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Oct 24, 1996
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving po...more
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving powerful insights into the 'German mind'.
Of course, Junger was an exceptional - a hysterical personality hidden behind an icy persona. His morbid and intense fanaticism presented in cool and refined terms, the aesthete of collectivised death.
The book only covers half his life. This would mean the story of a young man in most cases but here covers five decades at the heart of a terrible history. Junger's responses to them have things to tell us.
The master works are two-fold - immediate post-war and then polished memoirs of what a fanatic feels and does in mechanised trench warfare and diaries of Nazi occupation from a consummate aesthete.
The first, notably 'Storm of Steel', created an hysterical mythology that undoubtedly helped fuel the Radical Right capture of power in Germany in 1933.
The second, the 'Paris Diaries', should be reissued as an insight of immense value into what it means to occupy and what it means to resist.
But how to evaluate this important figure who represented the German haute bourgeoisie's adoption of faux-aristocratic elitism and its subsequent conversion, after trauma, into conservative revolutionism?
The writings in the interwar era bear all the hall marks of a form of literary post-traumatic stress response - the violence and morbidity packaged into grand schemes detached from all observable reality.
During that period, like many committed ideologues, Junger would find that national socialism was somehow not quite right, too demotic, too pragmatic, not cosmic enough perhaps.
He entered into what we now identify as National Bolshevik circles - the Left critics within the broad national socialist ideology associated with Niekisch and the Strassers.
Junger - a minor political figure as much as he was a major cultural figure - was by-passed by the Night of the Long Knives as he escaped the terror after the July bomb plot. He was both lucky and protected.
In the 1930s, his aestheticism dominates. He writes the spectacularly effective and misunderstood 'Auf den Marmorklippen' and sees through Hitler early but his politics remain fundamentally militarist.
Back in military service in the early 1940s, without changing his radical conservative views, merely adapting them, aesthetic distaste for the modern techno-brutality of demotic Hitlerism grows.
Does this redeem him? That case is hard to make. He is complicit. His aestheticism of elite domination, his disregard for the ordinary person, his sentiment - all these remain.
All he does is write beautifully and with acute observational skill (to the delight or horror of other highly educated intellectuals) about monstrosities and what the rich do on their holidays.
As a result of his brutal and cold honesty, there is far more to be learned about the human condition, however, than there is from the worthy whining and dishonesty of liberals.
The only place where this author's writings (which are not covered after 1945) filled me with an almost physical repulsion was at the very end when he discovers 'religion'.
Nevin tries his best to make this 'turn' interesting but the effect is part deadening and part visceral gut-wrenching disgust. In the midst of hell, with defeat on the horizon, he turns intellectual coward.
But the malign political influence does not stop with this intense new round of hogwash - it starts all over again.
We have written elsewhere of the attempt to whitewash the conservative nationalist hog in today's Europe. Here we see more of the origins of that whitewash in the 'programme' for post-war Europe.
Junger's interwar influence is still to be found reborn, alongside Evola's, in the rise of the political soldier and National Bolshevik activists' dabbling in Kiev and the undergrowth of European Rightism.
What is not so well appreciated is the influence of the wartime conservative nationalist idea of a united Europe based on 'Christian' values - little more than a ploy to win back the alienated occupied.
Junger's programme was not alone in this but it was part of the implicit strategy of the July plotters. Nevin's description of its main thesis is worth quoting at length.
... Junger seeks an authoritarian state that will unify Europe. He cites as visionaries of this union Richelieu, Cromwell [sic], and Bismarck, champions of statism but not certain friends of individual conscience. Suggesting that a democracy can be both authoritarian and liberal, he likens the state's security and the individual's prosperity to a mussel: hard outside so that the pearl may grow. .... He envisages an imperial state in tandem with a virtually established church, a tableau that conjures authoritarian Prussia.
We must always remember that Junger is rarely an original thinker on politics. What he does is take the general belief of his broader circle and the National Right and extend it into imaginative extremity.
He does this with the enthusiasm for war in 1914 and its ideology of the disciplined violence. And with the demand for integralist fascist order on the 1930s. And now with conservative survival.
The model for Europe, nurtured in the viper's nest of the German conservative elite and amongst complicit church-goers, the lesser evil to the satanic hatreds of national socialism, is that of today's Right.
The demand for peace - the leitmotif of the pro-European movement - is still cast on the Right in terms developed before 1914 by anti-Bolshevist conservatives under conditions of impending defeat.
This is the ultimate 'detournement' - turning defeat into ultimate victory. One wonders if the distaste of German liberal intellectuals for Junger is partly awareness of his partial victory.
The implication is that German violence can only be straight-jacketed by Europeanism and the Church (to the Right) and can never be a free liberal and democratic nation in its own right.
I want to praise Nevin for one minor innovation. When he cites an article or a book at the back he describes what is in it and whether he thinks it stands up to scrutiny or not.
I wish more academic authors would do this. It helps us get a better sense of controversy and the possible differences of opinion on how a work is to be interpreted. Junger must be seen in this way.
Finally, I think this book reminds us why books should never be banned or forgotten. Junger's work is very important and not as an 'object lesson' (as left-liberals might like it to be).
They are important because they are emotionally and intellectually 'true'. The blood-lust, grand schemes, detachment, controlled hysteria and fantastic essentialism are true to what we are as a species.
The paradox is that Junger is in good faith about laying out his limitations and bad faith. It is no accident that Celine and Bloy appear in the pages on occupation.
We need to know not only what we are but what we could be and therefore what others could be if we give them authority and power. Junger is what we all could be under certain conditions.
I find I cannot relate to some aspects of this conservative extremist but that he does speak to other aspects of me as possibly no other writer can.
Junger dances around the dark demonic without ever becoming quite satanic himself. His world visions are fusions of pessimism and dark hope, clear observation and the fantastic.
At one point, some passage or other triggers thoughts of the cosmic despair of a Ligotti. At another, he appears to get into the very heart of what it is to be compassionate, almost by accident.
But remember that the story ends in 1945. There is another 53 years of life to go - some may consider that long and full life mere proof of a godless universe but his work remains of inestimable value.
Notes are private!
Apr 26, 2014
Oct 18, 1988
I will come clean - I generally find South Asian spirituality obscurantist (not helped by its Sanskrit technical terminology) and tend to avoid it.
I will come clean - I generally find South Asian spirituality obscurantist (not helped by its Sanskrit technical terminology) and tend to avoid it.
However, this book is a worthy addition to the library. It is scholarly and as clear as can be expected with the subject matter.
Silburn was Honorary Research Director at the French CNRS and has taken seriously her task of comprehensively studying the texts that are available and works hard to explain what we have to hand.
Many modern readers will be most interested in what the texts have to say about the esoteric sexual practice of tantra in the third part and the book certainly has insights.
Sexual transgression was still transgression in early medieval Vedic India so the obscurity of some practices will remain a secret forever unless a new hidden cache of texts is found.
Nevertheless, what we have here is a recognition of the transcendental orgasmic response identified as a very real phenomenon by Dr. Jenny Wade and others and an attempt to explain it along traditional lines.
My own view is that the spiritual language of universal consciousness is sincere obfuscation - the sort that we are used to hearing from drug-happy Californians - but there is still something to learn here.
The egalitarian attitude between men and women is refreshing but the real interest lies in the awareness of sexual union and transgressive behaviour as in themselves potentially personally transformative.
There is a certain gnostic pessimism in the texts about just how many people might benefit and the claims are extreme to say the least but something very real in terms of experience was going on here.
The precise techniques are probably lost though they clearly involved self-generated sound and vibration, concentrated mental effort and breath control but not scientifically non-recoverable if we will it.
The question is whether our culture can will it because the process clearly requires a particular sexual dynamic that is counter-intuitive to Western habits and separate from 'household sexuality'.
The question beneath the question is how much people want to be transformed in line with their inner nature. This is the real barrier then and now to adoption of sex as transformation tool.
The adoption of sanskrit gobbledygook (by Westerners) is really a sign of evasion and resistance to early medieval South Asian discoveries. Sexuality has to be cloaked even now in invented 'meaning'.
I am pleased to see scholars - professional and amateur such as Phil Hine - working hard to uncover the real meaning of sanskrit texts to contemporaries and their subsequent interpretation.
This is a major service to culture but, if the discoveries are to be productive, the texts have to be not merely translated into terms we can understand but understood as suggestive rather than scripture.
The discoveries need to be considered in a modern materialist context as matters for bio-physical, neuro-scientific and psychological investigation and offered as possibilities and tools for today.
Hidden in the coded language of South Asian and alchemical texts are important insights into the way we can control our bio-mental faculties to remove past encodings and realign ourselves.
One of the tools for this has to be a non-neurotic approach to sexuality that permits it to be a tool for such an alignment and not just a bonding mechanism to keep society ticking along.
This dual nature of sexuality - as trigger for bonding and as source for personal transformation - has never been accepted fully in Western society and not always wholly or healthily elsewhere.
Perhaps the lesson of seeking sexual means to non-dualism is that we need to deal with the dualism of society as part of the process of general species transformation.
To be uncharacteristically idealistic for a moment, one can envisage a situation where people are so economically, socially, culturally and sexually secure that they can integrate these two sexualities.
A society of multiple bondings between transformed and non-neurotic individuals is a pipe dream at the moment because economic insecurity, social and cultural competition and sexual neurosis are normal.
Once the bonding element is sorted out (which is really a sub-set of anxiety), then minds can turn to sexuality as a tool in conditions where 'detachment' and 'love' are not incompatible.
Still, this book at least offers a small corner of the history of the world where, in a perhaps unsatisfactory way, men and women could consider practical measures on equal terms to achieve transcendence.
Notes are private!
Apr 18, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
Oct 02, 2013
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distil...more
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distilling at least two decades of thinking on the subject.
Although a Professor of War Studies, Freedman does not restrict himself to the conduct of war but reviews revolutionary and dissident stategy on the one hand and business strategy on the other.
He is highly critical of some of the nonsense (he is too kind to call it that) from business gurus and I can only be pleased that I smelled the rat throughout the 1980s and 1990s and read few of them.
Where he gets to is a sceptical view of what we can possibly know about our own futures or control them.
He outlines, in the final section, the role of narratives and scripts in giving us the illusion of control.
This is not a counsel of despair. There is no fatalism in Freedman's approach but he does suggest that 'real life' requires a degree of detachment from scripts and narratives while making use of them as tools.
Educated readers will probably not be surprised by the general thrust of the section on war where there is a sort of master in Clausewitz (and the influence of Jomini) but it will bring you up to date.
As we write, a rather odd crisis between the 'West' (whatever that is) and Russia, after some egregious blundering by the European Union, has allowed all sorts of absurd 'narratives' free rein.
Trying to rein in historic stories about fascism and appeasement as well as more recent tales of humanitarian intervention and self determination has been part of the problem for intelligent diplomats.
The Ukraine remains unresolved as we write but the undoubted strategic skills of Putin and Lavrov on the one hand and Obama and Kerry might be enhanced by having this text at their sides.
The second section on the strategic attempts to overturn elites and systems gives due weight to the role of Marxism but is perhaps too easily seduced into a highly US-centred picture of political struggle.
This provides us with one of the few 'strategic' criticisms of the book - the elephant in the room that Freedman assiduously dances around: the State.
Military strategy is the expression of the force of the State, revolutionary strategies seek to overturn or capture the State and business strategies compete with the State ... but what of the State?
The State, emergent out of warlordism and dynasticism (or small trading communities), is the thing that should interest us most because we are most stuck inside its narratives and scripts.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of space (the book is over 600 pages long) but one senses sometimes that the broader academic community is always nervous of telling us the truth about what feeds it.
But this may be unfair. The book is mostly easy reading (though the idiocies of academic social scientists often cause one to lose patience) and the assessments are honest and fair to all parties.
Indeed, it is good to find a book that both gives due to the troubled struggle by educated revolutionaries to speak for the masses and to the games businessmen play to try to control what cannot be controlled.
A book which treats Rockefeller of Standard Oil and Karl Marx fairly, let alone Tom Hayden, has a lot going for it though maybe Freedman should throw up his hands at Sun Tzu as perpetual strategic cliche.
Will this book make you a better 'strategist'? Well, it will do a service if it makes you sceptical about books that claim to offer that particular pot of gold.
Strategists are probably born rather than made but many of the skills can be learned - or rather 'bad' unstrategic narratives might be unlearned and 'scripts' recognised.
His story of continuous failures to 'get it right' becomes a bit cheerier when rationalist progressives begin to be challenged by the behaviourial economists.
Though I remain unconvinced by this particular discipline - and consider political science to be an utterly absurd concept - cognitive psychology has helped us here.
Increasingly, we are beginning to stop whining that we are not 'rational' (or rather autistic academics are) and beginning to see our mentalities as extremely good survival machines for uncertainty.
Freedman is persuasive that we have a sort of double action mind where intuition and 'art' working in real time gets things right most of the time under most conditions (his System 1 strategic thinking).
Habit and narratives and scripts can get in our way in a crisis and the reasoning abilities of his System 2 thinking enable us analytically and critically correct our own biases and errors.
However, we can only do this in real time, constantly adjusting to realities that are, in themselves, way beyond any form of reasonable long term analysis because of so many variables and unknowns.
Perhaps the thinking started with John Boyd's simple but productive concept of OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) but Freedman here develops a more interesting model of struggle.
In essence, the only strategy is the intuitive positioning of oneself to win each battle as it comes within a general vision of where one wants to be - and this is not a matter for mathematicians.
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2014
May 01, 2001
Feb 01, 2010
This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be eas...more This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be easily summarised. He takes the lives of four significant American intellectuals - William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey - and weaves a history around them, their associates and historical events.
The purpose is to elucidate the pragmatic turn of mind that emerged as a central element in American political and intellectual life after the horrors of the Civil War. It reached its high point in the first half of the next century. He presents pragmatism in its various forms as a reaction to the absolutism and certainty that had led to war.
He closes by hinting (though not going much further) that the ways of seeing represented by these men have been replaced by more absolutist attitudes in more recent decades.
This book has so much breadth and depth to it that it is hard to suggest anything more than that it should be read. There is no easy summary of its contents. This is fitting. Pragmatic thinking is a response to the human complexity that became increasingly obvious in industrial society.
This required a turning away from simplicities offered by Christian Fundamentalists, Kantians, Hegelians and other believers in the Absolute. Pierce, for example, remained someone with a sense of the absolute but his role is much like that of Kierkegaard's in the equivalent European existentialist revolt against intellectual grand design.
Both men were trying to understand how the world might be interpreted in the light of experience while retaining God. Peirce's philosophy of signs and wonders and Kierkegaard's leap of faith created pragmatic tools for others who required no deity - not what either man intended.
Pragmatism may even be the reason why Marxism could never take hold in the American elite. The central aspect of pragmatism is its lack of ideology - ideas and concepts are just tools. Tolerance of the struggle for mastery over ideas was to be the hall mark of Americanism expressed as democracy.
Pragmatism happens to be the philosophy of action (alongside existentialism as philosophy of being) that I find most amenable so I have a bias here.
Nevertheless, it would be hard to find a more basically decent human being than William James, one of the key figures in Menand's analysis. It is rare to read a book nowadays where a major figure comes out better than you expected - usually, 'great men' (a silly concept) come out human-all-too-human in the worst sense.
Here, James comes out human-all-too-human in the best sense - inquiring, tolerant, decent, humane and providing space for possibility at every opportunity when it comes to us humans. This is a progressive man, not in the sense of the interfering matriarchical busybody who wants us to be 'better' but as someone who sees life as a process of improvement and development from within.
James also re-opened the door for religion not as an imposed morality instigated from above but as a life choice that could be respected even if it was 'wrong'.
What also comes across in the book is just how interconnected the American intellectual class was in the nineteenth century. Make no mistake - American democracy was constructed by elites. Although this changes as the century progresses, the story is almost entirely one of a network of individuals who all knew each other and had family connections in New England.
These are people who grow up and go to war together and deal together with problems raised by the piety, real or assumed, of their parents' generation through argument and struggle. These are not radicals at all. Quite the contrary. They are reacting to a political radicalism about principle that had resulted in violence. Menand is persuasive on this.
