Franco Berardi

Zaum & Technomaia

The poetics of Chlebnikov may be viewed as a utopian and anticipatory appreciation of the new reality of language in the age of media technology. He was the prophet of the late century cyber culture, and the utopian thinker of the mix of technology, trans-mentalism and psychedelics.

He created the word Zaum, a trans-mental emotional language able to transfer meanings without the need of any conventional linguistic symbol.

This issue was felt strongly by the poets of symbolism: from the end of the nineteenth century, symbolist poetics tried to overcome linguistic limits to interpersonal comprehension and search for a form of communication freed from semantic convention. The point of arrival of the school of symbolist poetics was the notion of transmental language. Mallarmé sought a poetics able to transmit emotion rather than meaning. The Mallarmean concept of emotion needs to be understood with no reference to any romantic and decadent suggestions. In his poem Corrispondence Mallarmé wrote that symbolism is ‘une poétique trés nouvelle, qui peut peindre non la chose mais l'effet qu'elle produit' [a very new poetics that can depict not the thing but the effect it produces]; the effect produced in the mind of the recepient of the message. His intention was far from the late-romantic aura: the emotional effect Mallarmé was talking about is the transmission of a mental state. The action of colour, of phoneme, of image and word is intended to work as a mental change, as a neurological emotion, and synesthetic telepathy.

Chlebnikov was influenced by symbolist poetics, although he joined the Futurist movement in the roaring years of the Revolution. The affinities between Symbolism and Futurism are much more interesting than their differences. Chlebnikov, who liked travelling all over Russia by train and loved the archaic ways of life and archaic magical-shamanistic practices of deep traditional Russia, wanted to create a language that was virtually planetarian and able to be understood beyond linguistic boundaries. He called this language Zaum, meaning a transmental emotional language. Angelo Maria Ripellino points out that ‘Futurism has two faces. On the one hand, it emphasizes technology, skyscrapers, machines; on the other hand it's moved by troglodytes, the wilderness, caves, and the stone-age; and so it opposes the sleep of a pre-logical Asia to modern European metropolitan frenzy."(1) Actually we are on ambivalent grounds, open to two different views: whilst Zaum is seduced by pre-symbolic forms of communication, original proto-linguistic vocality, and the language of original emotions, it is also predisposed to imagine the possibility of a post-symbolic form of commuication, i.e. a telepathic technology; in that sense we see symbolism and futurism as converging towards the imagination of linguistic utopias and merging archaism and future. Chlebnikov was charmed by the enchanting virtues of sounds and phonetic sorcellerie [sorcery] .

‘Faith in the witchcraft of phonemes, interest in shamanic culture, search for a ritual language, this is the influence of symbolism: poetry is a magical action and an oracular message. Many poems by Bal'mont, Bel'ij, and Blok are conceived of as means of magical action, similar to the balms of witches, the brains of animals, the skin of snakes, the leaves of savina, belladonna or datura and so on.'(2)

Chlebnikov turned his back to the European modern world, notwithstanding his futurist flirtations, and preferred the timeless Asia; he dived in the ‘etymological night', in the depth of a past protended towards imaginary origins. In this magic background he saw the possibility of a telepathic effect, of transmission of meaning without the mediation of conventional signifiers, through the direct stimulation of neurologic emotions that correspond to the meaning. Chlebnikov's way leads to pre-symbolic communication, but his way must converge with post-symbolic research, which is our task today. Chlebnikov seems to be the point of connection of these two directions. The aim of Chlebnikovian transmental language is to find a non-conventional dimension of communication through the travel à rebours in the nocturnal territory of etymologies and origins; but now we move towards the same goal with the dangerous experimentation of telepathic techniques.

