This week’s installment of Recommended Reading covers: the cinematic nature of the Book of Revelation’s apocalyptic vision; historical and psychological revelations and reflections on the nature of societal and cultural collapse; the nuttiness of America’s techno-optimistic utopianism; the rise of neuroscience-enhanced psychological/spiritual training for America’s military; the possible future of art as “post art” that is seamlessly integrated with everyday living; and some insights into, and recommendations for, a dogmatically (and insanely) growth-based economy that has been failing for many years to inquire into the real point of economic activity in terms of a truly human (and thus truly ecological and globally life-enhancing) “good life.”
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The Big Reveal
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, March 5, 2012
Teaser: Why does the Bible end that way?
[T]he Book of Revelation has every element that Michael Bay could want: dragons, seven-headed sea beasts, double-horned land beasts, huge C.G.I.-style battles involving hundreds of thousands of angels and demons, and even, in Jezebel the temptress, a part for Megan Fox…In a new book on those end pages, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking), Elaine Pagels sets out gently to bring their portents back to earth…[She] shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing…Yet the project of draining the melodrama from Revelation may scant some significant things even as it draws attention to others. It is possible to draw too sharp a boundary between prophetic and merely symbolic images, between mad vision and coded cartoon. Allegorical pictures of contemporary events have a way of weaving in and out between the symbolic and the semi-psychotic. This is close to an eternal truth of art: one person’s editorial cartoon is another’s weird nightmare…Spiritual texts are the original transformers; they take mundane descriptions of what’s going on and make them twelve feet tall and cosmic and able to knock down pyramids…This worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world, radiant with the light of God’s presence, flowing with the water of life, abounding in joy and delight.” Well, yeah, but this happens only after all the millions of heretics, past and present, have been burned alive and the planet destroyed. That’s some long arc. It’s like the inevitable moment in an apocalyptic blockbuster, “Independence Day” or “Armageddon” or “2012,” when the stars embrace and celebrate their survival. The Hans Zimmer music swells, and we’re reassured that it’s O.K. to rejoice. Millions are annihilated, every major city has been destroyed, but nobody you really like has died. It’s a Hollywood ending in that way, too.
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Huge Ancient Civilization’s Collapse Explained
Charles Choi, LiveScience (via Discovery News), May 29, 2012
Teaser: The Harappans were an advanced ancent civilization that fell prey to climate changes 4,000 years ago.
Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia may be the best known of the first great urban cultures, but the largest was the Indus or Harappan civilization. This culture once extended over more than 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges, and at its peak may have accounted for 10 percent of the world population. The civilization developed about 5,200 years ago, and slowly disintegrated between 3,900 and 3,000 years ago — populations largely abandoned cities, migrating toward the east…Now [geologist Liviu] Giosan [of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts] and his colleagues have reconstructed the landscape of the plain and rivers where this long-forgotten civilization developed. Their findings now shed light on the enigmatic fate of this culture. “Our research provides one of the clearest examples of climate change leading to the collapse of an entire civilization [due to shifts in the monsoon season, lowering the floods and support for their cities],” Giosan said…”Cities collapsed, but smaller agricultural communities were sustainable and flourished,” [archaeologist Dorian] Fuller [with University College London] said. “Many of the urban arts, such as writing, faded away, but agriculture continued and actually diversified.” It remains uncertain how monsoons will react to modern climate change. “If we take the devastating floods that caused the largest humanitarian disaster in Pakistan’s history as a sign of increased monsoon activity, than this doesn’t bode well for the region,” Giosan said. “The region has the largest irrigation scheme in the world, and all those dams and channels would become obsolete in the face of the large floods an increased monsoon would bring.” The scientists detailed their findings online May 28 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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Collapse and Renewal: Musings on Sacred Space and the Decline of Civilization
Bonnie Bright,Depth Psychology Alliance, April 23, 2011
[NOTE: I think you have to have a membership to Depth Psychology Alliance (which is free but requires approval and justification) in order to access this essay. But even short of that, these excerpts are well worth pondering.]
