Recommended Reading 29

This week, we bring you a roundup of readings spanning a rainbow of trends and topics, from the collapsing economy to the destruction of modern sociopolitical and cultural myths to the imaginal realm of shamanism, creativity, and mythic descents to the underworld.

More specifically, we have: a report on the U.S. Army’s stated criteria for recognizing potential terrorists, and why you and your coworkers probably meet one or more of them; an indictment of the Baby Boomers for destroying America (economically, ecologically) and leaving the wreckage to their children; a deep analysis of the current crack-up in the presiding Western myth of liberal individualism as bequeathed to us all by Adam Smith; an examination of the raging crisis in Western secularism as the implicit religiosity lying beneath the veneer of the secular mind is drawn to the surface; a paean to the lost joys of reading aloud; a scornful take on neuroscientific “discoveries” about the value of reading and the meanings of art; a first-person account of and reflection upon the imaginal and alchemical experience of descending into the underworld for death and reconstitution; and a brilliant exposition of the supreme value of poetic metaphor in the context of the deep linkage between shamanism and creativity.



Not from the Onion: Army Says “Social Network Use” Is a Sign of Radicalism
Spencer Ackerman,Wired, October 2, 2012

[NOTE: Consider yourself warned: the fact that you’re reading this blog means it’s likely that you’re an incipient terrorist, at least according to criteria laid out by the U.S. Military, as detailed in this report from Wired. It’s tempting to use this article like a piece from a self-help magazine by checking off the items that apply in order to discover one’s personal score.]

These are some warning signs that that you have turned into a terrorist who will soon kill your co-workers, according to the U.S. military. You’ve recently changed your “choices in entertainment.” You have “peculiar discussions.” You “complain about bias,” you’re “socially withdrawn” and you’re frustrated with “mainstream ideologies.” Your “Risk Factors for Radicalization” include “Social Networks” and “Youth.” These are some other signs that one of your co-workers has become a terrorist, according to the U.S. military. He “shows a sudden shift from radical to ‘normal’ behavior to conceal radical behavior.” He “inquires about weapons of mass effects.” He “stores or collects mass weapons or hazardous materials.” That was the assessment of a terrorism advisory organization inside the U.S. Army called the Asymmetric Warfare Group in 2011, acquired by Danger Room. Its concern about the warning signs of internal radicalization reflects how urgent the Army considers that threat after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Ford Hood in 2009. But its “indicators” of radicalization are vague enough to include both benign behaviors that lots of people safely exhibit and, on the other end of the spectrum, signs that someone is so obviously a terrorist they shouldn’t need to be pointed out. It’s hard to tell if the group is being politically correct or euphemistic.



Who Destroyed the Economy? The Case against the Baby Boomers
Jim Tankersley, The Atlantic, October 5, 2012

[NOTE: Want to blame somebody for destroying the economy? Add this to your thinking. The author touches on runaway national debt, global climate change caused by the boomers’ reckless burning of cheap fossil fuels, the increasingly impossible financial burden of going to college for the younger generations, and more. And he contrasts this with the relatively coddled and affluent life the boomers led, after which they handed off a disaster to their offspring. But then he turns his gaze inward and realizes/acknowledges that he and his generation are probably repeating the very same trend.]

Teaser: Retirees and near-retirees are leaving behind a devastated economy for their children … but are we doing anything to fix it? Here, two generations debate who’s really to blame for the wreckage.

Ultimately, members of my father’s generation — generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 — are reaping more than they sowed. They graduated smack into one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. They needed less education to snag a decent-salaried job than their children do, and a college education cost them a small fraction of what it did for their children or will for their grandkids. One income was sufficient to get a family ahead economically … Those retirees and near-retirees bequeath a shambles to their offspring … Perhaps most egregiously, the baby boomers, led by boomer-coddling leaders in Washington, are bequeathing a runaway national debt and a gaping federal budget shortfall that their children and grandchildren will have to pay — through higher taxes or reduced benefits, or both–if they don’t want the country to go broke … I am 34 years old. I have some pretty successful friends. How have we sacrificed to balance the budget, to slow climate change, to deliver better opportunity for our children? We haven’t. I own an SUV, and I don’t compost my trash. We are barreling, generationally, toward higher and higher levels of carbon emissions; a demographer from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research estimated last year that an individual’s emissions rise some 50 percent from the time he is in his 30s until the time he retires. Worst of all, we don’t seem to care about changing things: Only about a third of registered 25-to-44-year-olds voted in the 2010 election, compared with half of registered baby boomers. If my father is a leech on the future, then I am becoming one, too.



