BRING UNIVERSAL
A Dialogue with Fatima Lasay on the Process of Collaboration

 

Fatima Lasay is an artist, researcher and assistant professor of digital media and industrial design at the University of the Philippines. In 2000 and 2001, she organized the Digital Media Festival in Manila. Lasay has also curated a number of online exhibitions including "Geocentricity, The Earth as Center", and has been featured by a Fine Arts forum in "A Retrospective on the Digital Arts." The following dialogue between myself, in the U.S.A., and Fatima Lasay, in The Philippines, inaugurated our collaboration on "Being Universal," a literary/visual art project. As artists from different cultures who share an abiding interest in science, philosophy and comparative spirituality, our plan was to explore the notion of being with reference to extraterritoriality, and what is seen when imagination is relaxed into invisible realms. This dialogue wasrepresentative of an extensive and ongoing exchange of e-mails between us, in which we attempted to formalize the parameters of our project. Published in Leonardo Electroinc Almanac (Vol 10, No 6, June 2002), it begans with my editorial, "Troping the Pacific Rim."

"Perhaps in the next generation or two, a great artist from one of the cultures of the Pacific Rim will create the formative work for this new culture, to do for the Pacific what Homer did long ago for the Mediterranean world. This imagined masterpiece may not be literary, for it is hard to deny that the use of film, television and computer graphics has created a new sensibility that cannot be expressed in exclusively literary form." (William Irwin Thompson, "Pacific Shift," San Francisco, CA., 1985. p.109).

"The Pacific Rim is also known as the Ring of Fire. Containing 76 percent of the world's active and inactive volcanoes, it traverses my home in the Pacific Northwest, rising as evidence in a truncated Mount St. Helens that, 22 years ago, blew its top. From here, the Ring runs north to British Columbia, bending westward at Alaska, peppering the Aleutian Islands, along with Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, with fumaroles, down to Japan, the Philippines, Java, and New Zealand, turning east toward South America then north, where, in 1943, Popocatapetl and Paricutun suddenly rose from a placid cornfield in Mexico, bursting into mountains. Closing in on itself, the Ring snakes up North America's West Coast, a uroboros of sudden destruction and relentless creation, dancing the inevitable steps of the Hindu god Shiva. A.K. Coomaraswamy, the renowned scholar of Indian art, writes that Shiva 'Not merely (destroys) the heavens and earth . . . but the fetters that bind each separate soul.'"The disaster," wrote Maurice Blanchot, "takes care of everything."

"Thus we are joined by disruptively productive forces of our shared planet, a tectonic avant-garde flowing back to the very beginnings of hominid relationship with fire. Some anthropologists believe this fascination extends at least two and a half million years into the past, when lightning was perhaps seen as an angered god throwing jagged bolts of light that erupted into fire. Surviving because of our ability to turn even dangerous opportunities to our advantage, we learned to capture the effect, and later the cause. Recently, Pascal Simonet, at the University of Lyon, discovered that lightning strikes play a significant role in bacterial evolution, promoting genetic diversity by making cell membranes permeable, thus increasing the likelihood of gene-swapping, or 'horizontal transfer.' Closer at hand, Rodolfo Llinás, of New York University's School of Medicine, points out that 'all brain activity is basically electrical chattering between cells.' "I sing the body electric,' wrote Walt Whitman.

"Electricity also fires up computers, driving packets of information over the World Wide Web, fabricating web rings that invite disparate cultures into contributive electronic communities. With this in mind, I suggest that the "new sensibility" of which William Irwin Thompson speaks will be collaborative, and 'the formative work for this new culture,' perhaps including some 'masterpieces,' to morph the modernist trope, will be made by networked artists and writers linking the Pacific Rim. For them, the challenge in this third millennium is to embrace cyberspace as an opportunity not to appropriate but to breach cultural and linguistic barriers with equal signs and intonations; a circle, then, as Blanchot would say, 'bereft of a center.'"

-Joel Weishaus


FL: Being Universal does open interesting space and makes me think again about how I personally find the possibility of us working on this together as rather frightening, there being a world of difference between us! I liked your post on validation a great deal, probably because of, or in spite of, all existing or imagined differences, the idea of a "tradition" - a collaboration in thought - that crosses space and time. I figured that Being Universal would be a kind of "astral projection," not so much on the level of thought or the spirit but on [the level of] chemistry, biology - but how did your "projection" towards universal beings come about?