History shows us a seemingly endless string of losses as cultures collapsed due to overexploitation of the earth’s resources, environmental issues, natural disasters, disease, starvation, warfare, and political power struggles, among others. With the loss of a civilization comes the loss of so much more. The people, culture, language, heritage, traditions, rituals, plant lore, tribal wisdom, stories, myths, artwork, handiwork, craftwork, and ways of beings are all wiped away. Along with them, as more civilizations, species, and ecosystems fail, so does the diversity which makes up the myriad rich dimensions world soul, leaving a planet and species that has been homogenized into an aesthetic, generic one-dimensional environment. When even one aspect of a civilization dies, such as language, the resulting loss in heritage, tradition, and wisdom is amplified many times over…C.G. Jung foresaw severe consequences propelling our civilization toward collapse even from his vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, saying: “[This] nihilistic trend towards disintegration must be understood as the symptom and symbol of a mood of universal destruction and renewal that has set its mark on our age…This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science.” However, the initiatory progression of decline resulting in loss, sadness, suffering, and pain — even annihilation — may also lead to new birth, a new place of safety, home, and the capacity to thrive. Engaged witnessing of this downward sequence may be akin to finding the shards of a broken vessel and re-forging them into a new vessel. Though we can never restore or duplicate what has collapsed to the way it was before, there may be a way of re-sherding the broken pieces and forging a new vessel that bears the honor of the previously broken whole.
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Magic and the Machine: Living in an American Age of Techno-Wonder and Unreason
Lewis Lapham, Tomgram (reprinted from Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2012), June 24, 2012
Like England in the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous — the lines and letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA, Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s scientists come away from Stockholm nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system. The record also suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological — nuclear, biochemical, and genetic — gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic. We find our new Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product…To the extent that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt, they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to supernatural machines.
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A State of Military Mind
Brian Mockenhaupt, Pacific Standard, June 18, 2012
[NOTE: The level of depth and detail in this piece is amazing. Read the excerpts below and then click through to article in full, where you’ll find extended, up-close descriptions and illustrations of the burgeoning neuroscientific approach to mental/emotional/spiritual training for America’s military.]
Teaser: To train future soldiers, the Department of Defense is using new technologies and centuries-old techniques, like yoga and meditation, to hone their minds, help them make better decisions on the battlefield, and prevent trauma.
Using a mixture of new technologies unavailable in past wars like real-time brain scans and neurofeedback that can rewire the brain, and centuries-old techniques like yoga and meditation, the military is trying to hone soldiers’ minds, arm them against psychological injury during combat, and even prevent traumatic situations through cognitive training that might, say, allow for an extra fraction of a second in which a soldier discerns that a car approaching a checkpoint isn’t a threat. Many within the defense community are just starting to consider the role of neuroscience in war. As the community begins to embrace the notion of the brain as a weapon, neuroscience will change how troops prepare for war, how they perform in battle, how they are affected by their experiences, and how quickly they recover from physical injuries and psychic wounds…Though brain-training programs like this are still gaining traction in the military, mental-fitness regimens may soon be as much a part of a soldier’s life as push-ups and running. Every war brings new understanding and medical advances: ambulances, plastic surgery, blood transfusions. In America’s Long War, the new field of discovery is the brain. Like learning a foreign language or mastering a sport, optimizing the brain is slow and tedious work, with results harder to quantify than traditional metrics of military training, such as counting sit-ups or holes in targets at a rifle range. But the potential is profound. This is training that can bring relief for the injured, and more control over chaos for those still fighting.
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A Glimpse of Art’s Future at Documenta
Jerry Saltz, Vulture (from New York Magazine), June 16, 2012
Three quarters of the art at Documenta 13, the gigantic 200-exhibitor show that just opened in the small German city of Kassel, is innocuous or worse. Derivative installations, found objects, text pieces, videos, sculptural fragments, empty rooms, performances, and sound works — it’s the kind of late-late conceptual/relational aesthetics hegemony endemic to these massive events…But let’s forget the bad 75 percent and look at the rest of what’s here, because, once you get beyond the claptrap, Documenta 13 comes tantalizingly close to realizing one of its enticing goals: rethinking how we define art altogether, opening it up exponentially. Indeed, here and there, in glimpses, we get what I call Post Art. And it hums with promise…Documenta’s American-born artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, doesn’t even use the word “artist,” preferring “participant” instead. She says, “I am not sure that the field of art will continue to exist in the 21st century” — not meaning art itself, mind you, but our tidy roping-off of the field. To Joseph Beuys’s famous dictum “Everyone is an artist,” Christov-Bakargiev adds, “So is any thing.” The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force…Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office…Documenta allows us all to feel a stake in this thing called art, and sense that Post Art is on the immediate horizon, approaching fast.
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Keeping the Dream Alive
John Meacham, Time, June 21, 2012
[NOTE: This article/essay is quite impressive in scope and richness of content. I recommend it for its nicely concise analysis and recounting of the history of “the American Dream” as a national ideology. It also has the virtue of emphasizing that the motivations of the original New World colonists were pointedly more centered on material gain than religious freedom, although it is, I think, insufficiently critical of this reality, whose end point, as Morris Berman and many others have noted (see Why America Failed), is seen in our current apocalyptic malaise.]
