TONGUES OF FIRE, WHIRLWINDS OF NOISE:
Images of Spiritual Information
By Erik Davis
In the beginning was the Info, and the Info was with God, and the Info was God.
--The Gospel (somewhat) According to Saint John
Information is low on the totem pole of consciousness, just a notch up from raw data and a leg up from total noise. In contrast to knowledge or wisdom or understanding--which, we imagine, well up from within or slowly blossom with time and diligence--information comes in discrete packages of data, signals bursting from without. Information is perhaps the most worldly (even "fallen") form of knowledge--newspaper listings, messages scrawled on match-books, coded satellite transmissions, as well as maps of systems, astrological charts, and secret names whispered in alleyways. Information is the work of the messenger Hermes, who transforms static piles of raw data into knowledge merely by transporting it to the right place at the right time.
Most spiritual seekers bone up on all sorts of information along the way: symbology, cosmologies, the lives of the great thinkers, numbers and names, the properties of herbs and incense and spirits. The magical traditions of the West have generated a particularly large amount of information; a book like Dione Fortune's Mystical Qabalah is as packed with data as any mechanic's manual. And much of the power of hermetic magic has to do with the raw power of information in itself--the power to create it, to conceal it, to use it at the right time.
This collection of spiritual bric-a-brac is the mental equivalent of the material props of ceremony, setting the stage for the transformation of consciousness. But magical information is a necessary tool, and perhaps a necessarily excessive one at that. As Israel Regardie colorfully writes, "By each act, word, and thought, the one object of the ceremony--the Invocation of the holy Guardian Angel--is being constantly indicated. Every fumigation, invocation, banishing and circumambulation is simply a reminder of the single purpose until--after symbol upon symbol, emotion after emotion have been added--the supreme moment arrives, and every force-channel of the Nephesch and Ruach is strained in one overwhelming orgasm..."  Here the sheer glut of information, rather than the specific content of the information, catalyses consciousness.
Spiritual information is not restricted to occult correspondences piled on until the mind is blown. Sometimes information comes unbeckoned, a gnostic blast from beyond: inner voices, crystalline dreams, a book opened at random. For some, the immediate task is not to discover more secret information, but to reorganize consciousness in order to receive apparently random signs and signals from the world and make spiritual sense of them. Other more willful systems of communication exist, such as channeling, dream research, or divination. Each has its own peculiar mode of information processing. Divination is probably the most complex model of spiritual information, because it produces a context-specific message out of a static source (a book, a deck of cards), and it does so by reading information into chance arrangements, finding a signal where reason sees mere noise.
But whether the source is the Holy Guardian Angel or the I Ching or the crusty overlords of Mu, "messages from beyond" (even if they are merely beyond the ego-mind) are forms of information, and information is a trickster. Information can be clear and confusing, constructive and false, empty and far too bountiful. It knocks on the door just when you're going to sleep, or drops at your feet with such beautiful timing you almost trip on it. As psychedelic travellers know, weaving patterns out of isolated bits of data can reveal obscure truths of self and world. Of course, as many I Ching or Tarot junkies have experienced, the "message" is often as clear as fog, and wisdom is generated from struggling with its various potential contexts and meanings. Ambiguity is the secret soul of information.
The need to directly grapple with information is particularly strong today, given earth's new skin of communications, the web of computers, data networks, satellites, modems, and monitors that some call the Net. The Net is as much our environment as the biosphere, and in itself will neither save us nor sentence us to doom. While some bemoan its artificiality, others learn to sifting through the Net for seeds and messages. Some, tanked up on smart drugs and virtual dreams, find that surfing the turbulent waves of information can be a way in itself. But no matter how much our spirits distrust technology, the desire to communicate and be connected, as well as the sense that the Net is perhaps part of some plan, creates the need to wrestle with the angel of information.
Information myths are already afoot, and many of them obscure as much as they illuminate. Crystals are imagined as rocky personal computers that store and process soul. Paranoid theorists undercover hidden networks of coded conspiracies which link every bit of data that has strayed into their path. UFO churches, the channelling fad (spiritualist TV) and Starseed transmissions all point to literalist cults of information, where the messages received are uncritically celebrated as revealed truth even as the "messages" themselves often consist of bad SF plots or a noisy haze of New Age jargon. Many evangelical Protestants believe that technology exists not only to spread the pure signal of God's Word across the globe, but to help bring about the apocalypse itself. Citing Matthew 24:14 ("And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come"), some even hold that the angels in Revelation refer to global satellites.
