This week’s recommended reading covers Morris Berman’s diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the waning of our modern age of capitalism; the end of economic growth due to peak oil; a call from Jaron Lanier to recognize the wizard’s trick of delusion that we’re all pulling on ourselves with technology; a reflection on the soul tragedy of a culture of 24/7 digital connectedness; a report on the nefarious collusion of corporate funding in scientific research and reporting; a cool article by John Keel on the birth of flying saucers as a cultural phenomenon; an interview with the creator of a new multimedia project based on lucid dreaming and stretching the boundaries of conventional storytelling; a consideration of the enduring mainstream impact of occult/esoteric/”New Age” ideas on American culture and society; and words about Swedenborg and visionary mysticism and spirituality from Gary Lachman and Mitch Horowitz.
The Waning of the Modern Ages
Morris Berman, Counterpunch, September 20, 2012
Teaser: Time to abolish the American dream.
[The final, long-historical arc of modern capitalism’s demise is] going to be a colossal fight, not only because the powers that be want to hang on to their power, but because the arc and all its ramifications have given their class Meaning with a capital M for 500+ years. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters — if there are any left at this point; I’m not sure — need to tell the 1%: Your lives are a mistake. This is what “a new civilizational paradigm” finally means. It also has to be said that almost everyone in the United States, not just the upper 1%, buys into this. John Steinbeck pointed this out many years ago when he wrote that in the U.S., the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The Occupy movement, as far as I could make out, wanted to restore the American Dream, when in fact the Dream needs to be abolished once and for all … Everything is related to everything else. Psychology, the economy, the environmental crisis, our daily mode of living, the dumbing down of America, the pathetic fetish over cell phones and electronic gadgets, the crushing debt of student loans, the farce of electoral politics, Mr. Obama’s rather rapid conversion from liberal hero to war criminal and shredder of the Bill of Rights, the huge popularity of violent movies, the attempt of the rich to impose austerity measures on the poor, the well-documented epidemics of mental illness and obesity—these are ultimately not separate spheres of human activity. They are interconnected, and this means that things will not get fixed piecemeal. “New civilizational paradigm” means it’s all or nothing; there really is no in-between, no diet cheesecake to be had … To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the current system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, it was true at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today.
How High Oil Prices Will Permanently Cap Economic Growth
Jeff Rubin,Bloomberg, September 23, 2012
Via The Browser
[NOTE: It behooves us to observe that in this article Rubin, a widely respected author and economist, describes the basic peak oil scenario without using the term “peak oil” at all. Which is perfectly okay, since it looks like P.O. is pretty much a locked-in and done deal at this point, regardless of what we do or don’t choose to call it.]
For most of the last century, cheap oil powered global economic growth. But in the last decade, the price of oil has quadrupled, and that shift will permanently shackle the growth potential of the world’s economies. The countries guzzling the most oil are taking the biggest hits to potential economic growth. That’s sobering news for the U.S., which consumes almost a fifth of the oil used in the world every day … And the U.S. isn’t the only country getting squeezed. From Europe to Japan, governments are struggling to restore growth. But the economic remedies being used are doing more harm than good, based as they are on a fundamental belief that economic growth can return to its former strength. Central bankers and policy makers have failed to fully recognize the suffocating impact of $100-a-barrel oil. Running huge budget deficits and keeping borrowing costs at record lows are only compounding current problems. These policies cannot be long-term substitutes for cheap oil because an economy can’t grow if it can no longer afford to burn the fuel on which it runs. The end of growth means governments will need to radically change how economies are managed … It’s not enough for the global energy industry simply to find new caches of oil; the crude must be affordable. Triple-digit prices make it profitable to tap ever-more-expensive sources of oil, but the prices needed to pull this crude out of the ground will throw our economies right back into a recession. The energy industry’s task is not simply to find oil, but also to find stuff we can afford to burn. And that’s where the industry is failing. Each new barrel we pull out of the ground is costing us more than the last. The resources may be there for the taking, but our economies are already telling us we can’t afford the cost. Today, the world burns about 90 million barrels of oil a day. If our economies are no longer growing, maybe we won’t need any more than that. We might even need less. Maybe the oil trapped in the tar sands or under the Arctic Ocean can stay where nature put it.
