I first watched the film Koyaanisqatsi as an undergraduate student at Mizzou, in the company of other students, in the context of a student Philosophy Club meeting. And the film flat-out blew my mind and rocked my world. I have no idea if any of the others present at that viewing were as deeply affected as I was, but today, just over two decades later, the film, and also its almost literally divine Philip Glass musical score, remains a touchstone philosophical-cinematic text that continues to act with a transformative tug upon my psyche.
A good deal of the enduring (obsessive) focus here at The Teeming Brain on the dystopian underside and apocalyptic overtones of life here in the postindustrial wonderland of the great American technopoly stems from two sources. One of these is the collective totality of a mini-library of books and films, both fiction and nonfiction, that have powerfully impacted me with their explorations of this heady convergence point of subversive and destabilizing spiritual, psychological, artistic, political, societal, economic, and technological reality. The other is Koyaanisqatsi, standing independently on its own rarefied plane of import. Not coincidentally, several of those books have been cited as direct inspirations by Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi‘s director and mastermind.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, or if perhaps you’re not aware of the fact that you may already be familiar with parts of it — as with (to name just one prominent example) the wonderful use of two pieces of its music during the Dr. Manhattan origin sequence in the Watchmen film a few years ago — here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis, which is excellent:
Koyaanisqatsi, also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explains the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life”. The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film.
You can also watch the trailer. I mean it seriously. Stop reading and watch this now:
On May 15 The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief and fascinating essay that brought this all back to mind. In “‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in China,” Jonathan Levine, a freelance journalist and a lecturer in American studies and English at Bejing’s Tsinghua University, explains how a student approached him during his first semester there to ask “if we could watch a movie — something about ‘American culture.’” Levine points out that this request automatically raised an important and difficult question: “If you were given the opportunity of showing some of China’s future leaders one movie that encapsulated the American essence, what would it be?”
He ended up showing them Koyaanisqatsi — “probably not the first movie you would think of,” he quite rightly points out. (“Probably not even in the first 100,” he quite rightly adds.) But the choice was a savvy one. “With no spoken dialogue,” he writes, “Koyaanisqatsi is a difficult film but a universal one, free of the barriers of context and language that inevitably divide native and non-native English speakers. Accompanied by Philip Glass’s powerful, minimalist score, the scenes take viewers on a sensory roller coaster, rollicking through a slide show of human achievement and folly. The film is a tabula rasa, from which viewers can draw their own conclusions.”
Levine’s reflections on the experience for both him and his students indicate that it was an excellent choice for exploring the depths of the film and its meaning for both America and now China, which has been racing for decades to emulate America’s model of material success. He writes, “Though the film was shot entirely in the United States, by an American director, the similarities to modern China are so striking as to be inescapable. The Brutalist architecture of the condemned Pruitt-Igoe housing project, in St. Louis, could have been airlifted from the outskirts of Beijing. The throngs bustling to and fro — the inhabitants of one of China’s manifold concrete jungles. Income inequality, pollution, degradation of public infrastructure, check, check, and check.”
His closing paragraphs draw out the meaning of the film not only for his Chinese audience but for me personally, and in a shockingly direct way that echoes exactly what I have said to myself, minus the specific references to China, as I have lived with this film for the past 20 years:
Rather than being dated, the haunting imagery of Koyaanisqatsi has become more valuable with time. It now demonstrably encapsulates both the United States and China. As you may have already guessed, my aim in showing the movie was not a dry exploration of American culture, but to raise fundamental questions among China’s brightest minds about the direction of their own country. It is not a warning, but more a checkpoint. The Chinese word for America is “Meiguo,” which literally means “beautiful country.”
My goal with Koyaanisqatsi was not to smash this myth, but to remind those who watch the film that America’s road to development and prosperity was not without speed bumps. It was and is riddled with points of tensions, contradictions, and — in short — many things that are not so beautiful. I hope that the movie will not just provide a snapshot of the United States but will cause my students to question their own nation’s model of development. Should China’s highest aspiration be merely a Sinified simulacrum of all things Western? China has embraced the Western paradigm of development, but is there perhaps another way?
