I've Seen Gardens, Compared with Which this Would be a Wilderness
Stanislaw Lem’s 1964 opus, Summa Technolgiae, has only just been translated into English. Over half a century later, Lem’s work stands as an astonishing feat of future-casting and a profound meditation on how technology, reason and language protect and enclose humanity from empty cosmic indifference. Review by Martin Howse
O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54
Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.
– Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Face to face with the gaming depth and complexity of Summa Technologiae it is more than tempting to attempt both a playful homage to Lem (to his Russian-doll-style proliferation of embedded or ‘encysted’ worlds in worlds1) and a plagiarisation of a parallel work which acts as literary lens or thought amplifier, as cryptographic key or parodic compliment to Summa. Namely his A Perfect Vacuum; a work which could be viewed as a complex, orthogonal carrier for the signal or message of Summa.2
We could quickly rehearse a short series of introductions from imagined reviews which would both unlock this reviewer from the chains both binding him to the wheelbarrow or book in question and to any intention or meaning, and yet further tie him to some kind of conceptual post and set of Lemian styles.3
First we could talk of the overarching framework and core concerns of Summa, with this ambitious opus, authored in 1964, viewed as both a handbook and a landscape, a futuristic map for an imagined possible territory to come, to be arrived at if the correct paths are taken by technologies driven by instrumental science. Summa presents a projected representation (the map) focused and illuminated by Lem's contemporary viewpoint. Post-Summa, Lem styled this work as ‘a guide for mountain climbing’, implying an evidently geological landscape and timeline, with sovereign science cast as a climbing aid, a ladder, to scale rather than comprehend the matter or essence of these future ranges.4 Science is solely ‘a tool for achieving a goal’.
But Lem’s images of a lonely wheelbarrow and a rose yet to come summon a vision of Summa rather as a garden. A work of domestic imagination which can be refined towards that of a drifting robot-tended forest greenhouse, the closing image from the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running; a future underground garden of delight, or of sheer over-mined terror, or rather, at the core of Summa, an ‘information farm’.5
Miming Lem's own words regarding the imaginary essay Non Serviam that ‘it is difficult to condense arguments that take up such a large part of the book,’ an attempt can be made to pin Summa down to the negotiation of a fundamental barrier, namely the contrast between a wilful and limited design intelligence (the human brain) and an unknowing, unwitted, careless and care-free ‘Nature’, otherwise cast as evolution, necessarily closed off from the intellect.6
Image: Still, Andrei Tarvkovsky's Solaris, 1972
This is the blurred, unwritten7, yet all-historic division between a language which executes itself as evolution or nature, and a language which can only measure, order, describe and eventually set in motion relatively new descriptions in a matter which is other than its own substrate; a barrier between a language (say of amino acids) which reads and enacts or decodes itself (as matter, as word made flesh, the cell divides) and the plain text of a ‘formalized and transcoded bacteria’ which would take too long to explicitly decode and thus model or simulate.8 There is thus an informational or temporal relation which decides the fundamental blackboxing of nature or evolution and of any machinic mirroring of such a ‘gnostic machine’. In Lem's closing words, Summa is a call for technology to understand, to imitate and to improve on ‘a language which constructs philosophers, while ours constructs only philosophies.’9
On a micro level, a (cell) boundary or enclosure divides both natural (human) languages and formal languages (say of mathematics), from chromosomal language which understands nothing; on a meta-universal level (rather further on that continuum) a chasm stretches between the evolution of technology and biological evolution.
Summa can thus be viewed as an attempt to track the history and future story of this division, and a call (to arms) to shift in all senses the evolution of human technologies across this boundary, into self-execution and auto-regulation of its own design and matter, including the social. Lem describes a revolution in fundamental technology with the latter defined precisely as the ‘means of bringing about certain collectively determined goals that have been conditioned by the state of our knowledge and our social aptitude.’10
And this shift in human technologies is one which could be defined as moving from hands (with an apparent history of technology written in Bernard Stiegler's hand as this very organ allowing access to tekhne) to no hands, to mycelial roots in the darkness, signalling separation, handless, a darkness of no eyes or rather of only starswarm eyes, ears and tongues following Terence McKenna. From a knowing control to a chromosomic ‘out of control’ which cannot be given over to another ‘control’ or understanding, however mimed by a machine.11
And there is the equal handlessness of an equally alive geological, self-executing language, that which just does, what could be called earth code within which chromosomal language is embedded, and which is ignored to a certain extent by Lem outside the context of the story of the evolution of the planet and the universe; a handless civilisation which does not signal itself to any potential receiver unable to decode any such potential signs.12
Summa is a work of the past, concerning a future imagined in 1964 (although the edition translated here was subsequently revised between that date and 1974) which was (and is) ahead of both that date nearly 50 years ago and our times. A second potential review could assess and map the changes between that which exists, or rather existed at the time of Lem's projection, and the contemporary situation.13 What technologies did Lem successfully invent or predict in his speaking of the future based firmly on the forensic evidence provided by the scientific research, society and economics, technology and engineering of the embedded culture of that time?
