Overweening Generalist


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Free Will: The Law, Philosophy, and Microbes

It must have been around age 15 when I first encountered "the problem" of "free will." What a kick that  some Greeks had said that everything reduces to atoms, and every billiard-ball atom in the universe impinges on every other billiard ball - including the ones in my "mind" and muscles - and so there's no free will. For a long time I thought it was sophistry - after I learned what that word meant.

At some point I started reading on "free will" and realized I could continue to read and think on it my entire life; there's quite a lot of ink already spilled on the issue. If it's an issue at all to you, that is. Because almost all Westerners assert their wills are free. Doesn't it just seen like you decided to read Overweening Generalist today, rather than skip it? You WILLED it, and it was so. And now I'm already boring you. I'll try to be amusing to keep you from "willing" your way on to the next of 23 zappazillion other possible Netpages.

I've found that there have been times since I was 15 - a long-assed time ago, friends! - when I thought like William James about the "free will vs. determinism" Big Q: To paraphrase James: Of course the world and everything is determined. And yet our wills are free. A sort of "free-willed determinism" must be the run of things. It was lines like this that won James lots of "man-in-the-street" fans; his academic colleagues? Not so much.

In other words, for James it's a tired subject. We've been debating it for 2500 years and can't come to a consensus, so let's just change the conversation, aye?

But then I'll get into periods when the topic is really hot. For example, I have mostly thought arguments against free will were hilarious, deep-down. Their adherents may have been dead serious. But really? You, Philosopher, did not have a choice but to write this rather dry piece of argumentation just so I could not choose to read it? (And yet I did read it...did I choose to or not? If it was so "dry" why didn't I choose to do something else? Clearly, there are more pleasurable things. Like masturbation...which is a lot like what I've just read from Mr. Philosopher.) Or: what if he's right?

I've spent entire weeks trying to remind myself there's no "free will." Not even for Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Neil was confused when he wrote that, probably under the spell of a ditzy libertarian. When I did or said something I later thought was ignorant I gave myself a break: It's just the way Things are. To borrow from William James again, I found this a delightful way to take a "moral holiday." I found that when I or others did kind things for others, it was probably a nice grace built into the fabric of existence. Others who acted like jerks couldn't help themselves. My stress levels seemed to dip. I'd constantly catch myself thinking in the "free will-ist" mode and remind myself that that was not allowed until next Monday, or whenever.

Being some sort of agnostic hedonist with Buddhistic and Taoist tendencies, I couldn't see this thinking linked to Judeo-Xtian ideas, although clearly: the Free Will v. Determinist worldviews (which I will from here on out refer to as The Main Event) have had huge play in theology and law. In Law, we apparently have a very very strong need for people to be blameworthy, and therefore what's commonly called the compatibilist view holds sway. Things are determined, but there's enough room for moral choices, unless you were coerced, or drugged, or not "of sound mind" and many other very interesting hedges...like maybe you murdered top public officials at point-blank cold blood because you were addicted to Hostess Twinkies, an addiction to which was symptomatic of a non compos mentis-level of depression.

In 1962 Strawson had the audacity to argue for a particularly hardcore compatibilist position: let's say you are a sober, healthy bus driver and a child runs out in front of your bus. You have no time to react. You hit the kid and he dies. Strawson thought - if I read him correctly - that the consequences of your actions are enough to hold you culpable. Forget about any extenuating circumstances. If I have free will of the kind I hope I have, I hold Strawson in contempt for a sort of robotic punitive dickishness all too common among fascist Law and Order types. (Funny: one week I decided to adopt a hardcore No Free Will and I'd read Strawson: he couldn't help it. Poor guy. Oh well, it's part of some larger, Weirder Plan?)

                                                    Dr. Samuel Johnson

You've all heard/read the bit about Boswell relating to Dr. Johnson about Bishop Berkeley's views about "reality": we can only have experiences of things, we cannot know, do not experience Abstract Nouns. According to Berkeley, you're having an experience reading this rather prolix blogger write about The Main Event on a "computer." That's about all you can say about it. You see the computer, the words. You can feel the computer. You cannot infer about anything else "out there" that's causing you to have further abstracted notions about what might be going on; "God" put all those interesting ideas in your head. The sense data came from Him too. Anyway: Johnson hears this and it pisses him off and he kicks a rock and says to Boswell, "I refute him thus!" Supposedly Johnson hurt his foot, took the pain to illustrate that things really are "out there" and he chose to demonstrate and feel it. Guerrilla ontologist Berkeley never meant to rouse ire in a dude like Johnson, but Johnson seems to have taken it as a challenge to his own free will, and the will to believe other stuff is really "out there." Like things to kick by the side of the road. I see merit in both writers' ideas. Johnson's "I refute him thus!" and the kick has been referred to by wiseacres of much reading as argumentum ad lapidem. I hear this fallacy in bars all the time.

These folks see The Main Event as skewed toward determinism and so are reluctant to blame. However, libertarian incompatibilists see free will as far more important than whatever there is that determines us (genes, history, our upbringing, environment, etc), so they pretty much reject determinism and do find others blameworthy. A few incompatibilists who do not find people blameworthy are pre-determinists of the olde fashioned kind: atoms and billiard balls and all that: we cannot possibly trace the contours of causation. Do you know why you have a headache? How memories are formed? How vision is processed? Do you have access to how a suite of genes are turning on right now, coding for proteins, turning other genes off, modulating others like a rheostat?

Far more incompatibilists are "skeptical" ones: a shorthand for them: we don't have enough free will to find others blameworthy. As a general reader, it seems more biologist-types are going this way. My favorite thinker who's an incompatibilist is the eminent neurophysiologist and baboonologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. The eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett claims 59% of philosophers in 2009 were compatibilists, according to a Philpapers survery. He says only 12% of philosophers were determinists.

                                         Barbara Fried of Stanford law; she's a 
                                         strong proponent of skeptical incompatibility

Isaac Bashevis Singer, 20th c. novelist, was asked about whether he believed in free will. He replied yes, he had no choice. Which reminds me of an old joke. Think about the eagle, frog and truck driver as thinking they were executing their actions freely:

Moses, Jesus, and a bearded old man are playing golf. Moses drives a long one, which lands on the fairway but rolls directly toward the pond. Moses raises his club, parts the water, and the ball rolls safely to the other side. 

Jesus also hits a long one toward the same pond, but just as it's about to land in the center, it hovers above the surface. Jesus casually walks out on the pond and chips one onto the green.

The bearded man's drive hits a fence and bounces out onto the street, where it caroms off an oncoming truck and back onto the fairway. It's headed directly for the pond, but it lands on a lily-pad, where a frog sees it and snatches it into his mouth. And then an eagle swoops down, grabs the frog, and flies away. As the eagle and frog pass over the green the frog drops the ball out of its mouth and the ball lands in the cup for a hole-in-one. 

Moses turns to Jesus and says, "I hate playing with your dad."

Why I'm Once Again On a Kick Over The Main Event
It has to do with the literally hundreds of articles I've been reading over the past year on how bacteria in our gut has been strongly linked to debilitating dis-ease and how those microbes can influence our thinking. Our microbiome in general (bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes) outnumber "our" own cells 10-1. Peer-reviewed, well-designed studies have linked our microbiome to obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, colon cancer, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, lymphoma, malnutrition, hypertension, liver cancer, psoriasis, even ear wax. Whether we were born vaginally or by Caesarian seems to have an enormous influence on our microbiome, and therefore immune system and therefore general health. All of this makes me think 1.) In scientific endeavors, we as a species, hardly know anything so far. 2.) This stuff is very exciting and offers real hope for the cure or alleviation of lots of human suffering, but the complexity is staggering. 3.) If all of this stuff is true, it has bewilderingly fascinating implications for Qs surrounding The Main Event, no? One thing most of us can say: "Boy, my gut bacteria have really done a number on me!...I just don't know to what extent, to what part of 'me'...and why. I don't even know all that much about how bacteria work."

                                                Toxoplasmosis cycle

Briefly: A Few Other Mitigators
Enforced miseducation. Public Relations and advertising. Kahneman and Tversky's uncovering of a litany of unconscious biases in human minds, even the best of those minds, including these two last named, one of who won a Nobel Prize. Side effects, TV, social media, memes, possibly quantum indeterminism.

