Category Archives: Society & Culture

COVID-19 and our apocalyptic house of cards

During this present moment of breathtaking global turmoil that’s characterized by crumbling foundational assumptions and free-falling civilizational presuppositions, the above video, published at BoingBoing, may constitute the most necessary viewing on the entire internet. Words and narration by long-time Teeming Brain friend Erik Davis. Card manipulation by renowned magician and “magic experience designer” Ferdinando Buscema. Musical soundscape by Bluetech. Overall production and direction by Italian mentalist Francesco Tesei. All of it focused on the matter of “the ongoing pandemic, disorder, and the opportunity emerging from the entropy.” (Thank you, btw, to Teem member David Metcalfe for alerting me to the video’s existence with a tweet.)

The first part of Erik’s narration sets the philosophical scene:

Everyone knows what a house of cards is. But until recently, you probably didn’t realize you actually lived in one. Normally, we ignore the complexity of the human world around us, this network of unstable structures propped up through improvised designs and just-in-time responses. But the pandemic has now shown us just how flimsy these structures are. Now we can all sense the fragility of our institutions, especially for the most vulnerable. The mask is off. From financial markets to health care, from jobs to the food supply, from debt to news, we can feel the rickety edifice of civilization begin to wobble and crack. The rug, it seems, is being pulled out from under us. And as we hunker down, anxious and isolated, our own personal realities begin to disintegrate as well.

Erik goes on to point out that such periods of crumbling structures and their accompanying apocalyptic anxieties, which have erupted into human affairs throughout history, bring with them an unexpectedly salubrious result and a major opportunity as they deliver us from the unacknowledged prison of what we have mistakenly thought of as solid, permanent arrangements, and toss us right into the heart of “the chaos that precedes all creation.”

That particular wording brings to mind the theologian Catherine Keller and her article “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” a portion of which I used nearly 20 years ago, with her permission, as the closing epigraph to my Divinations of the Deep. More recently, in fact just last month, she and her fellow theologian John J. Thatamanil wrote an op-ed for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal titled “Is this an Apocalypse? We certainly hope so — and you should too.” Their point, which they built around the original and profound meaning of the word “apocalypse” (something I’ve talked about here many times in the past), resonates warmly with the house of cards illustration above:

Contemporaries keep using the term “apocalypse,” but literalist biblical interpretation notwithstanding, the term doesn’t mean what many think it means. Deriving from the Greek apokalypsis, the word means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Hence, the title given to the final book of the Christian Bible, “The Apocalypse of John,” is accurately translated “Revelation” not “Cataclysm.” Not “The End.” Unfortunately, this root meaning has been forgotten in popular circles.

When the term is understood as “unveiling,” we can then ask the right questions: What does this pandemic unveil? What have we refused to see about ourselves and the precarious world we’ve built, a world that now stands exposed and tottering in the harsh light of this unasked-for revelation? If we permit this crisis to expose the fissures of our failing world, this pandemic will have served as properly apocalyptic. If instead, despite its devastating toll, we return to an obsolete and unsustainable world, nothing meaningful will have been revealed. . . .

So what might coronavirus “reveal” to us? Is it at once our inescapable interdependence with an earth-full of humans and nonhumans? Does that entanglement turn deadly when we repress it? When we think we can control, commodify and consume the matter of the world, does it bite back at our own mattering bodies? . . .

Perhaps, if we are able to awaken to what is unveiled in this apocalyptic moment, we will make our way forward into a new world rather than shore up the old one. . . .

[W]hat are the chances for a habitable and hospitably shared future? Close to none, if responsibility for the damage remains concealed. Which is why, even in the midst of flood, fire, or pandemic — a way, a wisdom, can get revealed. Apocalypse after all? May it be so!

As I myself argued here some seven years ago, apocalypse, rightly regarded, is a path of spiritual awakening. You walk it when you deliberately allow and encourage the crumbling of surface appearances and seemingly solid structures around you, and even within you, to serve as spurs to awakening. When you let the death of the false, which you had formerly and mistakenly regarded as the true, wake you up to the real. When you embrace the exit from Plato’s Cave because somebody blew it up around you. When you embrace the desert of the real that came into view when you woke up from the Matrix because somebody pulled the plug.