The information explosion is not just a matter of hardware. Current estimates hold that total human knowledge is now doubling every seven years. Having discovered that spiritual information makes great commodities, the New Age has glutted the consciousness market with tapes, books, videos, and magazines. New systems, seminars, and gurus pop up like mushrooms (though they are usually far less eye-opening) and the wisdom of the world lines the shelves. One one hand, we are blessed: not only is a significant portion of the world's spiritual literature available, but it is even likely that just what you need is lying there in the haystack. But given the overwhelming range of options and the ingrained consumer myth that buying information is the same thing as knowing it deeply, the difficulty of managing this data glut exacerbates the doubt that always undergirds free spiritual choice: What path do I follow? Do I read a little about everything, synthesizing different systems, or do I dive deeply into one thing? Is this system, or set of exercise, or teacher, the right one? How do I pull the pearls from the crap? Most of these questions are subsumed in one underlying question: Where do I get the information about all this information?
The answers to such questions are inevitably tricky and never written in stone, in part because the path seems more and more like many paths that keep bifurcating and crossing one another. Still, myths of information--from magickal grimoires to Odin's exchange of an eye for runes to SF tales of orisha in cyberspace--help us get a handle on these rules of thumb. While such models would in some sense constitute a "new" Gnosticism, they would also extend an ancient heritage that undergirds much of the exoteric and esoteric traditions of the West: the heritage of the Logos. The Logos is far more than simply information. A legacy which encompasses everything from the kabbalist's Torah to the gnostic's Alien Call to the Bible-thumper's Word to the acid-head's Sirius transmissions can never be reduced to one code, even (and especially) the Greek word logos.
The Logos was a foundation of Greek rationalism, and played a strong role in the intellectual history of the Christian West, undergirding in part its often oppressive emphasis on reason and the unhealthy dualism of body and spirit. Yet Hermes, Thoth, and other trickster-messenger-language gods are all lords of Logos. As the field where language and spirit cross, where code and cosmos fold into each other, the Logos remains the West's fundamental image, not only of divine information, but of the mystical, hermetic, and pagan ways that info is often communicated.
Wrestling with the Info Angel
Often a little flick is sufficient for a decision to be made. Heads or tails, a book opened at random...The bit of noise, the small random element, transforms one system or one order into another.
--Michel Serres, The Parasite
Science, like myth, is a way of ordering the world, and in order to grapple with today's information paradigm, it's important to look at the science that undergirds Gaia's new digital skin: information theory. While a full understanding would require a mess of math, statistics, and engineering, the issues raised by information theory relate at least as much to contemporary spiritual paradigms as do the quantum physics popularized in such books as Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. Of course, the problems of integrating analogies drawn from science into metaphysics remain, since "information" is vastly different for an AT&T technician than it is for a psychologist or a New Age channeller.
Information theory was developed by Claude Shannon at Bell Labs during the 1940s, that pivotal decade which saw, among other things, the bomb, the first digital computer, and the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Shannon's papers dealt with the basic situation of a message passing from a sender to a receiver over a channel. This message is always battling against noise--chance fluctuations, interference, static, error. Shannon's second theorem proved that an ideal code exists for any message, so that the message can be guaranteed to survive the journey through noise, the only limit being a natural one: the capacity of the channel (it's so-called band-width). Shannon did not provide this "ideal code"--it has been called the Holy Grail of info theory--but he did show that is technically possible. He also showed that noise is always waiting at the wings.
Shannon gave information an abstract form, creating a universally applicable model that would be true of all communications channels (language, DNA, Jeopardy! broadcasts). Shannon chose as the basic unit of his theory the digital code, the fundamental coupling of 1 and 0, on and off, light and the absence of light. Because the integrity of the message must be protected against noise, messages are sent using many different kinds of codes, each with different degrees of complexity and accuracy. Typical signals do not just deliver the desired message, but send along additional information, keys to the code, and data that allows the receiver to know, for example, that the message received is the right one. This meta-information (information about information) is based on redundancy, and consists of various means of repeating the information so that if noise interrupts some portion of the signal, the entire message will still get through. Secret codes, such as those Shannon worked on during the Second World War, mix in the ever-changing keys to the code within the messages themselves--the enemy being no longer just noise but other human decoders.
