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Teeming Links – Halloween 2017 Edition

During the past couple of years, I haven’t had any time to pull together the expansive lists of links to recommended reading that I used to post here regularly. This situation may continue for some time. But in honor of the current Halloween holiday, here are some recently published items about horror pop culture, monsters, and the supernatural that are worth looking at.

Betwixt Nature and God Dwelt the Medieval “Preternatural (Aeon)

These accidents of nature were known as “prodigies.” A non-exhaustive list might include floods; rains of blood or body parts; miscarriages, human and animal; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; comets, eclipses, and conjunctions of the planets; apparitions of armies in the sky; and beached whales. What united this Borgesian collection was its strangeness. Each of these phenomena departed from the ‘norm’, but not enough to be considered a true miracle. They occupied a middle ground between natural and supernatural: the preternatural.

In theory, prodigies could be explained by natural causes. But in creating them, nature wasn’t tending to business as usual. This strange, quirky, slippery realm, the realm of the monstrous, fulfilled a human need to see the moral order reflected in the non-human domain. Prodigies allowed humans to see their own desires, fears and political judgments woven into the fabric of nature itself. In a secularised form, this impulse is still with us today.

The True, Twisted Story of The Amityville Horror (Topic)

One would like to believe that journalists have enough common sense not to believe in ghosts. But in the 1970s, American culture was awash in superstition. It was a time rather like our own, filled with economic and political instability. The Lutz family’s press conference took place 18 months after Watergate had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency and the onslaught of upsetting news had led everyone to question conventional facts and truth. It was unclear whether the stable laws of the universe still held.

Anger and fear were everywhere, and often enough, they bloomed into outright delusions. Couple that with the remnants of the New Age philosophies of the 1960s, shake in a little bit of good old American folklore, and you got something like what the Lutz family’s story would eventually be: The Amityville Horror, a story that would inspire several books and more than half a dozen films, spanning from the 1979 original blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, to the rather poorly-reviewed, middling effort released just this past October 12, called Amityville: The Awakening, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne.

Though a lucrative and ubiquitous emblem of American mythology, it’s telling how dull the story actually is, when summarized . . .

2017: The Year That Horror Saved Hollywood (The Week)

Hollywood is facing crisis on multiple fronts: the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are shedding light on a trade plagued by sexual harassment and gender inequality, cord-cutting and streaming platforms are upsetting the regular order, and the movies are struggling through yet another dismal year at the box office. If there’s a silver lining in any of that for America’s film industry, it’s that the horror genre is still plugging merrily along, seemingly immune to the financial troubles that have befallen most studios. As the rest of Hollywood flounders in 2017, horror is in the midst of its highest-grossing year ever. On the backs of huge hits like It and Get Out, the horror genre has combined for a record $733.5 million in the US this year, according to box office data compiled by the New York Times. The year has proven that horror films are more than just cheaply made movies for niche audiences and can still cross into the mainstream to become bona fide successes.

How Horror TV Embraced Our Demons (The Week)

Where The Walking Dead does connect to Channel Zero and American Horror Story though is in its overriding sense of despair. Every time the heroes seem to be making progress, their egos lead them to blunder into some catastrophic error that destroys nearly everything they’ve built. This is a case of a long-form serialized TV show deriving a thematic angle from an economic necessity. To keep this successful show going, the story has to keep dead-ending and resetting. Fans waiting to see anything like hope in The Walking Dead are going to have to wait for viewership to completely crater. But while that nihilism can be unsatisfying to the audience, it’s also fascinating as a statement of where we are right now as a society. The phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story mean that week after week we’re gazing into an abyss, willingly. Perhaps we’re searching for clues to how to survive it.

Retro Retail: Classic Monsters of Marvel Comics (Inside the Magic) (This article is rather sumptuously illustrated with classic Marvel horror images)

While classic monsters may find their fame from films in the Universal Studios Classic Monster movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, they’ve also haunted the pages of the Marvel Comics universe. With revised backstories and sometimes intertwined story lines, these Marvel monsters made multiple appearances in the 1970’s, both under their own titles and as team-ups (or villains for) various Marvel super heroes.

Why We’ll Always Be Obsessed with — and Afraid of — Monsters (PBS News Hour)

Fear continues to saturate our lives: fear of nuclear destruction, fear of climate change, fear of the subversive, and fear of foreigners. But a Rolling Stone article about our “age of fear” notes that most Americans are living “in the safest place at the safest time in human history” . . . .

So why are we still so afraid? Emerging technology and media could play a role. But in a sense, these have always played a role. In the past, rumor and a rudimentary press coverage could fan the fires. Now, with the rise of social media, fears and fads and fancies race instantly through entire populations. Sometimes the specifics vanish almost as quickly as they arose, but the addiction to sensation, to fear and fantasy, persists, like a low-grade fever.

People often create symbols for that emotions are fleeting, abstract, and hard to describe. (Look no further than the recent rise of the emoji.) For over the last three centuries, Europeans and Americans, in particular, have shaped anxiety and paranoia into the mythic figure of the monster – the embodiment of fear, disorder and abnormality – a history that I detail in my new book, “Haunted” [from Yale University Pres, subtitled “On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Earth”]. There are four main types of monsters. But a fifth — a nameless one — may best represent the anxieties of the 21st century.

The Halloween Tree Remains an Adventure in Friendship and Understanding (AV Club)

“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.” The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree reads like the beginning of a good horror movie, and the film adaptation’s intro does little to quell this terrifying tone. With ominous music, a jack-o’-lantern title card, and Bradbury’s narration, the 1993 feature-length animated television movie produced by Hanna-Barbera seemingly set the stage for something sinister. And that’s how I remember my childhood viewing of this film, as one filled with my favorite holiday tropes. Upon revisiting it, I recognize the adaptation is much more faithful to Bradbury’s work than my younger self realized. That is to say, this is an extremely educational look at Halloween and how its tropes came to be, from witches to mummies and lots in between.

It’s hard not to relate The Halloween Tree to current juggernaut Stranger Things. Both quickly ask that viewers be emotionally attached to a young boy that has been whisked away on a journey that could determine whether he lives or dies. The characters left behind are so enamored with the boy that it makes it hard not to care, too . . .

Subversive Superhero: The American Dream of Captain America

Last year when I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time, I found it to be really good fun. The first half is probably better, where it’s like a superhero version of Bourne/Craig-era Bond/Mission Impossible/’70s paranoid conspiracy thriller. It even has a decent stab at social commentary-lite with its discussion of post 9/11 America. It also features some excellent fight sequences, probably the best I’ve seen in a superhero film. Unfortunately, the second half of the film sacrifices much of the moral complexity, turning it into a fairly straightforward good-vs.-evil scenario. The ending in particular seemed very much Hollywood wish-fulfilment (although the ramifications are explored a little more thoroughly in the Agents of SHIELD TV series).

Still, on an entertainment level the film works and does a good job of finding spotlight moments for a crowded cast. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill is the only one who really comes away short-changed. Admittedly, a couple of plot points don’t really make sense, but I enjoyed the film so much that I didn’t really care. And certain stuff I expected it to do is being left until the sequel, which is probably just as well, as now the filmmakers can (hopefully) give those developments some dramatic heft instead of just crowbarring them into the last five minutes of The Winter Soldier. The film also gets bonus points for including Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” on the soundtrack.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard some people make of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it’s filled with jingoistic flagwaving. Which only seems to prove these people weren’t paying attention. The film isn’t a live-action version of Team America: World Police. Granted, it ultimately comes down in favor of the good ol’ US of A, but along the way it’s actually pretty critical of modern America, and this is quite in keeping with aspects of Cap’s ongoing life in the comics that have developed over the past half century.

