Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
3rd October 2013

On the Unabomber

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The Unabomber:

An Essay by John David Ebert

The Bombings

From May, 1978 to April, 1995, Theodore J. Kaczynski – a.k.a. the Unabomber – sent out a total of sixteen bombs to various individuals who were all affiliated in one way or another with science. The bombs killed three people and injured twenty-three others, although some of them were defused and did not explode.

The first bomb, however, was not sent through the mail, but delivered by Kaczynski himself to the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus on May 25, 1978. He dropped the package between two parked cars in the lot near the Science and Technology buildings, hoping that a student would pick it up and take it to the post office or else hand deliver it to its addressed target, one E. J. Smith, a professor of rocket science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The package was found by Mary Gutierrez who tried to fit it into the mail box but couldn’t, so she sent it back to the return address, which was listed as Professor Buckley Crisp, Jr., a professor of computer science at Northwestern University’s Technological Institute. When he received the package, however, Crisp thought it looked suspicious, so he contacted campus security, who sent Terry Marker to inspect it. When Marker opened the package, it exploded, nearly blowing off his right hand. He then contacted the ATF, who filed a report, destroyed the evidence and proceeded to forget about it. (Chase, 49)

But another bomb showed up at Northwestern University a year later: this one was found by a graduate student named John Harris in the student meeting room at the university’s Technological Institute. Harris had noticed a Phillies Cigar box on a table and picked it up, whereupon it exploded, causing him some minor injuries. In his private journal, Kaczynski commented: “I had hoped that the victim would be blinded or have his hands blown off or be otherwise maimed…At least I put him in the hospital, which is better than nothing. But not enough to satisfy me. Well, live and learn. No more match-head bombs. I wish I knew how to get hold of some dynamite.” (Chase, 52)

Kaczynski’s third bombing attempt was more ambitious, for on November 15, 1979 he managed to detonate a small bomb onboard American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington National. The pilots heard a dull thump and the cabin began filling with smoke, forcing them to land at Dulles International. No one was injured.

This third attempt brought Kaczynski to the attention of the FBI, which began an official investigation with no leads and no clues as to the identity of the bomber. On June 10, 1980, United Airlines president Percy Wood received a package that had been sent from Chicago containing a copy of a book, Sloan Wilson’s novel Ice Brothers. But behind the title page, the book had been hollowed out to contain a bomb, and when Wood opened it, it exploded on him, inflicting minor injuries. (Chase, 53-54)

At this point, the FBI gave the mysterious serial bomber a name, based on his attempts to send bombs to universities and airlines: the Unabomber, as he would be known to the public from henceforth.

Over the following years, six more bombs were sent to various professors of science and computer engineering, but there were no fatalities until December 11, 1985 when, in Sacramento, California, Kaczynski placed a bomb designed to look like a piece of scrap lumber in the back lot behind a computer repair shop. When the shop’s owner, Hugh Scutton, went to pick up the lumber, it exploded, blowing off his hand and rupturing his heart, killing him.

There was an almost identical bombing on February 20, 1987 when another computer store owner, this time in Salt Lake City, picked up a piece of scrap lumber that exploded on him, mangling his left arm, although in this case, he wasn’t killed.

But then six years elapsed with no bombing attempts, while Kaczynski, working in his shack in the Montana woods, tried to perfect his bombs and make them more powerful. The results of these experiments were then unleashed on a geneticist, a Dr. Charles Epstein, who lived in the community of Tiburon, California. On June 22, 1993, Dr. Epstein picked up a small package in his house one morning, opened it, and the resulting explosion knocked him backward. He survived the blast, however.

But it wasn’t until December 10, 1994, that Kaczynski’s second fatality took place, when an executive named Thomas Mosser, who worked for a public relations firm called Burson-Marsteller was killed when he opened a package in the kitchen of his own house. In a letter to the New York Times which Kaczynski wrote under the alias of “FC,” (an abbreviation for “Freedom Club”) in which he pretended that he was a member of an anarchist group, he wrote: “Burston-Marsteller is about the biggest organization in the public relations field. This means that its business is the development of techniques for manipulating people’s attitudes. It was for this more than for its actions in specific cases that we sent the bomb to an executive of this company…”  (Chase, 75)

Kaczynski’s third and final fatality, as well as his last bomb, came when, on April 24, 1995, he mailed a package to the president of the California Forestry Association in Sacramento, one Gilbert Murray, who opened the package, which exploded on him with such force that the blast literally ripped Murray to pieces.