Information theory does not just apply to the sender and the channel, but to the receiver as well. Obviously, language is a system of information, but for you to give me real information, you must tell me something new. Thus information requires an amount of uncertainty on the part of the receiver--if I knew exactly what you're going to say to me, it's not really information, even if the signal is clear. On the other hand, for me to understand you in the first place, there needs to be redundancy in your message, and much of what we say or write is a padding of repetition and strict rules which themselves produce no new information. You need to be somewhat predictable. Redundancy insures that not too much novelty occurs, because that degree of freedom would confound us much as James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake most readers.
In a broader sense, there is an element of "subjectivity" in any communications circuit, because the amount of information received depends in part on how primed the consciousness of the receiver is to the incoming message and code. In his marvelous book Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life,2 Jeremy Campbell uses the example of the different degrees of uncertainty generated by three students listening to an economics professor. Only two of the students know English, and only one of whom knows economics jargon. For the non-English speaker, there is so much uncertainty, so little predictability, that no information gets through. On the other hand, the business major's pre-knowledge makes the arrangements of the professor's mouth-sounds more probable, less surprising, but more information-rich than they are for the non-English speaker, or even for the English speaker who isn't familiar with economics.
At the heart of information theory, then, is probability, which is the measure of the likelihood of one result (he letter "e" or the Knight of Cups) out of a field of all possibilities (the English language or a Tarot deck). For the non-English speaker in the above example, every sound spoken is equally unpredictable. Probability is a trickster, slipping between objectivity and subjectivity, knowledge and world; Campbell quotes the mathematician James R. Newman as calling it "a nest of subtleties and traps." As if to complicate matters, Claude Shannon called the probability distribution in a given information system the system's entropy . The more unpredictable the message--the more it approached random noise--the more entropic the system. As any Pynchon fan knows, the original sense of entropy involves the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that any closed system will tend to become less ordered. Shannon realized that the measure of information in his equation took exactly the same form as Boltzman's equation for entropy: S = k log W, where S is entropy, k is Boltzman's constant, and W is the number of ways the parts of the system can be arranged. When Shannon mapped this equation from physics to information, entropy becomes coupled with noise.
The analogy between entropy and noise is metaphysically rich, illuminating everyone from Plato to Philip K. Dick and suggesting a hidden statistical link between mind and matter. Most scientists would condemn such efforts as being lost in the haze of metaphor. But consciousness (and science itself) often uncovers itself through analogy, as the migration of entropy from physics to information theory itself demonstrates. For the French philosopher of science Michel Serres, a solid understanding of science leads directly into poetry and myth. And in his essay "The Origin of Language," along with his book The Parasite , he opens up information theory to a mythic but rigorous imaginative understanding.
For Serres, the play of information involves three actors--the sender, the receiver, and noise, which he calls "the third man" or the "parasite" (in French, parasite means static). The sender and the receiver set up a system of communication to defeat the third man, the demon of noise. But Serres' genius is to recognize that these three actors themselves form a total system, and that the demon parasite paradoxically forces the two other actors to integrate on a more holistic level. Its a matter of a change of perspective: what looks like noise (or a demon) from one level becomes an integral aspect of a dynamic system from a more integrated level.
This can be seen in some theories of evolution. The information-processing system of DNA has enough entropy to allow chance mutations--noise--to change the instructions for the individual being constructed. Through the trial and error of evolution, these noisy mutants help the species as a whole evolves into higher complexity. Mutants are the magic of the future. For Serres, noise is the trickster of ambiguity; what at first appears like a deadly interruption can actually lead to a new order. What is the parasite? Invader or symbiont, obstacle or bridge, beggar or wise man? Whatever the case, as Serres says, "The parasite invents something new".
