Category Archives: Education

The new thought police and the demand for “civility”

Joan W. Scott in The Nation:

“Civility” has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

But what exactly is civility — and is it a prerequisite for a vibrant intellectual climate? As it turns out, the definitions on offer are porous and vague. University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, who supported the decision not to hire Salaita, sees it as a “reluctance to indulge in mutual hatred,” thereby placing a limit on violence and campus warfare. Others stress courteous and respectful behavior and its concomitants: comfort, safety, and security. The University of Missouri’s “Show Me Respect” project includes a “toolbox” that offers 20 ways to achieve civility (including the reminder to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). At the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, a 2011 conference offered these words of wisdom: “Academic freedom and free speech require open, safe, civil and collegial campus environments.” And a statement from a University of Maryland discussion paper on civility in 2013 defines it “simply as ‘niceness to others.’… Additionally, the definition may be used broadly to spur discussions on how ‘nice guys and gals finish first’ and how cordiality and kindness can be tracked across campus to ensure faculty, staff, and students are indeed playing nice.”

The attempts to secure the comfort and safety of students — now recognized for their economic value as paying clients who need to be satisfied — are subjugating language and thinking to their own ends. These dictates seem to know no limits and are evident in other policies, such as the call for “trigger warnings” in college classrooms. Professors are being asked by the representatives of some students or groups — and by the anxious deans who rush to satisfy their complaints — to avoid assigning material that might provoke flashbacks or even attention to discomforting violence. The demand for trigger warnings has the same intent as the emphasis on comfort and civility in the Salaita affair and the statement to the UC Berkeley community by Dirks: to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who might otherwise express opinions that could make others “uncomfortable.”

All of these efforts presume a certain benign self-evidence for the use of the term “civility.” As the University of Maryland statement puts it, “niceness” is “easily understood by all parties”: We know civility when we see it. Left aside in these invocations are not only interpretive differences among individuals and groups (one man’s or woman’s presumed civility may strike another as uncivil), but also the history of the term. Although, as with any word, the meanings of “civility” have changed, the concept still carries traces of its earlier use. I’d argue further that although the contexts and specific applications have varied over time, the notion of civility consistently establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning — one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test.

MORE: “The New Thought Police

The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

The digital murder of the Gutenberg mind

Evolution_of_the_Book_Gutenberg

Here’s a double dose of dystopian cheer to accompany a warm and sunny Monday afternoon (or at least that’s the weather here in Central Texas).

First, Adam Kirsch, writing for The New Republic, in a piece dated May 2:

Everyone who ever swore to cling to typewriters, record players, and letters now uses word processors, iPods, and e-mail. There is no room for Bartlebys in the twenty-first century, and if a few still exist they are scorned. (Bartleby himself was scorned, which was the whole point of his preferring not to.) Extend this logic from physical technology to intellectual technology, and it seems almost like common sense to say that if we are not all digital humanists now, we will be in a few years. As the authors of Digital_Humanities write, with perfect confidence in the inexorability — and the desirability — of their goals, “the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper will have to make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises.”

. . . The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.

. . . The posture of skepticism is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so confident and culture is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are tempted to throw off the traditional burden and infuse the humanities with the material resources and the militant confidence of the digital. The danger is that they will wake up one morning to find that they have sold their birthright for a mess of apps.

MORE: “The False Promise of the Digital Humanities

Second, Will Self, writing for The Guardian, in a piece also dated May 2:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying — the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

. . . [T]he advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

. . . I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. . . . I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages — nor do I see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be — if, that is, there is to be one at all.

MORE: “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s for Real)

 

Image: Painting: John White Alexander (1856–1915); Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Called to academe: The university’s monastic ideal in a neoliberal age

Medieval_writing_desk

Here’s media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan making the case for recognizing the reality of an academic/scholarly calling — in the authentic religious vocational sense — in the midst of a neoliberal age obsessed with the economic and political concerns of the so-called “real world”:

In the United States, and increasingly in the world at large, we tend to reduce the conversation about the value, role, and scope of the scholarly life to how it serves short-term and personal interests like career preparation or job training. Sometimes we discuss higher education as an economic boon, attracting industry to a particular location or employing thousands in a remote town. Or we probe it as an engine of research and innovation. And sometimes we use academia as a tableau for satire or social criticism when we expose the excesses of the lazy and self-indulgent professoriat or giggle at the paper titles at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.