Shabda and Mantra

The research of symbolism is explicitly tied to those of mysticisms of all times, because mysticism knows the way to non-conventional modes of communication. In Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism , Lama Anagarika Govinda writes: ‘The essential nature of words is therefore neither exhausted by their present meaning, nor is their importance confined to their usefulness as transmitters of thoughts and ideas.' Anagarika Govinda is perfectly conscious of the fact that on this ground Buddhist symbolism shows a deep correspondence with poetical symbolism, and notes: ‘The magic which poetry exerts upon us, is due to this quality and the rhythm combined therewith...The birth of language was the birth of humanity. Each word was the sound-equivalent of an experience, connected with an internal or external stimulus.' The material consistency of the poetic sign (i.e. sound, rhythm, and vibration) produces its effectiveness and its ability to create mental effects. In reference to the Tibetan tradition, Anagarika Govinda distinguishes between the word as shabda and the word as mantra ; shabda is the ordinary word composing common speech, the word that is able to carry signification through conventional understanding. Mantra , on the other hand, is the impulse that creates a mental image, the power to change mental states. ‘Mantra is a tool for thinking, a thing which creates a mental picture'. With its sound it calls forth its content into a state of immediate reality. Mantra is power, not merely speech that the mind can contradict or evade. What the mantra expresses by its sound exists and comes to pass. It is the peculiarity of the true poet that his word creates actuality, calls forth and unveils something real. His word does not talk - it acts!' Mantra is a force able to evoke images and to create and transmit mental states.

Virtual reality

Leibniz wrote: ‘A universal character could be introduced in communication, something better than the character used by the Chinese. We could employ little figures in the place of words, in order to represent visible as well as invisible things. This could be useful to communicate with faraway nations, but we could also use it in ordinary communication. The use of this way of writing would be very useful for the enrichment of the imagination, and for the production of thoughts." The caracteristica universalis , as a trans-linguistic form of symbolization, opens up a question of great actuality, today, in the age of intercultural planetary communication.

Poetic symbolism and magical symbolism are both involved in the process of evocation that the word and the sign are able to produce. But today the issue needs to be reconsidered starting from a new datum that comes from electronic technology: the virtual reality machine begs the same question faced by poetical symbolism and magical symbolism, that is, the question of telepathic communication. Linguistic communication is made possible by signs that are conventionally and arbitrarily connected with a meaning; here we speak of a communication that simulates mental states that correspond to the image, to the emotion, and to the concept that the sender wants to transmit. The production of technical tools of simulation and especially of virtual reality machines puts this question under a new light. Virtual reality could be our label for any technology that is capable of transmitting impulses from a brain directly to another in order to stimulate in the receiver's brain a synaptic connection that corresponds to a definite representation, a configuration, an image, a concept, or an emotion. In purely abstract terms we may say that virtual reality is the stimulation of a neuronal wave, structured in accordance with models that are intentional and isomorphic to mental states that correspond to a definite experience. In our view, this technology is the most apt to a telepathic form of communication.

Jaron Lanier, the first creator of virtual reality machines in the 1980s, used to speak of post-symbolic communication. If you can provide a reality as you do with virtual reality tools, and if you can share this reality with other people, you no longer need to describe the world because you can simply create this contingence and coincidence; you don't need to describe an action if you can create it.

Dynamic Ideography

Starting from this premise, we can go back to the problem posed by Leibniz, the problem of caracteristica universalis , i.e., in contemporary terms, the problem of a planetary language, a language able to connect people that belong to different cultural and linguistic traditions. Pierre Levy proposed the idea of a communication technology that he called dynamic ideography. What does it mean, in synthesis? Dynamic ideography is a communication technology that enables people to transmit mental states, images, emotions, concepts, and configurations of meaning without any conventional means. The transmission is made possible by a direct stimulation of the neuro-physical connections that correspond to the configurations of meaning. Dynamic ideography is a communication technology that can transfer the mental models involved in seeing an image, in experiencing a situation, and in thinking a concept from a communicating person to another. It's easy to see the relationship between virtual reality and dynamic ideography. Dynamic ideography is a technique that activates a sequence of virtual realities, corresponding to the contents that I want to send and communicate. Dynamic ideography is the transmission of mental models (emotional or conceptual models): an analogical tool of a global and synaesthetic kind, directly acting on the imagination.

What is the Imagination?