The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction. That great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality, is real and growing. The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system, the engine of what Thomas Jefferson called “the world’s best hope,” shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day…For reasons ranging from geography to market capitalism to Jeffersonian ideas of liberty, we may well be the only people on the planet who tend to believe without irony that Thomas Paine was right when he declared that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” In fact, we don’t have that power. No one does. History cannot be dismissed with a nod. But from generation to generation, Americans have indeed dreamed of steady personal and national progress…Whoever rises to deliver the inaugural Address of 2013 will speak to a nation in which the American Dream is under profound economic and cultural pressure.
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Not Where They Hoped They’d Be
The Atlantic, June 15, 2012
[NOTE: This is haunting. I highly advise visiting the site, viewing the photos, and reading the accompanying text, all of which combine to offer a powerful glimpse into a global economic, educational, and societal crisis whose effects will inevitably be, and in fact already are, profoundly disruptive and transformative.]
Reuters recently assigned a number of photographers to capture images of a struggling generation. The result is this series of portraits of graduates from around the world who have been unable to find work in their degree fields and have ended up in poorly paid service industry jobs. Although their current positions may be disappointing, the subjects in these photos may count themselves lucky to have any job at all — the International Labor Organization estimates the number of people aged 15 to 24 without a job at almost 75 million. From a cook in Athens with a degree in civil engineering to a waiter in Algiers with a masters in corporate finance, these young people have spent years studying hard to compete in the 21st century, only to discover that even the most desirable qualifications mean little in a distressed global economy.
Karl Moi Okoth, a 27-year-old vegetable and fruit seller, in front of his makeshift shop in Nairobi’s Kibera slum in the Kenyan capital, on April 30, 2012. Okoth studied psychology and chemistry at Day Star University where he received a degree in psychology. He has been searching for permanent employment for four years but has decided to make a living working in the slums for the last eight months. (Reuters/Noor Khamis)
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In Praise of Leisure
Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2012
[NOTE: This is adapted from the authors’ new book How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. In my humble opinion, speakers everywhere should deliver it as the commencement address at every high school and college graduation ceremony around the world. Read it carefully and ponder it deeply. Especially see the parts, not quoted below, about Keynes’ early essay on the rise of leisure to replace work and the need for people individually and collectively to learn to make good use of it.]
What is wealth for? How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might seem an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself — at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we? We in the West are once more in the midst of a Great Contraction, the worst since the Great Depression. A great crisis is like an inspection: it exposes the faults of a social system, and it prompts the search for alternatives…The material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach. Under such circumstances, the aim of policy and other forms of collective action should be to secure an economic organization that places the good things of life — health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on — within reach of all. Economic growth should be accepted as a residual, not something to be aimed at….The irony…is that now that we have at last achieved abundance, the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly. The Devil, it seems, has claimed his reward. Can we evade this fate? Perhaps, but only if we can retrieve from centuries of neglect and distortion the idea of a good life, a life sufficient unto itself. Here we must draw on the rich storehouse of premodern wisdom, Occidental and Oriental.
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The RICH Economy
Robert Anton Wilson, from The Illuminati Papers
[NOTE: Yes, I’m quoting and linking to this piece, which I first read and grooved to circa 20 years ago, because of its resonance with the piece directly above. That one is written recently by two modern-day, mainstrean university professors, while this one is written by our dear friend RAW. And the correspondences between them are striking. They combine to help a person look with new insight and an altered perspective at the currently prevailing growth-at-all-costs socioeconomic system and recognize its self-perpetuating insanity growing out of a generally unacknowledged tangle of dystopian illogic.]
If there is one proposition which currently wins the assent of nearly everybody, it is that we need more jobs. “A cure for unemployment” is promised, or earnestly sought, by every Heavy Thinker from Jimmy Carter to the Communist Party USA, from Ronald Reagan to the head of the economics department at the local university, from the Birchers to the New Left. I would like to challenge that idea. I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society. The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less…What I am proposing, in brief, is that the Work Ethic (find a Master to employ you for wages, or live in squalid poverty) is obsolete. A Work Esthetic will have to arise to replace this old Stone Age syndrome of the slave, the peasant, the serf, the prole, the wage-worker — the human labor-machine who is not fully a person but, as Marx said, ” a tool, an automaton.” Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity — as an outlet for their creative potential. (“Creative potential” is not a panchreston. It refers to the inborn drive to play, to tinker, to explore, and to experiment, shown by every child before his or her mental processes are stunted by authoritarian education and operant-conditioned wage-robotry.) As Bucky Fuller says, the first thought of people, once they are delivered from wage slavery, will be, “What was it that I was so interested in as a youth, before I was told I had to earn a living?” The answer to that question, coming from millions and then billions of persons liberated from mechanical toil, will make the Renaissance look like a high school science fair or a Greenwich Village art show.