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How reading can save us from the digital dispersion of the self

Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.

The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .

The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .

This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.

No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .

[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.

Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Related reading:

Teeming Links – July 11, 2014

FireHead

Apologies for the dearth of posts during the week leading up to now. I have reached crunch time on both the mummy encyclopedia and the paranormal encyclopedia, and, in combination with the fact that just this week I started a new day job at a new (to me) college, my time will be limited in the near future. That said, weekly Teeming Links will continue appearing every Friday. I also have a number of great features lined up for publication, including a very long interview with psychedelic research pioneer James Fadiman (finished and currently in the editing and formatting stage) and the third installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” series.

 

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Niall Ferguson wonders whether the powers that be will transform the supposed “libertarian utopia” of the Internet into a totalitarian dystopia worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: “[T]he suspicion cannot be dismissed that, despite all the hype of the Information Age and all the brouhaha about Messrs. Snowden and Assange, the old hierarchies and new networks are in the process of reaching a quiet accommodation with one another, much as thrones and telephones did a century ago.”

Writer and former Omni editor-in-chief Keith Ferrell describes what he has learned from an experiment in living like an 11th-century farmer, or rather, like a post-apocalyptic survivor: “Our modern era’s dependence upon technology and, especially, chemical and motorised technology, has divorced most of us from soil and seeds and fundamental skills. . . . Planning and long-practised rhythms were at the core of the 11th-century farmer’s life; improvisation, much of it desperate, would be the heart of the post-apocalyptic farmer’s existence.”

In a world where the dominating goals of tech development are mobilility and sociality, Nicholas Carr wonders what kinds of alternative technologies and devices we might have if the guiding values were to be stationary and solitary. (Personally, I can think of one such technology, though not an electronic one: the paper book.)

Speaking of which, Andrew Erdmann uses the vehicle of Hal Ashby’s classic 1979 film Being There to reflect on our collective descent into aliteracy and electronically induced infantile idiocy: “I consider myself fortunate that I experienced reading and thinking before the Internet, and the written word before PowerPoint. I like to think that these experiences afford me some self-defense despite my own use of the Blackberry and other technologies.”

Roberto Bolaño says books are the only homeland for the true writer.

Javier Marías says the only real reason to write a novel is because this “allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

The Vatican has formally recognized the International Association of Exorcists and approved their statutes.

In response to the above, Chris French, the prominent skeptic and specialist in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and psychological states, argues in The Guardian that possession is better understood in psychological rather than supernatural terms. (Chris, btw, is writing the entry on anomalistic psychology for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

BBC journalist David Robson offers a firsthand, participatory account of how scientists are using hypnosis to simulate possession and understand why some people believe they’re inhabited by paranormal beings.

Over at Boing Boing, Don Jolly profiles Shannon Taggart, photographer of séances, spirits, and ectoplasm: “Taggart is not a ‘believer,’ in the traditional sense, nor does she seem to debunk her subject. Rather, she presents a world where belief and unbelief are radically mediated by technology — and raises the possibility that in the age of omnipresent electronic image what is ‘true’ may be a much harder debate than the skeptics suppose.” (Shannon, btw, is writing the entries on thoughtography and Kirlian photography for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup absolutely nails, in his typically lucid fashion, the reason why scientific materialism is baloney:

It’s a philosophical and not a logical interpretation of science. Science itself is just a study of the patterns and the regularities that we can observe in reality. It doesn’t carry with it an interpretation. . . . Scientific materialism is when you load the scientific observations of the regularities of nature with an ontological interpretation and you say, “What you’re observing here is matter outside of mind that has an existence that would still go on even if nobody were looking at it.” That is already an interpretation. It’s not really pure science anymore, and the essence of scientific materialism is [the idea] that the real world is outside of mind, it’s independent of mind, and particular arrangements of elements in that real world, namely, subatomic particles, generate mind, generate subjective experience. Now of course the only carrier of reality anyone can know is subjective experience. So materialism is a kind of projection, an abstraction and then a projection onto the world of something that is fundamentally beyond knowledge.

Awesomeness alert: Guillermo del Toro hints — nay, states — that there is still life in his At the Mountains of Madness dream project.

Journalist and novelist Joseph L. Flatley offers an engaging exploration of the real-life occult influence of Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon (with much info about, e.g., the origin of the Simonomicon and the theories of Donald Tyson).