Jaron Lanier: Let’s Unmask the Great and Powerful Oz of Technology
Jason Gots, Big Thing, September 26, 2012
We may not yet possess those cool transparent computers they have on CSI, but we live in a science fiction fantasy world of seamless information exchange, one in which even our telephones seem to possess magical powers. The less you know about technology, the more magical it seems, so the more the sophisticated the tech becomes, the vaster the cultural gulf between the computer literate and the computer-challenged. This is a dangerous situation, says Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier, an early virtual reality pioneer and researcher for Microsoft Kinect has been a vocal critic of what he sees as a dehumanizing trend in our relationship with technology. When we treat computers as godlike beings, he warns, we become dependent upon them to solve problems that require human ingenuity to address. And by denying the incremental, human-driven progress that, say, enables Siri to offer you exactly what you want, we also run the risk of creating an economy that doesn’t support human contributors — the legions of everyday people behind the “Great and Powerful Oz.”
Andrew Reiner, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2012
It’s no secret that we’re teaching a generation that is more stressed out, debt-ridden, depressed, anxious, impulsive, scholastically amoral (let’s be honest), self-entitled, bored, and apathetic than perhaps any other since Aristotle sauntered through the Lyceum. But what really worries me is students’ preoccupation with social media. Their need to stay perpetually connected through Facebook and texting, in particular, creates a daunting fire wall to learning. One need only walk into any nook or cranny of a college campus to see the blur of fevered thumbs at work and the hypnotic glow of Facebook walls to know what I’m talking about. In fact, new studies conducted by Reynol Junco (a researcher whose work focuses on college students and social media) suggest that American college students may spend an average of at least an hour and 40 minutes a day on Facebook and three hours a day texting. Even when they aren’t texting, they are waiting, hoping, imagining that someone is trying to reach them — it’s been dubbed Phantom Vibration Syndrome. One student of mine admitted in a journal entry that she often “fake texts” while waiting for class to start or standing in line. She doesn’t want to look “like a loser in public.” Why this obsessive need to stay in touch, this fear of being unconnected? “Our generation is afraid that we might miss something, that we might fall out of the loop,” one of my students confessed in an assigned reflection. Another student echoed that idea and took it a step further: “I want to keep the peace with my friends, so I make myself available 24/7” … Which leaves me wondering: If so much of our consciousness is focused outside ourselves, on our social relevance, can we remain present and open to the interiority needed for learning?
Bad science gets busted
David Sirota, Salon, September 24, 2012
Teaser: High-profile cases show the importance of questioning academic research — especially when it has a corporate tie.
As any P.R. hack worth his weight in press releases knows, the most persuasive content is that which doesn’t look like propaganda at all … At the national level, media organizations frothed with news about Stanford University researchers supposedly determining that organic food food is no more healthy than conventionally produced food. In the rush to generate audience-grabbing headlines, most of these news outlets simply regurgitated the Stanford press release, which deliberately stressed that researchers ”did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.” The word “deliberately” is important here — as watchdog groups soon noted, Stanford is a recipient of corporate largess from agribusinesses such as Cargill, which have an obvious vested financial interest in denigrating organics. Additionally, one of the researchers in question had previously been connected to infamous tobacco industry efforts to pay for skewed science. In light of those inconvenient truths, Stanford may have made the calculated decision to promote the part of the study that denigrated organics and downplay the part of the report that, according to the Los Angeles Times, found “evidence of higher blood levels of pesticide residues among children who ate conventionally grown food” and “antibiotic-resistant microbes more commonly found among conventionally reared chicken and pork” … This gets to why scrutinizing science and its funding sources is so important: It forces more questions and fosters a more vigorous public debate. So, for example, when it came to the organic study, Stanford researchers were quickly put on the defensive, prompting a rare and valuable cross-examination of their findings — the kind to which many scientific studies are (sadly) never subjected … Whether in questions of food policy, telecom policy, climate policy or any other contentious issue at the national or local issue, questions — even uncomfortable ones about paymasters — are good and necessary. As the last few weeks showed, they prevent us from submitting to corporate subterfuge and do not allow controversial findings to become assumed fact simply because they come from a venerable source.
