Friday, March 26, 2010

'Spook Country' and the Nature of Reality

William Gibson probes the nature of reality with far more acumen and style than I ever will possess, and yet, to some extent, we are pilgrims on the same path, venturing forward (and backward) into worlds of perception constructed by ourselves and by others, linked both by illusions and solid edifices, by technology and ritual, by habit and memory.

His primary subject in his fiction always has been technology and it has been said that in a sense, he is the father of 'Second Life', and all shared virtual realities in cyberspace. The seed sprang forth from his imagination perhaps to be caught and nurtured by other minds and finally brought into 'being', as far as anything in cyberspace can make any claim to 'be'.

In a recent work, 'Spook Country', a conceptual artist recreates historical moments at the locations where they occurred. His art exists only through the conduit of cyberspace. The work cannot be experienced unless you have the technology. Among other things, in Hollywood, he has re-created the death of River Phoenix, the heart attack of Fitzgerald... If some one had the technology and the co-ordinates, he or she could embark upon a virtual tour of Hollywood's celebrity trauma histories.

I am not a techie and thus cannot convey all the details, but it involves something akin to a GPS system and, as is the case in most of Gibson's fiction, there is far more to this than meets the eye. It is not a novel simply about the aspirations and accomplishments of an artist but is a rich tapestry where spies and politics are interwoven with Gibson's own musings about the essential nature of reality, a philosophical action novel as it were.

From 'Spook Country':

'The world we walk around in would be channels... and given what broadcast television wound up being, that doesn't sound so good. But think about blogs, how each one is actually trying to describe reality...

'But when you look at blogs, where you're most likely to find the real info is in the links. It's contextual, and not only who the blog's linked to, but who's linked to the blog...'

'We're all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn't need the goggles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are already doing it. But you can't just do the locative with your nervous system. One day you will. We'll have internalised the interface. It'll have evolved to the point where we will forget about it. Then you'll just walk down the street...'

In another chapter, he describes the altar of a woman who practices Santeria as follows:

'Her altar there was a maze of objects, charged with meaning. Vials of foul water, the half-assembled plastic kit of a Soviet bomber, a soldier's felt shoulder patch in purple and yellow, old bottles with bubbles trapped within their glass, air from days gone a hundred years or more. The things comprised a mesh, Juana said, about which the deiteis were more easily manifest.'

William Gibson appears to have an ongoing fascination with Santeria. The religion has been explored in earlier novels as well. The idea that there are 'two sides to the coin' where these deities are concerned is only part of it. For some reason, this particular religion has grown deep roots in his imagination. I have known Wiccans who became obsessed with Santeria. Raymond Buckland, who originally explored his own Northern pagan heritage became fascinated with Santeria as well.

Originally an African religion, it was imported to the Americas with slaves and there married with Roman Catholicism to create a new synthesis of deities and practices. Perhaps one reason why it appeals to Europeans is the way that it incorporates the symbols of European Catholicism (so influential in our civilisation for 2000 years) into a system of belief that is very primal.

The goddess Ochun adopts the persona of Our Lady of Charity, Le Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patroness of Cuba.

Ochun has been said to be 'the unseen mother at every gathering'. In the original Yoruba mythology, she was the sole female among the 16 original deities or forces. Without her participation, all attempts at creating the world were fruitless. Cuban tales of Ochun portray her, inter alia, as a woman who was willing to become a prostitute in order to recover her children. She is the primal driving force of fertility and of motherhood. She is the essence of beauty and harmony, mother of Elegba, the Trickster.

As Ochun, Our Lady of Charity assumes the mantle of St. Mary Magdalene to some extent. The sexual aspects of Our Lady in Christianity are suppressed. She is portrayed as the Eternal Virgin, pure and 'undefiled' by human sexual desire or experience. In the Santeria traditions, sexual energy is part of the power of the deity, akin to electricity. In fact, many of the rituals are designed to 'tap into' that energy.

Discussion of Santeria, however, was not my original intention. What interested me most about these two quotes in juxtaposition was the way that religion and magic mirrored the technology of cyberspace and virtual reality. This is a comparison that William Gibson has made in other novels as well.

A truly potent ritual links the believer with a spiritual 'network' that is far more than global in nature as it reaches upward and downward into all other realms, ensnaring the gods and other powers in its links. Or perhaps the Goddess could be perceived as the ever-weaving spider at the very centre of the web, and the believer catches hold of one of the sticky gossamer threads to become part of the construct that distributes power throughout the universe.

In his comment about blogs, he states that the reality contained in them is 'contextual', and that the real information is in the links. In other words, the creation of a post is nothing more than the portal through which writer and reader ultimate connects to the world. Nothing exists in vacuo.

In cyberspace, it is navigation that is the key to power. You can link to the internet and remain ignorant if you cannot find the right links, pinpoint the correct goals. The sheer volume of information in cyberspace can be as much of an obstacle to enlightenment as a blank page might be. The experts are those who possess the power of navigation and at speeds that are dazzling or mind-boggling.

The same is true with respect to magic or religion. Creating a sacred circle or space and conjuring a demon or power within it is only a beginning. Having the ability to control the power or to use it rather than being destroyed by it is the key to success or indeed survival in many cases. One could make a similar analogy with respect to the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Mind-altering experiences, whether drug-induced, ritually-induced or cybernetically-induced can be dangerous to a careless or inexperienced user.

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