One of my favourite short stories contains the line, “A man taking pictures of a man taking pictures: there must be something in that”. It comes to mind whenever I see something that seems somehow meaningful but in ways I’m not perceptive enough to understand. The last time I thought of it was when I read that the US military has set up a unit to deal with cyber-warfare, and that that their Naval Academy will offer a major in “cyber” – in short, that the US military, and presumably by extension all other militaries, now see their operations as taking place in “all areas – air, land, sea, space and cyber”.

Space activities are covered by the air force. So military operations are distributed amongst the air force, navy, army and ‘cyber command’. The correspondence with the traditional elemental quartet is hard to miss. The military organisation divides the world into air, water, earth, and another element – perhaps we can say ‘fire’. It seems a good fit, to me, and shows the world in a new light. Imagining the virtual in terms of an ancient elemental ontology brings it back to its proper place, alongside the rest of the mundane world – digital space has nothing to do with the angelic realms of the pleroma. How we can understand the digital in this elemental way? What would an esoteric analysis of the digital look like? How many apocalyptic conspiracy theories would be lent new urgency by this Gnostic patterning of a hegemonic power? Does employing an ancient form of making meaning help us to counter the insistence that the digital and the networked demand uniquely novel ways of seeing the world?

Who knows. I don’t. But the dominant military power aligning its organisational structure to an ancient way of describing the world – there must be something in that.

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