Two thousand years ago a sailor proclaimed (so Plutarch says) that the great god Pan was dead. A bit more recently, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announced the death of God, period. We, on the other hand, need no one to tell us that humankind is dead, insofar as the academy, and therefore our education, are concerned. The academic humanities are clearly dead, dead as a doornail, killed by the dry rot of their professors. That, of course, doesn’t mean that those professors have resigned their chairs or stopped publishing. Quite the contrary. They simply prefix their usual “post” to everything, and so now we get the “posthuman,” the “posthumanities,” just as we have already enjoyed the “postmodern” to the hilt.
The above by way of beginning to explain the sort of homage Harris announces in his title; if you want to know more about the academic posthumanities, I refer you to the 2009 book What Is Posthumanism? by Cary Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice, and the 1999 book How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles, professor of Literature at Duke who informs us that “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation... The posthuman thus emerges as a deconstruction of the liberal humanist notion of ‘human.’” If those scare quotes don’t scare you, nothing should.
We gather from his CV that Harris has a degree in divinity from UChicago, rather than a degree in the (post)humanities, and we can tell from leafing at this new collection that his intellectual interests are wide enough to cover all human reality, which is a fortunate poetic conjunction since all reality has become theological in our day and age: the Posthuman Age, when googling is our only form of prayer and digital computers and robots have become the new gods. At the beginning of this book there is a page of “Introductory Quotes,” headed by Shakespeare’s sonnet whose first line is “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments,” a classic poem if there’s one, modelled on the arch-classic Horatian Ode, “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” (I have finished a monument more durable than bronze). Classic here means: confident in the supreme power of the poetic word. Confidently arrogant, with the elitist attitude of the humanist who knew that true, permanent being is conferred only by the maker of myths—that is, by the poet—, an arrogance that is made heart-rending here, in Harris’ book, because, no matter how wildly the classic poet shakes the spear, we are all aware that myths are no longer of avail with us except as rabble-rousing falsehoods, and that all power has devolved to the digitalized logos. The other three introductory quotes deal with the notion of daemon. Harris puts together Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and two further esoteric daemons, one connected to Heidegger’s enframing (roughly our tarantellic dancing to the tune of technology), and the other, the technical computer-science usage of the term: a program designed to attend to calls from other programs. As for rapture, we know what it means, exposed as we are to frequent apocalyptic calls: it is the grabbing away from earth and taking up into heaven and blissfulness, like eagle-shaped Zeus took up his Ganymede.
We are not yet done with Harris’ title; it may be useful to recall that “daemon” has a long, illuminating history. Daemons were denizens of the in-between or metaxú in ancient Greece, climbing up and down invisible ladders, carrying messages from heaven to earth and back, and on occasion inspiring poets with celestial strains. Christian theologians replaced them by “angels” (the Greek word for messengers), and consigned daemons to stoking the fires and the ices of hell. James Clerk Maxwell, the great Scottish physicist whose discoveries made our technology possible, imagined a daemon who would reverse the natural slope toward disorder and death. Let’s have two containers separated by an adiabatic wall; the air in the left container is hot, the air in the right one is cold; if there is a hole in the wall, after a while the air in the two containers will be at the same temperature. But if there is a daemon at the hole, a daemon who measures the kinetic energy of each molecule about to pass through, and when the energy is high he sends it to the left, and if it is low he sends it to the right (much as spear-tailed daemons are seen in medieval paintings shoving human souls right or left), then the impending disorder will be checked, entropy will diminish, the air on the left will stay hot and that on the right will stay cold. Maxwell’s daemon, sitting at the hole, is an information gatherer: from each molecule he gets a number, its kinetic energy, and shoves it accordingly. Immortality, the durability of marble or bronze, is not granted by the poetic word any longer, but by information gatherers. Big data. Brains analyzed, then cooled and coded in silicon.
Once the title is elucidated, we can begin to enjoy the avatars of Eddy Daemon, keeping in mind several points, though: imagination should be running agile and fast, our ear should be attentive, and prayer will help—I mean having Google at hand. I will pick one of the 150 pieces (roughly) at random, as an example roughly representing all:
Tenebrae A² + B² = C²
In the penal colony of the wanky literati, the black
hearse of iconostasis drips creamy wax on a virgin’s
thighs. Eddy redacts, is bout to put a thizz in his gut,
spark a bleezy and take it from there yadadamean?