In point of fact, Captain America is a far more subversive character than people tend to realize. Yes, he was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a gung-ho hero to help inspire America to get behind the idea of fighting the Nazis (his first comics appearance was before the US entered the war), but since his revival by Stan Lee in the ’60s he has often been used as a vehicle for critiquing American society. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – May 30, 2014

FireHead

Remember America’s “new oil boom” based on fracking? Well, you can say goodbye to it: the Energy Information Agency just downwardly revised its estimate of the amount of technically recoverable oil in America’s #1 shale reserve by 96 percent .

Check it out: a straightforward business interview with Ilidio F. Santos, an environmental consultant for the Angolan oil company Sonangol E&P, suddenly turns all doomer when Santos says human civilization is done for: “The more you study, the more you read, the more you discuss the environmental problems of the planet and its inhabitants (be they human or other), the more you understand that this is a lost cause. The human civilization is doomed in the decades to come, as there is no way that the people who have the power to stop the suicidal path understand the urgency and nature of the problem. Those who do not know about it at least live oblivious to the horror that will come to this planet in a few decades.” The interviewer responds by saying, “You are scaring me, Ilidio.” To which Santos replies, “Be scared!”

Superbug threat as grave as climate change, say scientists: “Superbugs resistant to drugs pose a serious worldwide threat and demand a response on the same scale as efforts to combat climate change, infectious disease specialists said on Thursday.”

Adventures in the Land of Illness: A superb essay by Sam Harris, available in both audio and text form, about his recent experiences with ill health: “It has been interesting for me, as a proponent of science and skepticism, to experience the feelings of vulnerability and desperation that come with an illness for which science has no clear remedy or even a diagnosis. . . . As someone who will soon release a book about meditation, the illusion of the self, and the transcendence of unnecessary suffering, I feel I should offer some account of how my own mind has fared when tested in this way.”

CNN reports 50 percent chance of Armageddon-level asteroid strike in 2041. Or actually not. Seriously, not. (Maybe CNN should consider a name change and pay for the rights to an old HBO series title: “Not Necessarily the News.”)

Astronomer and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf explains why searching for extraterrestrial life yields enormous benefits here on earth: “[T]he cosmic sprawl can help us disentangle the complex terrestrial systems and histories of which we are a part. This is not a frivolous exercise. On the contrary, it could be the key to overcoming our scientific ignorance.”

The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices: “Why are some repulsed by Soylent, but others desperate to receive their orders?”

The Internet as we know it is dying: Andrew Leonard explains how “Facebook and Google are killing the classic Internet and reinventing it in their image,” with nods to Amazon as well.

Dear graduates: A commencement speech for the mediocre: “Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between ‘doing what they love,’ and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.”

It’s been nearly 90 years since John Maynard Keynes started predicting the rise of a technologically enabled leisure society. And yet life in today’s high-tech America is a plague of busyness.

The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits: “From ‘Donkey Kong’ to the NES — how a Japanese company took over the American living room.”

A Beautiful Man: On Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man: “[I]t’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought. . . . In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick — Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype — a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself.”

The Survivor: On Magneto, Mutants, and the Holocaust: “Magneto stands as . . . a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening.”

The Rosicrucian Vision: “Although the Rosicrucian philosophy was presented as a total package of religion, science, etc., it tended to divide into three different streams: first, there was the scientific, philosophical stream; secondly, the social and political stream; thirdly, the Hermetic-Cabalistic-Alchemical stream. . . .When we look at something like Rosicrucianism, or at the Templars or at Freemasonry or at the legends of the Holy Grail, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg. I believe that behind these phenomena lies a very ancient current. What precise form it takes I know not, but I believe that every so often in human history this current comes to the surface.”

The Elf Whisperer of Iceland: “The whole affair, from the cause célèbre behind the protest (Save the Elves?!) to the government’s eventual acquiescence, is indicative of the unusual and complicated relationship Iceland has with elves and other hidden people. Jónsdóttir was advocating for the lives of invisible tiny beings that most of us associate with building Santa’s toys . . . and the government listened.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

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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.”

Teeming Links – August 16, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s (rather extended) opening word goes to Morris Berman, who was recently interviewed for The Atlantic online in connection with his new book Spinning Straw into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. Morris first rose to prominence as the author of several books about the evolution of human consciousness, with a focus that included depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and the way the nature of civilization necessarily leads humans to experience a “disenchanted” world. Then he turned to writing books about the decline and collapse of American culture. Now he has turned to the work of integrating these two strands. The result is a dire and fascinating diagnosis and prognosis for American and Americanized cultures, along with an invigorating prescription for how each of us might consider responding life-fully to the inevitable long-form breakdown that will characterize the indefinite future, and that already characterizes the present.

Your message of detachment from materially measurable pursuits and your encouragement of leisure, creativity, and relaxed living is un-American (I mean this as a compliment). Why is American culture so addicted to speed, movement, action, and “progress”?

This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat. It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it. This is Sartre’s “bad faith,” the phenomenon whereby a human being adopts false values because of social pressure, and is thus living a charade, an inauthentic life. It’s also what happens to Ivan Illych in the Tolstoy story, where Ivan is dying, and reviews his life during his last three days, and concludes that it was all a waste, because he lived only for social approval.

. . . You write that the “road to redemption is a solitary one.” That’s a tough challenge, especially in highly religious and nationalistic culture. Is redemption tied to your notion of authenticity? Norman Mailer said that the first and most important virtue is courage, because it is a prerequisite for all other virtues. How do people cultivate the courage to live real, independent, and authentic lives?

I suspect courage is something that is handed down from within the family, something you learn viscerally, by example. Unfortunately, the American family is now in pretty bad shape, and there aren’t that many positive role models around in a dying culture. Literature can help, however; not the lit of heroic stories of derring-do, but just the opposite: literature that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.

The sociologist Robert Bellah, who just died a few days ago, once wrote: “Great literature speaks to the deepest level of our humanity; it helps us better understand who we are.” So I would say that that’s a good place to start. But ultimately, if you are open to it, courage will find you; you don’t have to go looking for it (which I don’t think will work anyway). What was that line from Augustine? “Love God and do what thou wilt.” For “God” I substitute “Truth.”

— David Masciotra, “How America’s ‘Culture of Hustling’ is Dark and Empty” (interview with Morris Berman), The Atlantic, August 13, 2013

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The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership (Bruce Schneier for Bloomberg)
“The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government’s intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage.”

The End of Forgetting and “Administrative Rights” to Our Online Personas (IP Theory Vol. 2, Issue 2, 2012, PDF)
An excellent consideration of “what it would take to have enforceable ‘administrative rights’ to one’s personal information — the ability to edit or modify one’s online persona just as a webmaster would be able to edit or modify on an individual.” The author was explicitly motivated by Google’s audacious and troubling new move of constructing massive uber-profiles of users from information that was formerly kept discrete and separate.

The Trauma of Being Alive (Mark Epstein for The New York Times)
“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. . . . Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”

Is Superman a Superman? (Smart Pop Books)
“The association of [Nietzsche’s] superman with [the comic book] Superman, far from demeaning philosophy, gloriously elevates it. In an important sense, Siegel and Shuster are closer to the heart of Nietzsche’s ideas than most philosophical commentaries.”

Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits (Scientific American)
Better vision, stronger muscles — expectations can have surprising effects, research finds. “There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.”

Horror’s New Golden Age? Probably Not (Scott Poole at Monsters in America)
“I’m afraid the interest we see in producing horror series and films based on the success of classic tales will produce more eye rolling than chills. Let’s hope one or two gems come out of horror’s new heyday.”