As I said seven years ago, like any real spiritual path, this is ultimately not something that you choose but something that chooses you. And as it so happens, with the advent of the Coronacene, the Way of Apocalypse has apparently chosen all of us at once. It remains to be seen how many of us will prove to be like Cypher, who begged to be plugged back into the Matrix, to reenter the dream because he hated reality. How many of us will be like the prisoners in the cave who didn’t want to leave because they loved their imprisonment. We’re seeing aspects of that particular psychological and cultural tension beginning play out right now. The quote from Philip K. Dick that rounds out the house of cards video (drawn from his 1978 speech/essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” whose title helps to explain the title of the video) supplies a necessary and steadying insight for such things:

Do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.

Uneasy thoughts on our bookless future

Mark Bauerlein in Claremont Review of Books, in a perceptive review essay on Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, with additional consideration of Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading:

It won’t be long before all living memory of a time before the personal computer is gone. People will no longer address the meaning of screens from the remembered background of a computer-free life. Leah Price and Maryanne Wolf grew up with books; they had a print childhood, not a digital one. Price aims to soften the impact of the Digital Revolution, I suspect, because of a liberal impulse to accept cultural change with an urbane smile. That’s the going etiquette. I have witnessed many times my humanities colleagues receive news of popular culture drifting ever farther from their intellectual interests with a shrug. It is unseemly to them to criticize people for their cultural choices. But with every survey showing meager reading time and massive screen time in the leisure hours of the young, it is increasingly difficult not to share Wolf’s dismay.

More: “Our Bookless Future

The transformative power of autistic thinking

Poet and essayist Chris Martin works with autistic writers to help them transform their lives through their art. In a positively riveting recent essay at Literary Hub, he reflects on the critical — and rising — value of the autistic perspective at a time when our relationship to “the more-than-human world” has entered an acute crisis:

Neurotypical brains, which prioritize human content, zero in on the complex dance of social life unfolding around us, alert at all times to a change in the established choreography. A great poet, however, must ground their work in sensory observations that move past the often transactional nature of human experiences to get at the vast “real world” going on all around. We too often miss or overlook what’s really going on around us. And that’s what autistic writers do naturally. . . .

When we think of unique and caring individuals like [my autistic student] Bill as a collection of deficits, we not only risk alienating them, but we also put in jeopardy the parts of ourselves that exist necessarily outside the so-called norm. In life, as in poetry, we must remain open and assume ability, so we don’t miss out on crucial lessons like the one Bill taught us that day at Hallam Lake, as he deftly tapped into the vicarious life of a crippled bird. And we must learn, like Bill, to hear the hurt and yearning of the more-than-human world and cultivate the rich, layered, and autistic attention our planet desperately requires. . . .

Autistic thinkers habitually see and hear with an environmental bandwidth that dwarfs their neurotypical counterparts. They perceive widely, warmly, and with an earnest curiosity that treats the more-than-human world as a phenomenal network to be engaged, not a menu of resources to be exploited. . . . Where others perceive nothing but a mute backdrop to their busy human affairs, these autistic thinkers comprehend a bustling chorus of more-than-human voices accompanied by a dense dance of more-than-human forms. . . .

Gonzalo Bernard, an autistic artist and shaman, has written about autism as “the shaman’s disease.” He points to the oracular within the echolalic, the dervish inside the stim. To Bernard, [my student] Hannah’s song is no different from his om, giving the contemplative mind a root from which to bloom. It is this mixture of truth, connection, and contemplation that endows the autistic thinker with transformative abilities. They can see what others can’t, because their eyes are wide open to the more-than-human world, preferring the periphery to direct contact. They not only hear with greater acuity than their neurotypical counterparts, but also hear more widely, more deeply. The strength of their empathy for the more-than-human world leads autistic thinkers to completely transform the way we talk about environmental crisis. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that autistic voices are among our best resources for facing climate change. We, as a species, need to enter a stage of deep listening if we are to survive. Our listening must grow, as Hannah wrote, ever deeper.