It was at this point that Kaczynski mailed proposals to three different publications, Penthouse magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post, in which he offered to stop sending bombs if one of the publications would publish his 30,000 word manifesto entitled “Industrial Society and its Future.” The Post took him up on the offer, after conferring with the FBI, which advised them that it might help catch Kaczynski by bringing someone forward who was familiar with the writing.

And indeed, when Ted’s brother David read the manifesto, he recognized his brother’s writing and grudgingly turned him over to the FBI, which arrested him on April 3, 1996.

In exchange for the government’s agreement not to seek the death penalty, Kaczynski plead guilty to thirteen federal bombing offenses, and acknowledged responsibility for all sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995. He is currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

The Man of Science

The first thing that strikes us about these bombings is their seriality and repetition. They are a series of identical-but-different situations – like Andy Warhol’s soupcans – in which an effort is made to bomb the Man of Science. It was not sixteen different individuals that Kaczynski was trying to destroy, but rather the one Being which these sixteen individuals incarnated, the Platonic archetype of the Scientific Man. Kaczynski, then, was actually trying to destroy a Platonic Form, and the only way to do this is to replicate a series of attacks. To counter the One, one must resort to the principle of the Many, for it is precisely through the Many that the One makes itself manifest.

Industrial Society survives — indeed, flourishes — based upon the principle of serial repetition through mass production. It is precisely the mass production of basic, undying consumer archetypes which enables it to gain power over the physical world by the sheer force of its swarms of products. Andy Warhol made this clear in his soupcan paintings, which reveal the presence of the Form behind the individual Campbell’s soupcans simply by analyzing their principle of repetition. He did the same thing with Coke bottles, Brillo boxes, etc., which unveil for us the basic consumer archetypes: the Can of Campbell’s Soup, of which all existing cans are mere imperfect copies; the bottle of Coke; the Brillo Box; and so forth. Master copies made manifest through their repetition.

But now it is precisely by his participation in these chains of seriality that the Consumer is created. The Platonic Forms of the consumer society create the Platonic Form of the Consumer simply by the fact of his participation in the sacrament of buying, consuming, and then re-buying and consuming the same products ad inifintum. In the process, the Consumer himself is cloned and replicated. Indeed, now he is everywhere, ubiquitous, omnipresent throughout all time and space. Industrial Society replicates consumers. We are all consumers. You and I; your friends, my friends; everyone. We have all been cloned and replicated, whether knowingly or not, by the mere fact of our obsessive, repetitive consumption of the same products over time and through space.

But now if it were possible to destroy the Platonic Forms of consumer society, then it follows that the individual copies, mass reproduced, would cease. And if the endless seriality and repetition of its products ceased, then the Consumer would cease to exist, for there would be no mass produced products for him to participate in through consumption of them. We would all then be forced to become singularities, capable of regarding ourselves as clones no longer, but forced to become true individuals. We would have to live our own lives, provide for ourselves our own products, messily, each one of us in the process becoming a ragged and worn individuality.

It is precisely the Man of Science, however, who has power over all this magic of production. It is the Man of Science – Nietzsche’s Socratic Man, in fact – the man of reasonableness, logic and rationality who, due to his command over the Platonic Secrets – the universal laws and their mathematic formulae – has command over the principles underlying the phenomenal world. His mastery of those Platonic archetypes enables Industrial Society to come into being, to function at all, for the Man of Science is the priest of the machine whose knowledge of the machines makes it all work. Indeed, without his knowledge, there would be no machines to mass produce the Consumer Forms. Behind the existence of each and every one of these machines, there lies at its ultimate root, just such a Man of Science: behind the automobile engine, for example, there is always a Gottlieb Daimler, a Jean Joseph Lenoir, a Sadi Carnot, men of science, that is, who had mastery over the equations and the secrets which they made possible, the secrets for unlocking the existence of the machines and eventually, of their principles of seriality and repetition.

It follows, then, that if you can destroy the archetype of the Man of Science, then Industrial Society would collapse, taking all of its mass production and its endless repetition of clones along with it. The society would disappear, and along with it, the Consumer as a type. We would all be forced to become singularities, each one of us an unprecedented human event, forced to create our own microcosms.

Just like Ted Kaczynski, who withdrew from Industrial Society, refused to participate in its principle of seriality and repetition, and decided to rely upon himself to produce his own food, his own house, his own life. A complete singularity unto himself; a swerving like Lucretius’ clinamen, in which the atoms suddenly, unpredictably, swerve from their predetermined course to go their own way through the cosmos.