In the words of Mark, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
To drive home the point, here’s what may be the film’s most haunting passage:
If you haven’t seen Koyaanisqatsi, please consider my heartfelt recommendation that you remedy that lack as soon as possible, because you’re missing out on a work of art that stands as a kind of cinematic Rosetta Stone for decoding and understanding the arc and tenor of the times we live in.
The analysis of Horror is, like almost everything else related to the genre, paradoxical. Because the genre is so rife with archetypal imagery and taboo subjects, it seems that any attempt to rationalize or understand it in purely intellectual terms is ineffectual, or at the very least inadequate. Whereas most other forms of artistic expression benefit from the acumen of critics who educate the audience on what may otherwise be cryptic allusions, subtext, etc., Horror evidently functions somewhat differently. It is a wholly experiential genre and is therefore judged in large part by its effect, and more specifically by its affect, rather than by its structure.
Enduring works of non-genre (or “literary”) fiction have undergone countless autopsies by critics and would-be-critics, all of whom seem confident that they have pinpointed exactly what makes this or that story tick. Horror, by contrast, almost always manages to slither out from underneath our microscope. Oh, it may bear the explanations we impress upon it for a little while, but rest assured, Horror will always find a way to shed its old skin, which in this case consists of any number of after-the-fact explanations as to what we read and why. And like the serpent, Horror emerges from this molting as a creature even more vibrant and healthy than before.
Perhaps this trickster-like evasion of standard literary or cinematic criticism is to be expected, for any work of Horror worth its saltes draws its power from the deepest spring. Even works that demonstrate ineptitude in some technical areas that critics often highlight as the essence of “good art” can nevertheless frighten or unnerve an audience, and are therefore effective models of the field. Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves. Read the rest of this entry
If you’re interested in books and ideas that explore the soul of a culture and civilization that in many ways seems to be flinging itself apart at the seams — and I know this describes most Teeming Brain readers — then be advised that Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, published in March, is emerging as, maybe, one of the most significant books of the year. You can see this in the fact that the buzz about it extends not just into the realm of book chatter as such but into the upper echelons of American public culture at large, where, in a fascinating development, Steven Soderbergh referenced it last Saturday in his keynote speech to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, saying that the book effectively describes his own growing sense of a giddy chaos, unease, and vertigo enveloping the entire film industry, including both filmmakers and their audience. (In case Soderbergh’s name is somehow unfamiliar to you: he’s the Academy Award-winning director of, among others, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Contagion, the Ocean’s Eleven remake, Magic Mike, Side Effects, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape.)
The official publisher’s description of Present Shock encapsulates the book’s message:
People spent the twentieth century obsessed with the future. We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, compile knowledge, and connect with anyone, at anytime. We strove for an instantaneous network where time and space could be compressed. Well, the future’s arrived. We live in a continuous now enabled by Twitter, email, and a so-called real-time technological shift. Yet this “now” is an elusive goal that we can never quite reach. And the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock.
Rushkoff weaves together seemingly disparate events and trends into a rich, nuanced portrait of how life in the eternal present has affected our biology, behavior, politics, and culture. He explains how the rise of zombie apocalypse fiction signals our intense desire for an ending; how the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street form two sides of the same post-narrative coin; how corporate investing in the future has been replaced by futile efforts to game the stock market in real time; why social networks make people anxious and email can feel like an assault. He examines how the tragedy of 9/11 disconnected an entire generation from a sense of history, and delves into why conspiracy theories actually comfort us.
A review at The Rumpus offers additional illumination:
As Rushkoff offers near the end of the book, “I imagine it took more effort than reading a book of this length and depth would have required, say, ten years ago.” That very difference is present shock. The book’s central premise is that we’re no longer in danger of what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock” but exist instead in an inescapable now. It’s the Zen ideal without any of the concomitant enlightenment, nirvana by way of sound-bytes. Rushkoff begins with the idea that narrative has collapsed. That ancient monomyth first popularly “grokked” by Joseph Campbell has been reduced to bits and pieces, digital ones and zeroes that tell no linear story but instead capture moments in a life freed from the context of temporality.