More: “The Listening World: Neurodivergent Voices for a More-Than-Human World

Solitude has always been a blessing and a curse

From a review of two new books (A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti and A History of Solitude by David Vincent) in The Economist:

The history of solitude is thus partly a history of extremes—of people who have willingly sat on top of pillars for decades and of prison reformers who aim to use loneliness to break men’s souls. But it is also a history of the quest for balance.

The healthiest form of solitude is a flexible kind that combines it with sociability as necessary. Modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand, it has introduced what Mr Vincent calls “networked solitude”. Just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away. And the same technology that allows the solitary individual to engage remotely with society also allows society to engage remotely—and sometimes secretly—with the individual. Giant companies watch over you whether you are alone or in a crowd.

There is also something disturbing about the way the boundaries between solitude and sociability are blurring. Visit a gym and you see sweaty solipsists performing private workouts in public. On a train many of your fellow passengers will be insulated by headphones. Those ubiquitous devices are double-edged: they can fill your head with babble or, thanks to noise-cancelling, leave you in Trappist silence. As the two categories mingle, so the quest for balance becomes more intense. Popular modern fads offer a reacquaintance with the virtues of solitude: mindfulness provides access to peace and silence; some of the most popular pastimes in Silicon Valley, the source of so much noise and distraction, are hiking, yoga and meditation.

The lockdown has put the question of solitude at the heart of politics. Social distancing has been a tragedy for those living and, in some cases, dying alone. But for others it has proved a strange blessing. Overworked people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting. Many have picked up long-abandoned hobbies, such as tending the garden or playing bridge. Solitude is both one of mankind’s greatest blessings and greatest curses—and thanks to a virus that has been carried across the world by human sociability, more people than ever are getting the chance to experience both.

More: “Solitude Has Always Been Both a Blessing and a Curse” (paywall)

Teeming Links – August 9, 2019

Before the links, a brief screed that arose spontaneously from some well in my psyche:

If you’re a writer or another type of creator, never compare your gift to that of others. Your particular gift of vision, subject matter, passion, skill level, style, approach, and the life circumstances in which these all exist and unfold neither gains nor suffers through comparison. Just write or create what you have to write or create, and do it in whatever way you’re inexorably called and driven to do it. Do the necessary inner and outer work of finding out exactly what those things are (your personal subject matter and style). Then make good on them.

(A brief gnostic/cryptic aside on “having to” create: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Jesus, Thomas 70)

And while you’re at it, enjoy the hell out of it whenever you see other people doing the same. Their gains aren’t your losses, and vice versa. It’s not a zero-sum game. When you live out your creative calling, you’re part of the rising tide that elevates everybody.

From the Illuminati to Alex Jones, how did conspiracy theories come to dominate American culture? “[S]omething new . . . has transformed the conspiratorial landscape: conspiracism — a mental framework, a belief system, a worldview that leads people to look for conspiracies, to anticipate them, to link them together into a grander overarching conspiracy. Conspiracism has been building for some time, and by now it appears to have emerged as the belief system of the 21st century. “

On the danger of off-loading human memory onto machines: “A new kind of civilisation seems to be emerging, one rich in machine intelligence, with ubiquitous access points for us to join in nimble artificial memory networks. . . . But dependency on a network also means taking on new vulnerabilities. The collapse of any of the webs of relations that our wellbeing depends upon, such as food or energy, would be a calamity. Without food we starve, without energy we huddle in the cold. And it is through widespread loss of memory that civilisations are at risk of falling into a looming dark age.”

Synthetic biology could bring a pox on us all. “There’s no telling when a manufactured disease will become a reality. If that occurs, the culprit might be a lab-trained terrorist or a basement biohacker, a bumbling grad student or a Russian microbiologist on the lam.”

Why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is more relevant now than ever (paywall): “What happens when our newly created life forms can copy themselves, are immortal, can update their own software and make their own decisions? Will they feel remorse? Will humanity really be worth keeping?”

Beware the panopticon in your pocket. “You’re not using the phone; the phone is using you. The smartphone is a Trojan horse, and you are Pavlov’s dog. The machine studies you with an alien’s eye, serving you with injections of warmth and affection (grandchildren, frolicking dogs) in order to suck out information, assembling a dossier — noting where you have been, what you have said, what you have bought and thought, your very footsteps and heartbeats — reproducing you as a useful commercial or political object, as if in a 3-D printer. . . . It’s not entirely paranoid to assume that, not far down the road, smartphones and electronic appliances may fulfill old science-fiction fantasies by figuring out what we are thinking or even dreaming, and that the thought or dream — unless it is of an approved nature—will be enough to condemn us. Intellectual endoscopy, why not? Privacy of mind, an atavism already under siege, will vanish.”