Sounds Like Science Fiction: Toxoplasmosis gondii
A Czech biologist named Jaroslav Flegr, sitting in then-Soviet-controlled Czechoslvakia, was reading a Richard Dawkins book. Dawkins wrote how a flatworm gets into an ant and hijacks its nervous system by altering a protein. When the temperature drops, ants normally go underground. But a zombified ant instead heads to the top of a blade of grass, where its mandibles clamp hard onto the tip of the blade of grass, until it's eaten by a cow or a sheep. In the ungulate's stomach, the flatworm is in the perfect environment to reproduce. Flegr started thinking about his own behavior and the ant's around 1990. He knew some things about Toxoplasmosis gondii, a single-celled protozoa that cats carry in their bodies. Flegr remembered walking out into heavy traffic and didn't jump out of the way if cars honked. He had openly criticized the communists running Czechoslovakia, which could have led him to be imprisoned, but he was lucky. When studying in Turkey, there was sectarian violence and gunshots, but he stayed calm, to the surprise of his colleagues and even himself.

Flegr wondered if he had been infected by Toxo and if it caused this odd behavior. Luckily the Charles University at Prague, where he'd recently gotten hired, had just developed a superior test for Toxo: he had it.

It turns out around 10-20% of Unistatians are infected with Toxo. 30-40% of Czechs are infected. In France: up to 55%, probably due to eating undercooked meat. Billions worldwide are infected with it. It gets into your brain - I know this sounds like a Lovecrafty psychedelic horror story, but it's true! - and hibernates there, causing cysts. Now: take a guy like Flegr: he's not all that worked up about it, and he has it and knows as much about it as anyone. So it's not that horrible. But it is pretty effing weird...

Here's what Toxo does in your brain, according to the latest research: it forms little cysts inside certain neurons, quietly altering connections. If you watched the Sapolsky video I linked to above, you've heard a lot of this already. Toxo alters those parts of the brain that respond to dopamine and it just so happens its primary actions on human behavior have to do with the basics, the primal circuits: sexual arousal, fear, and anxiety. The protozoan Toxo knows exactly what to do to ramp up production of dopamine, causing pleasure-seeking: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Toxo alters trust in others and how outgoing we are, and this is sex-specific: men become more introverted and suspicious while women become more extroverted and trusting. Isn't this the WEIRDEST stuff? Toxo alters our response to scents. In lab rats infected with Toxo, they loved the smell of cat urine, which is supposed to scare the hell out of them. Toxo-infected rats become easy prey for cats...which is just what Toxo wants! Be aware of the kitty litter box! Wash your vegetables very well, cook your meat well-done, try not to drink water that might be contaminated with cat feces. (Difficult in much of the Third World, but they have other problems.) Toxo is linked to car crashes, suicides, and schizophrenia.

Car crashes? Yea: people just aren't as vigilant on the road with Toxo on the brain. Toxo-infected folks are 2 1/2 times more likely to be in a car accident. People don't mean to be bad drivers; they just sorta don't care all that much behind the wheel. Lapses of concentration, possibly an increased propensity to go into bizarre daydreams? Sapolsky thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are probably all sorts of "puppetmaster" microbes we haven't identified yet. Sapolsky also says the damage done by Toxo to drivers is not as bad as drunk or texting drivers. To make the roads safer, deal with drunks and texters first. Just the fact that a protozoa can get into your brain and influence us in such intimate ways: ain't life grand?

How does all this alter your ideas about The Main Event?

The world of biology is thronged with stories about insects, fish and crustaceans becoming "zombified" by some other organism with its own plans.

Besides Toxo, Sapolsky the incompatibilist thinks we can't come to grips with not having free will, and we suffer for it. For him, every move we make is part of an intricate cascade of genetic, cellular, cultural and personal factors. Toxo is just one more Damned Thing.

                                    Public intellectual and philosopher Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett
I'll give a compatibilist the last word here. I find his arguments nuanced but I also find him arrogant. He thinks neurobiology is no place to think about The Main Event. He rejects quantum indeterminism because we must look for explanations for a "free will worth wanting" at a higher level of complexity, a more human-leveled explanatory scheme. For Dennett, we are indeed enmeshed in causality and yet we are autonomous free willists. One narrative he goes for comes from John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games: when we take an intentional stance we have a theory of mind: we know what others know and know they know we know X, Q, Z, etc. On this level, we are free agents who can plan for possible exigencies, make rational decisions and be held accountable. He's used animals and plants as examples of living things that cannot possibly have the intentional stance. But some of the stuff I've read about plant  and animal behavior lately? I wonder if Dennett is guilty of not reading enough outside his own world of Expertise. I do like this passage from him, from an article in Prospect magazine, on our topic:

What people seem to want - though articulating this idea causes them to backtrack in embarrassment - is to be a sort of god, perched somehow on the edge of the physical universe, neither a part of it or remote from it, able to interfere "at will" with its ongoing streams of causation, without at the same time being caused by these very streams to choose which of the options to favor.

Thanks for reading this bloated rant...but maybe you had no choice?

just a few sources that were used here:
Dennett's review of Sam Harris's book Free Will, (2012):

Dennett's article from Prospect, in which he champions fellow philosopher Alfred Mele:

In case you missed the link: Sapolsky's 25 min video-talk on Toxo:

Kathleen McAuliffe's 2012 article on Flegr from Atlantic:

Discussion about UC Davis study about how random fluctuations in the brain may allow for free will:

Barbara Fried's "Beyond Blame," makes a case for abandoning blame:

Sci-Am: "Is Free Will An Illusion?":

"The Body's Ecosystem," The Scientist, Aug 2014:

microbiome superstar Rob Knight's TED talk:

"Turd transplant leads to rapid weight gain and obesity" Boing Boing:

"The E. Coli Made Me Do It": gut microbes and human behavior, New Yorker:
"Do Gut Bacteria Rule Our Minds?":
"Can Microbes in the Gut Influence the Brain?":

"The Super-Abundant Virus Controlling Your Gut Bacteria":

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar..., by Cathcart and Klein

The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Haunting Frame For Generalist Intellectual Types in 2015

The optimist says, "The glass is half full."
The pessimist says, "The glass is half empty."
The rationalist says, "The glass is twice as big as it needs to be."

A general problem for insatiable readers and writers of journal articles, non-fiction books, novels, poetry, sociologies of science, histories of ideas, essays on arts, rants and diatribes by marginalized figures, economic ideologies, radical thinkers, etc: Let's let this dude sum it up for me:

"It requires in these times much more intellect to marshal so much greater a stock of ideas and observations...Those who should be guides for the rest, see too many sides to every question. They hear so much said, and find that so much can be said, about everything, that they feel no assurance about anything."

This is John Stuart Mill, in his diary, 1854. And for Robert Anton Wilson fans, how many Jesuses ago was this? 32? 64? 256? Oh wait: forgot to carry the three....several thousand J ago, arithmetically in fact.

                                         Emile Zola, apparently in self-portrait, trying to
                                         come off as a magician of some sort?

It's fairly well-known that, for a long time, intellectuals on the "humanities" side have wanted to foment revolution, and most-times a non-violent one. Some on the technical intelligentsia side have too. And the "intellectual" as well-known category traces only back, according to a popular intellectual riff, to the Dreyfus Affair. Emile Zola - a damned novelist so what the hell gives him the right to question?! - led the charge against the French military, and was hounded out of the country. But Zola and his fellow "Dreyfusards" were right: Dreyfus was innocent, and being persecuted largely for being a Jew. This story was resolved only 109 years ago.

And while the technical intelligentsia - specialist intellectuals in the physical sciences, to be brief - are a quite young group, maybe only 140 years old, the Humanist intellectuals go back perhaps 3000 years, if you include religious radicals, or just Old Men Who'd Read Everything.

The Haunting Frame
The dream of making a war-less, border-less and much more equitable and human political state of affairs perhaps had a window, briefly open, now closed. How so?

Well, for one thing, the class of State-supported scientific intellectuals have won. Oh sure, the economy is bad enough that even their newly minted PhDs are having trouble finding work, but it's nothing like what's going on for the Humanities PhDs. (Bing "adjunct professors") Moreover, another quote to suit my dire thesis:

"In this tremendous contrast with previous revolutions one fact is reflected. Before these latter years, counterrevolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers, which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modern, the most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over."

That's Franz Borkenau, from his 1938 study of the Spanish Civil War. He's talking the military and police state apparatus, which will, it seems, always protect the interests of what's now called "the 1%." He had no idea about digital technology or the NSA, much less television. Even the Stasi were far in the offing.