JW: It is a way for me to exit the Skull-House [1] and move from inner space to outer space. Then I realized (as you know, creativity is a thought trail) that I did not have to go that far: it may be [that] universal beings are all around us, and have been for thousands of years, existing on wavelengths that our brains cannot perceive. It "is what the English neurologist McDonald Critchley called a sense of presence. This is described as a feeling or impression, sometimes amounting to a delusion, that one is 'not alone.' There is a sense of presence of someone beyond the self." [2] This "beyond" has always interested me. The human brain interprets information with reference to the survival of the organism. But these parameters are changing, and just what it means to survive when you are the dominant species, the most dangerous on the block, needs to be re-thought. Fats, this may seem wacky, but looking at the political situation now, where it is heading, the tremendous military power in the hands of a philosophically immature nation, it may be that what are usually called "extraterrestrials" (and that I call universal beings or "UB"s) have to make their presence known to us soon to save us from ourselves.

FL: From this perspective, UBs could be grace. Thus, with some rethinking, this changes our reference from survival to redemption, indeed to save us from ourselves! In science fiction, these are aliens coming down at a G7 summit, which is wacky too. But how do you imagine this "presence" will (or has) manifest(ed) itself?

JW: The late Terence McKenna thought that they make themselves known when we enter non-ordinary states of mind. He was steadfast in the use of psychedelic drugs. But many other techniques have been discovered by shamans around the world over more than 30,000 years. Another researcher thinks they use the Internet, and there are times when I am reading my email that I think this is true. Maybe the insistent upgrading of powerful computers is driving us toward a more inclusive form of communication with Universal Beings. However, my suggestion is that UBs communicate through artists, and have done so since at least the time when Paleolithic cave art and other formats of primal rock art around the world were made. What we call the "muse" is really a symposium of UBs chatting to us, in whatever medium the artist chooses, or is chosen, to appropriate.

FL: I got your quote on being strange ("So to attempt to experience the strange, we need not become the strange; we need only to incur the risk of comprehending it." - P.C. van Wyck, "Primitives in the Wilderness," Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 1997, p.91). This reminds me of surrealist literature jaywalking towards absurdity, taking the risk but not sustaining permanent mental damage!

JW: We would not want that!

FL: That there is life on another planet? That there is life after death? There is some physiology behind delusion so perhaps the brain makes up its own affecting presence and pretends it does not know? On the journey out of the Skull House, how much of the "beyond" has been touched and how much remains to be "disinterred" on Being Universal?

JW: Whether or not these presences are fabricated by the brain - there is a surge of research into whether what we call "spirituality" is endemic to human neurophysiology, a cunning survival strategy. I would see this as a road along which the spirit travels, just as the Navajo people of the United States weave such a path into their rugs. As for what remains to be disinterred, let us think in terms of remains, a misreading that infers there had to be something.

FL: This seems like a case of science explaining away spirituality, does it not?

JW: Most neuroscientists working in this area are careful about giving the impression that they are trying to define the indefinable. Some even call themselves "religious." It is our need for transcendental experience that interests them.

FL: Their discoveries actually seem to be making the realms of the unknown smaller and smaller, but I do like the thought that this inward direction would later make us say that all positive knowledge we have accumulated thus far is "like straw!" (the words of St. Thomas Aquinas who, near the end of his life, had stopped writing, as everything he had written suddenly seemed to him "like straw" [3]). It is not that his ideas were not viable, but that they paled in comparison to his transcendental experience.

JW: Straw is dry and brittle. You cannot weave with it.

FL: I am glad you mentioned weaving, which also finds use in the Internet, the Web. It seems that the warp structures, the oscillating and mesmerizing repetitive work, delivers the weaver to a non-ordinary state. Weaving seems also a technology and medium well suited to engaging and communicating visual and ritual forms unapprehended in textual terms or other artforms.

JW: One thinks of Penelope weaving every day and undoing her work every night, in a ploy to fend off her suitors until Odysseus returns. But he never did, you know; the Hero (I use this term as a metaphor for the brain) is never the exact person twice, just as repetition is never an exact trace. This is why each Zen master answers the same question differently, although they are all fishing in the same pond. I wonder if exactitude has any reality in nature; or, perhaps, there is a tolerable range of error, so small that we do not have the ability to measure it.

