Blog Archives

Teeming Links – May 1, 2015

fire-head

Don’t say you weren’t warned: artificial telepathy might turn out to be a nightmare. “Will the next generation of telepathy machines make us closer, or are there unforeseen dangers in the melding of minds?” (Aeon)

What is the future of loneliness in the age of the Internet?  “As we moved our lives online, the internet promised an end to isolation. But can we find real intimacy amid shifting identities and permanent surveillance?” (The Guardian)

An Even More Dismal Science: “For the past 25 years, a debate has raged among some of the world’s leading economists. At issue has been whether the nature of the business cycle underwent a fundamental change after the end of the ’30 glorious years’ that followed World War II, when the economy was characterized by rapid growth, full employment, and a bias toward moderate inflation. . . . Today, a degree of consensus has emerged. There is no longer much point in questioning whether the glory days are over.” (Project Syndicate)

Astrobiology research scientist Lewis Dartnell considers a pertinent question: Could we recreate industrial-technological civilization without fossil fuels? (Aeon)

Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H. P. Lovecraft: “The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system — religious or humanist — in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.” (New Statesman)

George Lucas rips Hollywood and laments the digital dumbing of Internet culture: “George Lucas offered a bleak assessment of the current state of the film business during a panel discussion with Robert Redford at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, saying that the movies are ‘more and more circus without any substance behind it’ . . . . The man who took bigscreen fantasies to bold new worlds said he never could have predicted the smallness of popular entertainment options on platforms such as YouTube. ‘I would never guess people would watch cats do stupid things all day long,’ said Lucas.” (Variety)

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer writes about an anomalous event that shook his skepticism to the core: “[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [my wife Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation. The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.” (Scientific American)

The Return of the Exorcists: “With papal recognition of an international group of exorcists comes a renewed interest in their ministry and role in the pastoral work of the Church.” (The Catholic World Report)

Case Study: The Horror Genre: “Unlike the western or gangster film, where there are a few fairly hard and fast rules in terms of the environment that the action might take place in, or indeed the nature of the characters that are ranged against one another, the horror genre can encompass an extraordinarily wide range of environments, characters, threats and subtexts. This is perhaps one of the major reasons that the horror film has remained popular — or has been able to reinvent itself when its popularity seemed to be on the wane. But what exactly does the horror genre consist of?” (Routledge, from the companion website for the textbook AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction)

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – September 3, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading, here are passages from a hypnotic meditation on solitude, inner silence, reading, and the literary vocation by Rebecca Solnit, excerpted from her new book The Faraway Nearby:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

The_Faraway_Nearby_by_Rebecca_Solnit. . . To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.

. . . The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

. . . Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

— Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby,” Guernica, May 15, 2013

* * *

Broken Heartland (Harper’s)
The looming collapse of agriculture on America’s Great Plains. “In the dystopian future that Teske imagines, the cycle of farm dissolution and amalgamation will continue to its absurdist conclusion, with neighbors cannibalizing neighbors, until perhaps one day the whole of the American prairie will be nothing but a single bulldozed expanse of high-fructose corn patrolled by megacombines under the remote control of computer software 2,000 miles away. Yet even this may be optimistic.”

Martin Luther King? Not an enemy in the world (The Independent)
“Funny how the kind of people who would have been totally opposed to the civil rights leader 50 years ago now want to claim him as their hero. . . . But the adoration of banks and big business displayed by most Western governments may not fit exactly with the attitude of their hero.”

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. (The New Republic)
In defense of the wild child. “[We have] crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. ‘Self-regulation,’ ‘self-discipline,’ and ’emotional regulation’ are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing ‘appropriate’ behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy.”

Legislators of the world (Adrienne Rich for The Guardian)
The late Adrienne Rich, writing in 2006 shortly after receiving the U.S. National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, argues that dark times, far from devaluing poets and poetry as irrelevant, underscore the crucial need for them. “[T]hroughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together — and more.”

Are We Alone in the Universe? (Thought Economics)
“In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind’s quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The_Silence_of_Animals_by_John_GrayJohn Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On ‘The Silence of Animals’ (Simon Critchley for Los Angeles Review of Books)
“There is no way out of the dream and what has to be given up is the desperate metaphysical longing to find some anchor in a purported reality. . . . Paradoxically, for Gray, the highest value in existence is to know that there is nothing of substance in the world. Nothing is more real than nothing. It is the nothingness beyond us, the emptiness behind words, that Gray wants us to contemplate. His is a radical nominalism behind which stands the void.”

