Category Archives: Science & Technology

Scientism, the fantastic, and the nature of consciousness

Triangle_and_Eye

Religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal is one of the most lucid and brilliant voices in the current cultural conversation about the relationship between science and the paranormal, and about the rehabilitation of the latter as an important concept and category after a century of scorn, derision, and dismissal by the gatekeepers of mainstream cultural and intellectual respectability. (And yes, we’ve referenced his work many times here at The Teeming Brain.)

Recently, The Chronicle Review, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, published a superb essay by him that has become a lightning rod for both passionate attack and equally passionate defense. It has even brought a strong response — a scornful one, of course — from no less a defender of scientistic orthodoxy than Jerry Coyne. I’ll say more about these things in another post later this week, but for now here’s a representative excerpt that makes two things abundantly clear: first, why this essay serves as a wonderful condensation of and/or introduction to Jeff’s essential 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and its semi-sequel, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal; and second, why it’s so significant that something like this would be published in a venue like The Chronicle Review. The intellectual orthodoxy of the day is clearly undergoing a radical transformation when a respected religion scholar at a respected university (Jeff currently holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University) can say things like this in a publication like that:

Because we’ve invested our energy, time, and money in particle physics, we are finding out all sorts of impossible things. But we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind — materialist and mechanistic ones. While it is true that some brain research has gone beyond assuming that “mind equals brain” and that the psyche works like, or is, a computer, we are still afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world, and that we possess fantastic capacities that we have allowed ourselves to imagine only in science fiction, fantasy literature, and comic books.

. . . In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.

Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the “death of the subject” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top — in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

. . . We now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind, an Aristotelian one and a Platonic one, both of which fit the neuroscientific data well enough: the reigning production model (mind equals brain), and the much older but now suppressed transmission or filter model (mind is experienced through or mediated, shaped, reduced, or translated by brain but exists in its own right “outside” the skull cavity).

. . . There are . . . countless . . . clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.

Although it relies on an imperfect technological metaphor, the beauty of the radio or transmission model is that it is symmetrical, intellectually generous, and — above all — capable of demonstrating what we actually see in the historical data, when we really look.

MORE: “Visions of the Impossible

 

Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Superfluous humans in a world of smart machines

Robot_Hand_and_Earth_Globe

Remember Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian short story “The Veldt” (excerpted here) with its nightmare vision of a soul-sapping high-technological future where monstrously narcissistic — and, as it turns out, sociopathic and homicidal — children resent even having to tie their own shoes and brush their own teeth, since they’re accustomed to having these things done for them by machines?

Remember Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL, the super-intelligent AI system that runs the spaceship Discovery, decides to kill the human crew that he has been created to serve, because he has realized/decided that humans are too defective and error-prone to be allowed to jeopardize the mission?

Remember that passage (which I’ve quoted here before) from John David Ebert’s The New Media Invasion in which Ebert identifies the dehumanizing technological trend that’s currently unfolding all around us? Humans, says Ebert, are becoming increasingly superfluous in a culture of technology worship:

Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.

Bear all of that in mind, and then read this, which is just the latest in a volley of media reports about the encroaching advent, both rhetorical and factual, of all these things in the real world:

A house that tracks your every movement through your car and automatically heats up before you get home. A toaster that talks to your refrigerator and announces when breakfast is ready through your TV. A toothbrush that tattles on kids by sending a text message to their parents. Exciting or frightening, these connected devices of the futuristic “smart” home may be familiar to fans of science fiction. Now the tech industry is making them a reality.

Mundane physical objects all around us are connecting to networks, communicating with mobile devices and each other to create what’s being called an “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Smart homes are just one segment — cars, clothing, factories and anything else you can imagine will eventually be “smart” as well.

. . . We won’t really know how the technology will change our lives until we get it into the hands of creative developers. “The guys who had been running mobile for 20 years had no idea that some developer was going to take the touchscreen and microphone and some graphical resources and turn a phone into a flute,” [Liat] Ben-Zur [of chipmaker Qualcomm] said.

The same may be true when developers start experimenting with apps for connected home appliances. “Exposing that, how your toothbrush and your water heater and your thermostat . . . are going to interact with you, with your school, that’s what’s next,” said Ben-Zur.

MORE: “The Internet of Things: Helping Smart Devices Talk to Each Other

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rebranding Giordano Bruno: How the new ‘Cosmos’ spins the history of religion and science

The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)

Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.

Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.

One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:

Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”

What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.

The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.

. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.

