Web

I connected with a Lyft driver to San Francisco International Airport. After we struggled to locate each other, the conversation started amicably with the mutual lament of technology. She switched gears, and asked me where I was going – home in March 2020. She turned down the radio and began to divulge an intricate conspiracy about how the coronavirus originated as a bioweapon at a PLA research facility in Wuhan. It is hard to convey her meaning without adopting some of her language. This was warfare, part of an ongoing scheme cooked up by the new bloods, a biological clique of corporations and politicians, tied together by intercontinental trade treaties, to promote emasculating vegan and synthetic foods such as soy and direct the mainstream media to brainwash people into submitting like sheep – in my biblical rhetorical addition, silent before the shearers – to their plans for world domination. I don’t know how much deeper the theory goes, but this is what she told me. She was safe from coronavirus, for she was a free-thinking old blood, fortified by meat and organic foods such as grains and pulses. She made her own way in the world, poring over unsung scholarship on Neanderthal genetics and the cultural dominance of a creatively evil sociobiological cult. We think in context. Like this piece, whatever my Lift driver was reading was consumed and produced within the grammatical, epistemological, and material conditions of modern intersubjectivity. Since we must always proceed with simplification to render these relations penetrable, let us celebrate the phenomenon of metaphor with yet another. Our thought and speech is the iridescent spume of a delicate, lathered, and meaningful linguistic web.

In the late twentieth century, postmodern thinkers declared a crisis of the metanarrative and helped make one. It’s such a banal point today that it doesn’t seem to bear repeating. Our ideas are consumed in a free market and a mass society, where the distortions of oligarchy produce a cultural dislocation and atomisation so profound, that it could reasonably be called anomie. Market culture is spun on an enormous, labyrinthine web of material semiotics. We know that we are subjects to an architecture lurking behind the representational veil of phenomenological immediacy. Yet, from the capture threads, we have no good view of the composite latticework of our embedding mesh. We look from within the lacy net, even when we want a birds eye view above. Sometimes we build an intricate shelter and cocoon ourselves. It can seem a more comforting fate than an endless traversal through cavernous cobwebs, knowing that, despite Kant’s best efforts, we really do remain stuck in Plato’s cave.

But occasionally, on a dewy morning, we are bespattered by refracting droplets. We hope to look through them, by scoping the silken strands, and positioning spores at vantages we believe will reflect the metaphysics of our interdependence. In moments of honesty, we give the lie to it, and in earnestness admit, that because we cannot hold our poise long enough to match pace with the quick spinnerets, we are doomed to see only through the convex, incandescent surface foam gathered in amorphous globules, on the surface of this enthralling gossamer.

Before the recent fermentations, we ordained ourselves not just observers, but engineers of the web – with our little spinning machines and positive sciences. We laid faith in conveying to each other the visual echos of order reflected on our beady driblets, into a systematic view of the orbicular whole. We denied in hubristic transcendence our imperfect vista of a frothy topography. This, we might say, is still the theology of the contemporary idealist: we must plot ourselves from the ground up, deconstruct forsaken certainties in preparation to reconstruct, and unveil objects of specious ontological coherence as sinister syndicates. But if we deigned to know too much, then now we must either reflect on how little we know or claim to know a lot from little. In neither case would we would know enough. Perhaps we can disentangle and re-entangle our web with reified terms to encompass our entanglement. And yet deindustrialisation, globalisation, neoliberalism, poststructuralism, as terms alone, can hardly convey the sodden gauze seething between our stretched, frayed, and dangling threads.

I submit that our crisis lies in semiotic circumnavigation, which has always been the most serious challenge to enlightenment. We are the spiders of our own web, unable to spin in concord, only registering our interconnections in second-order refractions. We must find refuge long enough to form and peer through droplets, which appear only sometimes, and are distorted on the glimmering and trembling web, by fluid dynamics so profoundly vast and complex in their flows and surface tensions, that their culminations and dispersions can only clearly be traced in retrospect. And yet, as historians and critics of modernity know well, the latticework of our symbolic culture was co-produced by its efforts to disentangle and re-entangle it. Our fractured condition is the efficient cause and final consequence of the failure of social science to capture authoritatively the structure of the mesh.

Our arachnid counterparts sometimes clutch their paws for our legs, as we do theirs. But we depend daily on the financial, technological, and bureaucratic infrastructure which makes transactional relationships with strangers possible, and the love and familiarity between people close to each other, despite the juddering vortex of our constitutive semiotic context. The defiant self, subjected to the totality of modern state and society, terrors in its ignorance. But the body can lay faith in the easy phantasmagoria of cybernetics. The Lyft driver safely deposited me at the airport, where I didn’t spare a second thought putting my life in the hands of the anonymous pilots tasked to steer a Dreamliner safely to Heathrow. I peered out the pressurised cabin to see Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, where freeways and urban nodes intersect an endless landscape formed by crop cultivation and circle irrigation. At an altitude of seven miles, you get some sense of the magnitude of the arctic tundras of Manitoba, the vast glaciers and frozen volcanos of Greenland, and the immense expanse of the Atlantic ocean. Delirious after ten hours, I found myself descending into the rolling hills and hedgerows of England in a machine which stands in all ways for narrow vantage.