Debt and the Decay of the Myth of Liberal Individualism
Philip Pilkington, Naked Capitalism, October 8, 2012

Via The Browser

[NOTE: Take that, or rather this, Adam Smith. Pilkington’s analysis is quite valuable not only for exposing (and exploding) the presiding metamyth of modern Western economies and societies but for engendering a necessary attitude of self-awareness and self-examination as each of us seeks to live a truly human life within this suffocating socioeconomic embrace.]

The myth of the unbounded individual, the lone merchant with the devil-may-care attitude toward his fellow men allowed [Adam] Smith to conceive of a society in which men might live without close ties to one another and yet a society which would not descend into barbarism. Emotional distance, a lack of love or compassion, need not descend into violence and murder, according to Smith, because of the principles of disinterested commerce and exchange which he thought that he had uncovered in Man. This is the legacy that Smith has left us today. Not just in the field of economics, but also as a sort of moral or mythic code by which we arrange our social intercourse in mass society. When we step into a shop and purchase a good or a service we are acting as Smithian individuals. We see ourselves as unbounded to those around us and free to make whatever decisions we please. And we believe that once the transaction is complete we can wash our hands of it. The problem is that this is not true and it probably never has been. Today, instead, we see all too clearly the importance of debt. Debt is what ties us together. We may be in the position of creditor or in the position of debtor — or we may even be in the position of neither — but debt affects all of us. Even those of us that balance our books perfectly and do not engage in any form of lending nevertheless rely on banking systems and systems of government founded on the simple and timeless principles of debt. And it is these principles that bind us together. We are not, in any way, “men who owe no obligation to one another”. Our entire social system is founded on obligation and interconnectedness. This was likely true even in Smith’s time, but his genius was to have hidden it from view and in doing so to construct the founding myth of liberal individualism as it exists in modern times … What Smith gave to humanity in his founding of economics was a great lie with which to structure our newly forming nation-states and mass societies. But it was a lie that was in many ways quite fragile. And it is this lie that we see cracking up all around us today.



Can Political Theology Save Secularism?
David Sessions, Religion & Politics, September 19, 2012

Via 3 Quarks Daily

If the violence of September 11, 2001, accomplished one thing, it was to force the United States, and by proxy the other Western powers who joined its military adventure in the Middle East, to drop the pretense of being secular nations. When one saw some of the most prominent atheists in American discourse calling for crusades against Muslim invaders, the supposed progressivism of our intellectuals — which still regularly and loudly proclaims its superiorityto the passions of religion — looked a bit less convincing. Osama bin Laden had forced us to admit that, while the U.S. may legally separate church and state, it cannot do so intellectually … The crisis of secularism goes much deeper than a deficit of personal meaning. The separation of church and state is so entrenched in the Western mind that it can be difficult to see the capitalist nation-state as a theological and political whole. Secularism is not strictly speaking a religion, but it represents an orientation toward religion that serves the theological purpose of establishing a hierarchy of legitimate social values. Religion must be “privatized” in liberal societies to keep it out of the way of economic functioning. In this view, legitimate politics is about making the trains run on time and reducing the federal deficit; everything else is radicalism. A surprising number of American intellectuals are able to persuade themselves that this vision of politics is sufficient, even though the train tracks are crumbling, the deficit continues to gain on the GDP, and millions of citizens are sinking into the dark mire of debt and permanent unemployment. The rise of radical political religion in the U.S., most recently in the forms of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, is not, as almost any mainstream pundit would put it, a dying gasp before the final triumph of liberalism. Rather, it is re-awakening of the theological desire that was always latent in liberal democracy, resting beneath its supposedly secular principles.



In Praise of the Lost, Intimate Art of Reading Aloud
Chloe Angyal, The Atlantic, October 10, 2012

Teaser: Parents have long read to kids, but there’s power as well in adults reading to adults.

