Recommended Reading 28

This week: posthumously offered words of warning and encouragement to an America in decline from Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1975 classic Ecotopia; insightful meditations on the intrinsic value of the humanities and their inherent resistance to being explained (as in, explained away) by quantitative scientific methodologies and approaches; a 1908 essay by a French author celebrating the philosophical value of “the scientific-marvelous novel,” i.e., science fiction; a penetrating essay by Adam Curtis on a classic 1990s BBC television series about ghosts and what it reveals about the real residing place of phantoms and specters in our modern mass media culture; and an essay by clinical psychologist and paranormal researcher James Carpenter on his fascinating theory about the fundamental and a priori place of what’s commonly called “psi” in the basic workings of human consciousness and perception.

 

 

Ernest Callenbach, Last Words to an America in Decline
Ernest Callenbach, TomDispatch.com, May 6, 2012

Ernest Callenbach, 1929 – 2012

[NOTE: Callenbach was the author of Ecotopia, the 1975 visionary novel of an ecological paradise that is created when several Western and Northwestern U.S. states secede from the union and collaboratively cultivate a way of life based on achieving a perfect balance between humans and nature. The book achieved legendary status among the ecology-minded counterculture and led the Los Angeles Times to praise Callenbach as the “newest name after Wells, Verne, Huxley, and Orwell.” In 2005 a 30th Anniversary Edition was published. Callenbach died of cancer on April 16th of this year, at the age of 83, and now a final document of his has been published posthumously at TomDispatch. Here’s Tom Englehardt, the site’s creator, describing the origin of the document, followed by an excerpt from it: “Just days [after Callenbach’s death], his long-time literary agent Richard Kahlenberg wrote me that Chick had left a final document on his computer, something he had been preparing in the months before he knew he would die, and asked if TomDispatch would run it.  Indeed, we would.  It’s not often that you hear words almost literally from beyond the grave — and eloquent ones at that, calling on all Ecotopians, converted or prospective, to consider the dark times ahead.  Losing Chick’s voice and his presence is saddening.  His words remain, however, as do his books, as does the possibility of some version of the better world he once imagined for us all.” As you’ll see from the following paragraph, these last words from Callenbach are brutally direct, and also winsomely beautiful.]

When you maximize unemployment and depress wages, people have to cut back. When they cut back, businesses they formerly supported have to shrink or fail, adding their own employees to the ranks of the jobless, and depressing wages still further. End result: something like Mexico, where a small, filthy rich plutocracy rules over an impoverished mass of desperate, uneducated, and hopeless people. Barring unprecedented revolutionary pressures, this is the actual future we face in the United States, too. As we know from history, such societies can stand a long time, supported by police and military control, manipulation of media, surveillance and dirty tricks of all kinds. It seems likely that a few parts of the world (Germany, with its worker-council variant of capitalism, New Zealand with its relative equality, Japan with its social solidarity, and some others) will remain fairly democratic. The U.S., which has a long history of violent plutocratic rule unknown to the textbook-fed, will stand out as the best-armed Third World country, its population ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-cared for in health, and increasingly poverty-stricken: even Social Security may be whittled down, impoverishing tens of millions of the elderly. As empires decline, their leaders become increasingly incompetent — petulant, ignorant, gifted only with PR skills of posturing and spinning, and prone to the appointment of loyal idiots to important government positions. Comedy thrives; indeed writers are hardly needed to invent outrageous events. We live, then, in a dark time here on our tiny precious planet. Ecological devastation, political and economic collapse, irreconcilable ideological and religious conflict, poverty, famine: the end of the overshoot of cheap-oil-based consumer capitalist expansionism … There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn, like the Forest Service sometimes does, to put unwise or unneeded roads “to bed,” help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth.

 

 

 

Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one.
Maria Konnikova, Scientific American, August 10, 2012

[NOTE: This recent essay soars beyond the “recommended” category to enter the realm of the required. Note that Ms. Konnikova, a psychology Doctoral candidate at Columbia University with a book coming out from Viking next year, devotes significant space in the full piece to discussing the current cultural trend of trying to force scientifically objective and mathematically quantifiable explanations upon human psychology and consciousness. Those portions aren’t excerpted here, which is only one of several reasons why you really need to click through and read the essay in full.]

There’s a certain allure to the elegance of mathematics, the precision of the hard sciences. That much is undeniable. But does the appeal mean that quantitative approaches are always germane? Hardly — and I doubt anyone would argue the contrary. Yet, over and over, with alarming frequency, researchers and scholars have felt the need to take clear-cut, scientific-seeming approaches to disciplines that have, until recent memory, been far from any notions of precise quantifiability. And the trend is an alarming one … [It] is strong in almost all humanities and social sciences, from literature to psychology, history to political science. Every softer discipline these days seems to feel inadequate unless it becomes harder, more quantifiable, more scientific, more precise. That, it seems, would confer some sort of missing legitimacy in our computerized, digitized, number-happy world. But does it really? Or is it actually undermining the very heart of each discipline that falls into the trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts? Because here’s the truth: most of these disciplines aren’t quantifiable, scientific, or precise. They are messy and complicated. And when you try to straighten out the tangle, you may find that you lose far more than you gain … When we relegate the humanities to a bunch of trends and statistics and frequencies, we get exactly that disconcerting and incongruous dystopia of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: books that have been reduced to nothing but words frequencies and trends, that tell you all you need to know about the work without your ever having to read it — and machines that then churn out future fake (or are they real?) books that have nothing to do with their supposed author. It’s a chilling thought. The tools of mathematical and statistical and scientific analysis are invaluable. But their quantifiable certainty is all too easy to see as the only “real” way of doing things when really, it is but one tool and one approach — and not one that is translatable or applicable to all matters of qualitative phenomena. That’s one basic fact we’d do well not to forget.

 

 

Reclaiming the sacred gift: A postscript on humanities and science
Maria Konnikova, Scientific American, August 16, 2012

[NOTE: This sequel/companion to the above piece reads in places like a manifesto — a deeply impassioned and necessary one.]

In 1929, George Sylvester Virek asked [Einstein] where his discoveries originated: were they the result of inspiration, or something more akin to intuition? “Both,” Einstein replied. “I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it … I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Fantasy, imagination, intuition: all superior to positive knowledge. How, pray tell, does one reduce that to a number or a gene or a model or a basic principle of neuroscience or biology or chemistry or physics or whatever else? … Natural science or social science, humanities or not, we need to realize that multiple approaches, multiple ways of thinking are valid, quantitative or not, reducible to biology and basic processes or not, simplifiable or not — and that we gain knowledge from all of them. We have to know what question we are asking and why we are asking it and we have to realize that certain things will be too complex for a linear or easy or catchy answer. And this complexity doesn’t make literature—or art or music or philosophy or history or whatever else—any less likely to confer great knowledge than more “testable” and “falsifiable” disciplines … We continue to live in a world that has forgotten the gift of fantasy and directs much of its energy and attention — not to mention financial resources — at the powerful muscles of the intellect, that thing which cannot lead but can only serve. The servant is crucially important; no one is trying to bring him down, take away his pay, or lessen the appreciation he commands. But isn’t it time we realize that the gift is in no way inferior, that it doesn’t need to be what it is not or take the guise of the servant to be valuable? Isn’t it time we reclaim it for what it is?

 

 

On the Scientific-Marvelous Novel and Its Influence on the Understanding of Progress
Maurice Renard, Science Fiction Studies #64, Vol. 21, Part 3 (November 1994), reprinted from La Spectateur, October 1909

Suggested by David Metcalfe

[NOTE: The term “scientific marvelous” was used in 19th-century France to refer to the genre that we now call science fiction. In this essay, Renard, author of some significant science fiction in its own right, effuses about the philosophical value of the then-new genre and illustrates it by referring to the work of such giants as Edgar Allan Poe, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Jonathan Swift, and — especially — H. G. Wells.]

[T]he scientific-marvelous novel is built on a powerful skeletal frame that is reason itself; it shows us that the organism is constructed from a fabric made of knowledge and ingenuity. In fact, it is the contemporary literary genre which is most akin to philosophy — it is philosophy put into fiction, it is logic dramatized. Born of science and reasoning, it attempts to foreground one with the aid of the other. And it stands before us, with its noble pedagogical and moral tendencies, its mediate and immediate educating effects, as one of the most wonderful creations of the human spirit, a great work of art which (by a kind of optical illusion) seems small only to those who are too distant from it and seems childish only to those of juvenile intellect … Being forcefully convincing by its very rationality, it brutally unveils for us all that the unknown and the uncertain perhaps hold in store for us: all those wonderful or horrible things that might emerge from the depths of the unexplainable, all that science is able to discover by extending itself beyond those many inventions which seem to mark its end, all those unforeseen yet possible byproducts of such inventions, and all those new sciences which might develop to study such unsuspected phenomena … It portrays our daily, humdrum lives shaken up by various cataclysms of the most natural yet unexpected sort. It reveals to us, in a new and startling light, the instability of everyday occurrences and the omnipresent threat of the possible. It causes us to feel the uncomfortable queasiness of doubt and, with frightening intensity, the horror of the unknown. It opens up for us an immeasurable space outside of our immediate sense of well-being; it removes from our ideas about science all notions of domestic applicability or sentimental anthropomorphism. It fragments our habitual lifestyle and transports us to other points of view outside of ourselves.

