Overweening Generalist

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are We Living In A Robert Anton Wilson Novel?

This topic is related to a recent question over at my blogger-colleague Tom Jackson's blog RAWIllumination.

My knee-jerk reaction: it seems evermore so, aye.

With some introspection (okay, a bowel movement): definitely maybe.

Ken Cuccinelli (my friends and I just refer to him affectionately as "Cooch") is quoted very recently thus:

“My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that … They don’t comport with natural law. I happen to think that it represents (to put it politely; I need my thesaurus to be polite) behavior that is not healthy to an individual and in aggregate is not healthy to society.”

Robert Anton Wilson writes in his book Natural Law (Or Don't Put A Rubber On Your Willy):

"It appears that the reason that the term 'Natural Law' is preferred to 'Moral Law' may be that many writers do not want to make it obvious that they speak as priests or theologians and would rather have us think of them as philosophers. But it would seem to me that their dogmas only make sense as religious or moral exhortation and do not make sense in any way if one tries to analyze them as either scientific or philosophical propositions."

Two recent articles on Cooch and his moralic acid-laced Low-Medium Level Bullshit:

Katie McDonough's "Ken Cuccinelli Keeping The War On Sodomy Alive"
Amanda Marcotte's "Ken Cuccinelli Really Wants To Ban Oral Sex"

Are the voters in Virginia really this retrograde? We'll see. At this point I'll believe anything. 

Also, no doubt Cuccinelli as a Republican in 2013 agrees that government is intrusive on the rights, liberties, and freedoms of his corporate sponsors. 

Robert Anton Wilson often said he not only wanted government "off our backs" but "off our fronts, too." This latter proposition would seem to exclude Cooch.

Are You Naturally "Unnatural"?


   RAW with his old friend and fellow heretic Timothy Leary, circa 1992? (if you know who took this 
   pic I'll be happy to give credit)      

One of the weirdest interviews RAW ever did was in November, 1996, with someone named Nardwuar; RAW seemed to think it was a put-on but he played along with good humor. 

17 years later, Mark O'Connell at Slate has crowned Nardwuar as the "pop music's best interviewer." (Neil Strauss on Line 1!)

Anyway, I was very surprised that anyone would raise Nardwuar to such lofty heights. But as RAW often said, "Different lanes for different brains."
A link between quantum mechanics and game theory seems to have been found.
Yes, the two areas seem far apart, and RAW did not accentuate Bayesian games, but from the age of 16, in 1948 (!) he was interested in the findings in both areas and how they may interact. The article I cited doesn't mention John von Neumann, but JvN was an early theorist in both areas, and RAW wrote about John S. Bell, Norbert Wiener, von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Erwin Schrodinger and the philosophical implications of the wave equation, the interplay between The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior and multi-valued non-Aristotelian logics, semantics, the ontological basis of math, the EPR gedankenexperiments, Einstein's disagreements with Niels Bohr, how information might play in biology, and psychological theories of interpersonal communication and "games" and how quantum mechanics, language, information, games, and the human nervous system all interact in social "reality."
A few weeks ago, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse advocated for Philosophy to go public, for the public good. They consider "repackaging" philosophy - by which they mean: the stultifying and dull Thing that philosophy has become in the Academy - and make it more accessible. They reject this as impractical. I disagree with them here, mostly because their arguments using specialized philosophy-language is pretentious in the first place, and they ought to realize that if they unpack their epistemology and ontology and hook it up to their Wittgenstein and other turns of language, they'll see that their use of the copulae "to be" (i.e, use of "is" "am" "are" "was" "were" and "be") seems inconsistent with their overly technical language in the first place. They're writing for each other in small journals, hoping for citations and to keep their jobs as the Humanities wither under the Leviathan of corporate capitalism.

If they can't write about their Big Topics for the intelligent layperson, maybe they aren't as fine thinkers as they suppose themselves "to be"? Take more English courses, academic Philosophers?

