By T.S.Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, May 2024

Object to Be Destroyed (1923) | Indestructible Object (1957) by Man Ray

pharmakon (φάρμακον): drug, poison, spell

Has culture ever been separated from practical life? Culture has different forms: high culture, mass culture, national culture, local culture, family culture, political culture, Christian culture, secular culture, and so on. Culture is the form of practical life. And practical life is the living substance of culture.

Culture is not simply the cultivation of the soul in the enlightened Ciceronian sense. Culture is much more than good education, refined taste, and the cultivation of character. It is the norms, values, and beliefs we follow as a society and as individuals. Culture is like light to the eye. How we see the world depends on the quality and character of our culture. We have heard the words, "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Culture is the eye of man and society. It's the lamp of practical life. Good culture is good life. It's very simple. The way we think and perceive reality determines the way we behave and exist. Culture makes reality, and the reality of culture makes us what we are.

Culture is a collective dream. It is not a material thing. It is a vision that comes from above, and very often we participate in and pursue that dream without even realizing it. Culture is a powerful spirit. We think we need something. But in reality we think and need what our culture tells us. Even a great discovery in science and art that shatters established patterns is the fruit, the best fruit, of culture, of the pattern that is shattered and redirected. Our imagination very often follows the imagination of society. No one person can change an existing culture. He can only best express the change that has already taken place in the depths of the collective spirit. 

There is this dry term in anthropology: enculturation. It is very close to another more attractive and popular term, indoctrination. The difference between indoctrination and enculturation is that the former is definitely imposed and designed from above. It has a specific political and social goal, and very often, if not always, it is related to ideology. Ideology is a political phenomenon and a political concept. Enculturation is more natural and less narrow than ideology and indoctrination. Ideology and indoctrination might be part of enculturation. Enculturation is like learning a language. It comes naturally, not because someone decided to impose it on us (indoctrination), but because we live in an environment with a certain way of communicating. The rules of grammar, the melody of sound, and the structure and rules of language are ingrained in living speech. We learn them and use them unconsciously, especially in childhood. We use them without being aware of their existence. No child has the slightest idea of the structure of language, and as an adult, without linguistics and special education, will still not know about it. Nevertheless, the structure will be followed, applied, corrected, improved throughout his life. Culture, like language, is adopted and used naturally. And once it has been naturally adopted, it can hardly be forced upon us in any other form. We are not born with culture. We are born with tools to apprehend the spirit. We are born with the ability to learn and transmit culture. Culture exists as long as society exists and is capable of producing and developing it. Culture is impossible without society, without human interaction and community. And at the same time, society is impossible without culture.

In one of his books, Adorno discusses the existence of commercial culture as something indistinguishable from real life. He says that real life and commerce are one and the same. Everything in human relations is based on something to sell or acquire, on need and exchange. What's important here is that if commerce or trade, or let's call it economic life, has become indistinguishable from life itself, it doesn't mean that economics or commerce has created culture, but culture has somehow and over time become commercialized. Edmund Burke once said (in Thoughts and Details on Scarcity) that the laws of commerce are laws of nature and therefore divine. There is some truth in this belief, but as is often the case, it is a partial truth. Culture has been commercial since the beginning of commerce. But commerce itself is not the original source of culture. Rather, it is the result of a particular culture and environment that created commerce and transformed human life into an economic life: a life based on the unconscious pursuit and accumulation of goods, material survival, greed and business (not family or friendship) relations. In other words, trade and laws of trade, as we know and practice them today, are not natural laws. They are human. Constructed. A result more of a human mind than of natural or divine cause. The difference between natural or divine and human is that something that is a result of nature (or God) cannot be essentially changed by man. If man changes the natural form of something, it means that he makes, as Voeglin notes in one of his articles, that thing either unnatural or man-made. Therefore, neither trade, nor money, nor the requirements and laws of modern economic life are natural in the true sense of the word.

Early societies were not commercial; they practiced barter: I give you something you don't have; you give me something I don't have. We are both in need. We make this bargain out of need. I judge the thing I receive or am offered according to its usefulness. It is the same with the person on the other side of the bargain. He would agree to my proposal only if the thing I offer satisfies his need. We cannot call this kind of transaction "trade.” It is an exchange, but it is not commerce. Profit is not part of the bargain. The only gain I and the other person have is that we get the thing we need. We are in agreement. Our will to give and take is free. The deal we make is voluntary and mutually beneficial. The only intention behind the exchange is to help each other according to our needs and abilities. But here is the crux of the matter. This is an ideal example of barter in an ideal world that may or may not have existed. If it existed at all, it was probably practiced on a small scale between friends and neighbors.

The human condition is characterized by inequality. Although he favored a "barter economy," Aristotle, one of the greatest minds of all time, argued that inequality is a natural human condition. And you do not have to be Aristotle to see and be convinced that inequality among people is as natural as diversity. The most important question is not whether there is natural inequality or diversity, but how we perceive, treat, and deal with that inequality and diversity.

