First, an apology. When I use the word telepathy, I do not mean reading minds in the magical, fantastical, ESP, science fiction, paranormal sense. I do mean “reading minds,” but whether telepathy is real, whether thoughts can be directly exchanged, mind to mind, or plucked by one mind from another, is irrelevent to my goals.
The telepathy I mean here is the only telepathy most people have ever experienced: getting thoughts between minds by using a medium of communication: language, text on paper or the computer screen, over the phone, … To be clear, I call this Technologically-Mediated Telepathy, or TMT for short, and every time I refer to telepathy, this is the kind I mean.
Writing is just one of many TMTs. A finite set of symbols arranged in infinite recombinations wrestles what’s on my mind into text. You try to decode it. You’re reading my mind through the technology of the alphabet, a machinery so ubiquitous, powerful and transparent, we forget to see it as a technology at all.
Communication technologies evolve on an upward sloping line, asymptotically, toward the essential urge that powers it: pure mind-to-mind communication. We want to become truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously and without mediation or translation.
All communication is an attempt by one mind to transmit information to another mind seeking to understand it. Even when you talk to yourself, you are becoming another character for the purpose of expressing something to yourself, your own mind. Once you view all human communication as partly telepathic, a powerful new perspective on the entire domain of human consciousness springs into view. We see that our urge for intimacy by trading what we conceive, our subjective experience, is a constant informing all progress. And this progress is moving on an upward-sloping line towards something, though it may never get there.
From grunts and noises and tweets and whistles through cave painting and writing and the printing press and the movies and television and the Internet we are moving towards increasing subjectivity, increasing immediacy, increasing sensation, increasing range, and increasing fidelity of what we can tell others about what’s in our minds and increasing fidelity of how well they can read of them. We are able to express our own experiences and broadcast them to others across greater distances, at greater speed, for many more people or with more particularity to more refined micro-audiences, involving ever more sensuality and nuance. We write and record for sight and vision with ever-greater immediacy and intimacy. We’re getting better and faster at reading each other’s minds.
Telepathy and the Evolution of Media
Communication technologies evolve on an upward sloping line, asymptotically, toward the essential urge that powers it: pure mind-to-mind communication. Telepathy, like artificial intelligence, lies just out of reach, beckoning us. Our desire for telepathy mapped onto the history of our media tells us what we wish to be.
That we are grasping for both of them, AI and telepathy, through the computer is no accident. Richard Price captures the hubris and endurance of the third and related virtual reality project in his novel, Plowing the Dark:
These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into. (Price, 30)
Dreams of artificial intelligence, telepathy and its other sisters, virtual reality, creating artificial life, finding alien life, colonizing other planets … all have their roots in racial strivings. The antecedents of today’s tech can be found in mythologies. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix and Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age just to name three that inspire me imagine technologies able to upload and share brains and minds, now a commonplace of pop culture and start-up ventures. But even these Technologically-Mediated Telepathies are just way stations on a line trending towards some impossible vanishing point that we wish to reach: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously and without mediation or translation.
Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006
The Virtues of Playing the Telepathy Game
The virtue of such a conceptual game is that, like all such philosophical exercises, it helps us understand the history of communication technology. As Derrida liked to say about the essence of an idea, it was always already what it was yearning to be from its origin. In this case,
Communication technologies are always already telepathy,
even in their most primitive forms.
When viewed in this way, every act of communication and reading becomes at least in part intersubjective, expressing an urge for intimacy, explaining the inexpressible pleasure we can get from a certain kind of reading. It is that residue, the part that is and isn’t successfully intersubjective that interests me. Where is desire fulfilled, where is it foiled and stroked? Every communication act deserves to be scrutinized this way, interrogated with these questions.
When I hitch my theory about all of human communication to the star of fantastical telepathy, I’m also trying to add back a quotient that’s often subtracted from academic theories and big data measures and scientific analyses of communication. I am trying to re-introduce a term that can test the essence of the idea of communication and the technologies that we’ve evolved for it against a (perhaps) impossible limit of unmediated mind reading, the pure telepathy of our imaginings.
By looking at the trajectory of media through the lens of telepathy we can also plot the future. We know where our a good deal of our resources and genius will be applied, as it has been, across boundaries of culture and circumstances, because, as an intrinsically and enduring human urge, the desire for totally intimate intersubjectivity transcends such things as sciences, ideologies and religions. It is both a grand collective human project across the millenia, like inventing artificial life and intelligence or voyaging to other worlds (to which telepathy is related), and also extremely personal, ontological, immediate.
My Granddaughter Siona: The Ontogeny of Telepathy Recapitulates the Phylogeny of Civilization
My granddaughter Siona is 23 months old, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?). But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, co, ekk, choo, [sniff with nose = flowers], [cluck with tongue = horsey].. and a couple dozen signs: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”… All of us in her life know what these signs mean. And if you look in her eyes, she will hold your gaze and, well… I could write and she is telling volumes. But she makes plain her frustration. She is feeling and wanting to tell sentences, and through series of signs and sounds she is, but we, the adults, are only getting parts. Telepathy would be so much better.