Aikin and Talisse then consider that philosophy should go public by addressing the concerns of the public and not arcane subjects. But then they look at the journals and see that philosophers have been writing about immigration, surveillance, human enhancement technologies, the biology of race, the nature of lying and the ethics of torture. But while they don't bluntly say it: those articles are impenetrable. To quote the Beat poet Jack Spicer out of context, "My vocabulary did this to me!"

Circling back around, these advocates for a public philosophy finally realize that philosophy must be repackaged nonetheless, and I wholeheartedly agree with them here:

"On this version of “public philosophy,” what is called for is not a change in what philosophers do or in the topics they address; rather the call for public philosophy is call for better spokespersons for philosophy.  It is a request that those who are especially skilled at presenting complex and difficult ideas come forward and speak publicly for the discipline.  It is also a call for the profession at large to acknowledge the need for such spokespersons, and to find ways to recognize the scholarly importance of public outreach.  But, importantly, it is also implicitly a call for those philosophers who are not very good at representing the discipline to go back to their offices."

And many of us who are longtime readers of Robert Anton Wilson would argue that RAW was doing this in the 1960s, but the exigencies of rising in the Academy, together with an iron curtain put up by mainstream media and the "counterculture" concerning identity and publishing and who gets reviewed and what topics are to be considered out-of-bounds, and "style" (and other Damned Things)...militated against RAW being taken more seriously by people who think public philosophy is important for a healthy democratic society. A "science fiction writer" was not to be taken seriously by Serious People, the guardians of True Philosophy. A writer who wrote so candidly about sex, drugs, Timothy Leary and Aleister Crowley and Wilhelm Reich and Ezra Pound and Alfred Korzybski (all banished to the Region of Thud by the curators of Official Culture) could not be taken seriously. A writer who speculates about the phenomenology of UFO contactees, who mixed genres (too irresponsible and promiscuous?), who openly declares himself an "anarchist" and who chronicles a 14-odd-year odyssey of self-experimentation to probe the vast reaches of his own consciousness...this was something not fit for mainstream Philosophy. And then there is the ludic play with deep researches into conspiracy theory, a subject so demonized by the True Knowers of Unistat, there's no way this Wilson should be allowed anywhere near the Conversation about true Philosophy. Best to ignore his work until he finds himself living in the marginalist's milieux, where he properly resides...

So I argue: RAW was at least 40 years ahead of Aikin and Talisse. But RAW's readers found him anyway, and they think his unified field hypotheses about media and language extremely interesting, philosophically. RAW's ideas about the acceleration of culture, propelled by technological innovation, and its sociological fallout: paranoia, alternate religions, a Nietzschean multiperspectivalism, and the analysis of Conspiracy Theories as a way to test one's own epistemological plasticities? His readers enjoy these philosophical ideas too. Indeed.

While we may model the worlds we inhabit as "texts" we know these are only models, and that language does not map directly onto any sort of "reality" in a one-to-one correspondence, as RAW wrote about starting in the 1960s, largely influenced by discarded thinkers. 

I would like to suggest to Aikin and Talisse that their world has finally caught up with Robert Anton Wilson's but after many years of talking to academics, I'm afraid the response would be, "Who?"

I asked Prof. George Lakoff of Berkeley if he knew of RAW's work, and he said, "I once had a student who was really into him." That's the only admission I've personally ever heard from a True Serious Thinker that RAW even existed. 

RAW can never serve as a "spokesperson" that Aikin and Talisse advocate for, because he was not from academe. However, I strongly suggest that their sought-after spokespersons take into account the playfulness and sense of humor Wilson brought to philosophical topics, especially the officially outre topics of conspiracy, altered states, and pop kulchur. And because humor is difficult, the Aikin and Talisse plea may not gain traction. If so, 'tis a pity. (I'd like to once again suggest George Carlin as a sociolinguist for any who'd be interested...)

Coming back around, Tom Jackson wrote a concise and cogent piece on the occasion of the death of Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-author Michael Baigent, and defended a court's findings in favor of Dan Brown, who the authors of HB,HG sued. If you like the OG and you haven't read RAW's The Widow's Son, consider adding it to your Summer Reading list. It might be instructive to compare its literary qualities to Brown's Da Vinci Code, and even more revelatory when you realize which one the public clamored over and which one is the "obscure" novel.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Well, as far as serious thinkers go, it is rather difficult to come up with many public intellectuals who will acknowledge Robert Anton Wilson as an influence. But I'll argue that Douglas Rushkoff counts.

It would have been nice if "The Widow's Son" had sold a bunch of copies, but I think I would have settled for it getting reviews in placed such as the New York Times book sectionI really believe that a few such reviews would have allowed him to reach a much wider audience. As it is, he reached only a fraction of the audience he could have reached. As I noted in the blog post you referenced, Dan Brown's lawyers could have used "The Widow's Son" as part of their defense, but they obviously had never heard of the book.

When one of my favorite obscure writers was still alive, a guy named R.A. Lafferty, critics within the field of science fiction used to complain that his virtues were largely lost on the SF crowd, and if he were ever discovered by the mainstream, he could reach a much larger and more appreciative audience. It never happened for Lafferty, and I think much the same thing happened to RAW -- he never got discovered by the right critic who could bring him to the attention of NY Times readers, New Yorker readers, NPR listeners, etc.

michael said...

Absolutely Rushkoff counts. So do Philip Jenkins and Francis Wheen. Still, the attention space RAW's work occupies in the broader public sphere seems inadequate compared to the size and quality of his oeuvre...but this complaint by adherents to a particular writer/thinker probably goes back at least 3000 yrs.

So maybe we are of the Cult of RAW? So what? It's not difficult to see his influence on scads of other artists and writers.

This seems to go back to a RAW trope: the NY publishing houses and their power, vs. West Coast ideas. It's still going on, viz:


...But RAW's idiosyncratic influences, his generalism, surrealism, genre-mixing, outsider politics and a batch of books on New Falcon probably marginalized him as well.

There's a documentary called The Stone Reader about a guy who loves reading, and he can't understand why an author he thought was really great (Dow Mossman) fell into obscurity. It's for anyone who's having the "conversation" we're having now. Dow fell into obscurity for virtually none of the reasons RAW did (RAW seems like Stephen King compared to Dow Mossman), but for readers like us,it seems there's something there to identify with.

Speaking for myself: of course I wish someone would do a film based on one of RAW's works and it would become a huge hit, and most of his books would be picked up by mainstream presses and he'd have a bunch of posthumous best-sellers on the NYT list, etc. But really: my whole life I've been weird; I've loved stuff that was considered outre or rejected or declasse: it makes sense that I'd find so much value in someone who the official "Really Smart Ones" wouldn't understand, or just hate for political reasons. I've had to learn to be cool with it.

It doesn't mean I won't continue to try to bring his work to more light. For every person who said "I tried that Wilson guy but I couldn't get into it," there have been four who read RAW and it made a significant impact. I think a lot of it is who our "crowd" is, and, once again, how "weird" we are.

I take "weird" as an honorific in this sense.

Re: Lafferty: I did some research in online library catalogues and he's been included in anthologies to a remarkable degree.

I really wish Brown's lawyers would've read people like us and got onto The Widow's Son and cited it as a novel that used HBHG extensively for fictional purposes, predating DaVinci Code by 18 yrs.

Finally: this topic makes me wonder about the unknown unknowns: how many writers/thinkers exist that are totally obscure now, but deserve far greater notice due to wit, wildness, ornateness, creative madness and daring?

Eric Wagner said...

Great piece, although I would prefer the title "Do We Live in a Robert Anton Wilson Novel?"

I suspect the photo of Bob and Tim come from a time closer to Tim's death in 1996.

My knee jerk response to your piece said, "I used to live in a RAW novel more that I do now. Now I tend to live in Orwell or Kafka (or Stendhal or Proust on a good day)." Upon reflection I realize I got the whole idea of living in a novel from Bob, as well as the idea that the novel I live in shifts based on changes in my nervous system, so, yeah, I do tend to live in a Robert Anton Wilson novel, thank God.

I first got into Lafferty in the 90's after reading Neil Gaiman's praise of him.

Anonymous said...

Knocked off the lurking stump again.

Of course we live in the world RAW
made. He lived in it too.