These are also highly intelligent people struggling with the processes of transition within a relatively undeveloped proto-industrial economy.
In traditional capitalist New England, merchant families maintained order and morality through an appeal to a puritan God. After the Civil War, a rival conservative culture based on agrarian values was crushed but modernity did not allow the New Englanders much time to bask in their absolute values of righteousness and good order.
Industrial society became continent-wide and complex, leading to tensions between bourgeois paternalism and labour rights. This was compounded by the 'pull' of migrants from overseas looking for a better life and the complex interweaving of science and race with the politics of interest.
Pragmatic thought was the right philosophy for the times. It recognised the sheer scale of the problem of differing interests and the uselessness of resolutions of difference by force and violence.
It is interesting perhaps that 'absolutism' (in the form of the aggressive export of democratic values in the declaration of war of 1917) emerged from the circle of a Southern Democrat. This declaration of war was also associated with an aggressive use of the law to supppress dissent. Many of the New England 'liberals' (William James was conscious of his debt to JS Mill) opposed the war.
Dewey, the youngest, who straddled the liberal/progressive divide, was one of the war mongers but later regretted his position. This became a breach between the true pragmatists and the militant progressives and is underestimated as a longstanding tension between two responses to American democracy.
The liberal pragmatist's prime concern is in making democracy work well in and for itself to avoid disorder and violence. The progressive, like the socialist, wants to make it work for a prior idea or interest.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, was interested in process to ensure the law worked well in a pragmatic way. Personally quite conservative, this might often result in liberal or progressive results. Sometimes this meant that he was supportive of the more tyrannical statist changes and sometimes resistant of them.
The total effect of this pragmatic philosophy of letting judges make the law out of the law was a constant liberal adjustment to changed conditions despite his own conservatism. Menand makes his case well that the construction of American liberal democracy owes a great deal to the confluence of views and adaptation to new realities of this relatively small group of intellectuals.
Perhaps in some ways pragmatism went too far, opening the door to a new phase that was to prove more problematic but this would still accord with pragmatic philosophy. Although I happen to think there is a flaw in this approach, the pragmatist would tend to see process as value-free eventually leading to the best outcome - a counterpart to the market.
In fact, the argument for a struggle of interests within democracy eventually degenerated into the identity politics we see today. Although Menand does not deal with the later period, he gives insights. Ethnic and religious individuals began to see no future in being American alone but in becoming competing blocks within American democracy as ethnic or faith-based Americans.
The pragmatists cannot be held responsible for this development because pragmatism presupposes a common core culture within which other socio-economic interests struggle but the philosophy enabled it to happen. They were not to know that the struggle between socio-economic interests would come to involve the revival of race and of ethnicity, and then of gender and sexual orientation, as organising principles.
A democracy designed to manage the clash of labour and capital in the wake of the traumatic Pullman Strike eventually became a vehicle for culture wars between vast coalitions of identity groups. By the twenty-first century, these were constructing themselves in opposition to each other in a blind process of call and response. Voters would vote on tribal attribute rather than individual interest.
Perhaps the most degenerate phase will be when a woman president is elected not because she is the best person but because liberal women will vote en masse for one of their own.
The State also became powerful in itself as arbiter between labour and capital and so was enabled to become, in stages, 'imperial'. It had learned to undertake war internally between 1860 and 1865 and then practised these dark arts against Indian tribes and the little brown brothers in Cuba and the Philippines.
The new rampant State ceased to be liberal without ceasing to be democratic when it entered the European War with a specific brief to spread values which had by then ceased to be 'pragmatic'. Menand does not deal with this late phase but we can. Pragmatism was displaced by a new democratic absolutism - American democracy not as organic creation but as exportable total system against 'tyranny'.
In the twentieth century, not just in 1917 but in stages throughout the century, America became an illiberal democracy (in the sense that a British person or New Englander would have understood 'liberal'). The new 'liberalism' that has emerged is, like its counterpart conservatism, definitely not a pragmatism but closer to the transcendental belief system of pre 1860 New England radicals.
If conservatism has not lost God. American liberalism (or progressivism) has a vision of what is absolutely right that is not wholly without merit. Sometimes 'real' liberalism fails to deliver. Menand rightly points out that it took an absolutist who believed in God (Martin Luther King) to trigger the changes required to move forward in dealing with racial discrimination.
However, cultural struggle in America today, a stand-off between cultural conservatives and liberals, means partial disconnection from basic socio-economic struggles and this not quite so 'pragmatic'. American democracy is not all that it often claims to be. The current struggle, expressed in terms of Democrats and Republicans, certainly works within certain rules set by the Constitution.
However, the US is not the common culture on which pragmatists had relied for their philosophy of tolerance and pluralism to work, the function of a meritocratic elite which crushed its main rival in war. The America of the twenty-first century is different in fundamental ways from the world of the pragmatists while, in practical terms, within a complicated legal framework, Americans remain pragmatic.
However, making democracy work as process (the aim of political pragmatists) has been replaced by a determination to treat the state, judiciary and legislature as instrumental in a different way. The Constitution is robust but the cultural wars within the US and the imperial adventuring outside seem to have reached a pitch of intensity where the Constitution simply no longer has all the answers required.
Since 2003, the US has engaged in a series of wars that have been fruitless and expensive, culminating in a bloodless defeat in Syria, without any sense of the nation being united any more than in 1917. Similarly, the state's surveillance operations seem to have been undertaken by an executive that is out of control, without legislative scrutiny or opportunity for judicial review.
Neither of these issues appear to engage the mass of Americans who seem to live under the radar screen of any politics that is not pre-set by their cultural identity. The economic losers (once the interest group of concern to pragmatists) are now wholly without a voice, not even the voice that Menand noted existed a hundred years earlier simply by dint of them existing.
Something is up with America. Some crisis that has not yet expressed itself. This book is an invaluable guide in trying to think through what that crisis might be and how it might have come to be. Perhaps, by thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of pragmatic thinking, it might also help Americans think about what might be done to overcome that crisis as it unfolds over the coming years.(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 22, 2013
Feb 18, 1988
Feb 18, 1988
This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemica...more This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemical intent in that (in my opinon quite correctly) he clearly wants us to be unpersuaded by the transcendental claims of the great essentialists - Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and their followers.
The book's narrative perhaps hinges on the great anti-philosopher and so the greatest philosopher of the continental tradition, Nietzsche. It is as if progress was not possible until he had spoken though we can offer some thanks to the intellect of Kierkegaard.
Looking back, everything before Nietzsche looks increasingly like ideology and everything after him an attempt at science, the striving towards a philosophy that had the measure of man as he is in relation to the world or a somewhat futile attempt to salvage what he wrecked.
Of course, ideology returns in the synthesis between it and existentialism of the flawed genius Sartre, the squabbles with Camus (untreated here) and the important explorations of identity of De Beauvoir but it has to take account of the existential impulse in order to salvage a somewhat intense and over-wrought version of meaning.
By the time we get to the last chapter, we are too close to the period in which Solomon is writing. He is wisely cautious about what will and will not matter to future generations. In the mid-1980s he can reasonably judge that Althusser and Lacan were effectively damp squibs and have the jury out on Derrida and Foucault (though the last is clearly joining the greats as time passes).
In fact, what does strike us is just how good Solomon's judgment is in nearly every case. Even today, we would give Marx the due given by Solomon and we have since thrown Freud over board as influence on philosophy perhaps too easily.
But (given the closing of the story in effect in the middle of the twentieth century) what remains striking is that the long tail of Kantian and Hegelian nonsense is still so culturally dominant today outside philosophy itself.
We can push to one side the clowning of Zizek but philosophy today is either soundly analytical but increasingly sceptical of itself, striving to give up bits of itself to the cognitive sciences, or it is attempting to find out what it is to be human (the followers of Heidegger) or how power, text, language and the social actually operate (Foucault) rather than piddle around with non-existent universals.
Philosophy remains dynamic and questioning and yet our political and artistic culture, having disposed of both Freud and Marx, seems stuck in the world created by the absolutist transcendentalists.
My own theory on this relates to psychology. The class that sits in a manipulative position over the masses has no tools left but an invented idealism in order to guide and control them.
It is not that Kantian rights theory or Hegelian dialectic (shorn of its Marxist overlay now) are true but that, as tools, they are useful, whereas the insights on what it is to be human of Heidegger (after Nietzsche) or Foucault may be true but they are not useful except to individuals and (were they but to know it) the masses themselves.
The search for meaning thus intersects with a struggle over power and the Absolute has become a pragmatically useful replacement for God. It can both give a spurious meaning to people desperate for meaning (even if it not be true) and be a tool for power while posturing as progressive or advanced thought.
No wonder the liberal intelligentsia and administrative classes find it difficult to give these essentialisms up - it would be like the cynical Constantine giving up Christianity even after someone had pointed out that it was based on invented nonsense.
The invented nonsenses of Christianity were too obvious by the Enlightenment so the arrival of Rousseau and his ilk was like (excuse the joke) a 'deus ex machina', ready and waiting for the new 'democratic' ideologies of conscription and manipulation.
Heidegger and Sartre drifted into the same trap in different ways (and were unlike Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, even if a perverted form of the last was utilised by evil forces later).
Heidegger, whose early and core philosophy stands as the most profoundly 'realistic' account of how we humans exist in the world, drifted into a mystical stance later that might easily have become transcendental in its own right if taken further.
Sartre, a true manipulative genius, merged existentialism with Cartesianism to turn philosophy into a weapon once again but (as Marx did) one for the damned and discontented of the earth to use if they were so minded. That Sartre turned to Marx as tool to hand should occasion no surprise.
Neither 'turn' was persuasive because both wanted to reinvent meaning where there was no necessity for it, either for the individual in the world or as a tool for action in the world. Neither seemed to be able to reconstruct sufficient 'pagan virtue' but had to invent alienations where none need have existed. The theory of alienation, of course, actually being at its worse in the hysterically ridiculous value judgments emerging in the 'horreur' of commodification and objectification from the dimmer type of late Marxist.
Today, we seem to live in a world where philosophy exists in three layers: a top layer of serious investigation that informs how science is being done and how people may live in the world; an intermediate layer of celebrity performance whose sole purpose appears to be pander to the prejudices of a certain type of graduate terrified of becoming declasse; and the level below this where liberal rights activism and administrative conservatism rely on philosophical systems that are outdated and, bluntly, plain wrong.
Below these three layers are the population at large, controlled by the layer immediately above (and half persuaded where they are not holding to traditional world views of their rightness), confused by and disconnected from the layer above that and not realising that the things that will decide their future and their world live in that fertile top layer.
What we have as the world trundles towards a revolutionary situation based on technological change is a cultural milieu in which rights and the dialectic have simply replaced traditional religion. It is no surprise to see, equally threatened by the new world, faith-based groups and many intellectual 'Leftists' converging in conservative opposition to the technological and freedom agenda emerging (albeit mostly accidentally) out of much current philosophy.
We are entering a time of struggle. The reactionary forces in this struggle include Enlightenment absolutism as much as people who believe in supernatural forces - both the Absolute and God are really simply variations on the same theme. However, that is looking at things a quarter of a century on from this book.
In the meantime, Solomon's narrative should be taken as one of the best short and very readable guides to the continental tradition, from Rousseau to the existentialists and phenomenologists, and is recommended.
Notes are private!
Oct 27, 2013
Jun 01, 1987
Although now (in its 1987 edition) a quarter of a century old, this book remains valuable not so much for its argument in favour of the development of...more Although now (in its 1987 edition) a quarter of a century old, this book remains valuable not so much for its argument in favour of the development of the then relatively new discipline of cognitive science as for its insights into how science actually works.
Regardless of that, the book remains a useful history of six loosely related disciplines - the humanistic social 'science' of anthropology and the hard science of neuroscience at the edges of the proposed (in 1984) new science and its core cognitive disciplines of philosophy, psychology, linguistics and artificial intelligence.
Gardner's argument is that these disciplines are the basis for a science of cognition covering such problems as how we perceive the world (contributing to epistemology), how we imagine the world, how we categorise and classify the world and not only how we reason but if we can be said to be rational at all.
These are questions that do not replace philosophy - certainly not the ontological basis for existentialism or any viable philosophy of meaning - but they usefully limit the claims of philosophy to what cannot be known by evidence-based scientific method (so that philosophy still includes core questions not only of meaning but of value).
Gardner takes his story no further than 1987 (in the paperback edition). Much has happened since yet this is still an excellent guide to the relevant sciences up to the mid-1980s.
However, the general reader should be warned that he writes clearly but that he is telling a complex story for the benefit of his peers. You should expect to be stretched and perhaps to find it a difficult book if rewarding one.
Gardner's judgments strike me as generally sound and especially useful when helping us to understand why the mid-twentieth century behaviourist model crumbled so quickly and how the more simple models applying computing analogies to the human condition were already becoming unsustainable as he was writing his book.
The dialectic between computing and brain studies has been fruitful but a basic awareness of continental philosophy would have cast doubt on any project that would make simple analogies betwen evolved brain and the technology of calculation and analysis.
'Being human' is a highly complex business that owes a great deal to our inheritance as an evolved biological entity with predispositions for survival in a hostile world.
The 'social' or cultural is simply an extension of the peculiarities of our condition so that research that shows that our rationality is suspect should not be confused with any value judgment that our lack of rationality is necessarily a bad thing.
The serious follower of the relevant sciences may find this book merely a reference point for a subsequent 25 years of discovery and theory but the book remains valuable and cautionary, regardless, as a description of how scientific paradigms (in the Kuhnian sense) rise and fall.
Gardner is assiduous in arguing for his thesis but not being polemical. There is no case (it would seem) where he is not prepared not merely to put an argument but to put all the criticisms of the argument. He is wholly fair-minded and generous - and scientific.
The result is that we get a strong picture both of progress in science and theory (not the same thing) but also of the very contingent nature of all theory and even of much experimentation at any particular moment in time.
This is important because a belief in science and scepticism about claims made by scientists are not incompatible. This book helps us to understand why - it is something to be borne in mind when evaluating claims about any application of science as technology or public policy.
What might be true now (as behaviourism once affected public policy in the 1950s) might not be true tomorrow. Caution is the appropriate response to all applications of science that are directed ultimately at society or the individual - whether they be claims about 'nudge', climate change, 'peak oil', GMOs or whatever.
What science can do is tell us what is true to all intents and purposes when dealing with matter (rather than with consciousness working on and in relation to matter as in the social) and what is negatively proven to be not possible or to be unlikely.
However, in dealing with mind and societies, let alone meaning and values, its paradigms are going to be unreliable when it comes to telling us much about what we are or should do when our complexity and reflexiveness is taken into account.
The cognitive science project is an important project to pursue but will be dangerous if it moves from the descriptive to the normative or the prescriptive.
While there is no sense that Gardner wishes to pursue anything but responsible science, one cannot be so sure of policymakers or vested interests that stand between us and the top end of the scientific community.
We certainly cannot be sure of those in the twenty-first century who want to get in on the band wagon of state funding of cognitive science for purposes that are political - the manipulation of the population into a state of order or compliance.
And even amongst scientists, there are those who are deluded into value and meaning from self interest, creating problems, diseases and conditions for which cognitive manipulations are assumed to be the solution.
In other words, while we may fear that cognitive science may assist in creating some monster of the Singularity, a cognitively advanced AI, we would do better to be frightened of the use of cognitive science in the hands of authority to force us into compliance with its values rather than our own.
Fortunately, no matter how much funding is thrown at the new neuroscience or at the militarisation of anthropology or at the core investigations of cognition, there is reason to be optimistic.
Human resistance and creativity, the nature of man in time, his desires and wilfulness and the sheer complexity of the social, more complex than the weather which can never be predicted beyond a short period, guarantee the utter failure of such projects in the long run.
With luck the new investment in these sets of 'sciences' (actually rational evidence-based investigations that fall between the hard science of matter and the non-science of the so-called social sciences) will find some cures for genuine suffering.
