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The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception

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Dr. James Fadiman

Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.

The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:

JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”

MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.

JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”

MORE: “Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception

 

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Beyond the Beautiful Darkness: Mark Samuels on Atheism, Christianity, Weird Horror, and the Road out of Hell

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teeming Brain interview with Mark Samuels has long been one of our most popular features, and with this post we finally welcome Mark to our Teem of contributors. Mark’s interview was published back in 2006, and it still continues to draw a steady stream of readers these seven years later. This is due, of course, to the fact that Mark’s reputation as a significant writer of weird fiction has continued to grow in the intervening years, with his corpus having expanded from  The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), Black Altars (2003), and The Face of Twilight (2006) — all available at the time the interview was published — to include two more story collections, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes and The Man Who Collected Machen, both of which have received widespread acclaim. His work has been praised by the likes of Ted Klein and Ramsey Campbell. It has been reprinted multiple times in various “year’s best” anthologies. He was also personally fictionalized and lampooned — along with Thomas Ligotti, Ellen Datlow, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, S. T. Joshi, Gordon Van Gelder, and others — by Laird Barron in the story “More Dark,” which appears in Laird’s 2013 collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (which recently won the Bram Stoker Award).

In the essay below, Mark speaks personally about the central role that religion has played in his life as a writer and a human being. As he traces his route from agnosticism to atheism to Christianity, and as he delves into the relationship between all of this and his attraction to weird fiction, he goes into greater depth and speaks more pointedly about some things he said in his interview. Like his chief literary idol, Arthur Machen, Mark’s Christianity is central to his writing (Machen was an Anglican, Mark is a Roman Catholic). And far from clashing with his weird fictional sensibility, this serves as its very source by charging the world for him with an all-pervasive aura of numinous mystery and an abiding awareness of the Hell that always accompanies the possibility of Heaven. This is, obviously, not a position unique to Mark. It doesn’t even qualify as especially rare among the ranks of his fellow horror writers. But his particular expressions of it puts him at odds with certain prevailing cultural attitudes both within and without the community of horror writers and readers, and Mark isn’t one to mince words. Time for me to be silent and let him speak for himself.

 

BEYOND THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS

I came to Catholicism when in my late twenties, having had a type of secular upbringing, at home and in school, to gladden the heart of the most fervent advocate of the neo-atheist movement. There was no Bible in the house. Christmas was just Yuletide, and wholly pagan. Easter was a time for chocolate eggs.

I do recall undergoing one term of mandatory Religious Studies classes, but these were centered around comparative religion, and the bald, white-haired teacher was regarded by the pupils as a legitimate target for some really vile abuse during his own lessons, over which he had no control. His tolerance was regarded as a fatal weakness. Strangely enough, at this hell-hole, all the other teachers would resort to corporeal punishment and thought little of maintaining order through physical violence, right up until the moment the practice was forcibly abolished in all U.K. state schools in 1983. He, however, refused to do so. In class he was shouted down, ignored, and swore at, and I joined in. We pupils learnt nothing during those classes. Looking back thirty years to those lessons now, I think I learnt more of true worth from his example of baffled dignity than from any other of the classes I took. Needless to say, every single teacher in that school was a good socialist and devout religious sceptic. And they made of me exactly the same thing.

Then, during my late teens, I discovered the works of Lovecraft. I admired his stories to the point of complete adulation. I wanted not only to write the sort of tales he wrote, but to be exactly like this great man himself. When I also obtained his selected letters and read through them, he became, as well my guide in literature, my educator. My vague, indifferent agnosticism was cast aside, and I became a militant atheist and scientific materialist. HPL knew everything (except when it came to his biological racism, but I glossed over this failing, as so many others did), and so I too knew everything, since in terms of his system anything that could not be empirically demonstrated was not worth serious consideration. All else was wishful thinking. I devoured the work of any atheist author I could discover, ignoring completely the other side, and became the master of confirming my own prejudices. Objections, rather than being looked into, were treated as mere trifles only deserving of a sneer or scornful words. Read the rest of this entry

John Hagee warns of blood moon apocalypse

Well, that’s a relief. After years of fanning the flames of religious doomsday fears, television preacher John Hagee, long one of the most prominent banner carriers for fundamentalist Protestant bluster and bombast, has decided to enter the apocalypse sweepstakes for real by giving a specific timetable for — well, something non-specific. But he says it will be “a world-shaking event,” and he says it will happen between now and October 2015.