Inequality in the human condition is the result of unequal distribution of goods, physical and mental qualities, and living conditions. Thus, in a barter situation, I may be forced, not by my partner but by pure circumstance, to give more than I could afford without harming myself, while my partner may benefit and give something he has in excess, and ultimately gain an advantage that was neither sought nor needed. In short, the condition of natural inequality creates greater inequality, and there is no evil intent in this, nor any specific thought process in the direction of harm and gain. If my partner knew that he was causing me harm in this exchange, he might give me more or act in such a way as to prevent harm. But very often we act with less knowledge and consideration of the actual benefits and harms of our relationships. In many cases, we don't really know, and we can't predict, whether we are doing good or harm through our actions. Kant, I believe, once said that we can only control our intentions. The results are very often beyond our reach.

Because of the inequality of conditions and the ever-changing circumstances, also because of the naturally uneven distribution of goods and all the complications that arise from this, pure barter, if it ever existed, has disappeared and been replaced by commerce. Commerce, as opposed to barter, is for profit. And when profit is involved in the process of exchange, the human transaction can easily be corrupted by extortion and mischief. Money, which will not be discussed now, could be seen as a solution to the problems that arise from barter between unequal partners, but in fact it further complicates the relationship in terms of profit and loss, and ultimately ends up in the hands of commerce, which uses it for the purposes of commerce and of money (capital) itself. Purposes, as we have said, that are more related to the desire for profit than to immediate need or the basic exchange of goods.

So we have some basic observations: first, that culture is the "eye" of the practical life of the individual and of society; second, that the reality of existence depends on the quality of this eye; third, that there is natural inequality and diversity; fourth, that inequality and diversity create the conditions for a culture that is essentially commercial; and fifth, that the commercialization of life or existence is characterized by one basic feature: profit. When profit is involved in the process of human interaction, the entire character of culture is transformed into forms of economic life in which money, work, power, mischief and abuse (exploitation) become an inevitable reality of existence.


How much of the reality of commercial culture is natural? If someone asks if money is natural, the very clear answer would be no. The simplest argument is that there is no money in nature. Money is a means of exchange and acquisition of various forms of value, invented and used by people, institutions, governments, corporations, and technologies. In commercial culture, money is both a means and an end. This is a problem because an invention grows to the level of a self-perpetuating force, something that no individual human being can achieve. This problem was grasped by Marx, who noted, and here I use my own words to explain his observation, that money has become a kind of eternal dark matter (energy) with demonic and yet divine qualities. Speaking of the character of capital, Marx observed that in capitalism, a highly commercial society and culture, money was both the means and the end of all human activity. There was no power that could stop such a self-perpetuating force except the total exhaustion of all the material and spiritual resources on which capital parasitizes. In other words, if money were the means to produce more money, all the rest that feeds the multiplication-human labor, natural resources, all kinds of values-would be devoured as if seized by a black hole. Money would be the last to die with the end of everything. Of course, and here is the catch, money is still essentially unnatural, and for this reason, despite its magical power, it is still incapable of causing a total apocalypse. Money as capital, that is, as means and end, can create an amazing fictional world, a dark culture of horror, glamour and splendor, but with limits set by the nature of things themselves. Capital cannot be the only moving force on earth, especially when it is essentially fictitious and a simple utility for the achievement of human goals and passions that transcend material existence.

The same logic could be applied to other aspects of commercial culture. For example, work, as many of us know it, is also unnatural. What our culture tells us about work is very important. In a commercial culture, work should be either a means of capital accumulation, of profit, or of mere survival. In a Protestant culture, as we know from Max Weber, it would be a vocation, that is, our calling in life. But the Weberian idea of vocation is more romantic than realistic, because for the great majority, work has never been a choice, but rather an appointment from (the profane) above, an "iron cage" into which they have been placed either by force, by chance, or by their own will (following the "values" and dictates of their culture). If we think of work as something that involves reason, organization, and creativity, it would be difficult to argue that it is something natural for the human animal. Man could exist without work, just as he could exist as an animal. But work is also natural. It is natural for those who have the inspiration to create for the sake of enjoyment. Work is human insofar as it is a free expression of human creativity, will, and reason. The problem with commercial culture is that it organizes and forces the majority of people to work not primarily out of a free, creative impulse, but out of the impulse of some need, real or imagined. Both slavery and a lack of work, let's call it "the life of leisure," make man more of a beast than a real human being. And both slavery and excessive leisure are characteristic of commercial culture. When I speak of slavery, I mean not only the old forms of exploitation, but also every modern form of forced submission, conscious and unconscious, and extortion. 

Commercial culture enters our lives from all sides. As I've said, it is based on profit, and the primary objective of any message that reaches us from the outside is profit, the profit of the "source" that sends this message: it could be a company, a capitalist, a businessman, an entrepreneur, any person or organisation that acts and reaches us for the sake of profit.