A few months into our relationship, I discovered that to my horror, [the man I was dating] had never read Pride and Prejudice. He had read On the Origin of Species and Anna Karenina and most of Shakespeare’s plays, even the obscure ones like King John, but never Pride and Prejudice? It was one of my favorite books! Lizzie Bennet is my favorite fictional proto-feminist heroine! How could he truly understand me until he had met her? How was he going to get the joke of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I wanted him to read this book, partly because it’s a wonderful novel that everyone should read, and partly because I really loved it and wanted to share it with him. So we decided that we would read it together, aloud … Whenever I told people about this habit of ours, it was more admitting than telling. Being read to aloud isn’t really something you do past childhood, right? But we both enjoyed it so much that we didn’t particularly care that we were supposed to have outgrown it. Now, browsing bookstores and book reviews became even more fun: I was always on the lookout for the next title we could share. [Lauren] Leto is right [in her new book about reading, Judging a Book by Its Lover] that for people who love to read, love and reading are often intertwined. And it is true that you can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their bookshelf. But you can fall in love, or in my case, fall further, with a person by listening to them read from what’s on that shelf. Some things — love, a great book, your hilarious voice for Mr. Collins — are too good to keep to yourself.



This Just In
William Deresiewicz, The American Scholar, August 19, 2012

[NOTE: To this, we respond with a deeply heartfelt “Hear, hear!”]

A recent article in The New York Times proclaimed the gladsome tidings. “New support for the value of fiction,” it announced, “is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.” Our brains light up like Christmas trees, it turns out, when we’re exposed to narrative language. Not only that, but reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others. Writers, grateful for anything that might relieve their Dostoyevskian sense of wounded insignificance, rejoiced at the support; I saw the article whizzing past me several times on Facebook. Me, I thought, Here we go again. Reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others? Did we really need science to tell us that? Apparently, we need science to tell us everything. I remember a big story in Time magazine about 20 years ago: scientists show that urban life is stressful. Really, scientists show? Writers showed us that 150 years ago and more. Balzac, Dickens, Gaskell, Zola. But that’s not good enough, at least for Time … The problem, all around, is scientism: the belief that science is the only valid form of knowledge. To accept as much is to deny the authority of one’s own experience. Never mind Dickens; everyone who lives in a city understands that urban life is stressful. And it is nothing other than experience upon which art stakes its claim: the experience of the individual creator, and her ability to give it a form that resonates with our experience. Art is a rebuke to the cult of expertise. It is allied with citizenship, that other domain of the passionate amateur. In both, we stand on our right to speak from the self.



Descent’s Alchemy: The Imaginal Process of Falling Apart
Stephanie Pope,, undated

[NOTE: This fascinating exploration is accompanied, in the full text, by the author’s personal account of a mythic-imaginal descent experience, with detailed descriptions of what she saw and encountered.]

Shortly before his death Carl Jung commented that we are perhaps looking at the world from the wrong side. “We might find the right answer,” he says “by changing our point of view and looking…not from the outside, but from the inside.” James Hillman expresses the sense of this “inside” advantage we are seeking: “Outside and inside, life and soul…we have to see the inner necessity of historical events out there, in the events themselves, where ‘inner’ no longer means private and owned by a self or a soul or an ego,where inner is not a literalized place inside a subject, but the subjectivity in events and that attitude which interiorizes those events, goes into them in search of psychological depths.” Looking inside for a depth perspective, then, does not mean looking inside of me or you but looking inside a subtle field created by attitudes that interiorize events in an in-scape, a landscape of images whose interplay appears to shape or mold our “sense” of reality or perception. In the reenactment of descent mythologies such as the Descent of the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, what we are seeking out by participation is a way to reconnect again to some sense of this “inside” depth or soul perspective because our soul-making has become so very lost in an identification to material life. Active imagination, talking directly to the thing you are dealing with, was Jung’s way of allowing ego direct contact with what the inner psychic factors had to say. He derived this method from his understanding of the stages of alchemy, thinking of the psychological tradition of alchemy as the art of active imagination with materiality. The alchemists project their own psychological depths into their materials. Thus, in the work was also the alchemist’s soul-making. Alchemy, active imagination, and journeys of descent are ways to seek out what the soul wants. All three employ as their means imagination. Discovering what brings meaning to life, what enlivens and vitalizes life (for surely this is that to which the term soul-making refers) involves an imaginative process.



