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Teeming Links – September 3, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading, here are passages from a hypnotic meditation on solitude, inner silence, reading, and the literary vocation by Rebecca Solnit, excerpted from her new book The Faraway Nearby:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

The_Faraway_Nearby_by_Rebecca_Solnit. . . To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.

. . . The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

. . . Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

— Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby,” Guernica, May 15, 2013

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Broken Heartland (Harper’s)
The looming collapse of agriculture on America’s Great Plains. “In the dystopian future that Teske imagines, the cycle of farm dissolution and amalgamation will continue to its absurdist conclusion, with neighbors cannibalizing neighbors, until perhaps one day the whole of the American prairie will be nothing but a single bulldozed expanse of high-fructose corn patrolled by megacombines under the remote control of computer software 2,000 miles away. Yet even this may be optimistic.”

Martin Luther King? Not an enemy in the world (The Independent)
“Funny how the kind of people who would have been totally opposed to the civil rights leader 50 years ago now want to claim him as their hero. . . . But the adoration of banks and big business displayed by most Western governments may not fit exactly with the attitude of their hero.”

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. (The New Republic)
In defense of the wild child. “[We have] crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. ‘Self-regulation,’ ‘self-discipline,’ and ’emotional regulation’ are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing ‘appropriate’ behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy.”

Legislators of the world (Adrienne Rich for The Guardian)
The late Adrienne Rich, writing in 2006 shortly after receiving the U.S. National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, argues that dark times, far from devaluing poets and poetry as irrelevant, underscore the crucial need for them. “[T]hroughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together — and more.”

Are We Alone in the Universe? (Thought Economics)
“In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind’s quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The_Silence_of_Animals_by_John_GrayJohn Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On ‘The Silence of Animals’ (Simon Critchley for Los Angeles Review of Books)
“There is no way out of the dream and what has to be given up is the desperate metaphysical longing to find some anchor in a purported reality. . . . Paradoxically, for Gray, the highest value in existence is to know that there is nothing of substance in the world. Nothing is more real than nothing. It is the nothingness beyond us, the emptiness behind words, that Gray wants us to contemplate. His is a radical nominalism behind which stands the void.”

Monument to ‘god of chaos’ mysteriously appears in front of Oklahoma City restaurant (New York Daily News)
“A heavy concrete block appeared on the front lawn of The Paseo Grill in Oklahoma City on Friday. Restaurant owners aren’t quite sure what to make of the monument or its reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional deity, Azathoth. . . . After news about the monument spread on KFOR, [restaurant owner Leslie] Rawlinson said she’s been getting calls from people who were excited about the find and from people who warned her about its dangers.”

Parallel worlds (Aeon)
“Where did this idea of parallel universes come from? Science fiction is an obvious source. . . . Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. . . . Surprisingly, however, the idea of parallel universes is far older than any of these references, cropping up in philosophy and literature since ancient times. Even the word ‘multiverse’ has vintage. . . . If human history turns on the tilt of the multiverse, can we still trust our ideas of achievement, progress and morality?”

Siri: The Horror Movie

This certainly explains a lot.  “Appletopia” indeed.

More on anti-intellectualism

I hope you all had a good week. As for me, I’m safely back from a brief doctor-oriented jaunt to Texas — specifically, to Austin and San Antonio — and can report that yes, it’s hot down there. And humid, at least in the two cities where my wife and I went. Imagine Dante’s Inferno set in the tropics. Here in Missouri we’re bracing for a new heat wave that’s forecast to settle over us for most of the coming week, and yet it’ll still be more pleasant than what I just encountered further south. So a word to the wise: Plan your Texas vacations for any time but the summertime.

But that’s not what I came here to write about today. Instead, I thought I’d share a bit more about anti-intellectualism, which I wrote about at length a week or two ago in my post “High tide for anti-intellectualism.” As I explained in that one, the rise of anti-intellectualism in America had become a live topic in several discussion threads at the Shocklines message boards, and had elicited such a lengthy response from me that I decided to post it here instead of there.