A day or two ago I read an essay by Haim Marantz. He's been teaching political philosophy at an Israeli university for many years. The essay was about Solzhenitsyn's Archipelago Gulag. I thought that it is much easier to talk about and analyse the culture of the totalitarian Stalinist state than to understand the hidden "totalisation", so to speak, of modern commercial society. Totalitarian communism under Stalin and now in North Korea, or Germany under Nazism, are a kind of "ideal types" (to use a Weberian term again) of totalitarian societies wrapped in a culture of submission and control. They show clearly and starkly the forms of control and their effects on society, individuals and life. And since we live in a democracy, we can clearly understand what is wrong with these societies, what is wrong with their culture and the environment they create. We who are accustomed to the freedoms of democracy don't want to live in grey North Korea, to salute the leader and his hordes, to compromise our consciences and follow orders under threat of punishment. We want to be free to think, to express our opinions, to move where we want, and to have choices and opportunities that match our dreams and needs. People who have endured this culture and environment of totalitarian state and society, this life of submission and dependence, know best what life in a totalitarian state is like. But, unlike us, they cannot fully understand and rationally explain the burdens under which they toil. They feel the pain, but they don't have the understanding, the consciousness of being totally controlled. The majority of them are accustomed to the cultural environment of totalitarianism, and the majority have found ways to survive in it, despite their sense of hardship and injustice.

But here is the problem: those of us who live in liberal democracies, just like those in totalitarian societies, cannot clearly comprehend how compromised our lives are under the veil of supposed freedom. As easy as it is to describe the totalitarian state, society and culture, as difficult it is to describe the totalitarian tendencies of modern commercial society.

Marantz who discussed Solzhenitsyn in his essay said in passing:

In most countries today, one could make a career explaining the idiocies of advertisements. Imagine, however, a land whose public expression was nothing but advertisement. How could a mind survive in such a world? What greater duty would an individual have in such a world than to stand up for reason and sanity? Translate the feeble advertisements into the murderous ideology, and we perhaps begin to get the measure of the strength of Solzhenitsyn’s mind and a sense of his courage.

I would use this excellent observation to add that wherever commercial culture and society are present and dominant, it is difficult to distinguish life from advertising. Life is made to look like advertising, and advertising is made to look like normal, natural life. Advertising is the vessel of commercial culture and its ideology. Advertising is gradually transforming the lives of individuals, families and communities. It forms and shapes the imagination of individuals and communities and thus creates their material existence. Consumerism is growing, driven by the desire for profit and the power of advertising. People are caught up in the rules of commercial life. They are studied and observed for the sake of profit, they are deceived and enticed, their culture, habits and behaviour are shaped by visions of a commercial character, and the difference between a totalitarian state of existence and life in a liberal democracy becomes less and less pronounced. And yet the long lines of homeless people along the streets, the crumbling buildings, the industrial and commercial wastelands reveal the truth as the truth is revealed in the colourless life of the totalitarian state.

But advertising is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Yes, it has deeper roots. The splendor of ancient imperial power could be described as a powerful form of advertising of authority. The banners on the streets and buildings of the communist or Nazi state depicting the success of the "people," promoting the image of the leader and the party, the political slogans, and the military marches and rallies are all forms of advertising. Institutionalized religion, with its art and magnificent architecture and churches, could be called "advertising." Anything that is used to promote an idea, a vision, an order, and a worldview for private gain could be considered a form of advertising. But the twentieth-century advertising of modern commercial culture, which is overt, intrusive, loud and colorful, full of flashing images and action, is losing its effect and is preparing to give way, it seems now, to a subtler, less intrusive promotion of visions. It's too early to say for sure whether advertising as we know it - repetitive, annoying and obvious - will disappear. But there are trends that may well make overt advertising obsolete and counterproductive. People, though in the grip of commercial propaganda as always, have learned to select or ignore the messages with which they are bombarded. But they are more vulnerable than ever to the power of commercial culture because of technology and the means of communication. Interconnectedness through technology has allowed those who control technology and know how to use it for profit (and here I mean not only financial profit, but profit in a broader sense) to harvest the fields of mass communication unhindered, to learn and accumulate knowledge, to calculate and analyze, and to penetrate deeper and deeper into the human psyche. The individual human person is disappearing under the cloud of technological power, and we are probably on the verge of a world controlled by centers of power that create a culture that has no alternative.

Technological progress, as we all know, has always been seen as a threat by those who do not possess the means of technology and capital. Technology has certainly improved human life. Its Promethean power has brought us to levels of existence that were only possible for gods in the pre-industrial mind. But there is something truly ominous in the expressed desire of engineers and scientists in companies like Goodge and OpenAI that the goal they want to achieve is simply to finish the sentence man has begun to type. But as Henry James said “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” To finish the sentence that man began is simply to end human existence and creativity. It is to predict, to act as an oracle and to teach people to consult oracles, i.e. external forces, for the future. Technology as a Delphic force is attractive and promising, but it is neither natural nor human. And that's why it is more dangerous than profitable. Humanity, which has learned how to control nature, which is learning how to subjugate nature, should prepare itself to learn how to control technology, the fruit of its own genius, and the environment, physical and cultural, that arises from it. The leaders of technology companies argue that there is no danger in artificial intelligence, for example, because they expect technology to only enhance human genius and capacity. These are optimistic and reasonable expectations. It is obvious that technology enhances and improves human life and talent. But the same people also point out that technology becomes a danger when it is controlled by an evil power, when it is used with the wrong intention. Can we trust human nature to control its own shortcomings and not use technology in a perverted and destructive way? Can we be sure that the oracle we are now creating will not become an idol, a false god that requires sacrifice, has no soul, but possesses a power that no human can withstand?

