Teeming Links – August 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did somebody say “apocalypse”? Oh, yeah: that was me, here, all the time. And it was also, as it turns out, everybody, everywhere these days. To preface the current roundup of recommended and necessary reading, here’s a rich reflection on this very fact, and on the deeper meanings of the very idea of apocalypse — linked, as we always do here at The Teeming Brain, to the idea of dystopia — from no less a cultural organ than The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We’re living through a dystopia boom; secular apocalypses have, in the words of The New York Times, “pretty much owned” best-seller lists and taken on a dominant role in pop culture. These are fictions of infinite extrapolation, stories in which today’s source of anxiety becomes tomorrow’s source of collapse.

. . . All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.

Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic.

. . . To a surprising extent, our secular stories of dystopia and collapse rehearse the old story of apocalypse. We own a slate of anxieties that would have been unimaginable to older generations with fears of their own; but much of our literature of collapse suggests that the future will fear exactly what we fear, only in exaggerated form. In this way, our anxieties are exalted. Yesterday’s fears were foolish — but today’s are existential. And today’s threats are revealed to be not some problems, but the problems. Dystopias can satisfy the typological urge to invest our own slice of history with ultimate meaning: We look back from an imagined future to discover that we are correct in our fears, that our problems are special because they will be the ones to destroy us.

. . . A more radical brand of fiction about the future would still treat our problems with gravity, but it would also be a Copernican kind of fiction; it would not put our lives, our age, or our problems at the center of history. It would start, in other words, from the frightening and less-familiar thought that history has no direction and no center.

— Rob Goodman, “The Comforts of the Apocalypse,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2013

N.B.: The last third of the essay offers an absorbing reading of the dystopian writings of George Orwell and Olaf Stapledon as examples of this “more radical brand of fiction about the future.”

* * *

Adieu: On the downward slope of empire (William Deresiewicz for The American Scholar)
“[E]mpires fall as surely as they rise, and mostly for the reasons that we’re seeing now: they overextend themselves; their systems grow sclerotic; their elites become complacent and corrupt. There’s almost something metaphysical at work. The national sap dries up; the historical clock runs out. . . . In America’s case, the end is likely to involve a lot more bang than whimper. . . . Civil wars and revolutions are not uncommon scenarios for waning powers, and violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is expansion.”

Zibaldone-The-Notebooks-of-LeopardiReview: Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘Zibaldone’ (The Financial Times)
“[T]he pursuit of truth dispels our life-enhancing illusions and destroys every higher ‘value’ that makes life worth living. The will-to-truth ends up casting humankind into a universe with no overseeing God, no ultimate purpose, and no concern whatsoever for the unspeakable suffering to which it condemns its inhabitants, ‘not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds’, as Leopardi puts it in one of his entries.”

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (Strike! Magazine)
David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, examines the world of useless paper-pushing that keeps finance capitalism afloat. “If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job.”

In Praise of Laziness (The Economist)
“What is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

Warning Sign on the Colorado River (ScienceInsider, from Science magazine)
“Red alert. Dropping water levels behind the Glen Canyon Dam will force operators to cut downstream flows for the first time in dam’s 47-year history. Researchers say climate change could make such moves more common in the future.”

Photographing the Part of Buddhism That Can’t Be Seen (“Lens” blog at The New York Times)
Simply stunning. “While sacred rites are visually lush and obvious, spiritual experience is interior and hidden — and it is difficult to photograph something that is not visible. [Photojournalist David] Butow used a variety of strategies — and camera formats — to try to capture the heart of Buddhism.”

Mind_and_Cosmos_by_Thomas_NagelThe Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’ (Thomas Nagel for The New York Times)
“This is a brief statement of positions defended more fully in my book ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,’ which was published by Oxford University Press last year. Since then the book has attracted a good deal of critical attention, which is not surprising, given the entrenchment of the world view that it attacks. It seemed useful to offer a short summary of the central argument.”

History.exe: How can we preserve the software of today for historians of tomorrow? (Slate)
“If, hundreds of years from now, a literary scholar wanted to run Word 97, the first consumer version to implement the popular ‘track changes’ feature, how would she find it? What machine would accommodate this ancient artifact of textual technology?”

Putting a Dollar Sign On Everything Is Really Expensive: A Chat with Michael Sandel (Motherboard)
“I spoke to Sandel, who has been described as the ‘indispensable voice of reason’ by John Gray, about the increasing commodification of life, the loss of sacred institutions, and the dangers of utilitarianism and market reasoning.”

Great_Tales_of_Terror_and_the_SupernaturalThe Cheapening of the Comics (Flooby Nooby)
A passionate and powerful 1989 speech Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who used his platform to decry the corruption of comic strips and cartooning by the robotic and despotic demand of the big syndicates to transform these art forms into purely profit-driven enterprises that operate entirely according to the dictates of profit and commodification.

These Great Tales of Terror Live Up to Their Promise (NPR)
Michael Dirda on the classic, genre-defining anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural and its enduring personal impact on him, which involves the fact that it introduced him, like generations of other readers (including me), to Lovecraft.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on August 20, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Economy, Environment & Ecology, Internet & Media, Religion & Philosophy, Science & Technology, Teeming Links and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed the hell out of the Bill Watterson speech. Calvin and Hobbes was brilliant.

  2. Tremendous collection of links; never even knew Leopardi. Also, reading about Stapledon being recommended by Stanislav Lem makes me wonder why the latter has not figured here; one can definitely make a case that what he wrote was dystopian sci-fi and he also did theological horror [that is how I would describe Solaris, in any case].

  1. Pingback: The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel | Marmalade

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