Well, the conversation at Shocklines progressed considerably further after I uploaded that post, with several people responding to things I wrote here. I posted my own responses to these responses, and eventually ended up writing so much that I’ve now decided it bears being published hereat The Teeming Brain. Of course, if you want to read the full, original discussion at the Shocklines boards, just click here.

Note that in the following transcript, the names of all participants besides me have been concealed to protect the innocent. I’ve quoted and in some cases summarized what other people said, and have followed these comments with my responses. Also be advised that if you haven’t read my original post about anti-intellectualism but you decide to dive right into the argument below, you might feel a bit disoriented, as if you had just walked into a room full of people where an impassioned conversation is already well underway.

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Anti-intellectualism, Part Deux

R.G. said, “I never know what to make of this issue. I cannot remember a time — or really even hearing of a time — in American history when intellectualism was so prevalent in America. I might have just had my head in a book though. I mean what’s the big problem? People can be intellectual or not, it’s never been a big concern to me. People live their lives as they live their lives.”

Regarding the first part of your comment, Neil Postman amply demonstrates in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the general intellectual character of the American populace during the 18th and 19th centuries was much more elevated than it is today or has been for the past fifty or hundred years. For example, during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods, political texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold so rapidly that booksellers could hardly keep them in stock. “In 1985,” writes Postman, “a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population that Paine’s book attracted.” Overall the book ended up selling maybe 400,000 copies. Writes Postman (quoting another author), “’Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book publisher today [that is, circa 1985] would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well.’ The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.” I’ll add that if Postman were writing the book today, he might also identify other media culture detritus like the finale of American Idol.

As he recounts in his book, European and British visitors to America during the 18th and 19th centuries were astonished at the widespread literacy and book hunger that was evident among the populace. It was a cultural circumstance that elevated writers to the status of celebrities. “When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842,” writes Postman, “his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson.”

Regarding the American intellectual character specifically, Postman refers to the famous political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 — the source of today’s Lincoln-Douglas debate format used in interscholastic competitions — and points out that they were staggeringly long affairs compared to today’s political debates. The audience’s “attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. . . . [T]hese audiences were made up of people whose intellectual lives and public business were fully integrated into their social world. . . . [T]he use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena.” Postman calls the type of mind that developed in America under the influence of books and lectures the “typographic” mind, which is characterized by that long attention span and that ability for complex reasoning. He also says the advent of the electronic communications media largely undid all this. “We might even say,” he writes, “that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.”

As for the second part of your comment, where you said it doesn’t matter whether people are intellectual or not since it’s a matter of personal choice, it sounds like you’re equating intellectuality with mere lifestyle preference, on the same level as deciding whether to live in a house or an apartment, or to join a bowling league or a book club. I think the issue at stake is much deeper than that. Sure, on one level, whether or not one reads books is akin to whether or not one plays tennis or enjoys big band music. It’s just a matter of personal taste and enjoyment. But anti-intellectualism refers to something much deeper: an attitude that is either hostile or apathetic toward serious reasoning and reflection, and that therefore produces a people who behave like barbarians when it comes to matters of serious, urgent importance. We’re not just talking about people who don’t like to read. We’re talking about people by the millions who generate a collective mindset, atmosphere, and outlook that can’t distinguish between truth and bullshit. And that has ramifications far beyond the realm of literature and the arts. Should America mount a military attack against Iran? Who should the next president be? What’s a good solution to the mounting oil and energy crisis? What is a valid response to the present conflict between Israel and Lebanon? How should we arbitrate and decide between the opposing sides of the screaming match that has overtaken America in the form of the culture war? When a people have been coarsened through the degradation and atrophy of their intellectual character, who’s to offer reasonable responses to any of these practical issues? We’re all infinitely more manipulable by our politicians, who are themselves products of this same intellectually blunted culture, when we’ve lost our ability to think, or worse, when we no longer realize that we aren’t thinking. And this demonstrates why what’s happening in America — or rather what’s already happened, since the game is over, the cultural turning is a matter of historical record, and anti-intellectualism has won — is so much more significant than mere personal taste or preference, since the question of whether one chooses to read serious books or grapple with serious ideas as a general pastime is distinct from the question of whether one is able to do these things when they’re necessary. Generally speaking, the American public has lost that ability. Our intellectual character has atrophied. So for us as a culture, authentic intellectuality is not even an option any more.

