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Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

To introduce today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading, here’s a description of a trend in academia that represents one of the most ironic of all ironies (as described by the excerpt), and also one of the most welcome and revealing developments of the present age:

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. . . . Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments — not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

. . . [V]ery slowly, there are signs that a [William] Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. . . . [Various academic and scientific disciplines are] exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies. The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical ‘beyond’, or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological — they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

. . . Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people’s experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.

— Jules Evans, “The New Science of Religious Experiences,” Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, September 6, 2013

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The Future of History (Foreign Affairs)
Francis Fukayama famously announced “the end of history” in 1989, after which all kinds of stunning new history swiftly transpired. Now — or rather, in January 2012, which is when this piece appeared — he’s wondering about a different kind of ending. In this piece (whose full text, alas, resides behind a paywall), he is inspired by the global financial crisis to ask whether liberal democracy, “the default ideology around much of the world today,” can survive the death of the middle class. Thanks go out to David Pecotic for the link.

The sad realisation that you’ve stopped reading books (Daily Life)
“Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books. . . . [I]ncreasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent..”

Traveling without seeing (The New York Times)
“I’m half a world from home [in Shanghai], in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment. . . . [We have an] unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real (Pacific Standard)
Max Weber’s classic early-twentieth-century sociological/economic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — which argued that Calvinist insecurity about one’s eternal destiny was the ironic and primary psychological and societal force that created modern capitalism — has always made sense to me personally, even though in recent years it has been fashionable to claim that Weber’s idea was mostly fanciful. Now here’s some news about several recent studies that indicate he really was onto something.

TED talks now routinely censoring scientists who share ideas on consciousness (Natural News)
The tone of this opinion piece is too wildly polemical for my taste (as is the author’s bizarre non sequitur of a tangent about racism), but the subject, the thesis, the supporting evidence, and the writer’s reasoning and conclusion are quite significant: “To really understand the desperation behind TED’s censorship and attempted suppression of ideas from people like [Graham] Hancock and [Rupert] Sheldrake, you first have to understand why the idea of consciousness is so incredibly dangerous to the mythology of modern-day science.” Read this in tandem with the item directly below.

Science vs. Pseudoscience (The Huffington Post)
Read this in tandem with the item directly above. It’s written by computational scientist, emeritus professor of mathematics, and former NASA researcher Dave Pruett, and it explores the epic pro-materialist/anti-consciousness bias of what we call mainstream science, using the Sheldrake and Hancock TED controversy as a starting point: “Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal. . . . Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.”

I Dream of Genius (Joseph Epstein for Commentary Magazine)
An excellent, concise history of the very idea of “genius,” including a look at its previous meaning in the form of the Socratic daimon and the Roman genius spirit and the way this was fatefully altered in Western cultural history: “The dividing line for our understanding of genius was the 18th century. In an emerging secular age, Descartes and Voltaire removed the tutelary-angel aspect from the conception. . . . Men were no longer thought to have genius but to be geniuses. . . . Genius, meanwhile, remains the least understood of all kinds of intelligence. The explanation for the existence of geniuses and accounting for their extraordinary powers have thus far eluded all attempts at scientific study. . . . I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones.”

Slash on His New Horror Film, Nothing Left to Fear (The Huffington Post)
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash has co-produced and written the score for a new horror film. Here he talks about the film and his lifelong relationship to the genre, with references to H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Night of the Living Dead, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He also comes off as quite reflective and well-spoken. Okay, mind officially blown.

Aleister Crowley and esoteric art open window to the sacred (The Sydney Morning Herald)
“[Crowley’s] landscapes and trance paintings were created as part of his occult practices and influenced by symbolism and expressionism, says curator Robert Buratti. . . . Buratti says esoteric art is usually part of a personal spiritual practice, often of a ritual or magical nature. ‘It fundamentally asks the artist to delve into their own existence, and the artwork functions like a diary of that ordeal or a prompt to delve even further,’ he says. He says esoteric artists such as [Rosaleen] Norton and James Gleeson, the father of Australian Surrealism, use techniques like meditative trance to find a deeper truth.”

A “shattering” musical experience, courtesy of Elew (Eric Lewis)

The Teeming Brain has been dormant for the past week-plus because of a change in my living circumstances — specifically, a move to a new town — that currently has me involved in a three-and-a-half hour daily commute to and from my regular job. I’m also searching for a new permanent house. I’m also searching for new employment. I’m also taking a grad class in American lit to gain some extra employment viability (my first grad work since earning my religion M.A. a decade ago) and am devoting many hours each day to reading and writing about Beat and hippie literature, the topic that, quite happily, turned out to be the course’s focus. I’m also in the final stages of (hopefully) securing and fairly lucrative online writing gig , and the process is demanding tremendous amounts of time and focus. So the Brain, while still Teeming, has been preoccupied with many other matters besides this blog.

At the moment, to fill the silence, and for your viewing and listening pleasure, here’s a transcendent musical moment for the day, or rather two of them, the second more purely so than the first:

In case you’re not famliar with Elew (Eric Lewis), this is from his official bio:

A modern day pop artist and musical revolutionary, piano iconoclast ELEW is making a substantial impression on the music world with a thunderous new style of playing: an inspired melding of ragtime, rock and pop that he calls Rockjazz.

ELEW has toured the world, recorded, and performed continuously with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Elvin Jones, Roy Hargrove, and Cassandra Wilson, among others. He won the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, his mesmerizing piano theatrics even then hinting at the new musical paradigm he would one day create.