Forests of the Mind
Jay Griffiths, Aeon, October 12, 2012

[NOTE: If you’re at all interested in the profound and vibrant links between art, inspiration, consciousness change, shamanism, myth, and the ways that various poets and scholars, including Jung, Ted Hughes, and Joseph Campbell, have delved into these matters and articulated them, then you’re unlikely to find a more absorbing and rewarding bit of writing this week than this fine essay.]

Teaser: What is the greatest human gift? It is metaphor, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us.

[B]oth art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor where feeling is expressed and where healing happens. With metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual, and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life. Poetry works “to renew life, renew the poet’s own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people”, wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism that viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its values, an age that burns the Amazon and mocks those who would protect it, sing it and become it … Wallace Stevens calls poetry “the necessary angel”, and the root of the word “angel” is the Greek for messenger. To be a messenger, to negotiate between the real and visible world and the true and invisible world is, shamans say, a crucial part of their role; and the artist, too, is a messenger between actuality and imagination … Mediating between a world of daylight sight and a world of night insight is the role of both shaman and artist. Rilke termed it “divine inseeing”. Offering a particular kind of attention yields a different kind of knowledge: in part it is the wisdom of the dream. Amazonian shamans may be called sueñadores or sueñadoras, the dreamers. “I am here to dream dreams,” said Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. In The Seasons of the Soul, Hermann Hesse wrote: “I stand alone in my role as a ‘dreamer'”.


Images: “Portrait of Adam Smith” etching created by Cadell and Davies (1811), John Horsburgh (1828) or R.C. Bell (1872) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; “ID2” courtesy of Chris Sharp /; “Loving Elder Couple” courtesy of Ambro /; “Reading Aloud” by Julius LeBlanc Stewart via, [Public Domain] free for noncommercial use; “Brain Design by Cogs and Gears” courtesy of MR. LIGHTMAN /; “Raimundus Lullus alchemic page” Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}} via Wikimedia Commons; “Il Sogno” by Henri Rousseau, Public Domain 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.

Posted on October 12, 2012, in Teeming Links and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I recently started studying shamanism I sent a message to Matt Cardin already yesterday but I wanted to be more specific. In Vietnam they believe that those chosen to become mediums have căn cao số đày. Which means a spiritual destiny. I think it implies a yearning for the supernatural and horror. One of first novels I took out of the library as a child was Transformation by Whitley Streiber. It is the sequel to Communion (the alien movie with Christopher Walken) which was his best seller after he wrote The Hunger (the vampire movie with David Bowie). Another thing that impelled by curiosity as a kid was the card game Magic The Gathering and it had really eerie abstract art work.

    excerpt from a book called Spirits Without Borders by Karen Fjelstad,

    The term căn has various meanings and con- notations in Vietnamese language and belief. Here the word “root” means to have something deep and essential, it is a part of the person. Căn has the sense of nature or basic character and in this context it also implies destiny. People whose character and fate impel them toward mediumship are said to have a spiritual destiny (căn cao số đày) that may be either heavy (nặng) or light (nhẹ) and they must be initi- ated to “cool their fate” (mát mẻ).
    Spiritual debt and the spirit root both have agency, causing people to have unusual experiences. Căn is manifested through dreams, sud- den revelation, spontaneous possession, behavioral changes, or ill- ness. In many cases these experiences are associated with a major life change or crisis. For others, căn is manifested by a curiosity in lên đồng that slowly becomes a joy and an entertainment, and then a reli- gious need (Lê Hồng Lý 2001). Many mediums have told Karen and Hiền they have căn simply because they are interested in the ritual. “If you didn’t have căn,” one medium said, “you wouldn’t want to go to the ceremonies.”

  2. in Korea there is this idea of ‘han’, supernatural grief that transcends the veil of death into the next life, which spirits bear, and it is shamans who empathize with ‘han’ and employ its feeling of great sadness in their rituals. Although it is not cosmic terror, it is a kind of empathy for suffering or even I suppose fear as well.

    This was an interesting article from the Korea Herald,

    –viewers of the dance piece will experience a dark and even spiritual version of the story. Cha Beom-seok, a celebrated playwright who wrote its initial script, turned the original story into a tragic melodrama full of “han”: The piece is filled with grief and sorrow, and injustice and suffering

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