How does he know this? Simple: He claims that our current cycle of “blood moons” is a direct apocalyptic sign:

Hagee is not, of course, alone in this. The blood moon phenomenon has set off an apocalyptic debate among many Christians. And suddenly I’m gripped by memories of myself, at age 17, watching the apocalyptic religious horror flick The Seventh Sign and finding it so cool as a Jewish kid sits translating a famous end-times passage from the biblical Book of Joel — specifically, Joel 2:31, which states that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD” — when he looks out his window and sees the large full moon suddenly overtaken by a wave of crimson that turns it a deep bloody color. Demi Moore, what have you wrought?

But all joking aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the type of apocalyptic religious theorizing advanced by Hagee pointedly ignores certain aspects of the very sacred text that he and his ilk claim to take as absolute, infallible, and unchangeable holy writ. Consider, for example, the fact that the biblical/canonical Jesus’s right-hand man, the apostle Peter, states explicitly in Acts 2 that the Joel prophecy, including the part about the moon turning to blood, is already fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the Day of Pentecost. Obviously, such a claim represents a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of apocalyptic matters than the model of a literal timetable advanced by the Hagees of the world. Likewise for Jesus’s statement in Luke 17:20-21, where he directly tells the pharisees, who have asked when the kingdom will arrive, that it is not the type of thing that will come by looking for external signs, because God’s kingdom is already within or among them. Call me naive, but I doubt we’ll hear Pastor Hagee addressing the clash between his claims and this subtler view as he continues to spout and tout his literalistic apocalyptic views over the next 18 months.

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.'”

Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To introduce today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading, here’s a description of a trend in academia that represents one of the most ironic of all ironies (as described by the excerpt), and also one of the most welcome and revealing developments of the present age:

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. . . . Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments — not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

. . . [V]ery slowly, there are signs that a [William] Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. . . . [Various academic and scientific disciplines are] exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies. The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical ‘beyond’, or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological — they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

. . . Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people’s experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.

— Jules Evans, “The New Science of Religious Experiences,” Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, September 6, 2013

* * *

The Future of History (Foreign Affairs)
Francis Fukayama famously announced “the end of history” in 1989, after which all kinds of stunning new history swiftly transpired. Now — or rather, in January 2012, which is when this piece appeared — he’s wondering about a different kind of ending. In this piece (whose full text, alas, resides behind a paywall), he is inspired by the global financial crisis to ask whether liberal democracy, “the default ideology around much of the world today,” can survive the death of the middle class. Thanks go out to David Pecotic for the link.

The sad realisation that you’ve stopped reading books (Daily Life)
“Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books. . . . [I]ncreasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent..”

Traveling without seeing (The New York Times)
“I’m half a world from home [in Shanghai], in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment. . . . [We have an] unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real (Pacific Standard)
Max Weber’s classic early-twentieth-century sociological/economic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — which argued that Calvinist insecurity about one’s eternal destiny was the ironic and primary psychological and societal force that created modern capitalism — has always made sense to me personally, even though in recent years it has been fashionable to claim that Weber’s idea was mostly fanciful. Now here’s some news about several recent studies that indicate he really was onto something.

TED talks now routinely censoring scientists who share ideas on consciousness (Natural News)
The tone of this opinion piece is too wildly polemical for my taste (as is the author’s bizarre non sequitur of a tangent about racism), but the subject, the thesis, the supporting evidence, and the writer’s reasoning and conclusion are quite significant: “To really understand the desperation behind TED’s censorship and attempted suppression of ideas from people like [Graham] Hancock and [Rupert] Sheldrake, you first have to understand why the idea of consciousness is so incredibly dangerous to the mythology of modern-day science.” Read this in tandem with the item directly below.

Science vs. Pseudoscience (The Huffington Post)
Read this in tandem with the item directly above. It’s written by computational scientist, emeritus professor of mathematics, and former NASA researcher Dave Pruett, and it explores the epic pro-materialist/anti-consciousness bias of what we call mainstream science, using the Sheldrake and Hancock TED controversy as a starting point: “Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal. . . . Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.”

I Dream of Genius (Joseph Epstein for Commentary Magazine)
An excellent, concise history of the very idea of “genius,” including a look at its previous meaning in the form of the Socratic daimon and the Roman genius spirit and the way this was fatefully altered in Western cultural history: “The dividing line for our understanding of genius was the 18th century. In an emerging secular age, Descartes and Voltaire removed the tutelary-angel aspect from the conception. . . . Men were no longer thought to have genius but to be geniuses. . . . Genius, meanwhile, remains the least understood of all kinds of intelligence. The explanation for the existence of geniuses and accounting for their extraordinary powers have thus far eluded all attempts at scientific study. . . . I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones.”