 

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

Teeming Links – June 13, 2014

FireHead

In a truly horrific instance of mythic and memetic madness, Slender Man has now inspired two teens to try and murder a friend and (apparently) a daughter to try and murder her mother. For those who aren’t aware, Slenderman is “perhaps the Internet’s best and scariest legend,” a daemonic/demonic monster that was created in full view over the past few years by a collective Internet fanbase and that now stands as “a distillation of the most frightening images and trends” in both supernatural folklore and current pop culture (especially the horror genre). In Slenderman we can trace the birth and evolution of a modern monster that has now, in some sense, stepped out of daimonic-folkloric hyperspace and into the literal-factual realm.

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Awesome: Behold the Dystopia Tracker: “Our goal is to document, with your help, all the predictions in literature, film or games that have been made for the future and what has become reality already.”

Arts and culture writer Scott Timberg worries that people who read will become monkish outcasts in a cultural of digital distraction: “Are we doing our son a disservice by allowing him to become a deep and engaged reader? Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st, training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world?”

A. O. Scott reflects deeply on the relationship between art, work, and financial success in a money-obsessed culture.

Roger Scruton analyzes the problem of scientism in the arts and humanities: “This is a sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. . . . [There] are questions that deal with the ‘spirit,’ with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods.”

Cultural and intellectual historian Sophia Rosenfeld observes that Americans have become tyrannized by too many “choices” in a culture dominated by the neoliberal market model of universal consumerism.

Mitch Horowitz traces the fascinating friendship and mutual inspiration of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan.

Al Gore says the violations that Edward Snowden exposed are greater than the ones he committed.

Comparing_Religions_by_Jeffrey_KripalJeffrey Kripal’s new book Comparing Religions is the first introductory textbook on comparative religion that makes a major place for the paranormal as such. Chapter 8, for example, is titled “The Religious Imagination and Its Paranormal Powers: Angels, Aliens, and Anomalies.” In a recent two-part review (see Part 1 and Part 2), religion scholar and UFO theorist David Halperin writes, “More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. . . . Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion?  I haven’t seen it. . . . One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground.’ Some will surely have this reaction.” The publisher’s companion Website for the book contains much of interest, including “Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly” and detailed summaries of seven religious traditions.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Slender Man” image courtesy of mdl70 under Creative Commons / Flickr

The digital murder of the Gutenberg mind

Evolution_of_the_Book_Gutenberg

Here’s a double dose of dystopian cheer to accompany a warm and sunny Monday afternoon (or at least that’s the weather here in Central Texas).

First, Adam Kirsch, writing for The New Republic, in a piece dated May 2:

Everyone who ever swore to cling to typewriters, record players, and letters now uses word processors, iPods, and e-mail. There is no room for Bartlebys in the twenty-first century, and if a few still exist they are scorned. (Bartleby himself was scorned, which was the whole point of his preferring not to.) Extend this logic from physical technology to intellectual technology, and it seems almost like common sense to say that if we are not all digital humanists now, we will be in a few years. As the authors of Digital_Humanities write, with perfect confidence in the inexorability — and the desirability — of their goals, “the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper will have to make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises.”

. . . The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.

. . . The posture of skepticism is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so confident and culture is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are tempted to throw off the traditional burden and infuse the humanities with the material resources and the militant confidence of the digital. The danger is that they will wake up one morning to find that they have sold their birthright for a mess of apps.

MORE: “The False Promise of the Digital Humanities

Second, Will Self, writing for The Guardian, in a piece also dated May 2:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying — the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

. . . [T]he advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

. . . I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. . . . I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages — nor do I see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be — if, that is, there is to be one at all.

MORE: “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s for Real)

 

Image: Painting: John White Alexander (1856–1915); Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How “the news” creates a fake hyperworld in our heads

This absorbing video condenses the message presented by philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book The News: A User’s Manual, whose basic thesis and purpose is described by the publisher as follows:

We are never really taught how to make sense of the torrent of news we face every day . . . but this has a huge impact on our sense of what matters and of how we should lead our lives. In his dazzling new book, de Botton takes twenty-five archetypal news stories — including an airplane crash, a murder, a celebrity interview and a political scandal — and submits them to unusually intense analysis with a view to helping us navigate our news-soaked age.

Here are the points made in the above video (and thus in de Botton’s bok), as distilled by me: Read the rest of this entry

Looking for a still point amid our digital cacophony? Consider writing in longhand.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.

This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.

Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:

I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.

I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.

Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.

Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?

— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)

I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.

Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:

First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.

In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.

— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013

Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”

Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.

And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.

