Tolkien and the Electro-Imaginary: the 2013 Inklings Conference

Last week I attended the 2013 CS Lewis and Inklings Conference, my first time actually presenting an essay academically. I was only able to stay for the first day, but the people I met and lectures I heard were intriguing to say the least. Positions on New Media varied, from scathing critiques of Peter Jackson’s the Hobbit to the promise of new art forms, like digital story-telling. Others were cautious, advisory, informing us listeners on how to avoid getting “poked” by the Dark Lord. I’ve got a copy of the schedule, but I’ll try to upload or link to it later (once the Inklings page uploads it). I’m also hoping some bits and pieces were recorded. In a few days, I’ll post a recording of my own lecture and the first day’s plenary lecture by Ralph C. Wood.

Ralph is a captivating lecturer, widely read and articulate, so I enjoyed his presentations very much. The first lecture was on Tolkien’s distinction between the Quest and the Adventure. While an Adventure is a “there and back again” kind of story, a Quest is more like a pilgrimage. A Quest requires lifelong dedication, even in the face of defeat or minor victory. A Quest is taking the “little victories” as your small part to play in a larger story.

I took this plenary discussion and reflected on how it might alter my view of video-game culture. RPG’s and adventure games are often just that – adventures – or “there and back again” stories.

Ralph suggested that an Adventure is often something done out of boredom. Seeking excitement. A break from the norm. But too often we are merely pleasure-seeking. Life sucks, so let’s log-out for a while. A Quest is far more difficult, but I’d like to suggest with books like “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, video-gamers are getting the “calling” – not merely to adventure, but to change the world. A process that is multi-generational, and where each of us must play our little parts. In McGonigal’s book, she suggests that video-gamers are equipped with unique problem-solving tools, and can use games to help change the world. Spending hundreds of thousands of hours in simulated reality – like a deep dream or altered state of consciousness – brings us back down into the “real world” with new ideas, and new expectations. We can use the tools we gained in the Otherworld to change our reality. Yep, sounds like a Quest to me!

Plenty more thoughts ruminating in my head. Like the role of machines in nature. Two presenters suggested the dark side of technology to be its obsessive quality – the iPhone 5 being like the ring, “my precious,” one phone to rule them all! And yes, obsession is a reality we must face. Yes, there are dark sides to technology, but it would seem that our tools, like magic, are ubiquitous, and here to stay.

Whether or not we will become corrupted sorcerers, like Saruman, or retain our responsible use of our powers is yet to be seen. I for one believe that the technological extensions of self-and-society are here to stay. It is more of a matter of how we might humanize them, and let them extend our greatest qualities rather than amplify our darkest. Easier said than done.

I was also left wondering if we might consider technology a new “force of nature,” as Kevin Kelly suggests in his books What Technology Wants and Out of Control. That further complicates things, forcing us to re-consider both what it means to be an organic, fleshy human and how we define life. And I wonder what Tolkien might think of that, if he saw the “net” crawling over towns and cities like an electronic forest. But I’ll leave those questions up in the air for now. More posts to come.

5 thoughts on “Tolkien and the Electro-Imaginary: the 2013 Inklings Conference

  1. Felipe says:

    Good thoughts on the conference! This line stood out to me: “it would seem that our tools, like magic, are ubiquitous, and here to stay.” Gandalf uses magic for good, Saruman uses it for evil. And yet in this case, technology seems to be a thing separate from magic, as if magic were woven into life but machines are an intrusion not made by the original creator, e.g. Saruman uses machines at the cost of his wisdom (which is essential to Gandalf). The “good guys” don’t use any machines, not even siege weapons. Just good old courage, saddle, and sword. (But even the last two are technology!)
    So if Tolkien equated our electronic technology with the the mechanical technology that he hated so much (which I think is likely), then he would have seen the “net” more as a creeping plague than a forest.

  2. Jeremy Johnson says:

    Hey Felipe! Thanks for dropping by with your thoughts on my blog. And I really did appreciate the observations you brought here, particularly Tolkien’s conveyance of machines as “unnatural” forms of technology, whereas spurs, swords, metallurgy, etc. are considered more organic and “woven” into the world or culture. Those earlier technologies are “ensouled” by magic or culture, but the latter are soul-less and therefore must be automatized. At least this is how I’m interpreting it. Still, the line gets hard to draw. Where do we distinguish between “intrusions” in Middle-Earth and natural technologies?

    You’ll probably have to correct me here, but I think I remember the Age of Men in Middle Earth as a latter development in Middle Earth: previously the world was ruled by other, more supernatural beings like Elves. So it seems to me that magical use was “stepping down” as Man began to inherit the realm. I’m not sure if Tolkien intended this to be the case, or not, but I found it to be an interesting progression. Saruman also does seem to be a good mirror for our own “techno-wizards” of Silicon Valley (for instance there was a book that came out 2 years or so ago called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” about robots at MIT). My thoughts on technology is that it is literalized magic. The abilities it offers us in our world are the equivalent of magic. Communication over long distances etc.