Slash on His New Horror Film, Nothing Left to Fear (The Huffington Post)
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash has co-produced and written the score for a new horror film. Here he talks about the film and his lifelong relationship to the genre, with references to H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Night of the Living Dead, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He also comes off as quite reflective and well-spoken. Okay, mind officially blown.

Aleister Crowley and esoteric art open window to the sacred (The Sydney Morning Herald)
“[Crowley’s] landscapes and trance paintings were created as part of his occult practices and influenced by symbolism and expressionism, says curator Robert Buratti. . . . Buratti says esoteric art is usually part of a personal spiritual practice, often of a ritual or magical nature. ‘It fundamentally asks the artist to delve into their own existence, and the artwork functions like a diary of that ordeal or a prompt to delve even further,’ he says. He says esoteric artists such as [Rosaleen] Norton and James Gleeson, the father of Australian Surrealism, use techniques like meditative trance to find a deeper truth.”

Teeming Links – August 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

James Howard Kunstler was in rare form in a recent salvo against the pervasive and putatively hopeful (but actually despairingly awful) wish, especially here in America, that techno-industrial society might continue to survive indefinitely instead of doing what it’s actually in the very earliest stages of beginning to do: implode, collapse, and transform into something else. So I preface this latest offering of recommended and necessary reading with a generous chunk of that piece, which you are hereby encouraged to go read in full.

The permanent contraction of techno-industrialism is necessary because the main fuel for running it has become scarcer and rather expensive, too expensive really to run the infrastructure of the United States. . . . To put it as simply as possible, the main task before this society is to change the way we live. The necessary changes are so severe and represent so much loss of previous investment that we can’t bring ourselves to think about it.

. . . Many of those aforementioned swindled, misled, and debauched lumpen folk (having finally sold off their Ford-F110s) will eventually see their prospects migrate back into the realm of agriculture, or at least their surviving progeny will, as the sugar-tit of federal benefits melts away to zero, and by then the population will be much lower. These days, surely, the idea of physical labor in the sorghum rows is abhorrent to a 325-pound food-stamp recipient lounging in an air-conditioned trailer engrossed in the televised adventures of Kim Kardashian and her celebrated vagina while feasting on a KFC 10-piece bundle and a 32 oz Mountain Dew. But the hypothetical grand-kids might have to adopt a different view after the last air-conditioner sputters to extinction, and fire-ants have eaten through the particle-board floor of the trailer, and all the magical KFC products recede into the misty past where Jenny Lind rubs elbows with the Knights of the Round Table. Perhaps I wax a little hyperbolic, but you get the idea: subsistence is the real deal-to-come, and it will be literally a harder row to hoe than the current conception of “poverty.”

Somewhere beyond this mannerist picture of the current cultural depravity is the glimmer of an idea of people behaving better and spending their waking lives at things worth doing (and worthy of their human-ness), but that re-enchantment of daily life awaits a rather harsh work-out of the reigning deformations. I will go so far to predict that the recent national mood of wishful fantasy is running out of gas and that a more fatalistic view of our manifold predicaments will take its place in a few months. It would at least signal a rapprochment of truth with reality.

— James Howard Kunstler, “The Dreamtime,” Clusterfuck Nation, July 29, 2013

* * *

The Snowden Time Bomb (Project Syndicate)
“In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, world leaders repeated a soothing mantra. There could be no repeat of the Great Depression, not only because monetary policy was much better (it was), but also because international cooperation was better institutionalized. And yet one man, the American former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, has shown how far removed from reality that claim remains.”

The Quality of Life (Ribbonfarm)
A semi-companion piece to “The American Cloud,” written by the same author, published recently at Aeon, and included here in the July 26 edition of Teeming Links. “Human life, modeled by economists, measured by bureaucrats, and celebrated by statisticians, seems to miss the point in some deep way.”

How we are gentrified, impoverished and silenced — if we allow it (New Statesman)
John Pilger on the real-world Huxleyan situation that now confronts us as we’re in danger of becoming perfectly adjusted to and conditioned by an deeply insane societal situation.

Washington Post to be sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (The Washington Post)
“The deal represents a sudden and stunning turn of events for The Post, Washington’s leading newspaper for decades and a powerful force in shaping the nation’s politics and policy. . . . [F]or much of the past decade, The Post has been unable to escape the financial turmoil that has engulfed newspapers and other “legacy” media organizations.”

Okay, Here’s the Real Reason Why Jeff  Bezos Bought The Washington Post (Forbes)
“Amazon’s purchase of The Washington Post represents the next logical step in ‘owned media,’ the purchase of a major media outlet by a major marketer in order to sell directly to the public. In effect, e-commerce is starting to play the role once solely reserved for advertising, monetizing content through promoting the sale of products and services.” [NOTE: As stated in the Post article above, it’s actually not Amazon but Bezos personally who is the buyer in this epic transaction. But the upshot remains the same.]

Antibiotic resistance: The last resort (Nature)
Health officials are watching in horror as bacteria become resistant to powerful carbapenem antibiotics — one of the last drugs on the shelf.

Mind_and_Cosmos_by_Thomas_NagelThe Heretic (The Weekly Standard)
Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? “Nagel’s touchier critics have accused him of launching an assault on science, when really it is an assault on the nonscientific uses to which materialism has been put.”

The New Theist (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy’s boldest apostle. Prominent “new atheist” Sam Harris has called him “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.”

Among the Immortals (The Weekly Standard)
Does Schumann belong there? “Schumann fought for the cause of good music, but what was truly at stake, it seems, was his own sanity: He eventually threw himself into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt and ended up in a straitjacket in an asylum. Here is a figure troubled enough for the 21st century!”

Supernormal_by_Dean_RadinDr. Dean Radin Urges Science to Examine the Supernormal (Skeptiko)
Interview examines the connection between ancient yoga practices and the science of extended human consciousness. “We’re in the modern age now and what science is able to do is study not the depths of enlightenment but we certainly can study the very place where mind and matter meet. It’s where the deep subjective and deep objective meet, and that is psychic phenomena.”

Teeming Links – August 2, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I invite you to peruse today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading under the overarching emotional/conceptual rubric of this recent rumination about the extreme value of ambivalence and undecidedness amid our present sociocultural circumstance of frenetic and manipulative opinion-peddling and belief-mongering:

We live in a society in which opinions, options, and information are everywhere proliferating, and ambivalence is on the rise. Persuasive arguments are available on either side of nearly every choice. What should I think or feel about fast food, nuclear energy, or euthanasia? Which of these 15 brands of toothpaste do I prefer and why?

Yet because it goes largely unmeasured and undetected, ambivalence is undervalued. Uncertainty is interpreted as weakness, even though certainty takes us blundering into wars and financial crashes. Facebook turns our analogue emotions into binary oppositions: You either “like” something or you don’t. Management books valorize decisiveness; self-help books command us to be happy; politicians pitch to one side or the other. The ambivalents are trapped in a culture that prizes univalents.

If we are to find a way to break out of our current deadlocks, we need a little more respect for ambivalence. After all, an ambivalent sensibility is a creative one. . . .

When you are in a state of mind in which things aren’t resolved into their conventional categories, you are more likely to see new possibilities.

Isn’t it time we stood up for ambivalence as a valid and necessary mode of comprehending the world?

Then again, maybe that’s a terrible idea.

— Ian Leslie, “Ambivalence Is Awesome,” Slate, June 13, 2013

* * *

The New Circulations of Culture (Berfrois)
“We might imagine Facebook, YouTube, Last.fm, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter and so on, as vast archives of cultural data. As things stand, culture is being radically transformed by the recursive circulations of digital by-product data, yet we have little understanding of how this is happening or what the consequences might be.”

Thinking in Network Terms (Edge)
Physicist and network theorist Albert-lászló Barabási on human societies in the age of Big Data, when Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc., are the richest troves of human information on the planet. “One of the shocking things that I discovered through my son is that from a very young age, I kept saying ‘Do you want to be an astronomer? Do you want to go to the moon?” Always he always said, “No, I don’t want to go.’ But he would like to go to work for Google, he would like to go to work for Facebook.’ We have a generation that is growing up for whom the traditional goals of going to the moon, of flying to faraway stars, don’t exist anymore. That’s not what excites them.”

Why the Internet is Ground Zero in the Global Consciousness War (AlterNet)
By Daniel Pinchbeck. Quoted here three years ago but well worth revisiting or reading for the first time. “The established forces that want to control consciousness and manage perception face the new challenges of outsider perspectives that the internet makes available.”

The Internet As We Know It Is On Its Deathbed (AlterNet)
“The original vision of the Internet, where information and media is freely shared, without one’s computer strokes and searches being metered, tracked, traced, archived, dissected, marketed and warehoused in government data banks, is dead. And that’s what’s being lost by mainstream media in the ongoing Edward Snowden coverage. . . . Snowden’s revelations are the end of a vision of unfettered Internet freedom.”

In Praise of Pessimism (New Statesman)
Will Self on the virtues of negative expectations. “The optimist lives in fear of a future that she endeavours, futilely, to control. For the pessimist, it’s simply a matter of shit happens, but until it does, make hay.”

Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History (The Atlantic)
A revolution began here. And this is what is left over. “What we see now is a surreal imitation of the suburban industrial parks and commercial spaces of yesteryear. They’re built atop the past’s mistakes, erasing them from our maps and eyes.”

How to keep Millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool (The Washington Post)
“Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived. Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that. . . . As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me.”

The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner (Smithsonian.com)
“Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s full operas — lengthy and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling — often experience a sense of awe. ‘It’s so rich and deep — it’s like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,’ Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February.”

Science fiction is creeping into more mainstream films (The Guardian)
Science fiction isn’t all “talking squids in space”. And its creep into mainstream cinema is everywhere from Never Let Me Go to Midnight in Paris.

Harlan Ellison Isn’t Dead Yet (Vulture)
“Endings remain very much on his mind. ‘I have led what others call the good life,’ he said on the phone a few weeks ago. ‘I’ve done what I love all my life and I’m still doing it. Working hard is the only thing I know.'”

Stephen King’s Family Business (The New York Times)
“The family now boasts five novelists, four of whom have books out this year. . . . The closest comparison would have to be the Brontës, and even they maxed out at a paltry three published novelists, plus one dissipated poet.”

Mutilated Cows Found at Missouri Farm, Police Not Ruling Out the Possibility of Aliens (CBS St. Louis)
The last half of the headline is misleading, but the story is quite interesting. There’s a long history of this thing in Missouri (my home state), by the way. “Who would cut the tongues and take the reproductive organs from several cows? That’s the mystery police in a small town 90 miles away from Kansas City are dealing with.”

The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary (Smithsonian.com)
From tribal cultures to modern circuses to Poltergeist, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, “Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have been around for ages.”

Vampies, zombies, and sacred horror

"The Vampire' by Edvard Munch, 1893-94 [Public Domain in United States], via Wikipedia

“The Vampire’ by Edvard Munch, 1893-94 [Public Domain in United States], via Wikipedia

Here’s a fairly awesome audio feast spiritual about the deep connection between religion and supernatural horror:

Sacred Horror: Zombie Resurrections and Vampire Souls

It’s an hour-long episode of the radio program Encounter that was broadcast just three days ago by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Encounter “invites listeners to explore the connections between religion and life — intellectually, emotionally and intuitively — across a broad spectrum of topics.” Here’s the official description of this particular episode:

From the legends of Frankenstein and Dracula to films about zombies, witches and vampires, supernatural horror has always captured the popular imagination. Fictional horror scares us because it confronts us with our deepest fears about death and the unknown. It make us tremble, but it also acts as a catharsis. So it’s no wonder then that the horror genre often intersects with religion.

Guests include:

  • Jana Riess, author of What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide
  • Douglas E. Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies, Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Canada
  • John Morehead, co-editor of The Undead and Theology and creator of website TheoFantastique
  • Mike Duran, Christian novelist, California
  • Ashley Moyse, Research Affiliate, Vancouver School of Theology, Canada
  • Philip Johnson, Theologian

I simply can’t say enough good things about this presentation, which delves with unexpected depth into various important aspects of the relationship between religion and horror, including Rudolf Otto’s formulation of the seminal concepts of the numinous, daemonic dread, and the simultaneous attractive and repulsive power of the mysterium tremendum. The list of interviewees is particularly excellent. You’ll recall that John Morehead is a long-time Teeming Brain friend who was one of the panel participants on our podcast about Lovecraft, Machen, and the possible spiritual/philosophical divide between cosmic horror and sacred terror. (Interestingly, the exact same subject, minus any mention of Machen, is broached on this Encounter episode.) And Mike Duran and I have interacted on the issue of religion, horror, and apocalypse in the past.

Do yourself a favor and set aside an hour to listen with full attention. You won’t regret it.