Image: Still from Solaris
In attempting to ‘to catch up and outrun Nature’ through, for example, biological plagiarism (‘imitology’14) underwritten with the homeostatic mantra of cybernetics, Lem casts as both necessary and possible futures disciplines such as artificial intelligence (including the use of neural networks and genetic algorithms facilitated by the choice of a suitable, knowing fitness function), molecular nanotechnology, artificial life, synthetic biology, biological and material (or esoteric) computation, the Internet (as an aside), and deep virtual reality, to finally herald this technological singularity 20 or 30 years avant la lettre populaire.15 And this list is certainly not exhaustive.
Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual, since he writes in several styles and sometimes reads foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not – to gain monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas.
– Philip K. Dick, Letter to the FBI, 2 September, 1974
By way of introduction, and to stress the literary quality of Lem's future technologicals in contrast to our contemporary science and engineering achievements16, an excerpted glossary of Lem's key futurological terms could be attempted. This would embrace core concepts such as ‘Intelectronics’ (artificial intelligence taking off from the idea of the ‘intelligence amplifier’ after Ashby), ‘Imitology’ (the plagiarisation and forging of nature through entering into such processes ‘sideways’), ‘Phantomatics’ (the creation of imaginary or false realities through indirect, bidirectional feedbacked connection to the brain) and ‘Cerebromatics’ (the internal transformation or ‘falsification’ of the brain itself). Yet, the imaginary of these ideas (perhaps dressed up in a certain tawdry or shoddy scenery, the dirty, the vomited white roses of humanity or of Dick's Exegesis)17 unpruned by Lem's wielding of Occam's razor was already present in contemporary science fiction.18
Questions of authenticity, of ontological containment and embedding recall both Philip K. Dick and Daniel Galouye, whilst the relation of psyche and technology, which these ideas provoke, summons the ghost of moral Ballard with Lem appearing as positively utopian in the light of such comparisons, unless of course there is something else, some other game (theory or universe) in play here.19 It's a game in which Lem perhaps only appears to avoid pinning down the solemn future promises of an always applied science; a science which explicitly attempts to explain nothing, a Jabberwocky language mapping observed experimental phenomena and interior relationships, thus engineering a parallel Snark-world, a rose-garden painted in colours with the name of cybernetics, with the meaning of technology; and where evolution (either biological or technological) can only be defined as the perspective of technology on an always already outrun nature. And further, without admitting that the only vision of the future concerns technology. The future is all technology within the tautological of the rational which can only argue precisely itself. There is thus no future but only technology. Technology and science are not future developments but are the future. Eating itself, its own past as that which is knowledge, history becomes handy technology.
A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red.
– Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Yet another potential review would refer to a certain missing rose, lacking thorns (or a thorn always without a rose, to mime the disappearance of the Cheshire Cat); the question of the translation of a less-than-imaginary work in the Polish language better addressed by the ‘lunatic Derrida’ or computed here in terms of information theory, a core pre-occupation of Lem's throughout Summa. The project of information theory can be defined for Lem as a striving for the key to the successful acquisition, processing and transmission of increasing amounts of useful information (a megabyte bomb now beyond such measurement) about the world. Both the projected meaning of Summa and this act of translation thus present an essential relation between entropy, information, information theory and thus survival. Translation is that which is to be conducted literally 'for a living'; we are solely concerned with the ongoing transmission of a certain (genetic) code.20
Image: Cards Painting Roses Red, Queen Hearts Garden, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, illustration by Marjorie Torrey
Within that other frame, the translator Joanna Zylinska’s introduction quotes Lem (in her words ‘supposedly famous for writing “divorce letters” to his many translators!’) on the relativity of translation: ‘Some readers will always like this translation of Hamlet, while others will find a different one much more congenial.’ And in the translation of a parallel Shakespeare, the monkeys or the Swiftian Engines arrive at that text after so many million years, yet with one word removed from a love letter to the translator which is to be delivered with a flower.