My bet for the photog is Joe Matheny.

So what happens if you search the
outer fringes for people who aren't
in the mainstream? I find that it
shines a much needed light on the so-
called upholders of the one true way.

If they were wrong at least they
were interesting about it, a virtue
which could use more emulation.
It also means that you will be in
touch with the major currents so
prized by the upholders of the one
true way but can avoid the turgid
and self serving propaganda of the
official party line.

Conspiracy theory works the same
way, nobody makes up conspiracy out
of thin air. While you may not see
the causal chain that causes most
academics to dismiss them the things that are linked are real
chunks of the real world. Should
we decide that there are no causal
links between the chunks without
examining any evidence ? To do so
seems to be part of a correct answer machine or BS.

Modern philosophy is mostly epistemological cartoonery buried
under academic verbiage. The idea
that decoding meaning of complexity
into a useful form seems to have
vanished when 16 strong men poured
the Hemlock into Socrates and Plato
spun the story for favours political.

The problem is you have to read the
stuff to form such a contrary idea
about such a hallowed subject with
its holy icons. Slavoj Zizek might
be wrong but at least he doesn't
bore the audience. T Mckenna spent
years preaching as a philosopher
to the masses and the end results
were to have his library burned.

Here's a nice gedankexperiment go
back into history and examine the
ideas of the mainstream at that
point in time. How many have survived unchanged to the present ?
Why would anyone think the ideas
of the current mainstream are so
good they will survive.

Given what science is up to these
days, falling into a coma for a couple of years might make you
live as a man of past age...GRIN

Thanks for stuff to think about.

BrentQ said...

Great piece Michael. I like to think your blog is continuing the RAW tradition of blending the intellectual/humorous/esoteric and subverting specialist, narrow-minded thinking.

For me, the work of RAW came into my life at the right time. I was never much of a reader in my younger years and academia seemed to sterilize the act of reading and learning. But RAW served as a conduit into a realm of powerful ideas. His writing style was so dense with information, yet highly readable. He was definitely ahead of his time and I've often thought that his books must have functioned as a sort of internet browser in a pre-digital age, giving you access to links and connections to vast areas areas of important and obscure knowledge.

With RAW I thought I had discovered pure, intellectual gold. I found myself taking down notes on references to other important and esoteric books, and areas of exploration. RAW's personality seemed to come across in his writing and I think his honesty and candor are invaluable when dealing with the weird and subversive. He seemed like a friendly uncle-type who would not lead you astray, while delving into unknown territories.

Early on, I would try to force all my friends to read his stuff but I soon learned his books were a good litmus test to see who was really open-minded or dogmatic in their thinking.

I've often thought how great it would be if everyone had read RAW's books. The level of discourse in politics and the media would be improved overnight. Rigid, dogmatic thinking seems to be rampant on the internet as well, and a lot of arguments and bickering would be prevented if people REALLY understood the meaning of "The Map Is Not the Territory".

But on the other hand, there's something to be said for being part of a small cabal of RAW enthusiasts who really understand his work and ideas. If a movie was made or his work went mainstream it might mean that we know longer have the market cornered on Hidden Knowledge!

michael said...

@Eric: I see the E-Prime argument. My question to you: in what particular way, in this instance, seems "Do We" different than "Are We"?

michael said...


This comment was much welcomed and did resonate to a very high degree with me.

His work serves as a one-man clearing house for citations and suggestions for a lifetime's worth of further research by his readers. And his interests reached into such a large variety of areas, any reader could go off into any direction and get wonder-fully lost and changed.

Your comment reminded me of something the weird intellectual Edward Shils once wrote about. Shils had no degree but was taken very seriously in academe. I first knew him because he co-translated Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (in German: 1929; trans. to English in 1936), a book which placed the sociology of knowledge at the forefront of the Humanities. (RAW has some interesting things to say about uses of the sociology of knowledge in his Shavian Preface to Wilhelm Reich In Hell,pp.22-41.)