What Were the Functions of Generalist Intellects?
I've seen a lot of answers, from the New York intellectuals themselves talking about their own powers and knowledges. I've read the lamentations in Russell Jacoby's book The Last Intellectuals. I've read just about everything Chomsky has to say about how his colleagues have used their knowledge and privilege to throw in their lot with the Owners of the country. (In this he's a lot like what Julien Benda said about his own class - in 1927! - in his The Treason of the Intellectuals. For those who see the irony here and like to savor it, please do so.) There is no end of books on intellectuals, if only because this "New Class" is so zealously protective of its own rights and privileges.

Whether from New York or London or Paris, or Hollywood's Hitler-inspired Jewish intellectual diaspora, or wherever else, a literate public saw how ideas hung together, how stylish sentences about important matters could revivify the mind, how discrimination among ideas could take place, how a writer could make something that you thought was not interesting was au contraire: quite a kick. Via wide-ranging intellect, the idea of a vibrant and informed popular culture was possible.

I think this may be all over. Not that there aren't still overweening weirdos who live for this stuff. But this one has to get All This off his chest. Possibly because I hope I'm wrong. Maybe because it's some sort of misery loving company thing. Or, you just like reading bookish jagoffs throw their erudite hissy fits; my misery loves your company. Could be I'm in a 30 Year Funk. Maybe I'm like the guy who just realized he got rooked by mega-unwisely investing in a chain of Foto-Mat booths, nationwide, in this year Our Lady of Eris, 2015.

It could be that, via some sort of magickal working, I confess my haunting frame here - many of you may be well ahead of me on this, I know, I know - so that it will ameliorate things and somehow cause them to go in the opposite direction. But this last "maybe"? I don't feel it. I know the words but not the tune. It feels flat. More's the pity.

Know Thy Enemy/Due Diligence
For me, it was a few solid years of feverish reading of the rise of Public Relations, and tangentially related areas. Such as the 1947 National Security State, which has never left us, only gets stronger, a Behemoth of untold proportions, one of its favorite moves being to make Itself invisible to almost everyone, all the while suctioning the sustenance from its own citizenry.

The signal fact about public relations experts - who Antonio Gramsci called "masters of legitimation" - is that they were so out in the open about what they did and why. Now? Not so much. But check out Harold Lasswell - or is it Edward Bernays? my notes are old and unclear; I had no idea I'd be blogging, and indeed, Internet wasn't really a Thing when I crashed on PR - anyway:

"The spread of schooling did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled a new technique of control, largely through propaganda..." He goes on to say this is the best means of controlling the proles because it's cheaper than bribery or outright violence.

It took a long time for me to not be struck by how arrogant these Mandarin intellectual officials were, or how gleefully subservient they were to the Captains of Industry and War. (And the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce, et.al) I was stunned by the disparity between what experts in legitimation for the Owners of the country think versus  all the patriotic "we're all Americans" "in this together" and "freedom" and "democracy"hokum I got in my own indoctrination camps (9AM to 3PM public schooling, minimum of 12 years served).

Some of these pricks just gave it all away. You think Lasswell (Bernays?) was crass, check out one of the fathers of the Neo Conservative movement, Irving Kristol:

"It has always been assumed that as the United States became more managerial, its power more imperial, and its population more sophisticated, the intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority -- would, perhaps, even be incorporated en masse into a kind of 'power elite.'" (origin of quote unknown to me due to bad note-taking, but found again in George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?, p.7)

If I had to pick two of the most egregious of these legitimators of State power today in Unistat, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman could easily lead the pacifist writer of this blogspew to punch either in the mouth, were I to come to within fist-shot of either. Talk about "treason"...

What intellectual on our side is seen talking about political ideas on the teevee in Unistat? Lemme see...Glenn Greenwald. (And you can only guess what multi-millionaire former head of the taxpayer-funded NSA Keith Alexander thinks about Greenwald: he ought not exist. Let's not even bring up Edward Snowden. Anyone got anyone I missed?)

Yea, But The Science Guys Can Come Around, Right?
Not likely. That's not to say there aren't physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers on the side of the huddled masses yearning to be free, or at least make their rent. Clearly there are many out there. But they still want their jobs. They're addicted to solving abstruse technical problems, then heading home to the spouse and kids. Compared to the average certified Humanities person, the physical science guys are apolitical. (In general.)

There's a heady literature (if you dig and have a library card) about the political commitments among the technical intelligentsia. Most of the best ones are about the morality of their commitments. My favorite among the minority of books that question those commitments from a libertarian position is a guerrilla ontological book, jocoserious, satirical and pissed: The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and The Citadel of Science, by Robert Anton Wilson. RAW has all the generalist chops of any New York intellectual, but rarely did one of that storied group take on the scientific elite. A golden passage here, and realize the book was published in 1986, but keep in mind Unistat's straddling of the globe with its military, and why Islamic militants are at such wit's end of desperation they're cutting off heads of journalists, knowing a drone could likely obliterate them with zero foreknowledge tomorrow afternoon, after having a piece of baklava:

"The late J.B. Priestly often animadverted among what he called The Citadel - the scientific-technologic elite which both supports and is supported by our military-industrial alpha males. The Citadel, in most countries, gets millions of pounds for every twopence doled out to the humanities, the social studies or the arts; it devotes most of its time and intellect to the task, as Bucky Fuller used to say, of delivering more and more explosive power over greater and greater distances over shorter and shorter times to kill more and more people. For this reason, The Citadel increasingly frightens most of us and there is a vast,  somewhat incoherent rebellion against it all around the world. The rebellion takes the form, most of the time, of return to some earlier philosophy or reality tunnel (hello ISIS and al-Qaeda! - OG), although within the scientific community there is also a rebellion which is seeking a new reality-tunnel, which is usually called The New Paradigm." - pp.20-21 of my tattered, pages-falling-out copy

RAW goes on to say Citadel personnel are intensely territorial, including in ideology, and they're proud of their atheism. He's appalled by death-centered nature of this well-educated group, but makes it clear his book is not an attack on the Citadel's moral grounds, but rather its violations of what he sees as the right of free speech and for every scientist to report any finding, even if it's in violation of the current paradigm(s). He particularly loathes the inquisitorial doings of the Citadel's ideological protectors in persecuting scientific heresy, as this simply should not take place in a supposed Free Society. Although RAW uses a rhetoric that at times seems outlandish in The New Inquisition, I think his thesis is very strong and ought be heeded. The academic version of his approach to the philosophy and history of science would be found in Paul Feyerabend, in a work such as Against Method, and possibly in Imre Lakatos's work. Bruno Latour's application of ethnomethodological-like inquiry to practices in actual scientific labs seems to bolster RAW's more Swiftian/Nietzschean/Fortean rhetorics. I also see a family resemblance in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

However, I don't need a weatherman to know blah blah blah, and I guess we will just have to see if "Reality" can deal us a surprisingly good hand. Meanwhile, we do what we can.

Whither the University in General?
This deserves a few other blogspews of its own, but student debt is now well over $1,000,000,000,000 and mounting fast, and not only do young people "graduate" with a "degree" but they seem to not be able to think all that well for themselves. But then there aren't any jobs for them anyway. Meanwhile the highest paid public servant in most states is the head football coach, and that entire system stinks to high heaven. Go ahead, lift the lid and take a whiff. It's sulphurous-rotten and the older, comfy alumni say "Let's go all the way this year!" Their best players don't get educations and barely have enough to eat. If they're lucky they won't suffer brain damage by the age of 45 from too many violent blows to their inadequately helmeted heads. And undergraduate costs have vastly exceeded inflation (gee...why?), and your freshman is largely being taught by "adjunct" professors who make less take-home pay than a head manager at Burger King. Try to tell me how this is sustainable. Meanwhile, Obama seems to think  it's of the utmost importance to keep sausage-grinding-out "college graduates." So they can...monitor robots?

Well, The Citadel does need a plentiful supply of STEM students. Fuck the Humanities bastards, with their questioning of the political economy and values and all that.

It should get pretty interesting. I can't help but imagine the increasing numbers of very bright, hyper-educated Humanities types, and their degrees and their debt and the increasingly fucked job market. Will they get political knowing the NSA might be tracking their every move?

