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Postmodern Virtual Desert

The Postmodern Desert:
Solitude and Community in Cyberspace

by Elisha Emery Obl.OSB Cam
New Camaldoli Hermitage

15 Brewster Court
Northampton, MA 01060


The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1965) has said that where there is a baby there also must be a mother. There is, he said, no such thing as a baby. Babies are not singular nor are they individuals. They are profoundly relational and cannot exist as babies outside of relationship with the mother. Nor, for that matter, can a mother be a mother without being in relationship to their baby. Life, from the onset, is communal and networked. In the "with-ness" and the flowing exchange of joys and care between the couple, community forms.

The mother, said Winnicott, can be thought of as having two dimensions. There is the mother who is an "object," and the mother who is an "environment." As an "object," the mother is an otherness who provides functions, ministers in discrete acts of care and attention. This is the mother who is "over there" and who is, in being "over there," distinct yet available. As an "environment," the mother is a presence, an atmosphere, a flow, an elemental given-ness whose being forms for their baby a background sense of holding. The mother as environment is the matrix in which relatedness is embedded and against which relatedness stands out as figural. Not only is the baby held in tangible and physical and sensual acts of support, the baby is also held in states of mind, through intention and attention and in ontologic self-presentation. Simultaneous to being an "object," the mother is also a "holding environment."

It is this aspect of the mother-baby relationship that forms the vessel or membrane inside of which discrete acts of attention and care happen. The holding environment aspect of maternal care gives shape to community within which solitude is possible. A mother who is both consistent as an object and provides continuity of presence as a holding environment is "good enough." As "good enough," the mother provides neither too much, which would risk indulgent dependence or spoiling, nor too little, which would risk the intolerable frustration of deprivation. Dom Jean Leclercq (n.d.) has provided one of the few illuminating commentaries on the Rule from the viewpoint of Winnicott's perspective on the mother as a "good enough" holding environment.

Leclercq considers the position of the Abbot within the community as an exemplar of the "good enough" mother through whom the mind of Christ is made manifest for internalization on the part of the community. He also considers the community as a corporate entity whose form, suggested by the Latin morphology of words designating community (congregatio, schola, institutio, and acies), is inherently feminine. It is this good enough maternal holding aspect of both Abbot and community that allows each monk--even those of the cenobium, as Merton (1973) points out--to seek the solitude of the desert as the medium through which develops an authentic openness and purity of heart. The solitude of the desert is the medium proper to communion and communication with the divine.

Each epoch and each distinctive cultural matrix must realize the desert most proper to their own sensibility and to their own proper encounter with the living God. This is as vital and as compelling now as it was in the fourth century when Anthony, at thirty-five, shut himself for twenty years in a fort in the Egyptian desert (Chitty, 1966). Recent examples of this same spirit that beckons one into the fecund and infinite nowhereness that is the eye of God can be found in the eremeticism of Charles de Foucauld, of Henri LeSaux, O.S.B. (Abhishiktananda) and, more recently, of Nazarena, the Camaldolese recluse (Matus, 1998).

As a holding environment, the desert is a cauldron where the soul is refined. "Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet cool clear green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons brimming--so to speak--with plasmic fires and the tyranny of its day begins" (Abbey, 1968). The desert is the nowhereness of place, is where there is no place, where place is nowhere, where there are no boundaries, no geopolitical demarcations of difference, no spatial markers of identity, no confusing discriminating borderlines. The desert, said Jean Baudrillard (1993), shapes a "brilliant, mobile... neutrality... an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference points... the end of aesthectics." In the desert, the absence of shadow is the shadow of the Spirit (Taylor, 1992).