The Incubus in Film, Experience, and Folklore (Southern Folklore Vol. 52, No. 1, 1996, PDF)
Interesting academic study about the incubus tradition of nocturnal supernatural-sexual assault. It “tests a hypothesis derived from the theory that media images govern the incidence and content of such anomalous accounts.” The authors apply David Hufford’s “experiential-source hypothesis” from The Terror That Comes in the Night and conclude that “sleep paralysis coupled with sexual arousal spawns memorates which provide a basis for incubus folklore.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman (The New Atlantis)
A sharp and elegant critique of attempts to “explain” all art in evolutionary biological terms. “The reductive form of inquiry in the natural sciences will always have a limited ability to account for the symbolic, moral, and religious significance of art. Brain scans and other cognitive experiments on human beings alive today can tell us something about the neurological correlates of aesthetic experience, but they cannot tell us how, when, why, or whether our aesthetic preferences evolved.”

The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher (The Atlantic, 1996)
“Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for William James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James’s experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about belief and its conditions.”

Unnamable but Not Undrawable: The World of Lovecraftian Superheroes

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three

Sparking-Neurones-2

In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.

Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.

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As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).

Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.” Read the rest of this entry

Captain America: Living Symbol, Heroic Symbiosis (Men in Tights, Part 4)

NOTE: This article is the final part of a series.

Captain America is the member of the Avengers who is most obviously wearing a costume. It’s not a battlesuit or a uniform. It’s not the cultural garb of a mystical race. It’s a costume. This is significant, because his costume indicates his deepest identity as a superhero. Quite simply and literally, Captain America is the living symbol of the American Dream. He stands for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Unfortunately, at least in terms of visual appearance, this makes him look like an idiot.

The Captain America film spends a lot of time disguising the costume beneath a leather jacket and army fatigues. Fortunately, the costume looks better on the screen than it did in publicity stills, where it resembled a multi-coloured boiler suit. In much the same way, the more streamlined costume he wore in The Avengers didn’t look quite so much like a piece of confectionery that had sprouted legs and started beating people up. But the problem that neither film really managed to solve is that the mask is highly unflattering. Even after replacing the silly little wings with painted emblems, the mask still looks stupid and ugly, and somehow changes the entire shape of Cap’s head from square-jawed hunk to a lump of plasticine moulded by an epileptic orangutan wearing boxing gloves. Not surprisingly, Cap takes it off as often as possible.

But in the end, does he really need the costume to be a symbol of the American Dream?


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The Avengers: Clothes Make the Iron Man (Men in Tights, Part 3)

The other big superhero film this year was The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble, as it was known in the UK. The reason for the name change was to avoid confusion with the old TV series, but that still didn’t stop thousands of people all across the Internet thinking it was funny and saying, “The Avengers? If Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg aren’t in it, I won’t watch it.” Of course, the real joke is that these wannabe wits talked themselves out of seeing one of the best superhero films to date. (Funnily enough, I see that a new American comic based on the old Avengers TV series is titled Steed and Mrs Peel.)

Built upon Marvel’s pre-existing superhero franchises, The Avengers‘ big draw for the average filmgoer was Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. He was witty, sarcastic, charismatic, and egotistical — and people wanted to see more of him. Which is unfortunate, because he spends so much time in the Iron Man films and The Avengers buried beneath his armour. In fact, he gets buried beneath lots of different types of armour as he upgrades his suit more often than most people upgrade their mobile phones. In Iron Man he starts off with a bulky grey armour before moving on to the classic red and gold look, while in Iron Man 2 he carries a stripped-down armour in a briefcase for emergencies. By the time of The Avengers, I’m told he’s up to his seventh model. In the comics he has a wide range of armours for specialised missions: stealth armour, Arctic armour, sub-aqua armour, outer space armour, Hulkbuster armour, disco dancing champion armour. (Okay, maybe not that last one. But oh, if only…)

Iron Man is the superhero most defined by his costume. Without it he has no powers. In fact, without the armour he would die: a cybernetic breastplate (an arc reactor in the films) keeps his injured heart beating. But the armour can also be a double-edged sword; at one point in the comic book series, its systems damaged Tony’s nervous system, leaving him paralysed in a wheelchair, and the only way he could walk was…you guessed it…to keep wearing the armour. At this point, you have to wonder if he ever considered changing his name to Irony Man. Read the rest of this entry

Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy (Men in Tights, Part 2)

[NOTE: This is Part 2 of a column series titled Men in Tights. For the introduction, see Part 1, “Batman: Daemon with a Cape.”]

Spider-Man is another superhero whose origin is steeped in tragedy. When scrawny egghead Peter Parker is granted superpowers by a radioactive spider-bite, he decides to make some money by working as a professional wrestler. After appearing on a TV show and wowing the audience with his spider-powers, he allows a thief to escape, and excuses it by saying the situation wasn’t his responsibility. He later regrets this bitterly when the thief kills his Uncle Ben (no, not the bloke who makes the rice). Distraught over the death of the gentle Ben (no, not the bear), Peter realises too late that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the costume becomes a way to disguise his identity while fighting criminals, in order to protect his loved ones from reprisals. It also becomes a symbol of his redemption, although I’m not sure if that’s ever stated explicitly in the comics. It’s more the sort of thing fanboys say when they want to look clever on the Internet.

The reasons vary for why Peter wears the costume before he becomes a superhero. In the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko stories, he wears it to hide his embarrassment in case he loses a wrestling match. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis says it’s to hide his age because the wrestling promoter won’t pay anyone under the age of twenty-one. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film, as far as I can remember it’s because all of the other wrestlers wore costumes so Peter just followed suit. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent reboot by Marc Webb (resist the opportunity for a cheap pun … must stay on topic … focus, focus), Peter never even becomes a wrestler; the dual needs of explaining why he wears a costume rather than a ski-mask and why he even needs to remain anonymous anyway are explained by having a criminal promise retribution on Peter as Peter stares at a wrestling poster.

The idea that Peter needs to hide his identity from the outside world while he himself discovers his true identity permeates the entirety of the latest film. This is something that goes back to the original comic, where high school bully Flash Thompson torments Peter Parker but worships Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey loves Peter Parker but hates Spider-Man, and J. Jonah Jameson constantly illustrates his newspaper vendetta against Spider-Man with photos taken by Peter Parker. Furthermore, in “The Master Planner” saga, one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man’s career — the act of freeing himself from beneath the crushing weight of a piece of overturned machinery so that he can get to Aunt May’s hospital and give her a lifesaving antidote — is undercut by a doctor’s comments after Peter finally gets there: “Too bad someone like [Peter] can’t be an idol for teenagers to imitate instead of some mysterious, unknown thrill-seeker like Spider-Man!” Read the rest of this entry

Batman: Daemon with a Cape (Men in Tights, Part 1)

Let’s face it, superhero costumes aren’t the most practical attire ever invented. If you’re going to fight heavily armed criminals, why the hell would you choose to wear brightly coloured spandex and a movement-impeding cape? The bright colours would draw the eye of anyone with a machine gun or death ray, and the cape would forever be catching in doors, not to mention flapping in your face every time there was a gust of wind.

Even ostensibly practical costumes that ditch the garish colour schemes and pointless capes aren’t much use. There’s a hilarious extra feature on the X-Men DVD where the actors can’t even step over a foot high wall because their leather costumes are too restricting.

So why do superheroes keep wearing the damn things? Did they lose a bet? In the case of Mister Miracle, then probably yes.

But if we look closer it is possible to discern a deeper meaning, a more serious significance to these outfits, and a whole wealth of iconography. Plus, some of the costumes are really cool.

Take Batman for instance. He wanted a costume that would strike fear into the heart of superstitious and cowardly criminals. And, just as he was pondering possible designs, a bat flew in the window. Problem solved. Except for one thing: Batman’s costume isn’t remotely scary. Let’s face it, it’s blue and grey pyjamas with pointy ears and a cape. In the frightening the crap out of evil-doers stakes it’s only one step up from Andy Pandy.

 


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