Also beware the mindfulness conspiracy. “Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. . . . [But n]eoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.”

Then there’s the more general subject of meditation. Everybody’s heard about how meditation is supposed to help. What everybody’s forgetting is that meditation can topple you over the edge into a hell of psychosis and/or a dark night of the soul: “I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror. I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”

A question raised by recent startling reports from mainstream outlets such as Politico and The Washington Post: What the hell is going on with UFOs and the Department of Defense? “Someone or something appears to have some extremely advanced technology and the Pentagon is actively changing the nature of the conversation about it.”

The Navy says UFOs are real. UFO hunters are thrilled. “So why is no one freaking out about these revelations making front page news? As UFO author Chris Rutkowski once explained, perhaps it is because we have become acclimatized to seeing UFOs invading Earth in books and on screen. Whether you are of the Spielberg generation, watching a candy eating E.T., or a millennial who grew up watching The Avengers fight off hordes of evil intergalactic aliens, we are used to seeing this archetypal other in our media. UFOs, as a result, have become much less frightening and perhaps much more interesting. Have we negotiated UFOs into our cultural framework and identity?”

Alien Abductions, Flying Saints, and Parapsychology: Grappling with the “Super Natural” (paywall). An article (not free, alas) in the academic journal Religious Studies Review on Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber’s The Super Natural, Michael Grosso’s The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, and my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies. “[These three works] raise questions about exactly which questions scholars studying the paranormal ought to be asking. . . . Ultimately, Kripal, Strieber, Grosso, and Cardin dare us to take their work and the ‘super natural’ seriously.”

Exorcism goes mainstream: Combined Churches assemble in Rome to learn “best practice” eviction of demons: “The Roman Catholic Church has for the first time opened up its annual exorcism class in Rome to representatives of all major Christian faiths. . . . [T]he doors of the 14th Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation Course have been thrown open to groups once considered heretical and demon-infested only a few short centuries ago. Now some 250 Catholics, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox and Protestant priests have assembled to arm themselves with the sword of the holy word to battle Satan amid the souls of their parishoners.”

On forgetting how to read in the Internet age: “For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic — and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.”

To study the humanities is to study the meaning of life. “I tell my students, ‘Look, we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.’ The meaning of life is that I’m alive for the time being. I’m in a world which is making contradictory demands upon me. What do I do?”

Missives from another world: Literature of parallel universes. “Alternate history functions to do what the best of literature more generally does — provide a wormhole to a different reality. . . . We are haunted by our other lives, ghosts of misfortune averted, spirits of opportunities rejected, so that fiction is not simply the experience of another [person’s thoughts and viewpoint], but a deep human connection with those differing versions on the paths of our forked parallel lives.”

YOU ARE NOT ALONE: A Conversation with Christopher Ropes on Stigmas, Writing, and Mental Illness. “Writing is not easy for me to begin with because I dredge up all my own demons in my stories. When you have mental health issues, you have some pretty terrifying demons to encounter. I think we all face down those demons to some extent in our writing, even those writers who are writing more to entertain than to create an abiding sense of terror or awe. Human life is a process of coming to terms with those things that frighten and hurt us. I just go through that process in a very raw way that can sometimes actually damage me more in the process. . . . Possibly the best reason for creating art for mentally ill creators is that some other mentally ill person can look at, listen to, read, watch that art and say, ‘Someone out there sees me, hears me. I am not alone.’ Never underestimate that power.”

Speaking of books, reading, writing, and horror fiction, now see this: Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, “an anthology celebrating the uncanny realm of the living inanimate. Featuring tales of dolls, mannequins, statues, and other varieties of humanoid horror, Mannequin explores the intersection between artificiality and life through a stunning variety of writers both established and new.” Featuring stories by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Christine Morgan, Richard Gavin, Kristine Ong Muslim, Nicholas Day, Austin James, William Tea, Duane Pesice, S. L. Edwards, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, Justin A. Burnett, Daulton Dickey, C. P. Dunphey, and Jon Padgett. Introduction by Christopher Slatsky.