In the unrelenting soup of heat and vast horizontal expanse of the desert, the anima, filled to the brim with silence and with self-emptying awe, feeds off of this silence and grows full with a solitude through which God, also in silence, speaks. "Not another word... God is speaking to me... I answer.... Not another sound: silence listens to silence," said Reb Safit (Jabes, 1990). Out of this silence of void and abyss in which one hears the amplifying echo of eternity, there is also an appeal for the tangible, for palpation of the infinite, for communion with the sublime, for an aesthetics of communication. The nowhereness of the desert and its sublime call is exemplified in the recent cult fascination with the Mojave Desert phone booth. Hundreds of persons each week now call this telephone where mostly there is no one but where some pilgrims have traveled, in an ambiguous mix of delusion and inspiration, to answer these calls from those who wish to make "contact" with silent traces of the unspeakable divine, the God of negative theology. The Mojave Desert telephone is a symptom of an uncanny contemporary secular eremiticism. The space conducive to its emergence is the borderline between modernity's valorization of place and the web of postmodernity.

Perturbations in the rhythms of lived time also affect spatial demarcations. With time becoming condensed into the urgency of the instantaneous (Gleick, 1999) space becomes less of a physical place and more a destabilized meta-physical designation. Stability is subject to the turbulence of chaotic systems whose underlying regularity has become increasingly less devoted to place as it becomes caught up in both an insubstantial spectrology (the logos of the ghost) and a de-centering spirituality of the virtual.

Where, we might ask, is the sapiential holding environment in this dual dislocation that shifts identification with the center into the dynamism of a self-evolving virtual network? This movement toward the space of the postmodern has both its symptoms and its consolations. While vocations for many communities are on the decline, oblates for those same communities are frequently on the increase, in some instances almost exponentially so. Monastic oblates are de facto hermits as they live apart from, though spiritually linked to, traditionally formed communities. Those who live out of the hermitage of the "inner monk" are also contributing to shaping new communities. These communities are less ordered around a self-contained place as they take shape within cyberspace. The sapiential holding environment that is monasticism is not disappearing so much as shifting shape and locus as it incorporates into a vision of stability that always valued the heart-centered solitude of the desert a new expanse: the postmodern networks of cyberspace.

As its collective core diminishes, the network of monastic affiliations is growing, becoming more expansively interrelated. Linkages through non-physical space are possible as technologies for real-time instantiety expand. Concurrent with growth in monastic affiliation is a new form of desert, one that is less physical, less defined by the stability of place and more virtual. The "stability" of cyberspace shapes a new form of holding environment: an open democratic exchange in which multiple facets of Spirit link across boundaries, identities, enclosures of circumstance, and differentiations.

Monasticism is riding the cusp of an expanded consciousness no longer limited to the defining cultural and incarnational spaces of actual physicality as it incorporates the virtual embodiments of cyberspace. One measure of this shift is the extent to which monastic communities are in evidence on the World Wide Web. There are those, for example, who simply announce their horarium to those who have turned the design of Web pages into a monastic craft within a desert centered postmodern scriptorium to those that provide, within cyberspace, real-time virtual perpetual adoration of the Real Presence. There is a growing abundance of interest groups and list-serves, from the chatty, homey, and at times thoughtful "monastic list" to the recent addition of a list for "lay Carthusian contemplatives." The number of "places" on the net for shared interests has exploded from 6,000 in 1987 to 60,000 in 1994 with the number now doubling every eighteen months.

The web is the holding environment most consistent with the emergence of the postmodern desert. Within this non-place of flows and networks, the formation of an exclusively cybermonastery might seem inevitable. There is, at present, at least one instance of a Zen-inspired Benedictine community whose "monastery" exists solely within cyberspace. Then there is the interesting case of Bishop Gaillot who has become the first virtual bishop. Transferred from Evreux, in Normandy, to Partenia, an expanse of sand dunes in the northern Sahara desert that has remained unpopulated since the fourth century, Gaillot became the Bishop of Nowhere. The locus of "nowhere" underwent a further translocation, from the metaphysical idea of a bishop attached to a real place (an actual desert location) to a meta-physical place (a postmodern desert) with a real bishop. Bishop Gaillot became the first virtual Desert Father.