They may also provide people with improved choices in life and give us insights into the destructive modelling of such idiocies as religion and ideology. We should not be luddite - just cautious.
As with so much in the twenty-first century, the intellectual class sits between the people and states made up of coalitions of special interests.
The quasi-hard sciences, while expressing a 'truth' of sorts, are tools and weapons that might be made available to either side in what amounts to a large-scale but covert social war. (less)
Notes are private!
Sep 23, 2013
Mar 03, 2003
May 01, 2005
This is an important work in the undermining of the universalism that has afflicted private discourse and public policy in the West since the age of P...more This is an important work in the undermining of the universalism that has afflicted private discourse and public policy in the West since the age of Plato.
Nisbett explores a simple issue - whether, how and why East Asians and Americans (though he insists on referring to them as Westerners) think in different ways.
It is more exploratory than decisive. There is no psychological experiment that is not contingent in time and space by the very nature of its subject matter but much of his material is persuasive.
In essence, Nisbett is suggesting that East Asians in general and Americans more particularly have different modes of thought and different ways of seeing the world that inform their actions.
The implications are important in international relations but also in the types of respect we accord the 'other'.
The book dates from 2003 and, of course, is a thesis not a proof. It demands more research from a social science perspective but anyone involved in inter-cultural relations does not have to wait on the intellectuals.
Common sense and praxis teaches us that, while the situation is always as variable as the number of persons in the world, systems do approach problems in different ways that are fundamentally cultural.
There is, of course, little or no evidence (perhaps some at the margins in rare cases not covered in this book) that actual brain structures have evolved differently. This is not the issue by any means.
Nisbett's evidence seems to suggest quite the contrary - that people from one culture aculturate to the norms of thought of another with some ease if obliged to by circumstances.
This leads to an interesting short debate at the end about the degree to which one mode of thought (Western or East Asian) is functionally superior. It also raises questions about the benefits of cultural hybridisation that he does not address.
Naturally, there is no simple answer to 'superiority' because the types of situation that humans find themselves in could suggest an either/or or perhaps a neither/nor. Nisbett does not look into European distinctiveness, 'Latin' or Russian or African thought processes.
However, what is clear is that, once we accept one simple universal - the huge variability in problem-solving and ways of seeing the world - most of the other claimed universals start to disappear.
A paradox intrudes here. The lack of universalism in ways of seeing and thinking reinforces mutual respect at the most basic level of humanity - we really are all equal just differently circumstanced.
It also condemns all forms of aggressive mental imperialism and forces each side to adapt to the other if it wants to solve a problem involving both.
Again, we must say that Nisbett is hypothesising for further research and the social sciences are not like the hard sciences in that they are contingent and probabilistic. We must always be cautious.
We are currently in the middle of a series of crises where international relations has not yet caught up with these findings. There is often a thirty year lag between knowing amongst the few and doing amongst the many.
Most senior American policymakers, for example, are still embedded in the enlightenment liberal universalism of their schooling in the 1970s and 1980s.
The result has been the twin lunacies of multiculturalism (which is patronising) and the exports of rights ideology, sometimes through the barrel of a gun.
The last has been a consistent foreign policy disaster where it is clear that its proponents are inadequately equipped to understand why. They simply continue, creating negative reactions that undermine their own security.
The coup in Egypt and the protests in Turkey that are happening as I write this suggest that there is no simple equation between rights, democracy and freedom where democracy simply aids the arrival of obscurantism and authoritarian soldiers may be defenders of freedom.
The Middle East is distinctive but it still part of the 'Western sphere' but East Asia is different again. Relations between China and its neighbours and between China and America are probably of far more global significance even than protection of Israel and energy flows.
Nisbett's research and that of others - Nisbett has also done important work on honour cultures which could usefully inform strategy in relation to the Arab world - must now be working through the system.
The rethinking of 'universalism' should start to inform the more intelligent Westerners within a decade or two. Sadly, a lot of people may have to die before it gets to the sort of person who may be President in 2016 or, more likely, 2020.
If so, however, we may see some interesting changes in approach, especially to negotiations - continued differences of ambition, stance and opinion but mutual appropriations of method, especially when use of artificial intelligence is added to the analytical pot.
It is my own belief that the difference between, say, European and American culture is no less significant in the long term and that constant hybridisation of cultural forms, far from creating the future prospect of universalisation of culture, promises the exact opposite - almost infinite variation and 'difference'.
I see this in my own family - difference within a common core way of seeing. More widely, this owes a great deal to the sheer range of mental inputs provided by the internet.
The way that the internet 'ennobles' difference that might have been forced into a 'norm' within more rigid cultural systems - whether Western or other - is liberatory in a way that elites seem unable to cope with because their mental models belong to the past already.
This all suggests that the human mid-century will be very different, not merely from the age of competing ideologies but also from the now-rapidly degenerating age of imperial liberal universalism.
There are universal values - mutual respect, equality of persons, very basic aspirations (not rights which are after the fact inventions), maybe one or two clear rights (to cognitive freedom, the means to live reasonably well and a good death) - but these are surprisingly few.
We just need a generation of rigid thinkers, raised on post-Marxism and the rejection of Marxism, to move on and for genuinely liberal minds to resist the reactionary rise of past obscurantisms and let them die out of their own accord with prosperity and education.
As for the book, it is obviously recommended but be aware, as a general reader, that the central sections are rather dry accounts of psychological and social scientific experimentation that it will be hard to evaluate if you are a layman or woman.(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2013
Jan 01, 2008
Nov 18, 2008
I would advise being wary of getting over-excited by this book. It is popular social science journalism, distilling the findings of others with just a...more I would advise being wary of getting over-excited by this book. It is popular social science journalism, distilling the findings of others with just a hint of breathlessness. Yet it still has great value.
As with so many compendia of recent research, the data is shoe-horned into a general thesis which probably grossly over-simplifies the facts of the matter.
Gladwell is trying to tell us that we have gone too far in believing our own myths about success and that chance and history have far more influence on how we achieve than we think. So far, so well argued.
He demonstrates his case very well but he fails utterly to question the social construction of 'success' We have here that odd thing that is quite fashionable now - the questioning of Western ways of doing things without ever really questioning our aims and objectives as Westerners.
'Outliers' will please the puzzled and confused progressive liberal looking for a way out of the dilemma posed by the evident failures of a meritocratic and egalitarian ideology.
Progressives dug a whole for themselves with 'blank slate' thinking and now find themselves uncomfortable with the rather obvious fact that their society seems to be falling apart and that this threatens their somewhat tenuous hold on things.
Needless to say, they cannot question their own core values and so they must - like Hitler in the bunker - blame their charges or - in a less unpleasant but patronising manner - regard their charges as children who require more discipline.
The talented do not work hard enough but this is not their fault because of 'society' and 'history' so these wise progressives must intervene and change the circumstances.
This is the panicky contemporary drift of a failed bourgeoisie to ensure that its values are not merely imposed on society but that '68 be reversed and old-style authoritarian methods be reintroduced without actually ever admitting failure.
In this context, and as so often with 'bourgeois liberals', Gladwell wants his cake and to eat it. He wants the return of old virtues but he wants a progressive society and that's where the shoe-horning comes in.
But he is right about two truths - if you want conventional success, there is no substitute for making your luck work for you with intense hard work (his 10,000 hours of practice) and if we want a 'productive society' then we may need to change the luck of the lost talented.
But he does not get that his model of 'success' - a neat bourgeois one reflecting the rise of his own black British family - is an ideology and that there may be costs of consequence to the interventions required to change the game of chance in favour of his values.
In short, a top-down progressive vision of what is right and proper is based on a particular class stance - the educated minority middle class winner in a progressive socio-political game where it is assumed that what must be achieved is a rise to the top of a hill owned by others.
It is a dominant ideology but it is not the only one. It begins to show its true colours in an account of a boot camp of a school in Brooklyn where parents compete, understandably enough, to turn their children into junior mandarins at the expense of play and pleasure.
Read this in association with his account of social psychological research into the difference between ambitious middle class parents and working class deference and culture and you are beginning to see what the game is - all must be bourgeois if we are to be equal!
We might call this socialism-lite without the real redistributive bits. Milk and water socialism, designed to find the kids with an IQ over 120 and make them work for bourgeois order through effective social 'intervention', making parental ambition work for the social.
Can society only develop the undoubtedly lost talent in the working classes by making the working class think like the middle class, using positive discrimination if necessary to drive change, and by removing young kids from their birth culture to the culture of the master class?
This now prevalent attitude in the metropolitan Anglo-Saxon middle classes is a sign of panic that the reverse is, in fact, happening - that, in the internet age, the 'virtues' of hard work will be lost and society crumble.
What they really fear is a transvaluation of values where 'success' might not quite mean what it has meant since the Protestant revolution and printing was made widespread, that is, a ratcheting up a ladder of property-owning with one's cultural status based on book-learning.
The book is riddled with a hidden anxiety. Social psychological 'facts' are drawn into a game where society demands the use of all talents to meet its needs, using the claim that such a demand is in the interests of the individuals concerned. But this claim is dubious.
I was one of those 10,000 hour kids through an accident of history and personality and I then spent 30 years unwinding the absurd value system involved. It did me a great deal of good in terms of the forms of society, a great deal of bad in terms of the substance of the person.
It should not have to be an either/or - the successful particiopation in the social at the expense of the individual's questioning and searching substance - but that is what we have.
To develop an ideology of the social where the individual is defined by the social alone is as absurd as an individualist ideology where society is defined by the individual alone.
This book is one of a number of contemporary intellectual marker texts where fears engendered by individualistic baby boomer failures are simply resulting in a lurch to the neo-social right - much as Fabians caused a lurch from the alleged failures of Victorian individualism.
The middle classes as narcissistic libertarians or as authoritarian nannies changes nothing in terms of the base line here - a greater population guided by the ideology of the few.
The middle classes became rich on the market and, now that it is turning on them, they are frightened of it ... the propensity of any class to create ideologies of power based on particular readings of 'science' is never-ending.
Gladwell's account of the Brooklyn School broke my heart as I saw yet another generation of kids, this time minority black, being driven into the state of becoming social automata.
This is a world where it is to be regarded as noble and great to become an accountant, a well paid servitor to capital. Or rather - it is enough to rise comparatively ... every worker or minority child who 'rises' also endorses the power of the class they rise into.
It matches the equally depressing story of 'genius' Chris Langan which Gladwell correctly interprets as an indictment of social failures by parents and teachers. Gladwell fails to understand fully a magnificent example of triumph not only over adversity but towards creativity.
Gladwell rightly points out that a personality aspect of Langan, created by his condition, played a major role in his bad luck but he misses the social policy implications.
Instead of driving the brightest from their cultures into a new culture through force-fed education, a higher education would be to work with the population - all the population - on its own ability to understand itself, engage in critical thought and become assertive.
Ay, there's the rub. What self-aware bourgeois liberal actually wants a population that is self-aware, critical, questioning and assertive? This is the same liberal elite that is busy cutting deals with obscurantist traditional faiths at home and abroad.
Cut under the skin of liberal progressive culture and you find a fundamental and very old-fashioned fear of the 'mob' that has been suppressed under 'Leftist' ideology for half a century but which rises like the fear of Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises'.
Bane is the nightmare of this class - unknowable, effective, intelligent, brutal, vengeful - and the hidden sub-text is the fear of retribution. Social science's purpose today is to manage this monster rising from the deep - which, of course, is a fiction.
I may not agree with Langan's account of how intelligent design is possible but it has to be said that I, as a confirmed existentialist materialist, found his account (on the internet) of how it might be conceivable to be the first persuasive account that I have ever come across.
In other words for all the negativity in his life and suffering, Langan is his own man and not the creature of another. This is what we should be creating - autonomous, responsible individuals - not automata trained into submissive props for a crumbling order.
Langan is a triumph against the odds but I fear that the attempt to help a select group of humanity through what amount to progressivist terror tactics will simply create a sub-nation of fearful sheep, trying to manage an increasingly resentful and not stupid mass.
The real way forward simply involves sufficient redistribution of resources and protections to allow the talented to find their own path where they can do their 10,000 hours at what they love. But, er, that would mean cutting into the nest eggs of the middle classes ... oops!
Others may choose simply to live and love without inordinate pressure to meet the 'competitive advantage' ideological demands of those who are already winners and fear becoming losers. And why not if they can pay their way through sufficient work.
The new social sciences certainly give us important insights - the work of Nisbett on cultural difference and cultural baggage is of the greatest importance if only because it shatters the universalist nonsense on which our liberal friends have relied to date - but they are guidance notes and not commands.
The aims of humanity are not and can never be scientific or commanded by social science. When social scientists start offering fixed advice, one must always ask 'for whom' are these commands made - the claim that they are commands for the individual are usually spurious.
This is still a very useful book - each chapter is filled with important insights - but it is vital that such books draw us towards independent thought and do not become a substitute for it.
Notes are private!
Jun 23, 2013
Jan 01, 1986
Although almost thirty years old, Searle's (relatively) easy to read popular classic of analytical philosophy still stands up as a corrective to the e...more Although almost thirty years old, Searle's (relatively) easy to read popular classic of analytical philosophy still stands up as a corrective to the exuberant claims of non-philosophers about the nature of the mind and of the world.
The book is the slightly adapted text of six radio lectures for the BBC and, like Merleau-Ponty before him, Searle rose well to the challenge of concision and clarity for an educated lay audience.
The book should be seen as a strike back by the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition at failures to use terms (such as science) correctly and logically in the enthusiasm to promote the (then) new cognitive sciences.
In general, Searle make his case and the book was influential in forcing cognitive scientists and social scientists to stop and start to 'think' about how they thought.
Philosophy is now much more integrated into the technological projects surrounding machine intelligence and neuroscience, albeit with sloppy thinking still rife amongst the more excitable transhumanist element.
Nevertheless, the text is not a Bible and things move on. Analytical philosophy is a primary tool for removing obfuscations and defining possible meanings but it often comes to a halt in making the world meaningful.
Searle himself expresses something of this in his inconclusive approach to the hoary old determinism and free will debate.
He successfully (in my view) explains why the equally hoary old mind-body problem was a non-problem but analytical approaches that work so well here seem to fail him on free will which we will come to again towards the end of this review.
Nevertheless, his criticisms of assumptions that were then popular about artificial intelligence and the applicability of the term 'scientific' to the social sciences still, broadly, stand up.
But there are comments and criticisms to be made, if only that analytical philosophy takes us a long way in removing stupidity and obscurantism from debate but that it can get stuck in its own logic.
For example, Searle is very assertive that his claims that artificial intelligence cannot become conscious stand regardless of exponential growth in computing power.
His analysis of the difference between the syntactical and the semantic strike me as sensible but his famous Chinese Locked Room thought experiment is not as conclusive as first appears.
He describes the actuality of intelligence based on formal processes but what he does not take into account is the emergence of self-reflexion by artificial intelligence that has access to a different but equal range of (sensory) inputs and can evolve into a mode of being based on a determination to exist for itself.
Now, before we go too far, this is not to accept the nonsense of much of the singularity brigade who continue to misunderstand what consciousness is (much as Searle pointed out) but it is to suggest that, just as we evolved into consciousness from a material substrate so might a technological invention of ours.
Similarly, his rather sharp negative view of the social sciences as science is also unanswerable as it stands but we should not confuse a terminological problem with an actual problem in the world.
Writing thirty years ago, Searle was still dealing with the false claims of such analogical and magical thinking as Freudianism which constructed vast edifices and lucrative careers on a bed of sand.
Indeed, the twin intellectual absurdities of behaviourism and Freudianism implicitly underpin the very Anglo-Saxon determination of Searle to find a middle way that actually works.
Today, we are more critical but we are also in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water insofar as the social sciences are not credibly scientific but they are still useful.
The question becomes now almost a political one - how are they useful and to whom are they useful and a dash of Foucault might help us here alongside our 'analysis'.
Perhaps we need a new term for what the social sciences are, based on their probabilistic and contingent nature and (certainly and unlike the hard sciences) they need to be placed under much more aggressive individual and social scrutiny in regard to their claims.
