This week: a report from Germany’s Der Spiegel about America’s awesome and incontrovertible decline; a summary and review of Morris Berman’s twilight-and-decline-of-America trilogy; thoughts on the rise of the new plutocracy; a lament for the science fiction future that never was, along with a profound and subversive sociocultural analysis of why it wasn’t; thoughts on the new art-and-entertainment category of “the upper middle brow” and its implicit danger as a spiritual narcotic; two cogent examinations of the meaning and fate of books; an article about the mainstream rise of the multiverse model of cosmology and its mind-blowing philosophical and personal implications; a speculation about the possibility that out-of-body experiences may really tell us something about the reality of disembodied consciousness; and a wonderful article by Erik Davis about the current renaissance of psychedelic research.
Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation
Spiegel Online, November 5, 2012
[NOTE: Der Spiegel is of course one of Europe's major journalistic enterprises. To see it publishing this damning and fairly devastating story, researched and written by a team of four journalists, about the now-incontrovertible evidence of America's mounting political, economic, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and material decrepitude is, to put it mildly, bracing. The full story is loaded with specific details in support of the thesis.]
Teaser: The United States is frittering away its role as a model for the rest of the world. The political system is plagued by an absurd level of hatred, the economy is stagnating and the infrastructure is falling into a miserable state of disrepair. On this election eve, many Americans are losing faith in their country’s future.
The [National] Mall [in Washington, D.C.] is lined with museums and landscaped gardens, in which America is on display as the kind of civil empire that promotes the arts and sciences. There are historic sites, and there are the famous steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke of his dream, and of the dreams of a country to be a historic force, one that would serve the wellbeing of all of mankind. Put differently, the National Mall is an open-air museum for an America that, in 2012, is mostly a pleasant memory. After a brilliant century and a terrible decade, the United States, in this important election year, has reached a point in its history when the obvious can no longer be denied: The reality of life in America so greatly contradicts the claim — albeit one that has always been exaggerated — to be the “greatest nation on earth,” that even the most ardent patriots must be overcome with doubt … This realization became only too apparent during and after Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm that ravaged America’s East Coast last week, its effects made all the more devastating by the fact that its winds were whipping across an already weakened country. The infrastructure in New York, New Jersey and New England was already in trouble long before the storm made landfall near Atlantic City … [The] consequences of the storm point to the uncontrollability of nature. On the other hand, they are signs that America is no longer the great, robust global power it once was. Europeans who make such claims have always been accused of anti-Americanism. But now Americans themselves are joining the chorus of those declaring the country’s decline … [T]he truth is that America has transformed itself into a land of limited opportunities. In fact, that was the way SPIEGEL referred to the United States in a 1979 cover story, when the US economy had been hard-hit by the oil crisis. But today’s crisis is far more comprehensive, extending to the social, political and spiritual realms. The worst thing about it is that the country still refuses to engage in any debate over the reasons for its decline. It seems as if many Americans today no longer want to talk about how they can strengthen their union. Criticism is seen as a betrayal of America’s greatness. But that notion of greatness leaves much to be desired.
America: What Happened? A Sneak Peak of the “Other” Twilight Saga
David Masciotra, Truthout, November 2, 012
[NOTE: While this is nominally a review of Morris Berman's latest book, it actually does a fine job of summarizing his entire "Twilight" trilogy, consisting of The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and the one that's the subject of this review. Necessary reading, all. And this is a great introduction to it.]
Teaser: In Why America Failed, cultural historian Morris Berman completes his trilogy on the decline of a nation by tapping his exceptional talents for research, observation and theory. The result is a compelling narrative of decay.
Berman separates himself from most critics in two essential ways. First, he implicates the American people in the miserable state of the country. Unlike Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, who believe that a revolution in public consciousness is psychically brewing, Berman states clearly that the destruction of the “republican tradition” in America was not a rape. It was a seduction. The corporate media and American government may be manipulative, but their conception of a broken community was consensual with the general populace. The religions of America are also addictions. Consumption and foolish beliefs in cultural superiority act as self-medicated sedatives to treat its people’s lack of meaning, purpose and happiness. Hustling is hollow. It is an activity with no real end, and acquiring more does nothing to fill the spiritual hole it creates, because that hole is an abyss … Berman departs from most critics also by not offering any hope for recovery in a perfunctory final chapter of renewal. Putnam, Chomsky, West and most critics will typically write 300 pages scrutinizing and analyzing the failures of American culture, and then spend 20 pages forecasting how an elusive and unidentified “we” can turn it all around. As the years go on, and the quotidian grows more monstrous, these comforting chapters of wishbone breaking become less convincing. Berman is not a pessimist. He is a realist. He has spent 12 years gathering facts and evaluating evidence, and he has formulated the most logical conclusion and presented the most probable outcome. America is terminally ill.