But none of these appraisals of the life of the mind gets at the real heart of the matter: the now quaint-sounding matter of the university’s “mission” — the bigger-picture question of what our institutions of higher learning do for and with the world.

. . . Within every great American university, even MIT, there is a monastery. It’s at its core. Sometimes the campus walls and spires make that ancestry undeniable. More often, the stadiums, sweatshirt stores, laboratories, fraternity houses, and career-placement offices mask the monastery. But it’s still there. European universities emerged from the network of monasteries that had accumulated, preserved, copied, and catalogued texts and scrolls over centuries. The transformation from cloistered monastery to slightly less cloistered university occurred in fits and starts over three centuries. But by the eighteenth century, universities throughout Europe were able to converse about this new thing called science and reflect on the meaning and utility of ancient texts that bore new meaning at the dawn of an industrial age.

Early American colleges and universities were likewise religious institutions built to train clergy to serve a sinful people. Soon they took on an additional role: exposing idle sons of the landed gentry such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to dangerous books coming over from Europe.

. . . [But today] When we scholars explain our passions — the deep satisfaction we feel when we help a nineteen-year-old make a connection between the Mahabharata and The Iliad, or when our research challenges the surprising results of some medical experiment that the year before generated unwarranted headlines — many of our listeners roll their eyes like my fellow students did back in that classroom in 1995. How embarrassing that people find deep value in such uncountable things.

It’s been a couple of decades since any American faculty member could engage in the deep pursuit of knowledge untethered from the clock or calendar. But many of us still write for the guild and the guild only, satisfied that someday someone might find the work a valuable part of a body of knowledge. But if that never happens, so be it — it’s all part of the calling’s steep price of admission.

MORE: “Mind Games: Making the Case for an Academic Calling in a Neoliberal Age

 

Image: “Medieval writing desk” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ray Bradbury: A life of mythic numinosity

Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA (http://history.nasa.gov/EP-125/part6.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA (http://history.nasa.gov/EP-125/part6.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Long-time Teeming Brain readers are well aware that Ray Bradbury frequently comes up in conversation here. Like so many other people, and as I detailed three years ago in “The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury,” I tend to think of him especially when October and the autumn season roll around. Maybe that’s why I’ve had him on the brain lately. Well, that, and the fact that next week the students in the college class on horror and science that I’m currently teaching will begin a two-week study of Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451. Before that, during the coming weekend, their assignment is to read his “The Foghorn” and “The Crowd.”

Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.

The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – September 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening and presiding word comes from Jonathan Franzen:

While we are busy tweeting, texting and spending, the world is drifting towards disaster, believes Jonathan Franzen, whose despair at our insatiable technoconsumerism echoes the apocalyptic essays of the satirist Karl Kraus — “the Great Hater.”

Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability — and who wouldn’t want them? — we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

. . . The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

— Jonathan Franzen, “What’s wrong with the modern world,” The Guardian, Friday, September 13, 2013

(Note that Franzen’s words in this piece have generated a large and varied response and backlash.)

* * *

Elites’ strange plot to take over the world (Salon)
“A few decades ago, politicians hatched a Tom Friedman-esque idea to unite U.S. and Western Europe. Did it succeed? Once we recognize that the Cold War saw the construction of a powerful international regime that explicitly sought to get rid of sovereign nations, these broad security architectures revealed by the Syria situation and the NSA spying revelations make a lot more sense.”

Pope condemns idolatry of cash in capitalism (The Guardian)
“Pope Francis has called for a global economic system that puts people and not ‘an idol called money’ at its heart. The 76-year-old said that God had wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world. ‘But now, in this ethics-less system, there is an idol at the centre and the world has become the idolater of this “money-god”,’ he added.”

From Crystal to Christ: A Once and Future Cathedral (First Things)
On the prominent and painful-to-watch implosion of Robert Schuller’s positive-thinking-based Protestant Christian ministry. “The implosion of the Crystal Cathedral can be explained in many ways — dysfunctional family dynamics, financial hard times, lack of wise leadership, and a changing religious climate. Moreover, today’s digital generation has no time for a whole ‘hour’ of power from anyone — two minutes on YouTube is enough! But long before the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, another kind of insolvency was at work eating away at the soul of the enterprise.”

DNA Doubletake (The New York Times)
“From biology class to ‘C.S.I.,’ we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes.”

A Toddler on 3 Different Psychiatric Meds? How Drugging Kids Became Big Business (AlterNet)
“Big pharma has discovered a lucrative new market in kids. The most recent estimates suggest that up to eight million American kids are on one or more psychiatric medications. Meds for kids are big business and highly profitable.”

