The Artistry of the Machine in the Empire of Desire
“Art imitates nature.” Many take this concept, which goes at least as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, to mean that artists represent what they find in the natural world like a landscape painter might replicate a scenic view or a musician might copy the sound of birds. Yet Aristotle actually meant something far more basic (and to contemporary sensibilities, disruptive): he meant that the artist taps into the universal truths governing the world, elucidating the inward significance of things. For example, tragedy does not simply depict realistic portrayal of events but universal truths about human experience. Similarly, visual artists tap into the beauty and order of the natural world that we find in the cycles and patterns of seasons and stars, the symmetry and proportion of living organisms, and the teleology and purposefulness of all life forms.
In this older tradition, an artist submitted to nature because nature was understood to reflect permanent things and to participate in the transcendent ordering that remains the final object of contemplation and the source of true creativity. Thus, the function of imagination, and thus of art, was not to merely make stuff up, but to discover and elucidate a priori truths of reality, most especially the transcendental attributes of being such as unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. We do not merely project these transcendentals onto the raw material of the neutral world; rather, we discover them and work to conform ourselves and our art to them.
Consequently, far from art being merely the act of making things up, art served an important pedagogical role in disclosing the transcendent ordering that lies at the heart of reality. Thus, to be born into the world was to be received into an apprenticeship of the permanent things — to become habituated to the normative structures that are the ultimate inspiration to art and the final object of mystical contemplation. As such, art is a way of knowing the world in which the human person participates in an ordering outside himself.
The ancient practice of art, tethered as it was to craftsmanship (the bifurcation between fine art and craft is of comparatively modern origin), not only offered a way of knowing the world at the level of the a priori transcendental realities, but also a way of aligning oneself to the verities of nature that are a posteriori: the particularities of how substances work and behave. For example, effective craft involves becoming a student of temperature, weight, measure, viscosity, etc. If one’s imaginative endeavors are misaligned with nature’s ordering, art fails to achieve its telos, for the paint will not stick, the sculpture will crumble, or the pottery will crack. The artist will often experiment by trying out different materials and techniques, but even this experimentation is an outworking of the artist’s submission to, and exploration of, the specificities of nature which are received. Art imitates nature.
Peter Korn described this dynamic in his 2015 book, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, writing,
To work his medium successfully, the craftsman adapts to its character and quirks, even as he subjects it to his will. Over time he learns to read his material through its response to hand and tool.... Soon enough, his beliefs are subject to the test of the real.1
But for those growing up under the order of machine culture (which, following Paul Kingsnorth, I will hereafter refer to as “The Machine”), this ancient pattern has been reversed: no longer does art imitate nature, but nature imitates artifacts. The fixities of nature, even down to our own anatomical norms and biological processes, come to be perceived as mere contrivance, at the same level as the arbitrary products of human artifice. The patterns, principles, and permanent things that were once received as indicative for how things actually are become stripped away as provisional at best and arbitrary at worst.
The order of The Machine, now mediated to us through the continually growing reach of digitization, has become more than merely a matter of what we do with the world; in a very real sense, it has become a way of knowing the world, and also knowing ourselves in relation to it. The world we come to know in the information economy is a world in constant flux; a world disconnected from any order external to ourselves; a world of constant fluidity that we can bend to our purposes. Indeed, digitality offers the promise of disengaging teleology from reality so that instead of the artist having to align himself with nature, nature can become aligned to man. Instead of the solidity of things (wherein qualities like temperature, weight, measure, viscosity, etc. can be employed and manipulated precisely because they exist in an economy of regularity), we have to contend with an information economy that is mercurial, contingent, and constantly revisable. As Byung-Chul Han put it in his book Non-things, “The industrial revolution solidified and expanded the sphere of things, distancing us from nature and the crafts. But only digitization puts an end to the paradigm of the thing. It subordinates things to information.”2
In a much-discussed First Things article from 2016, Michael Hanby described how this new epistemology is implicit even in the very word “technology” itself. He wrote:
Technology, in this broader and more fundamental sense, is first a way of regarding the world, namely, as an artifact to be worked upon. The term itself, with its fusion of technê and logos, making and knowing, indicates this. This technological gaze upon nature has characterized modern science since the seventeenth century and precedes any real technological products generated by the new science. The technological manner of knowing is a knowing-by-doing which “takes experience apart and analyzes it,” as Francis Bacon described it, breaking down the unity of natural phenomena given in experience in order to reduce them to their simplest components. Nature, in this way of thinking, is the genesis and sum of those elements and their interactions….