The hooded revert to the Law of Cosines. Atchoos
and a few belches later and the Kingdom of Heaven
appears in fumes of kryptonite. Eddy hums leçons
de ténèbres, logs in to LinkedIn as Pastor Sébastien
Gaudelus to perfect the transubstantiation of angels
and endorse a colleague. Time to brush the fauxhawk
gnarled with dyed streaks. Time to stoke good news
hate with n-dimensional chants, proving the saved
are saved and acing their introdouches. Eddy slips
away, sandaled in sackcloth like a rogue clinamen.
Like all the pieces in this Rapture, this one consists of fourteen lines, which by itself doesn’t a sonnet make, whether Petrarchan, Shakespearean or Elizabethan. Rather, and especially when we read it aloud, we hear echoes of Whitman: wave followed by wave of free verse, each intent on swallowing the whole world. But what a change a century-and-a-half has brought! The twentieth century has intervened. Whitman was singing at the opening, Harris after the drunk, closing night. Whitman did swallow, and now Harris draws a hundred-and-fifty scoops, wave upon wave, of the vomited ocean. This particular scoop starts with an odd juxtaposition: “Tenebrae,” Latin for “darkness,” and the conclusion of Pythagoras’ Theorem (the square of the hypotenuse is the sum, etc.) How should we take it? Should we think of the first three lines of Genesis, and interpret, “All was darkness, until Pythagoras created mathematics”? Or, instead, should we take this as a case of ellipsis of the copula and construe it as: “Darkness is math”? It depends on your inclination—your clinamen. Are you a Platonist, a rationalist, a Kantian Enlightenment firebrand? Yours is the first take. Are you of a Hamannian or perhaps Heideggerian persuasion? Then darkness is math, together with the computer model of the mind.
Then, darkly, we find ourselves in Kafka’s penal colony, whose present denizens are literati of the wanky kind. All of us, for our sins, perhaps? Eddy seems to be a visitor, a daemon-inspector of the torturers and their machinery, here to make his report. In Kafka’s story, the machine is a harrow that inscribes texts, maxims, in the patient’s flesh; here the word “hearse” suggests something similar, coming as it does from the French word herse, from the Latin hirpex (Greek harpax), meaning “rake or harrow.” Eddy redacts. The following sentence, I had to look it up. The Urban Dictionary, under yadadamean (= “you know what I mean?”) carries just one example, unattributed: im bout to put this thizz in my life, spark this bleezy and take it from there yadadamean? Almost the same. Who took it from whom? As if that mattered, in this drugged, drunk Dämmerung. Without some ecstasy in the gut Eddy may not have the guts to look with equipoise on the bloody procedures at the penal colony. The hooded torturers, however, revert to the Law of Cosines, which is a bit more general than Pythagoras’ theorem—perhaps they are incising it, the Law of Cosines, in the wanky literati’s flesh, until they give up the ghost and wait in line to be received by God, who is, from what I’ve heard, still more general, and still more certain. I can easily imagine the way those douches belch out their amazing CVs: if I were in their number, I’d be green with envy.
Eddy’s reaction is to hum some leçons de ténèbres—we are not told whether by de Lalande, Couperin, or someone else—and to log on to LinkedIn impersonating a pastor. I took Sébastien Gaudelus to be an imaginary priest, until I googled him and saw that he’s the author of a book, Les offices de ténèbres en France, 1650–1790 (2005), and that he is, indeed, in LinkedIn. However that is to be interpreted, it makes sense that Eddy, a daemon, would show an interest in the perfection of the transubstantiation of angels. Who, nowadays, knows the difference between daemons and angels, or whether there is any difference at all? Every angel is terrifying, said Rilke. But even if you are a materialist who denies the existence of spiritual substances, be they angels or daemons, and you believe, like Leucippus, Democritus, the Stoics, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Stephen Hawking, that all, without exception, is the result of the motions of tiny, tiny particles—even then this book is for you, and you will enjoy it as you watch Eddy Daemon, a spiritual being par excellence, slipping away, sandaled in sackcloth, like a rogue clinamen, hoodwinking you and causing you to believe that it is the inclination, the swerve of the tiny particles that which explains it all. Eddy’s having fun, and so will you.