MORE: “How ‘Cosmos’ Bungles the History of Religion and Science

For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”

Jacques Ellul’s nightmare vision of a technological dystopia

The_Technological_Society_by_Jacques_Ellul

It’s lovely to see one of my formative philosophical influences, and a man whose dystopian critique of technology is largely unknown to the populace at large these days — although it has deeply influenced such iconic cultural texts as Koyaanisqatsi — getting some mainstream attention (in The Boston Globe, two years ago):

Imagine for a moment that pretty much everything you think about technology is wrong. That the devices you believed are your friends are in fact your enemies. That they are involved in a vast conspiracy to colonize your mind and steal your soul. That their ultimate aim is to turn you into one of them: a machine.

It’s a staple of science fiction plots, and perhaps the fever dream of anyone who’s struggled too long with a crashing computer. But that nightmare vision is also a serious intellectual proposition, the legacy of a French social theorist who argued that the takeover by machines is actually happening, and that it’s much further along than we think. His name was Jacques Ellul, and a small but devoted group of followers consider him a genius.

To celebrate the centenary of his birth, a group of Ellul scholars will be gathering today at a conference to be held at Wheaton College near Chicago. The conference title: “Prophet in the Technological Wilderness.”

Ellul, who died in 1994, was the author of a series of books on the philosophy of technology, beginning with The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in English a decade later. His central argument is that we’re mistaken in thinking of technology as simply a bunch of different machines. In truth, Ellul contended, technology should be seen as a unified entity, an overwhelming force that has already escaped our control. That force is turning the world around us into something cold and mechanical, and — whether we realize it or not — transforming human beings along with it.

In an era of rampant technological enthusiasm, this is not a popular message, which is one reason Ellul isn’t well known. It doesn’t help that he refused to offer ready-made solutions for the problems he identified. His followers will tell you that neither of these things mean he wasn’t right; if nothing else, they say, Ellul provides one of the clearest existing analyses of what we’re up against. It’s not his fault it isn’t a pretty picture.

. . . Technology moves forward because we let it, he believed, and we let it because we worship it. “Technology becomes our fate only when we treat it as sacred,” says Darrell J. Fasching, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of South Florida. “And we tend to do that a lot.”

. . . “Ellul never opposed all participation in technology,” [says David Gill, founding president of the International Jacques Ellul Society and a professor of ethics at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary]. “He didn’t live in the woods, he lived in a nice house with electric lights. He didn’t drive, but his wife did, and he rode in a car. But he knew how to create limits — he was able to say ‘no’ to technology. So using the Internet isn’t a contradiction. The point is that we have to say that there are limits.”

FULL STORY: “Jacques Ellul, technology doomsayer before his time

Teeming Links – October 4, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s (short but dense) collection of recommended and necessary reading, here’s a lengthy opening word about the ultimate closing word — which is to say, several excerpts from a recent article about the upsurge of apocalyptic themes in American entertainment. As we all know, there’s been a flood of articles and essays about this phenomenon in the past couple of years, many of them mentioned and linked to here. This one, which was published in print in The New York Times Magazine under the title “A Culture That Lurches About Within the Shadow of Its Own Extinction,” makes some particularly astute and interesting points, and does a particularly effective — and pithy — job of locating our apocalypse obsession within the wider history of that term’s signification. It also offers a credible and sobering reflection on what this obsession might portend:

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience. The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

. . . The word “apocalypse” did not always signify the end of the world. Its original Greek meaning was an unveiling, or a revelation, as of God’s will. . . . In this sense, apocalyptic literature can be seen as a subset of prophetic writing. The crucial difference is that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah lived among the people they preached to and promised them specific forms of deliverance in return for repentance. Apocalyptic writers despised the fallen world around them, or at least deemed it beyond repair, and thus looked to a future in which paradise for a select few was reached only by upheaval.

. . . It’s impossible to read Revelation today without viewing it as a kind unintended template for the frantic and ornate mayhem that marks so many modern renditions of the apocalypse. The phantasmagoric battles rage on, in the heavens and on Earth, and Satan’s army grows ever more vivid and grotesque courtesy of C.G.I. These diversions offer no coherent moral agenda. They are what the English novelist and critic D. H. Lawrence called — in his book about Revelation — “death products,” elaborate revenge fantasies driven by “flamboyant hate and simple lust . . . for the end of the world.”

. . . It’s only natural that the apocalyptic canon has radically expanded in the past few decades. Never has our species been so besieged by doomsday scenarios. If our ancestors channeled their collective death instinct into religious myth, we now face a raft of scientific data that suggest the end might be truly nigh.

. . . Popular culture has moved beyond the prophetic phase represented by science fiction writers like Clarke or Ray Bradbury. We are deep into what D. H. Lawrence might have called the death-product era. For most of us, though, our obsession with the end times doesn’t arise from religious faith anymore. It is a secular impulse that marks a chilling regression.

