Search Results for "morris berman"

“In Praise of Shadows”: Morris Berman’s acceptance speech for the 2013 Neil Postman Award

Last month the Media Ecology Association presented this year’s Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity to Morris Berman, whose work I have referenced so many times here at The Teeming Brain that he’s practically an honorary member of the Teem at this point.

Berman was invited to give an acceptance speech at the MEA’s annual convention on June 22, and he was told that he could speak on any topic of his choice. He ended up delivering a talk that effectively summarizes the overall present shape and tone of his well-known dire but, at root, deeply hopeful diagnosis of America’s malaise, decline, and death. (That’s “hopeful” in the very long view, mind you, not in any sense of holding out a hope that we might forestall or reverse America’s Spenglerian, Roman Empire-esque march into wholesale cultural collapse.)

The talk is titled “In Praise of Shadows,” and Berman’s delivery of it at the MEA convention was recorded. Here’s the video, which in addition to the speech itself includes a half-hour Q & A. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it. Below the video are a couple of choice excerpts that are well worth a few minutes’ quiet reading and meditation.

What American . . . doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation — “the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. . . . Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.

This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton — probably our next president — you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.”

. . . As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offered human beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives — communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily — so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.

FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: “In Praise of Shadows” by Morris Berman

Morris Berman reviews “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?”

Morris Berman — author of The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, and a frequently mentioned source of trenchant (and apocalyptic) cultural criticism here at The Teeming Brain — has offered a characteristically perceptive and incisive review/critique of the new documentary Heist: Who Stole the American Dreamby filmmakers Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher.

Here’s the film’s trailer:

Morris’s critique is built on ideas he has put forth in his books, including, especially, Why America Failed. He argues that although Causey and Goldmacher do an excellent job of providing “an alternative narrative to what’s been going on in this country since 1981” by thoroughly exploring and exploding the reigning master-myth of trickle-down economics and thus giving us all “an exercise in counter-brainwashing,” they show a lack of historical perspective by dating the dawn of the era of greed unbound to Reagan’s ascendency in 1980. In fact, says Morris — and this is his basic thesis in Why America Failed — America was founded on greed and hucksterism. “Greed,” he writes,

showed up on the American continent in the late sixteenth century, when what would later become the United States started to be colonized by a particularly aggressive and entrepreneurial segment of the English middle class …  One might argue that Reagan represented a “quantum leap” in this ideology, but he hardly invented it; from Day One, it is what America has been about. Credit-default swaps are merely the inevitable culmination of a process that has been going on for more than four hundred years.

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Teeming Links – March 29, 2019


I have to start this edition of Teeming Links with a very special message:

Vale and R.I.P., Wilum H. Pugmire, 1951-2019

Wilum died this week after several years of troubled health, and the news hit me hard even though it has been quite some time since I spoke with him. If you’re not familiar with him and his work (which he published as W. H. Pugmire), here’s his Wikipedia entry, plus an interview and another interview (by Nicole Cushing), to fill you in.

I first met Wilum in Seattle at the 2001 World Horror Convention, where he constituted a very colorful presence. Then when my first print publication occurred in the 2002 anthology The Children of Cthulhu, Wilum was in there, too. So he has been part of my mental and personal world as a reader and writer of Lovecraftian fiction for quite some time.

A few years ago, his place in my life became much more specific. It was through his unsolicited and generous actions that I was put together with Hippocampus Press for the purpose of producing a new collection of my fiction. When that collection, To Rouse Leviathan, is published just a few months from now, it will owe its existence largely to Wilum’s unpaid facilitation, which he offered spontaneously, out of the blue, just because he was that kind of person. On the book’s acknowledgments page, he’s the first person I name.

Others in the horror community have their own, similar stories about what a lovely human being Wilum was. And that’s not even to say anything his own contributions as an author, which are substantial.

Goodbye, Wilum. You will definitely be missed.

Have you heard of Dr. D. W. Pasulka and her book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology? You can gain a solid understanding and appreciation of its contents from the article “Belief in Aliens Could Be America’s Next Religion” at The Outline, which tells of Dr. Pasulka’s explorations into “how the once-fringe phenomenon has taken root among the powerful,” with tech billionaires devoting themselves seriously to UFOlogy, recovered alien tech, and the like. Dr. Pasulka is Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. This makes her work all the more significant.

From The Orlando Sentinel, here’s an interesting gauge of the current status of UFOlogical beliefs: “‘Alien in my Backyard:’ The UFO Community Still Believes — and Science Is Starting to Listen.”

Speaking of which: “What happens to religion when we find aliens?” In the linked piece, a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Christian theologian discuss what life in space could mean for the spiritual.

Issue 37 of EdgeScience is now out. Looks fascinating. It’s free. And it includes the following tantalizingly titled piece by none other than the above-mentioned Dr. Pasulka: “The Reception of Scientific Ideas from Alleged Supernatural Beings and Extraterrestrials: A Chapter in the History of Unorthodox Science.”

There are just too many good books to get to lately. However, one that sounds like we all need to wrap our heads around it is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which is all the rage right now (along with the above-described American Cosmic, making for a rather revealing literary syzygy). The idea of “surveillance capitalism,” which is Zuboff’s own original coinage (she’s a scholar of sociology and business at Harvard and the author of 1988’s In the Age of the Smart Machine), holds that the new world of digital tech has overwhelmed our cultural safeguards, which were utterly unprepared even to comprehend this new threat. The result is that now, to quote the official publisher’s description, “vast wealth and power are accumulated in ominous new ‘behavioral futures markets,’ where predictions about our behavior are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new ‘means of behavioral modification.'” As Zuboff sees it, this is not just a technological revolution but a completely new and intrinsically dystopian form of capitalism. Read “Capitalism’s New Clothes” at The Baffler and “‘The Goal is to Automate Us’: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism” at The Guardian for good primers. Also see this astute critique at Inside Higher Ed, which argues that the problem isn’t so much a totalitarian Big Data coup from above as an uncontrollable Frankenstein that Big Tech has unleashed and that is now beyond even their control, as seen most recently and sickeningly in the unstoppable proliferation of the New Zealand shooter video.

Meanwhile, according to the 2019 World Happiness Report, the U.S. is the unhappiest it’s ever been because of our business-driven culture of addiction. Knock me over with a feather.