In five sections, Rushkoff takes the previous history of mankind and pushes it against the windshield of our current state of present shock. The human mind did not evolve to live in an unending now, and once we pulled at the thread on which the Bayeux Tapestry of the human story was built, everything began to unravel around us. The result is a functional inability to plan for tomorrow by learning from the past. We exist only in the immediate present, devoid of cues that might anchor us in linear time. Micro-transactions and algorithms exploit, and sometimes cause, market volatility by the nanosecond. There’s no way for a company to invest in the future when the next quarter is all that matters. Even our entertainment, from Pulp Fiction to Call of Duty, exists in a liminal state between story and social media updates. Our current media, whatever form it may take, is incapable of constructing a linear tale from our moment-to-moment actions. The story of our lives is entirely without sequence.
. . . Grossly simplified, Rushkoff is talking about the inability of our analogue minds to deal with a digital world. We’ve come so far technologically that we’ve outstripped our own capacity for evolution. The machines we’ve built seem to evolve far more quickly than we can hope to. Rushkoff would remind us that we built those machines and are their masters.
– Chris Lites, “‘Present Shock,’ by Douglas Ruskhoff,” The Rumpus, April 30, 2013
Soderbergh’s speech picks up this theme and offers a stark description of “present shock” as it looks and feels in the business and culture of contemporary cinema:
A few months ago I was on this Jet Blue flight from New York to Burbank. And I like Jet Blue, not just because of the prices. They have this terminal at JFK that I think is really nice. I think it might be the nicest terminal in the country although if you want to see some good airports you’ve got to go to a major city in another part of the world like Europe or Asia. They’re amazing airports. They’re incredible and quiet. You’re not being assaulted by all this music. I don’t know when it was decided we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go. I was just in the bathroom upstairs and there was a soundtrack accompanying me at the urinal, I don’t understand. So I’m getting comfortable in my seat. I spent the extra $60 to get the extra leg room so I’m trying to get comfortable and we make altitude. And there’s a guy on the other side of the aisle in front of me and he pulls out his iPad to start watching stuff. I’m curious to see what he’s going to watch — he’s a white guy in his mid-30s. And I begin to realize what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen action sort of extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences — he’s skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.
I get this wave of — not panic, it’s not like my heart started fluttering — but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane — or both? Now I start with the circular thinking again. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s generational and I’m getting old, I’m in the back nine professionally. And maybe my 22-year-old daughter doesn’t feel this way at all. I should ask her. But then I think, no: Something is going on — something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. We have people walking around who think the government stages these terrorist attacks. And anybody with a brain bigger than a walnut knows that our government is not nearly competent enough to stage a terrorist attack and then keep it a secret because, as we know, in this day and age you cannot keep a secret.
. . . So that was my Jet Blue flight. But the circular thinking didn’t really stop and I got my hands on a book by a guy named Douglas Rushkoff and I realized I’m suffering from something called Present Shock, which is the name of his book. This quote made me feel a little less insane: “When there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time.” That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us. I think it’s having an effect on our culture, and I think it’s having an effect on movies. How they’re made, how they’re sold, how they perform.
– “Steven Soderbergh’s State of Cinema Talk,” Deadline Hollywood, April 30, 2013
Happily, his entire speech was recorded:
Note that this is all related to Soderbergh’s recent announcement that he is going to retire from filmmaking and look for other creative outlets — a point he reiterates in the speech.
Thoughts, anyone? Are you perhaps suffering from present shock yourself, perhaps hearing and feeling that frantic, persistent “hum” Soderbergh talks about in your own life, work, family, self, world? I can tell you that I’m certainly feeling it myself, and that this is progressively and deeply driving me toward a “retirement” of my own — not a literal but a figurative one, but of such intensity that it does in fact begin to cross over from figurative to literal in certain details of (non)action and (dis)engagement.
