1. To write about Theodore J. Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, is to sit for a moment with the ghosts of his victims peering over your shoulder. The dead and the maimed, both. Just as much as you try to communicate to your readers, you also perform for that other spectral audience. Be sure not to overpraise the man. Obscure any admiration you might have for his ideas in a miasma of qualifications. Make sure to toss out one or two petty asides about his “wooden” or “plodding” prose. Call him evil, of course. Because your readers won’t allow themselves to understand what you’re saying until you’ve appeased the phantasms floating above the computer screen.
2. Franz Kafka knew that to attempt communication is to hold a seance in a de-spiritualized world. In a letter to Milena Jesenská, he wrote:
Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost…How did people ever get the idea that they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power…Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way…People sense this and struggle against it; in order to eliminate as much of the ghosts’ power as possible and to attain a natural intercourse, a tranquility of soul, they have invented trains, cars, aeroplanes – but nothing helps anymore: These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. They will not starve but we will perish.
Nearly a century later, Byung-Chul Han would comment that “Kafka’s ghosts have in the meantime invented television, the internet, and email.”
3. On September 19, 1995, I used the internet for the first time. Or, at least it is my earliest memory of being online. It was like astrally projecting. Or stygian bilocation. The solid and low-lying brick homes of Florissant, Missouri disintegrated. Its tight Euclidean lawns, occasionally punctuated with intimidating oaks, vaporized into a digital mist. It had found me at the exact right moment: my childhood had been lived offline (and would continue to be, for the most part, until college) so the experience was unique. But it was also accessible. I knew it was there and I could get to it, but only occasionally. Occupation of this liminal space made it feel all the more exciting and occult. Like finding a magical artifact too large to move deep in the woods. Unable to be a part of my everyday life, it inspired occasional pilgrimages.
4. September 19, 1995. I’d finished all of my work early and was restless. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Woodard, asked me to get on the single computer in our elementary school with internet access and read a major story in the New York Times and summarize it for the class. This happened to be the day that, citing safety concerns from threats, the Times and the Washington Post published the Unabomber’s “manifesto”, “Industrial Society and Its Future.” It was, with all due respect to the presiding spirits reading this over my shoulder, the most powerful and persuasive text I’d read thus far in my twelve years of life. And it would continue through the years, in all kinds of different and occasionally contradictory ways, to exert an influence over me as a writer.
5. No one knew who the Unabomber was at this point, only that he had killed and injured people with bombs sent through the mail. But now, at least, we knew why he killed. Or at least how he justified it to himself. We had an ideology to rummage through. I don’t remember the exact summary I gave my class, but it would have included these basic arguments:
- Technological progress has become an autonomous force outpacing human control and will inevitably lead to disaster.
- Disaster can only prevented by the collapse of the entire industrial system.
- There are no current political remedies. The right is oblivious. The left is there to siphon sincere revolutionary aspirations into lifestyle and identity battles.
- A new revolutionary movement dedicated to the destruction of technological civilization is needed.
The rest of my class listened patiently, watching the clock tick.
6. I would find out later that, while attending Harvard University as a sixteen year old undergraduate, only four years older than I was myself when I first read his manifesto, the CIA had tortured Kaczynski. His brother, David, wrote about it years later:
The Harvard study my brother participated in was called ‘Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men.’ It was overseen by the noted psychologist Henry Murray, who during WWII worked for the OSS (which later became the CIA), where he developed methodologies for interrogating prisoners of war. In his professional life, Murray was known for his brilliance and his grandiosity. In his personal life, according to his biographer, he displayed sadistic tendencies. His research on college men bears a certain resemblance to his research on prisoners of war.
Kaczynski, still a child, was taken in by a magnetically vivacious Murray and convinced to participate in experimental forms of interrogation. In the sessions, his very fundamental notions of self – his deeply held beliefs and most bedrock personality – were vivisected under klieg lights. These early Harvard experiments were either predecessors of or parallel to Project MKUltra, the infamous CIA mind control program which experimented with LSD as a tool of cognitive control. The same LSD nascent computer geeks would ingest as they invented the TCP/IP protocol suite and packet switching networks which the CIA would develop into ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. I imagine the synapses of CIA handlers and their subjects firing in sympathetic conversation, patterns formed in the sub-basements of Harvard replicating themselves in the viscera of desktop computers. The kind of man/machine inheritance Cronenberg obsesses over. There’s a delicate but very real line connecting the tortured child Kaczynski and the single computer we had at Lusher elementary school on which I used the internet to access his manifesto. And it continues to unspool as you read these words.
7. In a not-entirely-accurate but very entertaining recent dramatization of how the FBI finally apprehended the Unabomber, the actor Paul Bettany, playing an incarcerated Kaczynski awaiting trial, rails smugly about his legal defense being “fruit of the poisoned tree”. Because the methods used to apprehend him were faulty, the cinematic Kaczynski argues, his arrest is faulty as well. The character was unintentionally echoing the most salient argument against Kaczynski himself: being a murderer for his cause, any defense of his cause is tainted and faulty. What appeals about the criticism is its moral heft, how it serves as a tool to distinguish us from a killer. We refuse to be tainted by his evil. His words, somehow, carry the echoes of his actions. By hearing them, we become accomplices.
8. Of course, it’s a mostly absurd argument. Kaczynski mentions the diseases of civilization in his manifesto: diabetes, certain types of cancer, etc. He also mentions environmental degradation. These things are legitimate concerns, whether or not he hurt anyone. To argue otherwise would be like saying, in response to someone murdering another person for running a red light, that traffic laws don’t actually exist. In it’s own way, it’s a way of conceding to the irrationality of the perpetrator. Of engaging with their wild logic and honoring their antithesis with a thesis. His arguments don’t necessitate a detailed rehashing. They probably don’t deserve it. Other people have made similar, if not the same exact points as Kaczynski more thoughtfully and in richer language. Jacque Ellul. Lewis Mumford. Nicols Fox. Murray Bookchin.