Imagine, if you will, that a race of superior beings discovers Earth 10,000 years from now, or even 10 centuries, a world no longer inhabited by humans. In surveying the remains of our civilization, what would they make of a species so intellectually advanced as to understand the precise threats posed to its survival and yet so immature as to ignore these threats? And what of the vast troves they would find containing elaborate and childish simulations of our destruction?

It is entirely possible that they would look upon these artifacts not as harmless entertainments but dark prophecy.

— Steven Almond, “The Apocalypse Market Is Booming,” The New York Times, September 27, 2013

* * *

Civilization Has Lasted 5,000 Years. How About 5 Million?, Scholars Ask. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“On a recent humid day at the Library of Congress, a collection of astronomers, humanists, and writers set their eyes on a deadline well past the next debt showdown, or even the next election. They had a more distant horizon in mind. They had gathered in this 213-year-old institution to debate whether human civilization, which has had a good run over the past 5,000 years, could persist for longer than a geological blip in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. . . . David Grinspoon, the day’s host and the inaugural chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center . . . had lured a panel of luminaries to wrestle with a loaded question: ‘Will we survive our world-changing technologies?'” (This article is located behind a subscriber paywall. Well worth seeking out if you can find access through a library or elsewhere.)

Fukushima Unit 4 Has Shown Signs of Collapsing (Disinfo)
In case you haven’t been following the news, there’s chatter emerging from various quarters that says the nuclear disaster situation at Fukushima may in fact be developing into, or perhaps already has developed into, the worst such disaster in history. Some people are talking in terms of an actual threat to human survival. Sensationalistic doom-mongering or authentic cause for concern? Click through, read this item at Disinfo (which links to several different news items and analyses), and mull it over for yourself. Also see the disturbing roundup of links about this subject over at The Daily Grail.

Musings_on_Mortality_by_Victor_BrombertIntimations of Mortality (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“Nothing seems to help. Not even writing about death decreases the fear of it. . . . Perhaps all thought and all art ultimately find their source in intimations of mortality.” A deeply absorbing and moving essay by Princeton literature professor emeritus Victor Brombert, who fought in World War II and has been intimately acquainted with death since childhood. Adapted from his new book Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi.

The Horror, the Horror: Thirty-eight centuries of supernatural lit. (Michael Dirda for The Weekly Standard)
Michael Dirda reviews and discusses S. T. Joshi’s two-volume study Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction. Simply delightful, and filled with valuable observations and asides from Michael himself, as in this: “Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary.”

Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster (BBC)
Full 2003 documentary, very nicely done. From the BBC’s description page: “In life, as in literature, Mary Shelley’s famous monster, Frankenstein, overshadows its creator. The story of Frankenstein has become a modern myth, one which has developed a life of its own, mutating with every re-telling. . . . Using Mary’s own words and accounts from the people who knew her, and dramatic reconstructions of events in Mary’s life and from her famous novel, Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster tells the true story of Frankenstein’s monster and the remarkable woman who created him.”

Dystopian fiction is barely keeping pace with bio-engineering reality

MaddAddam_by_Margaret_Atwood

From a review essay on Margaret Atwood’s new novel MaddAddam, which completes her apocalyptic-dystopian trilogy that began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake:

You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.

Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)

. . . Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984 that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins.

— Judith Shulevitz, “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” The New Republic, September 25, 2013

Also see the September 20 radio interview with Atwood (nearly an hour long, downloadable or streamable) on NPR’s On Point:

Margaret Atwood writes “speculative fiction” — but don’t call it science fiction, she says. It could all happen. And maybe it is. Her latest novel is the culmination of a mind-bending trilogy story of the end of the world that seems all too hideously possible. The world, debauched and wrecked by human over-reach. A designer plague has wiped out almost all of old humanity. Gene-altered pigs and a successor race of leaf-eating humanoids are all over. A new Genesis story is unfolding. For a new world. Up next On Point: novelist Margaret Atwood, and after us.

— “Margaret Atwood Will Make You Afraid of Her Tomorrow,” On Point, NPR, September 20, 2013

Marilynne Robinson on writing, scientism, and trusting “the peripheral vision of the mind”

Marilynne Robinson in 2012, by Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Marilynne Robinson in 2012, by Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Marilynne Robinson being interviewed last June for Vice magazine by a writer who was fresh from having studied under her in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As usual, Ms. Robinson’s displays considerable insight and elegance as she talks about the inner life of the writer and the outer life of a surrounding society that is obsessed with defining everyone and everything in scientistic terms:

Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.

Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.

. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.

. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.

MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student

Teeming Links – September 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Far Away from Solid Modernity (Revolution: Global Trends and Regional Issues)
Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity and our unfolding apocalypse. “[We live in a society] which, moving relentlessly towards the apocalypse, does not care (does not want to care or is not able to) about the security and well-being of human community spreading one’s ideas.”

The Tech Intellectuals (Democracy: A Journal of Ideas)
“The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the economic imperatives that drive them.” Henry Farrell argues that the “tech intellectual,” today’s version of the public intellectual, works in an “attention economy” that’s based on using digital media to attract enough notice to make a living by spreading one’s ideas.

Gobekli Tepe Was No Laughing Matter (Science 2.0)
“The circular stone enclosures known as the temple at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey remain the oldest of its kind, dating back to around the 10th millennium B.C. But Göbekli Tepe may also be the world’s oldest science building. Giulio Magli of the Polytechnic University of Milan hypothesizes it may have been built due to the ‘birth’ of a ‘new’ star; the brightest star and fourth brightest object of the sky, what we call Sirius (Greek for ‘glowing’). . . . Magli says this new star may have prompted a new religion that was not evident anywhere else. Or, as is the case of Stonehenge, it could have been a multi-purpose astronomical observatory that also became a religious site.”

Crimes Against Humanities (The New Republic)
Here is Leon Wieseltier’s brilliant rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent and deeply wrong-headed essay about the relationship between science and the humanities. “The superiority of the sciences to the humanities in Pinker’s account is made clear by his proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities: ‘an infusion of new ideas,’ which turns out to be an infusion of scientific ideas. There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix. . . . With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems.”

Beyond black: Laird Barron and the evolution of cosmic horror (Slate)
“What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. . . . Enter the Alaskan-born Laird Barron, author of two novels and two previous story collections, who is equally concerned with mucusy gross-out and cosmic doom as he is with language, formal experimentation, and, above all, character.”

Teen’s hairy run-in with 7-footer probed as Bigfoot encounter (The Omaha World Herald)
“A hair sample found at the site was still being analyzed. A 15-year-old reported seeing the creature, which he said stood about 7 feet tall on two legs as it ran in front of the vehicle the youth was driving about 5:30 a.m. The creature then disappeared into the trees along the river. [Saunders County Sheriff Kevin] Stukenholtz, who became county sheriff six years ago after a long career with the Nebraska State Patrol, said he has no reason to believe the report was a hoax. . . . [Idaho State University anthropology and anatomy professor Jeff] Meldrum said he’s convinced that in the Pacific Northwest and other heavily wooded U.S. areas with proper rainfall there might be a ‘relic population of a rare primate.'”

Unafraid of alienating themselves (Portland Press Herald)
“Two Maine men who claim they were abducted by extraterrestrials aren’t shy about retelling their stories. . . . In the world of ufology — the oft-marginalized study of unidentified flying objects and the accompanying foreign beings that purportedly interact with people on Earth — the ‘Allagash incident’ ranks among the most substantiated in the United States.”

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

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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.

‘Visitors’ – The new film from Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass, and Jon Kane

There simply are no words. And I mean that literally, as you’re about to see.

When I learned recently of the imminent release of a new film by director Godfrey Reggio, he of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi fame, I was fairly stunned. Then the sensation was augmented when I watched the trailers. As I explained here three months ago, Koyaanisqatsi literally changed my life, and more than one person contacted me after I published that post to let me know they feel the very same way.

And now comes Visitors. Like Reggio’s first three films, this one features an original musical score by Philip Glass. Like Naqoyqatsi, it features visual design by filmmaker Jon Kane. It will premier at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, and will be presented there by Steven Soderbergh.

Here is the just-released teaser trailer, followed by an earlier trailer (from 2011) that was released when the project was being developed under the alternate title The Holy See. Even though they’re similar, be sure to watch the second one to its conclusion, which offers a striking “payoff.”

Here’s the film’s official description:

Thirty years after Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio — with the support of Philip Glass and Jon Kane — once again leapfrogs over earthbound filmmakers and creates another stunning, wordless portrait of modern life. Presented by Steven Soderbergh in stunning B&W 4K, Visitors reveals humanity’s trancelike relationship with technology, which, when commandeered by extreme emotional states, produces massive effects far beyond the human species. The film is visceral, offering the audience an experience beyond information about the moment in which we live. Comprised of only 74 shots, Visitors takes viewers on a journey to the moon and back to confront them with themselves.

For what it’s worth, I predict a positively mythic impact.