According to the only translation available of the first chapter of Summa, before Zylinska's mammoth and refined work, this chapter entitled ‘Dilemmas’ which takes a critical approach to futurological divining, opens as follows:
Talk about the future. But isn't talking about future roses at least an inappropriate occupation for someone lost in the highly inflammable forests of the present? And the investigation of the thorns of these roses, the search for the problems of our great-grandchildren, while we cannot even deal with today's abundance of problems, does such scholasticism not border absurdity?
– Stanislaw Lem, ‘Dilemmas’, Dr. Frank Prengel, (trans.), 1997
Burning forests, roses and their thorns, wild or cultivated, are missing from Zylinska's opening, replaced in meaning with a simple ‘transience of the here and now’.21 The translator appears to have trimmed the excesses, the thorns and flowers of a wild rose opening the Summa, in favour of an information content, a knowledge contained within Summa, its pruned message. The truth in Summa, fairer for its sweet odour of meaning which does not die unto itself, favours an immortal information garden over a poetic or drifting stage-set wilderness.
Yet this garden (Summa), with or without critics, wheelbarrows or roses, is an enclosure, a contained or ‘encysted’ world in which the pruning scissors or surgeon's razor can be held with little consequence.
A thorough and contextual introduction from Zylinska points towards a certain escape hatch which Lem repeatedly introduces within his ‘worlds within worlds’ thought experiments, which allow for a two-way trade in certain ‘shards of humanism’. Quoting Jerzy Jarzebski, she describes Lem's tendency
to construct worlds equipped with a kind of umbilical cord, or a gateway to transcendence understood in physical and definitely lay terms. It makes it possible to remove eschatological questions into the other world, disburdening us from the duty of answering them within the bounds of the known cosmos.22
It's an enclosure which equally defers to the containing body the questions of how or why that which came to be exists as the world in its staging of certainty, and these are questions which instrumental science sees as useless, or simply poorly framed. A question of how a reality as experienced by this species is held as the individuation of a set of possibilities in the context of a mountain slope of increasing entropy, with no potential appeal to any enclosing daemon.
And this question of embedding is essential for any future world. As Lem argues, the creation and modification of an artificial environment (civilisation) does move ‘it further from Nature’. One stage further in this technological creation could result in a potential ‘encysting’ (the creation of an enclosed, artificial world), stepping into perhaps ‘universal phantomatics’ as conceived equally by Philip K. Dick. A world is constructed ‘within a world’, Russian dolled against an impinging animism or entropy gradient which knows of no enclosure, of no cell walls, of no disciplines which might name this or that process as electronic, as physical, as biological, as belonging to this or that domain, a promiscuous stupidity waving its branches. Ontology is a container question, left for the container world, sinking through the willed and unwilled of these paralleled treks of evolution, a question (not only) for the personoids unfortunately stranded this time without any container.23
Reviewing Non-Existent Books is Not Lem's Invention24
The critic is in a worse position: as the convict is chained to his wheelbarrow, so the reviewer is chained to the work reviewed.25
Summa Technologiae exists. It is not an imaginary work given life through some liturgy or spell. Yet in the same manner that the artificial quality of Lem's phantomatics (or virtual reality) is either revealed or concealed by the framing of the experience (for example, the apparent removal of the phantomatic helmet or set of electrodes which signals the end of the vision can equally well be constructed as a part of an embedding vision with each successive ‘waking up’ forged as a part of a further onion-skinned vision), so a certain parodic quality, relating equally to the forgery, to the artificial, the simulation, is either exposed or concealed by the framing of the core of Summa: the opening and closing curtains of the introduction (the case of the missing rose) and the conclusion, which compares Summa to a ‘slightly modified [...] version of the famous Ars Magna, which clever Lullus presented quite a long time ago, that is, in the year 1300, and which was rightly mocked by Swift in Gulliver's Travels.’26
Image: Still from Solaris
And it should also not be forgotten that Lem is a master of framing (witness also Lem's book of false prefaces, of introductions to non-existent books entitled Imaginary Magnitude), and of meta-games of steganographic deceit (miming the necessary deceit upheld by cybernetics as modelled on biological blackboxing).