Tonight will see the official premiere in Hollywood of the new documentary film Sirius, which promises to be one of the more interesting — and perhaps more starkly significant? — UFO-related film projects to emerge since, well, ever. The film brings together the enduring “UFO disclosure” meme with the equally enduring theme of our planetary energy-and-environmental crisis, and includes as a central element the famous/notorious “La Noria ET,” the tiny humanoid “alien” found in Chile’s northern Atacama desert region in 2003.
The summary/teaser from the official press release conveys the gist (with, alas, faulty orthography in the form of a dropped hyphen):
Inspired by the work of Dr. Steven Greer, directed by Emmy Award winning Amardeep Kaleka and funded by the highest documentary crowd-funding in history, ‘Sirius’ introduces a DNA sequenced humanoid of unknown classification to the world and sheds definitive light on the scientific reality of UFO’s, ET’s, and Advanced Alternative Energy Technology. ‘Sirius’ is narrated by actor Thomas Jane (HBO series ‘Hung’).
In more detail, and with a similar smattering of mild orthographical gaffes:
‘Sirius’ deals not only with the subject of UFO and ET visitation disclosure but also with the advanced, clean, and alternative energy technology that’s getting them here. ‘Sirius’ goes into eye-opening detail regarding how the disclosure of such technologies, some of which have been suppressed for decades, can enable humanity to leave the age of the polluting petrodollar, transform society and improve mankind’s chances for the survival.
The film includes numerous Government and Military witnesses to UFO and ET secrecy. It also explains the connection to Free Energy and provides not only the vision of contact with ET civilizations as regularly witnessed by the CE-5 contact teams featured therein, but also the paradigm shifting physical evidence of a medically and scientifically analyzed DNA sequenced humanoid creature of unknown classification found in the Atacama desert, Chile. Additionally eye-opening, are the credentials and pedigree of the science and medical team behind this potentially profound and historical announcement.
One naturally wonders what to think of all this. Hokum? Hoax? The Holy Grail of UFO exposés? Or something intermediate? One thing’s for sure: the trailer is quite compelling, both in content and in tone, and the convergence of the specific issues and concerns addressed by Sirius — I’m thinking specifically of the challenge it mounts and describes for the reigning paradigms of scientific orthodoxy and depletion-based energy production — couldn’t be more timely.
Be advised that after tonight the film will, as I understand it, be available for free, full streaming and viewing. (I read that somewhere but can’t seem to track down the source just now.)
Thank you to Jesús Olmo, video artist extraordinaire and lobber of philosophically and aesthetically dazzling email grenades, for the heads-up about this film.
From an unexpectedly meaty piece published by — of all sources — NBC, on the current upsurge of apocalyptic cinema and its real-world meanings and implications:
Ready for the end of the world as we know it? The popular culture certainly is. When “Defiance” arrives Monday night on the SyFy channel and “Oblivion” hits theaters Friday, they’ll land on an already busy post-apocolypse-obsessed [sic] entertainment landscape that’s about to become even more crowded.
. . . For Brock Wilbur, author of Filmpocalypse! 52 cinematic Visions of the End of the World, the genre is universal. “It transforms as we do. The apocalyptic cinema serves as sort of a gateway to talk about bigger issues in an exaggerated way and in different time periods.”
. . . “Ever since the finish of the second world war when we got the glimpse of the atomic bomb there’s been this sense that the world could end in the blink of an eye,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “One of the reasons it may be so resonant now is that there are so many things we hear on a daily basis that seem to say to us that the possibility of massive planetary annihilation is within the realm of think-ability.” It’s real life informs reel life and vice versa.
. . . For Thompson, the images we witnessed over and over again in the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings trumped every disaster movie ever made. “How do you make something seem big and shocking after that. A lot of people said, ‘Oh we’re not going to be seeing exploding buildings now, it’s going to be too soon.’ They were absolutely wrong. What we instead saw was a ratcheting up of the scope, to be bad enough now you had to be taking out whole cities. Back in the day we could be shocked by Hitchcock terrorizing a little seaside village with birds. Now we have seen and heard so much that our expectations are so extreme that we have to take out the entire world to make it seem like it matters.”