 

 

The Ghosts in the Living Room
Adam Curtis, BBC, December 22, 2011

[NOTE: Here’s a bit of artistic-cultural-philosophical analysis for the ages, with a paranormal spin. Given that it’s Adam Curtis doing the analyzing, its high quality and depth of fascinatingness is unsurprising. His thesis: that television “is the true spirit world of our time.”]

In 1992 the BBC transmitted a drama that was based on a number of the factual reports I am going to show. The underlying aim of the makers of the drama was not just to frighten, but to demonstrate in a vivid way what had happened to the very idea of reality in television. It was called Ghostwatch, and it caused a national sensation because thousands of viewers believed it was real. And, at the time, the BBC promised never to show it again. I want to tell the story of the rise of the suburban poltergeist in factual TV from the 1970s onwards, how those reports inspired Ghostwatch, and how the extraordinary reaction on the night Ghostwatch was transmitted in 1992 showed clearly where the real ghosts of our society had now gone to live. They are inside television itself — a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities, and waves of apocalyptic fear … It demonstrated the truth about modern television — that we all know that increasingly the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred on TV. But far from making us distrust television this actually makes it more powerful. It possesses our imagination more powerfully precisely because we don’t know what is real and what is not. I think the reason is that, from the early 1990s onwards, the big confident stories of our time started to collapse, and people were faced instead with an everyday reality composed only of small and mostly mundane fragments. In the face of that, factual television has increasingly become a two-dimensional version of our world where everything is amplified and distorted. News reporting and factual television are populated today by a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities and waves of apocalyptic fear. It is a world that is like ours but is exaggerated — weird, wonderful and frightening. It is just like living in a haunted suburban house on the fringes of North London — except that it is now the whole world. All the mundane and banal aspects of reality are taken and infused with an hysterical intensity — that we are both fascinated by and terrified of — whether it be food or Al Qaida. Yet we know in our hearts that much of this is either distorted or just untrue. It is the true spirit world of our time.

 

 

Not Second Sight, but First
James Carpenter, Ph.D., The Huffington Post, October 4, 2012

Via the Rhine Research Center‘s Facebook page

[NOTE: Dr. Carpenter is a clinical psychologist and parapsychological researcher, and this article is excerpted and modified from his new book (which is something of a magnum opus) First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. We are presently in contact with him, and we recently received a review copy of the book from its publisher. A full review will be forthcoming here at The Teeming Brain, but for now we can pass along that the book is A) fascinating, B) brilliant, and, as we’re very pleased to note, C) written in excellent prose. It is also D) entirely worth acquiring and reading.]

First Sight brings in what is popularly called the “paranormal.” It is different from previous ways of thinking about the paranormal in that it shows that our use of extrasensory information is actually normal and helpful, although unconscious. No “para” is needed anymore. This theory leads us to an expanded idea of our normal psychology … My major thesis is that psychic abilities such as ESP — long considered to occur only in “gifted” individuals or on rare traumatic occasions — are, in fact, ongoing subconscious processes that continuously influence all of us in making everyday decisions. As the model’s name implies, these common abilities should not be regarded as an incidental “second sight” but as a critical “first sight,” an immediate initial contact with information not otherwise presented to our known senses. And just as we are not typically aware of other subliminal or incidental stimuli that impinge upon us and influence us in myriad ways, so too we typically remain unaware of this extrasensory information and its influence. Subliminal primes lead us to experience related things more quickly and more emotionally than we otherwise would. Psi information does the same … First Sight is intended to help us learn more about this hidden side of our minds.

 

Images: Ernest Callenbach from www.ernestcallenbach.com; “Heroes of Iliad by Tischbein” Nikolai Ivanovich Utkin [Public domain {{PD-US-no notice}}] via Wikimedia Commons; “Albert Einstein violin” by E. O. Hoppe (1878-1972), published on LIFE [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by Heinemann [Public domain {{PD-1996}} ], via Wikimedia Commons

 

About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

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