A Fable. When the Americans massed and started westward in 1846, it
was the beginning of a new kind of cultural growth. It did not have to do
with European philosophy or cultural traditions. It was a dynamism of a
new kind. The Americans were irresistible, like a wonderfully sexy
creature or like cancer. Even when the country was still insignificant by
objective measures, the Americans—Emerson, Melville, Whitman, and even
Dickinson in her retirement from public life—knew they were different
and differently fated. Americans were also innocents, and like all
innocents they were cruel to others and to themselves—destructive. Their
world was violent, a world of energy that obeyed its law to burn.
America was hardly a culture and would never become one. Cultures build
traditions and hold to tried and proven conventions. America is about
power, speed, and information—abstractions of little content.
America is about style—the pure destructiveness of style, a force of
nature that year by year, rather than repeating the seasons, produces a
new world, a new fad—television, the twist, hula hoops, the World Wide
Web, products that relate only to abstract need. These are all fads, and
there is no accounting for their relative significance. Americans do not
belong to a race or a nation; they belong to earth only in a superficial
sense (earth is a limit of space and resources, not a place or even
a form); they are pure abstractions—ideas about ideas that can manifest
as matter and energy and flip back again to ideas. America is about
machines, not just this or that machine, but the universal machine,
machines that are instantaneous and everywhere, at the speed of light. We,
as Americans—and Americans of all countries—are hated by the world,
and the world wants nothing but to become like us, because it appears that
we may be, with our technology, becoming immortal, and immortal creatures
are hateful and everyone wants to be one.
When the Olympic Torch arrives in Beijing in 2008, the last stage of
the Americanization of the world will have begun. Colonel Sanders, Kobe
Bryant, McDonald’s are already all over Beijing. Soon all of the Wall
Street brokerage firms will be there. America is not a nation or a people:
it is complexity itself. The simplicity of culture is everywhere giving
over to complexity. This process cannot be explained in terms of a root
story or a root belief. It has only incidentally to do with the
wonderfully rich real estate the Europeans began to settle in the
seventeenth century. It was global from the beginning. It’s not just
American; everyone everywhere wants Nike shoes. There is no
American epic or American philosophy. It is shoes and jeans. The libraries
are full of Columbiads, Washingtoniads, and such, but there is no story.
Whitman called it democracy, the rule by the people. He thought,
however, that they ruled by their vote; as it turns out, they rule by
their hunger, their ability to consume, and their ability to create debt.
There is no American working class. The American social structure is
not determined by classes of production but classes of consumption. It is
the job of an American not to work but to consume. Henry Ford realized he
had to pay his workers well so they could buy Model Ts, and to this day
workers in the auto industry make better money than college professors and
most lawyers. The class distinction is based on consumption: there is a
class that drives Fords and a class that drives Lincolns. The number of
bathrooms in one’s house is also a determinant.
To create debt, debt to themselves, is the American’s secret. The
American society is not capitalist but debtist. By debt, the majority of
Americans became homeowners; by debt, not capital, most businesses are
started and expanded. It is the technique for bringing the future into the
present. Monetary debt, of course, is only the ghost of the real debt.
Americans borrow most significantly not against future wealth, but against
the future itself.
Information technology is important for this reason: it is now possible
to reduce our matter and energy debt and to increase our information debt.
Information is in abundant supply. It is time to exchange matter and
energy for intelligibility and meaning. This is a necessary correction.
The alternative is environmental disaster.
I was asked to write an article for an issue of a magazine devoted to
the theme of "a better world." Let me take a wild stab at a
thesis: creating information debt is the way to create a better world. It
is the process of evolution itself. The possibilities that are preconfigured
by nature or culture are, in effect, already known and hopeless; they have
been already, as it were, figured into the price. Debt to the future is
the mechanism of creativity; and at this late date, it is only information
that we can hope to pay back.
America is the name of a place with no past for the people who
discovered it while looking for some other place. Mistaken from the start,
it loomed out of the Atlantic as a realm beyond time, space, and logic. It
was complexity itself as a possibility of knowledge. It is global, the
Let’s say, as a place to begin, a better world is measured in terms
of complexity. Most of what passes for complexity is confusion—counterfeits
or replications that undermine complexity. (See Fable 2.)
"The past," Kodwo Eshun notes, "arrives from the
future," and it enters the present not as a cause or the consequence
of axiomatic preconditions, but as our input to the logic of the
future from which it arrives. All the deep forms are circular. All that
was implicitly sought in the reverential address to origins must now be
found in a vigorous and imaginative address to the consequences of our
acts, which demand the same attention and ritual care as the origins,
though the gods to which we are responsible have not yet appeared (and may
forever recede). There is no beginning. The knowing agent now is at once
an autonomous producer and processor of information and a component of
multiple statistical cells. We enter a time of global redundancy, parallel
processing, and multitasking, at once subject to various models of the
world, producing models of our own, and transforming the models by our
participation. A new orientation is required—not retrospection, representation,
or repetition, but projection, prophesy of a new kind, not only
self-fulfilling prophesy, but participatory prophesy, prophesy as creative
anarchy—"anarchy," etymologically, "without beginning or
rule"; thus, an improvisatory emergence not from the past but from
the next moment.
* * *
Another fable. According to tradition, there are two Bibles—God’s
and Satan’s. They are exactly alike, but one is counterfeit and one is
true. When one acts upon the precepts of the true Bible, the results are
good and lead toward salvation; when one acts on the precepts of the
other, the results are evil and lead toward damnation.
The two texts are identical, and they exist in indistinguishable
volumes. Some scholars have been able, they claim, to detect a difference
by smell, but they have not been able to produce consistent results.
Moreover, there has been little agreement about which acts are good and
which are evil.
Indeed, I do not know now how I learned of this tradition. I am not
sure that it is a tradition at all, or if the convocation of scholars who
sniffed the books—holy and unholy books—was called by the Archbishop
of Mainz in the thirteenth century (or if there is an Archbishop of
Mainz), or if I made the story up to make a point that I do not now
There are two memories—one is God’s and one is Satan’s—and they
are exactly alike, but one is false and one is true.
The ancient texts in stable times are great and necessary guides.
These, however, are times not of concentration but dispersion. A new
attention for a better world is required. One samples and remixes the flow
of information, knowing being known in many simultaneous zones, paying
many attentions. One remembers the future. We read and love the ancient
books so they can be forgotten. They are part of the mix. The Bible and
James Brown, the Koran and John Coltrane, the Bhagavad Gita and Little
Richard. Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom. We take their words but not their meanings. Their meanings will arrive in time.
Don Byrd is a writer, poet, and sound artist, who lives in Albany, NY.
His most recent books are The Poetics of the Common Knowledge and The Great Dime Store Centennial, which is being published in a new edition in September, 2001.