Hence, the media’s caricature of Kaczynski as the bizarre hermit and reclusive loner who, because he did not fit into the seriality and repetition of human forms inside Industrial Society, seems so strange that he must be mentally ill. After all, only a madman would criticize Industrial Society and choose to become a human singularity.

But then in the microcosmology which Kaczynski created, it is precisely the matter of interiors vs. exteriors that counts. Inside Industrial Society, you are a slave; outside it, the possibility of Freedom exists as the fruit of the tree – hence, his obsession with wood — for those who wish to reach for it.

Technological Gnosticism

In order to understand Kaczynski’s principle of interiors vs. exteriors (in which freedom for the individual only exists outside of cosmic containers) it is necessary to glance for a moment at his manifesto, in which he explains his motivations for becoming a terrorist.

Kaczynski states that the human individual, in order to attain fulfillment, must normally go through what he calls “the power process,” in which he initiates and sets his own goals, expends a significant amount of effort toward the achievement of those goals, and is actually able to accomplish at least some of them. A significant degree of autonomy, then, is necessary for the completion of this task. But he points out that industrial society actually inhibits and interferes with this process because it places the modern human being inside a mesh of impersonal bureaucratic forces which tyrannize over him with demands, regulations and constant stresses. Decisions are made by politicians, bureaucrats and technicians over which the individual has no influence and no say, and these decisions decide a great deal of his fate and destiny, which is thus largely robbed from him. The modern individual loses his freedom to control his own circumstances because he is constantly harried by these impersonal technocratic forces upon which he becomes dependent for much of his safety and security. Thus, he has no control over huge portions of his life – such as the guarantee of his own safety, for which he must rely on public officials and government representatives to provide for him (for instance, ensuring safety regulations at nuclear power plants or making sure that no toxins get into the food or water supplies) and as a consequence, he loses the ability to go through the power process on his own. He is always accountable to someone else for his actions – his employer, the government, etc. – and this leads to frustration, anxiety and a sense of unfulfillment. He turns, therefore, to surrogate activities, such as the taking up of a hobby, or a sport like golf or bodybuilding, which are inessential to the needs of his existence.

Technology, furthermore, is constantly forced upon him whether he likes it or not. New gadgets are often introduced at first as conferring new freedoms – such as the automobile, which apparently gave an advantage over the pedestrian – but which soon become mandatory and progressively narrow, and limit, his options (as when the city has to be redesigned to accommodate the automobile, and soon, everyone must have one to survive). Technology imposes its functions upon the hapless individual, who is gradually hemmed in by its demands and soon becomes its prisoner, robbed of his freedoms. The more technologized a society becomes, Kaczynski insists, the fewer freedoms there are. Constitutionally guaranteed freedom is only nominal; in reality, it is the economic and technological structures in a society, not its government, which determine how much freedom the individual has in that society.

Thus, in the cosmology which Kaczynski designs in his manifesto, the modern individual living inside industrial society is actually its prisoner. Freedom is an illusion, for technological determinism binds and captures him on all fronts. It is only outside industrial society, in the state of what Kaczynski calls “wild nature” that the individual becomes truly free to shape his own life. The individual inside industrial society, on the other hand, is fallen and in need of redemption. The only way to rescue him is to destroy and dismantle industrial society, which is long since past the possibility of reforming. It must be blown apart, and can, in no way, be saved.

This cosmology of diminished freedom for the individual trapped inside a cosmic container, and who can only attain any real kind of freedom on the outside of it, bears certain structural similarities to the cosmology of Gnosticism. In the cosmos as it was envisioned by the Gnostics of the first two or three centuries AD, the human individual was also trapped inside a machine, namely the cosmos itself, which had been constructed by malevolent beings known as Archons. Each of these archons was assigned to one of the cosmic spheres containing the seven heavenly bodies which whirled around the earth, a small flat disc which they had created as a prison for human beings. The highest of these archons was a being named Yaltabaoth (the Hebrew Yahweh) whose sphere was that of Saturn, the outermost of the cosmic spheres, and the demiurge who had brought it all into being under the mistaken impression that he was the creator of the cosmos.