Changing brains: Why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era (The Guardian)
“The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks. . . . Advances in neuroscience are not just discoveries. They also shape, as they always have done, how we view ourselves. As the Prozac nation fades, the empire of the circuit-based human will rise, probably to the point where dinner party chatter will include the misplaced jargon of systems neuroscience.”

Google vs. Death (Time, via 2045)
“How CEO Larry Page has transformed the search giant into a factory for moonshots. Our exclusive look at his boldest bet yet — to extend human life.”

Science: The religion that must not be questioned (The Guardian)
Fascinating: A senior editor at Nature not only points out the unduly quasi-religious attitude toward science that has infected public perception for many decades but argues that current journalism only exacerbates the problem: “TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy — somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable.”

The_Secrets_of_Alchemy_by_Lawrence_PrincipeNo nearer the Philosopher’s Stone (The Times Literary Supplement)
“Lawrence M. Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy is a deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art. Alchemy has not always been associated with esoteric mystics muttering necromantic incantations in the quest for spiritual purification. For much of its history, Principe reveals, alchemy was recognized as a sophisticated pursuit entailing the vigorous exertion of mind and hand, a convergence of laboratory experimentation and theoretical speculation that yielded spectacular control of chemical processes.”

Talk with me (Aeon)
“Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society.”

Silencing the Djinns (City Journal)
A dam project is threatening the ancient city of Hasankeyf, nestled between the Tigris River and the steep cliffs of the Tur Abdin Plateau in southeastern Turkey. This article talks about the clash of spiritual cultures that this development represents. “Here one can see every aspect of urban life in the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when power shifted from Baghdad and Cairo to Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that there are djinns here, too. ‘There are as many djinns as there are people in the world,’ [shepherd Ali Ayhan] says firmly. ‘But we live in the shining places, and they live in the dark places. That valley is for them.'”

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word comes from novelist and National Book Award winner Richard Powers, speaking to The Believer magazine in 2007 about the unique value of reading — and specifically, reading fiction — in helping to “deliver us from certainty” during an age when a great deal of evil arises from a surplus of that empathy-less state of mind:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

. . . It seems to me that evil . . . might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others. . . . I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

. . . Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story. A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

— “Interview with Richard Powers,” The Believer, February 2007

(Hat tip to Jesús Olmo for calling this interview to my attention.)

* * *

Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Criminal Charges Related to 2008 Crisis (Reuters – The Huffington Post)
“Five years on from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the debate over how to hold senior bank bosses to account for failures is far from over, but legal sanctions for top executives remain a largely remote threat.”

Online Security Pioneer Predicts Grim Future (LiveScience)
“One of the creators of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption believes that the future of Internet security will see everyday users getting the short end of the stick. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has likely compromised SSL, one of the foremost methods of Internet encryption. ‘There will be a huge pressure to catch up to NSA, and where this leads is not pretty.'”

CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ (Wired)
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published a first-of-its-kind assessment of the threat the country faces from antibiotic-resistant organisms. ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era,’ Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a media briefing. ‘And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.'”

Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School (The New York Times)
Truly bothersome information on the way the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves into a walled-off elite at America’s premier business school. Sign of the times. Culture replicating itself from above and below.

The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness (AlterNet)
“Coercion — the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance — is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. . . . [The partnership between Big Pharma and Big Money] has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.”

Science Confirms The Obvious: Pharmaceutical Ads Are Misleading (Popular Science)
“The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to market their products directly to consumers — in commercials like those cute little Zoloft ads and all those coy Viagra spots. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new study finds that when over-the-counter and prescription drug companies make commercials trying to sell the public on their product, they’re not always the most truthful.”

Reparative Compulsions (The New Inquiry)
“Social media works similarly [to gambling casinos], aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. . . . Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.”

Stephen King: True compassion lies at the heart of horror (The Telegraph)
“Stephen King’s books convey terror through character in a way that films never can. . . . This makes King different from the horror writers of a previous generation — Dennis Wheatley with his wicked aristocrats or H P Lovecraft with his luxuriant, ornate prose.”

David Attenborough: “I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real” (Radio Times)
Hat tip to Matt Staggs at Disinfo. “The world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster says he thinks the creature of Himalayan legend — which has a North American cousin known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch — could be much more than a myth.”

Unholy mystery (Aeon)
How fictional detectives, in the wake of the cultural religious disillusionments following the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, came to take the place of priests and shamans in the modern secular mind.

