I first watched the film Koyaanisqatsi as an undergraduate student at Mizzou, in the company of other students, in the context of a student Philosophy Club meeting. And the film flat-out blew my mind and rocked my world. I have no idea if any of the others present at that viewing were as deeply affected as I was, but today, just over two decades later, the film, and also its almost literally divine Philip Glass musical score, remains a touchstone philosophical-cinematic text that continues to act with a transformative tug upon my psyche.
A good deal of the enduring (obsessive) focus here at The Teeming Brain on the dystopian underside and apocalyptic overtones of life here in the postindustrial wonderland of the great American technopoly stems from two sources. One of these is the collective totality of a mini-library of books and films, both fiction and nonfiction, that have powerfully impacted me with their explorations of this heady convergence point of subversive and destabilizing spiritual, psychological, artistic, political, societal, economic, and technological reality. The other is Koyaanisqatsi, standing independently on its own rarefied plane of import. Not coincidentally, several of those books have been cited as direct inspirations by Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi‘s director and mastermind.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, or if perhaps you’re not aware of the fact that you may already be familiar with parts of it — as with (to name just one prominent example) the wonderful use of two pieces of its music during the Dr. Manhattan origin sequence in the Watchmen film a few years ago — here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis, which is excellent:
Koyaanisqatsi, also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explains the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life”. The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film.
You can also watch the trailer. I mean it seriously. Stop reading and watch this now:
On May 15 The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief and fascinating essay that brought this all back to mind. In “‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in China,” Jonathan Levine, a freelance journalist and a lecturer in American studies and English at Bejing’s Tsinghua University, explains how a student approached him during his first semester there to ask “if we could watch a movie — something about ‘American culture.’” Levine points out that this request automatically raised an important and difficult question: “If you were given the opportunity of showing some of China’s future leaders one movie that encapsulated the American essence, what would it be?”
He ended up showing them Koyaanisqatsi — “probably not the first movie you would think of,” he quite rightly points out. (“Probably not even in the first 100,” he quite rightly adds.) But the choice was a savvy one. “With no spoken dialogue,” he writes, “Koyaanisqatsi is a difficult film but a universal one, free of the barriers of context and language that inevitably divide native and non-native English speakers. Accompanied by Philip Glass’s powerful, minimalist score, the scenes take viewers on a sensory roller coaster, rollicking through a slide show of human achievement and folly. The film is a tabula rasa, from which viewers can draw their own conclusions.”
Levine’s reflections on the experience for both him and his students indicate that it was an excellent choice for exploring the depths of the film and its meaning for both America and now China, which has been racing for decades to emulate America’s model of material success. He writes, “Though the film was shot entirely in the United States, by an American director, the similarities to modern China are so striking as to be inescapable. The Brutalist architecture of the condemned Pruitt-Igoe housing project, in St. Louis, could have been airlifted from the outskirts of Beijing. The throngs bustling to and fro — the inhabitants of one of China’s manifold concrete jungles. Income inequality, pollution, degradation of public infrastructure, check, check, and check.”
His closing paragraphs draw out the meaning of the film not only for his Chinese audience but for me personally, and in a shockingly direct way that echoes exactly what I have said to myself, minus the specific references to China, as I have lived with this film for the past 20 years:
Rather than being dated, the haunting imagery of Koyaanisqatsi has become more valuable with time. It now demonstrably encapsulates both the United States and China. As you may have already guessed, my aim in showing the movie was not a dry exploration of American culture, but to raise fundamental questions among China’s brightest minds about the direction of their own country. It is not a warning, but more a checkpoint. The Chinese word for America is “Meiguo,” which literally means “beautiful country.”
My goal with Koyaanisqatsi was not to smash this myth, but to remind those who watch the film that America’s road to development and prosperity was not without speed bumps. It was and is riddled with points of tensions, contradictions, and — in short — many things that are not so beautiful. I hope that the movie will not just provide a snapshot of the United States but will cause my students to question their own nation’s model of development. Should China’s highest aspiration be merely a Sinified simulacrum of all things Western? China has embraced the Western paradigm of development, but is there perhaps another way?
