Teeming Brain readers are familiar with my longtime focus on Fahrenheit 451 and my abiding sense that we’re currently caught up in a real-world version of its dystopian vision. This is not, of course, an opinion peculiar to me. Many others have held it, too, including, to an extent, Bradbury himself. I know that some of you, my readers, share it as well.
As of a couple of weeks ago, a writer for the pop culture analysis website Acculturated has publicly joined the fold:
Ray Bradbury often said that he wrote science fiction not to predict the future but to prevent it. On this score, Fahrenheit 451 seems to have failed. The free speech wars on college campuses, the siloing effect of technology, the intolerance of diverse political opinions, and the virtual cocoon provided by perpetual entertainment all suggest that Bradbury anticipated the future with an accuracy unparalleled elsewhere in science fiction literature.
It’s a strange irony that, in the age of the Internet, which was supposed to encourage more transparency and debate, the open exchange of ideas is under threat. This was pointed out by another famous science fiction writer, Michael Crichton. “In the information society,” says Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “No one thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Bradbury saw this coming many decades earlier, and he understood why. Exposure to new ideas is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Staying safe, comfortable, and equal requires that everyone think identically. Liberal learning, the crucible that forms the individual, is anathema to group identity and cannot be tolerated. If you disagree, you’re morally suspect.
Which is why we need Bradbury’s message today more than ever. In a coda to the 1979 printing of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
(If you click through to read the full text, be aware that the first paragraph of the piece presents a slightly inaccurate potted history of Bradbury’s career trajectory that implies he only rose to literary prominence with the publication of F451 in 1953. In fact, some of his previous books and stories, including, especially, 1950’s The Martian Chronicles, had already brought him considerable attention and acclaim.)
For more on the same theme, see my previous posts “On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response” and “Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold,” as well as the Strange Horizons essay “The Failure of Fahrenheit 451.”
For thoughts from the author himself, see the 2007 LA Weekly piece Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted,” featuring Bradbury’s comments on the reality of F451-like trends in contemporary society. (However, Bradbury’s comments in that article/interview should be read in tandem with this context-creating response from his biographer, Sam Weller.) Also see Bradbury’s interviews for A.V. Club and the Peoria Journal Star for more observations from him about the encroaching threat of his novel’s realization in the world around us. And see especially his 1998 interview for Wired, titled “Bradbury’s Tomorrowland,” in which he said the following:
Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless. But I utilized those things in the novel because I was trying to prevent a future, not predict one.
George Romero, 1940-2017
Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. I’ll never get to tell you this in person, but you played a major part in my mental-emotional life, with your Living Dead world helping to explain the non-cinematic “real” world to me in more ways than one. The paper in my Dark Awakenings collection about the possible use of your first three Living Dead films as tools for spiritual contemplation was the culmination of many years of dwelling on and in your imaginary (or perhaps imaginal) zombie otherworld.
Plus, you created Bub, the greatest movie zombie in history. (I’m among the minority of oddballs who favor DAY OF THE DEAD above all others in the series.) But I did always wish that Bub would have successfully shot Rhodes during their showdown…
And I always felt so deeply sorry for Bub when he experienced an agony of grief upon finding his master and quasi-friend Dr. Logan dead, murdered by Rhodes and his goons.
But then again, you and Bub did give Rhodes exactly what was coming to him in the end, didn’t you? For many years, until I stumbled across Peter Jackson’s Braindead / Dead Alive, this was single goriest scene in the single goriest movie that I had ever watched. (Yes, I also watched some European zombie horror and such, but you always seemed to top them somehow.)
Best of all, and apart from all the gore and grimness, you allowed us to witness the weirdly beautiful spectacle of a zombie experiencing a paroxysm of spiritual ecstasy at the sound of the “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
It’s an amazing scene, in an amazing movie, with an amazing actor, from an amazing director. For this, and for the rest of your gift to the world, I do hope you’ll rest more peacefully than the zombies you created for us.
Image credit: By George_Romero,_66ème_Festival_de_Venise_(Mostra).jpg: nicolas genin derivative work: Andibrunt [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This remarkable animation comes from the hand (or computer) of illustrator and animator Steve Cutts, famed for such things as 2012’s Man, which packs an unbelievable punch. So does the one I’ve chosen to post here. Cutts created it for last year’s hit song “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” by Moby and The Void Pacific Choir. But I personally like this slight repurposing much better, where the musical accompaniment is changed to French composer Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi” (best known for being featured in the soundtrack for the 2001 French film Amélie).