The entirety of scenario(s) above constitute a mere model, or frame. Since I'm not a modeltheist, I don't think I'm presenting "the Truth" here. I merely affirm it might have some weight and heft, and that I don't exactly consider the model as anything close to a felicitous state of affairs. I've tried working myself into a lather about the cup being twice as big as it needs to be, but it's not taking.

I will leave us there, to escape back into my comic books.

                                    image by Bobby Campbell    

Friday, February 20, 2015

Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present (Thoughts on "Performance Art")

Streaming on Netflix as I write this, this documentary about Abramovic's 90 days of sitting in a chair silent at NY's MOMA in 2010. The film also covers parts of her long career as a performance artist. I loved the film.

                          Marina Abramovic: Balkan Baroque: Dozing Consciousness (1997)

Definition of "Performance Art": Dicey at Best
The definition of "performance art" is famously contentious, and when I read the Wiki on it one of the further links is to an article "Classificatory Disputes About Art," and this very nebulousness is one of the things I most like about performance art. Read a few textbook-like articles that explain what performance art "is" and you will very likely run into a sentence or two that could easily apply to why people use psychedelic drugs. Some people really don't like the effects of performance art; it wigs them out. I'll return to this subject below.

(I wish the filmmakers in the Abramovic doc would've gotten responses from some of the people who were caught looking on quizzically and then turning away with a semi-disgusted look as Abramovic sat still and gazed into the eyes of fellow museum-goers, but maybe that's just me.) The eminent art critic Arthur Danto sees Abramovic's sitting a New Thing in the history of art, because it's well-known that most museum-goers spend about 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa, while lo!: they sit or stand all day watching Abramovic sit and gaze. Taking in The Artist Is Present makes Waiting For Godot look like a Jet Li flick...or Cirque du Soleil. (Only if you feel like it, no pressure: think about that?)

I found Abramovic's family background edifying vis a vis what she ended up doing with her life. Some writing on her suggests that performance art was a big deal in the Eastern Bloc because of its transitory nature, which makes sense to me.

One thing I think of immediately when someone says "performance art" is "nude bodies?" Indeed, there is a lot of Marina and others nude in the documentary. And in performance art in general. Why? Well, how else to make claims for a relatively new form of art? Shock people. How? Nudity, violence, blood, gross-outs, and outrageous speech acts, for starters. In my personal aesthetics, shock is rock-solid legit in Art. I want more shock from Art. (But is it all tapped out by now? As one young Abramovic-watcher at MOMA says, "Pretty soon you'll see someone shoot someone else in the face and they'll call it art." I paraphrase from memory. Let's hope Art doesn't go there. But: it has come pretty close.)

You Say All Performance Art Is Bullshit?
How close? In an early performance in Belgrade, 1974, Abramovic decks out tables with all sorts of implements, tools, gadgets. 72 items. The audience can do whatever they want with her. The audience can walk up to her and pick anything from the table and apply it to her body. She has her clothes ripped off rather quickly. Among the 72 items: feather duster, olive oil, whatever. Some cut her body with sharp instruments Abramovic has supplied. Someone else drinks some blood from her neck. She just takes it. The kicker: the audience is informed the pistol over there on the table is loaded. Someone puts it to her head but doesn't pull the trigger. Someone else pushed rose thorns into her stomach. There was always the chance some suitably deranged individual could have shot her. But they didn't. Many did do vicious things to her. She was tearful but elated (and laughs!) after the six hour piece because she wasn't shot or mutilated beyond repair, and she got her point across: a group of people can take on a nasty tone and do some fairly heinous acts to someone else's body, just because it seems it they have carte blanche to do so. I know people who think performance art is bullshit, but you have to admit: this seems compelling.

William S. Burroughs, in one of his apocalyptic moods, wrote about Art spilling off the pages, escaping the frames and filling the streets, becoming Writ Large. In a way, certain performance art is a step towards this, but it is still "framed" by the various notices and literature that performance art will take place at a certain venue, a certain time, admission is $16, parking can be found in a number of lots nearby at $20 for three hours and the subway is just around the block, etc.

As I write, Marina Abramovic has just arrived in Australia and is "like the Beatles," as a promoter waxes hyperbolic.

Zen Shit
But let's not be cynical. I love her work. But I also laugh at almost all of it, because she's able to carry it off. Someone once said that "Art is what you can get away with," and I have to agree. Abramovic also seems genuine to me. She's 68 as of last November and in the documentary, in an interview at age 63 she states her age and - yes, she's in makeup for the interview - but she's astonishingly gorgeous at 63. Now here's some cynicism on my part: would she have attracted as many followers if she didn't look like a Slavic Goddess archetype? (Maybe...)

Abramovic has done a few pieces in which nothing happens; she just sits there. One of the main reasons for doing this is to test the limits of her body. Indeed, much of it seems brutal, grueling. But she also hints there's a political component to these pieces: in the West, it's anathema to Do Nothing. Just sit there; it's provocative!

To prepare for these works, she does "zen shit." There's a sequence in the documentary where she takes thirty or so young artist-recruits to her house in upstate NewYork, where they prepare mentally and physically to perform some of Abramovic's past pieces at MOMA, along with performance pieces by other artists. It all looks like very zen-retreat-ish with a dash of surrealism to me. (Yea, maybe you wanna see the film.)

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
Not long ago I read this novel and let me just say that if you're a performance art junkie who also likes to read novels, you might want to look into this one, which addresses serious items about the possible damages parents may cause their children, if the parent-artists take this sort of art too seriously. And I found it quite hilarious and entertaining too.

One of the ideas highlighted in this book is this: if you live with these sorts of artists - or actively seek out that which constantly challenges your ideas about what's "real" and who or what to trust, etc - often the most mundane situations you find yourself in can be fraught with High Weirdness. 'Cuz now you're on your toes, more than most people. About the whoopee cushions of "reality."

Toward a Taxonomy of Performance Art
Is a Marilyn Manson show "performance art"? I leave it to you. What about Christo's various monumental environmental installations? What about pranks? Guerrilla ontology? Hoaxes? Art "Actions"? Flash mobs? Fluxus performances? Interventions? Happenings? Neo-Dada? "Manouevres"? Circus freak shows? Yes, I take your point that hoaxes seem to be done for gain, and that generally the hope is that no one will catch on. And all of these things might fall under "guerrilla ontology" in that they hope to make the audience re-think what they thought was "real." Must the Work have an intended agenda or message? When, if ever, is a well-thought-out prank not performance art? (There are certain performance art aficionados who will not allow pranks in their club.) Sometimes those who take part don't know they're part of the Thing. To what degree is the audience necessary or complicit in the art-form? "Happenings" in the sense of Allan Kaprow's works seem to begin with a few parameters and then, like a scientific experiment, wonder how it will all turn out. In this sense they remind me of magickal workings. Does ceremonial magick belong somewhere in this taxonomy? Must there always be disruption? The possibility of danger? An overtly (or semi- ) political statement? Nudity? Profanity? (One would hope so for those last two...) One of the most pervasive ingredients in these things seem to be Indeterminacy, which has me buying it if only for that, because, ya know, life's too short.

Some of this stuff seems mostly to want to delight or entertain certain types of cognoscenti, and to piss off the philistines, which is all good to me. I've yet to see a very convincing taxonomy. Anyone got one?

In an ideal world, children and other innocents would be spared exposure to violent ruptures in "reality" but we all know a few hearty kids who thrive on this material from the get-go. Clearly there were children entranced by Abramovic just sitting there. There were adults who looked outraged that this was A Thing. At some point in our lives, we can go on enjoying the shock or the surrealities of these things; others shut down. It's genes plus environment plus memory and experience plus a few other things I can't remember just now. Which brings me to...

Drugs and Performance Art
Abramovic is against drug use, and claims to have smoked a cigarette in the 1970s, because it was supposed to be cool. I think her work is about zen, the body, endurance, and facing fear and overcoming it. (Much of her earlier work with her lover Ulay seemed to be about incommensurability between men and women, too.) I see her work as having a drug-like effect. It works this way for me; it may not for you. What I want from any altered state is a novel perspective on some phenomena. I look at all art as a chance to enter into what the phenomenological sociologist Peter Berger calls a "finite province of meaning." I exercise a lot and enter a non-ordinary state. I meditate, smoke cannabis, read Finnegans Wake, listen to Bach/Stockhausen/Coltrane/Sun Ra/Vilayat Khan/Balinese Monkey Music/Pink Floyd, have sex, do math or logic puzzles, eat very spicy foods, sit in a hot bath in the dark with earplugs and eyeshades on, engage with sophisticated technology, watch films: voila!: non-ordinary states. I think this came with the Instruction Manual for the owner of a Mind. Many seem to have displaced their manual. Personally, I model all of these wonderful gimmicks as sorts of things and of a piece with the practice of magick. Your Mileage May Vary. To me, it's all Drugs. Try to stop me from doing my bathtub routine, DEA!

