The necessity of constructive pessimism in our dystopian world of digital illusions

Robert Kaplan, writing for The Washington Post:

It is impossible to imagine Trump and his repeated big lies that go viral except in the digital-video age. It is impossible to imagine our present political polarization except in the age of the Internet, which drives people to sites of extreme views that validate their preexisting prejudices. And, in the spirit of Hollywood, it is impossible to imagine the degree and intensity of emotional and sensory manipulation, false rumors, exaggerations and character assassination that decay our public dialogue except in this new and terrifying age of technology which has only just begun.

Digital-video technology, precisely because it is given to manipulation, is inherently controlling. Think of how the great film directors of the 20th century were able to take over your mind for a few hours: a new experience for audiences that previous generations had never known. Theater may be as old as the ancient Greeks, but the technology of film lent a new and powerful force to the theatrical experience. Moreover, it was contained within a limited time period, and afterward you came back to the real world.

In the 21st century, dictators may have the capability to be the equivalent of film directors, and the show never stops. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels would undoubtedly thrive in today’s world. As for warfare itself, it will be increasingly about dividing and demoralizing enemy populations through disinformation campaigns whose techniques are still in their infancy. . . .

Never before have we had to fight for democracy and individual rights as now in this new and — in some sense — dark age of technology. We must realize that the fight for democracy is synonymous with the fight for objectivity, which lies at the core of professional journalism — a calling whose foundational spirit was forged in the print-and-typewriter age, when mainly the movies were fake.

We will fight best by thinking tragically to avoid tragedy. This means learning to think like the tyrants who feed and prosper on misinformation so we can keep several steps ahead of them. Only in that way can we build safeguards against the specific dangers of the digital experience. The pioneers of Silicon Valley were inherent optimists who simply believed in connecting the world. But it is precisely such integration that provides our authoritarian enemies with access into our own democratic systems. The future will be about wars of integration rather than wars of geographic separation. So now constructive pessimism is called for. The innocent days when illusions were the province of movie stage sets are way behind us.

Full text: “Everything Here Is Fake


A Penguin Classics edition of Ligotti’s ‘The Conspiracy against the Human Race’

First there was the Penguin Classics combined edition of Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Now there’s this forthcoming Penguin Classics edition of his The Conspiracy against the Human Race, to be published this October, with another beautiful cover by Chris Mars and a new preface by Ligotti himself. The canonization continues.

Here’s the official publisher description (in which, as I’m disappointed to note, the first sentence is accidentally worded in such a way as to make it a fragment):

In Thomas Ligotti’s first nonfiction outing, an examination of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life through an insightful, unsparing argument that proves the greatest horrors are not the products of our imagination but instead are found in reality.

“There is a signature motif discernible in both works of philosophical pessimism and supernatural horror. It may be stated thus: Behind the scenes of life lurks something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.”

His fiction is known to be some of the most terrifying in the genre of supernatural horror, but Thomas Ligotti’s first nonfiction book may be even scarier. Drawing on philosophy, literature, neuroscience, and other fields of study, Ligotti takes the penetrating lens of his imagination and turns it on his audience, causing them to grapple with the brutal reality that they are living a meaningless nightmare, and anyone who feels otherwise is simply acting out an optimistic fallacy. At once a guidebook to pessimistic thought and a relentless critique of humanity’s employment of self-deception to cope with the pervasive suffering of their existence, The Conspiracy against the Human Race may just convince readers that there is more than a measure of truth in the despairing yet unexpectedly liberating negativity that is widely considered a hallmark of Ligotti’s work.

This Is Horror, Episode 193: Jon Padgett and Matt Cardin on “Vastarien” and More

In this just-published episode of the This Is Horror Podcast, Jon Padgett and I talk with hosts Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella about our new project Vastarien: A Literary Journal, along with other matters of interest. Click to listen or download.

Note that at the time of this writing, our Vastarien Kickstarter campaign, to fund the first year (three issues) of the journal, still has seven days left!

Here are some show notes:

About Vastarien

Vastarien is a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.

Support Vastarien on Kickstarter

Show notes

[03:30] Vastarien origin story
[08:40] Why Vastarien title
[20:20] Penguin edition Conspiracy Against The Human Race/Cadabra Records Ligotti’s The Bungalow House
[28:10] Jon Padgett’s final message (in this podcast not in life)
[31:10] What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a result of your own mind or imagination
[34:20] Physical and mental and other sensations during sleep paralysis
[45:45] The creative self and self
[51:40] Andrew M. Reichart, via Patreon,
[54:40] Scott Kemper, via Patreon, wants to know about other Ligotti-esque authors to become acquainted with
[57:40] Films and TV shows that may appeal to Ligotti fans
[01:10:00] Kendra Temples, via Patreon, asks anti-natalism and philosophical pessimism and impact
[01:18:00] How Gnosticism fits into the vision of Vastarien
[01:22:25] What should and shouldn’t people submit to Vastarien
[01:26:35] Final question to ponder

Nanette Fabray and the quietest two minutes in American television history

Nanette Fabray, the legendary American television actress, singer, comedienne, and advocate for the hearing impaired, has died at the age of 97. Fifty years ago last month, she (and The Carol Burnett Show) provided just over two minutes of the most amazingly quiet and mesmerizing programming in the history of American broadcast television. These two minutes also reinforced what a truly talented singer and performer she was. I’m honestly surprised that CBS allowed this mini-oasis of meditative quietness to briefly inhabit the airwaves during the bombastic TV era of the late 1960s. Notice just how strikingly calm and silent people’s television sets got for 136 seconds as Fabray sang and signed a certain song.

The man who invented the Internet didn’t foresee our Neuromancer/Black Mirror future

The following insights are excerpted from a brief but engaging NPR piece that traces the cultural arc from Vint Cerf (the “inventor of the Internet”) and his early naive optimism about this new technology, to William Gibson’s uncanny prescience in forecasting exactly where the Internet would really take us (to a corporate-controlled cyberdystopia with sharply curtailed human relationships), to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s ongoing exploration of the darkest corners of the whole thing:

Initially, Cerf was trying to create an Internet through which scientists and academics from all over the world could share data and research. Then, one day in 1988, Cerf says he went to a conference for commercial vendors where they were selling products for the Internet. “I just stood there thinking, ‘My God! Somebody thinks they’re going to make money out of the Internet.’ ” Cerf was surprised and happy. “I was a big proponent of that. My friends in the community thought I was nuts. ‘Why would you let the unwashed masses get access to the Internet?’ And I said, ‘Because I want everybody to take advantage of its capability.’ ”

Clearly, Cerf is an optimist. That is what allowed him to dream big. But, in retrospect, some of the decisions his team made seem hopelessly naive, especially for a bunch of geniuses. They made it possible to surf the Internet anonymously — unlike a telephone, you don’t have a unique number that announces who you are. We know how that turned out. People with less lofty ambitions than Cerf used that loophole for cybercrime, international espionage and online harassment.

Cerf admits all that dark stuff never crossed his mind. “And we have to cope with that — I mean, welcome to the real world,” he says. . . .

Somehow [William] Gibson was able to imagine the potential scale of it — all those computers connected together. . . . But, it isn’t just the Internet that Gibson saw coming. In Neuromancer, the Internet has become dominated by huge multinational corporations fighting off hackers. The main character is a washed-up criminal hacker who goes to work for an ex-military officer to regain his glory. And get this: The ex-military guy is deeply involved in cyber-espionage between the U.S. and Russia.

Gibson says he didn’t need to try a computer or see the Internet to imagine this future. “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively,” he says. He says he’s more interested in how people behave around new technologies. He likes to tell a story about how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s. “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television,” he says. “No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was” . . . .

Brooker has a certain amount of frustration with the leaders in tech. “It’s felt like tech companies have for years just put this stuff out there,” he says. “And they distance themselves from the effects of their product effectively by saying, ‘Oh, we’re just offering a service.’ ” Brooker sees each new technology more like an untested drug waiting to launch us on a very bad trip. Each episode of Black Mirror is like its own laboratory testing a technology that is already out, but pushing it by mixing in common human behaviors and desires.

Possession, exorcism, and the daimon: A brief history


A few year ago I had two articles published in editor Joe Laycock’s Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2015). One of these was a survey of possession and exorcism in the history of literature. The other was an article about the daimon.

When I submitted the latter of these, Joe got back to me with a request for significant revisions, the better to make the article fit harmoniously with the rest of the encyclopedia’s contents, and the better to make it align with his editorial vision of its place in the book.

As a result, the version that is now published in the encyclopedia is thoroughly different from what I originally wrote. The original version has never been published. And since I own the copyright on that version, I’m free to share it here with Teeming Brain readers. As those of you who have been here for awhile will immediately recognize, this is entirely appropriate, since the article lands right in the middle of several of this blog’s foundational interests, themes, and concerns.


Possession, Exorcism, and the Daimon

The word “daimon” has several possible meanings, but in relation to possession and exorcism it refers to a particular type of autonomous or autonomous-feeling force in the psyche that influences or, in some cases, dominates a person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. It comes from ancient Greece and the ancient Hellenistic world, where it generally referred to a particular class of deity or spirit being, and where its basic meaning evolved over time to refer as much or more to an inner psychic or subjective force as to an objectively conceived entity. The concept of the daimon is one of the key components in the origin and evolution of the related concepts of the demon and demonic possession. Its adjectival form, daimonic, has been widely used in modern-day depth psychology to refer to a particular aspect of the psyche that lies outside a person’s conscious, voluntary control, and that is especially associated with creativity, anger, and other surging states of mind and emotion that can effectively swamp the conscious ego and result in violent outbursts of creation and destruction.

Among the ancient Greeks, the concept of the daimon led a dual existence as it progressed along two distinct but related strands. On the one hand, daimons were conceived in typically animistic terms as spirits that inhabited or haunted certain places, affected the weather and other natural occurrences, and so on. Some were associated with the spirits of the dead. On the other hand, a spiritualized or psychologized view placed the daimons in a position of deep intertwinement with human subjectivity. Essentially, the Greeks regarded daimons as objectively real presences that made themselves known through their influence upon and within the human psyche. The objective, animistic beliefs about them were thus matched and accompanied by a more subtle and psychologically oriented view that framed them as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as the keepers and emblems of individual character and destiny. This second view gradually became dominant over time. Read the rest of this entry

Philip Roth on the value of serious literature amid the hellscape of contemporary America

Philip Roth, 1973

Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:

Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?

Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.

The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.

Full article: “Roth Agonistes

Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You will be assimilated: Our future of tech-enhanced brains to keep up with AI

Here’s renowned neuroscientist Christopher Koch explaining in a Wall Street Journal piece that our future will be a dystopian nightmare in which humans will necessarily become ever more completely fused on a neurological level with super sophisticated computer technologies. This will, he says, be a non-negotiable requirement if we want to keep up with the artificial intelligences that will be billions of times smarter than us, and that will otherwise utterly rule humanity and pose an existential threat to us in all kinds of ways that we, with our currently unenhanced meat brains, can hardly imagine.

Or actually, Koch speaks not grimly but enthusiastically of this future (and semi-present) scenario. He views the technological enhancement of the human brain for purposes of keeping pace with AI as an exciting thing. The negative gloss on it is mine. What a wonderful world, he avers. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated,” my own meat brain keeps hearing.

Whether you are among those who believe that the arrival of human-level AI signals the dawn of paradise, such as the technologist Ray Kurzweil, or the sunset of the age of humans, such as the prominent voices of the philosopher Nick Bostrom, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the entrepreneur Elon Musk, there is no question that AI will profoundly influence the fate of humanity.

There is one way to deal with this growing threat to our way of life. Instead of limiting further research into AI, we should turn it in an exciting new direction. To keep up with the machines we’re creating, we must move quickly to upgrade our own organic computing machines: We must create technologies to enhance the processing and learning capabilities of the human brain. . . .

Unlike say, the speed of light, there are no known theoretical limits to intelligence. While our brain’s computational power is more or less fixed by evolution, computers are constantly growing in power and flexibility. This is made possible by a vast ecosystem of several hundred thousand hardware and software engineers building on each other’s freely shared advances and discoveries. How can the human species keep up? . . .

In the face of this relentless onslaught, we must actively shape our future to avoid dystopia. We need to enhance our cognitive capabilities by directly intervening in our nervous systems.

We are already taking steps in this direction. . . .

My hope is that someday, a person could visualize a concept — say, the U.S. Constitution. An implant in his visual cortex would read this image, wirelessly access the relevant online Wikipedia page and then write its content back into the visual cortex, so that he can read the webpage with his mind’s eye. All of this would happen at the speed of thought. Another implant could translate a vague thought into a precise and error-free piece of digital code, turning anyone into a programmer.

People could set their brains to keep their focus on a task for hours on end, or control the length and depth of their sleep at will.

Another exciting prospect is melding two or more brains into a single conscious mind by direct neuron-to-neuron links — similar to the corpus callosum, the bundle of two hundred million fibers that link the two cortical hemispheres of a person’s brain. This entity could call upon the memories and skills of its member brains, but would act as one “group” consciousness, with a single, integrated purpose to coordinate highly complex activities across many bodies.

These ideas are compatible with everything we know about the brain and the mind. Turning them from science fiction into science fact requires a crash program to design safe, inexpensive, reliable and long-lasting devices and procedures for manipulating brain processes inside their protective shell. It must be focused on the end-to-end enhancement of human capabilities. . . .

While the 20th century was the century of physics — think the atomic bomb, the laser and the transistor — this will be the century of the brain. In particular, it will be the century of the human brain — the most complex piece of highly excitable matter in the known universe. It is within our reach to enhance it, to reach for something immensely powerful we can barely discern.

Full article: “To Keep Up with AI, We’ll Need High-Tech Brains(You may or may not encounter a paywall)

How Google replaced God

NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, writing for Esquire:

Our brains are sophisticated enough to ask very complex questions but not sophisticated enough to answer them. Since Homo sapiens emerged from caves, we’ve relied on prayer to address that gap: We lift our gaze to the heavens, send up a question, and wait for a response from a more intelligent being. “Will my kid be all right?” “Who might attack us?”

As Western nations become wealthier, organized religion plays a smaller role in our lives. But the void between questions and answers remains, creating an opportunity. As more and more people become alienated from traditional religion, we look to Google as our immediate, all-knowing oracle of answers from trivial to profound. Google is our modern-day god. Google appeals to the brain, offering knowledge to everyone, regardless of background or education level. If you have a smartphone or an Internet connection, your prayers will always be answered: “Will my kid be all right?” “Symptoms and treatment of croup. . .” “Who might attack us?” “Nations with active nuclear-weapons programs . . .”

Think back on every fear, every hope, every desire you’ve confessed to Google’s search box and then ask yourself: Is there any entity you’ve trusted more with your secrets? Does anybody know you better than Google?

Full article: “Silicon Valley’s Tax-Avoiding, Job-Killing, Soul-Sucking Machine

Image Credit: Kavinmecx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kickstarter campaign for “Vastarien: A Literary Journal”


Some time ago here at The Teeming Brain, I announced the birth of a new literary journal titled Vastarien, to be edited by Jon Padgett and me, and to be framed as “a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.” We launched a website,, where we published submission guidelines and started receiving stories, poems, articles, essays, and artwork. Jon and I then spent many months and countless hours responding to these submissions and crafting the first issue. Jon also retained the services of artist Dave Felton and designer Anna Trueman to create a stunning cover.

Yesterday we launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of the first three issues. It reached its funding goal today, in a total of 27 hours. In fact, we have now surpassed that funding goal, and we will soon be announcing some stretch goals. This is a wonderfully affirming response that shows what a high level of interest and excitement there really is for such a publication.

The Kickstarter campaign has nearly a month left. This means you can still become one of our backers. We have created an attractive set of rewards for different pledge levels. At the campaign page you can also read the full table of contents for Volume 1, Issue 1. Consider yourself invited:


Kickstarter – Vastarien: A Literary Journal


(BONUS NOTE: We’re also now accepting submissions for issues 2 and 3. The submission period will close on March 1.)