For Serres, mind and language are the highly integrated end of a process that begins at a molecular level. Biological processing at this level produce a deep hum of signal and noise that comes to us ultimately as the "unconscious"--which we all know can behave just like Serres's demon, interupting the clear signals of reason with ambiguous promptings, yet forcing us to more fully integrate out being. Mind too is many-leveled; many of us have had the experience of watching the mind watch the mind process information. (Perhaps consciousness expands through these "metalevels" until the observer disappears.) As Serres says "Either I am submerged in signal exchange or I observe the global set of exchanges"--that is, either noise appears as an enemy or as part of the greater dance. Ultimately, this ambiguous play of information melts the difference between subject and object, mind and cosmos:
There is only one type of knowledge and it is always linked to an observer, an observer submerged in a system or in its proximity...His position changes only the relationship between noise and information, but he himself never effaces these two stable presences...noise, disorder, and chaos on one side; complexity, arrangement, and distribution on the other. Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world; we are drifting together toward the noise and the black depths of the universe, and our diverse systemic complexions are flowing up the entropic stream, toward the solar origin, itself adrift.
The Hymn of Original Code
Shannon's basic information system concerned a field of possible messages out of which certain messages are sent. There is thus a distinction between the information source--the original field of possibilities--and the information act--the specific message sent to a receiver along a noisy channel. The English language is a source code, while the sentence you are reading is a particular message. Transposing this distinction into esoteric terms, we could see Logos as operating in two basic modes: the transcendent potential source and the immanent communicated message, the Word that is with God and the Word that is made flesh.
Of all Western mystical traditions, the deep contemplation of the transcendent form of the Logos may be the one most equivalent to munching a handful of pure Sandoz sugarcubes and staring at an empty wall (though without the inevitable distortions). Jewish mystics possessed such intrepid minds, and Kabbalah, the most rational and information-conscious Western esoteric tradition, arose in part from the mystical understanding of God's original divine linguistic code. This imagined Torah preexisted the scriptural and oral Torah found on earth. Some mystics saw the four letters of the Tetragrammaton--YHVH, the four letters of God's name--as the source of all other letters and words in this original Torah. As Gershom Scholem writes in his essay, "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism," this Torah "is the Name of God, because it is a living texture, a 'textus' in the literal sense of the word, in which the one true name, the tetragrammaton, is woven in a secret, indirect way."
The original Torah exists in potential, and consists of what one of Scholem's sources called "the concentrated, not yet unfolded Torah." The world comes into existence through the explication of this Torah--the emanation of the sefirot. But only some of the potentialities are expressed. Scholem quotes an 18th century Kabbalist named Rabbi Eliyahu, who wrote how God
had before Him numerous letters that were not joined into words as is the case today, because the actual arrangement of the words would depend on the way in which this lower world conducted itself. Because of Adam's sin, God arranged the letters before Him into the words describing death and other earthly things...The same letters would have been joined into words telling a different story. That is why the scroll of the Torah contains no vowels, no punctuation and no accents, as an allusion to the Torah which originally formed a heap of unarranged letters.
The original Torah is a heap of scrambled letters, a code so dense that the same letters can breed entirely different wor(l)ds depending on their organization. Once these letters are arranged in the more limited (and redundant) form of words, the Torah "unfolds" into the particular shapes of the world (though human conduct determines what words we get). The original Torah is analogous to the earthly scroll of Torah, which was densely written without punctuation or vowels. Jewish mystics figured by analogy that if the earthly Torahs' letters are read in different arrangements, new and hidden divine messages would emerge. So they developed practices like Notariqon and Temurah, bizarre techniques of reading that involved skipping and transposing letters.
Let's imagine Claude Shannon in a heavy, dark coat with twinkling eyes, sidelocks, and a Bible opened to Ezekiel. He might say that the kabbalist's living language of code was DNA, and if we allow ourselves to ride the analogy, we might agree. DNA is an information system, with a sender--message--receiver form. DNA's basic code consists of four different nucleotides which are multiplied along the linear strand of the double helix (while YHVH contains only three letters, it also includes four units). The arrangement of these four "letters" (AGCT) produces "words" (called codons) which combine into instructions for the cell. Through copying itself, DNA sends its instruction code through messenger RNA, which delivers the message to factories in the cell, which then copy the code into a sequence of amino acids. This linear string of amino acids then literally folds into three-dimensional proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for the life of the world.