The story told by the visuals, and also by the piercingly beautiful and sad musical accompaniment, can stand without comment here, as Teeming Brain readers are well aware of my deep disturbance and unhappiness at the digital dystopia that has emerged in the age of the smartphone. I consider Cutts something of a genius, both for his choice of animation style and for his devastating accuracy in calling out the dark and despairing heart of this cultural dead end in fairly visionary fashion. And no, the fact that his creation of this animation, and my sharing of it here, and your reading of it, is all facilitated by the existence of networked computers doesn’t invalidate the message with a fatal irony. We could probably do better, culturally and humanly speaking, in our uses of these technologies. But instead we’re apparently inclined to give way, en masse, to our lowest impulses, resulting in a kind of digital Dante’s Inferno whose factual reality isn’t really all that far from the only slightly exaggerated version presented by Cutts.
A grateful acknowledgment goes out to Jesús Olmo, who introduced me to Cutts by sending me a link to Man last month.
The gorgeous-looking new edition of Lovecraft’s stories from The Folio Society, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, has this really effective (and kind of gorgeous in its own right) promotional video to go with it. Sadly, I don’t have $120 to spare. But with illustrations by Dan Hillier — who comes off quite well in the video, and whose work for this project looks amazing — and an introduction by Alan Moore, the book sure is tempting. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This edition, based on its sister limited edition [at $575!] marries Lovecraft’s best-known fiction with two modern masters of the macabre, the acclaimed artist Dan Hillier and author Alan Moore. In his beautifully crafted new preface, Moore finds Lovecraft at once at odds with and integral to the time in which he lived: ‘the improbable embodiment of an estranged world in transition’. Yet, despite his prejudices and parochialisms, he ‘possessed a voice and a perspective both unique in modern literature’.
Hillier’s six mesmerising, portal-like illustrations embrace the alien realities that lurk among the gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s landscapes. By splicing Victorian portraits and lithographs with cosmic and Lovecraftian symbolism, each piece – like the stories themselves – pulls apart the familiar to reveal what lies beneath.
The edition itself shimmers with Lovecraft’s ‘unknown colours’, bound in purple and greens akin to both the ocean depths and mysteries from outer space. The cover is embossed with a mystical design by Hillier, while a monstrous eye stares blankly from the slipcase.
I find this all quite winning, personally, for the way it underscores Lovecraft’s growing prevalence and relevance in contemporary culture. For more about the new edition, see the write-ups at Tor (where several of the Hillier illustrations are shown), Wired (where the writer amusingly frames his encounter with the book as a harrowing Lovecraftian brush with forbidden knowledge and eldritch monstrosities), and The Verge. The latter presents an interview with Hillier. It also bears the best title of any of these articles, notwithstanding the slight misspelling of Great Cthulhu’s name: “A new collection of Lovecraft stories looks like an artifact from the Cthulu universe.”
The sun was gone. The sky lingered its colors for a time while they sat in the clearing. At last, he heard a whispering. She was getting up. She put out her hand to take his. He stood beside her, and they looked at the woods around them and the distant hills. They began to walk away from the path and the car, away from the highway and the town. A spring moon rose over the land while they were walking.
The breath of nightfall was rising up out of the separate blades of grass, a warm sighing of air, quiet and endless. They reached the top of the hill, and without a word, sat there watching the sky.
He thought to himself that this was impossible; that such things did not happen. He wondered who she was, and what she was doing here.
Ten miles away, a train whistled in the spring night and went on its way over the dark evening earth, flashing a brief fire. And then, again, he remembered the old story, the old dream. The thing he and his friend had discussed, so many years ago.
There must be one night in your life that you will remember forever. There must be one night for everyone. And if you know that the night is coming on and that this night will be that particular night, then take it and don’t question it and don’t talk about it to anyone ever after that. For if you let it pass it might not come again. Many have let it pass, many have seen it go by and have never seen another like it, when all the circumstances of weather, light, moon and time, of night hill and warm grass and train and town and distance were balanced upon the trembling of a finger. . . .
He woke during the night. She was awake, near him.
“Who are you?” he whispered. She said nothing.
“I could stay another night,” he said.
But he knew that one can never stay another night. One night is the night, and only one. After that, the gods turn their backs.
Her eyes were closed, but she was awake.
“But I don’t know who you are,” he said.
“You could come with me,” he said, “to New York.”
But he knew that she could never be there, or anywhere but here, on this night.
“And I can’t stay here,” he said, knowing that this was the truest and most empty part of all.
He waited for a time and then said again, “Are you real? Are you really real?”
They slept. The moon went down the sky toward morning.