If technology is a way of knowing the world, it implies a tacit preconception of its object. In other words, the technological outlook carries within it a metaphysics and philosophy of nature that conflates nature with artifice. For Aristotle and the larger tradition of the West, art imitated nature. In a positive sense, the organization, purposiveness, and beauty of human artifacts could help us to understand natural things. But in a negative and more fundamental sense, to say that art imitated nature meant that a thing existing by nature possessed something that an artifact lacked, or better, is something that an artifact is not.3
In Hanby’s reading of our situation, the loss of any real distinction between making and doing entails a loss in our ability to engage in genuine contemplation.
With the technological conflation of knowing and making, the old distinction between contemplation and action becomes obsolete, not least because the conflation of nature and artifice, which ultimately collapses being into history, deprives contemplation of its object. Henceforth, there are no longer any depths to contemplate, only facts to analyze and synthesize.
In the older epistemology, the act of contemplating the depths offered a pathway of ascent from knowledge to wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, was the proper province of a rightly ordered soul in harmony with natural rhythms and divine ordering. But under the reign of the new epistemology, the proper activity of knowing is no longer wisdom but data, while the proper activity of the mind is not contemplation but calculation. Calculation serves not to make us wise but to enable greater efficiency in serving what R.R. Reno described as “the Empire of Desire.” As Reno observes,
What makes for happiness and fulfillment — and here we enter into the metaphysical dream that defines our era — is an Empire of Desire. We affirm countless little disciplines to ensure health, productivity, success, and social harmony … creating space for bespoke lives tailored to our desires.4
Digital technology promises to render us effective functionaries within this Empire of Desire. But this empire turns out to be a harsh master, manufacturing endless desires while also telling us that nothing is objectively desirable. It thus leaves us like a squirrel on a wheel in a cage that is forever in motion while being condemned never to arrive.
The onerous demands that promise to offer the good life are the most enslaving precisely when they camouflage themselves as genuine freedom. We have apps that track compliance with what Reno calls “a number of pragmatic prohibitions and exhortations.” Reno lists some of these mandates and prohibitions: “No smoking! Count your calories! Build your résumé! Save for retirement! Safe sex! Locally sourced food!” In a world governed by these types of behavior-shaping norms, there is plenty to think about, but little to contemplate.
As contemplation loses its object, it collapses into self-referential vacuity. If the proper habitat for contemplation in the older sense had been the cathedral pointing to heaven, the proper habitat for contemplation in the newer sense is the mindfulness room in the modern office complex, pointing nowhere except to contemplation itself. The contemplation of contemplation — or, as many people increasingly describe it, being mindful about being mindful — is the true mysticism for our nihilist moment, offering the activity of contemplation eviscerated from any proper object.
Absent any Good in which contemplation might be grounded, thought becomes a mere tool for the human will in its rebellion against the fixity of what is. As theologian Antonio López describes this state of affairs,
Thinking is no longer understood as the contemplative “letting be” of what is, which, in wonder, affirms what is in its inexhaustible wholeness. Rather, thinking becomes the non-contemplative and impatient perception of the whole as fragmented and thus docilely at the disposal of human will.5
Into this impoverished state of affairs The Machine offers a pseudo-transcendence, complete with its own creation narrative, eschatology, and sacramentalism.6 The creation narrative is one where the world is without form and void, lacking any inherent meaning or normativity, awaiting the voluntarist agent who comes to have a godlike power to make and remake the world according to the image of his desires. Accordingly, meaning in the world emerges only as the world becomes a resource for satisfying desire.
The technological doctrine of creation is followed by its own doctrine of Exodus, Redemption, Sacrament, and finally Eschatology. It liberates us from the slavery of an illusory normativity into the promised land where nothing remains solid and where the only permanent thing is the autonomous will. The promised land of technological mastery is one where nature is merely raw material to be worked upon, a passive instrument in the service of desire. The sacrament of The Machine “makes present” a vision of the world in which nothing is given that cannot be customized, and nothing is permanent that cannot finally be rendered contingent.
But in order for this technological sacramentalism to be effective it must continually engage in the reenactment of a bloody sacrifice; in this case, violence against all structures that would limit man’s freedom to design and redesign reality to his whims, even if that means seeking emancipation from human nature itself. Violence against human nature is manifest not merely in the way we carve up the world — and sometimes even ourselves — to better fit the onerous demands exacted by the Empire of Desire, but also in the attempt to divest the world of all meaning not assigned by ourselves. Meaning that is inherent to the world must become the object of deep hatred and finally violence. An order that is residual to things themselves rather than assigned by the agent must be treated as seditious because it threatens the eschatological dream wrought by the fusion of technology and desire: the dream of a world completely malleable to the changing impulses of the individual.