The problem area today is something that Searle might not have predicted - the claims of 'hard' neuroscientists to be able (in due course) to provide explanations for default human behaviour.
From this comes the theoretical model of all human behaviour being predictable no less than the weather - that is, not in the specifics which prove to be unknowable after only a short period of forward analysis but in the general processes and systems.
The danger here is not only 'hubris' but the prediction becoming true not because it is true but because it can be made to be true by intervention. This 'nudge' interventionism which has become fashionable amongst the dimmer sort of centrist politician desperate to control what cannot be controled.
Such projects are either doomed to failure because of the chaotic system in which they operate or they will require the type of de-humanising tyrannical interventions that Aldous Huxley feared in order to be (or seem to be) effective.
In this respect, the work that Searle has started requires continuation for a new generation of simple minds with funds and careers on the line and weak politicians holding the grant strings.
The final area where criticism may be due is in his surprisingly limited analysis of the determinism and free will debate where there is no analytical solution because determinism is logical and yet the actuality of choice is embedded in our experience of the world.
Of course, the set of philosophers who have tended to have the most cogent criticism of determinism are the continental existentialists but, hey, this book was written at a time when the analytical and continental schools did not talk to each other.
Searle is moving towards categorising the determinism/free will problem as a non-problem as he ably does with the mind-body problem which I characterise (again, in quasi-existentialist terms) as one of consciousness being an emergent property of matter where only matter exists.
However, he cannot make the same leap and I suspect that is because determinism is logical but not true and an analytical philosopher cannot accept that something that appears logical (and the assumptions are sound) may not be true - that is, consistently meaningful.
The point here is that free will is also an emergent property of consciousness which is an emergent property of matter and that, though matter is determined all things being equal, the arrival of self-reflexion and thought, within constraints, can change the nature of the matter that would otherwise have been predetermined.
To say that the subsequent matter was predetermined is logical but not true because it is meaningless in the context of the arrival into the system of an emergent consciousness.
Searle offers a useful corrective to the dreamy new age invention of quantum physics as cause for consciousness (though one should retain an open mind) and, since then, as cause for the last ditch defence of platonic mathematical truths.
In essence, the quantum elements within classical physics simply cohere into the physical substrate from which we derive.
My consequent argument is that, just as indeterminacy is lost as the system organises itself into the material substrate of the world, so indeterminacy re-appears at the higher level with awareness of oneself as having choices, even if these choices are heavily constrained by the nature of matter.
We might take the invention of manned flight as an example where it was not determined that man fly but that a will to fly created sets of choices whereby he did fly but was constrained by the determinism of matter as to what was possible and thereby following certain technologically determined paths once the choices were made.
The other factor not taken into account in assessing free will is the illusion of the future. The future is always assumed to exist but it only exists as an extrapolation of the unfolding of materiality.
In fact, the future is as probabilistic as the social sciences. It probably will happen but it need not exist unlike the past which has unfolded already as a result of the working out of material laws (and some choices) that have been experienced.
This, of course, is the problem of time but arguments from cosmology, physics and mathematics (and science fiction) do not trump this philosophical truth that the future only exists when it has happened.
This rather puts the kybosh on a lot of ideas about time including those of J. W Dunne which were a last refuge for many spiritualists and other romantics.
In the real world, our understanding of scientific rules and processes makes the world thoroughly predictable regardless of this fact that the future does not exist until it has happened but the indeterminacy of consciousness means that the future can also be changed.
It is this latter indeterminacy that creates the science fiction hope that the future determined by the working out of what we see around us might be changed by an act of will.
Again, in the real world, human power to change the future is limited, suffers from inadequate knowledge of consequences and is often collective (that is, it averages out in the 'wisdom of crowds' or serious change gets 'croweded out' by a default thinking which is barely conscious).
We must be clear here. Being human does not intrinsically mean that a human being is capable of self-reflexive choice and so of not being determined.
It is the exercise of a capability of being human - self-reflexive choice and the 'weighing up' of intentionalities - that creates freedom.
Most people most of the time are determined by their conditions and, of course, most people most of the time may have little choice in their conditions. Free will is thus a possibility but not inherent in being human simply by dint of being an evolved ape.
Nevertheless, the fact that indeterminacy is an evolved quality of consciousness in the context of a state of being where the future is only set because of determinacy and not because it exists means that evolved consciousness can change the 'determined' future.
This is not an argument for the hysteria surrounding multiverses which is another extreme mathematical invention but it is an argument for accepting that free will and effective determinism within classical physics can co-exist, especially as the free will is extremely limited in scope.
Free will can rearrange existing molecules for micro-utilitarian purposes but it cannot change the structure of reality that permits the survival of the organism. In any case, the organism's sphere of influence is tiny and highly localised in space and time.
So, there is no free will/determinism problem any more than there is a mind/body problem.
The value of this book is the value implicit in the discussion above. It makes you ask questions. Like all the best philosophers, Searle does not assert the truth but gives a view of the truth that keeps open the door to disagreement.
In a time when we are surrounded by the rise of dim-witted text-based religious assertion, new age wish-fulfilment flummery and ecstatic claims by 'scientists' who think that science fiction is a true representation of the world, this sort of thinking is invaluable.
Notes are private!
Jun 05, 2013
Aug 03, 2002
This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in...more This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in 2002.
The exhibition was excellent and no doubt helped one member of my family to feel even better about (eventually) choosing video gaming as the subject of his university course.
But, in retrospect, I regret that there seemed not to be a traditional catalogue available (or else I was misled into thinking that this book was such an artefact for the future).
Instead, what we have here is a series of essays, of varying quality, one or two of which are arch and truly awful, with some added eco-cant at the beginning.
It all looks very dated about one of the fastest moving industries in history. A catalogue of the exhibits would have been far more useful, giving us a base-line history of the genre in the last century.
Having said that, the better essays give us a decent picture of what people thought was important in 2002 and we can use the book to compare and contrast what was expected and what actually happened.
For example, there is no reference to the massively fast growth in social media gaming and mobile platforms and tablets simply because, well, they weren't available then.
Other things are talked up that have not had much impact - notably machanima which became crass to an extreme and virtual worlds which rather stagnated despite the massive rise of the MMORPG.
What has changed are the graphics. The graphics of 2002 look clunky in the extreme and would be wholly unacceptable today in a world where games can show us a remarkable hyper reality.
Video gaming has been immensely influential - Hollywood adventure movies routinely use the 'level' meme to structure their narratives - and is more sophisticated but the book has one insight to hold on to.
This is that video games are, well, games. That is, they are not to be confused with the narrative forms of other arts like film or the novel.
The gamer is not simply watching or passively allowing words to create mental images away from reality. The gamer is actively engaged in manipulating formal rules for particular outcomes, usually competitive.
This may explain one of the great frustrations for many outside observers - the inability of the gaming industry to do more than add beautifully designed bells and whistles to a very few narrative forms.
Gaming is immersion in a restricted set of possibilities that are usually linked to a very few and simplified primary drives - hunting, being hunted, winning, acquiring, raising status, being 'more than'.
It is skill-honing and wish-fulfilment but it is not often subtlety though this is not how it needs to be in the hands of some coming genius of the genre.
Someone is going to enter into this field, on the back of increased computing power and the availability of artificial intelligence, and introduce subtlety much as the Renaissance introduced perspective.
What this needs, of course, is a market (which is probably sufficiently there) but also the ability to understand a very advanced technology alongside a creative and artistic mentality.
This mentality, though, will be very different from the expected one of the individual genius. It is more likely to be the Disney type leader who can collaborate equally with workshop and purchasers.
We are on the edge of this change. Some masterpieces - Myst, The Sims, Final Fantasy perhaps - have drawn us closer to a point where, eventually, we will see interaction guided into self-discovery.
Instead of the mere expression of desires and clan-based competition, the game may mature not into the 'vision of the artist' but of a 'guided shared vision' that has a process-based and not a fixed 'form'.
In a 'guided shared vision', the prime creators and the game players would be co-creators of an inward reality that is personally transformative. At that point, we will have a high art on our hands. (less)
Notes are private!
Jun 05, 2013
Sep 02, 2010
This is quite an angry book from a man who, clearly with some regret, kick-started the popular fashion for true crime in the United Kingdom with his f...more This is quite an angry book from a man who, clearly with some regret, kick-started the popular fashion for true crime in the United Kingdom with his first biography of the Kray Twins back in the 1960s.
'The Profession of Violence' is, like the 'The Wicker Man' in film and 'The Communist Manifesto' in politics, an example of the remorselessness of the law of unintended consequences.
This book should be read as the 'most considered' account of the Kray Twins thirty five years on but also as an exercise in self-reflexion on the popular biographers' art by a doyen of the trade.
His anger may be a little with himself but it is most reasonably expressed as anger at the two sides of the Kray Twins' coin.
There is an anger with both the sheer violence and (certainly in Ron Kray's case) psychopathy of the Krays' world and with the way that the establishment connived at their celebrity game in order to avoid scandal.
Sometimes, it is hard to know which is more evil - the thuggery of the Krays making their way up from the slums or the protection of truly psychopathic, narcissistic and weak men like Driberg and Boothby by their own class in both major parties.
If I had to choose a poster boy for true social evil, I am afraid that I would have to choose Arnold, Lord Goodman over Reg Kray any day. Goodman epitomises the intellectual manipulation of power and rules to protect a pack of social jackals - Ron's perverted desires seem small feed in comparison.
These ruminations are not merely historical. As we write, good policemen and women and good journalists - notably those at www.exaronews.com with whom I am proud to be associated but also many others - are digging in the slime of similar cover-ups related to child abuse only a decade or two later.
The child abuse scandals of the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps beyond as they morph into internet rings) can now be seen as natural extensions of a total world of abuse in which the Krays are really a mere incident.
What underlay the exploitative evil of the Krays was the convergence of a culture of sexual repression (in terms of homosexuality) where the laws were not enforced where they existed, a hypocritical ruling order where 'bad' conduct needed to be repressed but was otherwise accepted amongst their own and the usefulness of outsiders, raised in social neglect to be totally self-regarding, as allies and tools.
This was a culture that pragmatically kept a lid on things that perhaps could not have been ordered in any other way given the society and politics of the country but which became extremely deviant at its dark edges.
Narscisitic gay psychopaths converged on one another and built networks and alliances which the 'establishment', where it knew of these things, preferred to turn a blind eye. It became too easy for the deviants to exploit the vulnerable and to feel that they could do so with impunity, This is Poliakoff country.
For be in no doubt that the Krays were 'peculiar' in many senses. There are other gangland familes and networks which are perhaps only now being addressed by the formation of the National Crime Agency but these never sought the celebrity of the Krays. They were and are primarily 'business men' like the mafia, not 'legends'.
Pearson is good on the influence of the American gangster film and the allure of the mafia (this was the mafia's high point of global influence) for Reg and Ron but it is clear that our native born thugs were little more than occasionally useful tools for their sophisticated counterparts from New York - somewhat of a metaphor for the British relationship with the US after Suez!
The only caveat I would have with the book is that the psychological profiling of the Twins, while plausible in many ways, is over-played.
Pearson is part-establishment himself - he was famously biographer of Ian Fleming and 'James Bond' - and he remains, like all his journalistic ilk, rather weak on the 'sociology' of resistance to the system implicit in organised crime.
Yes, organised crime is wolf-like, opportunistic and psychopathic but it does not arise from nothing. These systems are businesses organised by the more or less intelligent to provide real services for alienated and bulied populations as well as cruel and vicious exploitative ones.
Even the cruelty and exploitation is more morally ambiguous than any abstract believer in justice may think. Famously, Capone did more to eliminate adulteration of milk for children than the lack-lustre local government.
If the State dumps disturbed kids in hell-holes and abandons them, then being noticed by gangsters and given a chance to relieve their misery or get money may still be preferable to being trained to be a grunt in the military or a shelf-stacker in a retail chain.
Even sex workers who were introduced to the 'industry' by these grim routes are not simple victims but have sometimes seized a chance to use their assets for lives that they would now consider themselves to have chosen.
Indeed, many now fear that criminalisation of their trade by do-gooding establishment dim-wits whose cruelty is no less than the gangsters will slash their incomes and throw them back into the hands of the underworld.
Gang and state, state and gang, sometimes two sides of the same coin, drones and pub-shootings, taxes and protection money, the law of the street and no snitching or the law of the state and no whistleblowing.
The real route to crime of the Krays was their own natures as violent psychopaths but in the context of localities completely abandoned by the middle classes but where enough of the middle classes still wanted things that their own 'values' denied them.
Repressive cultures combined with class neglect inevitable lead to collusive relationships between weak ruling classes and the wolves at the bottom.
In this case, we had the collusion extending to the narratives of eager journalists, photographers and film-makers who wished to tell the tale in terms of glamour - of Camelot, if you like.
Pearson cannot be accused of this - or, if he once glamourised the Krays, it was out of youthful naivete. This book makes ample amends.
He writes well. The account of the murder of Frank Mitchell is genuinely moving and has all the hall-marks of a Greek tragedy.
Even the Krays, without moral complicity (and when he is not getting angry and spouting cod-psychology), come across as complex persons rather than mere monsters. That is no mean achievement.
He adds as an appendix photographs of his own correspondence from Ron Kray in prison. His poor education, street intelligence and sentimentality cast a different light on the man without diminishing the horror of his conduct as killer and exponent of GBH.
But the question remains, while other gangsters run multinational businesses and prepare for war with the National Crime Agency, there is no doubt that the Krays are not forgotten in the white working classes of London, even today.
Their funerals were pure theatre, 20,000-40,000 being prepared to attend the last one. Their criminal associates and rivals have given themselves pensions on well-selling true crime memoirs.
Figures like Freddy Foreman and 'Mad' Frankie Fraser have iconic status and even some sympathy when true tales of 'toughness' in standing up to the old prison system are recounted.
If people can think like that - as they think of the murderous Salvatore Giuliani in Sicily - then something is going on that must be understood before it is condemned by armchair moralists.
Recent 'cop killings' in the UK have exposed a culture of hate for the police at the margins of society. The official news narrative is countered with a social media narrative of deep resentment and a preparedness for self-immolation that reminds one of Jean-Paul Belmondo's last scene in 'Breathless'.
There is a dialectic here between popular culture (film and now video games) and criminality that is not a simple one of cause and effect. The 'rage' in the machine is prior to the popular culture which lives off it - the popular culture merely gives it theatrical form in real life.
Millions lose themselves in the rage or the fantasy without acting on it in the world. A few are so filled with anger and resentment that they code their suicidal actions in the language of the Joker or Get Carter.
This should not be taken overly seriously but it should also not be ignored or over-simplified. Something is going on 'out there' and the London Riots, a narrative heavily suppressed and rewritten in the last two years, are part of the story.
John Pearson gives us no answers here but his personal re-evaluation of his own relationship with these iconic organised crime figures must be added to the raw material from which an analysis will come.
And not only in relation to the origins of resentment but also to the handling of collusion.
The Boothby-Driberg scandal involving the undoubted sustained sexual exploitation of teenage boys must be put in the scales with Kincora as a sexual exploitation story in which some people at very high levels were collusive and complicit in covering up what took place.
As we write, child abuse investigations have now extended from the celebrities who were permitted excesses by a 'see no evil' BBC to the care home system which we have all known for far too long have been grooming grounds for the underground sex industry.
The question is not the free choice of disturbed youngsters to engage in that industry as their way into the world but the collusion of their carers in driving them into that world without informed consent and of sections of the political and law enforcement community in protecting and even providing custom.
Beyond that, despite the publicity, the 'establishment' still shies clear of investigating the cruelties and brutalities not only within the Catholic Church but other institutional structures that are politically powerful.
Only this weekend, the BBC reports our much-loved RAF finding itself embroiled in an old scandal. In short, this culture of exploitation was endemic at the margins of institutional life and the victims have been ignored and bullied for far too long.
In this brutal context of humiliation and abuse, the Krays start to look like minor excesses in a rotten system, even perhaps as a form of undirected revenge by the humiliated as a class on their ultimate humiliators, the worst parts of the ruling order.
So, we may expect attempts at cover-ups and damage limitation (and weaselly demands for 'closure' and 'drawing a line under the past'), but the story is out.
Perhaps, at the end of all this, we will see the gangsters at the top and those at the bottom for what they really are ... somehow, I think both sets of hyena will survive this crisis and reappear in a different form. For that is the way of the world ...
Notes are private!
Feb 10, 2013
Dec 05, 2002
This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hi...more This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hitler had to hand when he made a number of important decisions.
This book is illuminating about German and European history in the run-up to the cataclysmic Second World War but it should really be seen as a contribution to a much deeper contemporary concern - how can we be sure that we have true information in making policy decisions?
This issue is going to become one of ever more vital importance under conditions where the veracity of any claim being made about the world is increasingly subject to serious questions about the prior manipulation of information, as well as about its control by interested parties.
Shore refers to the contemporary Middle East in passing in his conclusions - the book was published in 2003 - and we have our own intimate experiences during precisely that period of how information was supplied, blocked and hidden as inconvenient by officials.
He covers each of six cases in intimate but not dull detail. I admire, above all, his courage in making intelligent judgments about what would most likely have filled those gaps where evidence is not direct and clear.
I argued in a Lobster article before this book was published that 'truth' in contemporary political analysis required both a rigorous attitude to the evidence but equally a sensible judgment on the gaps in the record.
There is a tendency in the less intelligent historian to restrict themselves only to the evidence to hand yet where the gaps are is where something happened. We must adopt a Japanese approach to silences and voids as things of a sort.
Our founding engasgement with the Exaro project - www.exaronews.com - represents the first part of the necessary equation: the forensic uncovering of evidence without making conspiratorial leaps or allowing ideology or partisanship get in the way.
Shore is a good historian and fulfils this primary requirement brilliantly. However, he goes further, as he should do, and becomes an equally brilliant intelligence analyst in interpreting the facts in the most probable way.
Once or twice I might demur on his judgments - once or twice - but that goes with the territory. For example, he possibly over-eggs the 'terror' aspect of Naziism in policy-making as opposed to the impacts of careerism and the standard bureaucratic obsession with position.
This is not to deny the terror represented by the Nazi regime or the reality of collaboration and resistance amongst the conservative elite - the case of Von Papen is instructive in how terror can work with almost scalpel-like precision in the hands of political genius.
It is simply to point out that second-guessing human motivation is perhaps a judgment too far and to say that much of the conduct Shore describes in closed political and bureaucratic systems is far from unique to national socialist Germany.
Our own experience of working inside the New Labour culture from 1992 to 1996 indicated precisely the same processes of competitive control of information, manipulation of facts, deliberate denial of access for bearers of inconvenient truths and so on. The rest is history.
Almost all political and state systems operate in much the same way - as do corporations, churches, NGOs and probably clubs and societies - anywhere where individuals have a career or personal stake in the retention or acquisition of power.
As for the history, Shore throws new insight on several problems that make this book an invaluable additional secondary source to set against the 'big histories' that most people will buy.
I draw attention here to only two of many - the factional struggle about whether to support Ethiopia or not in its struggle against Italian imperialism in 1934 and the final decision of Hitler and Stalin to cut a deal before partitioning Poland.
The first provides particular insight on the balance of power betwen traditional conservate realism and the more intuitive and ideological approach of Hitler.
It is interesting that conservative realist and ideological aims were similar in terms of the issue at hand - ultimately anschluss with Austria - but the conservatives took a traditional line of national interest that saw Italy as threat to the dream of German unification.
Hitler saw things differently, bigger perhaps, exploiting Italian resentments at Western refusal to respect its rights in order to build an axis of resentful powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) where anschluss could be positioned as relatively small beer to imperial domination of 'spheres'.
It is not too fanciful to see the struggle between traditional State Department realism and the hysteria of both neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism mirroring this story in our own time.
The second set of insights come from the account of the information flows surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact which is positioned in our conventional history as a particularly heinous act - it looks less so in the light of the information provided by Zachary Shore.
On the contrary, Stalin now looks as if he had no alternative because of the blundering of that utter fool Chamberlain whose commitment to appeasement seems to have been much deeper than any of us might ever have thought.
We can never know what might have happened if Chamberlain had not blundered, working behind the backs of his own nation and much of his party.
Chamberlain gave Germany the opportunity to demonstrate itself and have demonstrated by the facts to the Soviet Union that Britain would never provide the security guarantees for the Soviet Union that might have saved Poland.
Litvinov was only the first of many sacrifices to Chamberlain's errors of judgment.
The Soviet Union left the decision to join with Germany very late but it had every cause to make that decision given the asinine handling of the situation by the British Government - I refer you to Chapter 6 which is damning.
We have got into the habit of pouring all the blame for killing on the tyrants but blundering fools must also take their share of the blame.
If Chamberlain had not been such a fool, it is quite possible that millions would not have died, or at least have had some more years of life.
Never again should not just mean no war but no more blundering fools - regrettably they still continue to appear with alarming regularity.
As Shore points out if indirectly, the information flow at the hands of Saddam was a material fact in a fairly recent war. We now know that a misreading of a diplomat's statements were interpreted as giving the green light to an invasion that need not have happened.
This brings us back to information flow in our culture and the importance of process, system and transparency (within limits).
Elected politicians can and should define the national interest as the needs and desires of the people through the democratic process (which must be more than competing party cadres)
But, as in war, the performance of policy needs to be left to the professionals. By all means get new professionals if the old ones are not up to the job but let them be professionals.
Hitler's 'achievements' from a German nationalist perspective were quite remarkable but he was, in my opinion, pushing at an open door.
Most of Europe, fifteen years on from Versailles, knew that Germany had to be accommodated. There is scarcely a claim of the nationalists that might not have been 'sorted out' by professional diplomacy within ten or twenty years of a determined commitment to do so.
What Germany required was Bismarckian conservatism or internal transformation from its militaristic and rather strange culture into something truly liberal. What it got was a violent emotional reaction to humiliation under a charismatic hysteric.
One of the virtues of this book is that it raises questions about Hitler himself. He was undoubtedly a political genius but he was not and never could be a statesman.
The stories here should help knock on the head any lingering idea that he was quite the decisive all-knowing courageous leader (in foreign policy) who just went too far of revisionist legend.
The real story is that he was an ideologue and fantasist about power - just like today's liberal internationalists, neo-conservatives and Islamists - riding for a fall.
His tactical genius in domestic politics was translated into 'wins' in foreign policy but he was well served by his supine (UK) or weak (France) or distracted (Italy) potential opponents.
But underlying his tactical skills was a degree of strategic nonsense that had defeat in-built into it - the exact reverse of Stalin whose domestic ideology had ultimate defeat written into it while his realist foreign policy built a short-lived empire.
Germans are ashamed of Hitler for some very good reasons - thuggery being one - but they should add to the charge sheet that they allowed a genuine ideologue to operate the machinery of state. Let us hope we never make the same mistake today. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 31, 2013
Nov 19, 2007
This is a fairly substantial and worthy account of the history of anarchism, largely built around review chapters of prominent figures and historical...more This is a fairly substantial and worthy account of the history of anarchism, largely built around review chapters of prominent figures and historical reviews of anarchism in action. It takes a broad view by including writers and thinkers who might better or equally be considered liberal or libertarian, although Marshall is always at pains to show their differences from classical anarchist thought.
It has to be said that it can be a little dull at times and there is a lack of a sustained overview, something that would give us a better idea of what it all may mean. It was also written in or around 1991/2 so the 'action' (such as it is) takes place at one of the low points in anarchist history - a quarter of a century after the collapse of the student hopes of the 1960s.
Similarly, Marshall is writing at least a decade and probably more before the internet permits the creation of a new politically-directed hacker activism and the emergence of the post-2008 insurrectionism that, one suspects, would have thoroughly confused the somewhat earnest intellectuals who dominate his book.
Indeed, that is the problem with the tale told here. This is mostly a story of intellectuals pontificating from on high about ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and about the nature of humanity and the world in a way that bears little relationship to the actual lived-in world of the people they claim that they want to liberate.
And it gets worse over time. The culmination of the book is a deathly dull (I skimmed in the end) account of the thoughts of that dodgy old Hegelian Murray Bookchin, a throw-back to the nineteenth century if ever there was one.
Marshall is old-school. The succession of (mostly) dead and nearly-dead white males leaves one, ultimately, less minded to anarchism at the end than one was at the beginning, partly because of the brutal realization that, if most of these gentlemen could have achieved their utopian dreams, the rest of us would have been oppressed and miserable before very long, certainly from utter boredom in their craftsman/peasant, neighbourly, crushingly dull, little communities.
At the end of the day, most of these thinkers (as opposed to the far more interesting practical seizures of power by anarchists in the Latin street) have no real language for accepting humanity as it is and so they rapidly go scuttling into a world of claimed reason where you can read petit-bourgeois tyranny on every page, at least when the people do not match up to the dreams of their saviours.
The Green Anarchism of Murray Bookchin is typical. His is a turgid and unrealistic Hegelianism that has very little to do with real freedom, calling us back to what amounts to the faith-based politics of dreamers like Kropotkin and Tolstoy via that German theoretician.
Anything that is ultimately faith-based or essentialist is definitely a bit creepy to anyone with their two feet placed firmly on the earth and many anarchists can be lumped with the Marxists and New Age loons in that respect.
In the end, one is thrown back to a place somewhere between the minimal state libertarianism and a humane left-libertarianism that permits some state action to enable all to be autonomous on equal terms. Grand theory has little to say to us here, praxis everything.
But even the praxis leaves us with a romantic bad taste in the mouth because every decent anarchist experiment – the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt rebellion, Makhno in the Ukraine, the POUM in Catalonia, the Evenements of ‘68 and many others – is quite simply crushed by superior reality.
Not just by superior force but by the fact that the force represents something – the reality of the situation. As a romantic, I am definitely with all these rebellions but, let's face it, participation is heroic but futile, an act of suicide. It would be like Mishima's hari-kiri only for the goodies.
It is not enough to say that these experiments ‘should have won’ because they were ‘right’. The truth is they did not win for very good reasons related to what we are as human beings. The only successful anarchist rebellion would be one that could change humanity – and that is very dangerous territory indeed, a repetition by force of what the Bolsheviks tried and failed to do.
All in all, this book, which is highly sympathetic to the movement, tells us that anarchic thinking is like a chair that is very appealing to the eye but falls apart when someone tries to sit on it. If it did not exist, it would have to be invented but only as a constraint or restraint on power, by promising rebellion if lines were crossed but not as an option for any social organization that is actually viable.
This has implications for the four main current strands of quasi-anarchic thinking in the world today – hacker activism, greenery (which has already compromised with reality to gain a power that it probably does not deserve), the Occupy Movement and anarcho-capitalist libertarianism.
All of these are troublesome for the prevailing order but none of them represent a terminal threat – indeed, the Occupy Movement’s achievement may have been little more than mobilizing the vote for Tweedledum Obama over Tweedledee Romney and giving the State some populist welly when it is minded to bring the capitalists to heel for its own tax-raising purposes. It is interesting that the State did not even bother to do that.
Occupy is particularly daft from a classical anarchist perspective. It is led by naïve middle class students and activists whose sole purpose seems to be to get more cash into the hands of the State from the private sector or give the NGOs a bit more oomph in the street so that money can then be diverted to their latest pet project. The general public, of course, has seen through this.
The most threatening to the State may be hacker activism and then only because its more louche side is quite prepared to act as intellectual muscle for organized crime. But it can just as easily be co-opted into the State Department’s manipulative cyberwars against states it does not approve of and it is most effective as trail-blazer for anarcho-capitalism’s darker side. Kim Dotcom is an anarchist of sorts but not quite what Prince Pyotr Kropotkin had in mind.
Even in Greece today, where one would most expect insurrection, the struggle for mastery over a corrupt and failed bourgeois elite, backed by the European Union, is in the hands either of sensible Leftists who have no intention of unraveling the State and a bunch of gangster fascists. In Catalonia, the drive for independence is also no longer associated with anarchist ideology but with a revived Leftism.
Worse, this Euro-Leftism is not only not anarchist in the traditional sense but is imbued with an ideology of identity politics that wholly relies on the State to impose its cultural agenda on an increasingly resentful mass (at least that proportion of the mass not on the State pay roll, admittedly a decreasing proportion).
Having said all that, if we winnow out perhaps seven out of ten of the anarcho-intellectuals as either faith-based essentialists (and we include the Hegelians) or narcissistic imposers of their values and personality on the world, we are left with some good people and good thinking. The American Paul Goodman stood out in this respect. And it was good to see Foucault briefly included as gad fly.
There is real value in anarchism but not as praxis or ideology. Its value lies in it being a reminder of the core value to humanity of personal autonomy and of individuation. People of anarchist bent would do much better to hold their noses and engage with the political process and the State through improved organization, if only to halt the growing power of authoritarian Leftists, fascists and religious believers. Camus' concept of rebellion as preferable to revolution holds water here - we can all constantly rebel against the unwarranted demands and claims of others.
The final pages of the book raise issues with anarchism as practical politics but by this time we have all made our mind up – either we are anarchists or we are not. I am not – more so after reading the book than before. My initial sympathies dissipated chapter by chapter as I realized that I would be filled with a terminal boredom by these men and their utopias.
Anarchists are too often people who have lost their sense of reality, equally as much as the religious types they claim to despise. In some cases (horror of horrors!), they will even claim to have found a better God or reality as did Tolstoy. Any politics that has a place for invented beings and universal consciousnesses must be considered dangerous and yet a small minority of anarchists persist in this sort of flummery.
Like Marxism, anarchism can be religion by other means and so deeply dangerous to non-believers in the long run. Nevertheless, this book is strongly recommended as a sound guide to what anarchists have thought in the past and what they did in history.
Notes are private!
Nov 11, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Sep 10, 2010
Pilkington has produced a highly intelligent book on the UFO phenomenon that makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject. I shall...more Pilkington has produced a highly intelligent book on the UFO phenomenon that makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject. I shall only quibble with his evident tolerance for the dumb asses who need to believe anything to hand.
Nevertheless, he is more critical than most and it is true that, if you have to believe something, the presence of aliens on this planet is no more daft than believing that Iron Age texts can tell us anything about how the modern world works.
The main thrust of the book lies in its investigation of the possibility (or rather probability) of periodic entries into the UFO mythos by security interests.
Pilkington is persuasive that a small group of intelligence players have dabbled in the UFO world but he is not foolish enough to assume some master conspiracy.
On the contrary, Pilkington is very sophisticated in understanding that small tactical interventions for specific purposes (inter-agency rivalries over funding, cover for advanced but very human technologies or behavioural experimentation) can take on a life of their own.
There are undoubtedly trickster personalities at work here, psychic predators who cannot resist enjoying themselves at the expense of vulnerable and confused souls, the sad people who have the Mulderian ‘need to belief’ that seems to affect a large proportion of the human species.
The rest of us may simply be indifferent or possibilian about anything not evidenced by facts or scientific method – we may concede that aliens may be among us but that it really does not matter so much that we have to enter into the realm of paranoia based on an unlikelihood.
There is little evidence for aliens on earth. Pilkington, definitely not a crude debunker, opens our eyes to a whole range of manipulative security possibilities that would be perhaps cruel but are also tactical and rational ways of solving short term problems for the State.
We are in the world of Ronson’s ‘Men Who Stare At Goats’, with bits of the excessively feather-bedded and itself paranoid military-industrial complex being allowed to do ridiculous things without much scrutiny.
If I have a problem with the book it is that it falls into the populist ‘Ronson trap’ of telling a personal narrative to get us amused at the cost of any decently coherent and sustained ‘analysis’. As we will see, this personal stance leads us into an unhelpful tricksy doubt.
The UFO phenomenon desperately needs analysis, not po-faced radical criticism of the military but a proper consideration not only of the general need to believe in unlikely things but of the sociology of memetic manipulation.
Being in this manipulative world myself (though as defence and never offence), I am aware of how a surprisingly few activist agents can wreak amazing reputational damage on an individual or an enemy through a few carefully placed false or conspiratorial memes.
My own theory on the intelligence engagement in UFOs is that it has all simply got out of hand because the perpetrators themselves have imperfectly understood a revolution in communications. They will not have anticipated the self-replicating and uncontrollable nature of the meme.
Closed experiments in manipulation and operations designed to muddy the waters in closed communities explode periodically into popular culture. The security community did not understand how the UFO belief system could escalate to become what amounts to a world religion.
Conspiracy theorists believe that the authorities are deliberately creating confusion and paranoia for their own purposes. They are simply not that clever. If you want to see short-term destructive memetic war in operation, look at the primitive garbage coming out of Western psy-ops about Syria.
Short-termism only means that authority is more likely to be undermined by irrational distrust and paranoia. Vast floating belief systems are now out of control – from ufologists and trans-humanists at one end to rights activists, Islamists and tea party primitives at the other.
Still, if Pilkington fails to get out of the ‘popular journalism’ trap, he does make a very good fist of being sensible about this mess of disinformation and paranoia. There is some good hard data in here and some interesting personal testimony.
But, in my copy, Pilkington has hand-written ‘Every word is a lie’, then crossed out ‘lie’ and replaced it with ‘true’. He also reveals his own UFO experience in a way that creates doubt as to his intentions even though one of his informants has a plausible technological explanation.
This attempt to be a trickster is fun but it diminishes the book and him – if we say we cannot believe him, even in jest, then perhaps it is true that he is running rings round us on everything.
Maybe Rick and Bill do not exist. Maybe the advanced aircraft in the picture selection are faked.
This may be good chaos magic but it is lousy real world management. Slightly more worrying, if a few lower level trickster state agents are screwing up the minds of the weak-minded, then that is not fun, it is cruel and malign – and, in the case of Paul Bennewitz, downright evil.
Manipulation of others is not fun. It is bullying. I see no ethical condemnation in the book. It is all too much fun. Cruelty is only fun to the immature.
Thick and weak people (and a lot of people are not very bright or are bright but vulnerable) either require silence (for reasons of State) or the truth – they do not deserve having their minds shattered or to be sent into a fantasy world that wrecks lives and families.
What we need now is a proper exposure of anyone engaged in these cruelties and for their superior officers to regain control of the agenda if only for one extremely good reason – the manipulation of the masses is counter-productive to the State and order. Loki is undermining Asgard.
In the week when a disturbed neuro-science student (why the media silence on his studies at the time of writing? are they too stupid to investigate them?) re-enacts the fantasy of a comic book psychopathic and kills en masse, memetic manipulation is a public policy issue.
This is no argument against freedom or for censorship, but an argument for the exposure of manipulation, for critical judgment, for an enlightenment attitude to a hierarchy of evidenced facts and for a profound skepticism but one that keeps in mind any possibility as, well, possible.
As for aliens, they could be here from the past or from the future and their presence could be covered up by the State but these propositions are all unlikely. And, amazingly, irrelevant.
What is more relevant is the lack of a mental attitude amongst the population that, having held to the possibility of aliens, is mentally prepared for that possibility and is not frightened by that possibility to the extent of becoming paranoid or supine before authority.
The hysteria over Al-Qaeda has created over a decade of dangerous imposition of surveillance and social control which is now being developed as neuro-scientific ‘nudge’ and the re-creation of newly created social conservatisms through State tolerance of faith-based idiocies.
If conspiracy theorists persist in believing in an alien invasion that will impose the New World Order on us, they are missing the point.
An NWO of sorts is happening anyway because they and others like them live in permanent states of irrational autistic fantasy without any ability to organise practical resistance to their own enslavement.
Tyranny does not need aliens or Al-Qaeda – it only needs a cynical elite and a stupid and distracted population. At this point in history, we have both.
Notes are private!
Jul 24, 2012
Mar 01, 2012
Jul 05, 2012
This is an excellent and easy-to-read run-through of some of the key technological and cultural changes that we are facing at the beginning of the twe...more This is an excellent and easy-to-read run-through of some of the key technological and cultural changes that we are facing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
It is not perfect. His list falters a bit near the end and his short sharp chapters sometimes leave out too much where more on one subject might have been more useful than one of the other 64 - but what he does well is give us a check-list of things that we ought to be more aware of.
Some things are perhaps not directly relevant. Others are things that most of us (though not all of us) have already come to terms with. But I will certainly be pricking up my ears for threats and opportunities in such areas as bio-hacking, net neutrality and geo-engineering.
And, although I have little interest in, say, the Quantified Self Movement (which seems like anxious narcissism taken to the nth degree), I have a short-list now of developments that I actively want to know more about, master the jargon and make work for me and mine.
I work in the world of memes professionally but I now know that I have to understand better the semantic web, techno-nomadism, the open data movement and the effects of cyber war. I also need to think, really think, about the internet’s effects on personal freedom and public accountability.
I need to know more about Anonymous, hacker culture, the ‘dark net’ and hacktivism and about artificial intelligence and the (possibly dubious) ‘singularity’. The struggle between States and order on the one hand and an advanced and creative avant-garde has started already.
My world is certainly going to be changed by 3-D printing, improved video conferencing and the internet of things. I am more convinced, if cautiously, that there may be something in the transition town movement, but these latter are all relatively superficial developments compared to the massive and wider cultural and psychological changes under way.
This book is not, and does not claim to be, a book of answers but it does a damn fine job of introducing us to the basic ideas that should, if we have any sense of personal and family survival, force us to ask all the right questions.
Highly recommended, especially for those we elect and the bureaucrats they purport to control and manage on our behalf.
Notes are private!
Jul 15, 2012
This book is now forty years old but it still stands as excellent basic background to the history of secret societies and political conspiracy in the...more
This book is now forty years old but it still stands as excellent basic background to the history of secret societies and political conspiracy in the eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries.
Of course, much of the detail will have been overtaken by the work of two generations of scholar. Roberts is also contesting his case during a period when the grand narrative of Marxism was treated with more respect than it is today.
He is writing as part of the very serious business of countering the persistence of conspiracy in political discourse, especially on the radical right and amongst anti-semites. He writes only thirty years after a holocaust whose raison d'etre was based on a conspiracy theory.
A mildly conservative pessimism – as in the best of the British school of historiography – questions delicately whether conspiracy theory will ever be removed from political discourse by rational men. History, in the age of 9/11 and the New World Order, has shown that his concerns were valid.
The book is measured and serious and there is so much meat in it – essential to understanding why, even today, Europe is ‘different’ in political culture from Britain – that we can only pinpoint three themes here.
The first is to argue cogently that, with the exception of the radicalism of the Illuminati, most esoteric activity in the eighteenth century was political only insofar as it shared the mood of the time. Claims by Barruel and others of a deliberate Enlightenment conspiracy against Kings and Church are untenable.
The second is that the creation of the myth of conspiracy resulted in the creation of political conspiracy after the French Revolution and not the other way around.
Political conspiracies, almost entirely ineffective, were no serious threat to the State during this later period but developed in a sort of call-and-response to the paranoia of States about their very existence. Roberts is illuminating (excuse the pun) on the lack of success of the Carbonari.
The third theme comes late in the book and is only touched upon because its denouement comes after the collapse of utopian socialism and the rise of Marxism.
This is the myth of Buonarroti and, through him, Babeuf spinning a tale of professional revolutionary fervour that was later redrafted to serve history.
Bounarroti, an Italian aristocrat turned radical, was a singular failure during his life time, like (in political terms) Cagliostro and Weisshaupt before him.
However, his obsessive plotting and tradecraft fuelled an anarchist and, subsequently, Leninist reality of secret cadres planning the overthrow of States.
When Lenin spoke of the necessity of a revolutionary cadre to effect a revolution (when economic crisis and a collapse in the ruling order had enabled a seizure of power), he was re-inventing the French Revolution along conspiratorial lines - no less than Nesta Webster and Barruel.
Anarchist revolutionaries, especially the Nihilists, continued to demonstrate the utter ineffectiveness of secrecy and plotting as more than the occasion of violence and murder (and of intensified repression such as Metternich might have approved).
Lenin, a political genius, turned the myth into reality through intellectual discipline. But that is another story ... this book ends in the late 1820s just before the Revolutions of the 1830s would switch our attention back to the great tidal waves of history that Marx and Engels were more interested in.
In that context, Lenin is a sort of synthesis between European political narratives. He 'industrialises' secret conspiracy.
Where I have my doubts about the book is where I have my doubts about nearly all formal academic writing on conspiracy – an imaginative inability to understand or explore the psychological importance of such theories in filling a vacuum of knowledge in times of fear and insecurity.
To be fair, this is a book of history and not psychology and Roberts does touch at the end on the psychological aspects, if all too briefly.
I would argue that conspiracy theory and paranoia are legitimate actors (if with tragic consequences) under conditions where Power holds all the informational cards.
The difference between Roberts’ and our world is the internet - and Roberts is, of course, closer to the mental world of Lenin than that of Assange.
The establishment’s fear of the internet as the basis for a revival of the worst sort of conspiracy theory may be misplaced for a curious reason.
When the internet first appears, it appears suddenly in the face of an Authority (Power) that has defined the political narratives of the population, with diminishing competition, over the whole industrialising process.
The grand narratives of the elite have succeeded one another with little contribution from below except as walk-on parts as rioters or lobby fodder. The Arab World is going through this process now.
Suddenly, Power's ability to define narrative collapses from above with the arrival of the internet and the first reaction of the population is to flood the vacuum with alternative stories based on poor critical faculties, natural distrust, limited experience of Power (except as subjects of it) and very poor reasoning ability.
Although this condition persists across much of the world (and 9/11 and the Iraq War hit the internet formation process at a critical juncture in this respect), the internet is rapidly becoming self-organising through rational hacktivism, community management and a responsiveness on the part of the more intelligent parts of Power
The information vacuum that fed paranoia is beginning to fill with real information. That information is being pumped into a market that is learning not only to be more critical but to argue a critical stance within itself against its more ignorant members.
The social networks are becoming huge political education machines rather than, as originally thought, huge machines for political mobilisation (the rioter and outraged NGO model).
The next stage is actual political organisation which we are beginning to see with the Pirate Party and, conceivably though uncertainly, Zero State. Occupy will feel very naive, the last gasp of Obama-ism, against the rise of new organisations from below that can capture electoral space.
Wikileaks is only part of this massive revolution which embraces the coming semantic web and the creation of focused ‘gardens’ of accessible knowledge.
The numbers of the truly ignorant and passive are still large but the informationally engaged and active population is increasingly in command of its own analysis while selected non-elite leadership groups are self-teaching themselves politics under new conditions.
There is no need for grand conspiracy theory today because we now know that Power largely consists of surprisingly incompetent people only with access to force and the passive complicity of the population between them and dissolution.
If the population becomes questioning and resists force from a sense of its own potential and a cessation of socially constructed fear of consequences, it has no need for a myth justifying its own impotence.
Yes, there are still ‘conspiracies’ but these are the small-scale conspiracies that are practical, rational ones of interest – of bankers, vote-grabbers and special interests.
Adam Smith referred to these and they will always be with us. Indeed, they will replicate within the new self-organising politics because no utopian idealist can escape the actuality of the human condition.
The current political machine can now be seen as ramshackle, so ramshackle that the brutal failure of the Leninist seizure of power can now be explained. Anyone who seizes the levers of power without having built a popular base of some sort can do little than use terror and rely on zombie-like habit to get anything useful done.
Bolsheviks could ignore an election because they could seize a State with a monopoly of information - today, no State can expect to hold onto that monopoly for long.
Conspiracy theory is thus the product of impotence in the face of rapid change. The question becomes today whether the internet will change the situation by transferring new potencies to the masses. If so, there may be much less need for paranoia.
If anything, it is the State that has now become paranoid, what with drones, terror alerts and mass surveillance and nudge strategies to hold back, Canute-like, the spread of questioning and community organisation. Roles are being reversed.
Notes are private!
Jul 07, 2012
Jan 01, 2001
Oct 01, 2001
Almost hypnotically repetitively at times, this might be the book that Machiavelli could have written about love if he had been a jaded modern.
Almost hypnotically repetitively at times, this might be the book that Machiavelli could have written about love if he had been a jaded modern.
Unfortunately for those determined to be 'nice' in the world, there is scarcely a line in this book that does not ring true.
For better or worse (depending on your stance), Greene is persuasive that seduction is a game between equal partners where the 'victim' is willing enough for what they will get out of the process.
It is about the flow of power between sexually alive people and no means to be compared with the 'game' genre of Neil Strauss and others.
Far more sophisticated than Strauss' manuals for adolescent losers and the sexually autistic, Greene is not interested in seduction as a mechanical application of rules for sex. He writes of art, not science.
What he is showing us is something closer to a dance or a ritual (think of the tango perhaps) which obeys rules derived from a deeper level of shared or unconscious desires and fears and where, while the sexual element is central, it is the process that matters.
The book is also pleasurable for entirely different reasons. Greene is master of the historical anecdote. Every chapter has well chosen illustrative examples from literature and history.
Although he does not preclude rational love between consenting adults by any means, there is enough evidence here of eternal truths about sexual relations which apply to male and female alike (albeit with different ‘modes’) and in homosexual liaisons as well.
We are talking here about a flow of power and desire between equals. There is no game if the other is not a free and equal participant. It is chess played by bodies in time and space.
One’s reaction to this book will come down to aesthetics and to anxiety. It is a very unromantic book by conventional and Anglo-Saxon standards but it is not reductionist about sex.
The person who will be entranced by this book will be the natural seducer, one who takes simple pleasure in pleasure and treats life like a game. I was not entranced, just interested and appreciative.
Many of the tales derive from high-ranking courtly cultures where seduction and romance were bound by rules of conduct that were strict enough to suggest appropriate behavior but not so strict as to introduce bourgeois guilt or shame into the game of sexual conquest.
Indeed, there is no room at all for shame or guilt, only for winning and losing … or perhaps for playing elegantly and still losing, more than winning too easily or in an ignoble way.
The attitude to sex is also counter-intuitive to Anglo-Saxon moderns. It is presented as a prize and not as some 'sacred' thing alienated from the bodies that couple. It is a fact on the ground. A pleasure.
Greene occasionally applies his analysis of technique to politics and there are many ‘democratic’ era cases of seductive power – Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Duke Ellington are all cited at length.
If the cynicism of his political analysis reminds us that people are stupid rather than eliciting admiration for the political seducers, when it comes to sex, there is no question of stupidity.
In every tale of sexual seduction, we are not dealing with coercion but with something like a willing suspension of disbelief where the seduced often gets precisely what they want, whatever the rest of us may think.
He refers to the festival and to the theatre often, but also to seduction as the means by which our 'dark side', which is important to us to recognise in order to be whole persons, is allowed full play.
I would add that the transgressive aspects of seduction can allow individuation to both parties – it would often seem that seducers get trapped in the game, while the seduced move on into something different.
Greene more than once tells stories that suggest that a seduction becomes an integral memory that moulds the future mind for the better, removing someone from past habits that do not reflect who they are.
Naturally ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ pops up as a case study in more than one chapter (designed to be a sequence that draws you into the seduction process).
The Presidente de Tourvel is presented as being liberated from her boredom and obligations by the cynical seduction by Valmont. There is truth in this.
Greene is far too simplistic here about politics (one wishes he would just say ‘people are stupid’ and have done with it) but he is far from simplistic on sexual psychology.
He offers a sound corrective to moralists who, like repressed ideologues in politics, seem to leave more pain and suffering in their wake than do cynics and a-moralists.
Strangely and counter-intuitively, while some seducers come across as the worst sort of bully (D H Lawrence was an utter monster), others come across in quite a different way - providing a sort of liberatory service that costs them far more than it costs their alleged ‘victims’.
In short, seduction emerges to be morally far more interesting than we thought. Quite often we see the ostensible predator out-classed but a skilful 'victim' so that roles are reversed ...
If morality is good order as dictated by some Iron Age text, then seduction is to be consigned to the pits of hell. But if it is the hand-maiden or servant of creative individuation, then it is conventional morality that might stand in the dock.