Anyway: Shils once wrote about the secularity of 20th century culture and how the growing educated class was not religious in a historical sense, but they still needed a sense of awe. Sombunall intellectuals - with a philosophically Sacred Object being "truth" - provided a thinking public with a sense of wonder and awe, which seemed isomorphic to the role of - to use Max Weber's term "religious virtuosi."

It's very easy for me to see RAW as one of the great examples of this type of Role Model.

michael said...

@Anon: always glad to have you sound off here, as it adds to the quality of the discourse.

Your comments about Zizek and McKenna just seem so underrated to me. On the one hand, there seems no end of books and articles about "Whatever happened to the public intellectuals?" Or "Who are the public intellectuals today?" Or "Why are some thinkers allowed room in the corporate media while others seem marginalized?"

Aye: even if Zizek "is" wrong, he's not boring! Did you see him take on Chomsky's diss recently?

My favorite of MIT's David Kaiser's "hippie physicists," Nick Herbert, says he follows science because it's "the hottest thing in our culture." And I agree. It became the hottest...when? I don't know, but it's now creating a Humanities/Social crisis in that: it's so disruptive to the social order (always has been) that it's now (FINALLY!) becoming obvious to writers in the monied media that it's eliminating human work.

What I hope is finally arriving - and it can't happen soon enough - is a serious public discussion about a jobless economy. And what were robots FOR, anyway?

Danke fer all the encouraging vibes and insights.

Eric Wagner said...

"Do we live in a Robert Anton Wilson world?" suggests an active involvement of "we". It suggests our model making capability and our role as co-creators of our environment. "We do live" as opposed to " We are".

I don't have the intense belief in E-Prime I had fifteen years ago, but I still find it a very useful tool, especially for those interested in understanding Bob Wilson I think about the distinction he makes at the beginning of Quantum Psychology between quantum psychology and quantum philosophy. He had a greater interest in "quantum psychology", a practical tool for perceiving the world as opposed to "quantum philosophy", manipulation of third circuit symbols. E-Prime seems to me a practical tool for more concrete use of language.

michael said...

What a delightful answer! Thanks! Points very well-taken.

Your succinct citation of RAW and quantum psychology vs. quantum philosophy and the beginning of Quantum Psychology remind me of RAW's related GS-infl idea: appending "neuro-" to fields of thought, to remind us that the body of thought in question involves embodied homo sapiens using symbolic systems on a rocky/watery planet orbiting a Type G star...and that anything said deserves consideration as limited and fallible.

Esp. Neuro-economics?

Eric Wagner said...

Neuro-blogging? (Blogging about blogging about blogging, such as my blog comment on this blog about my blog comment on Tom's blog about Tom's blog about your blog about his blog.)

Rhetorical aside: Over the past few years I've noticed lots of "NOTW" bumper stickers. I tend to read them as "Night of the Wombat", one of the more surreal kung fu films. Today I noticed a little "R" next to the T, suggesting the reading "Not Of This Registered Trademark World", a good starting point for neuro-economics and/or neuro-rhetoric, etc.

Sue Howard said...

Excellent piece, and some great comments. RAW's exquisite stuff on the fundamentalists in CSICOP (in 'The New Inquisition' & elsewhere) never looked so important to me as it does now (after I just read numerous "social media" responses to a new, fascinating BBC documentary about Uri Geller's work for secret intelligence agencies). There's such a widespread "We're So fucking CREDIBLE & RESPECTABLE" vibe these days to anyone who dismisses so called "pseudo-science" or Fortean-type weirdness, etc, as not even worthy of glancing at (as it's not "CREDIBLE", they deeply believe).

michael said...

@ Sue Howard-

We're singing a glorious two-part harmony in 3rds and 6ths here, Sue.

I was going to include the Geller news here w/re/to Cosmic Trigger I and SRI and the hippie physicists,but the timeliness may have passed its expiration date?

Your comments reminded me of one of many "wars" between the Disciplines now. Evolutionary Psychologists apparently feel like there's a co-ordinated attack on them by leftish Humanities types, and if there is (I'm far away from academia so it takes me awhile to feel like I've got a "line" on things), it seems it's for good reason.

Check out Annalee Newitz's "The Rise of the Evolutionary Psychology Douchebag":