To the extent that such a vision facilitates an infinitude of desires while denying that anything can ever be objectively desirable, it must ultimately fold into nihilism. Yet this very nihilism has become the object of eschatological quest, marked by inauguration, continuation, and consummation. During the continuation phase, there are giants in the promised land that must be neutralized. The passing dominion of nature rebels, continually threatening us with the uncomfortable fact of normativity. But as nature rebels against the Empire of Desire, our small victories against these giants betoken a future where everything from gender to aging to personal appearance will fall under the mastery of The Machine and its promise to render the world a passive instrument of conditioned freedom.
Total mastery over the world requires a world that is, in its primal condition, meaningless, worthless, and pointless, yet is given a meaning, a worth, and a point by the sovereign self. The sovereign self enters a world without form and void but with a godlike potential to sculpt the world to his desires, and thus to create meaning out of the void. But the type of meaning that emerges is truly nihilistic since there are no transcendental truths in which to ground either creativity, desire, or authority. Consequently, creativity collapses into making things up, desire into mere appetite, and authority into raw power.
Authority that is mere power is also authority that is provisional. And that is precisely the type of authority nature is now believed to possess. Nature’s authority does not rest in its givenness and received normativity, but in its power over us — a power that, in principle, can be overcome through technological mastery. But once power replaces normativity as the final locus of authority, there can be no guiding principle behind man’s use of technology, condemning us to use our tools with the arbitrariness of the village madman.
What happens when the village madman is looked upon as the sage and is then endowed with the power of the regional warlord? Well, look around you: we get a society that insists, on pain of reprisal, that we empty categories like “man” and “woman” of all objective content while simultaneously regulating where we can and cannot apply these supposedly contentless appellations. Or we get a society that insists, as a matter of dogmatic faith, that each of us must be free to define our own meaning, while also insisting (with equal dogmatism) that we must bend, on pain of reprisal, to the self-constructed meaning of others, no matter how incoherent.
In a world where we must define our own meaning, we are robbed of the essential otherness that is the object of contemplation and the origin of imaginative inspiration. In such a state of affairs, the inward turn ceases to be the means for better engagement with external reality but becomes instead the final locus for all that is. Consequently, there are no depths to contemplate, only surfaces to manipulate. There is nothing to wonder at, only raw material to use and re-use within the economy of desire.
Perhaps the solution lies not in trying to argue ourselves out of this nihilistic quagmire, nor even attempting to fortify ourselves against it through various forms of defensive posturing. Perhaps the solution lies in rediscovering and re-presenting the beauty of traditional craft. I specifically have in mind those artforms that receive the givenness of nature’s specificities (again, qualities like temperature, weight, measure, viscosity, pitch, and timbre) as gifts to be enjoyed with playful exploration. It is here that the generosity — and hence goodness — of the world is encountered, not as a fixity to be overcome, but as a gift to be received and then taken up in the creative embrace.
In the rediscovery of craft, the generosity of the world elicits contemplative desire precisely because it is gloriously other, and precisely because it beguilingly resists our attempts to reduce it to the benign homogeneity of infinite malleability. For craft to be a truly creative encounter, we must become a student of the other, and harmonize ourselves to her shape. But in submitting to nature’s actualities, the craftsman is invited to have his desires reordered, to be seduced by regularities that themselves betoken a more transcendent ordering. As the craftsman submits to nature’s invitation to move deeper into the knowledge she offers, there is hope that such knowledge will ultimately prove a creative encounter.
Robin Phillips is the author of Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manual for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, 2023) and Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith, 2020), and writes a column at Salvo magazine.
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1. Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, Reprint edition (David R. Godine, Publisher, 2015), p. 5.
2. Byung-Chul Han, Non-Things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, trans. Daniel Steuer (Polity, 2022), pp. 1–2.
3. Michael Hanby, “A More Perfect Absolutism,” First Things, October 1, 2016, www.firstthings.com/article/2016/10/a-more-perfect-absolutism.
4. R. R. Reno, “Empire of Desire: Outlining the Postmodern Metaphysical Dream,” First Things, June 1, 2014, www.firstthings.com/article/2014/06/empire-of-desire.
5. Antonio López, “Retrieval of Otherness in a Technological Culture,” in Antonio López and Javier Prades (eds.), Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), pp. 59–60.
6. On the emergence of a technologically-mediated pseudo-transcendence, see Robin Phillips, “Technology and the Return of the Old Gods,” The Symbolic World, August 5, 2022, thesymbolicworld.com/content/technology-and-the-return-of-the-old-gods.