Advertising in liberal democratic societies with a dominant commercial culture has the same function and effect as state propaganda in totalitarian societies. The only difference is that it is less obvious as a cultural force and as a means of control in the hands of an established ruling elite. Technology is replacing advertising as a form of psychological control, and liberal democracies with their free and open markets are much more adept at improving technology. The lack of concealment and total repression characteristic of totalitarian societies allows easy access to every corner of human existence. The open societies, to use Popper's term in a slightly different sense, are open to everything and easy to harvest. They permit surveillance and analysis, and are therefore prone to the creation of more perfect forms of control. Jeremy Bentham, the father of British utilitarianism and the teacher of John Steward Mill, the venerable exponent of Western liberalism, wrote an insightful essay on the architecture of the perfect prison. It could be summed up in one sentence: the perfect prison is one in which the warden is hidden in darkness at the center of a coliseum of cells bathed in light and exposure. The prisoners are not locked up in dark and gloomy dungeons, but are placed in bright cells, fully visible to their guardians, hidden in the shadows. Panopticon. A liberal society shaped by a culture of profit could be metaphorically described as the perfect prison. The only thing hidden in it, the only secret, is the abominable plan of the profit-makers, the guardians, who exist in the shadows, barely noticed by the prisoners.

Plato's most popular work is the Republic, and the most popular part of the Republic is the myth of the cave. People live in a cave, and there is one, just like Socrates or Christ, who escapes from the darkness and sees the light, and also sees that everything that people believe in is a shadow, not the true reality, and goes down and tells them that there is a light above and there is the truth. The cave people kill him in response. They kill him because he is teasing them with fables that are contrary to their culture and their beliefs. Their eye is dark, so to speak, while his eye is full of light, and the darkness could hardly comprehend the light, as the Gospel of John proclaims. But what if you go deep down, among the shadows, and you find there, in the cave, in this underworld or afterlife, that there are forces below that keep souls in cages of light. What if we, ordinary people in a liberal democracy, live completely exposed, that our entire lives are exposed to the shadows below, and that our existence gives them, the shadows, meaning, a reason to exist. I've learned from studying the humanities that any story can be turned upside down with a little imagination and creativity. So why don't we turn the myth of the cave on its head and compare liberal society to a Benthamite prison? Foucault almost did. But the problem is, if we dare to reveal the truth about the existence of shadows to the prisoners in the light, what hope will these prisoners have? Would they wish to become guardians (the upper class in the Platonic Republic), or will they remain in blissful happiness, in their bright cages?

Everything I have said has become very poetic and metaphorical. But poetry and metaphors are better at pointing out the truth. The fact is that we live in a modern commercial culture, that this culture is based on profit, that profit has grown out of the natural diversity of ability and condition, that profit has an excellent tool for growth - money and advertising, and that both money and advertising as we know them will either change or disappear if we consider the logic of technological progress. They will disappear, but in their place will come the subtle control of an oracular force, all present, all pervasive, that will teach us what is right or wrong, what to expect, and how to behave in order to achieve or avoid something. There will be light, but that light will be fluorescent, artificial, it would be the light of technology, the shadow hidden deep in the depths of existence, never known, never seen, never even imagined.

If we think for a moment and ask ourselves if there is a person who has seen God, we would conclude that there is no such person. Moses missed the opportunity to see Him. He saw a burning bush. Christ saw him, but we think that Christ is a cultural construct, or if not, we just don't know how and when that happened. God should be a very humble being by our standards. On the one hand He is the Lord of all, on the other hand He is not visible. The emperor or the court demonstrates his greatness. The billionaire or government officials, presidents, are surrounded by symbols of power that evoke respect and sometimes awe. But God, the Lord of all, is invisible. We only have a voice, written on paper, telling us: "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God," and that is what we have. The fear of God is the feeling of awe, probably. But this is a commandment and a wisdom that we cannot understand. How can one fear something so invisible, so improbable, something that begs us to believe in it? What kind of wisdom is that? But if we turn the myth of the cave on its head, we would find that the power is in the shadows, in the hidden. And the light serves the darkness. Such is the absurdity and perversion of Benthamite prison architecture. And how absurd and ingenious is the Benthamite mind that conceives the form and existence of the perfect prison while paving the way for modern liberalism and freedom.

So we can argue that the sources of our commercial culture are hidden in shadows that we are neither aware of nor willing and able to comprehend. Our culture, our reality, is controlled and shaped by a gravitational force that can be measured and expressed in a Newtonian formula, but never explained. And we can expect that it will become even more difficult to get to know these guardians of ours with the advancement of oracular technology that will take the reins of our present, past and future.

