The Field of Subjectivity

by rthieme on October 18, 1998

Islands in the ClickstreamBack in the days when the Human Potential Movement emerged on the West Coast, we heard a lot about the “technology of consciousness.” That was a way of saying that the structures of human possibility are definable, and those who leverage their understanding of how humans work are “power up” on those who stay asleep.

Those intensive weekends were big on “intentionality.” The concept was taken, perhaps, beyond the limits within which it made sense, but that’s how we discovered what those limits were. We would never have reached so far had we not tried to reach further. And, that’s how we learn. We seldom get it perfectly right. Aristotle described the Golden Mean as a plumb line across which we tack back and forth, headed for the source of the wind. The goal is to sail closer and closer to the wind, and the wind is the Tao, the energy of the universe. Aligning ourselves with the Tao is like catching a wave. Maybe that’s what Jews, Christians and Moslems mean when they talk about being aligned with “the will of God,” i.e. God’s ultimate intentions.

The Human Potential Movement was also a way to invent communities. In the absence of extended families and stable communities, we needed to make them up. When castles crumble, we learn to live in space stations, docking in modular fashion. Those weekends were opportunities to define norms and symbols, create some kind of structure, a sense of coherence, in a new world in which we were all immigrants. Traditions had to be created from nothing and sustained by agreement – sustained, that is, like all social constructions of reality, by our deeper intentionality.

I learned the meaning of intentionality when planning an all-day intensive experience for a parish I served in Salt Lake City as a young Episcopal priest. I designed a day that I hoped would deliver an experience of real transformation. A week before the event, only twenty people had registered. I was disappointed and resentful. Those feelings made it easy to blame the people of the community for not doing what I wanted. But there was a small gap, a critical synapse, between those feelings and that “space of possibility” from whence cometh our deeper intentions. I saw that I had a choice: I could use their non-response to justify doing nothing more or I could choose to manifest my real intentions.

I spent every day of the next week from early morning until late night telephoning every one of the 250 families of the parish to enroll them in the event. When I hung up from the last call, I knew that even if the event were cancelled, the transformation had already happened. My willingness to take responsibility for manifesting my real intention made it happen.

Eighty-five people showed up instead of twenty. The event worked. But more important, every time I subsequently heard myself try to justify not doing what I said I intended to do, I knew I was lying. I discovered that my real limits were far beyond what I previously thought.

Interaction with our technologies helps to frame how we hold ourselves, individually and collectively, as possibilities for action in the world. The “technology of consciousness” is a way of defining the field of subjectivity that enables us to leverage the truth about ourselves, that we have as much freedom and power, as Charles Rike said, as we can have, which is more freedom and power than we like to believe. When we finished those long weekends, we not only knew that but knew that we knew.

These themes – intentionality, intentional communities, life in cyberspace – will be explored in coming weeks. Today I just want to say that we live within a field of subjectivity that defines our essential qualities as intelligent living beings. Within that field is the power of intentionality, that is, the capacity to seize once again the reins of our lives when we have dropped them.

A friend emailed a story this morning about an implant in the brain of a paralyzed man that enables him to move a cursor on a screen. This is the first direct communication between the human brain and a computer.

“It’s like we’re making the mouse the patient’s brain,” said Roy Bakay, one of the doctors who developed the technology. Because the device is implanted in an area of the brain that produces signals that cause movement, researchers told the stroke victim to think about grabbing a glass. His brain signals are amplified and transmitted from a coil on his head, which points the cursor at icons.

We are walking on shaky ground here, because the Cartesian belief that the mind and body are separate has died hard. We are learning to understand that we live inside a field of subjectivity defined by our genes, a designed capacity for structuring the world. Like the ape that learned to draw and sketched the bars of his own cage, we are learning that every thing we say about the “world” in fact reveals how we construct that world in the first place. And how we are constructed to construct that world.

The network that is the computer is linked to the human network or perhaps to all intelligent life or all life or, for that matter, all matter. A complex pattern of energy and information, life blurs at the edges into its raw materials. But the engine is intentionality, that quality within our field of subjectivity that lets us aim the arrow of our lives. When the arrow hits, we discover that we have also created the target.

The energies of the universe are mutable and plastic. We think, therefore the cursor moves, whether moved by a mouse or an image in our minds. The universe is a point-and-click wraparound multi-dimensional interface in which we are immersed, multi-dimensional point-and-click beings whose capacity for creativity and meaningful action is so much greater than we think or dare to dream.

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