. . . [Wilbur says] “The way that we live now in 2013 has a real disconnect with what we are as a species, and post-apocalypse films get back to that idea of wanting to roam around and hunt and gather and scavenge and live in a tent and not have to answer my cell phone or worry about Facebook. It’s a chance to reset and go back to what our biology tells us we should be doing. That can make the bleakest film actually uplifting. It’s the same reason that post-apocalypse themed video games are such a hit.”
More: “The Appeal of Apocalypse“
Mexican Cartels Dispatch Trusted Agents to Live Deep Inside United States
The Washington Post (Associated Press), April 1, 2013
Mexican drug cartels whose operatives once rarely ventured beyond the U.S. border are dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States — an emboldened presence that experts believe is meant to tighten their grip on the world’s most lucrative narcotics market and maximize profits. . . . [A] wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with many top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the U.S. Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast. “It’s probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime,” said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago office.
. . . . Years ago, Mexico faced the same problem — of then-nascent cartels expanding their power — “and didn’t nip the problem in the bud,” said Jack Killorin, head of an anti-trafficking program in Atlanta for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “And see where they are now.” Riley sounds a similar alarm: “People think, ‘The border’s 1,700 miles away. This isn’t our problem.’ Well, it is. These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border.”
. . . . “This is the first time we’ve been seeing it — cartels who have their operatives actually sent here,” said Richard Pearson, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, which arrested four alleged operatives of the Zetas cartel in November in the suburb of Okolona. People who live on the tree-lined street where authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana and more than $1 million in cash were shocked to learn their low-key neighbors were accused of working for one of Mexico’s most violent drug syndicates, Pearson said.
. . . . In Chicago, the police commander who oversees narcotics investigations, James O’Grady, said street-gang disputes over turf account for most of the city’s uptick in murders last year, when slayings topped 500 for the first time since 2008. Although the cartels aren’t dictating the territorial wars, they are the source of drugs. Riley’s assessment is stark: He argues that the cartels should be seen as an underlying cause of Chicago’s disturbingly high murder rate. “They are the puppeteers,” he said. “Maybe the shooter didn’t know and maybe the victim didn’t know that. But if you follow it down the line, the cartels are ultimately responsible.”
* * *
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Last year I abandoned Google's search engine (for DuckDuckGo), Google Mail (for Zoho), Google Docs (for various substitutes), and Google Reader (for Netvibes) because of the company's decision, mentioned by Morozov in this op-ed, to sew together privacy data from more than 60 of its products/services into a single, mega-master One Profile to Rule Them All for each of its users. Here, Morozov lays out some of the more far-reaching intentions behind, and meanings and implications of, Google's move. Be sure to read his words in the mutually illuminating light of the article directly below about the new Facebook phone.]
Let’s give credit where it is due: Google is not hiding its revolutionary ambitions. As its co-founder Larry Page put it in 2004, eventually its search function “will be included in people’s brains” so that “when you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information”.
Science fiction? The implant is a rhetorical flourish but Mr Page’s utopian project is not a distant dream. In reality, the implant does not have be connected to our brains. We carry it in our pockets — it’s called a smartphone.
So long as Google can interpret — and predict — our intentions, Mr Page’s vision of a continuous and frictionless information supply could be fulfilled. However, to realise this vision, Google needs a wealth of data about us. Knowing what we search for helps — but so does knowing about our movements, our surroundings, our daily routines and our favourite cat videos.
But there is another reason, of course — and it has to do with the Grand Implant Agenda: the more Google knows about us, the easier it can make predictions about what we want – or will want in the near future. Google Now, the company’s latest offering, is meant to do just that: by tracking our every email, appointment and social networking activity, it can predict where we need to be, when, and with whom. Perhaps, it might even order a car to drive us there — the whole point is to relieve us of active decision-making. The implant future is already here — it’s just not evenly resisted.
* * *
The Soul of a New (Facebook) Machine
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, April 4, 2013
Teaser: Facebook finally brings a phone to market, sort of.
