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Teeming Links – March 29, 2019

 

I have to start this edition of Teeming Links with a very special message:

Vale and R.I.P., Wilum H. Pugmire, 1951-2019

Wilum died this week after several years of troubled health, and the news hit me hard even though it has been quite some time since I spoke with him. If you’re not familiar with him and his work (which he published as W. H. Pugmire), here’s his Wikipedia entry, plus an interview and another interview (by Nicole Cushing), to fill you in.

I first met Wilum in Seattle at the 2001 World Horror Convention, where he constituted a very colorful presence. Then when my first print publication occurred in the 2002 anthology The Children of Cthulhu, Wilum was in there, too. So he has been part of my mental and personal world as a reader and writer of Lovecraftian fiction for quite some time.

A few years ago, his place in my life became much more specific. It was through his unsolicited and generous actions that I was put together with Hippocampus Press for the purpose of producing a new collection of my fiction. When that collection, To Rouse Leviathan, is published just a few months from now, it will owe its existence largely to Wilum’s unpaid facilitation, which he offered spontaneously, out of the blue, just because he was that kind of person. On the book’s acknowledgments page, he’s the first person I name.

Others in the horror community have their own, similar stories about what a lovely human being Wilum was. And that’s not even to say anything his own contributions as an author, which are substantial.

Goodbye, Wilum. You will definitely be missed.

Have you heard of Dr. D. W. Pasulka and her book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology? You can gain a solid understanding and appreciation of its contents from the article “Belief in Aliens Could Be America’s Next Religion” at The Outline, which tells of Dr. Pasulka’s explorations into “how the once-fringe phenomenon has taken root among the powerful,” with tech billionaires devoting themselves seriously to UFOlogy, recovered alien tech, and the like. Dr. Pasulka is Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. This makes her work all the more significant.

From The Orlando Sentinel, here’s an interesting gauge of the current status of UFOlogical beliefs: “‘Alien in my Backyard:’ The UFO Community Still Believes — and Science Is Starting to Listen.”

Speaking of which: “What happens to religion when we find aliens?” In the linked piece, a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Christian theologian discuss what life in space could mean for the spiritual.

Issue 37 of EdgeScience is now out. Looks fascinating. It’s free. And it includes the following tantalizingly titled piece by none other than the above-mentioned Dr. Pasulka: “The Reception of Scientific Ideas from Alleged Supernatural Beings and Extraterrestrials: A Chapter in the History of Unorthodox Science.”

There are just too many good books to get to lately. However, one that sounds like we all need to wrap our heads around it is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which is all the rage right now (along with the above-described American Cosmic, making for a rather revealing literary syzygy). The idea of “surveillance capitalism,” which is Zuboff’s own original coinage (she’s a scholar of sociology and business at Harvard and the author of 1988’s In the Age of the Smart Machine), holds that the new world of digital tech has overwhelmed our cultural safeguards, which were utterly unprepared even to comprehend this new threat. The result is that now, to quote the official publisher’s description, “vast wealth and power are accumulated in ominous new ‘behavioral futures markets,’ where predictions about our behavior are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new ‘means of behavioral modification.'” As Zuboff sees it, this is not just a technological revolution but a completely new and intrinsically dystopian form of capitalism. Read “Capitalism’s New Clothes” at The Baffler and “‘The Goal is to Automate Us’: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism” at The Guardian for good primers. Also see this astute critique at Inside Higher Ed, which argues that the problem isn’t so much a totalitarian Big Data coup from above as an uncontrollable Frankenstein that Big Tech has unleashed and that is now beyond even their control, as seen most recently and sickeningly in the unstoppable proliferation of the New Zealand shooter video.

Meanwhile, according to the 2019 World Happiness Report, the U.S. is the unhappiest it’s ever been because of our business-driven culture of addiction. Knock me over with a feather.

If all of the above strikes you as a downer, this bracing shot of wisdom from Morris Berman for our present troubled moment might help: “Speaking of Liberation.” TLDR: There’s probably no hope for humanity at large, so it’s better to focus on your own personal awakening from history’s nightmare.