If all of the above strikes you as a downer, this bracing shot of wisdom from Morris Berman for our present troubled moment might help: “Speaking of Liberation.” TLDR: There’s probably no hope for humanity at large, so it’s better to focus on your own personal awakening from history’s nightmare.

From The Daily Grail, here’s a great article for starting your day with your head blown off: Remember The Young Ones? Yeah, me too. I fell in love with it during my undergraduate days. But do you remember the fifth young one who lived in the flat with Vyvyan, Rick, Neil, and Mike? The young girl who mysteriously appeared in various scenes? Yeah, me neither. But apparently she was there.

It was also in college that I first became acquainted with the Church of the SubGenius. For a while I took to posting images of “Bob” Dobbs around Columbia, Missouri. Now comes this:

For all you Death Metal fans out there, be advised that I suspected as much: “Death Metal Inspires Joy, Not Violence.”

However, things aren’t so good for horror fans, at least according to Instagram: “‘Can We Help?’ Instagram Suggests ‘#Horror’ Fans Are in Danger of ‘Harm’ & ‘Death.’

Speaking of horror, Cody Goodfellow’s take on the Lovecraft Problem in this essay — which appears in Forbidden Futures 3 — may be the most lucid, insightful, and helpful that I’ve read: “Lovecraft Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.”

In the video below, Dr. Andreas Sommer, who really knows his stuff, explains 1) why your knowledge of science and magic is almost certainly based on demonstrable falsehoods, and 2) why the intertwined history of these subjects is far more significant than you may think.

A recent interview with Christian Wiman for The New Criterion shows the poet emitting a profusion of lucid, insightful, and beautiful thoughts the way a bonfire sends up sparks “I don’t think that art is something that’s going to save you or that it’s the single most important thing in life,” he says. “I find the writing of poetry a kind of torment ultimately, though it’s also a great elation. I just don’t think it’s going to save me. . . . [A]rt can’t save you. It can give you glimpses of something beautiful, maybe even something redemptive, but there’s nothing there to hold onto. Art is a means, not an end. “

Finally, Vastarien volume 2, issue 1 is now available. The TOC is wonderful, with fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork from the likes of Gemma Files, Forrest Aguirre, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Rhys Hughes, and Matthew M. Bartlett. I’m proud to have been centrally involved in the journal’s inception and the development of the first two issues. Now Jon Padgett continues to take it from strength to strength. (And if all goes well, I may return for an editorial stint in the foreseeable future.)

Dehumanized in a dark age


Fire_of_Troy_by_Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck)

“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.

* * *

One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.

Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.

With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry

Interview with J. F. Martel

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice


Conducted by Matt Cardin, February 2015


It’s my pleasure to introduce you, dear Teeming Brain reader, to Canadian filmmaker J. F. (Jean-François) Martel and his new book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action. Released just this month, it is published by Evolver Editions, the imprint of North Atlantic Books that is devoted to presenting “leading voices of the transformational movement, the new spiritual counterculture that explores humanity’s most visionary potential and the tangible, pragmatic steps we can take to access it.”

J. F. contacted me in early 2014 to introduce himself and invite me to read a pre-publication copy of Reclaiming Art, since he, as a long-time Teeming Brain reader, knew my thematic interests and thought I might find the book worthwhile. And oh, was he ever right. From the moment I opened the book and saw that he had chosen to begin with an epigraph drawn from Arthur Machen (something we discuss in the conversation you’re about to read), I had a distinctly positive sense about the whole thing. Then I read the opening manifesto and first chapter, and found myself instantly aglow with the deep pleasure and excitement that only come from reading truly special books of ideas.


Here’s the blurb I ended up providing, which accompanies the book in its final published incarnation:

This is a fascinating and invigorating book. In explaining art as a concrete expression of a mythic reality that is simultaneously beautiful, awesome, terrifying, numinous, and sublime, J. F. Martel fuses a high metaphysical and ontological vision with a rich sensibility that is equal parts mysticism and weird horror. What’s more, he offers a dead-on diagnosis of our present cultural moment as an “age of artifice” in which political and commercial concerns have hijacked the power of art and forced it to serve the demons of hype and propaganda. I hope Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice reaches a large number of sympathetic readers, and that they will find its argument as resonant and inspiring as I do.

— Matt Cardin

Additional praise comes from the likes of Erik Davis, Daniel Pinchbeck, and Patrick Harpur. You can get a better sense of what we’re all talking about by watching this striking book trailer, directed by J. F. and featuring a mesmerizing soundtrack of drone music composed by none other than The Teeming Brain’s own David Metcalfe (whose additional music you can find at BandCamp):

As for the author himself, here’s his impressively rich and diverse bio:

Jean-François Martel is a writer and award-winning filmmaker working in the Canadian film and television industry. In addition to making several short films, he has researched, written and/or directed a number of documentary programs on topics related to culture and the arts for major Francophone broadcasters, including La Portée des mots (season two), a twelve-part documentary series exploring the transformative power of song with some of French Canada’s great songwriters.

Martel is a contributor to the web magazine Reality Sandwich. His essay on Stanley Kubrick was included in the first Reality Sandwich anthology, Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age (Tarcher-Penguin), edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan. His work will also appear in North Atlantic Books’ forthcoming title Pluto: Astronomy, Astrology, Mythology, edited by Richard Grossinger.

For a fascinating excerpt from Reclaiming Art, you can click through to read J. F.’s analysis of the cultural-artistic implications of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” at “If someone who lived before the rise of electric power were given a visionary fly-by of the earth in 2015, the first thing he or she would notice, without a doubt, would be the colored lights. ‘The Colour Out of Space’ anticipates the phenomenology of the urban sprawl that was just beginning to alter the fabric of life in Lovecraft’s time. By envisioning the danger in the form of a Technicolor invasion (‘It was just a colour — but not a colour of our earth or heavens.’), the story makes ‘spectrality’ a distinctive feature of the future.”

Or you can stay here and read our deep-delving conversation about the book’s central themes.


MATT CARDIN: It’s a pleasure to welcome you to The Teeming Brain, J. F. To begin with, I want to ask you about the book’s basic thrust. How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?

J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.

MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?

JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.

MC: So inferior or lesser art comes from someone’s attempt to control or manipulate instead of submitting to an honest perception and expression of these forces.

JFM: Yes. In a lot of bad art, the author holds his convictions higher than the work’s content. He refuses to put his convictions on the same plane, and then manipulates the aesthetic material in such a way as to support those convictions, that ideology. The result is literal or figurative propaganda or pornography, or perhaps kitschy work in which we immediately sense the presence of wish fulfillment on the author’s part. Think of those fantasy paintings of brawny barbarians and half-naked concubines, or of Dan Brown’s ongoing love affair with his protagonist Robert Langdon. Great artists, by contrast, put all their cards on the table because they know that whatever card they hold back will always turn out to be the Joker, that is, the card without which the game will lack the element of radical mystery that’s essential to the aesthetic vision.

MC: Can you expound a bit on this “radical mystery of existence”? It’s a familiar concept, at least to some, but please tell us about the meaning that you personally attach to it.

JFM: I’m using the word radical in its original meaning of reaching to the bottom of things (Latin radix = root). So by “radical mystery,” I mean the fundamental unknowableness of the world, the questions that had us as kids wondering if life was really a dream, or perhaps an illusion produced just now, complete with false memories giving us the impression of a past. While such questions tend to disappear with adolescence, the mystery they point to doesn’t go away. In fact it seems constitutive of the human imagination as such, and comes up again and again at odd moments throughout life. By taking things out of any practical context and putting them on the aesthetic plane, works of art bring that mystery back to the surface. My sense is that all art — even religious art and art made by people who call themselves atheists or rationalists — calls us back to what Kierkegaard and Camus called the absurd.

MC: Or the cosmically horrific. One of the thematic veins in your book that captivates me the most is its running focus on weird horror as a kind of touchstone or exemplar for expressing this idea and its typical associated mood. It strikes me as quite innovative for a work about the mythic power and importance of art in general to make this one of its fundamental concerns. How did weird horror come to be so central to your thinking about these things?

Moby_Dick_1_by_Rockwell_KentJFM: Herman Melville wrote, “Although the visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” I believe that existential dread is the most primal and creatively potent human emotion. At some point in prehistory, we looked up from the ground and saw, through the lens of the imagination, what was really going on. The result was panic, terror, and the ecstasy of being an integral part of something unfathomable.

The argument that art and religion were developed as means of comforting people has always struck me as odd, because what I see in the most ancient art forms — especially the myths — is an attempt to give shape to those terrible invisible spheres that Melville talks about. Today we have branches of art and literature devoted explicitly to cosmic horror and the weird, and some of the works created in that tradition are among my favorites. But I think the weird is present in all great artworks, if by that we mean works that lays reality bare instead of placating us with illusions.

MC: And yet these great works of art with their fundamental threat to the cosmic-cultural status quo are hemmed in by a veritable ocean of commercial and political advertising, corporate-backed mass entertainment, and all of the other types of art — or rather, propaganda — that do try to placate us with illusions. This is of course the realm of “artifice” that you refer to in your title. How would you characterize the current prevailing ideology that these works serve to fortify?

JFM: The easy answer would be capitalism, but I tried to avoid that term in the book because I believe that it’s just one symptom of our collective disease. I like that you say “cosmic-cultural status quo,” because I do think that at bottom the problem is metaphysical, not political or economic. If you look at the last five hundred years in the West, you see the steady growth of a mindset that denies the validity, even the existence, of anything that exceeds the grasp of human cognition. As a result, our environments, physical and psychic, have become increasingly human, increasingly artificial. There is a pseudo-gnostic vein in modern thinking that seeks to place humanity at the centre of the universe. This is why I believe that the recognition of radical mystery as an intrinsic quality of the real is both the most important move we could make and the most repugnant to the existing power structure. Art confronts us with a more expansive view of reality in which humans are peripheral and mystery is inescapable. This is pretty obvious when you consider a weird fiction writer like Lovecraft, but I think it’s also true for Van Gogh, Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson.

MC: How so? How exactly would a sensitive reading of, say, Starry Night or Hamlet or “Hope is the thing with feathers” reveal it to be a “machine for destroying ideologies”? As I ask the question, by the way, I find myself thinking of the chapter of your book titled “Terrible Beauty” and your discussion of the “compelling monstrosity” that lurks just beneath the surface beauty of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

JFM: Starry Night is a good example because even its content speaks to this. In that painting, a sleepy town, complete with church steeple, appears under a vast and turbulent night sky. Van Gogh paints the sky in such a way as to break the comforting Aristotelian view that the celestial bodies are these eternal, unchanging fixtures; instead he depicts them as elements in a swirling dynamic chaos. These are the inhuman forces of Nature, which surround the human world of “culture” like an ocean surrounds an island. But what’s most distressing is that when you look closely at the painting, you see that the same chaotic flux also exists in the very substance of the village, the grove of trees, and the giant cypress in the foreground. In other words, what we call culture is in reality an excrescence of the same inhuman chaos that composes the cosmos. It’s a powerful vision.


The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Hamlet, Shakespeare gives a similar treatment to the concept of time, showing us how the past exists only as a dimension of the present (“The time is out of joint.”). And in the Dickinson poem, there’s a deliberate refusal to depict hope simply as a little bird; instead, it is first described as “the thing with feathers.” She is destroying a cliché by transforming the bird, and by analogy the “hope” it stands for, into something wilder, something literally monstrous (“the thing…”) that sings to us wordlessly from a place outside of time.

I realize that these are interpretations. On a more concrete level, all three of these works are singular events. Each is a unique creation that couldn’t have been made by anyone else at any other time. There is something unrepeatable about them. Unrepeatability is the enemy of ideology, because ideology seeks to reduce things to labels and categories we can all understand. Singularity, by contrast, is the advent of something truly new. It comes from beyond the precinct of common sense, public opinion, the whole moral order of the day.