And anyway, who cares about any of that when America’s Got Talent!!!

Moving on to another comment, A.M., who created the Shocklines anti-intellectualism thread to begin with (yeah, it’s his fault!), said, “I think my original point was missed. I’m not wondering about what anti-intellectualism is, nor how pervasive it is among various elements in our society. I’m wondering why it is being categorized as a relative new and expansive phenomenon (a wave, as it were) when it’s been omnipresent during my lifespan. I mean, hell, when I was a kid ‘Carter Country’, ‘Sheriff Lobo’ and ‘The Love Boat’ all made it to prime time. Donny and Marie Osmond had a variety show, and so did The Captain and Tenille. Stupidity is nothing new.”

I’m hoping some of what I just wrote addresses some of your point. But yes, of course you’re right, such cultural detritus is always present. Nor is it always bad. The 70s had disco. The 60s had Gilligan’s Island and Green Acres. It was in the 60s that Newton Minnow, then head of the FCC, gave his famous speech in which characterized television as a “vast wasteland” based on its vapid programming. The speech is still well worth reading for its relevance. The 50s had Leave It to Beaver. The 40s had The Three Stooges. And so on.

The problem is that anti-intellectualism isn’t just a matter of dumb entertainment, but of a fundamental personal posture toward serious thought and reflection. The electronic mass communication revolution of the past century has done something to us in this area, the full effects of which we still can’t get a perspective on because they’re still accruing, and because we’re still living in the midst of it all

D.W. said, “Thank you Matt for the last bit. Its funny about Postman’s Amusing Ourselves; very relevent today but 25 years old already. (His Techopoly is also good)”

I agree that Amusing Ourselves to Death has only become more cogent over time. And thanks for recommending Technopoly. I’ve browsed it in bookstores and read excerpts online, and I know I’ll have to read it someday.

[D.W. also said some stuff in a separate post about education becoming a kind of customer-service driven enterprise in America. The following comments were in response to that.]

As for education becoming a customer service-based enterprise in a society centered around consumerism — yes, absolutely. And horrifically. I happen to think you’re dead-on. And I’m appalled to know that all the criticisms that could be made about this state of affairs, and that have been made, and that are being made, have a tendency simply to bounce off the very people who are being damaged by the whole thing, namely, America’s college and university students. The problem is that they simply can’t see how this state of affairs is bad, or even that higher education should be or could be conducted in any other way. This is a function of their involuntary narcissism, which has been bred into them from birth and which is the primary fact about their sense of self and world (cf. Jean Twenge’s recent study Generation Me, which promises to be as cogent as Postman’s many writings). Of course I myself am one of the first generation narcissists as described by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1979). So I can see these same forces at work in my own self, distorting my cognitive and emotional life and generally wreaking havoc with my happiness.

B.D. referred back to Postman’s claim about the inability of modern audiences to handle the long-form discourse of 19th century political debates when he said, “The typical C-Span junkie could probably handle 70 hours. As for our ‘grossly consumer-oriented society,’ it’s called capitalism– and it works.”

Yes, C-Spanners could surely endure that much talk. But exactly how well do they represent the mainstream in America right now? And what’s the level of talk they’d be imbibing on C-Span or any other channel?

Regarding your second point, capitalism is not consumerism. They’re distinctly different. Capitalism is an economic system. Consumerism is an ideology. Capitalism is simply one way to organize the economic life of a society. It happens to work very well, perhaps better than any other system, for moving goods and services around, and also for stimulating materially productive activity among a population. Moreover, as we have discovered in the American national experience (and as many economists and sociologists have explained both retroactively and prophetically), it is amazingly good at producing vast concentrations of wealth among a tiny economic elite of “winners.” Consumerism, by contrast, is a philosophy or attitude that elevates consuming, as in buying and owning things, to the status of Life’s Real Meaning. It holds that personal worth and a successful, happy life are measured and defined by material gain. Although capitalism provides what is probably the most perfect venue for consumerism, enabling it to expand explosively and take over the ideological environment like a spreading virus, it’s still a distinctly different thing. To ride roughshod over this distinction is to muddy the waters in a big way.