    But I think Tolkien was dead-on about Saruman, who uses a form of degraded magic (machines) just like our own culture’s hyper-mechanized consciousness. Our ancestors used magic (or if you don’t believe in magic, we can say *they did*), and as moderns I think we are still deeply drawn to magical thought. So technology is one form of realizing that, in this world. But I wonder if there isn’t a categorical “leap” between traditional machines, like the one in Tolkien’s time and in the industrial revolution, and the machines we use now – electricity being the key novelty. Digital technologies are instantaneous, or at least try to be. Electricity is mercurial, unlike it’s clock-work predecessors. It plays by different rules, and arguably, induces another kind of consciousness.

    I remember one speaker at the conference mentioned to us that Tolkien chanted in Gothic Latin when first encountering a recording device, afraid of the “spooks” that might be in there. The story speaks for itself.

    So I’m left considering a gray when it comes to the Digital Age. I don’t think the same critiques work for it that worked for the industrial era. They only go so far. Coupled with electronic technology is also a strangely “spooky” element, akin more to the ensouled world before modernization. Just my initial thoughts!

  3. Felipe says:

    Jeremy, thanks for your insightful reply! You’re right about Men being a latter development in Middle Earth (and I could hardly correct you, since I’m pretty new to Tolkien). I’ve always wondered *why* Men hadn’t developed technology any more advanced than spurs and swords, but your point is very good about Saruman’s new technology not being “ensouled” by culture. Maybe given a few hundred years, Men would use all of Saruman’s technology and more.

    Now that I think of it, that’s a big difference between Men and the more “supernatural” cultures like Elves. Just as they are immortal and stuck in time, Elves seem also to be stuck in their technology because magic and the mysteries of nature (the woods, the sea) attract them more. If the development of technology were left wholly to Elves, I think it would turn out better for everyone, but Men and other more imperfect beings seem to be the only ones interested in machines. (Even the Hobbits seem to use more artificial tools than the Elves–e.g. I may be forgetting something, but I don’t remember ever hearing about an Elven farm). Tolkien once made an observation about Men, when he tried to write a story about Men after the Third Age, that one of their distinguishing characteristics is “their quick satiety with good.” I can’t help thinking that with his inbred dislike of machines, Tolkien meant that Men would go on to build machines and to destroy nature just as badly as Saruman and Sauron had done.

    But as far as electronic technology, I think you’re right about the same critiques not being applied to it, though electronic technology can (at the present time) only exist along with corporate control and industrial technology to power it. But computers, taken by themselves, would by a mystery to Tolkien (as they are to many of us!), and surely if he saw our technology today, it would look like magic–to take a connection from the conference, some of it would look like Palantir stones. (I think those would be considered magic by Tolkien, but I’m not sure.) I’m sure he would be spooked! It makes one wonder what technology will exist in a hundred years that would spook us today. Just my rambling thoughts on these interesting questions that I haven’t thought much about before.

    1. Jeremy Johnson says:

      Hi Felipe, great comments as always! I’m learning a lot more about Tolkien and Middle Earth through him. Mostly, though, I agree with you that the Elves would make the world a better place, with their magically infused technologies. They seem to be more in a state of harmony with both the visible and invisible forces of the world. Alas! The world does not seem to stay put. And perhaps there is a whiff of that in Tolkien’s work, despite him being a Medievalist. I’m no Medievalist myself, and I do feel that whether or not we like it, Nature seeks variation and novelty.

      You mention towards the end of your comment about the dependency of electronic technology on industrial civilization. Totally agree here, I think that’s a good observation. My interest lies in how a reversal is taking place *through* that process of degradation. As if the Fall is necessitated in order for a greater Redemption to be realized. Douglas Rushkoff is a great digital theorist and sociologist who makes the observation that we are actually retrieving medieval economic and social policies via the web and peer to peer commons, alternative currencies, etc. That’s just on the sociological end. On the other hand we see the rise of “pagan” or “polytheistic” lifestyles like Burning Man or an interest in magic, alternative spiritualities, etc. In many ways it’s like we are reversing the course of Western history, somehow, higher up at a new rung of the spiral. This I find to be very interesting, and it makes me think of Giambattista Vico’s “New Science” – an old book on the dialectical movement of history, where human societies move through a spiral pattern of corso, recorso, around and around in progressive unfoldment of utopia. Whether or not you believe in that angle of history, it is interesting the kind of electronic-medievialism and digital animism we seem to be enacting all around us. Leaves much food for thought! Thanks again!

      1. Felipe says:

        Hi Jeremy, I’m intrigued by your mention of Giambattista Vico’s theory of history. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’ll have to look into it for sure. I’m skeptical about optimistic or progressive historical theories, partly because my favorite writers lately are all pessimistic but also because the conservative circles I grew up in seem to have beat all the utopianism out of me at a young age, haha. So these ideas are mostly new to me. More trails to follow!

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