MC: Such things may also come from outside the conventionally accepted metaphysical order of the day. I know we’ve already touched on this, but I think it bears further discussion since the issue you’re talking about is crucially important not only to the vision of art that you’re advancing but to the basic notion of the supernatural and the paranormal in the way that Jeffrey Kripal, George Hansen, and Patrick Harpur — to name just three influential figures in the field — have advanced it. In recent years some very smart people have been pointing out that history and human experience are filled with singularities and anomalies that categorically elude conventional scientific description and that are even, in a way, invisible to science, whose basic method hinges on experimental replication. Anomalies tend to slip through science’s net. They don’t register on its radar. In Chapter One of Reclaiming Art, titled “A Sudden Explosive Event,” you explicitly acknowledge the connection between art and the paranormal. In fact, you describe art as being intrinsically paranormal in its basic function: “Art discloses our own mystery even as it lays bare the mystery of consciousness and the mystery of the world. It is paranormal, an anomaly casting doubt upon our most cherished certainties about the nature of reality.” Can you say more about this?

JFM: If science is about replication, then art is about the unrepeatable. At one point in the book, I compare a sunflower illustration of the type found in botanical textbooks to Van Gogh’s famous paintings of sunflowers. The difference is that whereas the technical illustration aims at showing us what all sunflowers share, extracting from each specimen a general form that can represent them all, Van Gogh is extracting from one specific bunch of sunflowers that which is totally unique to their manifestation in his field of awareness at that moment. He tears the sunflowers out of the system of ordinary signs in order to make of them a symbol, that is, a numinous event occurring outside “the metaphysical order of the day.” There is a kernel of singularity, of pure difference, in every experience, and that’s what I’m thinking of when I speak of the paranormal in the passage you cite. The paranormal is that which eludes explanation, representation and judgment. We can never get to it scientifically because it can’t be repeated; it can’t even be translated into ordinary language. For language to capture it, it must become poetry.

MC: These kinds of insights usually don’t come from purely intellectual sources. Have you personally had any experiences that could be classified as paranormal, and that have helped to shape your understanding of these matters?

JFM: Like many if not most people, I’ve had several paranormal experiences. I’ll give you one particularly memorable example. Like you, I suffered from sleep paralysis when I was in my early twenties. One night I saw a child-sized creature made of shadow crouching in the corner of my bedroom. I knew it had come in through the window because I’d caught sight of it flopping into the room like a black mollusk out of the corner of my eye. I remember perfectly how it crawled to the bed and gripped my ankles as it climbed on top of me. Afterwards I asked myself, “What am I supposed to do with this crazy experience?” I could reduce it to misfiring synapses, as conventional science would have me do. Or I could decide that the creature was a demon sent by Satan to torment me. Both these explanations, however, would reduce the experience to something that fits into some ideological framework, secular or religious. In both cases the anomaly that was the reason why the experience was significant at all would be lost. A third option, then, was to refuse to explain the event in order to preserve its significance. The only way to do that would be to describe it as it happened, which is to say, to tell a story. In order for the story to evoke the anomaly, I would have to do it properly — that is, I’d have to do it aesthetically. As Marcel Proust said, only art can express experience in its fullness, without reduction or judgment. It apprehends all things as apparition and symbol.

“The recognition of radical mystery as an intrinsic quality of the real is both the most important move we could make and the most repugnant to the existing power structure. Art confronts us with a more expansive view of reality in which humans are peripheral and mystery is inescapable. This is pretty obvious when you consider a weird fiction writer like Lovecraft, but I think it’s also true for Van Gogh, Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson.”

MC: Your mention of Proust brings me to something else I wanted to focus on: the truly vast and rich field of references that you draw on when you talk about these things. In this conversation alone you’ve mentioned Proust, Lovecraft, Ligotti, Melville, Dickinson, Van Gogh, Kierkegaard, Camus, and Shakespeare. In the book you mention many more: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Werner Herzog, Daniel Pinchbeck, Stanley Kubrick, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Corbin, Edgar Allan Poe, Socrates, Plato, Mark Rothko, James Joyce, James Cameron, Oscar Wilde, William Burroughs, Paul Klee, Diane Arbus, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, John Cage, Béla Bartok, Neil Young, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Paul Cézanne, James Hillman, Samuel Beckett, Andre Tarkovsky, Paul Thomas Anderson — and that’s just an incomplete list from the first three chapters! How did your human vocabulary for talking about art become so varied?

JFM: My reading, viewing, and listening habits have always been eclectic. I have no expertise, but I do have a knack for synthesizing, picking out patterns, and making connections. So even though I may not have read as many books or watched as many films as I would have had I gone into academia, I do I retain a lot of what does come in. Furthermore, throughout the writing of Reclaiming Art I tried to remain open to new discoveries. For instance the first chapter didn’t work until I happened to catch Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams on TV.

As far as artists and artworks are concerned, I felt that the text should include lots of examples across a range of media, disciplines, traditions, and genres. I consciously avoided referencing my more obscure obsessions because it was important that my examples be known to most readers, at least in name. I felt that evoking these creators and works brought certain colors and tones to the text.

MC: My experience of reading the book confirms that you’re quite correct about this. I wonder, can you point to any of these figures as being especially influential or important to you?

JFM: With the exception of James Cameron (and maybe Kant), all of the people you named are heroes of mine, especially the artists. The thinkers that have had the biggest influence on me are Gilles Deleuze, Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

MC: And what about Arthur Machen? I ask because of the wonderful line that you drew from him to serve as the opening epigraph for Reclaiming Art: “Man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions.” This comes from a sentence in Machen’s “A Fragment of Life” that reads, in full: “Darnell knew by experience that man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions, for the realization in his consciousness of ineffable bliss, for a great joy that transmutes the whole world, for a joy that surpasses all joys and overcomes all sorrows.” But of course the story as a whole, which is one of the major works in Machen’s oeuvre, isn’t just about unalloyed bliss but about the misty, lush, mesmerizing, multi-hued mood and worldview of sacred terror and cosmic horror that imbues all of his writings, and that makes the cosmos as a whole appear like a vast network of glowing symbols that emanate bottomless wonder and dread, forever. Does this in fact encapsulate the central truth, message, outlook, point of view, subjective experience, that you would like to communicate to your readers about the world in general and art in particular?