In Siona’s frustration, you can see she discovered in the last few months that telepathy doesn’t exist. But until recently, she thought it did. Without belaboring the point, we know what lies before her, and though she doesn’t know the particulars, she knows the meaning of it. She will have to labor to learn how to make all the intimates around her understand what is in her head. And the monumental labor, the painful, glorious, fun of the journey in front of her makes me want to cry. It is like watching her getting kicked out of Eden. In fact, it is exactly like getting kicked out of Eden. Siona is now learning she will have to communicate by the sweat of her brow and claw her way back into making people around her understand a vague and veiled version of what was just recently all-at-once known, obvious, and true.
Soon enough, she will experience the catastrophe of the Tower of Babel.
As she slowly adds words and connects them syntactically and begins her voyage through those infinite but constrained channels of spoken language and then written language, she will re-enact the evolution of TMT, and slowly lose her infantile, divine conviction that everyone is telepathic and learn how to play the keyboards of these telepathic technologies we invent. Siona’s linguistic and media ontogeny will recapitulate the phylogeny of our civilizations. And so do all of our personal journeys. So the theory of telepathy is something we carry with us ontologically, in our own life history, and can excavate and use both to interrogate the history and each individual act of communication.
Telepathy Beyond Literature, Science and Ideology
This exercise has another virtue. It returns us, ironically, to a classical and I think noble idea of reading and writing as freighted with a responsibility. Telepathy implies a way of reading. It’s a discipline that should be fundamental to any literary theory. Applying the ideal of telepathy to our reading teaches us a way to read beyond ideology and psychology and history and sociology and philosophy and all the other pressures placed upon interpretation in postmodern culture. Reading becomes an act of intimacy between the author and me. I answer an invitation. I submit to entering and being possessed, sometimes totally, by another’s mind. But it comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation: reading telepathically means accepting the obligation to really try to decipher what the author is thinking and intending before finding in the text confirmation of my own prior bias or theory or pretext. I submit to the invitation to try to read what is in the author’s mind. First, I am trying to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer beyond prejudice. All signalling, all lettering, all letterature is literature, and all literature, even the most profane is liturgy. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope and uncertainty.
The science of telepathy is entwined in numerous disciplines: neuroscience, brain-computer interface, ethology, and the technolgies implicate even more, such as linguistics, natural language processing, AI, computing, cybernetics, signal processing, electrical engineering, signal processing… Obviously, many of the “soft” sciences are there, too: cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, sociology, anthropolgy, ethology. Besides the fact that they are each their own genre – channels – for enabling and constraining communication, I believe telepathy is prior to and informs them all, as well as being informed in structured ways by them that allow me to make plain how the future will unfold, I think. My shorthand for this priority is a phrase I return to: the technologies that try to get us to be telepathic “exteriorize the nerve net.”
Finally, seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. We all enact and aspire to telepathy. To use Price’s phrase “It is the thing we are trying to turn ourselves to.”
A PERSONAL NOTE ON THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPATHY PROJECT:
In the coming months and years, I intend to pick up threads of telepathy I started to follow during my academic career. I published large swaths of what became the Telepathy Talmud project after a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94).
A very telegraphic hypertext version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels an Australian journal.
Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins U journal.)
My thoughts then and now delve the origin of the alphabet as a model for understanding revolutions in communication technologies, the special idea of interpretation and telepathy with the Mind of God that the Hebrew alphabet initiates, flowering in several aspects of Jewish culture, but quintessentially the Talmud. I also travel down byroads about the special meaning of the Hebrew letters aleph and tav, the conquest of the electromagnetic spectrum, some science fictions that I believe help us chart the future, some other works of literature that illustrate that residue of ecstasy and denial of telepathy in reading, some very close and perhaps heretical or at least under-informed readings of the Talmud, and also some analyses of the very current future and far flung future of media. I will try to avoid politics, although some entries in this blog are inevitably political, although I was led to these rants, I promise, from my investigations of telepathy in ways I am glad to explain.
I originally explored versions of this material with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. In all I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. I thought it was clever to call the project a “talMUD” after the new notion of a Multi-User Domain and pun on the etymology of my name. That shows you that though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic. I have been accompanied by and stand on the work of Jacques Derrida, Nicholas Royle, Freud, and always return for inspiration to the gaps and failures of some philosophers like Kant, Spinoza and Heidegger. My many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present immeasurably enrich my life and thinking.
I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.” I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance and to my granddaughter Siona for gazing into my eyes for long minutes.
I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, in this web, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider, drop me a sticky line at firstname.lastname@example.org.