Some people do not like many (or all) of these sorts of things, and they should not be forced to engage with it, much less endure it. As with Timothy Leary's Two Commandments:

1.) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2.) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow men from altering their own consciousness.

With the First Commandment and taking into consideration the somewhat fugitive nature of much of "performance art" in the wider senses of the term, sometimes we cannot help it. It could be the Times we're living in?

Other Perf-or-mances/Other Arty Mental States
A lot of the enjoyment of this - if enjoyed at all - seems idiosyncratic, a matter of taste. I have gotten my rocks off watching sword swallowers and gorgeous mostly-nude babes walking barefoot on a bed of broken glass at freak shows like the CIA in North Hollywood. Then again, I would return again and again to David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology because I was never sure what was a put-on or what was legit, and it was all so incredibly well-done. (And I liked not knowing for sure what was a put-on or fancy; I love the indeterminacy.)

If extremes with the body is the subject, many artists come to mind. Like Bob Flanagan. Or Martha Graham stuff I've seen. Ever heard of Fakir Musafar? His stuff set a mind a-wonderin', aye.

Some of the best altered states I've been in were when I flew to Tokyo or London or Amsterdam or Lisbon or Kathmandu...and jet-lagged, I got out and walked aimlessly around those metropolises. This is not art, but it does seem linked to Abramovic's body-based work. Yet no one else can enjoy it but myself. And then I get back to my hotel room and collapse from sleepiness and the dreams extend that overall weirdness. The worst part of this is the actual flying part, hands down. What, in these scenarios, is the Art? I say to you: the cities and their inhabitants. It's yoga, a connection: my blitzed nervous system and the new city's overwhelming info-density and novelty.

I remember getting high off the hijinks of Andy Kaufman. I could rely on Andy to knock me into the finite province of wonder. There's a funny put-on/performance artist alive today (not saying you're not still alive, Andy!) named "Hennessy Youngman" who cracks me up. He seems like Sacha Baron Cohen ratcheted up a notch, and he makes Modern Art seem a lot more fun than some overly serious staid lecturer at Uni. I've seen lots of video of the robot anarchy from Survival Research Labs that really blew my balls to the far side of Eris. I recall when, around age 20, I read and delved like a madman into John Cage and Lamont Young, and felt a quite visceral thrill when I read that one of Nam June Paik's "serious" music performances consisted of coming out to applause, and, instead of sitting down at the piano, he took an axe and a chainsaw and cut the piano in half. Because...it had yet to be done?

As far as pranks go as a possible subset of performance art, here's one of my all-time favorites:
If you aren't familiar with this prank, please READ HERE. Effing genius.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson: Missing Books

I've just finished reading Patton Oswalt's book Silver Screen Fiend:Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film (2015) and it was of course very hilarious and entertaining: it's Patton Freaking Oswalt. But I had had no idea he'd haunted the New Beverly Cinema as I had. LA's greatest revival house for film, it had and has a cult following of film freaks and the book is dedicated to Sherman Torgan, who ran the place while Oswalt saw gawd only knows: probably 400 films there over a four year period, 1995-1999. The Appendix (pp.189-222) lists all the films, so I guess I could count but I'm too lazy... Yea: Patton Oswalt saw hundreds of films in movie theaters in those four years, he lists them all: date/film(s)/venue, and it's a lot like my own lists, only his manic phase of crashing the canons of film seemed deeper and more intense than mine. Torgan's programming easily convinced me he knew what films were worth seeing. I knew that if the New Bev was showing it it was probably worth seeing, it didn't matter if I hadn't heard of the film, or if it was from a genre I don't strongly gravitate toward (musicals and gorefest, anything with Doris Day in it). There's a hilarious chapter where he details the unhinged drive to see 12 Hammer Horror films in two days, and eventually, from sleep deprivation and insane film gluttony, the Hammer films begin to run together in his mind with other classic Hollywood films he'd seen recently...he's having a bad hallucination trip while awake, hilariously described, like something out of Alexander Trocchi, while in the theatre supposedly watching another film. A fellow film weirdo asks him if he's okay. Yea. (Noooo.)

I think I started driving from San Pedro up the Harbor Freeway (to the 10) to that predominately orthodox Jewish neighborhood of LA (near the corner of La Brea and Beverly Blvd) around 1996. I drove that stretch a lot. From one corner of the metropolis to another. I think I was aware of Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, and I may have seen him there, but I saw a lot of familiar screen faces there. I remember one night I took a seat in the dark moments before a double feature of Jeunet et Caro: Delicatessen (one of my all-time favorite films), and City of Lost Children. When the delicatessen owner asks "Have I got something right here?" the crowd erupts in laughter (as it should: one of the great anarchic comic moments in cinema history), and I look over at a guy cracking up and note I'm sitting next to Doogie Howser's, best-friend Max Casella.

I remember dragging my wife to see a John Frankenheimer double feature, because Seconds was the second film. Seconds totally slays me. Always. It was a Friday night - date night, when young, well-educated hipsters invaded the New Bev, usually to see the first film, then leave for - their actual lives. They all saw the admittedly great and famous 1962 Manchurian Candidate then left, despite my leaning into the aisle and telling twentysomething strangers filing out: "If you thought that was good, wait till you see Seconds," and no one would even make eye contact with the Scary Old Guy.

                                       a bit from Seconds (1966): Rock Hudson rocks!

Anyway...After Sherman Torgan's death (and Quentin Tarantino publicly standing up for film freaks all over LA by saying "As long as I draw breath, the New Beverly will remain open"), Oswalt attends a "sloppy, spontaneously organized 'wake'" inside the not-too-far-away Egyptian Theatre. (Everyone agreed it wouldn't be right to do it inside the New Bev). Oswalt tells the anecdote about the night Lawrence Tierney walked into the middle of Citizen Kane and sat behind Oswalt and started talking out loud to the screen for about 15 minutes before his handler finds him and ushers him out. Tierney had never seen the film, but the stuff he says, like the best DVD commentary ever - as remembered by Oswalt, coupled with what we know about Tierney's history and that voice - a shimmering anecdote in a book filled with them. (see pp.94-98) (I wonder how many RAWphiles that know of Tierney and his work think of him as a classic 2nd Circuit type as I do.)

After the wake, Oswalt programmed an entire month of fantastic, non-existent films for the New Beverly in Heaven, just for Sherman. Oswalt writes that he got the idea from Neil Gaiman's storyline in  The Sandman books, of "Brief Lives," where there's a "dream library" of books that famous authors never got around to writing, like Raymond Chandler's Love Can Be Murder, or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures on the Moon. I for one would drop everything going on in my life to go see every one of these dream films, which includes Orson Welles's 1942 Heart of Darkness and Orson's 1944 Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul, starring Gary Cooper as Bruce Wayne/Batman. "And leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman's cast of villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra's al Ghul. The Richard Widmark cameo, at the end, as the newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of the chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival." (p.174) I see the great RKO noir Director of Photography, Nicholas Musuraca, doing the lights and camera here, with Orson, of course.

Oh yea: how perfect is this?: In some alternate universe/Torgan's Heaven that Hal Ashby directed A Confederacy of Dunces? John Belushi played Ignatius in a miraculous performance without ever having read John Kennedy Toole's novel. With Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. Oswalt goes on with this, an invention of 29 films. Hey! I just noticed the blogpost that forms this chapter of "dream films" is HERE! (<----In the blog there, you only get the names of the nonexistent films; you have to get hold of Oswalt's book to read the synopses.)
Reading this bit from Patton Oswalt's film addiction book reminded me of the Books Missing From Robert Anton Wilson's Oeuvre. Many of us have discussed what RAW's Tale of the Tribe would have been, but he died before he could write it. We got a precis, tantalizing to the utmost, at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. If we could pool the no-doubt thousands of pages of notes from RAWphiles on what RAW was hinting at, we might be able to cobble something together. But it wouldn't be RAW.

Now please bear with me: I've gotten hold of some...well...let''s just say I've gotten lucky and was able to obtain a hot underground tryptamine drug made by the Disciples Of Shulgin (DOS). Psychonauts have been reporting that at the half gram dosage level, they've had very pleasant glimpses of other possible worlds, but only those worlds the person had been daydreaming or thinking about in their ordinary, non-stoned lives. I took some after thinking of RAW's books and, for whatever it's worth, here's what I've come back with:

The Shea Correspondence Course: Letters Between Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (2017): RAW finally collected the vast trove of letters received from his friend Robert Shea, and via excessive volunteer wrangling by RAWphiles, found well over 40 long type-written letters he'd sent to Shea. All of the letters from both men had been dispersed, scattered among numerous friends and collectors of literary ephemera. Interviewed by NPR about the 423 page tome, RAW says from his home in Capitola that he was surprised how much he'd forgotten about how Illuminatus! eventually coalesced, but was grateful such a large number of the letters had shown up after an Internet call-to-arms from his fanatic readers. NPR seemed most interested in the fervor of glee among the cultish readers of Wilson over the publication, long awaited and thought at one time impossible. Why the word "course" in the title, NPR asks? Wilson said his friend Robert Shea was the sort of person whose anarchic intelligence always made him think, and re-reading their letters before publication he realized how much he'd learned. Shea died in 1994. Reviewed at BoingBoing: "I've never seen a correspondence that was so funny and at the same time brimming with endless ideas. Even when they seem to have a simmering feud over some idea or another, you can always tell they loved each other."

Hollywood Notes (2012?): The long-awaited chronicles of RAW's first-hand experiences seeing his books Masks of the Illuminati, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the midnight movie Reality Is What You Can Get Away With made into films and the sausage-factory behind the scenes. RAW agrees with Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald: if they want to pay you for the rights, best to just take the money and leave Hollywood. But RAW's too interested in the machinations of filmmaking and while he has grave problems with the liberties directors, editors and script "doctors" took with his material, he seems pleased by the results, all in all. My favorite part of the book is RAW's anecdotes about the film community party scenes in the hills above Hollywood.

Heretic: How Timothy Leary Foresaw the "New Teleology"(2025): This short tome is a surprise hit with academics who had been trying to forge the "New Synthesis" sometimes called the "New Teleology," since the rise in prominence of Sheldrake, epigenetics, CRISPR techniques that helped to rapidly cure most diseases and food shortages. Other texts had emphasized the rapid falling out of favor of "selfish gene" ideas as the main motors of evolution. RAW traces the history of self-organizing life to cosmic panspermia notions and the long list of scientific "heretics" who emphasized latent "systems" inherent in the human nervous system. This book argues that Leary's ideas about the brain and evolution were far ahead of his time (Leary died in 1996), that Neo-Darwinism was always a big chunk of the puzzle, but that scientific visionaries - once marginalized as "crackpots" or "mystics" such as Bruno, Reich, Lamarck, Sheldrake and Leary - are now seen, retrospectively, as victims of a sort of mass hubris and "Mind-Forged Manacles" of working prole scientists/old paradigm adherents (RAW loves to quote the poet Blake). It was said that the philosopher Thomas Nagel was a fan of this book, but this can not be substantiated at the moment you're reading this. At 225 pages and good humor, this one's on many a college syllabus and wins RAW a National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

New Age Sewage (2016): RAW seems to be channeling George Carlin here in his non-fiction satire on anti-vaxxers, Randroids, supply-siders (these last two not New Age per se, merely bad ideas), New Earthers, "race-ists," orthorexics, those fearful of taboo words, and fundamentalists of all sorts. Perhaps surprisingly, the book receives very good reviews from those Skeptics that RAW lampooned in many works. RAW at his most polemical, this book is at least the equal in tone and logical vigor as The New Inquisition and Natural Law.

Life Plus 3000 (2030): RAW's immortality book, which in the Preface he says he'd radically revised at minimum 32 times because of the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon." A very old version had a working title Death Shall Have No Dominion. I found it most impressive that RAW doesn't gloat here: he'd been writing about longevity and immortality since the 1970s and was scoffed at by New York intellectuals. When the worm began to turn most decisively around 2023 he decided to wrap it up. Now he's been proven "correct" for the most part, but rather than name his fairly "wrong" (and mostly forgotten) detractors, he seems more in awe of Nature than ever.

Collected Writings on Joyce (2014): Joyce scholar Fritz Senn was the impetus behind this. He thought young European readers needed an introduction to Joyce by an intellectual non-academic Joycean. I had no idea RAW had written this much, in such detail, on Joyce. Lovers of RAW's book Coincidance will want to graduate to this text, many of the ideas of which were once too "far out" but have now made it inside mainstream Joyce scholarship.

Robert Anton Wilson's Book of Black Magic and Curses (2007): A rollicking book of humor about domesticated primate hypnosis and words, psychoneuroimmunology, the omnipresence of metaphor, a vindication of Vico and Korzybski, and "How To Tell Your Friends From the Other Apes." One reviewer blurbs on the back cover: "A linguistics book sui generis if I ever saw one. Highly recommended." RAW scholars can now see what Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words was supposed to be, before the editors took out all the most interesting parts. Or, as RAW put it, "The editors at Playboy Press, like most editors, want to pee in the soup before they let go of someone else's work."

Bride of Illuminatus! (2019) Long-awaited. Carries his (and Shea's) saga of certain families and ideas through the Age of Surveillance. The plotlines developed with Edward Snowden vs. Dick Cheney (under disguised names, for this is one long True Shaggy Dog Story) makes this Trip worth reading over and over.

Babylon L-5 (2021) One of the best of the sixty-some-odd books preparing humanity for space colonization. Said to have cheered Elon Musk, who, after reading it, redoubled his efforts to get LaGrange point communities going for industrial production in zero-gravity, followed by his (and others') move to make Project Exurb a reality. Meanwhile, space travel impact on human physiological systems are being solved almost weekly. RAW keeps up on this stuff.

Untitled Epic Poem on Evolution: So far: no publisher. He's said to still be working on it, although over 100 chapters exist in the version that passed through my hands. Seemingly influenced by both Pound's Cantos and Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as the wildest, most outre ideas about baby universes, brane theory, black holes, and self-organizing Taoist cybernetic feedback loops within loops, the loose-leaf copy I had was over 1700 pages of "holographic poetry" and seemed to fuse in equal measure hardcore-scientific, poetic and mystical ideas. The work functions as an encyclopedia of history and hard science, while reading as poetry. One strain of poetic rumination, about a divine feminine and repressed aspect of history, coupled with - believe it or not - the history of economics (!) makes a bracing case for universal liberation and "true freedom" for all "sentient beings" and a freedom from fear, want, and State and other Gangster coercion, based on communication, humor and massive cybernetic feedback loops of information so dense...well, I just want you all to be able to get hold of a copy some day, as this is a true Terran Archive and "Blueprint For Humanity" (<-----the name of one of the poems.) There were references and allusions enough to support the argument that this might truly constitute RAW's Tale of the Tribe. Difficult and psychedelic. Readers new to Wilson are advised to study his works from 1959-2005 first. Another helpful idea, until the work is finished and published: RAW includes an annotated bibliography that in itself was over 200 pages and quite cosmically hilarious, I thought.

That's all I can remember until I take that particular tryptamine again. If any of you have similar access and find something out about RAW's nonexistent-in-this-world oeuvre, please report back here in the comments!

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (2007)

I finished reading this novel a week ago, and it's haunting me. It was Diaz's first novel and he won the Pulitzer for it, now teaches at M.I.T. Won a MacArthur "Genius" award. Deserved it. I arrived eight years late, but I'm glad I came. (Just why I'm glad I came seems roughly the same answer you'd get when someone says she "enjoyed" Hamlet. q.v. the following.)

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but moved to New Jersey as a youngster. His prose dazzles and reminded me of David Foster Wallace: not so much the style or voice or syntactical ju-ju, but overall Brilliant Mind, mixing a staggering number of allusions to history, pop kulch, esp. science fiction, gaming, and movies.  The anthropological intricacies of ideas and language involved with how Hispanics and Latinos from one society think about Hispanics and Latinos based on their relative degrees of melanin turned up my sociology nobs to 11. (I'm not saying I think this is the major criterion for snap-judgements or valuations, but it seems far more complex than my white-boy milieux, from one who grew up in the Los Angeles 'burbs.) I  also think Diaz writes on the subjects of desire, beauty and sex in particularly compelling ways.

Oscar is that fat, hopeless kid in school who gets picked on by everyone, and worries about ever getting laid. He loves women, but he's a Dominican non-macho gargantuan nerd. As a freshman in college, he's described as "307 pounds." It's some dark stuff. In college he constantly fools himself that finally some girl will love him. He attempts suicide. Still, a lot of him is in many of us, even us skinny folk. I'm haunted by Oscar, because we know this guy. And we wish we'd been nicer to him. And sometimes we were, but...and we sorta "get" why he speaks "like a Star Trek computer" and is so profoundly nerdy and clueless about social interactions, especially with the opposite sex. And still we wonder: is there more to why he's like this? The novel's - Diaz's main posit? - the family is under a curse: the fuku. 

Diaz woke up the Joyce (or, Pynchon)-reader in me in that many of his sentences are larded with references to obscure-to-me fantasy characters and there are citations to Dominican and other Hispanic and Latino histories and figures, Japanese pop culture, nerd culture, more than enough obscurities to delight my inner Wao, etc. The difficulties mount: Diaz writes in Spanglish, including many varieties of Spanish idioms and slang, and my copy was not an annotated version, so dictionaries helped, and so did the Net, of course. Finally, by page 40 or so, I stumbled onto one person's online annotations, which are a work-in-progress and "Kim" of San Francisco is crowdsourcing it. (Or is it sorta Wiki-ish?)

Diaz plays it coy with who the narrator of the story is, but eventually gives it away about halfway through. It wasn't who I thought it was...because I found I'd been prejudiced and didn't think the character in novel could be as thoughtful and compassionate as he had been drawn...but drawn by...who? Ahh, the pomo jukes of Diaz!

                             One of my favorite artists, Bob Campbell, did this for me as a 
                             surprise gift. Check him out!

Okay, the novel's about the story of Oscar's family as lived in the 20th century, mostly in the Dominican Republic. I confess that I'd heard this was a tremendous literary work, but someone in my book group picked it (egged on by me), even though I didn't know anything about what goes on in the book. Immediately we are informed about the Dominican Republic, a place I'd read a bit about, and it was all horrifying. I had read enough about Trujillo (dictator from 1930-61) that I hoped the novel wouldn't stay on the subject. It didn't. It went on and on about Oscar and his sexy feminist sister, and his workaholic, cancerous, and psychologically traumatized mother. There are no cardboard characters in the book. It's compelling on every goddamned page.

I said it didn't stay on Trujillo. But then He came back. And that's what's stayed with me.

Brief sort-of tangent: On at least three occasions I've had talks with friends about the old TV show The Twilight Zone. Usually someone brings up an episode and then we all chime in, then mention another episode and talk about our impressions and ideas about that one, usw. The show had me in a sort of Oscar Wao-ish way between the ages of 13 and 20. I was a total geek for that show, and watched some episodes over and over. I studied Marc Scott Zicree's book on the show. My favorite Twilight Zone episode is called "Walking Distance" but that has nothing to do with this. Another episode, "It's A Good Life," , which features a King-Ubu/Kim-Jong-il-like monstrous little boy with supernatural powers, has everything to do with Diaz's novel, so I'll return and try to get to the crux...

In going back to the life and times of Oscar's grandfather Abelard,  the accomplished medical doctor and center of intellectual activity in the DR, a man I'd have liked to have known, it's bluntly stated that living in the DR under Trujillo was like living in "It's A Good Life" (see p.224, ff forward and backward), which I have always thought was one of the most horrifying stories I'd ever seen. It continues to creep me out, after (easily) more than ten viewings. (See above link.)

Combine that with the most brutal banana republic fascist regime - where about half the population is a snitch or a cop or part of the secret police and the dictator doesn't wish you into the cornfield, but has goons waylay you in city traffic, kidnap you, then beat you with rifle butts until you're almost dead, then leave your body in the sugar cane fields. There's the wealthy class on the island, who own everything, there's the dictator and his goons, who can take that away from you and literally erase everything about your existence, even your signature. And then pretty much everyone else is in squalor and lives in a state of constant anxiety. And oh yea: the dictator has his goons monitor the populace for every beautiful girl, apparently the younger the better, and he gets to fuck her, or your family is ruined. No daddy can say no to Trujillo, or not for long. Torture of the Gitmo variety was commonplace. ("At least he was anticommunist!" - Unistat)

Just one of many delights from the Trujillo regime: when the price of sugar dropped - he'd stolen 80% of the sugar plantations for himself - he blamed the Haitian slaves who worked those fields, and had 20,000 of them massacred.

Unistat backed Trujillo for a long time, simply because he was anti-Communist. Eventually the CIA saw for themselves what a horror show the entire island was, and were vexed: yea, but he's anti-Commie! What do we do? JFK-lovers need to read up on his way of handling it. (This story will have to be told later. Or better yet: check into it fer yer own self?)

Throughout the book and the footnotes, Diaz sticks with the fuku narrative about why such horrific things happened to Oscar and his family and ancestors. In interviews he talks about Trujillo and how his family reacted when he brought up the topic. It's completely repressed.

So, the haunting has to do with my own silly neuroses about vast income inequality and the militarization of the police, a massive surveillance State, and sham political elections. Because I've read about these histories throughout my life. Because, when I read Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and he showed that fascistic configurations of political life has been the default mode throughout most of what we call "history," it made sense to me, I hate to say. And because Reich and Orwell and other writers have suggested the psychological horrors of brutal regimes can last for generations.

And Oscar wanted to live in Akira. Or Middle-Earth. He just wanted a kiss from a beautiful girl and to fondle a breast, maybe even get laid.

I get it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Garrison State: POTUS's SOTU Speech and the Semantic Unconscious

Around a minute into Obama's 2015 State of the Union speech we heard these words:

"Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this:
The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong."

Yeaaa...Nope. Unistat is strung out on policing the world on behalf of its owners and the other wealthy states in the world. It's pretty much Our Thing.

Get a load of what Nick Turse has say about what ZERO of our "news" outlets has mentioned, then feel free to tell us why "the shadow of crisis has passed and the State of the Union is strong."
Here's my favorite neologism - hey, 'tis new to me! - in 2015: "surrealpolitick"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Swift/Marx/Wilson: Ironies, Paradoxes, and Satires Mordant: Some Faves

De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess it's just one of those things, but I marvel at certain stylistic flair in satire. I think a struggling composer must feel similar things when listening to Bartok or Beethoven, or a young would-be Serious Novelist when reading Joyce or Pynchon.

                                               Jonathan Swift                        

Swift (1729)
My first example is Swift's A Modest Proposal. I dig the rhythm, the build-up before the modest proposal. There certainly were major problems with poverty/overpopulation among the poor in Ireland around 1729, no doubt. And the tone is exemplary of the "can-do" spirit among the well-fed. One of my favorite devices: Swift bolsters his rhetoric with statistics, the subtext being that we're reading a rational man here. And, from the first paragraph, we know we're in the midst of a writer filled with compassion and empathy, with a foolproof appeal to the heartbreaking difficulties of Motherhood. (If you haven't read the piece, it's very short, and I know you'll read it all "eventually" but for now click on the link above and read the first paragraph, so we can all be on the same page. Thanks.)

Swift has given this a lot of thought. He wants to alleviate misery. He's a practical man, too.  He's considered others' attempts at solving the problem and thinks he has a better solution. And so, before he tells us he's going to enumerate many reasons why the poor should sell off their children to be fattened and eaten by more wealthy gentry-types, he soberly writes, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." He then follows with this sentence:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

He just wants to "ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance." Let's face it: a lot of these kids were born out of wedlock anyway. And you know what's really terrible? Many of these desperately poor kids are hired on as cheap labor, which, being so poor, they hardly have the strength to carry out. Eating these kids has so many advantages that Swift's argument is a slam-dunk. (To the madman who would take this seriously and not see that the real problem is vast income inequality and oppression by the church, state, and landlords...Are there such madmen amongst us? I mean besides Dick Cheney...)

Some of the benefits of this idea:

-Nine months after Lent, Catholics give birth at an inflated rate; eating their babies will lessen the number or papists in our midst.

-When the poor sell their babies for food, at least they'll have a slightly easier time paying off their landlords. The landlords have already (figuratively) devoured the parents.

-Butchers will do a bang-up biz. A kid can fatten up to 28 pounds after a year: delicious!

(As Swift cites esteemed, virtuous patriots who care about the dignity of humans, and while he keeps citing stats to bolster his claims...)