The_White_People_and_Other_Weird_Stories_by_Arthur_Machen-326x500JFM: I love Machen’s fiction and come back to it again and again. That line — “Man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions” — has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Beyond the fact that it captures the essence of Machen’s admirable body of work, it also evokes something similar to what I talked about earlier with regard to Starry Night, namely that humans are creatures of mystery, born within a mystery and fated to die in that mystery. The unknown, the enigmatic, and the unspeakable are constitutive of our lives. There is cosmic horror in this, but also a weird kind of joy — an obscene, creative, destructive joy that you see in some of Machen’s characters. His fiction exemplifies a worldview that hinges completely on becoming: nothing is fixed or solid enough for us to pin it down. Everything is, as you say, part of “a vast network of glowing symbols that communicate bottomless wonder and dread.” To answer your question: Yes, the line definitely encapsulates the outlook I want to communicate to the reader. Although my contract was to write a book on art for a manifesto series, from the start I hoped to do something else at the same time. My goal was to produce a book that would be “about art” in the same sense that Moby-Dick is a novel “about a whale.” I wanted the topic to act as a kind of MacGuffin in order to tell a larger story, one that reflected the totality of my subjective experience. I realized that this might be the only book I’d ever write and wanted to put everything into it.

MC: I can’t help wondering how all of this — your thoughts and experiences about the things we’re discussing, plus your experience of investing so much of yourself in the book — interacts with your work as a filmmaker.

JFM: At the moment I work mainly in television as a documentary writer and director. Although there are definitely “moments of art” in that, for the most part it’s more about communicating than expressing, to use the book’s terminology. I do have three feature projects at various stages of development, but with the industry being what it is, there’s no way of knowing which, if any, of these will materialize as films. While the experience of writing the book has honed my ideas about art, when I actually begin to write, direct, or edit, all those concepts disappear and I become solely concerned with the affective dimension: how things feel, their tone and rhythm. It’s probably best that way. On the other hand, writing Reclaiming Art showed me that I get as much creative satisfaction from writing nonfiction as I get from filmmaking. I don’t feel that there’s a boundary between the book and the other stuff; it all seems to be coming from the same place. In fact, a few weeks ago I tried to translate the book into images using archival footage and photos. The result was the trailer that I posted online shortly before the release. The score was composed by Renaissance man, mutual friend, and Teem Member David Metcalfe.

MC: Ah, the circle widens. Or maybe narrows? Whatever the case, here’s a final question to round off our conversation: what, if anything, do you have to offer by way of concrete advice or recommendations for the readers of your book and this interview if they’re moved by what you’re saying? I know you’re aware of my interest in the idea of a “new monasticism” as put forth by Morris Berman in The Twilight of America Culture: the idea that a truly worthwhile response to our present cultural circumstance, when we may well be living through the dying/decaying/declining phase of American culture and Western civilization as we’ve previously known it, is to engage in intentional acts of cultural preservation of the practically embodied sort. As I have talked with you, and as I have read and reread your book, the thought has returned again and again that the very writing and publishing of Reclaiming Art represents just this kind of monastic culture-preserving activity. Does this resonate with you at all? And if so, again, do you have any advice to offer about actions that people might take in response to it? I ask the question in full awareness that effective and important “action” may be taken on subtle, invisible, interior planes as well as on the grosser external ones.

​JFM:​ Although I’ve yet to read Berman — and I really should get to that, as friends keep mentioning him these days — I know about his new monasticism from your blogging and a few other things I’ve read online. I agree that decline is inevitable at this point and that the real work we face lies in preserving rather than innovating. Strangely, this book that you characterize as a “monastic culture-preserving activity” came out of Daniel Pinchbeck’s pre-2012 Reality Sandwich scene, where idealism and “solutions-oriented” thinking held sway. Despite my deep respect for Daniel, I never shared his optimism, and so when it came time to write the book I was unable to provide a concrete message or course of action. I think Joshua Ramey was right to call Reclaiming Art a “lament,” because it’s pretty clear by the end of it that all I can manage is an appeal to the individual reader to look at art again. We need to let go of our cynicism and disenchantment and recover our capacity to believe, our power to affect and be affected. Beyond this, there is one quite concrete action I think every new monk should take, and that’s to keep a dream journal. Recording our dreams awakens us to the imaginal, even as it awakens the imaginal to us. The result is always an abundance of vision.

“Real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.”

MC: I think that’s a splendid recommendation, and I say that as someone who, some years back, devoted himself to that very activity over an extended period of time. As for the status of your book as a lament in the face of inevitable decline, I think it was that very elegiac tone that put me in mind of Berman. Like you, he views decline as inevitable — and in fact as already well-advanced — and so he writes not to reverse or forestall it but simply to speak truthfully about it, and to explore a way or ways that he and we might respond with wisdom by laying the seeds for some possible phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes in a future that we won’t live to see. Although there are many other levels of value that your book serves, this one stands out to me as poignantly potent and central.

So I guess, in closing, I’m saying thank you. It has been a pleasure talking with you about all of these things.

JFM: Thanks for taking the time to exchange with me. I’ve been a lurking around The Teeming Brain for some time now, and it’s exciting to be able to share this with the community you’ve formed here. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my admiration for your Course in Demonic Creativity, which I discovered too late to reference in the book. Reading Course is one more concrete action I’d recommend to all monastics of the new dark age.

MC: I appreciate that, J. F. Here’s wishing you and the book much success in speaking to a wide, receptive, and thoughtfully sensitive audience.

* * *


Why I Wrote Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” by J. F. Martel

Erik Davis interviews J. F. Martel on Expanding Mind — February 12, 2015

PURCHASE Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice from Amazon

PURCHASE Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice from North Atlantic Books

Bobcat Goldthwaite: Why have a civilization if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?

A couple of years ago when I watched the movie God Bless America, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite (whom I once had the pleasure of seeing live when he was doing standup comedy), it didn’t turn out to be as good in its entirety as I had hoped. The trailer (see below) had been awesome, and the advance buzz about the movie had been highly encouraging, since it made it sound as if Goldthwaite had borrowed cues from both Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the likes of Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture to make a movie that would channel the rage, horror, and sadness many of us have felt as we’ve watched America transform itself into a cruel, decadent, and degenerate “society of the spectacle,” to borrow Guy Debord’s useful and accurate term.