9. I did more than summarize ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’ for my sixth grade class. I also denounced Kaczynski’s actions. But I also advocated his ideas. Or, to be more precise, I ironically defended them. It was, I realized in retrospect, a performance so ubiquitous on the internet now, but acted out live. I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary or experience to know what to call it, but that’s what it was. I would have never advocated for violence, but I wanted to almost parasitically channel some of the disturbing energy of his actions into my words. I wanted to condemn him, but advocate just enough to jolt my class into some kind of response. This is what irony hungers for, to have things both ways.
And for that to happen, there must be a subtle suggestion of, if not insincerity, then at least an inside joke. For it to work properly, there has to be rubes, people who don’t get it. The Greeks called them alazon. The ones on the inside were eiron. And the entire bifurcation is forced through the style of one’s language. Proust called style the “sign of the transformation that the writer’s thought imposes on reality.” It’s an instantaneous impression made through sheer tyranny of being. Richard Rorty might categorize irony as a mode of self-knowledge, and perhaps it’s that also. But primarily, it is a vessel for the transmission of style. It’s a way to short-circuit the process of contacting truth through duration and dialogue. And it saturates the internet.
10. Kaczynski’s writing is decidedly not ironic. And yet, in so many ways it anticipates the extremely online irony of the alt-right and dirtbag left. Call it “one weird trick” thinking. Our problems are just as clear and easy to articulate as their solutions: an ethno-national state, fully automated luxury communism, the complete decimation of the technological society. The threats are almost always existential, and so the vast panoply of life and human experience in toto becomes subsumed to message-board size.
One of the more shocking aspects of Kaczynski’s manifesto, and the thing that justifies his total existential commitment to his cause, is that it recognizes only its concerns as the fundamental bedrock of all human existence. Anything which doesn’t in some way touch his ideology is considered superfluous. There’s no room in a manifesto for daydreaming.
Byung-Chul Han calls this conception of being “bare life” and, ironically (perhaps), it echoes the insane neoliberal minimization of human life to financialized quantifiables. The Bronze Age Pervert has “vitality”. Someone else has “ethnicity”. The Unabomber has “neo-primitivism”. Concede one single point and the world and all of its problems fall logically into place. And in this deadening monomaniacle gaze everything becomes an insane tautology. Life has been reduced to a formula and there is no room left for human imagination. As Chesterton said,
Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.
11. In a tautological vice grip, there is no more room for dreaming. And no hope. The only thing left is action, and usually violence. Don DeLillo has proven the best reader of the tea leaves. In Mao II, his second best book, he writes:
In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings that we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take serious? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorists stand outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him. It’s confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. The way they determine how we see them. The way they dominate the rush of endless streaming images.
12. He’s writing about terrorists of all sorts, and says almost explicitly that they’ve become the new unacknowledged legislators of the world, displacing poets and artists. But what the passage implies, and what seems to be true, is that the tautologies we see in the ideas of fringe-dwellers don’t belong to them alone. Kaczynski, in spite of his violence, is a sensitive human. Online trolls are only the advanced guard, or more extreme form, of how we all engage with one another through the disembodied mediation of social media. No one is completely inoculated from the anomie. Our society itself, as a whole, vacillates absurdly between irony and violence. Between opioids and shootings. Between over-connectivity and isolation. Between detachment and ardor.
13. I’ve intentionally tried not to quote Kaczynski directly. What I’m writing isn’t so much about him but the wake he anticipated and the larger turbulence of which he was a part. But it’s worth quoting the single most insightful sentence in his manifesto: “We can do anything we want as long as it is UNIMPORTANT.” This attitude forms the gordian knot of our contemporary world. Belief in it accounts for the pathetic stoicism of our irony. And the longing for subversive truths which explain away the rich complexity of the world. It’s a cri de ceour, as petulant as it is pained. Crimped and claustrophobic. But it’s also vain. It ignores completely the ghosts still tarrying beside me as I write this, presiding over the ceremony of writing and insisting on a grand but living decorum.
14. Could what we need in order to transcend irony and pull down our vanity be, not the warm familiarity of utopian recipes, but recognition of the scandal of the mysterious excess of life? In proof against the poisoned tree metaphor, turn to Pound after the Second World War, captured by American forces and awaiting return to America for trial. He wrote from his imprisonment:
Ed ascoltando al leggier mormorio
there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent,
whether of the spirit or hypostasis,
but what the blindfold hides
or at carneval
nor any pair showed anger
Saw but the eyes and stance between the eyes,
careless or unaware it had not the
whole tent’s room
nor was place for the full EidwV
casting but shade beyond the other lights
green of the mountain pool
shone from the unmasked eyes in half-mask’s space.
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
In more anodyne language, you could say that in the corner of his US Army tent, he witnessed the larval birth of a wasp. The moment overcame him and he was moved to remorse and gratitude, all at once, by imagining these new eyes seeing the world. The mystery and miracle of literal embodiment set against political abstraction. Life itself, literal life, as a question so profound it can only be approached in quiet humility. And never answered outright.
15. I recently re-read “Industrial Society and Its Future” for the first time in years. Decades, possibly. As a document, it felt less like a handful of bright heat and more like a sad artifact of the fallen world. I felt pity for Kaczynski and his victims. I felt regret for my own excursions into empty irony. I sat with the ghosts a moment, Pound included. “What thou lovest well remains”. I ended the seance and came downstairs to my daughter.