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Do you believe in the paranormal?

Eclipse_Christopher_Colombus

Christopher Columbus fills the New World natives with fear and awe by predicting a lunar eclipse in 1504.

Over at Thomas Ligotti Online, someone has created a discussion thread that asks whether people believe in the paranormal. This has spawned an interesting conversation. It has also prodded me to reflect on the very terms of the question, as it my wont.

If we’re talking about belief in the paranormal, then what are the standards for normal relative to which we judge anything in theory or reality to be “para” that? If we’re talking about belief in the supernatural (which is just the older name for what was rebranded as paranormal a century or so ago), then what are the standards for natural relative to which we judge anything to be “super” that?

Once we’ve isolated and identified those standards, then it’s necessary to inquire about their source. Where do our standards for “normal” and “natural” come from? Are these standards defensible? What philosophical assumptions do they embody and proceed from? Are those assumptions themselves defensible? Our entire current framework for talking and thinking about these things flows from the great revolution in consciousness that was the birth and cultural triumph of material science in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Certain types of knowledge and experience were isolated from the totality of experience making up the human sensorium (both inner and outer), and were elevated and lionized as being exclusively accurate and allowable, while other types of knowledge and experience were disallowed and disavowed. What was — and is — the warrant for that? And in what forms might those disallowed and disavowed aspects of the totality of human experience return to confront us from time to time?

My own long-developing view is that reality as a whole is far more varied and strange than anyone, working within any paradigm or worldview whether old or new, has ever been able to conceive or is intrinsically capable of conceiving. We effectively create the paranormal / supernatural when we create a sacred canopy (to borrow Peter Berger’s famous metaphor) of cosmic meaning for ourselves both individually and collectively, to serve as an orienting framework for our experience of existence. Whenever rents in the canopy’s fabric are made by encounters with aspects of reality that we have not incorporated into this collective cosmos, we’re confronted by things for which we have no name and no context. We cannot readily handle them, process them, integrate them within our framework of meaning. These literal anomalies (things for which we have no name or category) inherently appear threatening, horrifying, and often fascinating all at once. Then we start to have conversations and arguments about what they might mean or whether they even really exist.

Obviously, by definition, such an anomalous occurrence might well be something as relatively mundane as a cross-cultural encounter. The arrival of Columbus in the New World was a paranormal event for the people who already lived there. A paranormal event doesn’t have to mean seeing a ghost, suffering a paranormal abduction, experiencing spirit possession, witnessing a feat of levitation, encountering the Mothman, experiencing supernatural healing (or wounding), receiving knowledge telepathically, or anything else of the classically paranormal sort. But it may well mean such things. My own more-than-suspicion is that the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, Charles Fort, and John Keel were right about the basic nature of things and our fundamental relationship to it all qua our combined biological, psychological, spiritual, and ontological status as human beings. There are more things in heaven and earth, as it were.

(It appears that the full introduction to my paranormal encyclopedia is readable through Google Books preview. The last part of it, where I summarize a new paradigm regarding the paranormal that has emerged out of religious studies, anthropology, and related fields in the past few years, pretty much states my own position in more detail and different terms than what I’ve written here.)

RELATED READING:

Image:  L’éclipse de lune de Christophe Colomb. by Camille Flammarion (Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen King on the thing under the bed

There have been moments of insight in Stephen King’s work that legitimately qualify as sublime. This widely quoted passage from his foreword to Night Shift is one of them:

At night, when I go to bed I am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but . . . I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures: vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.

King surely intended this as a witty illustration of the irrational or non-rational fears embedded in human psychology that account for our fascination with and responsiveness to supernatural horror stories. But I think it can also be taken as referring to much more. For those who are inclined toward meditation, inner work, and exploring the boundaries of the real — including, pointedly, those episodes and encounters of a Fortean or daimonic nature during which the nominally unreal becomes real, and also vice versa — I’m inclined to think those last two sentences could serve as a superb Zen koan.

The numinous, subversive power of art in an artificial age: Talking with J. F. Martel

 

Reclaiming_Art_in_the_Age_of_Artifice-by_J_F_Martel

Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.

Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:

MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?

J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.

MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?

JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.

FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice

Teeming Links – July 18, 2014

FireHead

William Binney, the ex-NSA code-breaker and whistleblower, says the NSA’s ultimate goal is total population control: “Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a ‘totalitarian mentality’ that was the ‘greatest threat’ to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century.”

“New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.” (This explains a lot about an increasing number of my daily interactions with people who literally cannot maintain interpersonal attention for more than 30 seconds.)

There just has to be a Ligottian corporate horror story buried somewhere in this: Financial Times reports that businesses are increasingly using big data, including social media footprints, plus complex algorithms to make hiring decisions.

You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting ever harder to make a career of it: “A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the [publishing] ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.”

Steven Poole says that, whereas the disciplined cultivation of spontaneous, effortless action along the lines of Taoism’s wu wei is a great thing, the counterfeit cult of consumer “spontaneity” encourages psychological and social chaos and numbs us to morally reprehensible sociopolitical conditions.

John Michael Greer lays out, in his characteristic elegant prose and with his characteristic lucidity, a vision of the deindustrial dark age that may await us.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues cogently that science, philosophy, and the humanities in general all need each other: “Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view.”

Astrophysicist, author, and NPR science blogger Adam Frank reflects on the “science vs. religion” debate in light of Eastern philosophy.

If you “hear voices,” is it brain disease, communication from discarnate spirits, or perhaps the very voice of God? Tanya Luhrmann and three co-authors of a new study observe the profound impact of cultural assumptions on the subjective experience of voice hearing.

The ancient history of dream interpretation points to humanity’s insatiable hunger for the divine. For the ancients, every slumber held the promise of the numinous.”

Speaking of dreams, a recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping finds that psychedelic mushrooms put the brain in a waking dream state, with profound worldview-altering effects: “[T]he mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

David Luke reflects on psychedelics, parapsychology, and exceptional human experience: “Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound.” (I’m happy to report that David will be contributing an article on the relationship between drugs and the paranormal to my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Finally, it looks like my adolescence (and also a significant portion of my twenties) wasn’t so egregiously misspent after all, since Dungeons and Dragons has now influenced a generation of writers: “As [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot] Díaz said, ‘It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.’ ”

 

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

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

FireHead

MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

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Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word comes from novelist and National Book Award winner Richard Powers, speaking to The Believer magazine in 2007 about the unique value of reading — and specifically, reading fiction — in helping to “deliver us from certainty” during an age when a great deal of evil arises from a surplus of that empathy-less state of mind:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

. . . It seems to me that evil . . . might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others. . . . I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

. . . Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story. A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

— “Interview with Richard Powers,” The Believer, February 2007

(Hat tip to Jesús Olmo for calling this interview to my attention.)

* * *

Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Criminal Charges Related to 2008 Crisis (Reuters – The Huffington Post)
“Five years on from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the debate over how to hold senior bank bosses to account for failures is far from over, but legal sanctions for top executives remain a largely remote threat.”

Online Security Pioneer Predicts Grim Future (LiveScience)
“One of the creators of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption believes that the future of Internet security will see everyday users getting the short end of the stick. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has likely compromised SSL, one of the foremost methods of Internet encryption. ‘There will be a huge pressure to catch up to NSA, and where this leads is not pretty.'”

CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ (Wired)
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published a first-of-its-kind assessment of the threat the country faces from antibiotic-resistant organisms. ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era,’ Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a media briefing. ‘And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.'”

Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School (The New York Times)
Truly bothersome information on the way the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves into a walled-off elite at America’s premier business school. Sign of the times. Culture replicating itself from above and below.

The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness (AlterNet)
“Coercion — the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance — is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. . . . [The partnership between Big Pharma and Big Money] has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.”

Science Confirms The Obvious: Pharmaceutical Ads Are Misleading (Popular Science)
“The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to market their products directly to consumers — in commercials like those cute little Zoloft ads and all those coy Viagra spots. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new study finds that when over-the-counter and prescription drug companies make commercials trying to sell the public on their product, they’re not always the most truthful.”

Reparative Compulsions (The New Inquiry)
“Social media works similarly [to gambling casinos], aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. . . . Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.”

