Steppe of the Spirit

Steppe of the Spirit

Sam Buntz

On the Enclosure of Commons


And against this inward revolt of the native creatures of the soul
mechanical man, in triumph seated upon the seat of his machine
will be powerless, for no engine can reach into the marshes and depths of a man.

— D.H. Lawrence

Hamlet said that he could be bound in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space. During the pandemic, many of us endured a similar nutshell confinement, but I imagine very few could claim a compensatory mastery over infinite space. Space, inner and outer, seems a bit closed off and constrained these days. In fact, the more limited the space around us becomes, the more a selfsame restriction takes hold within ourselves. The categories we think in become more rigid, less vital . . . We compartmentalize our inner space with the dull, rote categories of ideology and identity.

In his epic biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Martin Lings says that the Arabs of Mecca used to send their infants to be nursed by Bedouin women (as the infant Prophet himself was). Lings suggests that this is because the Bedouins, with their nomadic lifestyle, had retained a sacred mastery over space that proved unavailable to the city slicker. City life left one confined, a “target of time,” sitting and waiting for the forces of decadence to work their disintegrative magic. Nomadic peoples, by retaining free motion in space, enjoyed a relative freedom from time as well. They couldn’t experience its ravages in full because they were always on the move. The world did not appear to disintegrate around them but retained its perennial freshness. Knowing that they were exiles from Eden, they allowed themselves not to feel too at home in any given place. They were perpetual searchers and wanderers. They kept a few shreds of their ancient liberty.

At present, we are targets of time, under the gun daily. Few of us even experience the age-old pleasures of ambling through a marketplace and people-watching. Amazon packages hit the porch punctually, and our patterns of consumption take the form of waiting in time rather than moving in space. This is nothing new, of course. Space has been falling outside of nature and into the arms of private enterprise and state institutions for centuries. But, in the 21st Century, we seem to be reaching a terminal point in this process. Most space is thoroughly owned. The commons have long been closed off, and the process of enclosure continues now in digital space and mental space. The free range of the Internet, once home to a wide variety of eccentric bloggers (nomads mirroring Lings’ Bedouins), now finds itself confined by Big Tech Giants. Amazon and Apple can, on their own, decide to expel a smaller enterprise (like Parler) from the internet without much debate. But underneath this wall-to-wall domination, secret networks proliferate.

And there is yet another dimension to this process of enclosure. It is affecting imaginative space, so to say, the space in which we conceive of ourselves and of others. This is the space in which identity is formed, in which we cultivate our subjectivity and open it to the subjectivities of others. You might also think of it as dialogic space—the space in which real meeting, real encounter, becomes possible.

Imaginative space is a space hospitable to otherness. It lets in vital forces that show us things we could not have seen or known before. These images are necessarily strange, necessarily other. They come out of unowned, unencumbered space—what the poet Rilke called “The Open.” Whether that other is human, natural, or divine, it requires a place of meeting. But the social forces around us are calibrated precisely to divide that place of meeting and make it practically uninhabitable. Creating CHAZ, the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” and storming the actual U.S. Capitol were both attempts to capture and overrun physical space, while still existing in a completely conquered and delusional dialogic and imaginative space.

The pupils of the anti-hero often pick up details that normie eyeballs fail to scan. This is why the idiosyncratic alt-right personality, Bronze Age Pervert, author of Bronze Age Mindset, is curiously valuable for understanding the problem of spatial enclosure. Recently and unceremoniously ousted from his main platform on Twitter, BAP is one of the most singular characters to emerge in our time. Needless to say, citing him by no means constitutes an endorsement of his project, and his book is full of comments that are certainly unacceptable to the conscience. His online presence is considerably more offensive, reveling in racist troll antics. But it is worth considering his insights regarding space, since he not only represents himself but an entire tendency of online thought.

BAP writes in characteristically broken grammatical phrasings, a Borat telegraphese likely designed to disguise his identity. He says, “Life is at most basic, struggle for ownership of space.” He claims that the real driving force behind evolution is animals’ need to attain mastery over space and matter: “Successful mastery of this matter leads to development of inborn powers and flourishing of organism, which allows it to master more matter, to marshal the lower to feed the higher.” BAP notes that, when all space becomes owned, the capacity for human flourishing and development atrophies. He illustrates the dolorous consequences of this by observing that chimps masturbate in captivity but not in the wild, shedding new light on the nature of ubiquitous online porn.