My interview for the Weird Studies podcast

Recently, I was interviewed for the excellent Weird Studies podcast. The episode, titled “On Speculative Fiction, with Matt Cardin,” dropped yesterday. You can listen to it with the player above or by clicking through to the site itself. Here’s the episode description:

Neil Gaiman wrote, If literature is the world, then fantasy and horror are twin cities, divided by a river of black water. Flame Tree Publishing underwrites this claim with their recent publication, The Astounding Illustrated History of Fantasy and Horror. The book is a veritable gazetteer of these two cities in the heartland of the imaginal world. Writer and scholar Matt Cardin, founding editor of the marvellous Teeming Brain, wrote a chapter for the book focusing on the books and films of the Sixties and Seventies. In this episode, he joins JF and Phil to discuss the kinship of horror and fantasy, the modern ghettoization of mythopoeic art, the prophetic reach of speculative fiction, and the cauldron of cultural transformation that was the Sixties and Seventies.

Be advised that Teeming Brain readers will likely find Weird Studies to be an essential addition to their listening schedule. It was launched in 2018 by hosts J. F. Martel and Phil Ford. J. F. is an author, screenwriter, and film & TV director from Ottawa, Canada. In 2015 I interviewed him here in connection with his truly wonderful book, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice. Phil is an associate professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music whose books include Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture and a currently in-development project on music and occult styles of thought. The tagline of Weird Studies is “A filmmaker and a professor talk art and philosophy at the limits of the thinkable.” A browse through past episodes uncovers a rich feast.

An interview with Gary Lachman on occult politics, nihilism, and the dangerous potentials of the imagination

 

Just published here at The Teeming Brain: my interview with Gary Lachman on his new book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. As many Teeming Brain readers are already aware, Gary is a noted writer on occultism and esotericism who contributed to my paranormal encyclopedia a few years ago. In this new interview, he expands on the themes of his latest book, in which he examines the role of New Thought, meme magic, Chaos Magick, and other occult and esoteric movements in shaping current geopolitical affairs, involving everything and everyone from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to the rise of the Alt-Right and the advent of a “post-truth/alternative fact” world.

Here’s an excerpt:

MATT CARDIN: What’s your basic argument in Dark Star Rising?

GARY LACHMAN: Dark Star Rising is about the strange “occult politics” that seem to be a part of both Trump’s presidency and that of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. As I say in the book, I first became aware of this when I read a post on Harvey Bishop’s New Thought blog. Bishop was commenting on the speech Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right, gave at the meeting of the National Policy Institute in Washington, following Trump’s election. Spencer greeted the crowd, hailing Trump’s victory, and saying that they — he and his comrades — had made it happen. They had “dreamed” Trump into office, had “willed” him into the White House. Bishop noted that turning dreams into reality, making your wishes come true, is a central aim of New Thought, mental science, and other teachings that emphasize the power of the mind to affect reality directly. Trump, we know, has been a lifelong devotee of “positive thinking;” Norman Vincent Peale, who popularized the “power of positive of thinking,” was a mentor. But now it seemed that people in Trump’s fan base were practitioners, too.

With this, I began to follow a trail which led around the world and involved things like “meme magic” (using the internet as a way of affecting reality), gurus, demagogues, and how some rather radical ideas about a new world order — or disorder — are informing some of the most powerful people on the planet.

Read the full interview.

The necessity of constructive pessimism in our dystopian world of digital illusions

Robert Kaplan, writing for The Washington Post:

It is impossible to imagine Trump and his repeated big lies that go viral except in the digital-video age. It is impossible to imagine our present political polarization except in the age of the Internet, which drives people to sites of extreme views that validate their preexisting prejudices. And, in the spirit of Hollywood, it is impossible to imagine the degree and intensity of emotional and sensory manipulation, false rumors, exaggerations and character assassination that decay our public dialogue except in this new and terrifying age of technology which has only just begun.

Digital-video technology, precisely because it is given to manipulation, is inherently controlling. Think of how the great film directors of the 20th century were able to take over your mind for a few hours: a new experience for audiences that previous generations had never known. Theater may be as old as the ancient Greeks, but the technology of film lent a new and powerful force to the theatrical experience. Moreover, it was contained within a limited time period, and afterward you came back to the real world.

In the 21st century, dictators may have the capability to be the equivalent of film directors, and the show never stops. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels would undoubtedly thrive in today’s world. As for warfare itself, it will be increasingly about dividing and demoralizing enemy populations through disinformation campaigns whose techniques are still in their infancy. . . .

Never before have we had to fight for democracy and individual rights as now in this new and — in some sense — dark age of technology. We must realize that the fight for democracy is synonymous with the fight for objectivity, which lies at the core of professional journalism — a calling whose foundational spirit was forged in the print-and-typewriter age, when mainly the movies were fake.

We will fight best by thinking tragically to avoid tragedy. This means learning to think like the tyrants who feed and prosper on misinformation so we can keep several steps ahead of them. Only in that way can we build safeguards against the specific dangers of the digital experience. The pioneers of Silicon Valley were inherent optimists who simply believed in connecting the world. But it is precisely such integration that provides our authoritarian enemies with access into our own democratic systems. The future will be about wars of integration rather than wars of geographic separation. So now constructive pessimism is called for. The innocent days when illusions were the province of movie stage sets are way behind us.

Full text: “Everything Here Is Fake

 

The man who invented the Internet didn’t foresee our Neuromancer/Black Mirror future

The following insights are excerpted from a brief but engaging NPR piece that traces the cultural arc from Vint Cerf (the “inventor of the Internet”) and his early naive optimism about this new technology, to William Gibson’s uncanny prescience in forecasting exactly where the Internet would really take us (to a corporate-controlled cyberdystopia with sharply curtailed human relationships), to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s ongoing exploration of the darkest corners of the whole thing:

Initially, Cerf was trying to create an Internet through which scientists and academics from all over the world could share data and research. Then, one day in 1988, Cerf says he went to a conference for commercial vendors where they were selling products for the Internet. “I just stood there thinking, ‘My God! Somebody thinks they’re going to make money out of the Internet.’ ” Cerf was surprised and happy. “I was a big proponent of that. My friends in the community thought I was nuts. ‘Why would you let the unwashed masses get access to the Internet?’ And I said, ‘Because I want everybody to take advantage of its capability.’ ”

Clearly, Cerf is an optimist. That is what allowed him to dream big. But, in retrospect, some of the decisions his team made seem hopelessly naive, especially for a bunch of geniuses. They made it possible to surf the Internet anonymously — unlike a telephone, you don’t have a unique number that announces who you are. We know how that turned out. People with less lofty ambitions than Cerf used that loophole for cybercrime, international espionage and online harassment.

Cerf admits all that dark stuff never crossed his mind. “And we have to cope with that — I mean, welcome to the real world,” he says. . . .

Somehow [William] Gibson was able to imagine the potential scale of it — all those computers connected together. . . . But, it isn’t just the Internet that Gibson saw coming. In Neuromancer, the Internet has become dominated by huge multinational corporations fighting off hackers. The main character is a washed-up criminal hacker who goes to work for an ex-military officer to regain his glory. And get this: The ex-military guy is deeply involved in cyber-espionage between the U.S. and Russia.

Gibson says he didn’t need to try a computer or see the Internet to imagine this future. “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively,” he says. He says he’s more interested in how people behave around new technologies. He likes to tell a story about how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s. “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television,” he says. “No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was” . . . .

Brooker has a certain amount of frustration with the leaders in tech. “It’s felt like tech companies have for years just put this stuff out there,” he says. “And they distance themselves from the effects of their product effectively by saying, ‘Oh, we’re just offering a service.’ ” Brooker sees each new technology more like an untested drug waiting to launch us on a very bad trip. Each episode of Black Mirror is like its own laboratory testing a technology that is already out, but pushing it by mixing in common human behaviors and desires.

Philip Roth on the value of serious literature amid the hellscape of contemporary America

Philip Roth, 1973

Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:

Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?

Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.

The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.

Full article: “Roth Agonistes

Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons