Blog Archives

Teeming Links – July 18, 2014

FireHead

William Binney, the ex-NSA code-breaker and whistleblower, says the NSA’s ultimate goal is total population control: “Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a ‘totalitarian mentality’ that was the ‘greatest threat’ to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century.”

“New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.” (This explains a lot about an increasing number of my daily interactions with people who literally cannot maintain interpersonal attention for more than 30 seconds.)

There just has to be a Ligottian corporate horror story buried somewhere in this: Financial Times reports that businesses are increasingly using big data, including social media footprints, plus complex algorithms to make hiring decisions.

You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting ever harder to make a career of it: “A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the [publishing] ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.”

Steven Poole says that, whereas the disciplined cultivation of spontaneous, effortless action along the lines of Taoism’s wu wei is a great thing, the counterfeit cult of consumer “spontaneity” encourages psychological and social chaos and numbs us to morally reprehensible sociopolitical conditions.

John Michael Greer lays out, in his characteristic elegant prose and with his characteristic lucidity, a vision of the deindustrial dark age that may await us.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues cogently that science, philosophy, and the humanities in general all need each other: “Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view.”

Astrophysicist, author, and NPR science blogger Adam Frank reflects on the “science vs. religion” debate in light of Eastern philosophy.

If you “hear voices,” is it brain disease, communication from discarnate spirits, or perhaps the very voice of God? Tanya Luhrmann and three co-authors of a new study observe the profound impact of cultural assumptions on the subjective experience of voice hearing.

The ancient history of dream interpretation points to humanity’s insatiable hunger for the divine. For the ancients, every slumber held the promise of the numinous.”

Speaking of dreams, a recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping finds that psychedelic mushrooms put the brain in a waking dream state, with profound worldview-altering effects: “[T]he mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

David Luke reflects on psychedelics, parapsychology, and exceptional human experience: “Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound.” (I’m happy to report that David will be contributing an article on the relationship between drugs and the paranormal to my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Finally, it looks like my adolescence (and also a significant portion of my twenties) wasn’t so egregiously misspent after all, since Dungeons and Dragons has now influenced a generation of writers: “As [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot] Díaz said, ‘It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.’ ”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – July 4, 2014

FireHead

If current world events have you wondering — or especially if they don’t have you wondering — about the possibility of a bona fide new world war, please bear this in mind: a hundred years ago World War One was impossible — until it was inevitable.

So, is anybody really surprised that Facebook was (is?) running a scientific experiment to manipulate users’ emotions? “We’re really, really sorry,” says their second in command.  Time magazine points out one reason to be worried beyond just the obvious ones: private sector and tech companies are increasingly funding what was once independent social science research.

Nick Hanauer, himself a certified member of America’s ruling  “one percent,” warns his fellow plutocrats that the pitchforks are coming for all of them: “No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

In The Washington Post, political commentator  Dana Milbanks reflects on the current disastrous reign of boomers in American politics.

If this were a joke, it would be a bad one — but it’s not a joke at all: Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they’re private corporations, immune from open records laws.

We’re told that “predictive policing” isn’t — really isn’t! — dystopian SF come to life. But then we read something like this: Predicting crime, LAPD-style.

Canary in the coal mine for the American southwest: Las Vegas is seriously running out water.

Then there’s my own home state of Texas, which is also running out of water due to greed, drought, and rampant overdevelopment.

Guardian journalist Rory Carroll investigates the psychic toll of unrelenting failure in Silicon Valley’s frantic culture of tech startups.

Mark Edmundson (author of, among many other things, the classic 1997 essay “On the uses of a liberal education: As lite entertainment for bored college students”) warns that while attentive absorption in some worthy work or subject is the essence of happiness and fulfillment, we live in a culture afflicted with ADHD and devoted to absorption’s evil twin, electronic mesmerization.

BBC journalist Nicholas Barber delves into the mysterious fascination of exorcisms.

Psychologist Charles Fernyhough emphasizes the normalcy of hearing voices (with a reference to the Society for Psychical Research): “The sooner we come to appreciate that voice-hearing is something that happens to people, rather than merely a symptom of a diseased brain, the sooner we will close in on a genuinely humane and enlightened understanding of the experience.”

Religion scholar Timothy Beal (author of the wonderful Religion and Its Monsters) examines the relationship between our spiritual impulse and our enduring fascination with the monsters of supernatural horror: “The import of the spiritual mainstream is holistic and ‘cosmic,’ speaking to our desire for grounding and orientation within a meaningfully integrated and interconnected whole. The monsters of contemporary horror, on the other hand, often remind us of the more chaotic, disorienting, and ungrounding dimensions of religion, envisioning an everyday life that is not without fear and trembling. ”

David Duchovny muses on future possibilities for The X-Files: “It’s not done until one of us dies.”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Is the unconscious the door through which the divine speaks?

Fury_of_Achilles_1737_by_Charles-Antoine_Coypel

From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:

I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).

Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.

What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).

To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.

Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.

Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?

MORE: “Gods, Voice-Hearing, and the Bicameral Mind

Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – August 23, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s invocation comes from author and cultural historian Mike Jay, author of last year’s The Influencing Machine, slated for U.S. publication in January 2014 as A Visionary Madness. The article’s tagline states the basic thesis, which articulates an uncanny experience, sensation, and intuition that we’ve all had with ever-increasing frequency and intensity in recent years: “Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras — and make a lot of sense.”

A_Visionary_Madness_by_Mike_JayPopular culture hums with stories about technology that secretly observes and controls our thoughts, or in which reality is simulated with virtual constructs or implanted memories, and where the truth can be glimpsed only in distorted dream sequences or chance moments when the mask slips. A couple of decades ago, such beliefs would mark out fictional characters as crazy, more often than not homicidal maniacs. Today, they are more likely to identify a protagonist who, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, genuinely has stumbled onto a carefully orchestrated secret of which those around him are blandly unaware. These stories obviously resonate with our technology-saturated modernity. What’s less clear is why they so readily adopt a perspective that was, until recently, a hallmark of radical estrangement from reality. Does this suggest that media technologies are making us all paranoid? Or that paranoid delusions suddenly make more sense than they used to?

. . . As the American screenwriter William Goldman observed in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), in the movie business, nobody knows anything. It might be that a similarly bold metafiction could have been successful years earlier, but it feels more likely that the cultural impact of The Matrix reflected the ubiquity that interactive and digital media had achieved by the end of the 20th century. This was the moment at which the networked society reached critical mass: the futuristic ideas that, a decade before, were the preserve of a vanguard who read William Gibson’s cyberspace novels or followed the bleeding-edge speculations of the cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000 now became part of the texture of daily life for a global and digital generation. The headspinning pretzel logic that had confined Philip K Dick’s appeal to the cult fringes a generation earlier was now accessible to a mass audience. Suddenly, there was a public appetite for convoluted allegories that dissolved the boundaries between the virtual and the real.

. . . In the 21st century, the influencing machine has escaped from the shuttered wards of the mental hospital to become a distinctive myth for our times. It is compelling not because we all have schizophrenia, but because reality has become a grey scale between the external world and our imaginations. The world is now mediated in part by technologies that fabricate it and partly by our own minds, whose pattern-recognition routines work ceaselessly to stitch digital illusions into the private cinema of our consciousness. The classical myths of metamorphosis explored the boundaries between humanity and nature and our relationship to the animals and the gods. Likewise, the fantastical technologies that were once the hallmarks of insanity enable us to articulate the possibilities, threats and limits of the tools that are extending our minds into unfamiliar dimensions, both seductive and terrifying.

— Mike Jay, “The Reality Show,” Aeon, August 23, 2013

If you find such ruminations interesting and evocative, note well that the entire final chapter of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2003) offers a lucid and fascinating discussion of the very same phenomenon, with references to the very same texts and authors. And it serves as the culmination of a book discussing the entire thing within the wider context of the Platonic mystical-esoteric philosophical and spiritual impulse that has been squeezing in through the back door of horror, science fiction, and fantasy entertainment during this ongoing age of Aristotelian scientific rationalism.

* * *

Hacker Exposes Big Facebook Security Flaw — By Posting On Mark Zuckerberg’s Private Wall (The Huffington Post)
“Khalil Shreateh, a computer programmer in the West Bank, discovered a flaw that allowed him to post on anyone’s wall on the site, even if that user had strict privacy settings. Shreateh initially submitted his find to Facebook’s ‘white-hat’ program, a system that lets benevolent computer hackers tell Facebook about security flaws. . . . But when the engineering team didn’t seem to think the problem was real, Shreateh decided to prove that the bug he found did indeed exist.”

