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Myth, transmedia, and the alchemy of the self

Alchemist's laboratory, Hans Vredeman de Vries, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alchemist’s laboratory, Hans Vredeman de Vries, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe attended DragonCon in Atlanta this past weekend to cover the well-established paranormal wing of the world’s biggest genre convention.  He will be publishing a full report here in the near future.

In the meantime, Disinfo.com has published a partial transcript of a panel that David moderated at the convention. The title is “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth.” The other two panelists are transmedia artist James Curcio and comics scholar and college philosophy instructor Damien Williams. The subject is the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, fact and myth, art and reality, as it runs through the act of storytelling in the modern media milieu. The conversation involves many references to specific cultural texts and prominent people (e.g., comics in general, Firefly, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore).

And the fascination-quotient is high, as indicated by these three represenative quotes from each participant. Note that they are here excerpted piecemeal from different parts of the conversation. In other words, they don’t represent a sequential exchange of ideas, but rather a cherry-picked selection of highlights.

DAVID METCALFE: In experiencing something like DragonCon, from the vantage point of covering it for the media, I find it really interesting that often the fantasy elements overtake any real life connections. It’s been rather surreal to be sitting at the hotel bar watching coverage of Syria, while people are eagerly searching for cosplayers to snap pictures of. To be honest it’s a bit eerie, as there is a great opportunity to use the energy garnered from these kinds of events to really speak to our current social conditions, with the interactive storytelling being a place where alternate solutions and dialogues can occur as vibrant thought experiments. I’m not sure how often this happens, however.

DAMIEN WILLIAMS: One of the things I try to teach my students, every semester, is that their perception is manipulated by narrative framing techniques, and to get them to recognize, understand, and utilize them, so that they won’t ever unwittingly fall prey to someone else’s myths. That includes teachers and politicians, alike, because the whole experience of politics — and by that I mean American politics, because I just don’t know enough about any other country — is a story sold to people to get them to buy into a system that then continues to sell them stories. Whether these stories bear any resemblance to “reality” doesn’t really matter; what matters, instead, is whether the stories motivate, animate, and compel the populace to believe in the narrator.

JAMES CURCIO: I think the very ideas of ‘fiction’ vs ‘nonfiction,’ or myth as untruth are major barriers in creating honest mythic work. Myths don’t begin as “myths”. They begin as something that genuinely speaks to us. Narratives directly affect our nervous system. . . .

The myth, as media, is alchemy. In simple terms, alchemy was supposedly about turning lead to gold, right? Or, in general, the transmutation of matter. So people often look at it as a sort of rudimentary, or ill-conceived attempt at chemistry. But instead, the “matter” is the self. I think one of Jung’s biggest contributions was this one insight: that alchemy — and the occult as well — pertains to the psyche. So if you look at it that way, you can immediately see two sides: as a creator, you conduct alchemy through media and transmute your personal experience, both psychologically and by turning it from private to public experience. On the flip side, as a so-called audience member, when you engage with media, it’s not nearly as passive as it seems on the surface. When you look at two frames of a sequential story — a comic — your brain is inventing the motion, and on a larger scale, the narrative. When you read a story, you are transmuting symbols into life. Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, said something like, “Books break the shackles of time — proof that humans can work magic.” I think that’s true in a very real way.

MORE: “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth

Last of the Titans: A Note on the Passing of Ray Harryhausen (and Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury)

Monstrous_Singularities_150pxEDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome award-winning writer, editor, filmmaker, composer, and artist Jason V. Brock to the Teem. Jason’s work has been published in Butcher Knives & Body Counts, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, Fungi, Fangoria, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings series, and elsewhere. He was Art Director/Managing Editor for Dark Discoveries magazine for more than four years, and he edits the biannual pro digest [NAMEL3SS], dedicated to “the macabre, esoteric and intellectual,” which can be found on Twitter at @NamelessMag and on the Interwebs at www.NamelessMag.com. He and his wife, Sunni, also run Cycatrix Press.

As a filmmaker Jason’s work includes the documentaries Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, The Ackermonster Chronicles!, and Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. He is the primary composer and instrumentalist/singer for his band, ChiaroscurO. Jason loves his wife, their family of reptiles/amphibians, travel, and vegan/vegetarianism. He is active on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter (@JaSunni_JasonVB) and at his and Sunni’s personal website/blog, www.JaSunni.com.

Jason will contribute an occasional column titled “Monstrous Singularities.” For this inaugural installment, he offers an elegiac reflection on the passing of three authentic titans of fantasy, horror, and science fiction whose work literally helped to define major aspects of popular culture and collective psychology during the twentieth century.