Teeming Links – September 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening and presiding word comes from Jonathan Franzen:

While we are busy tweeting, texting and spending, the world is drifting towards disaster, believes Jonathan Franzen, whose despair at our insatiable technoconsumerism echoes the apocalyptic essays of the satirist Karl Kraus — “the Great Hater.”

Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability — and who wouldn’t want them? — we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

. . . The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

— Jonathan Franzen, “What’s wrong with the modern world,” The Guardian, Friday, September 13, 2013

(Note that Franzen’s words in this piece have generated a large and varied response and backlash.)

* * *

Elites’ strange plot to take over the world (Salon)
“A few decades ago, politicians hatched a Tom Friedman-esque idea to unite U.S. and Western Europe. Did it succeed? Once we recognize that the Cold War saw the construction of a powerful international regime that explicitly sought to get rid of sovereign nations, these broad security architectures revealed by the Syria situation and the NSA spying revelations make a lot more sense.”

Pope condemns idolatry of cash in capitalism (The Guardian)
“Pope Francis has called for a global economic system that puts people and not ‘an idol called money’ at its heart. The 76-year-old said that God had wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world. ‘But now, in this ethics-less system, there is an idol at the centre and the world has become the idolater of this “money-god”,’ he added.”

From Crystal to Christ: A Once and Future Cathedral (First Things)
On the prominent and painful-to-watch implosion of Robert Schuller’s positive-thinking-based Protestant Christian ministry. “The implosion of the Crystal Cathedral can be explained in many ways — dysfunctional family dynamics, financial hard times, lack of wise leadership, and a changing religious climate. Moreover, today’s digital generation has no time for a whole ‘hour’ of power from anyone — two minutes on YouTube is enough! But long before the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, another kind of insolvency was at work eating away at the soul of the enterprise.”

DNA Doubletake (The New York Times)
“From biology class to ‘C.S.I.,’ we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes.”

A Toddler on 3 Different Psychiatric Meds? How Drugging Kids Became Big Business (AlterNet)
“Big pharma has discovered a lucrative new market in kids. The most recent estimates suggest that up to eight million American kids are on one or more psychiatric medications. Meds for kids are big business and highly profitable.”

Changing brains: Why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era (The Guardian)
“The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks. . . . Advances in neuroscience are not just discoveries. They also shape, as they always have done, how we view ourselves. As the Prozac nation fades, the empire of the circuit-based human will rise, probably to the point where dinner party chatter will include the misplaced jargon of systems neuroscience.”

Google vs. Death (Time, via 2045)
“How CEO Larry Page has transformed the search giant into a factory for moonshots. Our exclusive look at his boldest bet yet — to extend human life.”

Science: The religion that must not be questioned (The Guardian)
Fascinating: A senior editor at Nature not only points out the unduly quasi-religious attitude toward science that has infected public perception for many decades but argues that current journalism only exacerbates the problem: “TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy — somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable.”

The_Secrets_of_Alchemy_by_Lawrence_PrincipeNo nearer the Philosopher’s Stone (The Times Literary Supplement)
“Lawrence M. Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy is a deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art. Alchemy has not always been associated with esoteric mystics muttering necromantic incantations in the quest for spiritual purification. For much of its history, Principe reveals, alchemy was recognized as a sophisticated pursuit entailing the vigorous exertion of mind and hand, a convergence of laboratory experimentation and theoretical speculation that yielded spectacular control of chemical processes.”

Talk with me (Aeon)
“Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society.”

Silencing the Djinns (City Journal)
A dam project is threatening the ancient city of Hasankeyf, nestled between the Tigris River and the steep cliffs of the Tur Abdin Plateau in southeastern Turkey. This article talks about the clash of spiritual cultures that this development represents. “Here one can see every aspect of urban life in the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when power shifted from Baghdad and Cairo to Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that there are djinns here, too. ‘There are as many djinns as there are people in the world,’ [shepherd Ali Ayhan] says firmly. ‘But we live in the shining places, and they live in the dark places. That valley is for them.'”

Dystopia now: We’re living in (and living out) a real-life “Harrison Bergeron” scenario

By Butenkova Olga (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Butenkova Olga (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rebecca Solnit, writing in London Review of Books:

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago.

. . . Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd — on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant — in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

. . . A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’

We have all signed up to wear those earpieces, a future form of new media that will chop our consciousnesses into small dice. Google has made real the interruptors that Vonnegut thought of as a fantasy evil for his dystopian 2081.

MORE: “Diary: In the Day of the Postman

Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teeming Links – August 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.”