Imagination is an infinite variation of analogical combinatory items. Imagination is an infinite variation of possibilities that the mind processes, starting from disposable engrams. The storage of memory is limited but the possibilities of composing the items stored in memory are unlimited. The process of combining these analogical plastic items is named ‘imagination'. The theoretical and practical study of the becoming of imagination can be defined as psychedelics.

Psychedelics actually mean the possibility of manipulating and transforming mind activity through chemical, electrical or other stimuli. How is it possible to produce a programmed, intentioned, and controlled stimulation of the mental activity of our communication partner? From the possibility of transmitting mental models, to stimulate synaptic waves corresponding to the mental states that we want to communicate, we can now see how it becomes possible to share imaginary words, in mental co-evolutions.

‘To understand a proposition is to guess and imagine how the world would appear if this proposition is true ...We can think signification as following the metaphor of joining fragments, rather than following the classical conception of translation or expression'. On this basis we can say that any form of language is the transmission of signs intended to trigger in the mind of the receiver the building of mental models, following the intentions of the sender.


William Gibson sees the world as Cyberspace.

‘An hallucination daily shared by billions of operators all over the world, children who are taught the mathematical concepts, a graphic representations of data received by the desks of every computer of the nervous human system.'

Cyberspace is a hypothesis of the world: ontology and epistemology are on the same level of consistency, since being is essentially a projection. ‘We are in a sort of cave, like Plato said, and they're showing us endless funky films.' Philip Dick says. We can think that reality is the infinite projection of endless movies on the screen of our brain. But, if we want to move from the hallucinatory to the real-world dimension, we simply must introduce the notion of communication, i.e. sharing the hallucination. ‘When two people share the same dream, it ceases to be an illusion: the fundamental proof that distinguishes reality from imagination is the consensus gentium , the fact that another person or several people see the same thing that I see. This is idios kosmos , the private dream, opposed to the dream that all of us share, koinos kosmos . In the age of virtual technologies we are beginning to see the plastic and vibrating quality of the common world, and this scares us, because of its insubstantiality, and we are beginning to see that the quality of hallucination is not mere smoke. Like science fiction, a third reality is emerging between the two.'

The Hindus call it Maya. But the concept of Maya is not easy to understand in his deepest meaning. Maya is illusion because it has been torn from its living connections and limited in time and space. The individuality and corporality of the unenlightened human being trying to maintain and preserve its illusory selfhood is Maya in this negative sense.

Also the body of the Enlightened One is Maya, but not in the negative sense, because it is the conscious creation of a mind that is free from illusion, unlimited, and no longer bound to an ego. ‘Maya does not mean illusion, but something more: I would say that it means projection of the world. The projection of the world can be frozen and become mere illusion, self-deception, if we think that the imagined world is independent from imagination, and if we think that the imaging self is independent from communication and from the becoming of the world. But Maya in itself means projecting action, creation of the world'.

‘Seen from the consciousness of Dharmakaya all separate forms of appearance are Maya. Maya in the deepest sense, however, is reality in its creative aspect, or the creative aspect of reality. Thus Maya becomes the cause of illusion, but it is not illusion itself, as long as it is seen as a whole, in its continuity, its creative function, or as infinite power of transformation and universal relationship'.

We are witnessing a process of proliferation of technological tools for simulation. The social technology of communication is aimed to connect imagination and the projection of individuals and groups.

This projection-web could be called Techno-Maya, a neuro-telematic network endlessly projecting a movie shared by all the conscious organisms that are connected.

This techno-imagination, this mutual implication in the koinos kosmos is socialization itself. Through the proliferation of machines for electronic, holographic stimulation, and of programmed neuro-stimulation, we can enter the domain of Techno-Maya, because we can produce worlds of meaning and transmit these worlds, triggering the imagination of other men.

London, May 2009


Angelo Maria Ripellino, ‘Tentativo di esplorazione del continente Chlebnikov', in Saggi in forma di ballate, Torino: 1978, p. 93

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism , London: 1960, p. 17

P. Levy, L'ideographie dynamique, Paris: 1991

W. Gibson, Neuromance

P. Dick, Only apparently real , New York: 1974

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