In the case of that complimentary work to Summa, which offers some clues to its decoding, we can consider the review itself as a framing device for any (literary or scientific) work.27 In this case it is Lem's (framed as fictional) review which gives the game away (in the sense of both hiding and revealing what is afoot), a game which Lem plays well to the nth term, embedding meta-worlds within meta-worlds in the series of thought experiments which define Summa, spiralling into new territories for (human) biology (as) coupled with technology and transforming technology; a hieronymous machine outrunning nature, proceeding elliptically from plagiarism (of nature), through internal phantomatics, to finally reconstruct itself anew as an ‘autoevolutionary machine’, in Lem's words 'lampooning' and improving on (blind) nature.28
The unfathomable message of Summa (for readers in the 21st century, for a future society, for future ‘designers’ of this world) remains thankfully as obscure as the inner workings of a language which just does, of ‘Nature’ in geological or evolutionary time, expressed within the energetic (thermal) and informational (entropic) losses provoked by the continued existence of both disarmed monkeys and typewriters invoking and imagining the thorns of wild roses.
The only, bare truth of this new cosmogony, dying unto itself (the canker rose), is perhaps embedded within the title of an imagined book from the last chapter of A Perfect Vacuum – Die Welt as Spiel und Verschwoerung.29 The other alternative is that we can go further than Philip K. Dick in casting Lem (of course, in good humour) as seeding an out-of-control Sokal-istic information farm tasked with attempting to find meaning in the scientific construction of evolution (defined as without knowledge); to project out from this perfect vacuum and find meaning in the enclosure of that which is, without knowledge of the enclosing metaphysics, naming it as knowing nothing itself.30 But we know the world only with the frivolity and shallowness attained by Lewis Carroll's thin, painted playing cards and Humpty Dumpty's shattered shell enclosure.
Finally, the image of a rose (or rather rose bush) ‘in the form of chromosomal roots and a brainlike crown which form the large tree of evolution.’31
'Where does she wear the thorns?' Alice asked with some curiosity.
'Why all round her head, of course,' the Rose replied. 'I was wondering you hadn't got some too. I thought it was the regular rule.'
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
The roots are cast as ‘autonomous apsychic predictors’ crowned by the ‘intelligent device’; a ‘non-intelligent causality’ is privileged over the ‘brain model of intelligent causality.’32
This is the concluding image which presides magisterially over Summa, calling to mind as mycorrhizally symbiotic with those rosy roots, other, mycelial ‘roots’, a parody of the idea of an external nervous system, forming itself as both clever brain and stupid roots, as parasitic or saprotrophic on living and dead matter.
Just so as to open with Shakespeare and end with that ‘fungoidist’ McKenna (equally concerned with psychedelic cerebromatics, evolution – under the heading of the stoned ape theory – and singularity); a perfect vacuum and cut frame for the snuff film of future humanity.
A mycelial network has no organs to move the world, no hands; but higher animals with manipulative abilities can become partners with the star knowledge within me and if they act in good faith, return both themselves and their humble mushroom teacher to the million worlds all citizens of our starswarm are heir to.
-- Terence McKenna, The Mushroom Speaks
Martin Howse <m AT 1010.co.uk> is a personoid long engaged in tending a pyscho-geophysick garden, and currently tweaking the earth computer in mines and quarries.
1 Without giving the game away too soon, the idea of embedding can be demonstrated to be of prime importance both for Lem and the framing of a series of (imagined) reviews (or footnotes). We can define one sense of this embedding as the perhaps necessarily technological enclosing of the material (substrate) conditions of any civilisation. This embedding can be defined as any movement away from an unreflective 'nature'. Throughout Lem's work we encounter various beings contained within the material conditions of computational structures, for example Lem's GOLEM (in his Imaginary Magnitude) or the personoids within Lem's Non Serviam (in A Perfect Vacuum), who all approach questions of theology and transcendence with reference to this very enclosing. At the same time embedding can be viewed in the sense of the set of enclosures defined by either the staging of meta-narratives of self-reference (a review of a series of imagined reviews), or the explicitly framed scaffold of some kind of (virtual) reality; any enclosure is defined by the clear exposure of a constructed boundary condition (for example, the camera keeps on rolling, affording a view of the reality behind the scenes of that particular 'construction'; Stanislaw Lem. Summa Technologiae. p.295.