With the establishment of Bishop Gaillot's web site <>, the desert of Partenia becomes a non-place within the Internet. When place is replaced by a non-place, the desert metamorphosizes into cyberspace. The desert becomes postmodern in a turn that is also significantly archaic. "The primitive Church was a kind of Internet itself, said Gaillot... the early Christian understood that what was most important was not to claim physical power in a physical place but to establish a network of believers--to be on line." On line, the difference between physical actuality and real existence is breached. Cyberspace functions like a strange attractor for those whose solitary self-communion with the "inner monk" seeks in virtuality a new kind of communal holding environment. The virtual maternal matrices of the Web allow for the development of communities outside the traditional boundaries of time and space. These "communities" function as a holding environment for an emergent new monk--one who is not called to the traditional cenobium but to prophetic witness in the liminality of a new form of desert, a postmodern one.

Cyberspace, states Cobb (1998), is the realm of pure possibility. It is relational at its very core, pushing us toward inwardness and opening us to our own space of pure possibility. Cyberspace is nomadic. It exists in the gap of "nomos." Cyberspace is a "smooth space" whose potential for expansion is infinite. One rides a "flux" and a "flow" of information. One wanders. As a holding environment, cyberspace is rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). It is like a subterranean stem that grows and spreads horizontally. In cyberspace thought is pushed to the level of the formal operational mind where the rules of thought are themselves transcended and where reason, as a consequence, becomes a space of possibility.

Cyberspace is comprised of holoarchic levels of organization, each higher one transcending and including lower level matrices in an expanding interactive matrix that negates exclusivity and isolation. To the machine hardware one can add many levels of software ranging from the machine code (the strings of 0's and 1's that interact with the hardware) to increasingly complex algorithms to the person/machine interface, all forming, through holoarchic levels of organization cyberspace (Cobb, 1998). Cyberspace is a hardwired version of what Teilhard de Chardin envisioned as the noosphere:

"A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence. Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, a 'thinking layer,' which... has spread over and above the world of plants and animals... outside and above the biosphere there is the noosphere" (Teilhard, 1965).

The web of electronic information encircling the globe, its infrastructures of satellites and mainframes and servers and personal computers combine with a free flow of consciousness anyone with a connection can plug into to form a constant fluctuating holding environment of information. The Web is not unlike a metaphoric materialization of the brain. Billions of messages shuttling back and forth linking in an ever-growing web of communication between millions of minds is not unlike the growth of connection between brain cells. Each nerve cell, by adulthood, makes connection with as many as a quarter of a million other cells.

By the year 2000, the global telecommunications network is predicted to have attained the complexity of the human brain. Teilhard believed that this self-organizing and self-evolving tissue of thought (information) would become, through self-expanding density and complexity, a living unity not unlike a single tissue. This was Teilhard's vision of the Body of Christ.

Cyberpsace is one profile of the noosphere. Through linking consciousness to the horizontal rhizomatic flow of the Internet, each individual potentially becomes more personal as they become more universal. While the net can become the dark vortex of an addictive fascination and the simulacrum for pseudo-fictive selves and multiple minds, it can also be a luminous reflection of the Spirit's virtuality. It is striking, in this regard, that the monks of His Holiness the Dalai Lama have blessed cyberspace. Space, in the Tibetan Buddhist view, is an absence of obstruction, not the distance between two points. It has no inherent existence yet exists as a field of mental activity. With the absence of obstruction, there is the possibility that something new can arise, its nature depending on motivation and intent, on right action. Cyberspace hardwires the incandescent glow of consciousness that characterizes the global brain, realizing Teilhard's vision of evolution becoming conscious of itself.

While there is no singular viewpoint that characterizes postmodernism, it could be said that it is a viewpoint that emphasizes an excluded horizontal movement over the vertical and the hierarchical. The emphasis on the participative horizontal dimension in postmodernism is consistent with similar emphasis in the sapiental movement of the Spirit toward reclamation of the excluded (Barnhart, 1999). Postmodernism de-centers the "Self" from its identification with privileged and centralized autonomous universality. While postmodernisms are frequently reduced to a variation of nihilism, in fact there has been a sustained dialogue with theological reflection in the thought of one whom best exemplifies the postmodern spirit, Jacques Derrida (1992). As a way of naming, postmodernism is a kind of negative theology in which that which is to be named can only be done so by not naming, by circumambulating the mysteriously un-nameable in an errant network of virtuality. How negative theology names the unnamable and how the Web flows are evocatively resonant.


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