[T]he biggest play here is not technical or strategic, but rhetorical. Facebook wants to change the way people think about technologies. . . . Throughout Zuckerberg’s talk, people and Facebook friends were used interchangeably. And for Zuckerberg and his employees, I think this is technically true. For them, all the people they care about are not only on Facebook, but active users who devote time and resources to building digital streams that are legible to other people as their lives. So, while you can read the Facebook phone announcement as the story of the company’s deeper integration with Google’s Android operating system, I also read Facebook Home as a story of the integration that Facebook’s employees have with their own product. And they’d like for the rest of the world to experience what they do.
. . . . Why do I think it is so important not to allow Zuckerberg to redefine “people” as “Facebook friends”? Because we need to be able to evaluate this technology’s impact very specifically within Facebook’s culture and aims. Facebook Home is not a story about “making the world more open and connected,” in general. This a story about Facebook “making the world more open and connected,” with all the specific definitions the company brings to those ideas.
. . . . It’s not that I think Facebook communications are inferior to other ones, whether that’s face-to-face, Twitter, talking on the phone, or standard text messaging. That’s not the point. The point is that they are *not the same* as these other things.
. . . . Will it be worth opening up every part of your phone interaction to Facebook in order to access that experience? Do you want your definition of a computer to center on Facebook Friends and the limited et [sic] of actions you can take with them? I can’t answer that for you, but I can say that it is a tradeoff, and the more you think about it, the better.
* * *
The Meme Hustler
Evgeny Morozov, The Baffler No. 22 (April 8, 2013)
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, it's Morozov again. The man is all but ubiquitous today, and that's a good thing, because he's pointedly worth listening to. In the case of this particular piece, he's pointedly worth listening to very slowly and deeply, because this is some seriously insightful -- and darkly, counterculturally revolutionary -- stuff that he's laying out about the hijacking of our collective cultural discourse by a kind of linguistic-conceptual virus that disguises the ideological core assumptions of digital techno-utopianism under a cloak of inevitability, so that any serious critical examination of them becomes literally unthinkable.]
While the brightest minds of Silicon Valley are “disrupting” whatever industry is too crippled to fend off their advances, something odd is happening to our language. Old, trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything these days, has been hacked. Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency. Complexity, as it turns out, is not particularly viral.
. . . [A] clique of techno-entrepreneurs has hijacked our language and, with it, our reason. In the last decade or so, Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation, a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the world — a silicon mentality of sorts — has emerged in its wake. The old language has been rendered useless; our pre-Internet vocabulary, we are told, needs an upgrade.
. . . That we would eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.
The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly. The founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a seemingly omnipotent publisher of technology books and a tireless organizer of trendy conferences, O’Reilly is one of the most influential thinkers in Silicon Valley. Entire fields of thought — from computing to management theory to public administration — have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on. Over the past fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as “open source,” “Web 2.0,” “government as a platform,” and “architecture of participation.” O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite expressions, but he promotes them with religious zeal and enviable perseverance. While Washington prides itself on Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who rebranded “global warming” as “climate change” and turned “estate tax” into “death tax,” Silicon Valley has found its own Frank Luntz in Tim O’Reilly.
* * *
Grof on Giger: The Transpersonal Nature of Art, Inspiration, and Creativity
Karey Pohn, Association for Holotropic Breathwork International, February 28, 2013 (reprinted from The Inner Door, May 2010)
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Stanislav Grof is an icon and a legend in the field of transpersonal psychology, and is one of the field's founders. H. R. Giger is an icon and a legend in the world of art, having made his mark as a painter, sculptor, and set designer with a genius for the dark and surreal, with his most famous work probably being his Academy Award-winning design of the aliens and their environment in the Alien film franchise, followed closely by his breathtaking semi-Lovecraft-inspired paintings in the 1977 book Necronomicon. In this interview, Grof muses -- pun definitely intended -- on the transpersonal/transcendent sources of Giger's inspiration.]