B.D. responded to the above words by saying, “I think that consumerism, as you’re describing it, is more a lack of ideas than anything else. But does that really mean people are getting dumber? Most people in the US used to be farmers– that changed dramatically with the rise of industry. Was this population better educated and informed than Americans today? I find that hard to believe.”

Consumerism is a lot more than a simple lack of ideas. It’s a positive driving ideology that has shaped and is continuing to shape American society into something it did not used to be. Moreover, it produces cannibalistic zombies who hang out in shopping malls.

The question of whether today’s American populace is or isn’t better educated and informed would seem to hinge on value-laden assumptions about the meaning of education and informedness. In the popular mind today, education is almost universally equated with being schooled in the mainstream educational institutions. Being informed is equated with having access to the mass media net through television, computers, and so on. The problem is, just a little investigation reveals that the schools aren’t really about educating in the authentic sense of the word, and being informed in the modern sense isn’t the same as having real knowledge.

For the first part, one can turn to such resources as John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education or even to far less radical books and articles for much proof and documentation that we’re all being hoodwinked by institutional pressures when we think the schools today are truly devoted to educating the population, or that American society is better educated than it was before the massive school reforms of the early and mid-twentieth century were instituted.

For the second part, I hope I’m not harping overmuch on a theme when I refer yet again to Neil Postman. In his 1990 speech “Informing Ourselves to Death,” Postman argued that ever since the advent of the “information age,” as defined by the rise to dominance of the electronic communications media and the computer, we’ve been drowning in a sea of information that we just don’t know what to do with. The universal cultural assumption is that more information will improve and even save us. Whatever the subject or problem, the assumption is that if you throw more information at it, do a controlled study, cross-reference multiple databases, survey the relevant literature, watch or make a documentary, find out what the experts have said — in short, if you’ll just get more information, i.e., make yourself more informed — you’ll magically arrive at the solution.

Postman does a great job of deflating this belief by asking rhetorical questions: “Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

“Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?”

Of course, Postman isn’t the only one who’s talked about this kind of thing. Theodore Roszak and his The Cult of Information come to mind.

Another way to look at it is this: We can all see that being ever more informed isn’t necessary valuable in and of itself, because American culture in the midst of this utopia of information and informedness is — to put it bluntly but accurately — profoundly fucked up in a way it’s never been before. Certainly, we’ve been screwed up in various serious ways in the past, but we’re currently foraging through unexplored territory.

So to answer that last part of your question — No, I don’t think people used to be better informed than they are now. But I don’t think we’re any better off than they were just because of our informedness. In fact, we’re worse off in a great many ways precisely because of this difference, and will continue to be so as long as we keep equating informedness, and also education as it’s currently practiced, with wisdom.

Incidentally, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m shouting at you, B.D.. I don’t even know for sure that the kind of assumptions I’m going on about were behind your question. This entire issue just touches upon things that interest me greatly, as I suppose is obvious.

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Okay, this is me talking again, in the present tense, right as I’m about to post this to my blog. If the anti-intellectualism conversation progresses any further at Shocklines, I’ll probably share more of it here. Need I add that what I wrote above signaled the end of that particular discussion thread? This doesn’t surprise me and I really can’t blame other people for abandoning it, since Shocklines is primarily about horror entertainment, which made the whole conversation off-topic anyway, and also since I have a long history, almost amounting to a kind of legacy, of seizing upon topics that interest me and then pounding them into the ground so very thoroughly that everybody else grows sick of them. I’ve ended many an online discussion with my long-form comments. I certainly hope I haven’t further perpetuated the beating-the-dead-horse phenomenon via the present post. But then again it may not matter, because hey, after all, it’s my teeming brain we’re talking about here.