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Teeming Links – September 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading 29

This week, we bring you a roundup of readings spanning a rainbow of trends and topics, from the collapsing economy to the destruction of modern sociopolitical and cultural myths to the imaginal realm of shamanism, creativity, and mythic descents to the underworld.

More specifically, we have: a report on the U.S. Army’s stated criteria for recognizing potential terrorists, and why you and your coworkers probably meet one or more of them; an indictment of the Baby Boomers for destroying America (economically, ecologically) and leaving the wreckage to their children; a deep analysis of the current crack-up in the presiding Western myth of liberal individualism as bequeathed to us all by Adam Smith; an examination of the raging crisis in Western secularism as the implicit religiosity lying beneath the veneer of the secular mind is drawn to the surface; a paean to the lost joys of reading aloud; a scornful take on neuroscientific “discoveries” about the value of reading and the meanings of art; a first-person account of and reflection upon the imaginal and alchemical experience of descending into the underworld for death and reconstitution; and a brilliant exposition of the supreme value of poetic metaphor in the context of the deep linkage between shamanism and creativity. Read the rest of this entry

Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We

Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve known for 40 years, and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic … I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains … Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it’s not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by.

— Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Past President of the Royal Society, “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God,” The Independent, September 27, 2010

The web-magazine io9 recently posted a list by the futurist author George Dvorsky on “9 Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future,”  and if you had the opportunity to read some of my recent comments on cultural amnesia (“Haunted by Our Amnesia” and “Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court“), you might have an inkling as to what I’m going to point out regarding not just one or two of the figures listed, but the majority of them.

Yes, these prophets of scientific progress were each in their own way connected to those streams of thought which are often relegated to the status of “pseudo-science” or, as the enthusiastic (but often illiterate and condescending) debunking crowd affectionately calls it, “woo.” This is made evident in the very first person that Dvorsky lists: Robert Boyle. After listing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments, he adds the caveat, “Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.” However, let’s pause here and reflect on the fact that Boyle was a dedicated alchemist.

17th-century natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle pointing to a closed book in reference to the alchemical notion of Mutus Liber

Alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism all find their way into Dvorsky’s list, but is not to say that those listed were exemplars of the weaker strains of these philosophies and worldviews, which rightfully draw the ire of serious thinkers. On the contrary, these figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing. Read the rest of this entry

Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric “Fringe”

It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the  assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.

Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture: Read the rest of this entry

The Light of Natural Philosophy

Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.

We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.

Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.

– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri

Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols.  Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.

We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence.  Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.

Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 9

This week’s recommended articles, essays, and blog posts cover: various possible modes of doom that await us (or that are facing us right now), including climate change, economic collapse, and some other usual suspects; the hijacking of global culture by money and its possibly psychopathic servants; the historical role of alchemy in giving birth to our modern-day economic system driven by credit-based currency; a philosophy professor who has taken it on himself to publicize the anti-technological cultural critique of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, since in many ways these critiques may be pointedly on-target; an essay from no less authoritative a source than MIT Tech Review explaining why Facebook is not the new Google but the new AOL, and why it may collapse and bring down much of the rest of the Web with it; a 2008 report from The Wall Street Journal about one rather shocking way (in my opinion, at least) that American megachurches have begun to exploit corporate marketing tactics; and excellent essays (plus a video) about the life, thought, and work of Philip K. Dick, Whitley Strieber, and Ray Bradbury.

Read the rest of this entry

The Evolution of Consciousness and the Alchemy of Language

AlchemistSome years ago I started telling the students in my literature and writing classes that language has an alchemical power. I usually do this when we’re studying poetry, although I have applied the idea to prose as well.

This always necessitates a pause to offer a brief explanation of the word “alchemy.” Then, once that’s out of the way, I go on to explain that there’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is particularly true when it comes to lyric poetry, I explain, because this type of poetry is specifically meant to capture and express the author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of “what it’s saying” in terms of the words, concepts, and images, but an actual shared feeling with the author. When a lyric poem “works,” it actually recreates the author’s inner state in the reader (or listener, if the poem is spoken aloud), so that the author and reader are vibrating in sympathy, as it were, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.

The basic model of interpersonal communication

The basic model of interpersonal communication

I also point out that the same fundamental idea applies to all types of writing, and this sometimes leads to a brief discussion of basic communication theory, in which I sketch on the chalkboard or dry-erase board the famous diagram showing the basic parts of the communication process: sender, receiver, message, feedback, etc. My undergraduate major was communication, and I studied huge amounts of communication theory during that period, plus I used to teach public speaking, where this model proved extremely useful in helping students to understand what they were trying to accomplish in delivering their speeches (the recreation in their listeners’ minds of the message that they, the speakers, were laboring to present). Sometimes, this foray into communication theory actually helps to clarify and reinforce the point.

Of course, I don’t always get all of that properly said in class. The above description is a kind of idealized version of what I’d like to say. Sometimes it comes out better and sometimes worse, depending on the specific tone of the interaction I’m having with the specific group of students at the time. But the students never fail to find it interesting, and I never fail to find something interesting in their responses. I often use Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” (which is both a lyric poem and a narrative poem, and is quite dear to me) to illustrate the point, and the alchemical explanation seems to help a lot of students gain a better grasp of what Frost’s poem is getting at with its apotheosis of a wintry longing for silence, solitude, and ultimate rest.

(By way of interjection, I recognize that this explanation of poetry’s and language’s effect extends well beyond the boundaries of literature alone, and has resonances with and implications for art as a whole, and also for lots of other things. In fact, see below.)

I bring all of this up at my blog right now because I just came from reading an interesting review of, or actually a kind of roadmap to, a new book titled What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science, edited by Max Brockman. The review is titled “Top scientists predict the future of science” and was written for New Scientist online by Amanda Gefter. The book itself, as described by Gefter with the help of the book’s jacket copy, is a “captivating collection of essays, written by ‘rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones.’ The result is a medley of big ideas on topics ranging from cosmology and climate change, to morality and cognitive enhancement.”

Click to read a brief and nicely informative review of this book at Playback:stl

Click to read a brief and nicely informative review of this book at Playback:stl

What really caught my attention and reminded me of my alchemical explanation of poetry is Gefter’s tracing of the book’s focus on language and social interaction and the way these have probably exerted a decisive influence upon the evolution of the human species and therefore human civilization. The ideas she shares from the book’s assembled authors ping on my fascination with the alchemy of language in manifold ways.

For example:

We are a social species, and we have our brains to thank. As Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell writes: “The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess of individual minds, but the ability to harness that power across many individuals.” Language allows us to do this in an unprecedented way — it serves as a vehicle for transferring one’s own mental states into another’s mind.

Or how about this:

We also connect to other minds via mirror neurons — those copycat brain cells that echo other people’s actions and emotions from within the confines of our own skulls. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from one another’s experiences and to see the world through foreign eyes — a neurological feat that seems to lie at the basis of so much of what it is to be human. Through mirror neurons, “our experiences fuse into the joint pool of knowledge that we call culture,” writes neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. “With the advent of language, books and television, this sharing becomes global, allowing us to exchange experiences across time and space.”

Color me fascinated. I have my doubts about whether these thoughts would prove interesting to most of my students, but they certainly grab me, and do so strongly enough that I may find it necessary to acquire and read this book, if only to revel in its confirmation of my own Beautiful Mind.

(That last comment is intended as ironic, by the way, a fact which I hasten to point out in case its tonal-alchemical intent went over like an untransmuted lead balloon.)

Image: “The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus” or “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone,” Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons