Blog Archives

The new thought police and the demand for “civility”

Joan W. Scott in The Nation:

“Civility” has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

But what exactly is civility — and is it a prerequisite for a vibrant intellectual climate? As it turns out, the definitions on offer are porous and vague. University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, who supported the decision not to hire Salaita, sees it as a “reluctance to indulge in mutual hatred,” thereby placing a limit on violence and campus warfare. Others stress courteous and respectful behavior and its concomitants: comfort, safety, and security. The University of Missouri’s “Show Me Respect” project includes a “toolbox” that offers 20 ways to achieve civility (including the reminder to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). At the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, a 2011 conference offered these words of wisdom: “Academic freedom and free speech require open, safe, civil and collegial campus environments.” And a statement from a University of Maryland discussion paper on civility in 2013 defines it “simply as ‘niceness to others.’… Additionally, the definition may be used broadly to spur discussions on how ‘nice guys and gals finish first’ and how cordiality and kindness can be tracked across campus to ensure faculty, staff, and students are indeed playing nice.”

The attempts to secure the comfort and safety of students — now recognized for their economic value as paying clients who need to be satisfied — are subjugating language and thinking to their own ends. These dictates seem to know no limits and are evident in other policies, such as the call for “trigger warnings” in college classrooms. Professors are being asked by the representatives of some students or groups — and by the anxious deans who rush to satisfy their complaints — to avoid assigning material that might provoke flashbacks or even attention to discomforting violence. The demand for trigger warnings has the same intent as the emphasis on comfort and civility in the Salaita affair and the statement to the UC Berkeley community by Dirks: to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who might otherwise express opinions that could make others “uncomfortable.”

All of these efforts presume a certain benign self-evidence for the use of the term “civility.” As the University of Maryland statement puts it, “niceness” is “easily understood by all parties”: We know civility when we see it. Left aside in these invocations are not only interpretive differences among individuals and groups (one man’s or woman’s presumed civility may strike another as uncivil), but also the history of the term. Although, as with any word, the meanings of “civility” have changed, the concept still carries traces of its earlier use. I’d argue further that although the contexts and specific applications have varied over time, the notion of civility consistently establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning — one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test.

MORE: “The New Thought Police

Teeming Links – June 27, 2014

FireHead

Beware the man who has more influence on the future of reading than anybody else in the world: Jeff Bezos is simultaneously a visionary, an innovator, and a destroyer.

Pro Publica explains why online tracking is getting creepier. (Hint: It has to do with the merging of all the mountains of online and offline data about you.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has recently announced that it will start tracking users across the Internet using its widgets such as the “Like” button,” and it won’t honor do-not-track browser settings.

Helpfully, Pro Publica offers an illuminating look at Facebook’s complicated history of tracking you.

Feeling more antsy and irritable lately? Nicholas Carr says blame smartphones, which are turning us into patient and irritable monsters: “Society’s ‘activity rhythm’ has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.”

The Wall Street Journal briefly reports on Americans who choose to live without cellphones.

William Deresiewicz warns against uncritically buying into the apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of higher education, much of which comes from profit-minded billionaires who want to remake college for their own purposes: “The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right.”

A new survey of all 7 billion humans on planet earth — conducted by The Onion — finds that we’re surprised we still haven’t figured out an alternative to letting power-hungry assholes decide everything.

Two_Draculas-Bela_and_Vlad

On Point presents a 45-minute conversation about the deep and perennial fascination of Dracula in history, myth, and literature:

There is something about biting and blood that we never get over. Luis Suarez and his bite debated round the world in the World Cup. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Victorian tale of castles and darkness that we still feel at our throats. That story has had amazing staying power. “I want to suck your blood!” and all the rest. Built off the story of Transylvania’s real Vlad the Impaler. Back to Europe’s long struggle with the Turkish caliphate. The story never dies. This hour On Point: the history and myth of literature’s great vampire — Dracula.

Historian Tim Stanley explains how Slender Man is a strongly Lovecraftian myth that became a violent reality.

E. Antony Gray gives a brief introduction to egregores and explains how Slender Man is a non-abstract and positively Lovecraftian example.

Writer, artist, and photographer Karen Emslie writes from first-person experience about the terror — and bliss — of sleep paralysis (while holding to a reductive neurobiological understanding of the phenomenon): “[S]leep paralysis has naturally spawned some very scary stories and films. But as a writer and filmmaker as well as a long-time percipient, I have another story to tell. Beyond the sheer terror, sleep paralysis can open a doorway to thrilling, extraordinary, and quite enjoyable altered states.”

(Note: I have personally never experienced the bliss of SP. For me it has always been pure, overwhelming, transformative horror.)

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Bela Lugosi as 1931 Dracula by Anonymous (Universal Studios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Vlad Tepes by anonymous artist (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Called to academe: The university’s monastic ideal in a neoliberal age

Medieval_writing_desk

Here’s media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan making the case for recognizing the reality of an academic/scholarly calling — in the authentic religious vocational sense — in the midst of a neoliberal age obsessed with the economic and political concerns of the so-called “real world”:

In the United States, and increasingly in the world at large, we tend to reduce the conversation about the value, role, and scope of the scholarly life to how it serves short-term and personal interests like career preparation or job training. Sometimes we discuss higher education as an economic boon, attracting industry to a particular location or employing thousands in a remote town. Or we probe it as an engine of research and innovation. And sometimes we use academia as a tableau for satire or social criticism when we expose the excesses of the lazy and self-indulgent professoriat or giggle at the paper titles at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.

But none of these appraisals of the life of the mind gets at the real heart of the matter: the now quaint-sounding matter of the university’s “mission” — the bigger-picture question of what our institutions of higher learning do for and with the world.

. . . Within every great American university, even MIT, there is a monastery. It’s at its core. Sometimes the campus walls and spires make that ancestry undeniable. More often, the stadiums, sweatshirt stores, laboratories, fraternity houses, and career-placement offices mask the monastery. But it’s still there. European universities emerged from the network of monasteries that had accumulated, preserved, copied, and catalogued texts and scrolls over centuries. The transformation from cloistered monastery to slightly less cloistered university occurred in fits and starts over three centuries. But by the eighteenth century, universities throughout Europe were able to converse about this new thing called science and reflect on the meaning and utility of ancient texts that bore new meaning at the dawn of an industrial age.

Early American colleges and universities were likewise religious institutions built to train clergy to serve a sinful people. Soon they took on an additional role: exposing idle sons of the landed gentry such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to dangerous books coming over from Europe.

. . . [But today] When we scholars explain our passions — the deep satisfaction we feel when we help a nineteen-year-old make a connection between the Mahabharata and The Iliad, or when our research challenges the surprising results of some medical experiment that the year before generated unwarranted headlines — many of our listeners roll their eyes like my fellow students did back in that classroom in 1995. How embarrassing that people find deep value in such uncountable things.

It’s been a couple of decades since any American faculty member could engage in the deep pursuit of knowledge untethered from the clock or calendar. But many of us still write for the guild and the guild only, satisfied that someday someone might find the work a valuable part of a body of knowledge. But if that never happens, so be it — it’s all part of the calling’s steep price of admission.

MORE: “Mind Games: Making the Case for an Academic Calling in a Neoliberal Age

 

Image: “Medieval writing desk” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – March 21, 2014

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why great artists need solitude: because it “heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful.”

The Obama administration aggressively prosecutes leakers. It electronically spies on those who might speak to journalists. It deploys its own counter-media to confuse and evade scrutiny by the press. It is, in short, “a closed, control freak administration.”

Michael Dirda on the lessons provided by the late Cornell scholar Lane Cooper for both life and literature:

[I am a reader] with a passion for “low” literature, for adventure stories and fantasy and science fiction and mysteries and romance. And yet. And yet. Something in me deeply responds to, even if it cannot wholly emulate, such men as Cooper and Bongiorno. I envy their wisdom, their beautiful souls, their serene and noble spirits. Because of them I try to write about books that matter, whatever their genre, and, as often as possible, to urge the rediscovery or renewed appreciation of great works from the past.

The dystopian death spiral of American higher education: In the age of predatory corporate capitalism, faculty are slave labor and students are lambs for slaughter. “Ours is the generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit.”

The Network-Based Interpretation of Dreams: By mapping the links between themes that appear in dreams, network scientists reveal the connections between dreams in different cultures for the first time.

As it turns out, the 2012 apocalypse almost literally happened (but a few months ahead of the putative Mayan schedule) due to a massive solar flare.

The I Ching is an uncertainty machine: “The I Ching repeatedly prompts me to go beyond false certainties and to create new and unexpected possibilities. In this way, divination might not be the enemy of rational thought but could be a means to its fuller flourishing.” (Also see “Meditation, the daimon muse, and the I Ching.“)

Did the U.S. government pay a Hollywood special effects expert to create fake alien bodies for a disinformation campaign against the Soviets? Nick Redfern makes a compellingly suggestive and suggestively compelling case:

So, we have one man claiming to have made alien bodies to fool the Soviets and (in a fictional setting) we have a government creating a monster to fool the Germans. There is a Billy Wilder tie to both issues (in the sense that the source of the above-story worked with Wilder, and Wilder himself directed, produced and co-wrote The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), and both Wilder and the man behind the “alien dummies” ruse worked with the Psychological Warfare Department on Death Mills. Somewhere, in this convoluted saga, I suspect, there is a big secret just waiting to be uncovered.”

Richard Smoley on Colin Wilson, Faculty X, and waking up from the trance of everyday existence:

It is this self-remembering, this awakening, deliberate or inadvertent, that Wilson discovers in many accounts of mystical experience. Gurdjieff might have agreed. When asked once what higher consciousness was like, he replied, “Everything more vivid.” For Wilson, this awakening is the gateway to what he calls Faculty X, which he calls “the power to grasp reality,” and which “unites the two halves of man’s mind, conscious and unconscious” . . . . If we are to win the war against the sleep of everyday life, it will not come out of technology nor even from political or social reform, as much as this may be needed. It will come from the liberation of individuals who awaken from the dreams that pass across their televisions and computer screens — and their minds — and are able to say, “I – here now.”

 

Teeming Links – August 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word is actually double: two opening words. The first is from John Michael Greer, writing with his typically casual and powerful lucidity. The second is from international studies expert Charles Hill, who writes with equal power. They’re lengthy, so please feel free to skip on down to the list of links. But I think you’ll find something interesting if you first read these excerpts, and ruminate on them, and see if you can spot a deep connection between them.

First, from Mr. Greer:

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm . . . and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

. . . The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

. . . [T]he fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

— John Michael Greer, “Terms of Surrender,” The Archdruid Report, August 28, 2013

Second, from Dr. Hill:

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior.

. . . There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.

To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.

— Charles Hill, “On Decadence,” The American Interest, September/October 2013

If you made a Venn Diagram out of Hill’s and Greer’s respective ruminations, and if you meditated for a while on the shared middle ground between them, you might find something that would insightfully illuminate a lot of the material below.

* * *

Is America Addicted to War? (Foreign Policy, April 2011)
This exploration of “the top 5 reasons why we keep getting into foolish fights,” written by Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt in response to the United States’ military intervention in Libya’s civil war, is obviously and pointedly relevant to what’s going on right now with the Syria situation. “Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats (The Guardian)
“Convinced national security is for ever at risk, western governments mimic the fanaticism they claim to despise.”

The Leveraged Buyout of America (The Web of Debt Blog)
“Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?”

Academy Fight Song (The Baffler)
This may be the most exhaustive, devastating, damning, dystopian, and dead-on essay-length critique of higher education in America that I’ve ever read. “Virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators. . . . What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.”

Why Teach English? (Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker)
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. . . . No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department — texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.”

The Humanities Studies Debate (On Point with Tom Ashbrook)
A well-mounted, hour-long NPR radio debate. “Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning — philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts. Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy? Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight. To study, as Socrates said, ‘the way one should live.’ Critics say: ‘Crunch some numbers. Get a job.’

Paper Versus Pixel (Nicholas Carr for Nautilus)
“On the occasion of the inaugural Nautilus Quarterly, we asked Nicholas Carr to survey the prospects for a print publication. Here he shows why asking if digital publications will supplant printed ones is the wrong question. ‘We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper’ [says Carr]. ‘They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.'”

Japan Opens ‘Fasting Camps’ To Wean Kids Off Of Excessive Internet Usage (International Business Times)
“A government study found that up to 15 percent of Japanese students spend as much as five hours online everyday and even more time on the internet on weekends. As a result, the Tokyo government’s education ministry will introduce ‘web fasting camps’ to help young people disconnect from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held devices.”

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose (Bloomberg)
“It is a fundamental biological phenomenon. A single cell ‘decides’ (for lack of a better word) to strike off on its own. Mutation by mutation, it evolves — like a monster in the ecosystem of your body. Cancer is an occupying force with a will of its own. . . . What from the body’s point of view are dangerous mutations are, for the tumor, advantageous adaptations. . . . Susan Sontag called cancer ‘a demonic pregnancy,’ ‘a fetus with its own will.’ That is more than an arresting metaphor.”

New Exhibit Explains Why We’ve Been Fascinated By Witches For More Than 500 Years (The Huffington Post)
“A new exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, aptly titled exhibition, ‘Witches & Wicked Bodies,’ is paying homage to art’s heated affair with witches. The show dives into darker depictions of witches hidden in prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and more, shedding light on attitudes perpetuated by everyone from Francisco de Goya to Paula Rego.”

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research (Prehistoric Shamanism)
“By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did. . . . The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human.”

William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics (Mysterious Universe)
“Through comics, films and television, ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets.”

How reading and literature effectively reincarnate us into a higher form of consciousness

From Mark Edmundson, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a passionate paean to the college English major as a field of study that is ultimately devoted to “pursuing the most important subject of all — being a human being”:

Soon college students all over America will be trundling to their advisers’ offices to choose a major. In this moment of financial insecurity, students are naturally drawn to economics, business, and the hard sciences. But students ought to resist the temptation of those purportedly money-ensuring options and even of history and philosophy, marvelous though they may be. All students — and I mean all — ought to think seriously about majoring in English.

. . . English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who — let us admit it — are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense — more alive with meaning than you had thought.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure — but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

. . . Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world — what to be, how to act, how to move through time — at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study — or at least made some significant progress on your way — then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

COMPLETE ESSAY: “The Ideal English Major

Teeming Links – July 23, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For an overall commentary on this particular crop of fascinating, worthwhile, disturbing, and/or necessary reading and viewing, see “Alan Moore: The revolution will be crowd-funded,” recently published at Salon. In this interview, “the ‘Watchmen’ creator talks about his new Kickstarter-funded film series, zombies and the surveillance state.” Most pointedly of all (in my humble opinion), he says the following:

There seems to be something going on, even from the briefest appraisal of the news, with the amount of events transpiring. This is such a connected world, it’s useless to isolate any part of it as a discrete phenomenon. You can’t really talk about the problems in Syria, because its problems are global. The waves of discontent and outrage — whether in the Arab countries, or in Brazil, or in America and Europe over the degrees to which its citizens are being monitored — are not separate phenomena. They are phenomena of an emergent world, and the existence of the Internet is one of its major drivers. We have got no idea how it’s going to turn out, because the nature of our society is such that if anything can be invented, then we will invent it. Sooner or later, if it is possible.

So the Internet is changing everything, but I wouldn’t yet want to say for good or ill. I suspect, as ever, that it will be an admixture of both. But we are all along for the ride, even those people like me who do not have Internet connections, mobile phones or even functioning televisions. I’m slowly disconnecting myself. Basically, it’s a feeling that if we are going to subject our entire culture to what is an unpredictable experiment, then I’d like to try to remain outside the petri dish. [Laughs] It’s only sensible to have somebody as a control.

. . . While I’m remote from most technology to the point that I’m kind of Amish, I have played a couple of computer games — until I realized I was being bloodied with adrenalin over something that wasn’t real. At the end of a couple of hours of very addictive play, I may have procured the necessary amount of mushrooms to save a princess, but I also wasted hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. This is the reason I am not on the Internet. I am aware of its power as a distraction, and I don’t have the time for that.

Despite the constant clamor for attention from the modern world, I do believe we need to procure a psychological space for ourselves. I apparently know some people who try to achieve this by logging off, or going without their Twitter or Facebook for a limited period. Which I suppose is encouraging, although it doesn’t seem that remarkable from my perspective. I think that people need to establish their own psychological territory in face of the encroaching world.

Amen, Brother Alan.

* * *

The Blip (New York Magazine)
What if everything we’ve come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?

Turns of the Century (The European)
What the protests in Brazil and Greece tell us about world history. “The big shift of our time, the epochal change that affects or will affect billions of people around the globe, isn’t the rising threat of terrorism, but the rising precariousness of economic realities. The story of the 21st century begins in earnest with ticker news about imminent financial collapse.”

Detroit bankruptcy: Is it a warning sign for America? (+video) (The Christian Science Monitor)
How Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has dealt with financial crises in the state — and how he will handle the Detroit bankruptcy — could hold lessons for the rest of the US.

The Last Days of Big Law : You can’t imagine the terror when the money dries up (The New Republic)
On the escalating crisis inside an old and high-profile profession, whose entire ecosystem has dramatically changed in just a single generation, largely due to greed. The resulting new environment is soul-crushing for everybody involved.

University Suspends Online Classes after More Than Half the Students Fail (Slate)
Inside Higher Ed reported on Thursday that San Jose State is suspending the Udacity partnership just six months after it launched.

Inside Google HQ: What does the future hold for the company whose visionary plans include implanting a chip in our brains? (The Independent)
A visit to the legendary “Googleplex” at Mountain View. The company “is staking its future on a vast store of information called the Knowledge Graph, which is growing at an exponential rate. . . . The future [says Ben Gomes, a Google fellow and the company’s Vice President of Search] is for this enormous resource to be ‘present everywhere.'”

Faith and Works at Apple (The New York Review of Books)
“The world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries.”

How Scientology changed the Internet (BBC News)
What do Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Anonymous and copyright law have in common? The answer is they have all been influenced by the Church of Scientology International (CSI), as it took on ex-members and critics who took their protests on to the internet. As the Church successfully removes another website, just how big an influence has Scientology had on the internet we all use?

What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes? (Boston Review)
Terry Winograd Interviews Evgeny Morozov. “According to Morozov, some of life’s good things come from ignorance rather than knowledge; opacity rather than transparency; ambivalence rather than certainty; vagueness rather than precision; hypocrisy rather than sincerity; messy pondering of imponderables rather than crisp efficiency.”

Rise of the Warrior Cop (The Wall Street Journal)
Is it time to reconsider the militarization of American policing?

Radley Balko: “Once a town gets a SWAT team you want to use it” (Salon)
America’s police are beginning to look like an army, and the author says there’s very little we can do about it.

Lyons: Police raid felt like home invasion (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
“The man just demanded they open the door. The actual words, the couple say, were, ‘We’re the f—— police; open the f—— door.'” Why did more than two dozen federal marshals and local police officers with guns and tactical gear think a Florida nurse and her boyfriend were harboring a child rapist in her apartment? “[W]hen the people in Goldsberry’s apartment didn’t open up, that told [federal marshal Matt] Wiggins he had probably found the right door. No one at other units had reacted that way, he said.”

Save the Movie! (Slate)
If you’ve been wondering why so many “blockbuster” Hollywood movies now feel exactly the same, here’s the answer: there’s actually a formula — one that lays out, on a page-by-page and moment-by-moment basis, exactly what should happen in a screenplay. It was introduced in 2005, and it threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.

Word Compression Blues (First Things)
On Facebook, Twitter, and the awesome cultural pressure to compress and condense verbal communication into ever shorter forms. “Our shriveling discourse with one another, our ever shorter exchanges and undeveloped rim-fired speculations: Is this how we seemingly have come to talk past each other? If that is happening with the small topics, what is happening with the big ones?”

UFO Cover-Ups Must End, Moonwalker Edgar Mitchell Says (Bloomberg)
A new interview with the sole individual out of the 12 men who have walked on the moon to go on record about his controversial belief in extraterrestrial UFOs — and of a possible government cover-up.

Stunning UFO Footage Shows Multiple Objects Darting, Flashing Over Russian Sky (Who Forted?)
Incredible footage of a cluster of UFOs captured above Russia was posted to the Alien Andromeda YouTube channel in late June, and the striking video has caught the attention believers and skeptics alike. [Click through to read full description and comments on the video below.]

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

Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred

Dr. Angela Voss is an expert in mythology, astrology, and Western esotericism. She’s also one of the two editors of Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, whose imminent publication I recently talked about here. In conjunction with that post, she has asked me to help spread the word about an exciting new graduate program in these subjects that she has helped to create in the UK. Conveniently, this is a request that plays right into my already-existing plans, since I was planning to mention the new graduate program at some point anyway! In the past few months I’ve seen various announcements and updates about its development and planned launch in January 2014, and have thought the whole thing looks and sounds quite fascinating.

As you’ll see from the following description, the program also lands right in the middle of the same territory explored not only by the Daimonic Imagination book but by portions of this very blog. I urge you to click through the title link below to the program’s page at the Canterbury Christ Church University site, where you can read more details on the specific subjects to be covered. Items that leap out at me personally include “”The nature of mythopoeic thought: symbol and metaphor,” “Renaissance art and theurgic magic,” “Jung, Corbin and Hillman on active imagination,” “The return to the gods in transpersonal psychology,” and “Subliminal mind and the unconscious.”

Maybe somebody among The Teeming Brain’s audience will find that this is just the thing they’ve been looking for.

* * *

Announcing a new Masters programme in Canterbury, UK:

MA in Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred

MA_in_Myth_Cosmology_and_the_Sacred

To begin January 2014, 1 year full-time or 2 years part-time

TUTORS:
Wilma Fraser (director)
Geoffrey Cornelius
Angela Voss
Marguerite Rigoglioso (guest lecturer)

This interdisciplinary Masters programme draws on studies in psychology, anthropology, theology, esoteric philosophy, a range of wisdom traditions and the arts. It offers a discerning investigation into seemingly non-rational modes of knowing, exploring the cosmological sense of the sacred, the widespread practices of symbol-interpretation and divination, and the cultural role of the creative imagination. The programme will appeal to all those seeking to enrich their lives through the study of the history, philosophy and rituals of Western sacred and esoteric traditions, and will be of particular interest to teachers, practitioners and therapists in the fields of contemporary spirituality and well-being who would like to engage more deeply with the foundations of their work. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation. The MA is taught at alternate weekends Jan-June, with additional Wednesday mornings for full-time students. The second half of the year consists of supervised research with a presentation weekend in September. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation.

For the student handbook and all admin information (including fees) contact Michelle Childs post.compulsory.education@canterbury.ac.uk, 01227 863458. For information regarding course content, contact Angela Voss angela.voss@canterbury.ac.uk

We also welcome enquiries for M.Phil and Ph.D research in related areas.

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.

calvin_and_hobbes_ethics

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