The Man Who Invented Flying Saucers
John A. Keel, Fortean Times #41 (Winter 1983), posted/reprinted at BLACK SUN Redux
[Hat tip to David Metcalfe for the heads-up about this article.]
[NOTE: This fascinating and engaging article (an unsurprising combination of qualities for something written by the blessed Mr. Keel) is accompanied, at the bottom of its Webpage, by a bonus piece: a reprinted article from the June 2005 issue of Fate magazine about Richard Shaver, who is prominent in Keel’s piece as well, and who is of course famed for having helped to launch the UFO craze in the mid-2oth century via his widely publicized claims of being in contact with members of an ancient, evil, high-technological race of beings that live beneath the earth’s surface.]
[T]he man responsible for the most well-known of all such modern myths — flying saucers — has somehow been forgotten. Before the first flying saucer was sighted in 1947, he suggested the idea to the American public. Then he converted UFO reports from what might have been a Silly Season phenomenon into a subject, and kept that subject alive during periods of total public disinterest. His name was Raymond A. Palmer … Palmer had accidentally tapped a huge, previously unrecognized audience. Nearly every community has at least one person who complains constantly to the local police that someone — usually a neighbor — is aiming a terrible ray gun at their house or apartment. This ray, they claim, is ruining their health, causing their plants to die, turning their bread moldy, making their hair and teeth fall out, and broadcasting voices into their heads. Psychiatrists are very familiar with these “ray” victims and relate the problem with paranoid-schizophrenia. For the most part, these paranoiacs are harmless and usually elderly. Occasionally, however, the voices they hear urge them to perform destructive acts, particularly arson. They are a distrustful lot, loners by nature, and very suspicious of everyone, including the government and all figures of authority. In earlier times, they thought they were hearing the voice of god and/or the Devil. Today they often blame the CIA or space beings for their woes. They naturally gravitate to eccentric causes and organizations which reflect their own fears and insecurities, advocating bizarre political philosophies and reinforcing their peculiar belief systems. Ray Palmer unintentionally gave thousands of these people focus to their lives … Once the belief system had been set up it became self-perpetuating. The people beleaguered by mysterious rays were joined by the wishful thinkers who hoped that living, compassionate beings existed out there beyond the stars. They didn’t need any real evidence. The belief itself was enough to sustain them.
Interview: Mark Staufer on ‘The Numinous Place’ and Lucid Dreaming
Jason Tabrys, Nerd Bastards, August 7, 2012
[NOTE: If you can avoid being distracted by the unfortunate presence of numerous typos and punctuation errors, this is a fascinating conversation to read, both for what it says about the experience and significance of lucid dreaming and for what it indicates about an epochal convergence of different media formats and technologies in what may become a categorically new form of storytelling.]
Our dreams are a mystery to us. These expansive places that can be titillating, horrifying, and everything in between. What if we could control those dreams though? Would we wreak havoc and give into our lesser Angels and our carnal desires, or would we explore? Would we get lost and what would we uncover? The movie Inception takes us into a world where people can control dreams, and Mark Staufer, the screen writer behind Russel Crowe’s upcoming Bill Hicks bio-pic, believes in both the power and the existence of lucid dreaming. Inspired by that belief and the dream world, Staufer is in the process of constructing a truly epic, multi-platform fiction project that will utilize the page, the web, and other available technologies. I spoke to the author about this project, The Numinous Place, his beliefs on lucid dreaming, the power of Kick Starter, and storytelling.