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Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

They were present at the beginning… and we are witness to their end.

Endings, in many ways, are entrances into self-realization — whether a portal into some altered state of mind, a window into collective insight, or even a chance for some final and comforting acceptance. Endings signify not only change, but also, often, transcendence, either metaphorically or literally, and on occasion simultaneously. Be it a lonely struggle that reaches a sad (even tragic) conclusion, or perhaps the unexpected outcome of a traumatic situation, or the shared exhilaration of justice served, endings are always transitional, even transformational, in ways that beginnings cannot be. Endings are the true headstones by which we collectively measure and define history. They are markers of conclusiveness — more so than births or the start of a new venture, which can be shrouded in secrecy, obscured by the fog of antiquity, or both. Thus, they are uniquely able to serve as touchstones for what has been bequeathed to the past (what cannot be again) and what is yet to be accomplished (and is therefore allotted to the future).

In May of 2013, the 92-year-old stop-motion animation film pioneer and artistic genius Ray Harryhausen, perhaps best known for his creation of the special visual effects for Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, passed away. His ending completes, in a sense, a circle of loss for the world; with the transitioning of Harryhausen away from the realm of the living and into the annals of time, a triumvirate of giants has now vanished from the Earth, a troika destined to become even more powerful in voice, authority, and veneration over time. This amplification will undoubtedly be quite profound in the immediately foreseeable future, as people who are not yet aware of them, or who may have forgotten the seismic impact of their works and personalities, discover or rediscover their greatness and celebrate it even more, perchance, than those who instantly recognized it and mourned their loss to humanity and culture. Read the rest of this entry

Deadly pedantry: How (and how not) to murder art, literature, and H. P. Lovecraft

University_College,_Durham_Crypt

The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”

I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.

Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.

This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.

That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.

I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you. Read the rest of this entry

Recommmended Reading 42

THIS WEEK: A report on the riots in Sweden and what they may portend for affluent liberal-democratic nations that have thought themselves insulated from such crises. Thoughts on how the Internet is using us all. The crumbling facade of mainstream authority and received wisdom in public health pronouncements, along with internal strife in the medical community over how — or whether — to try to explain uncertainty and nuance in medical science to the general public. The survival, and in fact centrality, of philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular amid our age of scientific confusion. An interview with science fiction legend and culture war lightning rod Orson Scott Card on politics, art, and writing. A review of a new book about “deciding to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being part of a community,” which may offer “a plausible way out of the postmodern alienation and ironic posturing” that characterizes contemporary views of the good life. A three-minute animation of the main points from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Read the rest of this entry

Coins for the Ferryman: Horror as the Key to Our Dark Inner Depths

Echoes-from-Hades-250px

The analysis of Horror is, like almost everything else related to the genre, paradoxical. Because the genre is so rife with archetypal imagery and taboo subjects, it seems that any attempt to rationalize or understand it in purely intellectual terms is ineffectual, or at the very least inadequate. Whereas most other forms of artistic expression benefit from the acumen of critics who educate the audience on what may otherwise be cryptic allusions, subtext, etc., Horror evidently functions somewhat differently. It is a wholly experiential genre and is therefore judged in large part by its effect, and more specifically by its affect, rather than by its structure.

Enduring works of non-genre (or “literary”) fiction have undergone countless autopsies by critics and would-be-critics, all of whom seem confident that they have pinpointed exactly what makes this or that story tick. Horror, by contrast, almost always manages to slither out from underneath our microscope. Oh, it may bear the explanations we impress upon it for a little while, but rest assured, Horror will always find a way to shed its old skin, which in this case consists of any number of after-the-fact explanations as to what we read and why. And like the serpent, Horror emerges from this molting as a creature even more vibrant and healthy than before.

Perhaps this trickster-like evasion of standard literary or cinematic criticism is to be expected, for any work of Horror worth its saltes draws its power from the deepest spring. Even works that demonstrate ineptitude in some technical areas that critics often highlight as the essence of “good art” can nevertheless frighten or unnerve an audience, and are therefore effective models of the field. Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves. Read the rest of this entry

The meaning of horror and “that dark sorcerer” Cormac McCarthy (with nods to Ligotti)

In the latest entry in “By Heart,” an article series from The Atlantic “in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature,” novelist Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released werewolf novel Red Moon, talks about the deep and permanent emotional impact that he experienced from reading a certain passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

He also branches out into a discussion of the impacts and effects of horror fiction in general, and bases his analysis on the literary technique of the suspenseful slow reveal in which a final, awful revelation gives the reader a shock of horror. “It’s the same reason we climb onto a roller coaster,” he writes. “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If you look at the horror novel, or the horror movie, it’s a way of safely dealing with that spike of adrenaline.”