Of course, nothing is so simple. Just as religion brings solace as well as repression, so some seducers are simply cynical and cruel while others are exciting and challenging.
This book is recommended not as a ‘how to’ (since, for most people, it is would be like reading a book on how to win an Olympic Medal), but as an insight into what we are as human beings.
If we all had developed the art of seduction and of being seduced to meet our own dark desires, then perhaps there might be a lot less boredom and neurosis in the world.
If we knew how to play our own part in the game with others who knew how to play theirs (if, in fact, the aristocratic court of Japan or Louis XVI became democratised with leisure and an instinct for pleasure for all) might not life be not only more interesting but less deadly dull?
But anyone who thinks that human beings are basically ‘good’, that ‘caring’ cannot become unutterably boring and intrusive or who thinks that most relationships can last forever without some transgression and hysteria will hate this book. It is only for grown-ups.
Notes are private!
May 13, 2012
Apr 17, 2004
It may seem odd to give this book only four stars and yet give the older Bahn book on Ice Age art five - see http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11......more It may seem odd to give this book only four stars and yet give the older Bahn book on Ice Age art five - see http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11... - but there is a reason.
There is absolutely no doubt of the value of Lewis-Williams attempt to create a theory of cave art nor the insights that he provides into consciousness studies and what such studies may be able to tell us about the motivations and culture of palaeolithic homo sapiens.
The doubt derives from the same scepticism about what we can ever actually know that we recorded in our review of the earlier work. The data is too spread out over too great a length of time and is too represented by what can survive materially to allow any strong claims of knowledge.
All theory in this area tends to tell us more about our preoccupations than those of pre-historic man and woman, although one must concede that each intervention by the Academy does add something, a new angle to compare with the angles shown to us in the past.
But caution is inevitable, much as one should be deeply cautious about constructing theories of rampant matriarchalism from fat little stone ladies when textiles, wood carvings and body decoration have long since decayed, let alone social structures and micro-environments.
Yes, there are limitations on what might have been thought which arise from simple ecological truths and which do permit some analogy from current indigenous activity but modern indigenes are not ancient peoples – though, to be fair, Lewis-Williams does put in his own caveats here.
But the real warning signs that we may be jumping too far ahead in our thought processes lies in the closing words of the book.
The author quotes Julian Jaynes in his claim that we see a break in consciousness in the break between the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to make his own claim. Oh dear! What is it with academics who take textual history as human history?
Forget Jaynes. Lewis-Williams dumps text but replaces it with art, equally unwarrantably. There is no evidence of actual brain structures changing very much in thousands of years for the simple reason that brain structure is an evolved function and evolution is a slow and wasteful process.
Indeed, Lewis-Williams’ core argument depends on comparative consciousness studies that assume such long range structural similarities for them to make any sense - and yet here we have appeal to the sort of radical view of consciousness change that appeals to New Agers.
Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens will have had very different modes of consciousness because of their different speciation (meaning different brain structures) but we see no necessity for the nature of the sapient form to provide more than the fact of art rather than its precise forms.
This does not diminish the thesis that rock art forms have some derivation from altered states and that, possibly (which I find plausible), 'artists' and shamans could manipulate social conditions to their own benefit. Both those propositions are highly plausible.
I have no doubt that homo sapiens has heard ‘inner voices’ in the palaeolithic age but we are equally certain that those ‘inner voices’ are not of one kind that morphs into another kind over time but were as variant then amongst individuals as they are now.
The artistic impulse may just as likely then, as now, be much more complex in its relationship to so-called spiritual, magical and community impulses than we like to think. Lewis-Williams’ theorizing seems plausible but, I repeat, we should not be seduced into believing we know.
What we have to be careful of is assuming that the rock art we see and the social change being postulated is quite so neatly connected as the theory suggests. The truth – we do not, cannot and never will know. In some cases, they may be and, in others, not. Grand narratives are presumptuous.
Nevertheless, though perhaps a trifle intellectually confused at the end (simply pushing Jaynes back a few thousand years with no sounder evidence than Jaynes has for the claims he makes), this book is still highly recommended.
It is full of scholarly and intelligent material on a number of related issues – Western European cave art itself, consciousness studies, the history of archaeology and the rock art of Africa and the Americas. There is easily enough evidence to come to an independent view of one’s own.
Notes are private!
Apr 28, 2012
Feb 01, 2012
May 01, 2012
This is a common sense account of the state of our 'understanding' (if that is the right word) of the supernatural - as it stands at the beginning of...more This is a common sense account of the state of our 'understanding' (if that is the right word) of the supernatural - as it stands at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Ruickbie's book is a game of two halves. The first half looks at the phenomena (ghosts, the undead, angels, demons and extraterrestrials) and the second explores approaches to the phenomena, from magic through spiritualism to parapsychology and to the application of scientific method.
It is not encyclopedic about the supernatural in general (shape-shifters and werewolves are notable for their absence) but is almost encyclopedic within the categories, with detail, for example, on the history of angels and demons in our culture that really is enlightening.
His method is helpful too. He starts each section with a well written keystone narrative, from Borley Rectory in the ghost section through to the story of Mesmer in the section on science, before going into the history of the phenomena.
He also adds copious footnotes which may not prove that X exists but which certainly show that he is not making things up as far as reporting that others believed that X existed or manifested itself.
He also keeps a bit of excitement in the narrative so that you are allowed to consider a phenomenon as reasonably considered to be real by sound minds until there is some material proof of fraud or error. His account of the Fox sisters is exemplary in this regard.
So where are we at the end of all this? The sensible conclusion is that human interest in anomalies is perfectly reasonable because a lot of anomalies exist but whether those anomalies demonstrate a world that is essentially spiritual is far from proven and more unlikely than not.
But if the evidence for the actual entities that men believe in is extremely tenuous, nevertheless the world of ghosts, angels, demons and ETs (if certainly not mummies, vampires and zombies) does arise from some events that may be material but are not fully understood.
The question is whether what is being experienced are tricks of the mind, that is, of the material brain, or are mental observations of real events outside the self which are being interpreted in anthropomorphic terms as particular types of entity or phenomena.
The jury is out but both ‘tricks of the mind’ and ‘external but falsely interpreted events’ can be understood within an essentially materialist world view. Indeed, both are more easily explicable in terms of unknown physics and neuroscience than in terms of gods and monsters.
This is why the so-called progress from magic to science through the Christianised attempt to cope with the phenomena in nineteenth century spiritualism may not be as clear cut as we would like.
It might be that ‘magical’ thinking, clearly absurd at the core level of correspondences and sympathetic magic, may simply be an over-elaboration of truths about the functioning of the unconscious or the body-mind in the world that science may never have the tools to describe.
In other words, a skeptical approach (as opposed to a sceptical one), as held by hard-line positivists, may be appropriate towards religion and to the ways our species reinvents the phenomena culturally but it may not be helpful in understanding the phenomena themselves.
The virtue of the scientific approach may be paradoxical. Parapsychology and scientific method cannot do much more than confirm what underlies the phenomena – that there are anomalies in our understanding of the world which cannot yet be explained as obvious cause and effect.
It is not that cause and effect are not central to the phenomena but that that we do not have the perceptual tools to identify connections that are anomalous and certainly not simple. We do not see the linkages but just because we do not see them does not mean that they are not there.
Science allows the possibility of an unknown material cause and effect to displace imaginative and culturally bound attempts to explain what may never be explained and, even if explained, can almost certainly never be utilized.
One important thing that Ruickbie does in the book is to re-establish the centrality of Judaeo-Christianity as the grounding for explanations in past approaches to the supernatural within our culture. This is not only in relation to angels and demons but also to the adoption of spiritualism.
The secularization of our society has since shifted the supernatural into popular culture and into the new religions, both of which find Christianity uncomfortable – as they should, because it is nonsense designed to explain the inexplicable. But the new forms are not much better at the job.
Just as the creation of our artistic and musical traditions cannot be understood without reference to Christianity, so our perceptions of the supernatural, especially a persistent and neurotic belief in a life everlasting, rely on Christianity’s reinterpretation of our instinctive shamanism and magical thought.
Ruickbie’s account references Christian magical thinking at every turn – in ghosts, angels and demons – showing how it reinterpreted older shamanistic and pagan traditions and, as it receded as a force in our culture, left the space for extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials, wandering souls and shadow people.
The conclusion has to be that it continues to be worth investing in further research into parapsychological anomalies, into the psychology of perception and consciousness and into the furthest reaches of speculative activity into the laws of our universe.
However, such enquiries must be understood to be at the limit of what we as humans can cope with mentally. The core anxieties of our species about death and the world will mean that most minds most of the time will either choose not to think at all or to think only in magical terms.
In short, an excellent brief guide to a subject that is not trivial but is at the core of our understanding of ourselves.
Notes are private!
Mar 31, 2012
May 01, 2011
This book is being promoted as 'comic'. Sadly, it is not. It is quite a sad read. I laughed once out loud and smiled twice but only in the first chapt...more This book is being promoted as 'comic'. Sadly, it is not. It is quite a sad read. I laughed once out loud and smiled twice but only in the first chapter. If you end this book laughing, you have not ‘got it’. You should leave it a little angry and troubled.
Ronson exhibits all the graces and the flaws of modern British journalism. It is an easy read. The man is self-questioning (though clearly not too deeply lest he cease to function) and he is honest. But he is also skimming the surface of issues that require a far tougher and better book than this.
Perhaps he is being cleverer than I think. Perhaps his periodic questioning of the way his profession turns reality into narratives, into modern folk tales, will create a suspicion in the public's mind about how it receives information, how its mental world is structured. I think not.
The book is about the phenomenon of the psychopath which operates at so many levels as part of our cultural self-definition. As a species, we tend to need a scapegoat for structural ills that derive from our own nature - so, why not the 'psychopath' in our culture.
Perhaps 1% of the population is 'psychopathic' in the sense of presenting a reasonable danger to others under certain conditions. Perhaps another 5% have traits that could be dangerous under yet other more extreme conditions. I suspect 88% are just a danger to themselves as ‘normals’.
Political fear (I speak as a radical empath who is in the 'other' 6%, potentially equally dangerous to society for completely different reasons) seems to be determining that media headlines must ensure that 'psychopaths' are defined for incarceration by their nature rather than by their deeds.
Yet, as Charlie Chaplin’s M. Verdoux so eloquently put it in the film of that name, it is not the single psychopath whose default mode is tolerance for enormous crimes against humanity but the vast ‘normal’ mass who vote, work and play without much of a thought in their little minds.
Ronson opens the door to such subversive thinking but he only peeks in. The psychopath in Broadmoor is judged fit for release and we know it is a gamble. The corporate boss targeted as a psychopath turns out to be depressingly conventional in his private life. So far, so ‘normal’.
But Scientologists prove to be champions of human rights and psychiatrists appear to be at forefront of new sociologies of population control, aided by pharmaceuticals interests who turn any mild abnormality from a genetic variant of possible evolutionary value into a diagnosed disease.
Some of the most ethically filthy conduct in the book, leading to suicide and death in their victims, come from ‘normals’, the same sort of ‘normal’ who obeys an order in a war or who thinks corporate career progression is a substitute for personal responsibility.
The book deserves better than its jokey style. Perhaps the jokey style will build more understanding amongst the general population and that is its justification. Unfortunately, it will probably just flow off most ‘normal’s backs like that of the proverbial duck.
So let us try the analysis here that Ronson seems nervous of attempting – that hoary old business, no doubt, in his case, of just being a reporter, just telling a story.
First, as he rightly points out, there really are very dangerous persons which we have termed psychopaths but which are simply at one genetic and personality end of our human Bell Curve. They are not monsters, they are human. They are simply accentuations of aspects of our normal selves.
Society needs protection but it also needs to recognize, in different ecological circumstances, that they may be more important to us than ourselves in the future of our own species. We have to hope we hang on to civilization long enough to ensure that they are never needed.
Second, these dangerous ones are there but they are rare. We cannot build our entire social structure around protecting ourselves from what amounts to a force of nature any more than we should be degenerating as a free and questioning culture because of a few terrorists.
Faced with nature, sometimes bad things happen. They will continue to happen. ‘The bomber will always get through’. This is what we are as humans. It is dreadful for the victim but these cases are still rare and we should concentrate on a society that polices itself and is not policed.
What is happening is that the existence of the genuine psychopath and the genuine terrorist is being used by the authoritarian bureaucrat to introduce ever-increasing controls on our movement, conduct and language (aspirationally, on our minds) in an attempt to manage the unmanageable.
Without the ‘noble lie’ of a religion, with no Pope to serve Constantine, the bureaucrats are turning to definitional analysis and what they like to call science but which is no more scientific than was Lysenko under Stalin.
If this book does one service, it is to cast doubt on the more radical scientific credentials of psychology.
Over the last two decades, the psychologists and social scientists have found themselves riding on a lucrative gravy train medicalising ‘misbehaviour’ and unhappiness and offering cures based on chemicals and incarceration. The sick are becoming overwhelmed by the worried and the inconvenient.
These new priests of the mind are now busy perpetrating the lie of there being no free will (a spurious philosophical conclusion from consciousness studies by people who could usefully spend some time reading the great existentialists) and the even worse lie of a beneficent normality.
It was men in white coats who murdered the physically abnormal in euthanasia programmes under national-socialism. It is now men in white coats who are engaged in soul murder against the mentally different.
There are throw-away stories in the book of how gays and feminists could lobby successfully to ensure that certain psychological definitions were abandoned. Either science is science or it is not. Scientific decision-making in physics would not allow the peer review to include a lobbyist.
‘Conditions’ that have no politically powerful lobbies against them also have many commercial and family interests seeking their establishment.
But we have to keep our feet on the ground. If social science and psychology are socio-political tools, there are still things to be cured or managed.
There are people seriously suffering pain (yet the system still refuses to let psychiatrists test low dosage levels of psychedelics for depression and trauma). There is certainly work to be done on re-engineering society for relief from anxiety and self empowerment.
What is grossly unacceptable is to allow social or family order requirements to permit collusion between drug companies, a morally degenerate professional class and the state or parents in the use of drugs for social control of behaviours that are merely inconvenient or embarrassing.
We live in monstrous times. This book, to its credit, opens the door on the monsters – psychopathic and professional alike. We have a choice to go through the door and see what our society has become or shut it and pretend it is not happening.
So, my regret about this well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking book is that Ronson limits himself to anecdotes and questions. ‘Normals’ will pick this up, be entertained and go back to being ‘normal’ again. ‘Normal’ people are the shills for the men in white coats and grey suits.
What we really need now are writers who show people that just being ‘normal’ (and certainly being ‘normalised’) is damned dangerous to them and to their kids’ future and that ‘normal’ now means little more than manageable and controllable. Ronson merely skims the surface of this story.
Notes are private!
Mar 18, 2012
Mar 15, 1994
Although probably out-of-date in terms of latest scholarship (it was published in 1982), this is a sound reference work covering the world's legendary...more Although probably out-of-date in terms of latest scholarship (it was published in 1982), this is a sound reference work covering the world's legendary (not historical or mythological) heritage.
I read it straight through from cover to cover over a long period but there is no need to do so. This might be best treated as a useful reference work.
The Editor (Richard Cavendish) has competently drawn together over 30 contributing experts to provide quick summaries of legends from every continent. Perhaps only Africa is under-represented.
The breadth is chronological as well as geographical, ranging from the legend of Sinuhe (Ancient Egypt) and the Trojan War through to tales of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Australian aboriginal bandits.
There is a very useful comparative survey of all the legends in an appendix, a good index and a decent list of books for further reading (at least from those published before the book).
There is also a lot of material for theory, especially about archetypal attitudes to such things as love and property but also about attitudes to sustaining and resisting power.
The woodcut illustrations by Eric Fraser are very attractive additions.
Notes are private!
Mar 03, 2012
Nov 24, 2011
Jan 13, 2012
Another short introduction from the Oxford University Press series. In this case, we have an analytical philosopher, with a good understanding of the...more Another short introduction from the Oxford University Press series. In this case, we have an analytical philosopher, with a good understanding of the latest developments in the sciences of matter and mind, explore the meaning of reality in a number of guises.