Some DNA messages code for specific proteins, while others concern structural commands and other information: how to edit and arrange the information, when to start and stop, etc. And 97% of the original DNA seems to be junk, random noise that means and produces nothing. Recently, in order to retrieve the meaningful "words" buried in the babble of "AGGCAGCTTGA...", some scientists began using linguistic techniques originally developed to decipher ancient languages, many of which, like DNA, are written without spaces between words. These techniques involve different kinds of statistical probability analysis developed out of information theory.
Old Claude is really grinning at this point, but he has one more trick up his sleeve. At first scientists thought any given strand of DNA contained only one sequence of instructions. But in Grammatical Man, Campbell writes about a virus which mystified scientists because its DNA was much too short to code for all the proteins that it was commanding the host cell to produce. Scientists then discovered that the viral DNA superimposed different instruction sequences on top of one another, so that its sequence would have different meanings depending on where you started reading the letters. As the kabbalists reasoned long ago, living language is a language of layered meanings.
The Hymn of the Divine Transponder
If the mystical Torah gives us myths of the source code, Gnosticism gives us myths of the receiver. Gnosticism is rooted here, in the world of noise, illusion, and interference, and behind its obscure cosmologies and often harsh dualism, it teaches us to be receptive to the signals that trigger the spark within and to recognize the pearls scattered in the dust. Those who hold that "true" gnosis is not information but only an ineffable rush of super-consciousness should note this Valentinian formula: "What liberates us is the knowledge of who we were, what we became, where we were, whereinto we have been thrown, whereto we speed, where from we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth." Gnosis not only contains information--histories, systems, descriptions, and true names--but arrives in the form of information: a sudden blast of data which is identical with the abrupt realization that such information exists. Gnosis is information about information. As one Mandean text puts it, "One Call comes and instructs about all Calls."
The Gnostic "Hymn of the Pearl" is one of the most profound info myths of antiquity. In the beginning of the tale, the unnamed hero is told by his parents that he must journey from their home in the East to Egypt in order to retrieve a pearl guarded by a serpent. Once in Egypt, he's in a bar when he encounters a fellow "anointed one": "And I made him my confidante / with whom I shared my mission." They nervously discuss the scary ways of the Egyptians, which leads the hero to don an Egyptian cloak in order to disguise himself. "But somehow they learned / I was not their countryman, / and they dealt with me cunningly / and gave me their food to eat." Drugged, he falls into the sleep of ignorance and error, and forgets his identity and his mission.
But then the hero receives a letter from his father and mother, "sealed by the king with his right hand / against the evil ones, the children of Babel." Before being opened, the missive commands him to "awake and rise from your sleep / and hear the words of our letter":
At its voice and the sound of its rustling
I awoke and rose from my sleep.
I took it, kissed it,
broke its seal and read.
And the words written on my heart
were in the letter for me to read.
I remembered that I was a son of Kings
and my free soul longed for its own kind.
Not only does the letter break through to "the words written on my heart", but these words provide the hero with the magic information--the names of his father and mother--which he subsequently uses to charm the serpent. Then, having retrieved the pearl, he heads east.
On my way the letter that awakened me
was lying on the road.
And as it had awakened me with is voice
So it guided me with its light;
and it was written in Chinese silk,
and shone before me in its own form.
Guided by the letter, the hero returns home. There he changes his clothes, and puts on a stunning robe that "quiver(s) all over / with the movements of gnosis." Spiffed up, he ascends to greet the king.
Though ostensibly an action-packed tale of serpents and battles, the Hymn is essentially a story about messages. The hero's information- processing takes up far more lines that the battle with the serpent or the description of the pearl. Information is exchanged in the bar, and the information is then overheard. A letter arrives, bearing many messages. The first message--"wake up and read this information"--is delivered before the letter itself is opened, which points to the crucial role of meta-information in gnosis--information about information. Like Alice's cake, or a talking magic mushroom, Gnostic info says "eat me." But the message within the letter boots up information already contained within the soul of our hero: Valentinus' recollection of true origins and destiny. This interior gnostic spark--the pneuma--behaves similarly to the radio transponders found on satellites (transponders receive and transmit radio signals, but lie dormant until they receive a specific signal which makes them active). While the wake-up call comes unasked for, here the hero must also choose to "break the seal," to crack through the surface ambiguity, to break the code.
The Hymn also draws an important distinction between information and consciousness. Logos hangs between the self and the transcendental divine like a cloak, the luxurious "Chinese silk" of the hero's letter, the patterns of quivering gnosis on the holy robe. But can we also see the dense texture of this cloth as text? Such a living text would not be the static book of the fundamentalist Christian or Muslim, with its literalist truths, but text as a dynamic field of potential meanings, emergent patterns, and new (even cybernetic) life.
For the libertarian Gnostics, this living language did not have to come through conventional channels of priestly authority or traditional interpretations of scripture. Thus, while the letter initially reaches the hero directly through the mail, the second time he finds it "lying on the road." Divine data are scattered everywhere, on TV, in the market, and perhaps especially on the road, which of course is channel of exchanges, of street noise and foreign tongues. As Philip K. Dick says at the end of VALIS , "the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum."
But how do the bad guys fit into the Hymn? The images of the Egyptians and the serpent (the nasty worldly power which most Gnostics associate the Demiurge) are ambiguous. Psychologically, they could stand for the blathering ignorant ego or the common fabric of daily life that is in itself benign but can drown out the spirit. Following Serres' insight, we know that this obliterating noise is paradoxically capable of catalyzing consciousness--in one Mandean gnostic tale, the evil world-powers get so raucous that "their noise fell upon Adam's ear [and] he awoke from his slumber and lifted his eyes to the place of the light."
Yet the Hymn insists not only on the foolish noise of this world, but on its conscious desire to slip the spirit a mickey. In its crudest form, this dualism leads to the Satanic conspiracy theories of fundamentalist Christians, where TV is the eye of hell and Gaia is the whore of Babylon. Such dualism seems unacceptable, however, and sophisticated Gnostics, such as Valentinus (or Phil Dick, for that matter) developed more complex ways of integrating error into the cosmic plan. For Valentinus, the evil of the Demiurge results from his ignorance (lack of information) about the true structure of the cosmos, which we could see as the "error" of scrambled signals as well as the unwillingness to doubt one's current views. Because the Demiuge does not receive messages from a higher level of integration than the material world, he presumes these spiritual orders of complexity do not exist (rationalists, take note). For some Gnostics, then, the fallen world is not hell but a stage of transforming ignorance into light, often through clandestine communications. As Hans Jonas describes, "Through [the Demiurge's] unknowing agency, the spiritual seed was implanted in the human soul and body, to be carried there as if in a womb until it had grown sufficiently to receive the Logos. The pneuma sojourns in the world in order to be pre-formed there for the final 'information' through the gnosis."
At the same time, the Demiurge is plastering the world with false information. The Gnostic thus imagines a battle of world-views, the Demiurge being a reactionary force of ignorance that appears in many guises. Within the self, his is a voice of inner tyranny and bloated pride that can lurk behind every positive intention. In the world at large (particularly in the media), his role is all too evident--he tells you money is everything, TV is true, bombs are good, pollution's no big deal. He doesn't tell you about his secret hoards of data, his underworld connections, his hatred of ordinary people. Gnosticism holds that knowledge, information, and communication can overcome (or at least slip by) the ambiguous deceptions of the Demiurge, whether they be an internal voice of doubt or the domination of the global Net by a multinational cabal. The desire for liberation drives the Gnostic to not only read the signs, but to make new ones and transmit them all over the world, through whatever channels are at hand.
The Hymn of the Burning Broadcast
The "Hymn of the Pearl" describes divine information entering a solipsistic soul alone in a dark world. A far different myth of information, emphasizing its communitarian aspects, can be found in one of the most gnostic and mystical moments in the New Testament: the transmission of the Holy Spirit into the world. Following the death of Jesus, the disciples gather for the Harvest feast of Pentecost:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because every man heard them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:1-6)
Significantly, before the Spirit whips down, the large group of disciples (there were around 120 at this point) are "all with one accord in one place." Though at this point lacking the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they becomes inter-connected without discord. Yet though they are at peace, the Spirit arrives not with the calm tones of the dove, but with the rush of a ferocious wind. And it is this sound--not the subsequent speaking in tongues--that seems to be "noised abroad." Noise, the chaos of the rushing churning wind, is bearing the gift of Logos, just as a turbulent stream contains a hidden order of whorls and nested vortices. The noise of Pentecost is the sound of the world's shell cracking from without, the initial ambiguity--terrifying, exhilarating, disorienting--that boosts the consciousness. The Holy Spirit, we remember, is also knows as the Paraclete, the intercessor. It interrupts before it transforms the field of communication. Or as Serres puts it, "the parasite Paraclete becomes the host"."