Plutocracy: The New Manifest Destiny
Andrea Chalupa, Big Think, October 31, 2012
Despite what some pundits may argue, there is no class war in America. The issue is more complicated than that. America is not facing a war of rich against poor, but a war of values. There are billionaires, Warren Buffett and George Soros, who advocate stronger social safety nets and outcry that they should be paying more in taxes to help the poor. And then there are working class Americans, increasingly vulnerable to the global economy and continued deregulation, supporting a candidate who views them as the hand-out hungry and self-pitying 47-percent. (Though Romney apologized for this leaked “gaffe,” his campaign platform, which included abolishing “immoral” FEMA, reflects this ideology.) Plutocracy — a government by the wealthy — will do to many Americans what Manifest Destiny did to Native Americans. The middle-class, poor, and nearly affluent who want to join the plutocracy are frightening. With their votes, voices, and donations, they are driving the New Manifest Destiny, inspired by promises of power and wealth at the expense of the less fortunate. We average Americans, even those with plutocrat dreams, are increasingly being threatened by the same greedy values that made large populations of Native American”melt and vanish” … One could argue that the New Manifest Destiny is already in full swing. As Ken Shadford, a New York City resident, tweeted Monday night during the hurricane: “Fact that NYU hospital is dark but Goldman Sachs is well-lit is everything that’s wrong with this country.”
Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
David Graeber, The Baffler No. 19, March 25, 2012
[NOTE: This essay, which is a beautiful and brilliant piece of economic and sociocultural analysis wrapped around a compelling hook, got tweeted, Facebooked, linked, and otherwise mentioned all over the 'Net last spring. But very few people said anything about its trenchant and subversive critique of American society's trajectory as it has been reshaped into a kind of dystopian bureaucratic/administrative nightmare in the grip of neoliberal economic mania. Most people just talked about the aforementioned hook, which consists of a lament over the 1950s and 60s vision of a science fiction future that never was. As cool as that is, it's just one aspect of what Graeber is talking about, and he uses it as a lead-in to illuminate deeper and wider issues, such as -- specifically -- the snow-job that has been pulled over on Americans as we have been propagandized to believe that we're presently living in a high-tech paradise of innovation and creative genius, when in fact the powers that be are materially motivated to suppress true visionary breakthroughs. Take our word for it: read the whole thing.]
A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like … Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge — like cloning or cryogenics — ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them? … Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting — the moon bases, the robot factories — fail to happen? … The final victory over the Soviet Union did not lead to the domination of the market, but, in fact, cemented the dominance of conservative managerial elites, corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind … [I]f the aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world in which no one believes any other economic system could work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but any radically different technological future. Yet there’s a contradiction. Defenders of capitalism cannot mean to convince us that technological change has ended — since that would mean capitalism is not progressive. No, they mean to convince us that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but that those wonders take the form of modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (“I hear they are going to have flying cars pretty soon”), complex ways of juggling information and imagery, and still more complex platforms for filling out of forms.
Upper Middle Brow
William Deresiewicz, The American Scholar, November 4, 2012
[NOTE: This piece by the ever-reliable William Deresiewicz is very short. And very thoughtful. And very penetrating. And very inclined to provoke much uncomfortable reflection on the current state of mass art and entertainment, and also on the underlying character of one's own sensibility toward it.]
“Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald’s famous essay in cultural taxonomy, distinguished three levels in modern culture: High Culture, represented most recently by the modernist avant-garde but already moribund in Macdonald’s day; Mass Culture (“or Masscult, since it really isn’t culture at all”), also known as pop culture or kitsch (or, more recently, entertainment); and the insidious new form Macdonald labeled Midcult. Midcult is Masscult masquerading as art: slick and predictable but varnished with ersatz seriousness. For Macdonald, Midcult was Our Town, The Old Man and the Sea, South Pacific, Life magazine, the Book-of-the-Month Club: all of them marked by a high-minded sentimentality that congratulated the audience for its fine feelings … But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies) … The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb — the definition of a true avant-garde — our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world … This is the root of the so-called creative class, the Bobos, the liberal elite as it exists today. The upper middle brow is the cultural expression of this demographic. Its purpose is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class. The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.
The Past, Present, and Future of the Book
Andrew Piper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 5, 2012
What would the world be like without books? It turns out this is a very old question … Ever since its inception, it seems, we have been dreaming beyond the book … [The past decade and more saw a] wave of contemporary projects that were performing aggressive, even violent, acts toward books. Cutting, drowning, soaking, unfurling, piercing, and shooting books have been some of the many ways that artists like Jacqueline Rush Lee, Jonathan Latham, Robert The, and Cara Barer have, over the past decade or more, been enacting a collective sense of the book’s imminent demise. If we have forever been imagining our way past books, we have more recently begun to think about what it would be like to live in a world without them. We have begun the work of bibliographic mourning … [This] captures something fundamental about the act of reading itself, something more timeless about the kindred spirits of mourning and melancholy that go with reading. Just as the imagination of how to transcend books has been integral to the history of books, so too is a sense of melancholy, a persistent sense of loss. Melancholy isn’t a sign of the book’s end; it is its inspiration. Melancholy is reading’s muse … The story of the book’s dominance in the 19th century should stand as an important reminder to us today. As we are overrun by computation, much in the same way as we were once overrun by books, we need to remember that what makes us unique as a species is not just our ability to communicate in complex ways through words. It is our ability to layer — or more artisanally understood, to weave — different modes of communication with one another to give those same words a deeper, more profound meaning. While everyone is searching for the magical potion of convergence — the single gadget that can perform all of our computational tasks, like the universal remote control — I think there should be those of us who are continually on the lookout for new communicative species, like [18th- and 19th-century Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von] Humboldt. We may need to put down the book from time to time, but we should make sure not to let the computer become the new book. The universal medium, like the universal library, is a dream that does more harm than good.
Loss & gain, or the fate of the book
Anthony Daniels, The New Criterion, November 2012
[NOTE: This essay is almost impossibly poignant, nuanced, and insightful. It is also "the first installment of a series on the challenges posed by the digital revolution to the world of culture."]
[I]f I needed any reassurance of my own individuality, as the increasing number of people having themselves tattooed or pierced seemingly do, [my book] shelves would supply it … [They] are an elaborate hieroglyph of my life that only I can read, and that will be destroyed after my death … … But the consolation that my library will dissolve into its constituent parts in the great world of second-hand books is not as great as it was even a few years ago. Second-hand booksellers are closing their shops and transferring their businesses online because 90 percent of their sales come from the Internet and 90 percent of their overheads come from their shops. … [I]t is indisputable that the half-millennial hegemony of the printed page in intellectual life is now coming to an end … We who pride ourselves in reading much and widely forget that the printed page serves us in a similar fashion as the drug serves an addict. After a short time away from it we grow agitated and begin to pine, by which time anything will do: a bus timetable, a telephone directory, an operating manual for a washing machine … For how many of us — avid readers, that is — has the printed page been a means of avoidance of the sheer messiness, the intractability, of life, to no other purpose than the avoidance itself? It is for us what the telenovela is for the inhabitant of the Latin American barrio, a distraction and a consolation. We gorge on the printed page to distract ourselves from ourselves … Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of. For me, to browse in a bookshop, especially a second-hand one, will forever be superior to browsing on the internet precisely because chance plays a much larger part in it. There are few greater delights than entirely by chance to come across something not only fascinating in itself, but that establishes a quite unexpected connection with something else. The imagination is stimulated in a way that the more logical connections of the Internet cannot match; the Internet will make people literal-minded … To refuse to use the new technology in the hope of preserving old pleasures will not work because to do so would be no more authentic or honest than Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. The regret is genuine; the refusal is not.