Now, I reject this general conclusion as inadequate, since I find much more truth and depth in Tom Ligotti’s contention, outlined in his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (found in The Nightmare Factory), that the familiar “roller coaster” and “face your fear” explanations of artistic horror’s appeal fall flat before the sole authentic “consolation” the genre has to offer, which is “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” (Of course, this could just as well be offered as the final appeal and consolation of any kind of art. But its specific application to horror is especially moving.)

That doesn’t mean, however, Percy has nothing valuable to say. His final paragraphs in particular are buzzingly interesting and worthwhile, since he effectively tackles, and tackles quite nicely — in a scant 400 words — the problem with gratuitous gore, the question of the horror writer’s deep motivation, and the death and resurrection of his own ability to respond deeply to horrifying fiction, specifically on the level of story, after years of immersion in literary craft had effectively numbed him:

I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.

I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.

I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.

More: “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2013

Click through to the article for the full text of the McCarthy passage in question, along with Percy’s detailed discussion of it.

Also note that for a darkly beautiful exploration and amplification of the Ligottian idea of horror art’s consolations, see Richard Gavin’s Teeming Brain column from last November, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.”

Orson Welles on Chartres Cathedral, authorship, and the purpose of human existence

And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

— Orson Welles, F for Fake

(A hearty thanks to Greg at The Daily Grail for the welcome inspiration/provocation to post this.)

Recommended Reading 38

Mexican Cartels Dispatch Trusted Agents to Live Deep Inside United States
The Washington Post (Associated Press), April 1, 2013

Mexican drug cartels whose operatives once rarely ventured beyond the U.S. border are dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States — an emboldened presence that experts believe is meant to tighten their grip on the world’s most lucrative narcotics market and maximize profits. . . . [A] wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with many top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the U.S. Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast. “It’s probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime,” said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago office.

. . . . Years ago, Mexico faced the same problem — of then-nascent cartels expanding their power — “and didn’t nip the problem in the bud,” said Jack Killorin, head of an anti-trafficking program in Atlanta for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “And see where they are now.” Riley sounds a similar alarm: “People think, ‘The border’s 1,700 miles away. This isn’t our problem.’ Well, it is. These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border.”

. . . . “This is the first time we’ve been seeing it — cartels who have their operatives actually sent here,” said Richard Pearson, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, which arrested four alleged operatives of the Zetas cartel in November in the suburb of Okolona. People who live on the tree-lined street where authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana and more than $1 million in cash were shocked to learn their low-key neighbors were accused of working for one of Mexico’s most violent drug syndicates, Pearson said.

. . . . In Chicago, the police commander who oversees narcotics investigations, James O’Grady, said street-gang disputes over turf account for most of the city’s uptick in murders last year, when slayings topped 500 for the first time since 2008. Although the cartels aren’t dictating the territorial wars, they are the source of drugs. Riley’s assessment is stark: He argues that the cartels should be seen as an underlying cause of Chicago’s disturbingly high murder rate. “They are the puppeteers,” he said. “Maybe the shooter didn’t know and maybe the victim didn’t know that. But if you follow it down the line, the cartels are ultimately responsible.”

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Google Revolution Isn’t Worth Our Privacy
Evgeny Morozov, Notes EM (reprinted from Financial Times), April 5, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year I abandoned Google’s search engine (for DuckDuckGo), Google Mail (for Zoho), Google Docs (for various substitutes), and Google Reader (for Netvibes) because of the company’s decision, mentioned by Morozov in this op-ed, to sew together privacy data from more than 60 of its products/services into a single, mega-master One Profile to Rule Them All for each of its users. Here, Morozov lays out some of the more far-reaching intentions behind, and meanings and implications of, Google’s move. Be sure to read his words in the mutually illuminating light of the article directly below about the new Facebook phone.]

Let’s give credit where it is due: Google is not hiding its revolutionary ambitions. As its co-founder Larry Page put it in 2004, eventually its search function “will be included in people’s brains” so that “when you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information”.

Science fiction? The implant is a rhetorical flourish but Mr Page’s utopian project is not a distant dream. In reality, the implant does not have be connected to our brains. We carry it in our pockets — it’s called a smartphone.

So long as Google can interpret — and predict — our intentions, Mr Page’s vision of a continuous and frictionless information supply could be fulfilled. However, to realise this vision, Google needs a wealth of data about us. Knowing what we search for helps — but so does knowing about our movements, our surroundings, our daily routines and our favourite cat videos.

. . . . [W]hen last year Google announced its privacy policy, which would bring the data collected through its more than 60 online services under one roof, that move made sense. The obvious reason for doing so is to make individual user profiles even more appealing to advertisers: when Google tracks you it can predict what ads to serve you much better than when it tracks you only across one such service.

But there is another reason, of course — and it has to do with the Grand Implant Agenda: the more Google knows about us, the easier it can make predictions about what we want – or will want in the near future. Google Now, the company’s latest offering, is meant to do just that: by tracking our every email, appointment and social networking activity, it can predict where we need to be, when, and with whom. Perhaps, it might even order a car to drive us there — the whole point is to relieve us of active decision-making. The implant future is already here — it’s just not evenly resisted.

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The Soul of a New (Facebook) Machine
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, April 4, 2013

Teaser:  Facebook finally brings a phone to market, sort of.

[T]he biggest play here is not technical or strategic, but rhetorical. Facebook wants to change the way people think about technologies. . . . Throughout Zuckerberg’s talk, people and Facebook friends were used interchangeably. And for Zuckerberg and his employees, I think this is technically true. For them, all the people they care about are not only on Facebook, but active users who devote time and resources to building digital streams that are legible to other people as their lives. So, while you can read the Facebook phone announcement as the story of the company’s deeper integration with Google’s Android operating system, I also read Facebook Home as a story of the integration that Facebook’s employees have with their own product. And they’d like for the rest of the world to experience what they do.

. . . . Why do I think it is so important not to allow Zuckerberg to redefine “people” as “Facebook friends”? Because we need to be able to evaluate this technology’s impact very specifically within Facebook’s culture and aims.  Facebook Home is not a story about “making the world more open and connected,” in general. This a story about Facebook “making the world more open and connected,” with all the specific definitions the company brings to those ideas.

. . . . It’s not that I think Facebook communications are inferior to other ones, whether that’s face-to-face, Twitter, talking on the phone, or standard text messaging. That’s not the point. The point is that they are *not the same* as these other things.

. . . . Will it be worth opening up every part of your phone interaction to Facebook in order to access that experience? Do you want your definition of a computer to center on Facebook Friends and the limited et [sic] of actions you can take with them? I can’t answer that for you, but I can say that it is a tradeoff, and the more you think about it, the better.

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The Meme Hustler
Evgeny Morozov, The Baffler No. 22 (April 8, 2013)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, it’s Morozov again. The man is all but ubiquitous today, and that’s a good thing, because he’s pointedly worth listening to. In the case of this particular piece, he’s pointedly worth listening to very slowly and deeply, because this is some seriously insightful — and darkly, counterculturally revolutionary — stuff that he’s laying out about the hijacking of our collective cultural discourse by a kind of linguistic-conceptual virus that disguises the ideological core assumptions of digital techno-utopianism under a cloak of inevitability, so that any serious critical examination of them becomes literally unthinkable.]

While the brightest minds of Silicon Valley are “disrupting” whatever industry is too crippled to fend off their advances, something odd is happening to our language. Old, trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything these days, has been hacked. Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency. Complexity, as it turns out, is not particularly viral.

. . . [A] clique of techno-entrepreneurs has hijacked our language and, with it, our reason. In the last decade or so, Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation, a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the world — a silicon mentality of sorts — has emerged in its wake. The old language has been rendered useless; our pre-Internet vocabulary, we are told, needs an upgrade.

. . . That we would eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.

The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly. The founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a seemingly omnipotent publisher of technology books and a tireless organizer of trendy conferences, O’Reilly is one of the most influential thinkers in Silicon Valley. Entire fields of thought — from computing to management theory to public administration — have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on. Over the past fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as “open source,” “Web 2.0,” “government as a platform,” and “architecture of participation.” O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite expressions, but he promotes them with religious zeal and enviable perseverance. While Washington prides itself on Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who rebranded “global warming” as “climate change” and turned “estate tax” into “death tax,” Silicon Valley has found its own Frank Luntz in Tim O’Reilly.

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Grof on Giger: The Transpersonal Nature of Art, Inspiration, and Creativity
Karey Pohn, Association for Holotropic Breathwork International, February 28, 2013 (reprinted from The Inner Door, May 2010)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Stanislav Grof is an icon and a legend in the field of transpersonal psychology, and is one of the field’s founders. H. R. Giger is an icon and a legend in the world of art, having made his mark as a painter, sculptor, and set designer with a genius for the dark and surreal, with his most famous work probably being his Academy Award-winning design of the aliens and their environment in the Alien film franchise, followed closely by his breathtaking semi-Lovecraft-inspired paintings in the 1977 book Necronomicon. In this interview, Grof muses — pun definitely intended — on the transpersonal/transcendent sources of Giger’s inspiration.]

I first encountered his work in Necronomicon, which was a large format, high-quality paperback. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was absolutely amazing. Now, I have a good understanding of him, not only because we have spent a lot of personal time together, but I had the chance to interview him for many, many hours for the book; and during that time, I was able to find out not only about his life but also about how he works.

It’s extraordinary. Some of his large paintings cover one wall in his house, and these amazing compositions are frequently arranged symmetrically. I found out that particularly when he is working with an airbrush, he has absolutely no idea what he is painting. He just begins in the left upper corner and aims the airbrush at the canvas. Then, as he told me, something just comes through, and he is himself surprised by what emerges.

In discussing Giger’s genius, I quote what Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885) about his own state of consciousness while creating:

If one had the smallest vestige of superstition left in one, it would hardly be possible to set aside the idea that one is mere incarnation, mouthpiece, or medium of an almighty power. The idea of revelation, in the sense that something, which profoundly convulses and shatters one, become suddenly visible and audible with indescribable certainty and accuracy, describes the simple fact. One hears—one does not seek; one takes—one does not ask who gives; a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes with necessity, without faltering—I never had any choice in the matter.

In essence, something grabs you and comes through, and you basically become a channel for it. You’re not really the creator of it. You’re a mediator. Hans Rudi certainly falls into that category.

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The Visionary World of H. R. Giger (pdf), a.k.a. H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century
Stanislav Grof, October 2005

Several years ago, I had the privilege and pleasure to spend some time with Oliver Stone, visionary genius who has portrayed in his films with extraordinary artistic power the shadow side of modern humanity. At one point, we talked about Ridley Scott’s movie Alien and the discussion focused on H. R. Giger, whose creature and set designs were the key element in the film’s success. In the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles in April 1980, Giger received for his work on the Alien an Oscar for best achievement in visual effects.

I have known Giger’s work since the publication of his Necronomicon and have always felt a deep admiration for him, not only as an artistic genius, but also a visionary with an uncanny ability to depict the deep dark recesses of the human psyche revealed by modern consciousness research. In our discussion, I shared my feelings with Oliver Stone, who turned out to be himself a great admirer of Giger. His opinion about Giger and his place in the world of art and in human culture was very original and interesting. “I do not know anybody else,” he said, “who has so accurately portrayed the soul of modern humanity. A few decades from now when they will talk about the twentieth century, they will think of Giger.”

Although Oliver Stone’s statement momentarily surprised me by its extreme nature, I immediately realized that it reflected a profound truth. Since then, I often recalled this conversation when I was confronted with various disturbing aspects of the western industrial civilization and with the alarming developments in the countries affected by technological progress. There is no other artist who has captured with equal power the ills plaguing modern society – the rampaging technology taking over human life, suicidal destruction of the eco system of the earth, violence reaching apocalyptic proportions, sexual excesses, insanity of life driving people to mass consumption of tranquilizers and narcotic drugs, and the alienation individuals experience in relation to their bodies, to each other, and to nature.

. . . Giger’s art clearly comes from the depth of the collective unconscious, especially when we consider his prolific creative process. He reports that he often has no a priori concept of what a painting would look like. When creating some of his giant paintings, for instance, he started in the upper left corner and aimed the airbrush toward the canvas. The creative force was simply pouring through him, and he became its instrument. And yet the end result was a perfect composition and often showed remarkable bilateral symmetry.

. . . Giger’s determined quest for creative self-expression is inseparable from his relentless self-exploration and self-healing. In the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung, integration of the Shadow and the Anima, two quintessential motifs in Giger’s art, are seen as critical therapeutic steps in what Jung calls the process of individuation. Giger himself experiences his art as healing and as an important way to maintain his sanity. His art can also have a healing impact on those who are open to it because, like a Greek tragedy, it can facilitate powerful emotional catharsis for the viewers by exposing and revealing dark secrets of the human psyche.

Calvin, Hobbes, and Bill Watterson’s advice on creating a soul-satisfying life

I spent many years reading/reveling in Calvin and Hobbes, both live (so to speak) in the newspaper comics section during its original run from 1985 to 1995 and then later in the many book-length collections. This still ranks among my most cherished literary and artistic experiences. The strip was not only hilarious but frequently brilliant, both artistically and philosophically, and the characters as well as the overall vibe and mood became enduring mental companions for me.

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And so it’s always a delight to read any news about the man behind the strip, Bill Watterson, not least because any and all such news is basically non-existent, in accordance with the utterly admirable design and intent of the man himself:

In the days of 4G wireless networks and Twitter, when virtually every moment of a person’s life can be tracked online and many people offer up that information freely, it’s a rare thing to come across a public figure who not only doesn’t buy into the idea of constant communication, but takes themselves in the opposite direction — completely out of the spotlight. The term “recluse” seems like a dirty word, a slur — “private” or “introverted” seem much fairer ways to describe someone than a word that suggests agoraphobia — but that’s how many would describe artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Marcel Proust, Harper Lee to J.D. Salinger.

Some say that the “recluse” is an endangered species, but to my knowledge, there’s still one artist who is keeping the idea of the private public figure alive: Bill Watterson, writer and illustrator of the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.

. . . . “As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”

Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would not survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.

. . . . For all the journalists rejected, it’s easy for new ones to imagine that there must be someone able to break through Watterson’s solid exterior; it could be anyone! But Watterson, for one, has said most of what he seems to ever want to say.

— Liv Combe, “Searching for Calvin’s Dad,” Full Stop, April 4, 2013

The new burst of Watterson-centric attention represented by this article, which was also published at Salon, has been occasioned by the appearance of a new documentary film titled Dear Mr. Watterson that debuted, as it so happens, just yesterday at the Cleveland Film Festival:

Here’s a description of the film from its official Website:

Calvin & Hobbes dominated the Sunday comics in thousands of newspapers for over 10 years, having a profound effect on millions of readers across the globe.  When the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, retired the strip on New Year’s Eve in 1995, devoted readers everywhere felt the void left by the departure of Calvin, Hobbes, and Watterson’s other cast of characters, and many fans would never find a satisfactory replacement.

It has now been more than a decade since the end of the Calvin & Hobbes era.  Bill Watterson has kept an extremely low profile during this time, living a very private life outside of Cleveland, Ohio.  Despite his quiet lifestyle, Mr. Watterson is remembered and appreciated daily by fans who still enjoy his amazing collection of work.

Mr. Watterson has inspired and influenced millions of people through Calvin & Hobbes.  Newspaper readership and book sales can be tracked and recorded, but the human impact he has had and the value of his art are perhaps impossible to measure.

This film is not a quest to find Bill Watterson, or to invade his privacy.  It is an exploration to discover why his “simple” comic strip made such an impact on so many readers in the 80s and 90s, and why it still means so much to us today.

For a glimpse of the genius of Watterson the man — aside from and in addition to the genius to Watterson the artist — I urge you to see the only (to date) college commencement speech he ever delivered. It was given to the 1990 graduating class at Watterson’s alma mater, Kenyon College, and it illuminates much about Watterson’s choice to remain personally outside the media spotlight while relentlessly fighting all attempts by the Borg-like machinery of the modern merchandising industry to capitalize on Calvin and Hobbes. It also offers deeply wise and insightful advice to the rest of us who are likewise obligated to live and work in this same cultural inferno of universal hype and hustling:

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons. Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards. The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need. What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and t-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.

. . . Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.

— Bill Watterson, “”Some Thoughts on the Real World by One Who Glimpsed It and Fled,” Kenyon College Commence Speech, May 20, 1990

Recommended Reading 37

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Christopher Ketcham, The American Prospect, March 19, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This captivating article/essay about the relatively thriving secession movement in Vermont features a cameo appearance from Teeming Brain favorite Morris Berman, who delivered the keynote address at a secession-oriented conference held in September 2012 in the chambers of the house of representatives in Montpelier. E. F. Schumacher (another favorite) also shows up, as do a host of fascinating additional thinkers and activists, not to mention a passel of worthwhile ideas and concerns.]

During the Obama years, secession has mostly been an antic folly of the political right, courtesy of Texas nationalists, Dixie nostalgists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and gun nuts. There was no small amount of hypocrisy, of course, in this conservative rebellion. When Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 spoke publicly about a possible Lone Star secession, he billed it as a constitutional right in the face of overreaching government — though Republicans mostly hadn’t complained when George W. Bush was demanding profligate budgets and stabbing the sacred document with pencil holes.

Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.”

. . . . When the proceedings broke for lunch, I asked Morris Berman, who had been invited from his home in Mexico, what he thought of the conferees and their intentions. “There’s no chance in hell that a secession is going to happen under current conditions,” he said. “I’m a historian. I look at what’s possible. If Vermont seceded, there would be troops in Burlington in two hours.” Yet Berman was also hopeful. The Vermonters were reinventing secession. It would not be a mere political revolt, not simply a regional separation, but also, and probably more important, a revolt against the economy of empire, a move toward economic independence.These people here,” he told me, “are experimenting with a kind of monastic withdrawal that has political implications. Capitalism is eating itself alive, but as the system unravels you have all these little flowering buds appear.”

