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Teeming Links – July 25, 2014

FireHead

What happens in a world where war has become perpetual, live-reported popcorn entertainment? Answer: we’re as far as we ever were from understanding anything about it. “Far from offering insights into the mysteries of history and politics, these spectacles give us a sense that we are further away than ever from understanding their causes, their implications, and their consequences. Combat makes for a disappointing program — we approach it with great expectations, prepared to encounter essential truths of human existence, but we leave empty-handed.”

Novelist William Boyd reflects on how mortality shapes human existence: “I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.”

Philosopher and journalist Steven Cave meditates on the reality, mystery, and meaning of death, from humans to flies: “Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning — one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. . . . Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway.”

Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and co-author of Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, discusses his defeatist position on climate change and the liberation to be found in giving up hope.

Journalist Matt Stroud delves into the unbelievable life and death of Michael C. Ruppert: “After decades of struggle, the notorious doomsayer finally found fame and recognition. Then he shot himself.” (Also see my reflections, in a post published five years ago, on Ruppert’s startling ascent to mainstream fame via the movie Collapse.)

Historian and writer Rebecca Onion looks at how 1980s childhoods changed the way America thought about nuclear Armageddonwith an extended analysis of the role of the 1983 television movie The Day After, which utterly freaked out my 13-year-old self.

Jacob Silverman reflects on the dystopian plight of office drones in the digital tech age: “[They are] more gadgeted-out than ever, but still facing the same struggle for essential benefits, wages, and dignity that workers have for generations. . . . Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software. Without Gchat, Twitter, and Facebook — the great release valves of workaday ennui — the roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers would surely be filled with pallid young faces, wondering about the quickest way down.”

Seriously? We’re now entertaining the possibility of robot caregivers? Sociologist and tech expert Zeynep Tufekci is right: this is how to fail the third machine age.

You’ve seen me mention my love of My Dinner with Andre many times here. That’s why I’m so pleased to call attention to this brand new interview from On Point with “The Inscrutable, Ubiquitous Wallace Shawn.” It’s highly recommendable both for the way it offends common radio sensibilities (the whole thing gets off to a rocky start as the interviewer adopts a somewhat glib approach that apparently annoys Mr. Shawn) and for the depth of Shawn’s carefully expressed thoughts on everything from the heady joys of being a writer and articulating things you never knew were in your soul, to the changing nature of conversation in an age when everybody is perpetually interrupted by phone calls and text messages. There is also, of course, some discussion of his portrayal of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. (Oh, and also see the recent pieces on Shawn, and also Andre Gregory, and their new collaboration, in The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, and Salon.)

When I was a kid, my mother actually walked out of the theater during the heart-ripping scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Well, guess what? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hate that movie’s notorious grimness and violence, too. Grantland unearths the history of why Temple of Doom turned out that way.

 

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

Teeming Links – October 4, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s (short but dense) collection of recommended and necessary reading, here’s a lengthy opening word about the ultimate closing word — which is to say, several excerpts from a recent article about the upsurge of apocalyptic themes in American entertainment. As we all know, there’s been a flood of articles and essays about this phenomenon in the past couple of years, many of them mentioned and linked to here. This one, which was published in print in The New York Times Magazine under the title “A Culture That Lurches About Within the Shadow of Its Own Extinction,” makes some particularly astute and interesting points, and does a particularly effective — and pithy — job of locating our apocalypse obsession within the wider history of that term’s signification. It also offers a credible and sobering reflection on what this obsession might portend:

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience. The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

. . . The word “apocalypse” did not always signify the end of the world. Its original Greek meaning was an unveiling, or a revelation, as of God’s will. . . . In this sense, apocalyptic literature can be seen as a subset of prophetic writing. The crucial difference is that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah lived among the people they preached to and promised them specific forms of deliverance in return for repentance. Apocalyptic writers despised the fallen world around them, or at least deemed it beyond repair, and thus looked to a future in which paradise for a select few was reached only by upheaval.

