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5th December 2010

On WikiLeaks

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WikiLeaks and the Death of the Event

An Essay by John David Ebert

Graphic of hourglass, colored in blue and grey; a circular map of the western hemisphere of the world drips from the top to bottom chamber of the hourglass.

WikiLeaks was founded and launched in December of 2006 by Julian Assange together with a group of Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians, and technologists from countries such as Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Assange himself, a former computer hacker, is from Australia, and he founded the site for the express purpose of “exposing injustice.” “Our primary targets,” Assange told a New Yorker essayist, “are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their ¬†own governments and corporations.’ He has argued that a ‘social movement’ to expose secrets could ‘bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality–including the US administration.'”

WikiLeaks is thus a classic example of the asymmetric power that the Internet is capable of bestowing upon a single individual: through electronic amplification, he can become powerful enough to take on big, arrogant institutions such as governments, banks and other corporations which pride themselves on being able to intimidate the little guy. The Internet is an inherently decentralizing technology, one that acts as a solvent upon hierarchies of all kinds, which draw their power from older, now obsolete center-periphery models.

Thus, Nicholas of Cusa’s fifteenth century aphorism that “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” is becoming a reality in the age of the Internet, for the Internet destroys all center-periphery power structures, disbursing margins everywhere. It is, indeed, hostile to hierarchies of any, and every, sort, be they religious or political. WikiLeaks simply takes this characteristic of the Internet and magnifies it disproportionately.

While I am all for the individual scaling himself up with technology to the size of an electronic Anthropos fit to do battle with powerful governments by exposing all of their secrets–such as in the case of WikiLeaks’ recent publishing of leaked diplomatic cables–I think it is worth taking a moment to think out some of the larger socio-cultural implications raised by such asymmetrically powerful new technologies and how they are restructuring societal configurations in some, perhaps surprising, new ways.

Consider, for instance, the ancient religious idea of the pilgrimage: in order to go and find the sacred object or geographical place, you had to physically move your body from one point in space to another, where the object was to be found. This is why religious cities, such as Jerusalem, once occupied the bull’s eye centers of old Medieval maps. The ancient sacred city is the holy place, the center from which all power radiates. To get to the city is to get to the source of the Power.

Such localities are sacred because they are spatio-temporal singularities. The whole point of going to find them is that they cannot otherwise be replicated, like original works of art. The entirety of Islam is built around the Haj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of each true Muslim. This is perhaps one reason why the Arabs don’t allow electric media near the Ka’aba, on the suspicion that to reproduce it electronically would render the whole point of the pilgrimage obsolete.

The Internet, as I have said, is inherently incompatible with the old center-periphery models that once structured and built entire civilizations. Such technology decouples events and sacred places from their spatio-temporal coordinates and brings them to us. Nowadays, we no longer have to go to them: they come where we’re at. Thus, the Internet renders the age of Events as singularities obsolete. There is no longer any event that can take place upon the surface of the earth that is capable of becoming a singularity and forming the foundation of a Truth Event, in the sense defined by philosopher Alain Badiou in his book Being and Event, since no event that occurs is required any longer to stay confined to its GPS coordinates.

Hence, the military’s attempt to confine a massacre that takes place in a battle in an Iraqi suburb to top secret status is essentially an effort to nail the down the parameters of the event to a specific latitude / longitude and to confine it to one point in time. Once the electronic replication of the event, however, is made public via the Internet — such as on WikiLeaks — the event has been decoupled from its spatio-temporal coordinates and made instantly accessible, at the speed of light, to every computer in the world. It is therefore stripped of its uniqueness and can no longer be classified as “top secret.” In fact, it is no longer even an event at all, but an electronically stored memory of an event, a digital echo, as it were.

The founding of new religions thus becomes an impossibility in an age dominated by Internet technology, since all religions depend upon the occurrence of such Truth Events as their founding singularities: the holy city of Karbala is sacred to the Shi’ites precisely because it was the one and only point in spacetime where Husayn was beheaded. Thus, to physically transport one’s body there is to go to the center of an Event with a religious aura. The world’s current religions, in which such Events have already long since taken place, are generally immune to electronic replication and stripping of their auras, since so many centuries of human psychological investment have already been put into them, an investment which cannot easily be stripped away by a technology that is only a few decades old. However, the Internet does render it difficult for the possibility of any new Truth Events to take place since the moment they occur, they can be instantly replicated and shot through the matrix around the world and thus stripped of their aura.

Take the uprising at Tiananmen Square as an example of a political Event of the kind which, for the Chinese, never officially happened. The event was broadcast live on CNN in 1989, and it has been thoroughly recycled through Western cyberspace ever since. The image of the man standing in front of the line of tanks has taken on the status of an icon for us, since we interpret him as the vision of a brave man standing up to totalitarianism. For us, it has merely become an image that is fit to be printed on T-shirts.

But in China it has retained the status of an Event, albeit a hidden one, precisely because the Chinese government has effaced all traces of its existence. When one performs a Google Image search in China on the words “Tiananmen Square,” the only images which come up are pictures of happy tourists. All references to the Truth Event have been expunged, thus protecting its status as a hidden secret Event charged with significance for Beijing–the Event Which Never Happened but which, paradoxically, led to Deng Xiaoping’s importation of capitalism into China in the early 1990s. In a show on PBS’s Frontline entitled “Tank Man,” three contemporary students at Beijing University, when confonted with a picture of Tank Man, have no idea what it refers to. It is, to them, a meaningless image, but to the Chinese intelligentsia, it signifies the birth of Chinese authoritarian capitalism.

Most Truth Events, in fact–which function as founding acts for religions in the ancient world–were actually based upon murders. The crucifixion of Christ, for instance, is the founding Event of Christianity; in the Book of Genesis, it is Cain’s murder of Abel; in Zoroastrianism, it is the murder of the Primal Ox and the Primal Man which brings creation into being. Indeed, ancient creation myths are filled with accounts of the murder of a primordial being by way of which the world of time, of sex and temporality, of man’s life as a sexed and mortal being, were brought into existence. Such Events generally became the central secrets of ancient religious rituals and liturgies.

But the Internet is a machine for transforming all things private into public domain, and it therefore destroys all “things hidden since the foundation of the world,” to borrow from a book title by Rene Girard; as such, it is the enemy of all traditional societies everywhere, for such societies are based upon keeping special knowledge and access to certain sacred objects out of the hands of an impure and profane public. In an age dominated by Internet technology, the Mystery cults of the ancient world would have been an impossibility, for their aura and functioning specifically depended upon the taking of an oath by their initiates not to reveal the content of their mysteries. In all the ancient writings that have come down to us from those whom we know to have been initiated, for example, into the Eleusinian Mysteries–Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, et. al.–not a word of their content was ever uttered. Such a thing would simply not be possible nowadays.

Julian Assange thus finds himself in the role of the Tom Cruise character in Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, in which the initiate who witnesses the mysteries of the sex cult is enjoined not to breathe a word of its existence to outsiders on pain of death. The world’s governments and corporations are now in the role occupied by the sex cult in Kubrick’s film, for WikiLeaks has made them very anxious indeed about the public divulgence of what Slavoj Zizek has called their “hidden obscene underside.”

WikiLeaks has devoted itself to exposing secrets everywhere, but in doing so, Events–by they political or religious–have now lost their status, and their corresponding strength, as singularities. And since culture depends for its existence upon the founding of such singularities, it is scarcely necessary to say that the Age of the Internet is an Age that is absolutely incompatible with the flourishing of human Culture. It is the kind of technology that a society produces when it is on the way out.

All events must now be plugged into the Matrix and sent through the circuits for instantaneous playback, thus stripping them of their potential for attaining any sort of foundational significance ever again.

The world thus become that much flatter.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 5th, 2010 at 9:21 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There is currently one response to “On WikiLeaks”

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  1. 1 On January 7th, 2011, William Irwin Thompson said:

    Interesting point, John, about the founding of new religions becoming an impossibility. You provide another entry point into my contentions about the end of religions and the emergence of a new spirituality–which will be the theme of the 2011 Lindisfarne Fellows Conference. The Second Coming has to become a parody of the first–the Anti-Christ more than Jesus. Just as shamanism decayed into black magic with the Olmecs and Mesoamericans, so now religion decays into a psychosis of literalism. In aphasia, the mad cannot think in abstractions; they take metaphoric language literally, and seek to concretize. Meanwhile, as you point out, the world-space moves on into the toroidal circulations within the hypersphere that obviate going anywhere in pilgrimage or novelistic plot with Huck Finn on the raft. So, all in all, the basic myths of both medievalism and modernism are undermined.

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