Fukushima nuclear plant facing new disaster (CBC)
“Tokyo Electric Power Company workers have detected high levels of radiation in a ditch that flows into the ocean from a leaking tank at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Japan’s nuclear watchdog said Thursday the leak could be the beginning of a new disaster — a series of leaks of contaminated water from hundreds of steel tanks holdng massive amounts of radioactive water coming from three melted reactors, as well as underground water running into reactor and turbine basements.”

Ex-pope Benedict says God told him to resign during ‘mystical experience’ (The Guardian)
Pope Francis’s predecessor breaks silence to contradict explanation he gave to cardinals when he stepped down. “Benedict denied he had been visited by an apparition or had heard God’s voice, but said he had undergone a ‘mystical experience’ during which God had inspired in him an ‘absolute desire’ to dedicate his life to prayer rather than push on as pope.”

Dr. John Mack Talks about Transcending the Dualistic Mind (Hidden Experience)
“Harvard professor Dr. John Mack gave a two-hour long presentation at the International UFO Congress in 2003. The title of his talk was ‘Transcending the Dualistic Mind.’ This is the audio lifted from a 12-part YouTube video of this presentation.”

Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude (Harvard Magazine)
On crafting a liberal-arts education. “This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain ‘with perfect sweetness’ the independence of solitude — the integrity and wholeness of the self — in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood.”

A Wilderness of Thought: Childhood and the Poetic Imagination (Orion Magazine)
“So much of this childhood ease with both the visible and invisible, what we know and don’t know — the pure sense of expectation and delight in the mystery of what is happening and about to happen — is not only a function of our mind’s ability to balance opposites through the equipoise that is our imagination, but also a way of experiencing the world poetically.”

The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia (Los Angeles Review of Books)
“Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.”

Why I love . . . Night of the Demon (BFI)
“Paving for the way for later occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man, Night of the Demon is a spooky tale of witchcraft in modern Britain. With Jacques Tourneur’s film opening the BFI’s Monster Weekend, curator Vic Pratt explains why it’s a masterpiece of fright.”

Fans to celebrate horror writer H.P. Lovecraft with NecronomiCon gathering (The Washington Post)
Article inspired by this weekend’s convention in Providence. Many of my good friends in the Lovecraft world are there. Alas for those of us who can’t attend! “The mythos that Lovecraft created in stories such as ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ has reached its tentacles deep into popular culture — so much that his creations and the works they influenced might be better known than the writer himself.”

Why Rod Serling Still Matters (Mitch Horowitz for The Huffington Post)
“The visuals of The Twilight Zone form a kind of collective generational nightmare. The remarkable thing about the man who created many of these episodes from 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling, is that the writer-presenter learned his craft not in the visual era but in the age of radio drama.”

Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King (The Millions)
Written by an only child who grew up in an American Foreign Service family. “I [am] struck by how much of my conception of America comes from those thick books — what they said to me during that quasi-rootless time, and what they say to me now that both the vague internationalism and the natural solipsism of my childhood have mostly dissipated. For better or worse, I cut my patriotic teeth on the oeuvre of Stephen King.”

Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head (TED)
“To all appearances, Eleanor Longden was just like every other student, heading to college full of promise and without a care in the world. That was until the voices in her head started talking. Initially innocuous, these internal narrators became increasingly antagonistic and dictatorial, turning her life into a living nightmare. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, hospitalized, drugged, Longden was discarded by a system that didn’t know how to help her. Longden tells the moving tale of her years-long journey back to mental health, and makes the case that it was through learning to listen to her voices that she was able to survive.”

Recommended Reading 31

This week’s recommended reading includes: a warning about and meditation upon the possible dire consequences of the human species’ spectacular success in dominating the planetary petri dish; a profile of a literary journal devoted to injecting ancient wisdom into the wasteland of the modern cyber-soul; a beautiful explanation and defense of literature’s inherent resistance to being “understood” by algorithmic data analysis; information and opinions on Mind and Cosmos, the new book in which philosopher Thomas Nagel argues for the inadequacy of the standard materialist version of science; a warning and lament about the artistically decrepit state of American cinema; a long 1979 article, written in the immediate aftermath of the original Stars Wars movie, that examines both the movie’s seismic cultural impact and its origin in the mind and machinations of George Lucas; notes on a recent lecture given by psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, famed for her research into the phenomenon of “hearing voices” and its psychological and cultural meanings; and a fascinating New York Times piece about a Greek island where people tend to live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet. Read the rest of this entry