* * *

Europe’s flesheaters now threaten to devour us all
Seuman Milne, The Guardian, March 26, 2013

Teaser: Cyprus risks deepening the eurozone crisis as austerity is failing across the continent. Resistance will have to get stronger.

Europe’s flesheaters are back. The claim that the worst of the eurozone crisis is behind us now looks foolish. The deal forced on Cyprus by the German-led Troika at the weekend isn’t a bailout: it will effectively destroy the island’s economy. Instead of getting a grip on its grossly inflated banks, it will impose a brutal credit contraction, combined with sweeping cuts and privatisations, wiping out perhaps a quarter of Cyprus’s national income. Ordinary Cypriots, not Russian oligarchs, will pay the price.

. . . The eurozone has now become a zombie zone. . . . Whatever the focus of the meltdown in each country — banking in Cyprus, property in Spain — all flow from the same crisis that erupted in 2007-8 out of a deregulated profit-hunting credit boom across the western world and has delivered a prolonged depression. . . . [A]cross Europe, people are being held to ransom by banks, bondholders and corporations determined to ensure that it’s not they who bear the costs of the crisis they created — and politicians who regard it as their job to oblige them.

* * *

The Bacon-Wrapped Economy
Ellen Cushing, East Bay Express, March 20, 2013

Teaser: Tech has brought very young, very rich people to the Bay Area like never before. And the changes to our cultural and economic landscape aren’t necessarily for the better.

If, after all, money has always been a means of effecting the world we want to bring about, when a region is flooded with uncommonly rich and uncommonly young people, that world begins to look very different. And we’re all living in it, whether we like it or not.

. . . . It’s become cliché at this point to describe the tech world as a bubble, but that word has an important double meaning: It’s not just that it could pop at any moment, it’s that it is in, but not quite of, the rest of the world — even as it’s changing it. The work is often abstract and piecemeal; the setting is a continent away from old financial centers. The culture is insular, specific, and self-affirming. As Catherine Bracy, director of international programs at Code for America, wrote in a December Tumblr post, tech’s power-players are “making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to … get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people’s widgets, or c) both. They really don’t care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don’t have to live in it.”

But sooner or later, everyone has to live in the world they’ve created. Tech has made a world where certain skills are highly valued, and that has implications. “It used to be, the cleverest people in the world are being called to work at NASA,” Pleeth of IamRich@Google.com notoriety said toward the end of our interview. “But now I can make a billion dollars building a cool photo app or targeting ads to people more effectively. And that is a problem: More and more people in tech are making huge amounts of money, and people aren’t curing cancer because it’s not an attractive thing to do.” Pleeth was being intentionally hyperbolic — and to some degree, what the economy values and what society values have never been entirely in line with each other — but he raised a good point: Maybe this isn’t just unsustainable on the level that funding art via Kickstarter is untenable, or that taking Ubers instead of hiring a driver is shortsighted, or that living hand-to-mouth on a $2,000-a-week paycheck is imprudent. Instant gratification isn’t necessarily just something individuals indulge in — maybe societies can, too.

* * *

How We’re Turning Digital Natives into Etiquette Sociopaths
Evan Selinger, Wired, March 26, 2013

Let’s face it: Technology and etiquette have been colliding for some time now, and things have finally boiled over if the recent spate of media criticisms is anything to go by. There’s the voicemail, not to be left unless you’re “dying.” There’s the e-mail signoff that we need to “kill.” And then there’s the observation that what was once normal — like asking someone for directions — is now considered “uncivilized.”

Cyber-savvy folks are arguing for such new etiquette rules because in an information-overloaded world, time-wasting communication is not just outdated — it’s rude. But while living according to the gospel of technological efficiency and frictionless sharing is fine as a Silicon Valley innovation ethos, it makes for a downright depressing social ethic.

People like Nick Bilton over at The New York Times Bits blog argue that norms like thank-you messages can cost more in time and efficiency than they are worth. However, such etiquette norms aren’t just about efficiency: They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.

. . . . The longstanding technological goal of enhancing efficiency serves us well in many cases. But we need to avoid prioritizing it over genuine connectivity.

* * *

Best Tweets in the House
Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, March 12, 2013

Teaser: In a desperate attempt to engage with younger audiences, arts organizations are scrambling to make their productions more interactive. But who really is more engaged: A live-tweeting audience member, or someone staring silently at the stage?

Although the trend has yet to hit the nation’s largest cities or most prominent companies, arts organizations from Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre to Palm Beach Opera have begun allowing — nay, encouraging — audiences to break out their mobile devices and respond to performances in real time, even as the actors, singers, and players onstage are working hard to hold everyone’s gaze.