FL: Maybe [the question is] not so much to measure but to search for patterns, also a form of measure that admits a discrepancy. Pattern searching, it seems, is a human obsession it seems, that eventually leads to a cycle and then a center. I do not believe in exactitude in nature but I do believe in patterns and in a certain degree of repetition that is manifested as symmetry, for example. I believe in cycles, too, just as in Yi augury, corresponding the profoundest realities of life with the accuracy of the four seasons. The Universal Being seems to be also a measure of something. Do you suppose the parietal lobe sleeps when we are immersed in the Internet, which makes this "inclusive form of communication" a sort of meditation, entering into the same religious sense of transcendence? This suddenly brings to mind the electronic archetype of the man who wears his brain outside his skull, his nervous system spread out across the electronic networks of the world. Then imagine having your parietal lobe permanently impaired, so you become forever detached from yourself and are "one with God."

JW: This may be more like acute schizophrenia than spirituality! When we are immersed in anything, not just the Internet - reading, watching a movie, having sex or meditation, the parietal area is dim, and one loses reference to where he or she is in space, and to oneself - Freud's "oceanic feeling."

FL: It is interesting how people have devised ways to control or simulate these without being actually immersed, the hallucinogenic and now electronic being the most pop. Like the shaman, whose medium is the soul, being the active or passive host of mediating with the spirit world. I am curious, and just might as well ask, how is your relationship with your Muse/UB coming along? I ask this alongside the fact that you have used various artistic media and now predominantly digital media and the Internet, which has tribalizing power.

JW: There was a period of four years in my life when I could not write; I could not go any further with the modernist poetry I had been writing for many years, work that was almost indistinguishable from that of many other poets. It was a depressing experience, a very dark night. Through steps I will not go into here (they are in "Reality Dreams," [4] my autobiography) I returned to a practice I had done before, but had given up to write: sculpting. Working with clay and wood again, shaping a world with my hands, turned out to be very important. I realized that language processes through my fingertips - I am not orally expressive. If it was not for the typewriter, the keyboard, I would never have been a writer. And when I finally returned to writing, I was no longer a poet, but an experimental prose writer - cutting out sentences, paragraphs, pasting them back in - shaping texts rather than laying them out. So that when, a few years later, I purchased my first computer, it was a natural move. My Muse, in effect, never deserted me. Nor I her.

FL: My Shaman and I have a very strained relationship right now, as I insist on accuracy and he wants ambiguity; he must be blind and he says I am lame. But to engage in the imaginary requires a certain ambiguity, so he wins, for now. On the horizon I see a common ground on which we might work out our differences - the aural, as the sense of hearing is the theological organ of faith, and the algorithmic accuracy of resonance moving across scales, is also there.

JW: There are "certain medieval theories that Christ was conceived through the ear of the Virgin Mary. The angel of the Annunciation appeared and told her she would conceive and bear a child; some theologians took that to mean Christ was supernaturally conceived through the word entering by the ear, and that is called the conceptio per aurem, conception by the ear [5]." However, like Michelangelo, I prefer the hands, the fingertips, as synapses.

FL: I was told that sculptors make exceptional painters. In your case, sculpture seems to have changed the way you see written media. This could also mean simply that creativity may exist but does not flourish in a vacuum, that the tactile will always be important in order to flourish in the age of the virtual. Children are allowed to go around barefoot, as it is believed they grow up more creative; discalced nuns in all their charity forget they get hungry. Language processed through the fingertips. How would Being Universal now be manifested, with lessons learned from "Reality Dreams" and "Skull-House"?

JW: "Reality Dreams" was a sort of summing up to that point, a gathering in. "Inside the Skull-House" was movement through a particular area of one's being. "Being Universal" is a turn outward, opening to the implausible. It is more abstract, slippery and, I hope, humorous. It is also a collaboration between you and I and (  ).

FL: I have been reading about, of all things, divine illumination, and found this: "A recent biography of the Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Nash describes his long period of mental illness, during which time he held various odd beliefs such as that extraterrestrials were recruiting him to save the world. How could he believe this, a friend asked during a hospital visit, given his devotion to reason and logic? 'Because,' Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, 'the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously [6].'"

JW: This brings up whether some forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are not what we think they are, because of our need to grip ordinariness in order to accomplish our workaday stuff. However, where you have sanity you also have insanity, which sometimes assumes the guise of the sane. There is a story presently in the newspapers here of a woman who murdered her children, and her defense lawyer has to convince the jury that she was insane! (The English psychologist R.D. Laing used art as a method for patients to find their way of the kind of schizophrenic state from which Nash suffered. Of course there is a school of art by mental patients, championed by Jean Dubuffet. But that is not my interest. I am looking to redeem what it means to be sane.)

FL: Yes, to survive, which is allowed by the legal system. Then a system of sanatoriums is meant to redeem her eventually.

JW: I think the state would rather put her to death. "An eye for an eye" is very strong in the American psyche. "Frontier justice," it is called. My favorite bit of wisdom comes from an old TV series titled "The Highlander." This being was of an immortal race whose members could only die if their heads were cut off. They were usually trying to kill each other, as with this act they were able to appropriate the spirit, the power, of the departed, until, in the end, there was supposed to be only one left - a supreme being. However, the Highlander was not only a great warrior but had also, over his long life, gained some wisdom. Anyway, I remember one line that he said: "There is no justice, only mercy." An extraordinary insight.

FL: This "frontier justice" is what seems absent in the Philippines; mercy or folly, here convicts are elected into office and decades of oppression forgiven and forgotten. Justice writes edicts and mercy seems to send us into oblivion, which we prefer, because we had leapfrogged into post-literacy. Of course, both mercy and folly have their (mis)advantages, like alms for mendicancy. Perhaps mercy is best in the domain of the Highlander, the immortal, than the human.

JW: Or the "posthuman"?

FL: What could posthuman be when human evolution has halted? I just got a news post via e-mail, how the old tenets of natural selection have allegedly stopped because everybody's genes are making it to the next generation, at least in the West, where lifestyles and medicine have kept virtually everybody alive. Hmmm. . . maybe this explains philosophical immaturity and is what gives ammunition to world domination. If UBs date back from the Paleolithic, they had really better be here now!

JW: The genes of everyone who chooses to reproduce have always made it to the next generation. It is mutations that are the dynamic aspect of evolution, and that continues. In evolutionary theory, the egg comes before the chicken. If anything, because of pollution, there are probably more mutations than before, more creativity, though maybe less viability. We just do not see this in the short-term. The posthuman, if I understanding Kate Hayles [7] correctly, has to do with prostheses; value-added. I have a problem with the "post" because of the immaturity, the neoteny, of which you speak. Do we want to be posthuman before we have a mature sense of what it means to be human? The posthuman is a step toward being universal, while I think - a point of my project - that we have the tools, we do not yet have the wisdom. Like with nuclear weapons, we are playing with fire. But like the brightest scientists, we cannot help but play.

FL: The word "post" must be a location from which we just begin to understand something. Sometimes I imagine that there must have been a gaping discontinuity in human history to account for such a discrepancy between our tools and our wisdom. Do you think that Being Universal might step into the danger of homogenizing what it means to be human, discarding our integral idiosyncrasies?

JW: This "we," or "our" is bothersome, a fictive collective within which a species gathers itself. You say that the Internethas "tribalizing power," but is not a creative collaboration a sort of ping-pong match that consists of each player individually hitting the ball? Or are we beginning to tap into a different way of experiencing ourselves, one more like C.G. Jung's "collective unconscious"?

FL: Must be, as now we are conscious of the unconscious and we are working with media that has the speed and malleability of thought. Creative collaborations are difficult, though seem to be a given in networked communications, with individualism and tribalism tugging at opposite ends of the rope. With this dialogue, perhaps the next time we say "we" the UBs will always be there!

JW: I think we are coming close now. I would restate "UBs will always be there" as: They are the third that are almost always there.

FL: Earlier, I mentioned I felt rather frightened about this collaboration; I am not afraid of doing work that speaks my own culture but to deal with a project that attempts to envision universality is something else. In fact, I cannot attempt to envision UBs unless this culture fades somewhere into the background, which is highly unlikely.

JW: You recently sent me an interview [8] with a professor at The University of the Philippines who says that he sees angels, which makes me feel that individual seers are not very important, except for their testimonials, and that what must be regarded is what the species can see as a whole. That is, what is wholly revealed, what can be agreed upon. So that, when one says, as he does, "In my reality God created the universe," I become suspicious, as he is working within his cultural conditioning. Also, the fact that he saw an angel when he was sitting with his family, but that he was the only one who could see the emanation. "They just saw me turn pale," he says. "But then it just hit me - all of a sudden I knew intuitively what it was. No, he didn't have wings. What he had was this swirling colored aura around him, still does, and it seems like there's this light bulb inside him. He's just glowing all over. He looked very human, not like a ghost, and the whole feeling I got was joy, peace, love." I am not saying that he did not see what he says he saw, only that he sees what he expects to see, what he has been taught to see. What I find very interesting is when two persons, from different cultures, take the same psychedelic drug and see the exact same non-ordinary entities. This actually happens. When UBs reveal themselves, we will all be invited to the party.

FL: I personally find it unnecessary to go to a seer to see your own spirit, UB or angel. I also find it odd that someone can actually see somebody else's UB; I am sure all that he sees there is his own.

JW: I do not think it is a matter of a possessive, but, as I said, "a different way of experiencing ourselves." One can even say that UBs are a mass hallucination, that they are "Catholic." After all, would you want your work to be seen, literally seen, only by yourself?

FL: Yes, I would! What I can do at best is devise a ritual object that can create a bond between people and Universal Beings. Human and UB are a matter of possessives, but when there is a ritual object (like your psychedelic drugs), that is when mass hallucination comes in!

JW: I very much like your idea of bonding. Yoga means "to bond," and the root of "religion," religare, means "to re-tie." As I now think that when we speak of UBs we are speaking of secular angels (although I would not use this hackneyed term), bonding is not only an instructive metaphor, but a procedural one? If so, just how language can bond to your ritual object, or objects, would be the next problem.

FL: What I do find fascinating in language, the written and spoken word, are the magical powers attributed to it, as they are used in ritual and with ritual objects. A more contemporary example is something called Paper Remedy [9]. Here, words are written on a piece of paper to remedy any conceivable problem, and the words are followed by its potency, the decimal/centesimal scale, the same used in preparing homeopathic medicine [10]. Words, written or spoken, have also been used to empower sacred objects and images. Then while thinking over the UB project, I come across a Nigerian voice disguiser, whose primary function is to bond people with the dead. Now I realize the difference seems to be that you are looking at UBs as universal, while I am looking at the process by which they get there!

JW: You mean how they become universal? "Becoming-universal," as Deleuze would say. I must think about this.

FL: Yes, I find that universality needs a bit of coaxing out.

 


References

[1] Inside the Skull-House: A Neuropoesis, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/index.htm.
[2] T.E.Feinberg. Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates a Self, New York, 2001, p. 87.
[3] W. J. Richardson. "Like Straw: Religion and Psychoanalysis," in Budhi, A Journal of Ideas and Culture, Vol. II, No. 1, 1998. pp. 51-64.
[4] http://www.unm.edu/~reality/cont-r.htm
[5] M-L. von Franz. Alchemy, Toronto, Canada, 1980, p. 268.
[6] Nasar 1998, p.11.http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/illumination/.
[7] N. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago, IL, 1999.
[8] "Interview with an Angel," by Troy Bernardo, 22 February 2002 http://www.getasia.com.ph/getasia/thecity_ph.nsf/Content/02222002feature.
[9] From "Paper Remedies Experiments Report, History Surrounding Paper Remedies?," By Dr. Eileen Nauman, http://www.medicinegarden.com/Homeopathy/remedies1.html. Henrietta Lala sent the following: "This is a very ancient concept with a continuing lineage of use throughout history in many cultures. Mankind has always felt there was power in first the object, then the picture of the object and later the writing that represented the object. There is a tradition in oriental medicine, for example, that goes one step further; there is power in the instrument used in the writing. The belief completes the circle; the writing once again 'becomes' the object. One washes the ink from the prescription into water and then the water is drunk, as if it were the medicine (the ink is not toxic). It is interesting here that actual ingestion (entering into the body) of the representation was part of the cure. (I will not get into power ingestion of representations, transubtantiations.) The use of power objects, images and words had expression all over the world and continues into modern times. My point is that if you want the power you have to focus, you have to know the entry point. The paper remedy is a vehicle. A Hermes."
[10] KPS Dhama and S. Dhama. Homeopathy, The Complete Handbook, Rajkamal Electric Press, Delhi p. 4.

 © Leonardo Electronic Almanac 2002