Stephen King: True compassion lies at the heart of horror (The Telegraph)
“Stephen King’s books convey terror through character in a way that films never can. . . . This makes King different from the horror writers of a previous generation — Dennis Wheatley with his wicked aristocrats or H P Lovecraft with his luxuriant, ornate prose.”

David Attenborough: “I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real” (Radio Times)
Hat tip to Matt Staggs at Disinfo. “The world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster says he thinks the creature of Himalayan legend — which has a North American cousin known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch — could be much more than a myth.”

Unholy mystery (Aeon)
How fictional detectives, in the wake of the cultural religious disillusionments following the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, came to take the place of priests and shamans in the modern secular mind.

Brazilian Believers of Hidden Religion Step out of Shadows (NPR)
On the new and increasing mainstream cultural status of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, which are based on the experience of spirit possession, and which are coming forward for the first time to assert a claim to above-board political, economic, and social power. “Followers believe in one all-powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Individual initiates have their personal guiding deity, who acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of Marvels (Joscelyn Godwin for New Dawn)
“The museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in the Jesuit College of Rome was an obligatory stop for high-class tourists, from John Evelyn the diarist to Queen Christina of Sweden, but they never knew what to expect. . . . By the time of his death Kircher’s world view was already under demolition by the Scientific Revolution.”

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise (PBS Newshour)
“In an in-depth profile of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, Foreign Policy reveals that one of the ways the general endeared himself to lawmakers and officials was to make them feel like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise from the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

Educating the Potential Human — Skepticism, Psychical Research and a New Age of Reason (David Metcalfe for Disinfo)
“Whatever one’s personal beliefs on the subject of anomalous experience, it seems a bit blind not to realize that much of the heated conversation on the topic has nothing to do with actual understanding, and plays directly into the hands of profiteers of one sort or another, even down to the most mundane level of ego stroking experts on both sides who use the lack of clarity in the situation to support their personal brands.”

A New Story of the People (Charles Eisenstein)
A brilliant portion of Eisenstein’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, set to a compelling video complement, that explores the process of changing the world by changing our narrative about it. “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.”

Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

 

A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

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Book Review: ‘Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History’ by Richard Smoley

NOTE: This is a longer version of a review that also appears at New York Journal of Books. The book itself was published just today.

Supernatural_by_Richard_Smoley

Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, by Richard Smoley. Tarcher/Penguin. Published February 7, 2013. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

There’s a handful of writers working today whose books about esoteric religious, spiritual, and philosophical subjects bridge the divide between the small niche audience devoted to such things in earnest and the wider popular audience that has a casual interest in them and occasionally reads occult conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code and spiritual self-help books like The Power of Now. Prominent representatives of this group include Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Patrick Harpur (Daimonic Reality), Victoria Nelson (Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural), Gary Lachman (Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality), and Mitch Horowitz (Occult America).

Richard Smoley also numbers among them, and with the publication of Supernatural, a book that looks to be aimed squarely at the readers inhabiting this middle ground, Mr. Smoley extends his appeal and his considerable expertise in these areas to a wider audience than he has previously reached. Over the past three decades he has built a stellar reputation as an authority on the alternative, esoteric, and occult streams of Western religion and philosophy. Trained in classics and philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, he rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as a writer for, and eventually the editor of, the now-legendary magazine Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. He then turned to writing books, beginning with 1999’s Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (co-authored with Jay Kinney, publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis) and continuing with additional books on Nostradamus, Gnosticism, and esoteric Christianity, including, perhaps most prominently, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.

In Supernatural, Mr. Smoley returns to the broad-based, encyclopedia-oriented approach of Hidden Wisdom by surveying a wide variety of trends and traditions in sixteen separate essays, most of them previously published elsewhere (the majority in New Dawn, the long-running, Australia-based magazine about esoterica and the paranormal). But he does so in a more personal and conversational tone that makes the book more accessible to all types of readers than some of his previous work has been. He has always written beautifully smooth and lucid prose, and has always presented complex, profound, and subtle ideas with striking ease, but here he adds to that elegance a casual, informal tone that generates a sense of simply hanging out with the author and listening to him talk extemporaneously from his insights, experiences, and vast store of knowledge. 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