BAP writes:

Chimp in state of nature never jerks off, but in captivity he does, wat does this mean? He is concerned with mastering space: solving problem of life in and under trees, mastering what tools he can, mastering social relations in the jockeying for power and status. Deprived of this drive to development and self-increase he devolves to pointless masturbation, in captivity, where he senses he is in owned space and therefore the futility of all his efforts and all his actions. The onanism of modern society is connected with its supposed ‘hyper-sexualization’ and its infertility. It’s not really hyper-sexualization, but the devolution of the spirit to the lassitude of a diffuse and weak sexuality. Life in owned space becomes drained of energy through low-grade pointless titillation. . .

BAP’s perhaps ironic or metaphorical solution to this problem is to adopt a life of piracy. He praises various Bronze Age conquerors, the conquistadors, and modern mercenaries like the Frenchman Bob Denard as examples of people who seized space rather than remain in the suffocating confines of “yeast life” or “bug life,” which constitutes the default condition of existence in his estimation.

But, by becoming a modern conquistador, does one actually solve the problem of owned space? Evidently not. Space merely changes hands, from the indigenous inhabitants to the imperialist. There is a brief moment of chaos in transition—characterized by violence—and then space finds itself under new administration. It is probably not necessary to say it, but most of us do not desire wanton bloodshed. At one point, BAP notes that the Buddha attempted to create “a steppe of the spirit” by founding a monastic community, solving the problem of owned space by creating a free spiritual space. BAP then brushes this aside without much consideration for its merits. This would have been to catch the scent. We need a permanent, unowned space of some sort: a perpetual Open.

Besides, all revolutionary and far-right movements online, from Neo-Stalinist “Tankies” to Bronze Age vitalists, exist in a confined and subdued virtual space. Jack Dorsey (for now) lets them punch the walls in their virtual rec rooms, but when will tankies roll literal tanks down Wall Street and when will Bronze Age Perversion actually launch a Venezuelan coup? Until these things occur, it’s a LARP. It’s just some dudes chugging weight-lifting supplement shakes in their rooms, imagining they will eventually morph into Cortez and force Montezuma to submit. One feels moved to triple dog dare them to take over an actual country in the next twelve months.

We can contrast these very online tendencies with the more benevolent figure of Ivan Illich, a writer and social critic, who was also a Roman Catholic priest. Illich is also concerned with the problem of owned space, but he approaches it differently. Whereas this particular online right-wing tendency wants to reconquer owned space through violence (at least in theory), Illich wants to restore certain spaces to an unowned state. This is different from government-administered public space, like parks, since these spaces have never been claimed by anyone and the state policing of these spaces makes them decidedly owned. Illich’s arguments, as we shall see, also apply both to external and internal, imaginative space. His major statement on this point is the short essay, “Silence is a Commons” (recently the subject of an excellent Athwart podcast).

Commenting on the enclosure of the commons, Illich writes:

Enclosure, once accepted, redefines community. . . Enclosure of the commons is thus as much in the interest of professionals and of state bureaucrats as it is in the interest of capitalists. Enclosure allows the bureaucrats to define local community as impotent. . . People become economic individuals that depend for their survival on commodities that are produced for them. Fundamentally, most citizens’ movements represent a rebellion against this environmentally induced redefinition of people as consumers.

Describing the arrival of the loudspeaker in his native Croatia, Illich extends this notion of enclosure from the physical realm to the realm of speech. He discusses how silence was once a commons, a space within which discourse could be peaceably exchanged, a place where others might be encountered. However, it transformed into “a resource for which loudspeakers compete.” This impacted language itself, turning it from acting as a local commons to “a national resource for communication.” He highlights how, just as the commons of space has been dominated and enclosed by forces like “the motorization of traffic,” so do “modern means of communication” threaten to annihilate the commons of speech. We can see this in action in overt and subtle forms: overt, as when Facebook bans any discussion of the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origins from its platform (before backtracking after it became clear that this theory had credibility); subtle, as when the entire structure of social media transforms communication into a means for jockeying for status. Silence thus ceases to be a commons and becomes a savagely competitive marketplace.

In his essay, Illich goes on, presciently, to speculate on the capacity of computers and advanced communications technology to completely tyrannize over this space. He notes that, whereas commons require no police, owned resources do—“and ever more of them.” Illich is making a point related to the Bronze Age critique of “owned space,” but with a difference. The “native creatures of the soul,” to use a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, have been penned in, prevented from any sort of authentic encounter with one another. This effectively forecloses the development of personality, which requires silence: the spiritual equivalent of space. Just as the physical development of a person or an animal requires free space to stretch one’s wings, to play and thereby avoid the fate of the perpetually masturbating imprisoned chimp, so the intellectual and spiritual development of a person requires holy silence.

Illich says, “Silence, according to western and eastern tradition alike, is necessary for the emergence of persons. It is taken from us by machines that ape people.” He sees these machines as stuffing imaginative or dialogic space with white noise, with perpetual chatter that disrupts personality formation. They also foster dependency, weakening our own inner resources: “We could easily be made increasingly dependent on machines for speaking and for thinking, as we are already dependent on machines for moving.”

For 1983, this was an extraordinarily prophetic statement. And we are living well into its fulfillment. Technology has become a means for feeding other people’s desires into us. Bureaucrats and corporations apply it to funnel their own goals into the soul, which, having never experienced personality formation because lacking the silence needed for it, is left defenseless against them. The Bronze Age tendency insists that pursuing real art and real science are effectively impossible until owned space is wrested back from the “bug men” who control it. Political force, they argue, needs to precede artistic rebellion.

However, this is contradictory, since Bronze Age Mindset is itself primarily a form of artistic rebellion—the taboo-busting record of a mind attempting to shake off the constraints imposed by mindless governmental and corporate bureaucracy. As much as BAP would dismiss the artistic fight, he is a (very strange) instance of it. The notion that we need to reconquer literal space before we can reconquer imaginative space seems faulty. In fact, the process seems much more likely to work in reverse. We can only have a real democracy when we have secured the space in which to encounter one another, to imagine our way into one another’s lives. The entire process right now is moving away from that, towards compartmentalizing our experiences in different rigid identity categories, none of which are allowed to truly meet. This is unspeakably tragic, given that, as Martin Buber once said, “All real life is meeting.” This is evidently part of some sort of semi-conscious marketing strategy, divvying up the population into consumer demographics the same way space has been cut up, regimented, and controlled.

It is a compensatory fantasy to think that we need to start forming mercenary groups and launching coups in Equatorial Guinea (as Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, attempted to do) in order to solve this problem. The disintegration of unowned space mirrors a self-same process within us—the disintegration of inner space, of the space within the self that opens to the Other. Portals that look unto infinity are sealed, but they can open again.

Art is the primary tool we have been given to open these portals. Kafka said that books should be “an ax to break the frozen sea within us.” This is an ax that can open us to greater contact with reality, in other words. It cracks something inside us: the rigidness of bureaucratic categories, the hardness of hearts. We need art that causes us pain, but a sublime form of pain, not a literal knife in the gut or a bullet in the shoulder. We require a more serious wound, something perhaps terminal, like the death that precedes rebirth. Only a new vision of reality can hurt us like that.

All great art is memorable, and it is memorable because it is painful. The reader is invited to consider for a moment how pleasant it is to eat a fine meal on a Sunday afternoon and how painful it is to go through a breakup or be rejected. Now, which event sticks in your memory more? We need books, music, and movies to wound us like that, like Chekhov and Beckett, like Dickinson and Yeats. Pity and terror are weapons in the arsenal of all great creators. Shakespeare terrorizes us into freedom in plays like Macbeth and King Lear. When Tolstoy has Anna Karenina hurl herself under a train, we see our own drives horribly implicated in this final act. We recoil and we are made free.

If it was possible then, it is possible now. The enemy we face is the pervasive sense of enclosure, the pervasive sense of exhaustion, like a malign magic imprisoning us in a high tower or a deep cave. Only a more potent magic can overcome this spell. The will to create, rather than to criticize and destroy, is the main force our world acts to repress. Instead of granting our creative will free play in imaginative space, our desires get shunted onto virtual space—into Call of Duty or the verbal Antietams of Twitter. But this creative will is never exhausted, it can only be held back and re-channeled. There is the abiding possibility that it can rise in flood, surmount every barrier laid in front of it, and re-fertilize the wasteland.

One might try to argue that I am advocating “quietism” here, the retreat into artistic solitude, avoiding difficult political tasks. I would say that is not true. In order to recover ideals of any kind you need to actually nurture them in people’s minds and consciences. From that, political action will naturally flow. This might seem like a return to the ’60s or ’70s idea of “consciousness raising”—and it is. But “consciousness raising” is indispensable if you want to get anything done.

The problem of “owned space” is real. Understanding it is essential to understanding our time. But online fantasies about violence and coups, taken literally, would not only be destructive were they ever realized: they would not even solve the problem. To turn our attention towards creating great books, great movies, great visual art, and great music provides a surer foundation. This is not quietism, but a way to build up our inner resources, hoarding power that will inform politics as well. We are at least putting ourselves in a place where inspiration might strike and where we can act on that inspiration. We will give ourselves a fighting chance to recover the Steppe of the Spirit—to recover our taste for the Infinite.


Featured image: Photo of Kazakhstan by Charlotte Venema via Unsplash.

Sam Buntz is a writer based in Chicago. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Dartmouth College, and his work has appeared in The Washington Monthly, The New English Review, The Federalist, Fare Forward, Pop Matters, and The Symbolic World. You can find more of his writing at his blog The Muted Trumpet. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.