The Logos burns with language, the "cloven tongues" of Heraclitis' fire (the original Torah was also said to be written with fire). Upon receiving this mystical feast of language, the group immediately broadcasts the "wonders of God" to the community. Drawn as any crowd by the noise, the people come, including wise men "out of every nation under heaven." They hear the spirit speak in their own language. Thus the disciples' community of consciousness has expanded, through the mystical noise, from a tight-knit collection "in one place" to a literally global order of integration.
Traditional Christianity, though continually splitting off into separate interpretive communities, nonetheless essentially insists that the Holy Spirit's message of Christ has one meaning for all people, regardless of their personal or cultural context. In its most base form, this belief leads to the notion found not only among American Bible-thumpers, but among all fundamentalists: that divine information does not come coupled with noise, that the Word has only one frequency of meaning. Yet the tale of Pentecost, a story about information, may tell us a different story.
Do all the folks gathered at Pentecost here one message? The fact that the Spirit is translated into all the world's languages could also mean that Logos has local knowledge, and changes its shape dependent on context. Behind this apparent image of the universality of Christ's message lies an image of pluralism, even of cacophony. Over a hundred men are set upon by "cloven tongues" of linguistic fire, the Logos splitting like the devil's hoof into many tongues, which lick their foreheads, triggering the sparks within. Many gather and hear many languages. What signals one is noise to others, yet all are babbling prophets sharing an ecstasy of communication (some onlookers accuse them of being smashed on "new wine"). The medium is the message and the message is the spirit within that comes from without, signal and noise crossing boundaries with one another in the fiery flow of unfolding.
TUNE IN, TURN ON, LINK UP
Understanding information as a specific category of consciousness is a foundation of spiritual work. Our knowledge arises from information, and the form that knowledge takes is affected not only by the content of the information we take in, but on how, when, and in what form we take it in. As kabbalists know, meditating on the organization of information is often as important as the information itself. This has never been more true than today, an age when we so desperately seek to organize the information that's gushing all around us, while simultaneously remaining sensitive to the truly relevant messages, from both within and without, that are so easily drowned out by the noise of the world.
While leaving untold problems intact and in some cases consolidating the demiurgic power of the very few, the information age has helped create a globe that is more aware of itself. At the same time, personal computers has encouraged a movement away from the center and towards the margins, a tendency seen in everything from the cultural politics of multiculturalists and gays to the local defense of ecosystems to the cyberspace communities of bulletin boards and networking Neo-pagans. In order to prevent this budding tribalism from creating a cultural equivalent of Yugoslavia, we need to send out smoke signals, pound the talking drum, scrawl messages on canyon walls, anything to exchange information between tribes. For information does not really become itself until it is communicated, and communicated in a way that grapples with noise.
Spiritually, we may be entering an age as vital and eclectic as that seen in Alexandria nearly two millennium ago, when Gnosticism, Judaism, hermeticism, Egyptian religion, Greek metaphysics, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity created a delirious dance, producing new forms of spirit from the mutant intermingling of traditions. (Taken in its broadest sense, the New Age already reveals some positive and many negative aspects of such radical eclecticism, though I'm sure Alexandria had its share of bogus channelers and power freaks.) Part of the goal of any contemporary Gnosticism would be to permit the diversity of contemporary spirituality could be expressed with integrity, and to enable new forms and myths to emerge from the turbulent exchange between tradition and novelty, monotheism and paganism, even between spirit and technology. Perhaps the field of this exchange would resemble the kabbalist's Tree of Life, where messages and images would circulate and recombine through a variety of shifting paths and relay points, as the evolving pattern of the Tree itself produced new information. Of course, the analogy of the tree was always something of a stretch, as no known trees possess branches that merge back into the trunk. But I've seen networks of computers that do that, and much more.
(Originally appeared in Gnosis , no.23, Spring 1992)
Back to Erik Davis' figments