The finished film didn’t quite live up to the buzz or the trailer, since the pacing was off and the third act, including the climactic scene, felt particularly off-kilter. Nevertheless, it contains several scenes and sequences that fulfill the promise of the buildup, and none is better than the one below, where protagonist Frank, played by Joel Murray (yes, Bill’s brother), goes to the office one morning and delivers an immortal rant that, in my estimation, ranks up there with Howard Beale’s prophetic condemnations of America’s mass mediated lunacy in Network. And just as Beale was basically a mouthpiece for screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s personal views, so is Frank a mouthpiece for Goldthwaite’s.

Fair warning: Use with care. This clip contains NSFW language and some (intentionally) shocking violence. It also contains a compressed diagnosis of America’s (and the whole first world’s) cultural disease here in the early twenty-first century that’s incisive enough to start a revolution.

“Nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV or hear on the radio or watch on the Web. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone without somebody texting or looking at a screen or a monitor over your head? You know, a conversation about something that wasn’t celebrities, gossip, sports, or pop politics. Something important or something personal. . . . This is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth. Nobody has any shame any more. And we’re supposed to celebrate it! I saw a woman throw a used tampon at another woman last night on network television, a network that bills itself as ‘today’s woman’s channel.’ Kids beat each other blind and post it on YouTube. I mean, do you remember when eating rats and maggots on Survivor was shocking? It all seems so quaint now. I’m sure the girls from Two Girls, One Cup are going to have their own dating show on VH1 any day now. I mean, why have a civilization any more if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”

Teeming Links – August 16, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

Today’s (rather extended) opening word goes to Morris Berman, who was recently interviewed for The Atlantic online in connection with his new book Spinning Straw into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. Morris first rose to prominence as the author of several books about the evolution of human consciousness, with a focus that included depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and the way the nature of civilization necessarily leads humans to experience a “disenchanted” world. Then he turned to writing books about the decline and collapse of American culture. Now he has turned to the work of integrating these two strands. The result is a dire and fascinating diagnosis and prognosis for American and Americanized cultures, along with an invigorating prescription for how each of us might consider responding life-fully to the inevitable long-form breakdown that will characterize the indefinite future, and that already characterizes the present.

Your message of detachment from materially measurable pursuits and your encouragement of leisure, creativity, and relaxed living is un-American (I mean this as a compliment). Why is American culture so addicted to speed, movement, action, and “progress”?

This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat. It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it. This is Sartre’s “bad faith,” the phenomenon whereby a human being adopts false values because of social pressure, and is thus living a charade, an inauthentic life. It’s also what happens to Ivan Illych in the Tolstoy story, where Ivan is dying, and reviews his life during his last three days, and concludes that it was all a waste, because he lived only for social approval.

. . . You write that the “road to redemption is a solitary one.” That’s a tough challenge, especially in highly religious and nationalistic culture. Is redemption tied to your notion of authenticity? Norman Mailer said that the first and most important virtue is courage, because it is a prerequisite for all other virtues. How do people cultivate the courage to live real, independent, and authentic lives?

I suspect courage is something that is handed down from within the family, something you learn viscerally, by example. Unfortunately, the American family is now in pretty bad shape, and there aren’t that many positive role models around in a dying culture. Literature can help, however; not the lit of heroic stories of derring-do, but just the opposite: literature that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.

The sociologist Robert Bellah, who just died a few days ago, once wrote: “Great literature speaks to the deepest level of our humanity; it helps us better understand who we are.” So I would say that that’s a good place to start. But ultimately, if you are open to it, courage will find you; you don’t have to go looking for it (which I don’t think will work anyway). What was that line from Augustine? “Love God and do what thou wilt.” For “God” I substitute “Truth.”

— David Masciotra, “How America’s ‘Culture of Hustling’ is Dark and Empty” (interview with Morris Berman), The Atlantic, August 13, 2013

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The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership (Bruce Schneier for Bloomberg)
“The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government’s intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage.”

The End of Forgetting and “Administrative Rights” to Our Online Personas (IP Theory Vol. 2, Issue 2, 2012, PDF)
An excellent consideration of “what it would take to have enforceable ‘administrative rights’ to one’s personal information — the ability to edit or modify one’s online persona just as a webmaster would be able to edit or modify on an individual.” The author was explicitly motivated by Google’s audacious and troubling new move of constructing massive uber-profiles of users from information that was formerly kept discrete and separate.

The Trauma of Being Alive (Mark Epstein for The New York Times)
“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. . . . Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”

Is Superman a Superman? (Smart Pop Books)
“The association of [Nietzsche’s] superman with [the comic book] Superman, far from demeaning philosophy, gloriously elevates it. In an important sense, Siegel and Shuster are closer to the heart of Nietzsche’s ideas than most philosophical commentaries.”

Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits (Scientific American)
Better vision, stronger muscles — expectations can have surprising effects, research finds. “There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.”

Horror’s New Golden Age? Probably Not (Scott Poole at Monsters in America)
“I’m afraid the interest we see in producing horror series and films based on the success of classic tales will produce more eye rolling than chills. Let’s hope one or two gems come out of horror’s new heyday.”

The Incubus in Film, Experience, and Folklore (Southern Folklore Vol. 52, No. 1, 1996, PDF)
Interesting academic study about the incubus tradition of nocturnal supernatural-sexual assault. It “tests a hypothesis derived from the theory that media images govern the incidence and content of such anomalous accounts.” The authors apply David Hufford’s “experiential-source hypothesis” from The Terror That Comes in the Night and conclude that “sleep paralysis coupled with sexual arousal spawns memorates which provide a basis for incubus folklore.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman (The New Atlantis)
A sharp and elegant critique of attempts to “explain” all art in evolutionary biological terms. “The reductive form of inquiry in the natural sciences will always have a limited ability to account for the symbolic, moral, and religious significance of art. Brain scans and other cognitive experiments on human beings alive today can tell us something about the neurological correlates of aesthetic experience, but they cannot tell us how, when, why, or whether our aesthetic preferences evolved.”

The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher (The Atlantic, 1996)
“Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for William James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James’s experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about belief and its conditions.”

Book Review: ‘The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness” by Alan Watts

Alan Watts has long been one of my foundational philosophical influences. I think his writing style, famed for its almost preternatural lucidity and grace, has also influenced me by giving me a model to emulate. “Nobody could write like Watts, nobody,” Ken Wilber once observed in an interview for ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation.