STAUFER: I began The Numinous Place with a kind of thought that I worked out from a particularly vivid dream about 10 years ago. And the thought was: “Wow, what would happen if we developed the technology to film dreams?” and my first response was, “Jesus, we wouldn’t need Hollywood anymore.” I wasnt here in LA at that stage, now that thought wouldn’t occur to me since I’m now a part of it … I mean publishers are totally scared of this. It doesn’t fit into their narrow confines or parameters of what storytelling is because it uses all storytelling techniques and they cant get their heads around it. For me, it’s the logical next step of digital story telling. At the moment words are just moved from the pages of the book to the screen and we’re not using these devices that have been developed that kids now use to read and experience amazing stories. As adults we dont have that becase nobody has written something specifically for these devices and that’s what The Numinous Place is: real, live, digital storytelling that works best on an electronic device rather than on a page.
The Secret Wisdom of an Ersatz Guru
Mitch Horowitz, The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2012
Teaser: New Age movements are easy to mock. But they have long shaped the American experience.
[NOTE: Mitch Horowitz, in addition to being the author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation, is Editor in Chief of spiritual-esoteric-occult publisher powerhouse Tarcher/Penguin. For a kind of companion piece to this review essay he wrote for the WSJ, see David Metcalfe’s recent Teeming Brain column “Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric ‘Fringe.’“]
Anyone who has ever rolled his eyes at strip-mall yoga centers, Beverly Hills ashrams or commercial perfumes with names like Atman (Sanskrit for “true self”) will appreciate [the new film Kumaré’s] sendup of New Age movements and transplanted Eastern spirituality. But religious innovation in America is a complex matter, touching our culture in ways both subtle and dramatic. Rather than simply deride the shallowness of novel spiritual movements, Kumaré ultimately affirms the extent to which our culture is shaped by them … When the faux guru in Kumaré directs his followers in a Sanskrit chant of “be all you can be,” thinking he has made them look silly by echoing the U.S. Army’s familiar recruiting slogan, even the filmmaker misses an irony. The phrase was inspired by a study conducted in the early 1980s at the Army War College by a group of officers who believed that soldiers could benefit from human-potential techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises and visualizations for peak performance … The movie does show how flaky some of the trappings of the New Age movement can be, but it also demonstrates that the once far-out ideas of transplanted Eastern spirituality and the human-potential movement today sound thoroughly familiar.
Inner Worlds: Interview with Gary Lachman on Emanuel Swedenborg
Electric Politics, September 21, 2012
[NOTE: Ignore the annoying cross-talk that plagues the first 15 minutes of this radio interview (apparently caused by the host and interviewee having a bit of trouble hearing each other as they communicate across the Atlantic Ocean by phone) and enjoy the conversation as Electric Politics host George Kenney talks to Gary Lachman about his new book on Swedenborg. See especially the 16-minute mark, where they plunge suddenly into a fascinating and depth-filled discussion of the ontological status of visions like the ones Swedenborg was prone to experiencing. It involves explicit references to the idea of the imaginal realm as developed by Henry Corbin, the question(s) of science, scientism, and empirical evidence as applied to visionary experiences, and the categorically elusive nature of the deep center of human selfhood, cognition, and perception. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.]
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) wrote prolifically about his inner life. His wild visions influenced, among many others, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, and W.B. Yeats. Yet Swedenborg remains difficult to access directly, difficult to assess objectively. Paradoxically, what was crystal clear to him needs a sprinkling of ambiguity to become clear to others. Using his comparative knowledge of esoteric history Gary Lachman provides a necessary sense of the incomplete in his latest book, Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (Tarcher/Penguin, 2012). Wonderfully written and thoughtful throughout, it’s a worthy addition to any collection on spiritual subjects. Total runtime fifty-three minutes. Anima nātūrāliter Christiāna.
To accompany both the Swedenborg conversation and the Mitch Horowitz piece linked to above, here’s Mitch Horowitz discussing Swedenborg (and occult/alternative spirituality in America) on CBS Sunday Morning.