his diary:

A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true, but we supposedly didn't notice. Our task would now be to find that point, and as long as we didn't have it, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction.

Commenting on the passage above, Jean Baudrillard writes:

What could be said about this blind point of reversal, where nothing is either true or false any longer and everything is drifting indifferently between cause and effect, between origin and finality? Is it reversible or irreversible? Can we return to the point where the line of history was broken and we were projected to the other side of the mirror? Can we survive the Metastases of the Real as we survived the Death of God? Are we dedicated to survival, or to revival?

Looking at the world today, is there anything to suggest a yearning on the part of humanity to return to a pre-simulated, pre-virtualized existence? Is there even nostalgia for the modus vivendi and axiologies of old? Is it still too early to answer Baudrillard’s third question in the negative, to say that no point of return to the “historical real” is possible and that the road ahead lies in what Nietzsche once described as an “infinite nothingness”?

That our collective technophilia might be called to account in some public arena, that it might be interrogated by reflective thought and made to justify itself – such a prospect, if once expected of an enlightened society, would now be seen at the very least as chimerical. There is no public anymore, and there are relatively few citizens left who attach any value at all to the examined life. Enough time has passed that only a paucity would even know what Canetti and Baudrillard had in mind by the “disappearance of the real.” An ever-growing population of the young has only ever known the “real” as virtual reality, as the sum of so many screen effects, neural spikes, online experiences, and fragmented and fleeting social encounters.

Google’s chief technologist informs us that in a few years people will be uploading their brain to computers. The transition from fad to booming business will likely be swift, and the practice as routine to most of the world as updating a facebook page or answering a text message. No novelty of technology is considered a trespass anymore. The instinct of seemingly everybody is to make the accommodation to the latest upgrade and to own the latest prosthetic device, to carry on a way of life undisturbed by such questions as “Do I really need this?” or “What kind of person am I becoming?”

(January 2016)

NOTE: This article is the preface to a longer piece that will be published at a later date.

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