Places that speak

My grandfather could see into the future, an ability he had developed on his own; he did not meet with spiritualists and he owned no literature on the subject; the books on his bookshelf were all political. It was already there, like a sixth sense, as useful as the ten fingers on his hands.

He received messages about events that had not yet occurred and about things that were about to happen at locations distant from him. It would happen that he was awakened at night by a knock on the bedroom window and he would immediately realize what was about to take place. It might be a cow breeding or a fire in the barn. Almost always these messages were about events where he was able to intervene; to prevent them or to ease the effects.

The signs had a practical function in helping him manage everyday life. There was nothing extraordinary about them; they were simply useful tools that did not differ from the spade, the tractor, the sledgehammer and other appliances. He was a practical man, my grandfather, over 6 feet tall, which was unusual in those days, and the hard work on the farm had made him physically strong.

When he talked about the signs, he did so in an uncomplicated manner, in no way was he trying dramatize. But he talked about them; for some reason he wanted to tell us and we wanted to listen. When I was a child, my grandfather was my hero and his visits were grand events. Typically he would just show up, standing in the doorway with a smile.

One winter evening when I was about twelve, my grandfather sat by the kitchen table, drinking coffee and telling us about a silver fox that had danced for him the night before, just before it started getting dark. He was on his way to the cottage where he lived – a building that used to be a railway station – ten kilometres away from the next village. At first the fox just stood there, at the edge of the road that twined through the forest and over the fields. He stopped the car, turned off the engine and stepped out. At this moment, the fox started dancing and then disappeared in the woods. He did not tell us any more than that. And we did not ask any questions. We were content with what he had told us. I don’t know if the dance meant anything to him, if the fox showed him anything, or if it was simply a dance on that narrow windy road.

There are several stories about my grandfather in addition to those I heard him tell himself. These stories are populated by bulls, elks and other animals, nature spirits and beings that only my grandfather was able to see. Not my father, aunt nor grandmother, and certainly not the Christians. Almost all of these stories had a happy ending, except the one about the black viper snake, foreboding death. Not even my grandfather could do anything about that.

I do not know whether my grandfather was familiar with prophets such as the blind Teiresias or the Pythia, the famous oracle of Delphi. Unlike them, he did not cooperate with higher spirits. He considered the beings that gave him information to be equals, or as my aunt expressed it when I asked her a few days ago: “they were, I guess, like his friends, or something.” Besides, he did not offer his ability to foretell the future to others. What he saw was for his eyes only and it was only he that could act upon what he saw. The function of the Pythia was rather to act as both the receiver and the transmitter of divine signs.

The Pythia was one of many functions in a strictly regulated, complex series of events that was initiated by an advance payment and a handwritten question, handed over to the priests of the temple. The inquirer might be a private person as well as a state. After this, three days of careful preparations followed. The Pythia purified herself with prayers, fasting, and baths in sacred springs. She then took her seat, with a gold ornament emblem of Apollo and a crown of laurel on her head, on the golden tripod placed in the inner temple. Through intoxicating oracular fumes, coming from the cracks in the bedrock, the god was able to enter the Pythia. He imbued her and took over her speech organs. Once affected by the fumes she started speaking in an uncontrolled fashion; syllables welling out from her body, she cried out the message.

When this was over, things went back to normal. A message had been received. This message was incomplete and obscure. Its meaning had to be constructed. The priests who had written down the message gave it to the philosophers for interpretation. When the philosophers had done their job the poets took over and formulated the message in hexameter. It was only after these processes of translation that the message reached the inquirer.

The dense network of rules and disciplined patterns of action were interrupted by ecstatic speech, when the Pythia was possessed by Apollo and the message. When the future took place in the present, the human being left her own body. Behind the rage there was no human subject. The strong feeling was an affect without residence, without a subject. And the body was speech. When the speaking body delivered the answer all rage was gone, the human being had returned. The god had left.

Forecasting practices involve several familiar dichotomies: presence and absence, chaos and cosmos. They are not completely separate, but associated with each other, re-enforcing each other’s effects. Obeying the rules eliminates the particulars of the individual and makes her exchangeable. The uncontrolled ecstasy helps her climb down the tripod.

The disappearance of the Pythia from the place, or the individual’s disappearance from the Pythia, points to several possible flight paths for the self: being possessed by feelings greater than ourselves or following the rules, do as one is obliged, acting blindly according to established patterns of behaviour.