Brazilian Believers of Hidden Religion Step out of Shadows (NPR)
On the new and increasing mainstream cultural status of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, which are based on the experience of spirit possession, and which are coming forward for the first time to assert a claim to above-board political, economic, and social power. “Followers believe in one all-powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Individual initiates have their personal guiding deity, who acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of Marvels (Joscelyn Godwin for New Dawn)
“The museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in the Jesuit College of Rome was an obligatory stop for high-class tourists, from John Evelyn the diarist to Queen Christina of Sweden, but they never knew what to expect. . . . By the time of his death Kircher’s world view was already under demolition by the Scientific Revolution.”

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise (PBS Newshour)
“In an in-depth profile of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, Foreign Policy reveals that one of the ways the general endeared himself to lawmakers and officials was to make them feel like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise from the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

Educating the Potential Human — Skepticism, Psychical Research and a New Age of Reason (David Metcalfe for Disinfo)
“Whatever one’s personal beliefs on the subject of anomalous experience, it seems a bit blind not to realize that much of the heated conversation on the topic has nothing to do with actual understanding, and plays directly into the hands of profiteers of one sort or another, even down to the most mundane level of ego stroking experts on both sides who use the lack of clarity in the situation to support their personal brands.”

A New Story of the People (Charles Eisenstein)
A brilliant portion of Eisenstein’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, set to a compelling video complement, that explores the process of changing the world by changing our narrative about it. “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.”

Teeming Links – September 3, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading, here are passages from a hypnotic meditation on solitude, inner silence, reading, and the literary vocation by Rebecca Solnit, excerpted from her new book The Faraway Nearby:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

The_Faraway_Nearby_by_Rebecca_Solnit. . . To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.

. . . The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

. . . Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

— Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby,” Guernica, May 15, 2013

* * *

Broken Heartland (Harper’s)
The looming collapse of agriculture on America’s Great Plains. “In the dystopian future that Teske imagines, the cycle of farm dissolution and amalgamation will continue to its absurdist conclusion, with neighbors cannibalizing neighbors, until perhaps one day the whole of the American prairie will be nothing but a single bulldozed expanse of high-fructose corn patrolled by megacombines under the remote control of computer software 2,000 miles away. Yet even this may be optimistic.”

Martin Luther King? Not an enemy in the world (The Independent)
“Funny how the kind of people who would have been totally opposed to the civil rights leader 50 years ago now want to claim him as their hero. . . . But the adoration of banks and big business displayed by most Western governments may not fit exactly with the attitude of their hero.”

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. (The New Republic)
In defense of the wild child. “[We have] crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. ‘Self-regulation,’ ‘self-discipline,’ and ’emotional regulation’ are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing ‘appropriate’ behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy.”

Legislators of the world (Adrienne Rich for The Guardian)
The late Adrienne Rich, writing in 2006 shortly after receiving the U.S. National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, argues that dark times, far from devaluing poets and poetry as irrelevant, underscore the crucial need for them. “[T]hroughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together — and more.”

Are We Alone in the Universe? (Thought Economics)
“In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind’s quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The_Silence_of_Animals_by_John_GrayJohn Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On ‘The Silence of Animals’ (Simon Critchley for Los Angeles Review of Books)
“There is no way out of the dream and what has to be given up is the desperate metaphysical longing to find some anchor in a purported reality. . . . Paradoxically, for Gray, the highest value in existence is to know that there is nothing of substance in the world. Nothing is more real than nothing. It is the nothingness beyond us, the emptiness behind words, that Gray wants us to contemplate. His is a radical nominalism behind which stands the void.”

Monument to ‘god of chaos’ mysteriously appears in front of Oklahoma City restaurant (New York Daily News)
“A heavy concrete block appeared on the front lawn of The Paseo Grill in Oklahoma City on Friday. Restaurant owners aren’t quite sure what to make of the monument or its reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional deity, Azathoth. . . . After news about the monument spread on KFOR, [restaurant owner Leslie] Rawlinson said she’s been getting calls from people who were excited about the find and from people who warned her about its dangers.”

Parallel worlds (Aeon)
“Where did this idea of parallel universes come from? Science fiction is an obvious source. . . . Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. . . . Surprisingly, however, the idea of parallel universes is far older than any of these references, cropping up in philosophy and literature since ancient times. Even the word ‘multiverse’ has vintage. . . . If human history turns on the tilt of the multiverse, can we still trust our ideas of achievement, progress and morality?”