I first encountered his work in Necronomicon, which was a large format, high-quality paperback. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was absolutely amazing. Now, I have a good understanding of him, not only because we have spent a lot of personal time together, but I had the chance to interview him for many, many hours for the book; and during that time, I was able to find out not only about his life but also about how he works.
It’s extraordinary. Some of his large paintings cover one wall in his house, and these amazing compositions are frequently arranged symmetrically. I found out that particularly when he is working with an airbrush, he has absolutely no idea what he is painting. He just begins in the left upper corner and aims the airbrush at the canvas. Then, as he told me, something just comes through, and he is himself surprised by what emerges.
In discussing Giger’s genius, I quote what Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885) about his own state of consciousness while creating:
If one had the smallest vestige of superstition left in one, it would hardly be possible to set aside the idea that one is mere incarnation, mouthpiece, or medium of an almighty power. The idea of revelation, in the sense that something, which profoundly convulses and shatters one, become suddenly visible and audible with indescribable certainty and accuracy, describes the simple fact. One hears—one does not seek; one takes—one does not ask who gives; a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes with necessity, without faltering—I never had any choice in the matter.
In essence, something grabs you and comes through, and you basically become a channel for it. You’re not really the creator of it. You’re a mediator. Hans Rudi certainly falls into that category.
* * *
The Visionary World of H. R. Giger (pdf), a.k.a. H. R. Giger and the Zeitgeist of the Twentieth Century
Stanislav Grof, October 2005
Several years ago, I had the privilege and pleasure to spend some time with Oliver Stone, visionary genius who has portrayed in his films with extraordinary artistic power the shadow side of modern humanity. At one point, we talked about Ridley Scott’s movie Alien and the discussion focused on H. R. Giger, whose creature and set designs were the key element in the film’s success. In the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles in April 1980, Giger received for his work on the Alien an Oscar for best achievement in visual effects.
I have known Giger’s work since the publication of his Necronomicon and have always felt a deep admiration for him, not only as an artistic genius, but also a visionary with an uncanny ability to depict the deep dark recesses of the human psyche revealed by modern consciousness research. In our discussion, I shared my feelings with Oliver Stone, who turned out to be himself a great admirer of Giger. His opinion about Giger and his place in the world of art and in human culture was very original and interesting. “I do not know anybody else,” he said, “who has so accurately portrayed the soul of modern humanity. A few decades from now when they will talk about the twentieth century, they will think of Giger.”
Although Oliver Stone’s statement momentarily surprised me by its extreme nature, I immediately realized that it reflected a profound truth. Since then, I often recalled this conversation when I was confronted with various disturbing aspects of the western industrial civilization and with the alarming developments in the countries affected by technological progress. There is no other artist who has captured with equal power the ills plaguing modern society – the rampaging technology taking over human life, suicidal destruction of the eco system of the earth, violence reaching apocalyptic proportions, sexual excesses, insanity of life driving people to mass consumption of tranquilizers and narcotic drugs, and the alienation individuals experience in relation to their bodies, to each other, and to nature.
. . . Giger’s art clearly comes from the depth of the collective unconscious, especially when we consider his prolific creative process. He reports that he often has no a priori concept of what a painting would look like. When creating some of his giant paintings, for instance, he started in the upper left corner and aimed the airbrush toward the canvas. The creative force was simply pouring through him, and he became its instrument. And yet the end result was a perfect composition and often showed remarkable bilateral symmetry.
. . . Giger’s determined quest for creative self-expression is inseparable from his relentless self-exploration and self-healing. In the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung, integration of the Shadow and the Anima, two quintessential motifs in Giger’s art, are seen as critical therapeutic steps in what Jung calls the process of individuation. Giger himself experiences his art as healing and as an important way to maintain his sanity. His art can also have a healing impact on those who are open to it because, like a Greek tragedy, it can facilitate powerful emotional catharsis for the viewers by exposing and revealing dark secrets of the human psyche.