The image of the Pythia as someone who comes and goes is supported by the literal meaning of the Latin word ”ora’culum”: a place where a deity speaks. There is only room for place, speech and divinity. In this trinity neither the human subject nor the human body is necessary, for it is only one of several speaking places, like the fountain, the oak and the brass basin in Dodona, the Libyan oasis and the bull Apsis.

For Nietzsche, Apollo represented clarity and mimesis, but because of the ambiguous prophesies he was referred to as "the ambiguous god”. The ambiguity assisted in making the predictions come true and sustained the legitimacy of the oracle. ”You will go you will come back not die in battle” was the answer from the oracle to a rich man who was going to war. He interpreted this answer as a positive one. When his family, following his death, made complaints, the priests explained that their interpretation was wrong – “not” was referring to the first passages of the sentence.

We are no longer awakened at night by a knock on the window. But the production of prophecies has accelerated and we can still hear the sound of the oracle’s voice. In a speech by the physician Richard Feynam, at the end of the 1950s, it was foretold that in the future it would be possible to construct material from atoms, which would open up a range of new possibilities. The Encyclopaedia Britannica would fit on a pinhead. Today, we are already there, through nano-technology, which gives us more durable frying pans and sunscreen that is invisible because it is so easily absorbed by the skin.

The human geographer Ben Anderson describes nano-technology as a place that accumulates hope. Nano-technology is not what it is, but what it may become, what it will become. It was created as a prophecy and has itself become an oracular place that continues to foretell the future. It tells us stories about strong bodies that do not age. About invulnerable computer systems and equipment for wire-tapping impossible to discover. About artificial livers and skin. About clothes that cannot get dirty. About heavily reduced production costs. About elevators to space.

These hopeful prophesies are not only produced in parallel to the development and implementation of the technique, they also direct the ways in which it will develop – yes, its whole existence is dependent on them and the affect they evoke. Without hope the new technologies cannot survive. Because it is hope we are expected to feel, not fear of the invisible nano particles that can pierce our skin and attach to our lungs. In that case the technology risks its legitimacy and will perish.

What creates fear is the uncertainty of the threat. But there is, as the philosopher Brian Massumi shows, an effective cure against uncertainty, i.e. to act as if the threat has already been carried out, that is, through immediate action, rather than by more talk, which will only create more uncertainty. Massumi argues that pre-emption ”makes present the future consequences of an eventuality that may or may not occur, indifferent to its actual occurrence. The event’s consequences precede it, as if it had already occurred.”

How can this remarkable course of events come about, where the future appears as something that has already occurred? Through an intense signalling; an uninterrupted production of signs, that have prophetic functions. These signs are continuously repeated – on the Internet, on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers and as something dim that is unavoidable and appears at the periphery of our daily conversations. Fears are evoked. There are so many places that speak. Something needs to be done and will for sure be done. Everything that the sovereign oracle says will be true. The production of signs, in combination with the powers of agency on behalf of the sovereign, show that things are under control. As citizens we are in safe hands.

There is no longer any need for ambiguity, as for the oracle of Delphi. What we need is the opposite. Simplicity. And a huge media support. We all know that the simple story will win over the complex one; it will guarantee good media coverage. It will not matter whether the enemy has weapons of mass destruction or not, because it is already a fact that they are there, and it has already had consequences.

The oracles are happy to speak on TV and we are all targets for their prophesies. The signs my grandfather received was only for him. And the prophesies of the Pythia were meant for those who paid. Perhaps we share with the Pythia the experiences of ecstatic affect that seems to exist by itself, independent of us. And thanks to the internet we can spread the signs that evoke it in various ways. Like the Pythia we are both the receivers and the transmitters of future events. Together we make them real.

My grandfather, the Greek oracles, nanotechnology and modern super powers are all using techniques to foretell the future. But these techniques exist in completely different environments. If we consider the antique oracle as a sign, it is a sign that points to a world that speaks. This was also the world of my grandfather. His ability to see into the future was not only a unique talent, but an attitude towards the world as a place filled with meaning. And it did not translate to atoms or economic facts.

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Soneryd, Jens (2010) "Places that speak", The Oracle News, Duve Berlin, Friday, June 11, 2010