Monument to ‘god of chaos’ mysteriously appears in front of Oklahoma City restaurant (New York Daily News)
“A heavy concrete block appeared on the front lawn of The Paseo Grill in Oklahoma City on Friday. Restaurant owners aren’t quite sure what to make of the monument or its reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional deity, Azathoth. . . . After news about the monument spread on KFOR, [restaurant owner Leslie] Rawlinson said she’s been getting calls from people who were excited about the find and from people who warned her about its dangers.”

Parallel worlds (Aeon)
“Where did this idea of parallel universes come from? Science fiction is an obvious source. . . . Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. . . . Surprisingly, however, the idea of parallel universes is far older than any of these references, cropping up in philosophy and literature since ancient times. Even the word ‘multiverse’ has vintage. . . . If human history turns on the tilt of the multiverse, can we still trust our ideas of achievement, progress and morality?”

Siri: The Horror Movie

This certainly explains a lot.  “Appletopia” indeed.

John Gray on ghosts, Walter de la Mare, and the limits of scientific materialism

Henry_Fuseli_rendering_of_Hamlet_and_his_father's_Ghost

The relationship between supernatural horror and scientific materialism is a neverendingly fascinating subject, not least because the enormous and ongoing popularity of supernatural horror stories among the thoroughly secularized Western consumerist democracies, where scientific materialism has a cultural stranglehold, represents a striking philosophical fault line. One may say, as everybody from H. P. Lovecraft to S. T. Joshi to Peter Penzoldt (in his classic 1952 study The Supernatural in Fiction) has said, that enjoyment of supernatural fictions in a secular-scientific society is simply a matter of art fulfilling an intellectual-emotional need that has been inculcated in the human race over millions of years. But one may also argue that the very nature and persistence of these fictions constitutes a literal challenge to the dominant worldview.

This second approach is definitely a minority one, but it’s the one taken by English philosopher John Gray (characterized three months ago by The Telegraph as “the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom), who argues in a recent and fascinating essay for BBC News  that the real-world plausibility of the materialist paradigm is directly challenged by Walter de la Mare’s literary evocation of the ghostly and the uncanny:

During the later decades of his long life — he was born in 1873 and died in 1956 — de la Mare was a familiar feature of the English literary landscape, a poet and anthologist whose poems were learnt by heart by successive generations of schoolchildren and whose books were widely available in public libraries. So why is he so little known today? It may be because his work conveys a sense of the insubstantial quality of everyday things, a point of view that runs counter to the prevailing creed of scientific materialism. At his peak of public recognition, de la Mare was most celebrated as a writer for children, but in nearly everything he wrote he explored experiences of the uncanny.

. . . Materialism — the philosophy, not the perennial human tendency to pursue and accumulate material things — sees the universe as a physical system. Everything that exists in it must be some sort of matter, or something that emerges from matter. In a fully scientific view of the world, only material things are real. Everything else is just a phantom.

In this view, science is a project of exorcism, which aims to rid the mind of anything that can’t be understood in terms of physical laws. But perhaps it’s the dogma of materialism that should be exorcised from our minds. Science is a method of inquiry, whose results can’t be known in advance. If scientific inquiry is the most powerful tool for increasing human knowledge, it’s because science is continuously changing our view of the world. The prevailing creed of scientific materialism is actually a contradiction, for science isn’t a fixed view of things, still less a dogmatic faith. The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.

. . . De la Mare was much too refined and penetrating a mind to imagine that ultimate questions can ever be settled. Instead, he unsettled the reader’s view of things while leaving these questions open. His stories suggest that the everyday world contains gaps, anomalies and singularities, which may — or may not — point to a larger reality. The uncanniness of these tales comes from the impression they leave in the reader that our everyday existence is insubstantial and perhaps chimerical.

Materialism asserts that anything apart from physical phenomena is a figment of the imagination — a kind of apparition, which must be exorcised from the mind. It’s a very simple-minded philosophy. For de la Mare’s traveller [in his short story “Winter”], it’s not the strange visitor he encounters that’s the ghost. It’s the ordinary world that surrounds every one of us.

More: “Ghosts in the Material World

Also note that you can listen to Gray read the essay aloud in its entirety as part of the BBC’s “Point of View” series. In this version the title is “The Limits to Materialism,” and it comes with a teaser line that nicely summarizes the piece’s overall message: “John Gray draws on a story by Walter de la Mare to argue that the prevailing creed of scientific materialism is a ‘simple-minded philosophy’ too limited for an unknowable world.”

 

Image: Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.