Siri: The Horror Movie

This certainly explains a lot.  “Appletopia” indeed.

Teeming Links – August 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word is actually double: two opening words. The first is from John Michael Greer, writing with his typically casual and powerful lucidity. The second is from international studies expert Charles Hill, who writes with equal power. They’re lengthy, so please feel free to skip on down to the list of links. But I think you’ll find something interesting if you first read these excerpts, and ruminate on them, and see if you can spot a deep connection between them.

First, from Mr. Greer:

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm . . . and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

. . . The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

. . . [T]he fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

— John Michael Greer, “Terms of Surrender,” The Archdruid Report, August 28, 2013

Second, from Dr. Hill:

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior.

. . . There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.

To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.

— Charles Hill, “On Decadence,” The American Interest, September/October 2013

If you made a Venn Diagram out of Hill’s and Greer’s respective ruminations, and if you meditated for a while on the shared middle ground between them, you might find something that would insightfully illuminate a lot of the material below.

* * *

Is America Addicted to War? (Foreign Policy, April 2011)
This exploration of “the top 5 reasons why we keep getting into foolish fights,” written by Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt in response to the United States’ military intervention in Libya’s civil war, is obviously and pointedly relevant to what’s going on right now with the Syria situation. “Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats (The Guardian)
“Convinced national security is for ever at risk, western governments mimic the fanaticism they claim to despise.”

The Leveraged Buyout of America (The Web of Debt Blog)
“Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?”

Academy Fight Song (The Baffler)
This may be the most exhaustive, devastating, damning, dystopian, and dead-on essay-length critique of higher education in America that I’ve ever read. “Virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators. . . . What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.”

Why Teach English? (Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker)
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. . . . No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department — texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.”

The Humanities Studies Debate (On Point with Tom Ashbrook)
A well-mounted, hour-long NPR radio debate. “Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning — philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts. Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy? Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight. To study, as Socrates said, ‘the way one should live.’ Critics say: ‘Crunch some numbers. Get a job.’

Paper Versus Pixel (Nicholas Carr for Nautilus)
“On the occasion of the inaugural Nautilus Quarterly, we asked Nicholas Carr to survey the prospects for a print publication. Here he shows why asking if digital publications will supplant printed ones is the wrong question. ‘We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper’ [says Carr]. ‘They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.'”

Japan Opens ‘Fasting Camps’ To Wean Kids Off Of Excessive Internet Usage (International Business Times)
“A government study found that up to 15 percent of Japanese students spend as much as five hours online everyday and even more time on the internet on weekends. As a result, the Tokyo government’s education ministry will introduce ‘web fasting camps’ to help young people disconnect from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held devices.”

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose (Bloomberg)
“It is a fundamental biological phenomenon. A single cell ‘decides’ (for lack of a better word) to strike off on its own. Mutation by mutation, it evolves — like a monster in the ecosystem of your body. Cancer is an occupying force with a will of its own. . . . What from the body’s point of view are dangerous mutations are, for the tumor, advantageous adaptations. . . . Susan Sontag called cancer ‘a demonic pregnancy,’ ‘a fetus with its own will.’ That is more than an arresting metaphor.”

New Exhibit Explains Why We’ve Been Fascinated By Witches For More Than 500 Years (The Huffington Post)
“A new exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, aptly titled exhibition, ‘Witches & Wicked Bodies,’ is paying homage to art’s heated affair with witches. The show dives into darker depictions of witches hidden in prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and more, shedding light on attitudes perpetuated by everyone from Francisco de Goya to Paula Rego.”

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research (Prehistoric Shamanism)
“By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did. . . . The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human.”

William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics (Mysterious Universe)
“Through comics, films and television, ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets.”

How reading and literature effectively reincarnate us into a higher form of consciousness

From Mark Edmundson, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a passionate paean to the college English major as a field of study that is ultimately devoted to “pursuing the most important subject of all — being a human being”:

Soon college students all over America will be trundling to their advisers’ offices to choose a major. In this moment of financial insecurity, students are naturally drawn to economics, business, and the hard sciences. But students ought to resist the temptation of those purportedly money-ensuring options and even of history and philosophy, marvelous though they may be. All students — and I mean all — ought to think seriously about majoring in English.

. . . English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who — let us admit it — are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense — more alive with meaning than you had thought.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure — but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

. . . Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world — what to be, how to act, how to move through time — at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study — or at least made some significant progress on your way — then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

COMPLETE ESSAY: “The Ideal English Major