He walked out of the hills and the forest at dawn, to find the car covered with dew. He unlocked it and climbed in behind the wheel, and sat for a moment looking back at the path he had made in the wet grass.
He moved over, preparatory to getting out of the car again. He put his hand on the inside of the door and gazed steadily out. The forest was empty and still. The path was deserted. The highway was motionless and serene. There was no movement anywhere in a thousand miles.
He started the car motor and let it idle. The car was pointed east, where the orange sun was now rising slowly.
“All right,” he said quietly. “Everyone, here I come. What a shame you’re all still alive. What a shame the world isn’t just hills and hills, and nothing else to drive over but hills, and never coming to a town.”
He drove away east, without looking back.
— From Ray Bradbury, “One Night in Your Life,” in The Toynbee Convector
Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science — especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:
Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.
When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.
But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.
If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.
The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .
When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”
Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.
“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”
Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”
Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:
As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.
This brief video essay on the source of our collective craving for “the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction” is really well done. Skillfully executed and thought-provoking. A worthwhile investment of five reflective minutes. Here’s the description:
In the first two decades of the new millennium, stories of the post-apocalypse have permeated pop culture, from books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) to films and TV programmes such as The Walking Dead (2010-), the Hunger Games series (2012-15) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). While post-apocalyptic fictions of previous eras largely served as cautionary tales — against nuclear brinksmanship in On the Beach (1959) or weaponised biology in The Stand (1978) — today’s versions of these tales depict less alterable, more oblique and diffuse visions of our doom. So why can’t we seem to get enough of humanity’s unavoidable collapse and its bleak aftermath?
Dispatches from the Ruins reflects on what these stories — set among crumbling buildings, overgrown lots and barren wastelands — might be telling us about modern fears and fantasies. This Aeon original video is adapted from an Aeon essay by the US writer Frank Bures. Bures is also the author of The Geography of Madness (2016), a book about cultural syndromes across the world. His work has been included in the Best American Travel Writing and appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and the Washington Post Magazine, among others.
For eight minutes of pure, unadulterated awesome, here’s Doc Severinsen, from his 1970 LP Doc Severinsen’s Closet, performing King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” No, this is not a hallucination, although it may represent some kind of ripple in the Matrix. Many thanks to Richard Metzger at Dangerous Minds for unearthing this, and to Joe Pulver for calling attention to it at Facebook. Metzger accurately conveys the feel of Severinsen’s cover when he describes it as “moving from an almost Morricone-like spaghetti western-sounding beginning” to an “(inspired) James Bond-ish bit (and back again).”
Personally, I have a soft spot for Severinsen not just because he’s a musical genius, and not just because I grew up during the era when he and his band were the house musical act on The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson’s tenure, but because in my former career as a video and media professional I was on the camera crew at The Grand Palace in Branson, Missouri, when Doc and the band came through town for a performance. (What? Doc Severinsen playing in Branson? No, really, there’s even newspaper evidence.) It was fully as cool as one would have hoped, and I even had a chance to chat with the band backstage. There was no “Crimson King” in their set, though. Which is probably for the best, since I strongly suspect this song would have melted the minds of that mostly Southern and Midwestern audience who had come to Branson mainly for country music and a big dose of manufactured nostalgia.
One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans
A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.
A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time. And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:
Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.
But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:
Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.
And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:
If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.
The following paragraphs are from a talk delivered by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski at the recent Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia. Citing as Exhibit A the colossal train wreck that was the 2016 American presidential election, Cegłowski basically explains how, in the current version of the Internet that has emerged over the past decade-plus, we have collectively created a technology that is perfectly calibrated for undermining Western democratic societies and ideals.
But as incisive as his analysis is, I seriously doubt that his (equally incisive) proposed solutions, described later in the piece, will ever be implemented to any meaningful extent. I mean, if we’re going to employ the explicitly Frankensteinian metaphor of “building a monster,” then it’s important to bear in mind that Victor Frankenstein and his wretched creation did not find their way to anything resembling a happy ending. (And note that Cegłowski himself acknowledges as much at the end of his piece when he closes his discussion of proposed solutions by asserting that “even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try.”)
This year especially there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of “move fast and break things,” some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy. . . .
A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 [sic] election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea. . . .
We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it? . . .
The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills. . . .
Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts . . . .
A lot of what we call “disruption” in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.
Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy. . . .
Unless something happens to mobilize the tech workforce, or unless the advertising bubble finally bursts, we can expect the weird, topsy-turvy status quo of 2017 to solidify into the new reality.