The human soul’s fate was controlled by something called Heimarmene, the Gnostic word for Fate, which was exerted astrologically by the planets and their archons, who had helped to construct the physical world and to imprint the human soul with the archetypal qualities associated with each of the planets, such as Fear, Envy, Jealousy, Wrath, etc. Thus, the archons were the enemies of the soul, whose only escape lay in the possibility of attaining gnosis, or initiation into the cosmic secret that one’s true destiny was to attain the realm of Light that lay above and beyond the cosmic spheres, a realm known as the Pleroma, where dwelt the ultimate beings of  Light, Sophia and the Aeons, the true creators of the cosmos. Gnosis lay in the realization that the human soul was actually a spark of light fallen from this realm and trapped inside a mortal human body subject to astrological determinism. Attainment of true freedom lay in escaping the Gnostic cosmos by ascending through the spheres, battling past the Archons (who were in possession of the archetypal Forms by way of which the physical world was constructed) and becoming reunited with the Pleroma.

Thus, in the Gnostic cosmos, too, freedom was a matter of escaping from a cosmic container, in this case, the cosmos itself. Once outside the realm of the spheres, the soul’s freedom could be attained in the Pleroma, a world that lay outside the cosmic machine.

In Kaczynski’s cosmos, the astrological determinism of the Gnostics finds its analogue in the technological determinism of Industrial Society. Freedom, likewise, can only be truly attained outside this cosmic vessel in the state of “wild nature.” Kaczynski’s war against the scientists is directly analogous to the soul’s war against the archons, for the archons, like the scientists, are in possession of the basic archetypal structures that have enabled them to create their respective societies as machines for trapping, and storing, human souls.

Thus, if you can destroy the Man of Science, then the cosmic machine trapping and encasing human souls will collapse in on itself, thus releasing its horde of caged human beings.

In both systems, then, freedom is lost on the inside of their cosmic containers, and regained only in the cosmic wildernesses outside them.

Two Kinds of Strategy For Redemption

The hidden Gnostic structures in Kaczynski’s narrative actually reveal more about the structures of technological society than they do about the structure of Kaczynski’s mind. They show us that modern man is, indeed, fallen – or “thrown” as Heidegger would put it – inside a technological apparatus that has closed up around him and from which he is in need of redemption, but doesn’t know it. There are, however, a number of different strategies available for this Fallen Man to avail himself of in order to escape from the Belly of the Beast that has swallowed him up, and Kaczynski’s approach, a particularly violent one, is only one of them.

Marshall McLuhan, for instance, offered a distinctly different type of approach with his idea of “escape through understanding.” In this case, the individual doesn’t rely on a hero to blow a hole into the side of the Beast for him, which Kaczynski’s approach implies, but rather gives him the tools to save himself. One escapes the clutches of technological determinism on a psychological rather than a crudely physical level by studying the technological apparatus, and learning to understand its mechanisms of manipulation and control. In thus coming to understand the machine, one is able to escape from the possibility of being manipulated by it. Theodor Adorno, with his study of the Culture Industry in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, offers a similar kind of approach.

Kaczynski’s analysis of the manipulative nature of technological society is, I think, accurate. The problem with it, though, is that his technological soteriology is crudely literal. The Gnostics, too, escaped through understanding, for that is what gnosis means, “to know.” There is no need to physically blow up industrial society: it will eventually collapse of its own weight, just like the Roman Empire. In the meantime, the individual must achieve gnosis through understanding how and why industrial society seeks to control our lives.

It is the same as the difference between the paths to enlightenment offered by Jainism and Buddhism. The Jains had said that the soul, the jiva, was infected with karma as the result of every single action one does, for every action, good or bad, generates karma, so the solution to the problem was to cease to generate karma by physically stopping oneself from doing anything at all, including eating food. The Buddha, on the other hand, realized that the problem was psychological, not physical. One needed to attain a state of inward detachment through a shift of psychological attitude in the attainment of release through nirvana. What one does actually makes no difference, as long as it is done with detachment.

Kaczynski’s attempt to rescue the fallen human soul through blowing a hole into the side of industrial civilization is simply a rehearsal of the myth of the solar hero who comes to one’s rescue from the outside. But the approaches of McLuhan, Adorno and Critical Theory are a form of self-salvation which can actually be attained by anyone willing to sit down and do the work of reading the texts.

It’s too bad that Kaczynski’s rage led him to kill people, for his cosmology is interesting to contemplate. Modern man’s predicament, I agree, is enraging, and needs to be discussed.

But his attack on industrial society is only one more example of the kinds of rage that it is inciting against itself all over the world.

There will be more such attacks, as the decades unfold.

Count on it.

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  1. 1 On October 4th, 2013, Fattigmann said:

    I had been thinking that your recurring prescription throughout all ou works is “escape through understanding.”

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