. . . As he continues to gain notoriety with his blistering renditions of infectious rock and pop anthems by Coldplay, The Killers, Nirvana, and more, he has broken free of the rigidly defined boundaries of the traditional jazz world and ultimately given birth to something wholly original. His relentless innovation and disregard for the musical status quo has attracted the rapt attention and following of today’s biggest stars and companies, including Josh Groban, Dave Matthews, Naomi Campbell, Pete Yorn, Google, Fendi, Dolce and Gabbana, Mercedes Benz, and even the White House.

Here he is giving the performance by which most of America — me included — first became aware of him, on (of all things) last year’s season of America’s Got Talent:


And here he is three year earlier at a 2009 TED conference “set[ting] fire to the keys with his shattering rendition of Evanescence’s chart-topper, ‘Going Under.'” It’s one of the most amazing and overwhelming musical performances I’ve ever witnessed. If you plan to watch it, you should set aside 10 minutes when your full attention is available.

As the TED performance makes clear, the fact that Elew actually auditioned for America’s Got Talent in 2012 (and then dropped out of the competition to tour with Josh Groban) ranks up there with those rare moments like the one André Gregory recounted in My Dinner with André: “Life becomes habitual! And it is, today! I mean, very few things happen now like that moment when Marlon Brando sent the Indian woman to accept the Oscar and everything went haywire. Things just very rarely go haywire now. And if you’re just operating by habit, then you’re not really living.” Elew’s appearance on AGT seems like a moment when things went haywire, when the all-encompassing “skin” of modern pop mass media culture got briefly punctured.

TED meets The Wicker Man for “the worst TEDx in history”


So, like, what if you mashed up TEDx with The Wicker Man and topped it all with a heaping helping of The Blair Witch Project? Forget the fact that this sounds like an utterly bizarre hypothetical scenario, perhaps one that makes you expect someone to start singing “One of these things is not like the others,” and consider the following:

TEDxSummerisle appeared on Twitter last week, alongside a Tumblr account promoting the Summerisle TED conference. Since Summerisle is the imaginary Scottish island depicted in 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man, it’s not entirely surprising that it doesn’t appear on the official TED website. . . . At first, the TEDxSummerisle Twitter and Tumblr accounts seemed like a charmingly weird one-shot parody of TED culture. Both accounts were mostly inactive until March 15, at which point they began promoting the conference taking place on March 20—the spring equinox, as celebrated by the “real” inhabitants of Summerisle in The Wicker Man. TEDxSummerisle’s Tumblr even posted a worryingly real-sounding conference schedule, including talks such as “Historian Rose MacGreagor will reveal The Secret Science of the Ancients.”

But on March 20, all bets were off. Whoever created these parody accounts must have done some serious planning, because if Twitter is anything to go by, TEDxSummerisle is actually real. The official Twitter account gave every impression of livetweeting from an actual event, including photos of slides from the various talks. Not only that, but people on the #TEDxSummerisle tag were commenting on the talks as they happened.

— Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “TEDx Summerisle sounds real but isn‘t,” Daily Dot, March 21, 2013

What emerged out of this heady electronic brew was a social media-fied explosion of cultish madness and mayhem in the form of a “Performative Group Horror Fiction” (as Technoccult has called it). Thus:


There was, yes, ritual murder and much running through the woods:


And the whole thing culminated in a mass sacrificial death inside a giant, burning wicker man.

The people who threw the virtual event/story/party issued a public thanks afterward:

Thank you everyone who volunteered their time and labour to create this strange event, the worst TEDx in history. To be clear: this was a piece of experimental horror fiction. No TED attendees were harmed in the making of this event and we aren’t associated with either TED or either of the Wicker Man films.

TEDxSummerisle, March 20, 2013

You can read the entire saga, told as a sequentially archived list of tweets, at the TEDxSummerisle site linked above or at Storify. And I must admit: although I don’t usually go for this type of thing myself — as in this type of experimental fiction using the very form of Internet communication to flashy effect — I’ll be damned if the TEDxSummerisle shtick didn’t bowl me over. And yes, as I’m ashamed to admit, I thought it was real for the first, oh, fifty or so tweets that I read. I encourage all interested Teeming Brainers to check it out.

Thank you, by the way, to the fine folks at The Daily Grail for alerting me to all of this via today’s TDG News Brief.

Image: The Wicker Man UK release poster via Wikipedia

Recommended Reading 30

This week’s (exceptionally long and varied) offering of intellectual enrichment includes: an argument that the likely death of economic growth is the underlying theme of the current U.S. presidential election; thoughts on the rise of a real-life dystopia of universal algorithmic automation; an account of how the founder of TED became disgusted with the direction of the iconic ideas conference and created a new one to fulfill his original vision; reflections by a prominent physicist on science, religion, the Higgs boson, and the cultural politics of scientific research; a new examination of the definition, meaning, and cultural place of “pseudoscience”; a deeply absorbing warning about the possible death of the liberal arts, enhanced by the author’s first-person account of his own undergraduate liberal arts education at the University of Chicago; thoughts on the humanizing effects of deep literary reading in an age of proliferating psychopathy; a question/warning about the possible fate of literature as a central cultural-historical force in the grip of a publishing environment convulsed by epochal changes; an interview with Eric Kandel on the convergence of art, biology, and psychology; a new report from a psychiatric research project on the demonstrable link between creativity and mental illness; a career-spanning look at the works and themes of Ray Bradbury; and a spirited (pun intended) statement of the supreme value of supernatural and metaphysical literature from Michael Dirda. Read the rest of this entry