During the present lead-up to the release of the widely anticipated World War Z movie in June 2013, and amidst the ongoing waves of political and socioeconomic unrest convulsing the real world, there’s much to think about, meditate on, and be thoroughly shaken by in this blog post from anthropologist Gastón Gordillo of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver:
The genre of a zombie pandemic is quite distinct within the larger genre of end-of-the-world scenarios that currently fascinates popular culture. This is the only apocalypse created not by natural cataclysms but, rather, by human bodies that stop obeying the state. In being guided by one unrelenting desire, zombies are human bodies that have been freed from hierarchies, conventions, consumerism, and indoctrination by the media; and this un-coding creates a collective, leaderless, and expansive occupation of space that makes the state crumble. Zombies have this unique power to destroy the state, primarily, because they are free from fear. [World War Z author Max] Brooks was asked why he thinks we are witnessing a growing fascination with zombies, and he candidly replied that they represent anxieties about a world in turmoil and about “chaos in the streets.” And this takes us back to the power of fearless multitudes. The phrase “we are no longer afraid” was one of the most recurring sentiments uttered during the 2011 insurrections of North Africa and the Middle East. Those were, indeed, multitudes that could no longer be “shocked and awed.” That is the affect that terrifies Brooks and that made him fantasize about a global campaign of indiscriminate state violence against rebellious hordes.
But the fear of the coming zombie insurrection may also be a tangential, not-fully-articulated recognition of the zombie-like conditions that capitalism has long cultivated at a planetary scale. After all, the global grinding machine depends on turning billions of people into passive, depoliticized bodies guided (like ticks and zombies) by just a few rudimentary affects: working, consuming, and obeying. Maybe what makes World War Z truly terrifying is the hidden recognition that the insurgent multitudes presented as lifeless hordes have woken up from their zombie nightmare to become unbearably human.
– Gastón Gordillo, “World Revolution Z,” Space and Politics, December 5, 2012
Regardless of your political leanings, watching the (extremely effective) trailer with Dr. Gordillo’s insights in mind makes for an exceptionally bracing philosophical experience full of endless epicycles of connotation and fiction-meets-real-world symbolism. See especially the iconic pyramid of zombie bodies scaling a wall near the trailer’s end.
The late and legendary director is currently getting a lot of attention. HBO recently aired the original movie The Girl, about Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren. The biographical movie Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins heavily made up in the title role, is currently playing in theaters everywhere. With this in mind, the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s weekly email alert have recalled to their readers’ collective attention a 1999 Chronicle article by Brandeis film professor Thomas Doherty titled “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children.” Doherty makes some points that are well worth considering, especially if he’s right about Hitchcock’s fundamental dominance over the collective sensibility of visual media culture. If we want to get a handle on the true nature of our current circumstance, then we may do well to recognize that the long shadow stretching over screen culture takes the shape of an iconic, portly profile.
The films are indelible, the surname is adjectival, and the silhouette of the portly profile is instantly recognizable. Nearly two decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock still towers over American cinema. Like other geniuses of the motion-picture medium — D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau — Hitchcock bequeathed not just a list of screen masterpieces but a lexicon for the language of film. Today, at the cineplex or on television, he calls the shots for the vistas of spectatorship: the dreamy, roving camera work; the unnerving jump cuts in editing; above all, the guilty pleasures of undetected surveillance, the eyeline match that locks the hungry voyeur to the object of the gaze.
… No other director from the classical Hollywood era — not John Ford, not Frank Capra, not even Charlie Chaplin — could attract such lapdog devotion from academe and audiences alike. It was not always so. For much of Hitchcock’s working career, critics regarded him as a glib hack — a gifted technician, perhaps, but too much the showman to warrant serious consideration … [But] shortly before his death in 1980, the British bestowed a knighthood. By then, Hitchcock had long since earned another title: the best-known, most-esteemed director on the planet.
To understand Hitchcock’s appeal — and why his private obsessions have become public property — is to appreciate the dominion of the motion-picture medium over the popular imagination. At times, Hitchcock seems to have exerted the final cut in the outlook of an incessantly optical, screen-centered culture.
– Thomas Doherty, “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 1999