In the words of Mark, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
To drive home the point, here’s what may be the film’s most haunting passage:
The analysis of Horror is, like almost everything else related to the genre, paradoxical. Because the genre is so rife with archetypal imagery and taboo subjects, it seems that any attempt to rationalize or understand it in purely intellectual terms is ineffectual, or at the very least inadequate. Whereas most other forms of artistic expression benefit from the acumen of critics who educate the audience on what may otherwise be cryptic allusions, subtext, etc., Horror evidently functions somewhat differently. It is a wholly experiential genre and is therefore judged in large part by its effect, and more specifically by its affect, rather than by its structure.
Enduring works of non-genre (or “literary”) fiction have undergone countless autopsies by critics and would-be-critics, all of whom seem confident that they have pinpointed exactly what makes this or that story tick. Horror, by contrast, almost always manages to slither out from underneath our microscope. Oh, it may bear the explanations we impress upon it for a little while, but rest assured, Horror will always find a way to shed its old skin, which in this case consists of any number of after-the-fact explanations as to what we read and why. And like the serpent, Horror emerges from this molting as a creature even more vibrant and healthy than before.
Perhaps this trickster-like evasion of standard literary or cinematic criticism is to be expected, for any work of Horror worth its saltes draws its power from the deepest spring. Even works that demonstrate ineptitude in some technical areas that critics often highlight as the essence of “good art” can nevertheless frighten or unnerve an audience, and are therefore effective models of the field. Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves. Read the rest of this entry
From an essay by sculptor, guitarist, and Jungian therapist Paco Mitchell on the awesome significance of dreams as psychic, spiritual, religious, and mythic guides to our present and future age of apocalyptic breakdown and revelation:
We are living in an age widely regarded as “apocalyptic,” though many of us steadfastly try to keep the lid on our share of apocalyptic awareness. But, in the end, it is better to lift the lid and peer into the cauldron. Every therapist understands this, and every patient should as well. And the most direct way of seeing into the living darkness that surrounds us is through our dreams.
. . . In his great but underrated book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, Jung puts our position into perspective:
The present world situation is calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event. If these expectations have not dared to show themselves in the open, this is simply because no one is deeply rooted enough in the tradition of earlier centuries to consider an intervention from heaven as a matter of course. We have indeed strayed far from the metaphysical certainties of the Middle Ages, but not so far that our historical and psychological background is empty of all metaphysical hope. Consciously, however, rationalistic enlightenment predominates, and this abhors all leanings towards the “occult.”
Although Jung’s book was devoted to an examination of UFO reports as symptoms of a modern myth in the process of forming, the larger syndrome of a myth-in-progress includes more than just flying saucer sightings, reports of abductions, or first-person accounts of being “probed” by aliens. The fact is that revelatory (apocalyptic) images are most likely flooding the dream-field as we speak, enriching our personalities and lives like silt from the rising waters of the Nile. The aggregation of these dream images and the life-experiences associated with them, will contribute over time to the formation of the new myth. Whatever metaphor we choose — a birth, an approaching dawn, an awakening — the features and full dimensions of this emerging phenomenon are scarcely discernible as yet. However, this should not deter us from keeping our eyes open, or lending our shoulders to the wheel.
. . . This responsibility of individuals is all the more enhanced by the charged and peculiar circumstances of the present historical moment. Despite Christian teachings, which imply that all the revelations ever needed are safely contained within the Bible, the fact is that apocalyptic, revelatory impulses from the collective unconscious are just as necessary, and just as valid, today as they were two thousand years ago, when the classical world of antiquity was breaking down. Now, when we lay our heads on our pillows at night, each of us participates in a kind of dream-lottery, to determine who and how many will wake up to find the mantle of John of Patmos on their shoulders, inscribing their own versions of apokalypsis onto the parchments of their dream journals — fragments of the new, soon-to-be-assembled Book of Revelation.
From a recent blog post by psychologist and author Thomas Moore, in which he elucidates one of the key insights from his mentor in depth psychology, the late, great James Hillman:
“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” — James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.
James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.
An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.
. . . If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.