. . . It’s impossible to read Revelation today without viewing it as a kind unintended template for the frantic and ornate mayhem that marks so many modern renditions of the apocalypse. The phantasmagoric battles rage on, in the heavens and on Earth, and Satan’s army grows ever more vivid and grotesque courtesy of C.G.I. These diversions offer no coherent moral agenda. They are what the English novelist and critic D. H. Lawrence called — in his book about Revelation — “death products,” elaborate revenge fantasies driven by “flamboyant hate and simple lust . . . for the end of the world.”

. . . It’s only natural that the apocalyptic canon has radically expanded in the past few decades. Never has our species been so besieged by doomsday scenarios. If our ancestors channeled their collective death instinct into religious myth, we now face a raft of scientific data that suggest the end might be truly nigh.

. . . Popular culture has moved beyond the prophetic phase represented by science fiction writers like Clarke or Ray Bradbury. We are deep into what D. H. Lawrence might have called the death-product era. For most of us, though, our obsession with the end times doesn’t arise from religious faith anymore. It is a secular impulse that marks a chilling regression.

Imagine, if you will, that a race of superior beings discovers Earth 10,000 years from now, or even 10 centuries, a world no longer inhabited by humans. In surveying the remains of our civilization, what would they make of a species so intellectually advanced as to understand the precise threats posed to its survival and yet so immature as to ignore these threats? And what of the vast troves they would find containing elaborate and childish simulations of our destruction?

It is entirely possible that they would look upon these artifacts not as harmless entertainments but dark prophecy.

— Steven Almond, “The Apocalypse Market Is Booming,” The New York Times, September 27, 2013

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Civilization Has Lasted 5,000 Years. How About 5 Million?, Scholars Ask. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“On a recent humid day at the Library of Congress, a collection of astronomers, humanists, and writers set their eyes on a deadline well past the next debt showdown, or even the next election. They had a more distant horizon in mind. They had gathered in this 213-year-old institution to debate whether human civilization, which has had a good run over the past 5,000 years, could persist for longer than a geological blip in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. . . . David Grinspoon, the day’s host and the inaugural chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center . . . had lured a panel of luminaries to wrestle with a loaded question: ‘Will we survive our world-changing technologies?'” (This article is located behind a subscriber paywall. Well worth seeking out if you can find access through a library or elsewhere.)

Fukushima Unit 4 Has Shown Signs of Collapsing (Disinfo)
In case you haven’t been following the news, there’s chatter emerging from various quarters that says the nuclear disaster situation at Fukushima may in fact be developing into, or perhaps already has developed into, the worst such disaster in history. Some people are talking in terms of an actual threat to human survival. Sensationalistic doom-mongering or authentic cause for concern? Click through, read this item at Disinfo (which links to several different news items and analyses), and mull it over for yourself. Also see the disturbing roundup of links about this subject over at The Daily Grail.

Musings_on_Mortality_by_Victor_BrombertIntimations of Mortality (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“Nothing seems to help. Not even writing about death decreases the fear of it. . . . Perhaps all thought and all art ultimately find their source in intimations of mortality.” A deeply absorbing and moving essay by Princeton literature professor emeritus Victor Brombert, who fought in World War II and has been intimately acquainted with death since childhood. Adapted from his new book Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi.

The Horror, the Horror: Thirty-eight centuries of supernatural lit. (Michael Dirda for The Weekly Standard)
Michael Dirda reviews and discusses S. T. Joshi’s two-volume study Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction. Simply delightful, and filled with valuable observations and asides from Michael himself, as in this: “Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary.”

Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster (BBC)
Full 2003 documentary, very nicely done. From the BBC’s description page: “In life, as in literature, Mary Shelley’s famous monster, Frankenstein, overshadows its creator. The story of Frankenstein has become a modern myth, one which has developed a life of its own, mutating with every re-telling. . . . Using Mary’s own words and accounts from the people who knew her, and dramatic reconstructions of events in Mary’s life and from her famous novel, Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster tells the true story of Frankenstein’s monster and the remarkable woman who created him.”