What is the Semantic Apocalypse?
Here’s the comic book version (the only version, given the kinds of complexities these issues generalize over):
In social terms, you could suggest that the Semantic Apocalypse has already happened. Consumer society is a society where liberal democratic states have retreated from the ‘meaning game,’ leaving the intractable issue to its constituents. Given the interpretative ambiguity that permeates the Question of Meaning, there is no discursive or evidential way of commanding any kind of consensus: this is why states past and present had to resort to coercion to promote meaning solidarity. Absent coercion, people pretty much climb on whatever dogmatic bandwagon that appeals to them, typically the ones that most resonate with their childhood socialization, or as we like to call it, their ‘heart.’
The result of this heterogeniety is a society lacking any universal meaning-based imperatives: all the ‘shoulds’ of a meaningful life are either individual or subcultural. As a result, the only universal imperatives that remain are those arising out of our shared biology: our fears and hungers. Thus, consumer society, the efficient organization of humans around the facts of their shared animality.
In biological terms, my fear is that the Semantic Apocalypse is about to happen. Despite the florid diversity of answers to the Question of Meaning, they tend to display a remarkable degree of structural convergence. This is what you would expect, given that we are neurologically wired for meaning, to look at the world in terms of intent, purpose, and propriety. Research in this last, the biology of morality, has found striking convergences in moral thought across what otherwise seem vast cultural chasms.
Even though we cannot agree on the answer, we all agree on the importance of the question, and the shapes that answers should take – even apparently radical departures from traditional thought, such as Buddhism. No matter how diverse the answers seem to be, they all remain anchored in the facts of our shared neurophysiology.
So what happens when we inevitably leave that shared neurophysiology behind?
The breakdown of traditional solidarity under the reflective scrutiny of the Enlightenment was recouped by the existence of what might be called a bigger box: the imperatives we share by virtue of our common neurophysiology. We could do without shared pictures of meaning (as traditionally defined) because we could manage quite nicely – flourish even – relying on our common instincts and desires.
The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees.
Why does it have to be madness? Because we define madness according what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity.
It’s hard to imagine, I admit, but you have to look at all the biologically fixed aspects of your conscious experience like distinct paints on a palette. Once the human brain falls into our manipulative purview, anything becomes possible. Certain colours, like suffering and fear, will likely be wiped away. Other colours, like carnal pleasure or epiphany, will be smeared across everything. And this is just the easy stuff: willing might be mixed with hearing, so that everytime a dog barks, you have the senstation of willing all creation into existence. Love might be mutated, pressed in experiential directions we cannot fathom, until it becomes something indistinguishable from cruelty. Reason could be married to vision, so that everything you see resounds with Truth. The combinatorial possibilities are as infinite as are the possibilities for creating some genuinely new…
And where does the slow and static ‘human’ fit into all this? Nowhere I can see.
And why should any human want to embrace this, when they are the ladder that will be kicked away? How could reasons be offered, when rationality finds itself on the chopping block with everything else. How do you argue for madness?
Perhaps our only recourse will be some kind of return to State coercion, this time with a toybox filled with new tools for omnipresent surveillance and utter oppression. A world where a given neurophysiology is the State Religion, and super-intelligent tweakers are hunted like animals in the streets.
Maybe that should be my next standalone: a novel called Semantica… I could set it up as a standard freedom-fighter tale, then let the sideways norms slowly trickle in, until the reader begins rooting for totalitarian oppression.