And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs — all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”
More: “Real Presences“
This installment of Recommended Reading might almost be described as a special Apocalypse and Extinction edition, as evidenced by the first four items below. Today: A new book about the reality of mass extinction and the human race’s best strategies for survival. John Michael Greer on the entrenched historical tendency, especially among Americans, to posit and even long for all-encompassing apocalyptic disasters as a means of avoiding responsibility for the future. A consideration of why, in the face of the real-life threat of catastrophic climate change, we’re all likely to simply wring our hands and do nothing until it’s too late. Thoughts on the theological implications of our Orwellian society of total technological surveillance. Rupert Sheldrake on the parallels between bad religion and bad science. The sudden and widespread rise of belief in and about an afterlife, including among scientists. Read the rest of this entry
In the latest entry in “By Heart,” an article series from The Atlantic “in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature,” novelist Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released werewolf novel Red Moon, talks about the deep and permanent emotional impact that he experienced from reading a certain passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
He also branches out into a discussion of the impacts and effects of horror fiction in general, and bases his analysis on the literary technique of the suspenseful slow reveal in which a final, awful revelation gives the reader a shock of horror. “It’s the same reason we climb onto a roller coaster,” he writes. “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If you look at the horror novel, or the horror movie, it’s a way of safely dealing with that spike of adrenaline.”
Now, I reject this general conclusion as inadequate, since I find much more truth and depth in Tom Ligotti’s contention, outlined in his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (found in The Nightmare Factory), that the familiar “roller coaster” and “face your fear” explanations of artistic horror’s appeal fall flat before the sole authentic “consolation” the genre has to offer, which is “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” (Of course, this could just as well be offered as the final appeal and consolation of any kind of art. But its specific application to horror is especially moving.)
That doesn’t mean, however, Percy has nothing valuable to say. His final paragraphs in particular are buzzingly interesting and worthwhile, since he effectively tackles, and tackles quite nicely — in a scant 400 words — the problem with gratuitous gore, the question of the horror writer’s deep motivation, and the death and resurrection of his own ability to respond deeply to horrifying fiction, specifically on the level of story, after years of immersion in literary craft had effectively numbed him:
I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.
I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.
I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.
More: “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2013
Click through to the article for the full text of the McCarthy passage in question, along with Percy’s detailed discussion of it.
Also note that for a darkly beautiful exploration and amplification of the Ligottian idea of horror art’s consolations, see Richard Gavin’s Teeming Brain column from last November, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.”
Is it just me, or is this profoundly disturbing?
No, it’s not just me.
From the Long Island Press, May 14:
The manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects offered the nation a window into the stunning military-style capabilities of our local law enforcement agencies. For the past 30 years, police departments throughout the United States have benefitted from the government’s largesse in the form of military weaponry and training, incentives offered in the ongoing “War on Drugs.” For the average citizen watching events such as the intense pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers on television, it would be difficult to discern between fully outfitted police SWAT teams and the military.
The lines blurred even further Monday as a new dynamic was introduced to the militarization of domestic law enforcement. By making a few subtle changes to a regulation in the U.S. Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” the military has quietly granted itself the ability to police the streets without obtaining prior local or state consent, upending a precedent that has been in place for more than two centuries.
The most objectionable aspect of the regulatory change is the inclusion of vague language that permits military intervention in the event of “civil disturbances.” According to the rule:
Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.
Bruce Afran, a civil liberties attorney and constitutional law professor at Rutgers University, calls the rule, “a wanton power grab by the military,” and says, “It’s quite shocking actually because it violates the long-standing presumption that the military is under civilian control.”
. . . [T]he relatively few instances that federal troops have been deployed for domestic support have produced a wide range of results. Situations have included responding to natural disasters and protecting demonstrators during the Civil Rights era to, disastrously, the Kent State student massacre and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Michael German, senior policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noted in a 2009 Daily Kos article that, “there is no doubt that the military is very good at many things. But recent history shows that restraint in their new-found domestic role is not one of them.”
. . . [A] DoD official even referred to the Boston bombing suspects manhunt saying, “Like most major police departments, if you didn’t know they were a police department you would think they were the military.” According to this official there has purposely been a “large transfer of technology so that the military doesn’t have to get involved.” Moreover, he says the military has learned from past events, such as the siege at Waco, where ATF officials mishandled military equipment. “We have transferred the technology so we don’t have to loan it,” he states.
But if the transfer of military training and technology has been so thorough, it boggles the imagination as to what kind of disturbance would be so overwhelming that it would require the suspension of centuries-old law and precedent to grant military complete authority on the ground. The DoD official admits not being able to “envision that happening,” adding, “but I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter.”
. . . As we witnessed during the Boston bombing manhunt, it’s already difficult to discern between military and police. In the future it might be impossible, because there may be no difference.
ADDENDUM (posted one hour after the above):
Be sure to pay attention to the part of the article, which I didn’t quote above, where a U.S. defense official who “declined to be named” said, “The authorization has been around over 100 years; it’s not a new authority. It’s been there but it hasn’t been exercised. This is a carryover of domestic policy.” And indeed, you can poke around and find the same wording going back quite some time in the same regulation. But the current situation represents a rewording with “subtle changes,” as the Long Island Press journalist notes. The effort to make these changes goes back several months, at least to February; see the note about it published last month by the FAS Project on Government Secrecy.
And, you know, one might be inclined to regard it as an overreaction to think/feel that this is really disturbing, and one might be inclined to accept the soothing reassurance of that unnamed defense official, IF it weren’t for the fact that last year’s flap over the revised NDAA and its authorization of the federal government to imprison anybody, including American citizens, indefinitely without trial hadn’t emerged as really and truly a crisis, with a lawsuit over it being brought against the government by a group of journalists led by Chris Hedges, whose fairly legendary reputation precedes him.
We seem to be smack-dab in the middle of an “all bets are off” stage of American history, where fears and concerns formerly framed as the province of fringe-dwellers and conspiracy-nuts are repeatedly shown to be really and truly justified, as in — to name just one prominent example — the flat-out demolition of the U.S. economy while all of the talking heads representing the mainstream financial and economic ideology continued to talk soothing nonsense.
And speaking — as I did just yesterday — of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, here’s author and history professor Michael Saler discussing two new books about Ms. Shelley and her novel (The Annotated Frankenstein and The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece)for The Times Literary Supplement:
The child may be father to the man, but how did a girl become mother to the monster? We continue to ask that of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) before she turned twenty. It is a startling work from someone so young, combining profound philosophic disquisitions with melodramatic blood and thunder. Some see it as the first science fiction novel, but as Roseanne Montillo shows in The Lady and Her Monsters, Shelley’s narrative of a scientist’s quest to discover and harness the “principle of life” was less an extrapolation into the future than a faithful representation of contemporary practices. Indeed, Frankenstein is one of the earliest horror novels about modernity, directly confronting the instabilities provoked by the scientific, Industrial and French Revolutions.
. . . The first edition of this rich and ambiguous work didn’t fly off the shelves. But it was resurrected in 1823 — this time published under its author’s name — as a result of a popular stage adaptation that promoted the monster rather than the philosophy. Shelley herself pursued this lucrative strategy in her “Introduction” to a revised edition of the novel in 1831, which immediately became a bestseller. Here she situated the work’s genesis in the ghost-story tradition, recalling the summer of 1816 when she joined a party visiting Lord Byron in Switzerland. After several dark and stormy nights spent reading ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own. Shelley retrospectively claimed she intended to write one that would “awaken thrilling horror”.
The 1831 edition was no longer dedicated to her father the Enlightenment philosopher. Instead, it featured the first book illustration of the nameless “monster”. Shelley bid her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper”, which it did, especially after the release of James Whale’s film version in 1931. Boris Karloff delivered a poignant performance as the monster, now saddled with a “criminal brain” and rendered inarticulate. Shelley’s confrontation with modernity was briefly effaced: but it would never remain buried for long.
More at The Times Literary Supplement: “Enlightened monsters“
Image: Portrait of Mary Shelley, 1840, by Richard Rothwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the defining societal and psychological traits of electric media culture, stretching back many decades, is its collective wholesale infatuation with the cult of celebrity, which is of course a severely debased form of traditional hero worship.
For a surprisingly riveting look behind the curtain and smokescreen of the whole sorry phenomenon, see the March 2011 interview with Phil Collins in Rolling Stone, which several people have been bouncing around the social media milieu for the past couple of days. The interview originally appeared right when a widespread “I hate Phil Collins” meme was at its peak, and it showed how Collins had gone from standing at the very center and pinnacle of the culture and industry of musical celebrity in the 1980s to becoming, in shockingly rapid fashion, an object of widespread hatred and mockery after that decade’s ephemeral styles and attitudes cycled out of fashion in the way that such things always, egregiously do.