This is one among many reasons why I was very pleased when the opportunity arose for me to review the new edition of Watts’s long out-of-print book The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness for New York Journal of Books. And I was doubly pleased because this new edition comes with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck (to add to the book’s original foreword by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert). Pinchbeck’s presence places the book right where it belongs: in the middle of the currently surging renaissance and exploding conversation about psychedelics and the apocalyptic transformation of consciousness and culture that occupies an expanding segment of our collective global civilization.

Here’s my review, in a slightly longer form than what appeared at New York Journal of  Books a couple of weeks ago. Note that Pinchbeck’s introduction, which I quote from, can be read in its entirety at Reality Sandwich, along with the full text of Watts’s prologue.

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The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, by Alan Watts. New World Library, 2013. 119 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

The decision by New World Library to publish a new edition of The Joyous Cosmology could not be timelier. The book was brilliant and piercingly relevant when it first appeared in 1962, and far from diminishing these qualities, the intervening half-century has only served to amplify them. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 41

This installment of Recommended Reading might almost be described as a special Apocalypse and Extinction edition, as evidenced by the first four items below. Today: A new book about the reality of mass extinction and the human race’s best strategies for survival. John Michael Greer on the entrenched historical tendency, especially among Americans, to posit and even long for all-encompassing apocalyptic disasters as a means of avoiding responsibility for the future. A consideration of why, in the face of the real-life threat of catastrophic climate change, we’re all likely to simply wring our hands and do nothing until it’s too late. Thoughts on the theological implications of our Orwellian society of total technological surveillance. Rupert Sheldrake on the parallels between bad religion and bad science. The sudden and widespread rise of belief in and about an afterlife, including among scientists. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 37

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Christopher Ketcham, The American Prospect, March 19, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This captivating article/essay about the relatively thriving secession movement in Vermont features a cameo appearance from Teeming Brain favorite Morris Berman, who delivered the keynote address at a secession-oriented conference held in September 2012 in the chambers of the house of representatives in Montpelier. E. F. Schumacher (another favorite) also shows up, as do a host of fascinating additional thinkers and activists, not to mention a passel of worthwhile ideas and concerns.]

During the Obama years, secession has mostly been an antic folly of the political right, courtesy of Texas nationalists, Dixie nostalgists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and gun nuts. There was no small amount of hypocrisy, of course, in this conservative rebellion. When Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 spoke publicly about a possible Lone Star secession, he billed it as a constitutional right in the face of overreaching government — though Republicans mostly hadn’t complained when George W. Bush was demanding profligate budgets and stabbing the sacred document with pencil holes.

Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.”

. . . . When the proceedings broke for lunch, I asked Morris Berman, who had been invited from his home in Mexico, what he thought of the conferees and their intentions. “There’s no chance in hell that a secession is going to happen under current conditions,” he said. “I’m a historian. I look at what’s possible. If Vermont seceded, there would be troops in Burlington in two hours.” Yet Berman was also hopeful. The Vermonters were reinventing secession. It would not be a mere political revolt, not simply a regional separation, but also, and probably more important, a revolt against the economy of empire, a move toward economic independence.These people here,” he told me, “are experimenting with a kind of monastic withdrawal that has political implications. Capitalism is eating itself alive, but as the system unravels you have all these little flowering buds appear.”

* * *

Europe’s flesheaters now threaten to devour us all
Seuman Milne, The Guardian, March 26, 2013

Teaser: Cyprus risks deepening the eurozone crisis as austerity is failing across the continent. Resistance will have to get stronger.

Europe’s flesheaters are back. The claim that the worst of the eurozone crisis is behind us now looks foolish. The deal forced on Cyprus by the German-led Troika at the weekend isn’t a bailout: it will effectively destroy the island’s economy. Instead of getting a grip on its grossly inflated banks, it will impose a brutal credit contraction, combined with sweeping cuts and privatisations, wiping out perhaps a quarter of Cyprus’s national income. Ordinary Cypriots, not Russian oligarchs, will pay the price.

. . . The eurozone has now become a zombie zone. . . . Whatever the focus of the meltdown in each country — banking in Cyprus, property in Spain — all flow from the same crisis that erupted in 2007-8 out of a deregulated profit-hunting credit boom across the western world and has delivered a prolonged depression. . . . [A]cross Europe, people are being held to ransom by banks, bondholders and corporations determined to ensure that it’s not they who bear the costs of the crisis they created — and politicians who regard it as their job to oblige them.

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The Bacon-Wrapped Economy
Ellen Cushing, East Bay Express, March 20, 2013

Teaser: Tech has brought very young, very rich people to the Bay Area like never before. And the changes to our cultural and economic landscape aren’t necessarily for the better.

If, after all, money has always been a means of effecting the world we want to bring about, when a region is flooded with uncommonly rich and uncommonly young people, that world begins to look very different. And we’re all living in it, whether we like it or not.

. . . . It’s become cliché at this point to describe the tech world as a bubble, but that word has an important double meaning: It’s not just that it could pop at any moment, it’s that it is in, but not quite of, the rest of the world — even as it’s changing it. The work is often abstract and piecemeal; the setting is a continent away from old financial centers. The culture is insular, specific, and self-affirming. As Catherine Bracy, director of international programs at Code for America, wrote in a December Tumblr post, tech’s power-players are “making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to … get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people’s widgets, or c) both. They really don’t care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don’t have to live in it.”

But sooner or later, everyone has to live in the world they’ve created. Tech has made a world where certain skills are highly valued, and that has implications. “It used to be, the cleverest people in the world are being called to work at NASA,” Pleeth of notoriety said toward the end of our interview. “But now I can make a billion dollars building a cool photo app or targeting ads to people more effectively. And that is a problem: More and more people in tech are making huge amounts of money, and people aren’t curing cancer because it’s not an attractive thing to do.” Pleeth was being intentionally hyperbolic — and to some degree, what the economy values and what society values have never been entirely in line with each other — but he raised a good point: Maybe this isn’t just unsustainable on the level that funding art via Kickstarter is untenable, or that taking Ubers instead of hiring a driver is shortsighted, or that living hand-to-mouth on a $2,000-a-week paycheck is imprudent. Instant gratification isn’t necessarily just something individuals indulge in — maybe societies can, too.