From The Daily Grail, here’s a great article for starting your day with your head blown off: Remember The Young Ones? Yeah, me too. I fell in love with it during my undergraduate days. But do you remember the fifth young one who lived in the flat with Vyvyan, Rick, Neil, and Mike? The young girl who mysteriously appeared in various scenes? Yeah, me neither. But apparently she was there.

It was also in college that I first became acquainted with the Church of the SubGenius. For a while I took to posting images of “Bob” Dobbs around Columbia, Missouri. Now comes this:

For all you Death Metal fans out there, be advised that I suspected as much: “Death Metal Inspires Joy, Not Violence.”

However, things aren’t so good for horror fans, at least according to Instagram: “‘Can We Help?’ Instagram Suggests ‘#Horror’ Fans Are in Danger of ‘Harm’ & ‘Death.’

Speaking of horror, Cody Goodfellow’s take on the Lovecraft Problem in this essay — which appears in Forbidden Futures 3 — may be the most lucid, insightful, and helpful that I’ve read: “Lovecraft Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.”

In the video below, Dr. Andreas Sommer, who really knows his stuff, explains 1) why your knowledge of science and magic is almost certainly based on demonstrable falsehoods, and 2) why the intertwined history of these subjects is far more significant than you may think.

A recent interview with Christian Wiman for The New Criterion shows the poet emitting a profusion of lucid, insightful, and beautiful thoughts the way a bonfire sends up sparks “I don’t think that art is something that’s going to save you or that it’s the single most important thing in life,” he says. “I find the writing of poetry a kind of torment ultimately, though it’s also a great elation. I just don’t think it’s going to save me. . . . [A]rt can’t save you. It can give you glimpses of something beautiful, maybe even something redemptive, but there’s nothing there to hold onto. Art is a means, not an end. “

Finally, Vastarien volume 2, issue 1 is now available. The TOC is wonderful, with fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork from the likes of Gemma Files, Forrest Aguirre, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Rhys Hughes, and Matthew M. Bartlett. I’m proud to have been centrally involved in the journal’s inception and the development of the first two issues. Now Jon Padgett continues to take it from strength to strength. (And if all goes well, I may return for an editorial stint in the foreseeable future.)

Dehumanized in a dark age

 

Fire_of_Troy_by_Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck)

“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.

* * *

One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.

Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.

With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry

“In Praise of Shadows”: Morris Berman’s acceptance speech for the 2013 Neil Postman Award

Last month the Media Ecology Association presented this year’s Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity to Morris Berman, whose work I have referenced so many times here at The Teeming Brain that he’s practically an honorary member of the Teem at this point.

Berman was invited to give an acceptance speech at the MEA’s annual convention on June 22, and he was told that he could speak on any topic of his choice. He ended up delivering a talk that effectively summarizes the overall present shape and tone of his well-known dire but, at root, deeply hopeful diagnosis of America’s malaise, decline, and death. (That’s “hopeful” in the very long view, mind you, not in any sense of holding out a hope that we might forestall or reverse America’s Spenglerian, Roman Empire-esque march into wholesale cultural collapse.)

The talk is titled “In Praise of Shadows,” and Berman’s delivery of it at the MEA convention was recorded. Here’s the video, which in addition to the speech itself includes a half-hour Q & A. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it. Below the video are a couple of choice excerpts that are well worth a few minutes’ quiet reading and meditation.

What American . . . doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation — “the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. . . . Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.

This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton — probably our next president — you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.”

. . . As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offered human beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives — communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily — so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.

FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: “In Praise of Shadows” by Morris Berman

Our “cognitive surplus” is temporary, just like the fossil fuels that power it

In his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus, released in hardcover with the subtitle “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” and in paperback with the subtitle “How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators,” Clay Shirky expanded his reputation as everybody’s favorite digital guru by arguing that “new digital technology” — primarily of the social media sort — “is unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world. For the first time, people are embracing new media that allow them to pool their efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind-expanding reference tools like Wikipedia to life-saving Web sites like Ushahidi.com, which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence in real time. [The book] explores what’s possible when people unite to use their intellect, energy, and time for the greater good.”

Here he is expounding the idea in a popular TED talk:

Although Shirky can be criticized for an undue optimism, since it’s quite likely that his view of how people tend to use the freeing of their time and mental energy by technology is overly rosy, the fact that such a freeing-up has happened is incontrovertible. And now comes a paper written by two experts in digital communications and published in one of the longest-running online journals about the Internet itself that argues the cognitive surplus is a side effect of our massive exploitation of fossil fuels, and that its fate and future will therefore parallel the arc of fossil fuel-based civilization, which is, in the wide scope of things, a fleeting phase in human history, since “fossil fuels are not forever.” Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 32

This week: a report from Germany’s Der Spiegel about America’s awesome and incontrovertible decline; a summary and review of Morris Berman’s twilight-and-decline-of-America trilogy; thoughts on the rise of the new plutocracy; a lament for the science fiction future that never was, along with a profound and subversive sociocultural analysis of why it wasn’t; thoughts on the new art-and-entertainment category of “the upper middle brow” and its implicit danger as a spiritual narcotic; two cogent examinations of the meaning and fate of books; an article about the mainstream rise of the multiverse model of cosmology and its mind-blowing philosophical and personal implications; a speculation about the possibility that out-of-body experiences may really tell us something about the reality of disembodied consciousness; and a wonderful article by Erik Davis about the current renaissance of psychedelic research. Read the rest of this entry

Awake inside the American Nightmare

In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:

A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.

Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 27

This week’s recommended reading covers Morris Berman’s diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the waning of our modern age of capitalism; the end of economic growth due to peak oil; a call from Jaron Lanier to recognize the wizard’s trick of delusion that we’re all pulling on ourselves with technology; a reflection on the soul tragedy of a culture of 24/7 digital connectedness; a report on the nefarious collusion of corporate funding in scientific research and reporting; a cool article by John Keel on the birth of flying saucers as a cultural phenomenon; an interview with the creator of a new multimedia project based on lucid dreaming and stretching the boundaries of conventional storytelling; a consideration of the enduring mainstream impact of occult/esoteric/”New Age” ideas on American culture and society; and words about Swedenborg and visionary mysticism and spirituality from Gary Lachman and Mitch Horowitz. Read the rest of this entry

On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response

Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Berman who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year

. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. [1]

Read the rest of this entry

Morris Berman reviews “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?”

Morris Berman — author of The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, and a frequently mentioned source of trenchant (and apocalyptic) cultural criticism here at The Teeming Brain — has offered a characteristically perceptive and incisive review/critique of the new documentary Heist: Who Stole the American Dreamby filmmakers Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher.

Here’s the film’s trailer:

Morris’s critique is built on ideas he has put forth in his books, including, especially, Why America Failed. He argues that although Causey and Goldmacher do an excellent job of providing “an alternative narrative to what’s been going on in this country since 1981” by thoroughly exploring and exploding the reigning master-myth of trickle-down economics and thus giving us all “an exercise in counter-brainwashing,” they show a lack of historical perspective by dating the dawn of the era of greed unbound to Reagan’s ascendency in 1980. In fact, says Morris — and this is his basic thesis in Why America Failed — America was founded on greed and hucksterism. “Greed,” he writes,

showed up on the American continent in the late sixteenth century, when what would later become the United States started to be colonized by a particularly aggressive and entrepreneurial segment of the English middle class …  One might argue that Reagan represented a “quantum leap” in this ideology, but he hardly invented it; from Day One, it is what America has been about. Credit-default swaps are merely the inevitable culmination of a process that has been going on for more than four hundred years.

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The Internet’s corrosive mental effects: A growing problem requiring a deliberate defensive response

For those of you who, like me, have been interested to hear the background drumbeat of warnings about the mental and neurological effects of the Internet revolution over the past several years — think Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows,  just for starters —  a recent, in-depth article about this very subject from Newsweek will make for compelling reading. It’s not exactly a pleasant read, though, because the conclusion it draws from mountains of evidence is deeply disturbing.

Here’s the gist:

Teaser: Tweets, texts, emails, posts. New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness, Tony Dokoupil reports.

Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel — let alone contribute to a great American crack-up — was considered silly and naive, like waving a cane at electric light or blaming the television for kids these days. Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?

Read the rest of this entry