The rise of tweet seats is just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts — one that champions “audience engagement” and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates “passive spectating.” The new conventional wisdom is that it’s vital not just to put on the best show you can, but to give audiences the sort of intense, interactive, personal experience that makes them feel involved in the production. That means prepping your audience ahead of time, debriefing them afterwards, and giving them opportunities to comment or participate as well as observe. In some cases, audience engagement means inviting people to sing, play, or dance along with the performers; in others, to split their attention between the stage and (very small) screen.

. . . . The trouble is that modern 20-somethings seem to have little taste for full engagement. “There is evidence beginning to suggest truly deep attention is not valued among the young,” [Stanford University sociologist Clifford] Nass reports. “The question is, where do you get your pleasure? Do you get pleasure by being transported, which requires great immersion? Or do you get pleasure by having your focus on multiple places at once? “That’s a cultural shift. Artists have to think about what that means, and what they want to do about it.”

* * *

Police Restrain Crowd from Taking Food after Supermarket Eviction
Mark Barber, WISTV.com, March 26, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: It would be difficult to surpass this story’s galling power as an illustration of the literally insane behavior that can result from unthinking adherence to a system of external rule. In this case, the external rule is that of civil law in rural Georgia. One understands why the police did what they did, given the nature of their formal jobs, but in terms of their more fundamental identities and roles as human beings, their behavior is reprehensible. Not tangentially, it bears remembering that this same scenario is played out in slightly different form in restaurants around America every day, as I witnessed personally in college when I worked briefly for a McDonald’s and found that a titanic amount of food was formally required by company policy to be thrown away every day. It was against policy to give this food to employees or anybody else. One manager regularly sacked up as much of it as possible and secretly left it on top of a trash dumpster out back for a group of homeless people to claim. One wonders how many people right now are doing something similar. One hopes the number is huge.]

Law enforcement officials pushed back hundreds of people who were crowding around a large pile of merchandise outside an Augusta grocery store Tuesday afternoon. But the goods sitting in the parking lot of the Laney Supermarket didn’t make into anyone’s hands. Instead, the food people hoped to take home was tossed into the trash. “People have children out here that are hungry, thirsty, could be anything. Why throw it away when you could be issuing it out?” asked Robertstine Lambert.

The Marshal of Richmond County, Steve Smith, says the food wasn’t theirs to give away, so they had to trash it. “We don’t have authority to take possession of the property; we just have to make sure that it’s handled, disposed of by law,” Smith, said.

SunTrust Bank in Atlanta owns the property and they’re sending the merchandise to the landfill after evicting the Chois, the owners of the grocery store. The Chois didn’t want to speak on camera but they say they were kicked out by the bank because they owe them thousands of dollars. They say they offered the food to a church, but members didn’t show up to claim it.

That’s when word that store products were abandoned spread through the community. About 300 people came to take merchandise home, but they were held back by law enforcement. “These are brand new items; we saw the potential for a riot was extremely high,” said Sheriff Richard Roundtree.

* * *

The Sound of the Gravediggers
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report, March 28, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a blog post in which Greer explores “the religious dimensions of peak oil and the end of the industrial age” — a topic that he has broached many times at The Archdruid Report, and that he unfailingly handles with eloquence and insight. This time is no exception.]

Unlike too many of today’s atheists, Nietzsche had a profound understanding of just what it was that he was rejecting when he proclaimed the death of God and the absurdity of faith. To abandon belief in a divinely ordained order to the cosmos, he argued, meant surrendering any claim to objectively valid moral standards, and thus stripping words like “right” and “wrong” of any meaning other than personal preference.  It meant giving up the basis on which governments and institutions founded their claims to legitimacy, and thus leaving them no means to maintain social order or gain the obedience of the masses other than the raw threat of violence — a threat that would have to be made good ever more often, as time went on, to maintain its effectiveness. Ultimately, it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe.

. . . . The surrogate God that western civilization embraced, tentatively in the 19th century and with increasing conviction and passion in the 20th, was progress. In our time, certainly, the omnipotence and infinite benevolence of progress have become the core doctrines of a civil religion as broadly and unthinkingly embraced, and as central to contemporary notions of meaning and value, as Christianity was before the Age of Reason.

That in itself defines one of the central themes of the predicament of our time. Progress makes a poor substitute for a deity, not least because its supposed omnipotence and benevolence are becoming increasingly hard to take on faith just now. There’s every reason to think that in the years immediately before us, that difficulty is going to become impossible to ignore — and the same shattering crisis of meaning and value that the religion of progress was meant to solve will be back, adding its burden to the other pressures of our time.

Listen closely, and you can hear the sound of the gravediggers who are coming to bury progress.