* * *

How We’re Turning Digital Natives into Etiquette Sociopaths
Evan Selinger, Wired, March 26, 2013

Let’s face it: Technology and etiquette have been colliding for some time now, and things have finally boiled over if the recent spate of media criticisms is anything to go by. There’s the voicemail, not to be left unless you’re “dying.” There’s the e-mail signoff that we need to “kill.” And then there’s the observation that what was once normal — like asking someone for directions — is now considered “uncivilized.”

Cyber-savvy folks are arguing for such new etiquette rules because in an information-overloaded world, time-wasting communication is not just outdated — it’s rude. But while living according to the gospel of technological efficiency and frictionless sharing is fine as a Silicon Valley innovation ethos, it makes for a downright depressing social ethic.

People like Nick Bilton over at The New York Times Bits blog argue that norms like thank-you messages can cost more in time and efficiency than they are worth. However, such etiquette norms aren’t just about efficiency: They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.

. . . . The longstanding technological goal of enhancing efficiency serves us well in many cases. But we need to avoid prioritizing it over genuine connectivity.

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Best Tweets in the House
Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, March 12, 2013

Teaser: In a desperate attempt to engage with younger audiences, arts organizations are scrambling to make their productions more interactive. But who really is more engaged: A live-tweeting audience member, or someone staring silently at the stage?

Although the trend has yet to hit the nation’s largest cities or most prominent companies, arts organizations from Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre to Palm Beach Opera have begun allowing — nay, encouraging — audiences to break out their mobile devices and respond to performances in real time, even as the actors, singers, and players onstage are working hard to hold everyone’s gaze.

The rise of tweet seats is just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts — one that champions “audience engagement” and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates “passive spectating.” The new conventional wisdom is that it’s vital not just to put on the best show you can, but to give audiences the sort of intense, interactive, personal experience that makes them feel involved in the production. That means prepping your audience ahead of time, debriefing them afterwards, and giving them opportunities to comment or participate as well as observe. In some cases, audience engagement means inviting people to sing, play, or dance along with the performers; in others, to split their attention between the stage and (very small) screen.

. . . . The trouble is that modern 20-somethings seem to have little taste for full engagement. “There is evidence beginning to suggest truly deep attention is not valued among the young,” [Stanford University sociologist Clifford] Nass reports. “The question is, where do you get your pleasure? Do you get pleasure by being transported, which requires great immersion? Or do you get pleasure by having your focus on multiple places at once? “That’s a cultural shift. Artists have to think about what that means, and what they want to do about it.”

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Police Restrain Crowd from Taking Food after Supermarket Eviction
Mark Barber,, March 26, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: It would be difficult to surpass this story’s galling power as an illustration of the literally insane behavior that can result from unthinking adherence to a system of external rule. In this case, the external rule is that of civil law in rural Georgia. One understands why the police did what they did, given the nature of their formal jobs, but in terms of their more fundamental identities and roles as human beings, their behavior is reprehensible. Not tangentially, it bears remembering that this same scenario is played out in slightly different form in restaurants around America every day, as I witnessed personally in college when I worked briefly for a McDonald’s and found that a titanic amount of food was formally required by company policy to be thrown away every day. It was against policy to give this food to employees or anybody else. One manager regularly sacked up as much of it as possible and secretly left it on top of a trash dumpster out back for a group of homeless people to claim. One wonders how many people right now are doing something similar. One hopes the number is huge.]

Law enforcement officials pushed back hundreds of people who were crowding around a large pile of merchandise outside an Augusta grocery store Tuesday afternoon. But the goods sitting in the parking lot of the Laney Supermarket didn’t make into anyone’s hands. Instead, the food people hoped to take home was tossed into the trash. “People have children out here that are hungry, thirsty, could be anything. Why throw it away when you could be issuing it out?” asked Robertstine Lambert.

The Marshal of Richmond County, Steve Smith, says the food wasn’t theirs to give away, so they had to trash it. “We don’t have authority to take possession of the property; we just have to make sure that it’s handled, disposed of by law,” Smith, said.

SunTrust Bank in Atlanta owns the property and they’re sending the merchandise to the landfill after evicting the Chois, the owners of the grocery store. The Chois didn’t want to speak on camera but they say they were kicked out by the bank because they owe them thousands of dollars. They say they offered the food to a church, but members didn’t show up to claim it.

That’s when word that store products were abandoned spread through the community. About 300 people came to take merchandise home, but they were held back by law enforcement. “These are brand new items; we saw the potential for a riot was extremely high,” said Sheriff Richard Roundtree.

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The Sound of the Gravediggers
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report, March 28, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a blog post in which Greer explores “the religious dimensions of peak oil and the end of the industrial age” — a topic that he has broached many times at The Archdruid Report, and that he unfailingly handles with eloquence and insight. This time is no exception.]

Unlike too many of today’s atheists, Nietzsche had a profound understanding of just what it was that he was rejecting when he proclaimed the death of God and the absurdity of faith. To abandon belief in a divinely ordained order to the cosmos, he argued, meant surrendering any claim to objectively valid moral standards, and thus stripping words like “right” and “wrong” of any meaning other than personal preference.  It meant giving up the basis on which governments and institutions founded their claims to legitimacy, and thus leaving them no means to maintain social order or gain the obedience of the masses other than the raw threat of violence — a threat that would have to be made good ever more often, as time went on, to maintain its effectiveness. Ultimately, it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe.

. . . . The surrogate God that western civilization embraced, tentatively in the 19th century and with increasing conviction and passion in the 20th, was progress. In our time, certainly, the omnipotence and infinite benevolence of progress have become the core doctrines of a civil religion as broadly and unthinkingly embraced, and as central to contemporary notions of meaning and value, as Christianity was before the Age of Reason.

That in itself defines one of the central themes of the predicament of our time. Progress makes a poor substitute for a deity, not least because its supposed omnipotence and benevolence are becoming increasingly hard to take on faith just now. There’s every reason to think that in the years immediately before us, that difficulty is going to become impossible to ignore — and the same shattering crisis of meaning and value that the religion of progress was meant to solve will be back, adding its burden to the other pressures of our time.

Listen closely, and you can hear the sound of the gravediggers who are coming to bury progress.