It also featured Collins talking about his collection of Alamo memorabilia — which is the largest in the world, and which has famously supplanted music to become his new life’s work and passion — and about the paranormal possibility that he himself was present for the Alamo’s famous fall in a former life, a speculation supported by unsolicited information from a self-proclaimed psychic plus stacks of photos that Collins has taken at Alamo battlefields that show multiple “orbs” of the infamously spectral variety.
It’s a fascinating read, all in all, and really one to engender reflection — and to generate a surprising sense of melancholy — if you just let it unfold, especially since you don’t have to be a psychologist or literature professor to notice the profound irony and symbolism of Collins’ expressed fascination with the ghosts of fallen soldiers, given the context of his overall life trajectory. In some ways the piece as a whole reads like a kind of prophetic parable about the spiritual underside or downside of celebrityhood for everybody involved, including not just the celebrities themselves but for all of us who are caught in this warped psychic space of overwrought, overblown hype and egoism.
Who people think Phil Collins is derives mainly from how absolutely everywhere he was in the 1980s. It’s almost impossible to overstate . . . . But then a curious thing happened. The Eighties ended and the Nineties began in a whole different mood, with Nirvana and other punk-influenced bands establishing grunge as the dominant musical force. In many ways, grunge’s threadbare, garage-rock sound was a direct reaction to the overblown, synth-heavy bombast of the previous decade — and no one typified those excesses more than Collins. In the summer of 1994, reports began circulating that Collins had informed his (second) wife that he wanted a divorce — via fax. He denied it vehemently, and the fax itself was never produced, but no matter: Suddenly, it was open season on the guy. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher started hammering on him any time he could, to uproarious effect. Among his choicest bons mots: “You don’t have to be great to be successful. Look at Phil Collins” and “People hate fucking cunts like Phil Collins, and if they don’t, they fucking should.” And so it’s gone, especially on the Internet, where I Hate Phil Collins sites have flourished. He gets criticized for everything. For his hair, for his height, for his pants (pleated khakis), for his shirts (tucks them in), for being “a shameless, smirking show hog.”
“I don’t understand it,” he says, looking pained. “I’ve become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it’s the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it’s too late. The die is cast as to what I am.”
. . . [He] sits at a laptop, where he pulls up picture after picture of the modern-day Alamo and related battle sites, various angles and times, and in the majority of them, soft little glowing balls, whitish in color and semitransparent, sometimes a few, sometimes a great many, seem to be hovering in the air.
“They’re orbs,” Collins says solemnly. “I’m not sure what the scientific term is, but it’s paranormal energy. See this one? Now this one is at Goliad, where, after the Alamo, 400 guys were executed. You’ve got to be careful. You can talk yourself into this stuff. See how many there are here? I get chills just talking about it. All of those orbs! They’re all over the place! If you believe this, then you have to rethink everything you’ve been taught. That’s what freaks me out.”
Finally, he goes back to talking about what the clairvoyant had told him: “I don’t want to sound like a weirdo. I’m not Shirley MacLaine. But I’m prepared to believe. You’ve seen the pictures. You can’t deny them, so therefore it is a possibility that I was here in another life.” And he says lots more about this, too, all of which proves he’s not the bland dude everyone thinks he is. He’s got a lot of multidimensional fringe in him, and once he gets going on the Alamo, he seems thrilled to be talking about anything and anyone but himself.
. . . [T]here does seem to be some serious darkness in him as well. He has spent time imagining battle scenes at the Alamo. “At one point, the Mexicans were killing each other. It was dark, and you killed anything that moved. And then when they attacked the last line of defense, it was hand-to-hand fighting and they went around decapitating all the bodies and making sure they were dead. ‘What must that have been like?’ I think. And you have things like that coming over your head all the time.” He bites his nails. “I’m fascinated by what people will do to each other,” he goes on. “Actually, I’m sort of interested in the gory details of life.”
. . . “Everything has added up to a load that I’m getting tired of carrying,” he continues. “It’s gotten so complicated. It’s the three failed marriages, and having kids that grew up without me, and it’s the personal criticism, of being Mr. Nice Guy, or of divorcing my wife by fax, all that stuff, the journalism, some of which I find insulting. I wouldn’t say that I have suicidal tendencies over my career or bad press. They’re just another chink in the wall. It’s cumulative. You can say, ‘Grow up, man, everybody gets criticism.’ I know that. And I’ve philosophically adjusted to it. But does that make it any more pleasurable? No.” And that’s the trouble with wishing you were somebody else. As much as you may want it, you know it’ll never happen, at least not in this lifetime.
Here’s British author and journalist Steven Poole, writing for Aeon magazine in an article published just today and titled “Slaves to the Algorithm“:
Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.
. . . If you are feeling gloomy about the automation of higher education, the death of newspapers, and global warming, you might want to talk to someone — and there’s an algorithm for that, too. A new wave of smartphone apps with eccentric titular orthography (iStress, myinstantCOACH, MoodKit, BreakkUp) promise a psychotherapist in your pocket. Thus far they are not very intelligent, and require the user to do most of the work — though this second drawback could be said of many human counsellors too. Such apps hark back to one of the legendary milestones of ‘artificial intelligence’, the 1960s computer program called ELIZA. That system featured a mode in which it emulated Rogerian psychotherapy, responding to the user’s typed conversation with requests for amplification (‘Why do you say that?’) and picking up — with its ‘natural-language processing’ skills — on certain key words from the input. Rudimentary as it is, ELIZA can still seem spookily human. Its modern smartphone successors might be diverting, but this field presents an interesting challenge in the sense that, the more sophisticated it gets, the more potential for harm there will be. One day, the makers of an algorithm-driven psychotherapy app could be sued by the survivors of someone to whom it gave the worst possible advice.
What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits. Yet even in fields where the algorithm’s job is a relatively pure exercise in number-crunching, things can go alarmingly wrong.
Here’s author and cultural critic John David Ebert, writing in The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake (2011):
Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.
Here’s science fiction legend Brian Aldiss, writing in the first chapter of his seminal 1973 study Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, titled “The Origin of the Species: Mary Shelley“:
For a thousand people familiar with the story of Victor creating his monster from selected cadaver spares and endowing them with new life, only to shrink back in horror from his own creation, not one will have read Mary Shelley’s original novel. This suggests something of the power of infiltration of this first great myth of the industrial age. [emphasis added]
Here’s literature scholar Christopher Small, writing in his (likewise influential) 1972 book Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth:
The Monster is not a ghost. He is not a genie or a spirit summoned by magic from the deep; at the same time he issues, like these, from the imagination. He is manifestly a product, or aspect, of his maker’s psyche: he is a psychic phenomenon given objective, or ‘actual’ existence. A Doppelganger of ‘real flesh and blood’ is not unknown, of course, in other fictions, nor is the idea of a man created ‘by other means than Nature has hitherto provided’, the creation of Prometheus being the archetype. But Frankenstein is ‘the modern Prometheus’: the profound effect achieved by Mary lay in showing the Monster as the product of modern science; made, not by enchantment, i.e., directly by the unconscious, an ‘imaginary’ being, but through a process of scientific discovery, i.e., the imagination objectified.
Here’s the late, great cultural critic/historian and philosopher Theodore Roszak, writing in his fairly legendary 1973 book Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society:
Long before the demonic possibilities of science had become clear for all to see, it was a Romantic novelist who foresaw the career of Dr. Frankenstein — and so gave us the richest (and darkest) literary myth the culture of science has produced.
Here’s Agent Smith, the artificial intelligence program in charge of keeping order within the simulated human reality of The Matrix (1999), speaking to the captured Morpheus, leader of the resistance movement against the machine civilization that has enslaved humans (in a film released in 1999):
As soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You’ve had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time.
Here’s Victor Frankenstein in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, lying on his deathbed and lamenting his former obsessive quest to create and “perfect” life, which led not only to his own utter wretchedness and destruction but to that of everybody he loved:
My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.
. . . Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me — let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!
If one is looking for a guiding thread of supervening meaning or moral insight here, I might be inclined to borrow and recontextualize the words of legendary and visionary music producer Sandy Pearlman — from the liner notes to Blue Öyster Cult’s epic 1988 concept album Imaginos, about the centuries-long efforts of a transcendent pantheon of “Invisibles” to intercede in human history and guide it to a preordained conclusion — by suggesting that this whole situation portends, indicates, and represents “a disease with a long incubation.”