Bentham doesn't want us to be afraid. Fear contravenes the principle of utility. Fear is essentially unprofitable. It is hope, not fear, that matters. And technology is supposed to give us hope. Fear simply undermines our hope in human genius and creativity. The Benthamite prison is indeed a prison of light. The inmates are not afraid to dream, to speak, to communicate, to interact, to live. They are not afraid to pursue their dreams and thus fully expose themselves. The guardian, the black dot in the center, the pupil of the eye, wants to free humanity from the burden of suspicion and make man happy and secure. Mankind needs a remedy, a pharmakon. For as the Benthamite guardian knows, there are two things that matter to us: pain and pleasure. Pain is associated with fear, pleasure with hope and audacity. Humanity needs a cure for its fears and, above all, for its pain.

Western civilization has fully accepted the logic of utilitarianism and has built and is building a culture and society of pleasure. Utility is synonymous with profit. In a commercial culture, profit or utility is the basis of all human interaction and communication. Commercial culture is based on profit and utility. It promises pleasure, and Bentham, a prophet and unconscious ideologue of this culture, somewhat confuses the meaning of pleasure and happiness. From the pursuit of pleasure for all to the achievement of happiness for many: this is the utilitarian formula. Like the ancient Greeks in their golden age, pleasure and the worship of the invisible, unknown God, who could be compared to the invisible hand of Adam Smith, become the hallmark of the flourishing Western commercial culture.

When we speak of the utilitarian character of modern commercial culture and of Bentham, its first advocate, we must not make the mistake of saying that one man, Bentham, and his followers, John Stewart Mill and others, are the founders of modern commercialism. As I've noted before, there is no one person who can single-handedly create a culture. Every great mind that has expressed a "truth" is actually expressing in the best way the deep "secrets" and tendencies of the cultural environment. Betham is a prophet, not a creator. The Hegelian notion that individuals make history (including intellectual history) is only partially true, only in one sense correct. This notion needs to be clarified. Yes, individuals make history, but, in Hegelian terms, they do so only as the best tools of Providence, of the cultural avalanche, as it were, that brings to the surface a peak of intellectual brilliance. If Nietzsche was the intellectual giant of the late 19th century who predicted the horrors of the 20th century, then Bentham and Mill were the giants of the late 18th and 19th centuries who cultivated the soil of modern capitalism and liberalism but did not create its living culture. Marx was also among the prophets. But Marxism, as Marx imagined it, didn't completely follow the Marxist dream, but rather continued unabated and revealed itself in real life.

But commercial culture is not just a modern phenomenon. The panopticon prison may be an excellent metaphor for its ancient reality. Commercialism, despite its basic usefulness, i.e. the faster and perhaps better distribution of goods and art, is a wild and harsh marketplace. Just as the prison is a wild and harsh place where inmates struggle for air in the narrow space of confinement, so is the marketplace.

What is a marketplace? Expoisure. The exposure of what you have in order to gain what you do not have. The marketplace, however, is not the place to reveal hidden needs and dreams. In the marketplace, the needs of the seller, the merchant, are always as hidden as the needs of the buyer. Both buyer and seller are looking for clues and playing a game: who will win the profit. The marketplace is a space of concealment behind the shining exposure of possessions and offers. It is tempting, enticing, attractive. It is exciting. And addictive. It even gives a sense of life and accomplishment. It's not boring. There is no melancholy in it. The melancholic in the marketplace would be hit and beaten, robbed and used. It is a place of cheaters and gamblers. Of adventurers and psychopaths. Just as the prison is full of criminals who dream of satisfaction, of relief from the pain of limitations and obstacles, so the marketplace is full of "sinners" who seek escape and salvation. What is the market? asks Robert Burton in 1621 and answers in his The Anatomy of Melanholy:

A place, according to Anacharsis, wherein they cozen one another, a trap, nay, what’s the world itself? A vast Chaos, a confusion of manners, as fickle as the air, a crazy house, a turbulent troop full of impurities, a mart of walking spirits, goblins, the theatre of hypocrisy, a shop of knavery, flattery, a nursery of villainy, the scene of babbling, the school of giddiness, the academy of vice; a warfare where, willing or unwilling, one must fight and either conquer or succumb, in which kill or be killed: wherein every man is for himself, his private ends, and stands upon his own guard.

What better way to say it? What Burton describes in the distant 17th century, leaning on the arms of the distant 6th century BC Scitian prince-philosopher Anacharsis, is what we could say about life in commercial culture today. A friend told me that centuries ago the ground of Chicago was under Lake Michigan, and now it is not. So there is something new under the sun. Everything changes. But Kohelet is right: there is nothing new under the sun. Or what? Is the marketplace, the nursery of villainy, the academy of vice, the only eternal, immovable mover on earth?

Commercial culture, which transforms life into a marketplace, is very well suited to the panoptic organization of society. On the one hand, it reveals human will and passion, human capacity for evil; on the other hand, it stimulates creativity and helps the development of the arts, even if it makes artists scapegoats for the will to power and profit; and on the third hand, it is a culture of concealment, of hidden forces operating behind the rays of light. It is an expression of human pain and the search for pleasure, or rather happiness. Man goes to the marketplace to find the cure. But he has no idea that he is actually navigating the glass labyrinths of the panopticon. He is there for the promise of pharmakon, but is offered poison. He seeks happiness, but finds only pleasure. And pain.


It's tempting to think about the COVID pandemic, when the whole world was shut down and people were put in front of computer and phone screens. Every form of communication is possible through some form of medium. There is no direct communication between a person and the outside world. We communicate through our senses and through sign "technologies" such as language, image, and text. To a greater extent we depend on the quality of the medium of communication. The better the medium, the better and faster the communication. The medium plays a key role in the entire process of human interaction. We could even say that the medium is one of the foundations of life.

There are natural mediums, such as human senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste), and unnatural, human mediums, such as speech and text. Jacques Derrida gave preference to the medium of speech and called the techne of textual interaction “pharmakon.” He titled the meaning of the word pharmakon with a rather negative sense: the text doesn't deliver the originality of the source; it's a recycled truth, so to speak. Not that the text doesn't help the development of the arts and especially of knowledge, and the preservation of memory, but it is a kind of distortion, and a technology open to distortion, which could transform the original idea of the source into something completely different. Text is a poor substitute for living speech. We have many examples in history when a theory or an idea or a myth takes on different forms and is abused in the hands of sophists and political opportunists. The great idea, despite its reflective nature, that is, despite its reflection of the unnamed and before its appearance unconscious cultural environment, could always fall into the corrupt hands of power and private interests, and be distorted and twisted in many ways, just as I could distort a story, as I mentioned above, and just as Derrida distorts, or let's say "deconstructs," everything written that seems to grab his attention.

In short, the medium can be manipulated, and the medium is never the absolute copy of the original. The medium, the sign through which we communicate, is both the vehicle of communication and the source of distortion. It is, so to speak, an "open source" for different interpretations of what is true, and therefore the corrupted form of reality. The medium, in other words, is not reality. It's not, to use Kant, the thing itself. And culture, which is our “reality,” is a medium on a grand scale.

Let's go back to COVID. We learned about this virus through the media. Through the mass media. There were some media edges, so to speak, that set the tone, in alliance with the government. There was also a lot of background noise opposing the mainstream. We still don't know exactly what happened. What we do know for sure is that we've been put in front of the light of screens, we've begun to communicate through the medium of digital technologies (text, video, and images), and the vast majority of the human population on Earth has been totally exposed to the computing and information harvesting power of the digital medium.

Let's say this was the golden age of AI. The COVID years are the golden age of digital technologies, the greatest harvest of human knowledge and experience ever. It's not surprising that AI became a buzzword after the COVID era. Forced to use the medium of digital technologies, we were forced to open ourselves as individuals and groups to the eye of the medium. It's a strange coincidence that Foucault, in the eighties of the last century, associated the "eye of power" with medicine and the Benthamite prison. He argued that hospitals are very much like Benthamite panopticon prisons. On the one hand, they are well-intentioned, created to heal people, to save lives. On the other hand, they are well regulated to prevent the spread of disease, well organized, based on great knowledge and expertise, and at the same time open and concealed. The COVID pandemic turned the world into a Benthamite panopticon. Decisions were supposedly made by technocarts (experts), and governments were the executive. What was new here was the scale of enclosure and surveillance, and the possibility of achieving such a scale. And what was extraordinary was the degree of connectedness between people, despite the restrictions. There was a tsunami of communication, and all the energy of that tsunami was channeled into a few massive streams of digital technology providers.

Where is the two-year experience of world humanity now stored? In distress people tend to talk a lot. To communicate, to express their thoughts and feelings. In distress, people reveal more than they would under normal circumstances. Where is this extraordinary revelation of thought and emotion on a large scale, of behavior, stored? It would be used. Is it scattered across various data centers and research facilities? Or is it concentrated?

I don't have the full picture of what happened during the pandemic years. No individual does. The full picture is a distorted picture, in Derrida's sense, a secondary, corrupted image of the original reality. It is the reality and truth of the medium, of techne. Will it be analyzed? This close to original, but never fully accurate picture? Probably. To a certain extent. After all, the main function of the digital medium is to collect, store, classify and analyze an unlimited amount of data. It is to dive into the sea of information and discover the patterns, the tides of meaningful direction. To see the trends of repetition and to build a hypothesis of what reality is. It is to listen to the noise of cacophony and recognize in it the music of charmony. That, at least, is what Sundar Pichai, the executive officer of Alphabet Inc. wants to find: the pattern in the chaos. Finding pattern in chaos is a lot like creating a world out of an abyss of nothingness, of meaninglessness.


Let's summarize some of the threads we've pulled out so far in this text, this pharmakon of mine. I've argued that culture is the eye of the individual and of society, that this eye can be good or corrupted, that we live or have lived for a long time in a commercial culture where profit is the main driving force, where advertising is hardly distinguishable from reality, while money or capital and the marketplace are the tools and the space of commercial life. I've also said that modern commercial society reflects the visions of intellectual giants like Jeremy Bentham, a prophet of an emerging commercial techno-culture, but not a creator, and that these visions very much describe the essence of modern Western commercial societies. I also said that it is easy to describe and figure out what is wrong with the classical (ideal) type of totalitarian society, but it is very hard to discern, describe, and analyze the manifold tendencies of totalitarianism in the modern commercial liberal-democratic order. I've described this order, largely following Michel Foucault's suggestion years ago, as a panopticon, and used the Greek word pharmakon - meaning medicine, poison, and sorcery - to describe technology as the ever-increasing force in both Western liberal-democratic commercialism and Eastern totalitarianism. I said in passing that technology will probably make money, advertising, and the marketplace as we know them obsolete, and that sooner or later we will probably have a completely different world, a completely different culture, subject to manipulation and centralization thanks to technology.

Nothing I've argued so far is original, new, or exciting. All points of argument and observation could be attacked from different sides. The consistency, the logic of the argument is, in my opinion, weak, questionable, and the argument itself is too pessimistic, reflecting the pessimism of the society we live in now. Writing down these thoughts of mine doesn't mean that I'm not aware of their possible flaccidity and the fact that they reflect the influence of the cultural environment in which I live. Being a pessimist in 2024 is as natural as being an optimist in 1989 or 1900. In most cases, the general optimism or pessimism of society doesn't reflect the breakthrough that is waiting at humanity's doorstep. No one knows what providence will bring. Our general fears or audacity often prove to be wrong. But again, these observations of mine are just a reflection of the general feeling of the majority living in the liberal-democratic, commercial society today, and they need to be recorded. There is a widespread sense of doom and gloom, people do not believe in their political and economic systems, people who are part and parcel of the commercial culture do not feel happy with it, the freedom they are supposed to have feels more and more elusive, and modern liberal democracy is moving further and further away from the ideals of classical liberalism, becoming, as many fear, a new form of statism. By statism I mean a panopticon type of social organization where privacy and free will are not respected, and the pursuit of the good (freedom from pain, pursuit of pleasure, and happiness for the greater number) leads to ever increasing measures of totalitarian control and social engineering.


Where does the pessimism of our time come from? One potential source could be the excessive optimism of the post-World War II world, which made possible the creation of an almost utopian political institution by European historical standards, such as the European Union, which led to a long and sustained period of economic growth and social progress. An optimism that resurfaced with even greater force after the fall of communism in the 1990s, and that was rekindled with the development of communication technologies and globalization. I don't know if it's human nature to get weary of hope. But there are periods in history when people who have enjoyed peace and stability for a long time, such as the long peace of the nineteenth century after the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna, suddenly become tired and, despite all their hopes for the future, throw all their energy into a devastating war of attrition that makes up for all the years of peace and progress. It seems that we are living in a similar moment, when optimism gives way to increasing madness and frenzy, which fuel the sense of disappointment to an unrealistic degree, and war and destruction seem to be the only possible ways to return to the state of hope.

Another source of pessimism could be the disappointment that comes from commercial culture. It promises a lot, like a well-crafted advertisement, it gives a lot of hope, only to reveal a darker, gruesome reality. Commercial culture offers solutions, basically technological, scientific solutions, which over time prove to be ineffective and cost-intensive. It is obvious that a commercial, Benthamite culture cannot be a cure for human ills. It is rather a poison. Or, to be more precise, it is a remedy to a certain extent, but in its excess it becomes a poison. Commercial society and culture are poisonous to hope and development only because they become a dominant phenomenon, only when they claim authority over all facets of human life. Bernard Mandeville's observation that "private vices" lead to "public good" could only be valid as a secondary, particular (not universal) truth. When it becomes an all-encompassing dictum, when it becomes a "truth" to be followed, it becomes very dangerous and destructive. Private vices may lead to progress, but they are not the source of progress. In short, commercial culture, which at first very much supported Mandeville's fables, then abandoned them in favor of statism through technology, turned from a source of optimism in economic progress and well-being to a source of disappointment and pessimism.

Another source of pessimism could be the inherent artificiality of commercial society. As I mentioned earlier, neither money, nor commercial forms of labor, nor the market, nor technology and advertising are natural phenomena. They are human constructions. They are inventions aimed at improving individual and social life, technologies aimed at profit, but they are not the meaning of life and the cure for the ills of the human heart. Commercial society is not natural, so it can never be satisfying.

And still another source (and I should stop here because we could go on for a long time) is the re-emergence of nationalism, of an anarchic world order. The Pax Americana has been shaken to its core, and great power politics is back in fashion. It is incomprehensible, or rather it is comprehensible, that people who have long held power are ready to fight for it, and people who have long been without power are now determined to regain their position before it's too late. In the next few pages I will certainly touch upon the problem of international politics, but what I want to say now is simply to point out that the return of war, the specter of the Third World War, is a tremendous, tremendous source of division, of evil passion, and of pessimism.


Where does the problem of commerce and technology come from? What is the problem with technology? One thing has already been said: techo-commercialism is becoming dominant. Technology and the desire for profit (which is basically the cornerstone of the commercial culture) penetrate all aspects of life. If technology were somehow limited to the material sphere - health care, transportation, agriculture, etc. - it would be of great benefit. But it cannot be limited. Because technology is made according to particular visions and needs. If ethics is compromised by the presence of profit at the heart of the process of technological progress, technology can never be just a cure. It inevitably becomes a poison. Ethics, although fundamental to the existence of any form of human society, although a foundation of human community, always lags behind technological progress. Technology should be constantly limited against the growing opportunities for abuse that come with its development.

Who could have imagined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what a great war would bring, given the technological progress that society had experienced? All the warring states believed that this would be a short, almost fun, yes, fun, war, and all competed to hit the enemy first, thinking that this would guarantee a quick and bloodless victory. There was the seldom-mentioned today "cult of the offensive," (Jack L. Snyder) in which all parties believed that whoever struck first would secure victory. No one considered what technological improvement would bring. All were myopic about the advanced weapons and organization they had. All rushed into the conflict, and all got bogged down in a war that, I don't think I'm exaggerating, is still in full swing, unfinished.

Thus, the idea of territorial gain was mixed with the capacity of technology, and the general state of morality was so weak that there was no force to stop the rush to fight. The generally poor sense of ethics created, on the one hand, a desire for conflict and, on the other, a willingness to use all available (technological) means to achieve a fundamentally compromised, unethical goal. The First World War was a war of a culture that wasn't fully aware of the dangers of technological progress. Thanks to technology, there had never been a war of such magnitude, devastation, and lethality.

Everything boils down to the question of reality and truth. What is real and what is true? For example, the "cult of the offensive" is related to the so-called "offensive realism". It's an understanding that the international system is anarchic and as such impossible to regulate, and above all it is ruled by pure power, and whoever is in a position to win something is better to act, keep and improve that position in order to secure its independence. It's a worldview that claims to reflect reality. As such, it is considered true. But who can say that reality is the same as what we take to be reality? The perspective of the "cult of the offensive" led to the downfall and defeat of the offender.

We perceive reality, as I said, through some kind of medium, and often the medium becomes synonymous (or indistinguishable) with reality. Our culture is our reality, and culture is a medium on a grand scale. This is possible because people who share a culture tend to agree on what is real. Why is that? Because they all speak the "same language," they all agree on a fact, and they are able to communicate and transmit this "fact" of theirs. They all see white as white, black as black, and green as green.

The fact is, however, that some may see the dark green as black, or the black as dark green, and the majority, from whatever position or view, would always impose their truth about black and green. The old cliché that reality is not black and white reflects a kind of truth. Different cultures and civilizations usually agree on, let's say, what is black and white, but they usually argue about the shades and make a big fuss about it. The differences between cultures come from the shades, so to speak. It is the same with the differences between people.

Technology seems to solve this problem. If technology is the only way to get people to agree because it operates on "facts" and not "truths," then it would create the only culture based not on human perception but on hard, measurable data. That's why I said above that technology as an oracular force would create a culture with no alternative. A "one plus two equals three" culture. It could be an amazing culture that would bring widespread peace and agreement, but it would be a culture that is fundamentally non-human in its operations. It would be human insofar as it was conceived by the efforts and talents of creatures who could agree on "white" and "black" but not always on "green." Thus, technology would always set the standards of the majority, unmatched in justice and fairness, but always against a bizarre minority (such is human nature!) that would never accept the ready-made truth, no matter where it came from - from a human, natural medium (senses) or a human, non-natural medium (technology).

Technology in this sense could be a pharmakon (cure) for the many and a poison (pharmakon) for the few. And here again is the Benthamite problem: happiness is for the greater number. The "realism" of Bentham is that he is aware that there will always be a few who won't be happy. And here is Foucault, suspicious of the implications of this reality, intuitively sniffing around the insane, looking back into their history, thinking about how society has dealt with them, how they have been treated and "domesticated," if we can use that word at all. The mentally ill were either abandoned, exiled, or finally "institutionalized," that is, placed in the more "humane" technological environment of a mental institution.

But what if technology "institutionalizes" all of us? What if, at some point, technology begins to create our entire reality, telling us what is true and what is a lie? What if every human being on earth, once empowered, nurtured and experiencing the blessings of technological progress, generation after generation, suddenly gets a perspective that is not aligned with techno-reality? What if happiness becomes more and more elusive and man, in a highly advanced technological society, revolts and begins to imagine, to fantasize about a world of his own? Despite all the efforts of sanity, the insane create their own doomed world. A world within themselves. A world without social interaction, yet densely populated, active and disordered. A world that ends in apocalypse. Just like our own world today. What if future technology destroys human interaction, natural human interaction, and humans lose their autonomy and ability to communicate naturally, leaving the human person in the position of a dreaming, self-sufficient "atom"? This is where my fantasy runs wild.

As an alternative, we could ask: what if technology, thanks to human genius and creativity, finally helps us to feel each other and to celebrate and rejoice in the differences of perception? Surely we need this positive view. For (and here, in this particular sense, Bentham is right) only hope, along with faith and love, could lead us to what matters most: not reality or "truth," but the happiness of all. 


Tsoncho Tsonchev has degrees in political science, history, and theology, and a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University. He is the editor of The Montreal Review and the author of The Political Theology of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Reinhold Niebuhr: Essays in Political Theology and Christian Realism (The Montreal Review, 2018) and Person and Communion: The Political Theology of Nikolai Berdyaev (The Montreal Review, 2021).




The Montréal Review, June 2024




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