-A colleague - the same unnamed "American" who we find got his ideas from "the famous Psalmanazar"  - noted the problem of stores of venison being depleted too soon, so maybe we could eat boys and girls who have reached the age of 12 but not older than 14?: Swift is discerning: no, he's heard the boy-meat is "tough and lean" while you may as well let the girls live on, because they're almost of the age to produce more succulent meat from their own bodies. Point well-taken!

-Despite the practical reasons for not eating young teenage girls, as cited above, Psalmanazar's story about criminality - such as trying to poison the rich and powerful - should be considered if plump female teens commit such heinous crimes. Hey, it worked in Formosa...

-The argument against Swift - that he's not considered the aged, maimed, and diseased? Ah, but take this into consideration: they're already, every day, "dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected." Objections overruled. Swift wins this one, too. And besides, who cares really? Those losers aren't working anymore, anyway. Practicality, people!

-This new source of succulent, tender meat, will provide for a "refinement of taste" for "gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom." Who in their right mind can argue with this?

-Poor people will have a few less mouths to feed. Swift cares. He really does. Bless him!

-This whole scheme will be an economic boost to taverns, where gentlemen who "justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating" will gladly pay whatever is asked for that sweet sweet kid-meat.

-It will enhance the quality of marriage, something every state wants. Why? Well, for one thing, fathers will attend with much more loving care their wives who are pregnant with the cargo that will help them pay the rent in a few month's time. Wife-beatings among the poor will diminish. And who can quarrel with that?

-We all like the fruits of pig-meat: bacon, pork, etc, but let's admit it: things can get a bit dull eating pork chops and bacon day after day. And no pig is "comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat, yearling child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at lord mayor's feast or any other public entertainment." Such refinement!

To sum up, Swift can see no objection to his proposal. I mean, think of the beauty of it: it provides for the poor while also relieving them. It also gives "some pleasure to the rich."

I've read this piece maybe 15 or 20 times in my life, and it's never lost its power over me. I think what I admire most is the way Swift, whose voice here seems to emanate from a completely insane man, at the same time has us on his side, because this mode of rhetoric - satire of the highest level - is perhaps the fullest response to poverty and suffering when one feels angry that we can do better. The requisite distance between the rhetoric and the suffering of humans is enough that no one can take this seriously, even if the tone and "rational" argument implore us to consider such a ghastly idea.

The Irish government made lame attempts to silence him, but his character and esteem were of such elevation that Swift continued to publish whatever he pleased.

                                                       Karl Marx

Marx (1862/63)
In the so-called fourth volume of Das Kapital, "Theories of Surplus Value," Marx discusses previous economist's ideas about people who provide productive labor versus those who provide "unproductive" labor. Adam Smith (who Marx greatly admired) thought that the unproductive were, among others: "churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc." When Smith wrote men of letters and musicians, it frankly stung the OG. But "buffoons"? That one was like a punch to the gut. Anyway...All these lay-abouts were parasitical upon the labors of people who actually did real, honest work. But Marx, who knew his Swift (and everyone who ever wrote anything of interest, it seems), disagreed with the greatest classical economist of all time:

A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor books and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between the latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable book in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as "commodities"...

Think how much of our precarious economy owes to criminals! Where would judges or bailiffs or courthouse builders be without them? How about those fine men we call "police"? Jailers, makers of iron bars, gas chambers, badges and truncheons, guns, handcuffs? What about John Grisham and Perry Mason and Sherlock Holmes and The Sopranos? They'd be nowhere without the productions of criminals. Marx reminds us of all the improved and applied science that went into torture devices, and just think how good locks have become because of criminals. In Unistat, the gun trade is booming (sorry); the criminal's at times murderous contributions seems most essential to our very way of life!

The value of crime upon the way we think about morality is endlessly productive, and furthermore, as Francis Wheen writes, "The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted..." (p.78, Marx's Das Kapital)

Here's more of Marx on the subject:

Would the making of banknotes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers?...And if ones leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn't the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

To those of my Dear Readers who find themselves unemployed, I offer Marx's riffs on productive labor here as merely a suggestion that perhaps we may frame our problems in different ways...

Wheen's slender book is one I found a delight, and he made me go back to reading Marx anew. There's a considerable take on Marx as a literary figure. Marx certainly wanted to produce something thoroughly along the lines of a literary masterpiece, but I personally would direct the reader to something like Dickens's Hard Times instead.

That said, Wheen covers the reception and attempts at categorizing Marx's sprawling work: "The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ('Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore top to toe and oozing blood from every pore')." Stanley Edgar Hyman saw the book as a Victorian melodrama: "The Mortgage on Labour-Power Foreclosed." The book can be seen as a black comedy, with a debunking of the "'phantom-like objectivity' of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality." (Wheen, p.75)

Wheen notes the critic C. Frankel saw Kapital as like a Greek tragedy: fate, tragic blindness, fixated ideas, seeing the truth too late, etc. In To The Finland Station, Edmund Wilson saw Marx as the greatest ironist since Swift, as a supreme parody of classical economics texts, and that, having read Kapital, the classical economists "never seem the same to us again; we can always see through their arguments and figures the realities of the crude human relations which it is their purpose or effect to mask."

I can see you now, Dear Reader: you've gathered your family and closest friends in one room for an announcement. Everyone is whispering what it could be. Tension in the room is palpable. Finally, you enter through the very large main door into the parlor. Everyone becomes silent. All eyes are trained on your every move. You let the drama build, then finally, get down to brass tacks: "Friends, my most beloved family members...this has been a difficult period in my life, as you all know, but I've done a lot of thinking - soul-searching, if you will - and I've made a decision about what to do, and I hope you will all help me in my new endeavor as best you can."

"Well? What is it?!?!," your father shouts, not with a small note of anxiety in his voice.

"I've...decided to enter a life of crime."

                                                 Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson (c. 1975?)
If Unistatians follow politics to any appreciable level, you will note that our "leaders" tell us that many things must be done in the name of "national security." The very phrase has proven to carry a mass hypnotic effect of considerable heft. "We cannot tell you anything about why we might be doing something that would make Al Capone look like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Trust us: it's about national security." And that is usually that. Oh, some Nosy Parker journalists will look behind the curtain and then report what vast cool and unsympathetic beastly doings are going on in our name, but who the fuck READS anymore?

Much less: who actually cares?

And maybe it doesn't matter at all. Why? Well, maybe we've had it all wrong in the first place. And I mean all wrong: it could be that "national security is the chief cause of national insecurity." This is the "First Law" of Hagbard Celine, a real character who uses the words of his author, Robert Anton Wilson.

The Reader would do well to consult the primary text, in The Illuminati Papers, pp.118-122. Wilson's virtuoso satirical chops are on display here, but like Swift and Marx - whose writings RAW knew well - it's only because he's at pains to convey the many invasions of our "privacies" that we find ourselves in. And I assert RAW was not drilling in a dry hole, but has shown that, in this First Law ("National security is the chief cause of national insecurity") he has, as of 2013, proven to be a Prophet. RAW made this observation around 40 years ago - probably after citizens broke into the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971 - and the essay was written (possibly) around the time Watergate became a news item, and (possibly) close to the summer of 1975 Church Committee hearings that "damaged" the CIA...at any rate, COINTELPRO was at work and possibly known, this was all well before Internet and the massive We Make the East German Stasi Look Like Pikers-era of Total Information Awareness by the NSA, FBI, CIA, local police, nefarious hackers, Wall Street, Facebook, Google, the TSA...et.al

RAW's main rhetorical ploy there was one he played with verve and aplomb like Bach played the organ: the reductio ad absurdum. That is, if we took the claims of "national security" seriously in the early 1970s, it meant that  the watchers must have watchers, because who can place total trust in the first group of watchers over our security and movements? But that second group can't be entirely trusted - something corrupt might happen - so we need another "security group" to watch the second group. And while they're at it, they should probably try to watch the first, initial group of security-providers. You can see where this went. For RAW, it was satire, but with a point. For us in 2014, it's something like Nightmare Prophecy come true: the (near) total Surveillance State.

Most of you are way ahead of me, so I'll just pick one story that I've mentioned with my friends that seems to have slipped through the cracks: NSA intercepts shipments of laptops purchased online and installs malware in them.  I'm sure you guys have a "favorite" that's "better" than this one. Have at it in the comments!

O! To be able to write satire with the panache of Swift, Marx, Wilson!