World next door: On multiverses
Michael Hanlon, Aeon Magazine, November 6, 2012
Our understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is changing faster than ever before … [S]cientists are now seriously discussing the possibility that our universe is a fake, a thing of smoke and mirrors. All this, and more, is the stuff of the multiverse, the great roller-coaster rewriting of reality that has overturned conventional cosmology in the last decade or two. The multiverse hypothesis is the idea that what we see in the night sky is just an infinitesimally tiny sliver of a much, much grander reality, hitherto invisible. The idea has become so mainstream that it is now quite hard to find a cosmologist who thinks there’s nothing in it. This isn’t the world of the mystics, the pointy-hat brigade who see the Age of Aquarius in every Hubble image. On the contrary, the multiverse is the creature of Astronomers Royal and tenured professors at Cambridge and Cornell … What does all this mean? If we live in a world of infinite possibilities existing across numerous dimensions, what is the point of trying to make sense of any of it? Does any of it have the slightest bearing on how we ought to live? … [I] find it rather troubling. There are things missing from the multiverse: an intelligible place for consciousness, for one. Then there is the sense that, in a world where all possibilities become certainties and anything that can happen does happen, moral purpose is even more elusive than in the old-fashioned singular universe. If your evil twin is out there (which, in an infinite “flat” universe, he or she certainly is), what does it matter what you do in your bit of eternity? For half a millennium science has been chipping away at the idea that humanity is central and unique. The multiverse replaces the chisel with a wrecking ball.
On out-of-body experiences
Andrew Brown, The Guardian, November 4, 2012
Teaser: The idea of an untethered consciousness is something we can understand, even when we don’t suppose it is found in nature.
I was standing at the urinal in the brightly lit downstairs cloakroom at Lambeth Palace when I realised that to talk about the spiritual dimension of life is perfectly ridiculous – because the spiritual, disembodied dimension is where we live all the time. We can only get out of it with a deliberate effort. The physical dimension comes to us at second hand. Consciousness is the form in which experience comes to us. This is hardly original – perhaps it’s one of those insights which recurs in different forms throughout your life. But it goes some way to explaining why out-of-body experiences seem so natural to us. Almost all our daily life is an out-of-body experience. When I write this, I am conscious only of the words on the screen, and, faintly, of my fingers somewhere underneath. Least of all am I conscious of my brain, where all this stuff is supposed to be happening. But what about other people’s out-of-body lives? Again, these make intuitive sense, because disembodied spirits are something we deal with all the time. When you read this, your mind is reacting (I hope) to my mind. You’re certainly not reacting to my brain. If you destroy the brain, the mind is also destroyed, but the link between them is still entirely mysterious. The idea, then, of a consciousness that comes completely untethered from its body and survive the body’s destruction is something that we can understand even when we don’t suppose it is to be found in nature. It’s not logically impossible: just contingently so.
Erik Davis, Aeon Magazine, November 2, 2012
[NOTE: Listen up. This is Erik Davis reporting on and making sense of the current renaissance of serious psychedelic drug research. Both topic and speaker are significant.]
Teaser: A new generation of researchers is heading into the weird world of psychedelic drugs. It could change their minds.
Today, the meaning of LSD and other psychedelics is once again up for grabs. And the main storytellers are scientists themselves, who have recently been empowered to carry on the sort of controlled, laboratory research that was chased underground 45 years ago. So even as the official war on drugs maintains its bankrupt holding pattern and the digitally remastered offspring of the freaks and hippies keep the counterculture alive at events such as Burning Man, a growing number of psychiatrists, neuroscientists, research chemists and psychologists (and their often private funders) have instigated an extraordinary resurgence. We now see above-board research into the physiological and psychological effects of substances such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca and ketamine. From a journalistic perspective, the stories emerging from these studies are story enough, but this resurgence of scientific interest has the additional feature of throwing our changing notions of the self into sharp relief. By tracking the emerging contests over the meaning of ‘psychedelics’, we can glimpse tectonic shifts in the meaning of “us” — particularly, the question of whether there is any room for sacred forces in the increasingly dominant neurological portrait of the human being .. In seeking to get to the bottom of psychedelics, we must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of neural reductionism and woo-woo; between the sacred and the profane; between spirits and molecules … The gambit of psychedelic research is that third-person explanations will not exhaust the meaningfulness of wrestling with first-person experience. Like our loving and like our dying, our trips are ultimately known, if anything is ultimately known at all, from the inside.