2 ‘Reviewing non-existent books is not Lem's invention.’ A Perfect Vacuum, Harcourt Publishers, 1983, p.3. Lem here admits that the idea presented within this book of fictional reviews of imaginary literary and scientific works is itself far from original. We could also reference here literary works such as the many composed almost entirely of footnotes, Lem's set of false prefaces, Imaginary Magnitude and J. G. Ballard's The Index.
3 A wheelbarrow we'll encounter in Lem's (fictional) introduction to A Perfect Vacuum.
4 Lem, Summa, p.175
5 Ibid. pp.237-266. The flower, or flower garden is presented as information which does not need to be processed by any computer or human. Information is ‘extracted from Nature directly’, p.86. The map or model is the territory or garden, enclosed yet with some kind of ‘side entrance’ for modifications into interior process.
6 Lem, A Perfect Vacuum, p.195.
7 In the sense of never being made evident in nature as some kind of message graven in stones or in the earth itself.
8 Summa, p.146.
9 Ibid., p.361.
10 Ibid, p.3-4.
11 Past hands have been guided by the intent to kill or to feed and heal. After all, (according to Lem) technology is and was totally innocent in offering either ploughshares or swords to these very hands. Summa is the future site for this particular question of the truth in technology.
12 A key question for Lem is why other civilisations (in ‘outer space’) have not made themselves visible. He gives, as one explanation, the potential ‘encystment’ of an advanced civilisation which would hide or enclose such a society within a ‘cybernetic-sociotechnical’ shell. Ibid. p.87.
13 As Lem himself attempted in the aptly titled collection of essays Moloch (not currently translated into English).
15However, the term ‘singularity’ in this context was first used by John von Neumann in the 1950s.
16 Technologies which are never ‘out of control’ to paraphrase Kevin Kelly's work, which owes a great debt to Lem.
17 ‘the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel’. In Stanislaw Lem’s Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans, an attack on North American science fiction which so enraged P. K. Dick.
18 Lem does admit of quasi-phantomatic conceits in science fiction literature, yet stresses the bidirectional quality of his own phantomatics defined as a feedback art. See Summa, p.194,5.
19 A notable example of this is Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron Three (1964), which forms the basis of the film The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and the German TV mini-series, Welt am Draht (1973) directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
20 According to the artificial intelligence of Lem's GOLEM, with reference to the genetic code, ‘THE MEANING OF THE TRANSMITTER IS THE TRANSMISSION.’ See, Lem, ImaginaryMagnitude, p.149.
21 ‘Yet isn't discoursing about future events a rather inappropriate occupation for those who are lost in the transience of the here and now?’ Lem, Summa, p.3.
22Summa, Translator's Introduction, p. XVI.
23 In A Perfect Vacuum, Lem refers to the personoids as certain algorithmic individuals contained within software or electronics, p.176.
25 Ibid. p.3. As a (real) introduction to A Perfect Vacuum, Lem writes a review of A Perfect Vacuum, in which he places this quotation in inverted commas as coming from the (not existing) introduction to the book under review, A Perfect Vacuum. A perfect moebius strip of quotation in quotation within an introduction which both does and does not exist (as the object of review, as itself), almost attaining some kind of executable life.
27 In A Perfect Vacuum the review of the imagined work, The New Cosmogony, is closest in conceit to Summa and is described by Lem in the parodic introduction to A Perfect Vacuum as, ‘a bit heavy for a joke’ weighted down with verbose ‘scientific argumentation [...] Shake [Lem] and out come logarithms and formulas.’ A Perfect Vacuum, p.6.
28 A hieronymous machine is a case in which the schematic representation (on paper) of the machine functions just as efficiently as the material machinery constructed from that design.
29 ‘The World as Game and Conspiracy’, where there is also a clue pointing towards Summa as a literary fantasy.
30‘The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. In subsequent publications, Sokal claimed that the submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether such a journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".’ Quoted from Wikipedia.