Analytical philosophy can appear to be an elaborate language game, This, in itself, may have little relationship to reality so it is to the credit of Westerhoff that he makes every effort to take us through variant definitions of reality from different perspectives.
What is clear is that (like love or so many other general terms), what we mean by reality is highly situational. Debates on issues of reality can become heated, a waste of time simply because the participants in the discussion have not defined their terms or their stance.
Unfortunately, constantly defining terms as analytical philosophers are wont to do can soon take the fun out of things. This makes this book especially valuable.
It is a crib sheet for all those theories of reality that should perhaps be outlined before we even start considering what we mean by a particular instance of the 'real'.
Thus, Westerhoff looks at the reality of our own existence (are we dreaming ourselves?), at the reality of matter, at the reality of ourselves as persons and at the reality of time itself through the lens of five general theories.
We can see something as real if it appears to us as real, if it appears as real to most other persons, as anything not imagined, as what is there if we were not there or as what is left after everything has been reduced to core of being by analysis.
Any of these is plausible but none are definitive and they are not fully compatible with each other as a whole.
My own view is the relaxed one that the term 'reality' as descriptor of anything specifically meaningful is as useless as the terms 'love' and 'freedom'. These are rhetorical terms where the meaning lies not in the word but in the use of it to assert a position without full explanation.
It is also an 'introducer' word - it is useful for introducing us to something that does exist for us functionally by acting as a portmanteau 'folder' for many things that are mostly not like each other but which have similarities, being more like each other than they are like anything else.
The introducer word, far from representing something real (certainly not the nonsensical Platonic Ideal), represents an attribute of all things within its folder.
Reality 'really' means a word used to bring a lot of related ideas together through the shared attribute of presuming that they describe the nature of the world as existing. Any flaw in the book is simply the inherent flaw in analytical philosophy.
Having been given a word, the analytical philosopher feels that he must discover its meaning through the language game of analysis. The folder must, it would seem, be obliged into meaning to make sense of the academic or intellectual world.
Naturally, all that happens in this book is that our very capable analytical philosopher can come to no conclusion that is finally plausible, providing merely a menu of intellectually coherent possibilities which we probably chooose between on grounds of aesthetics more than logic.
There are small points of analysis where I find myself disagreeing with Westerhof while appreciating the crispness of his reasoning and the depth of his knowledge of science (and the clarity of his exposition) only because he simply cannot not rely on a 'given' language that maybe a false friend.
One area of discomfort is the way that the coding theory of ultimate reality is allowed to remain in the air as a gateway to a logic that may not be there.
It is as if the academic community simply cannot cope with the possibility that Platonism, logic and mathematics (the 'intellectual') might break down at a certain point - and that this must not be allowed to happen at any costs.
The paradox is that the determined attempt to ensure that all things can be encompassed within the intellectual results in a door being opened to the non-intellectual in a way that is more disturbing than the mere unknowable absolute irrationalism of the abyss.
This is the problem of 'theory' which has plagued humanity with often murderous results since the class of priest and intellectual first emerged.
Every description of ultimate reality is so concerned to extrapolate human-scale thought process into the abyss of unknowing, beyond the limits of current science, that it falls into the trap of allowing space for 'spirit' or a 'code' from outside.
It is as if a deep irrationalism at the base of reality is so terrifying that the intellectual (of whatever background) must be prepared to accept a rationalised irrationality rather than accept that there may not be anything rational there at all.
Westerhoff, to his credit, cannot be accused of going beyond his brief but I worry more than a little about leaving a gap where logic or mathematics ends and then not debating what might fill it on terms that say more positively - "we simply cannot know".
The 'silence' leaves a gap into which anything may flow as if it knew the answer to the implicit question.
This is rather dangerous because it is allows an irrationalist spirituality in through the back door, as those who are desperate for meaning seize hold of the fact that something has (it would seem) to fill the gaps left by (say) the limits of quantum mechanics.
The constant desperate attempt by New Age fluffies to link quantum effects to the existence of some universal consciousness is terribly sad but is not helped by scientists who start extrapolating ancient myths into the territory that defeats their best endeavours at final knowledge.
As a result, culturally, we find ourselves with increasingly hysterical appeals to the spirit in order to explain what is simply not understood matter. Instead of continuing to use a rational language of materialism to describe the unknown, the unknown gets reinvented as 'God' or worse.
Perhaps what is lacking in the book is simply the courage to leap ahead and say that not only do we not know X or Y, we may never know and, in that gap, we can either admit our lack of knowledge and remain embedded in material realities which function for us as we are ...
... or we can engage in the fluffy thinking of filling what we do not know with copies of our thought processes and then reinventing what is known as some sort of spirit or consciousness, an absurd tautology loaded with socio-political threats.
A second area of cultural interest is in the continued attempt to denigrate our sense of self simply because of the logical truths of our own perceptions and biology that lead to uncertainty - and the insistence of taking some reified permanent self at face value (as supplied by history) as our 'Aunt Sally'.
This is bound up with a third issue, the reality of time, where, again, a non-issue from our perspective as humans in the world (the subjective reality of the arrow of time) is exploited to create functional uncertainty in ourselves in relation to our perception of the present.
The point is that our primitive view of self and of time as 'real' (in the fixed sense required by our historic culture) may be entirely false without it diminishing the reality of ourselves as Selves and of Time, not merely to us but as a functionally useful and consistent social reality.
The problem lies in the conventional separation of Past, Present and Future. Westerhoff falls into the trap of taking it face value as if he can only communicate with his readers by accepting their 'givens'. But there never is a Present for human beings because of their perceptual apparatus.
What we have is a currently-being-processed immediate past (that we call the present) that is anticipating from experience an wholly unknowable future and matching the most recent data to not only internal memories and habits but the fixed capital of society and the material world.
Once we think of things in this way then our position as conscious beings becomes less passive, less of the instant loss of the future into the past through an unknowable but apparently perceived present and more the creation of the future through the immediate past's fast-moving and creative dialogue with the inherited past.
The Self thus becomes a very real entity as the processing unit creating immediate futures out of the dialectic of recent pasts and out of the materiality and history of the 'given' (the 'real' past to all intents and purposes).
The continuity that creates the Self is this process of moving forward at a rollicking pace until death or some other disruption (such as severe mental illness or incapacity).
The fact that much of the recent past is lost into the 'given' (albeit that some of this becomes embedded in the sub-conscious, unused memory and somatic symptoms) does not make the Self any less real. It ensures that it is making choices (often sub-conscious) about its own future.
The arrival of uncertainty at the margins of science, combined with the desperate desire to imagine meanings and seek certainties where none are to be found, offers profound cultural threats to humanity.
The idea that there is gap in what we know that must be filled with something (when there is no reason to fill it with anything) creates the space for the new obscurantism now leaching out from a troubled America into Europe.
This is the New Age nonsense of insisting on spirit without evidence except as lack while the idea that we are not selves but fluid objects in the given environment without free will is dangerous when governments and authorities are looking for excuses to deprive us of that free will.
The fact that the assault on freedom is given a false scientific basis should worry us exceedingly because scientists are now far too ready to jump from what they do know (through scientific method) to what they do not know but is politically convenient to know.
Here is an example from the Neuro-Scientist Head at the NIDA in a recent interview:
" Dr. Volkow generally forswears any interest in politics per se, but midway through a long day of meetings last month she sighed and acknowledged, “science and politics are intertwined.” We think we have free will, she continued, but we are... foiled at every turn.
" First our biology conspires against us with brains that are hard-wired to increase pleasure and decrease pain. Meanwhile, we are so gregarious that social systems — whether you call them peer pressure or politics — reliably dwarf us as individuals. “There is no way you can escape.”"
She is wrong - more worryingly, she is in an influential position in being wrong. Her scientific expertise is not in doubt but her judgement on society and politics is as flawed as that of an autistic Soviet engineer.
In fact, we can and do challenge societal norms and we can rewire our plastic brains through the exercise of will and thought in ways that are not simple matters of pleasurable or painful instinct. We can even unlearn pain and revise our pleasures.
What is going on here is that a desperate scientific and political elite subconsciously (if not consciously) wants the tools to ensure that we never question norms that are convenient to them.
Perhaps a particular vision of our late liberal society in despair demands that we never exercise the free will and reason that our masters increasingly wish to claim is deficient or even non-existent.
This attitude is dangerous because we are being persuaded to trust that scientists are right about things that are outside their competence. This is a new liberal-totalitarianism which echoes how Darwinism was once used to justify racial politics in its use of the new neuroscience.
In these two areas - the creation of the aware and free self through its mastering of data in time (expressed as an arrow, despite the analytical theoreticians) and the construction of humanity without recourse to mystification - the over-reaching of science and analytical philosophy is in danger of letting in the dead weight of obscurantism and tyranny by the back door.
Naturally, this book cannot be held responsible. It remains a superb little guide to the various way we interpret reality and how scientific discovery has to taken us to the limits of understanding what it is that we mean by reality (in any objective sense).
It is true that, objectively, reality is a very wobbly concept. It does not stand up to scrutiny without constant addition of explanatory clauses but this does not mean that one particular kind of reality - the reality of the individual - is not generally adequate to the task.
Something like seven billion realities compete to build a multiple of social realities that are all engaged in dealing with wants and desires in the context of a 'given' material reality based on the laws of physics operating at a human level and mediated through communications and technology.
Realities are thus constructed instantaneously seven billion times every living moment with collaborative or tyrannically imposed projects bringing increasing levels of complexity into some kind of working order, tested against facts on the ground.
Anything outside this 'reality of realities' might reasonably be considered only of interest as a speculative curiousity or as giving us more 'facts on the ground' for billions of minds to play with. It is either meaningless play or functionally useful, ludic or pragmatic, and centred on us.
But all analyses of reality that take playfulness as seriously meaningful are on the edge of psychotic, likely to make us unable to deal functionally with facts on the ground.
It would be disturbing to think that, having escaped twentieth century neurosis, we should fall into twenty-first century psychosis.
Alternative realities that bring in gods, spirit and God or which deny the creative role of each one of those individual consciousnesses striving, like the animals they are, for pleasure, survival or personal meaning are, albeit accidental, enemies of humanity as a progressing species.(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 28, 2011
Mar 25, 2009
Azuma’s theoretical analysis of Japanese ‘Otaku’ culture provides some useful insights into Japanese intellectual life, ‘applied’ post-modernism and a...more Azuma’s theoretical analysis of Japanese ‘Otaku’ culture provides some useful insights into Japanese intellectual life, ‘applied’ post-modernism and a phenomenon which, like rap from the other side of the world, has spread with globalisation. The footnotes are as valuable as the text.
It is perhaps a sign of that spread that my daughter (English) was able to point out quite quickly that two illustrations (of images of girls from Urusei Yatsura and Sailor Moon) had been transposed. It seems that the kids are sharper than the academics on matters of actual content.
Unfortunately, like so many works about the post-modern, the book is marred by Theory. Azuma has some important things to say about the end of the modernist project and of grand narratives but he over-relies on Kojeve and he seems desperate to assert his own authorial presence over the data.
Kojeve and the Neo-Hegelians represent a particular bug bear of mine (their desperate attempt to impose authorial rights on history strikes me as the last fling of a redundant academy) but equally awkward is Azuma’s own instinct to over-analyse and model.
The section on multiple personality as analogue for Otaku modes of thinking is mildly embarrassing though this is a rare lapse. What Azuma fails to understand are the power relations implicit in the internet revolution insofar as it allows us choices about value.
He is excellent on identifying the role of desire rather than need in post-modern internet culture but he under-estimates the positive role of Japanese popular culture in opening up the space for personal psychotherapeutic solutions to living under conditions of excessive socialisation.
He strikes me as still ambiguous in his attempt to remain objective about phenomena that are best understood subjectively. What we have to ask is not why ‘Otaku’ works in Japan but what it means insofar as it has been adapted (again, like rap) amongst entire generations overseas.
His analyses are sound and informative but he seems to find it difficult to see that Otaku thinking can co-exist with a much more grounded relationship with the real world than modernist ideologies have ever permitted their adherents to do.
The point of the modernist ideologue is that he cannot but confuse imagination and reality – we see it in the ‘Great Religions’, in Marxism-Leninism and in Neo-Hegelianism.
Today, we see the desperate attempts of politicians to save the Euro as their attempt to force reality into an imaginative strait-jacket. This confusion of imagination and reality is at the root of the great blood-lettings of the recent past.
This derives from an obsession with unification – as if the individual mind working within one Heraclitean system can be brought into alignment by force with a Heraclitean world working to different rules.
Modern history is the paradoxical attempt to 'will' Cartesian realities be over-ridden so that individuation is not a matter of personal discovery unto death in an unknowable monist materialist world (the way of existentialism) but a social practice built around ‘Humanity’.
The post-modern revolution provided a theoretical framework for a very profound change in human relations but this revolution continues to use the praxis of modernity because intellectuals, by their very nature, belong to the old world even as they seek to understand the new.
Practical, as opposed to theoretical, post-modernism can be characterised by an individual and immediate understanding that the world of socialisation and the worlds of individual imaginations based on immediate desires (where Lacan does have insights) are different but equal in worth.
A person is thrust into a world (so much was elucidated by Heidegger) which is constructed by others. Alienation is the recognition that this social world (since the material world is merely the satisfier or denier of needs) does not accord with the inner desiring self.
Socialisation (for many and often sound reasons) blocks desire and (under modernism and earlier systems) went so far as try to police desire by socialising the inner mind of persons.
Even today, liberal ideologues do this as various forms of political correctness and the constant process of engineering consent. The corporate system lives in the half world between systems, simultaneously trying to manufacture desires and respond to desires that are not manufactured.
The market has moved on from the satisfactions of needs, through the creation of desires (and needs) to the satisfaction of desires not of its own making. The power has shifted to the person desiring and this confuses a whole class of intermediaries who made choices for others.
The market (by recognising the value of desire) and then the internet (in enabling the desirer access to massive numbers of constantly adaptable and recursive objects of desire) has allowed the young (who will be old one day) the ability to choose ‘destinies’ and ‘identities’.
The modern liberal mind is suspicious of the market and increasingly of the internet (except as a directed tool) but it actively loathes the idea of persons floating between and around multiple identities and destinies instead of locking themselves into some socially definable category.
Think of the difference between the Generation of ‘68's determination to class people as gays or blacks or jews and the floating identities of people who play with many sexualities, cultural allegiances and spiritual paths in shifting tribes. The discomfort of the former becomes clearer.
The ‘modern’ Liberal wants the liberation of a rational person who is equal and objectified within a total humanity. The ‘post-modern’ acts as if he is already liberated as a person operating beyond reason, equal in praxis and with no sense of being anything other than one of many thinking animals.
Liberals understand that the post-moderns are highly creative and radical in thought but deeply conservative about social relations and change in the real world. The post-moderns choose to accept reality as it is and construct complex and creative private lives in floating communities or tribes.
Azuma grasps much of this. The book is worth reading for his descriptions of how one version of post-modern culture operates, perfectly harmlessly, within a major new paradigm for productive relations which the ‘moderns’ are now busy trying to put back in a box marked ‘controlled zone’.
Whether they will succeed or not is not known but it will be sad if elites re-capture the high ground they have abandoned and try to impose ‘grand narratives’ that turn the ‘new humans’ (closer to their animal desires and so stronger) back into objects again (and so weaker).
A surprisingly readable book for a translation of a text in post-modern theory, it is not quite the masterpiece that it could have been because the author allows himself to get lost in the intellectual struggles of his own country but it is well worth reading.
Notes are private!
Dec 07, 2011
Jul 01, 2010
Aug 31, 2010
This has all the faults and benefits of a collection of smaller essays brought together to make a book.
Some of the pieces are startling good, enough...more This has all the faults and benefits of a collection of smaller essays brought together to make a book.
Some of the pieces are startling good, enough to make the purchase of the book worthwhile, while others are utterly boring unless you are an academic fascinated with academic opinion on the opinions of dead poets.
Adam Phillips is an interesting intellectual. Of East European Jewish heritage but fully British (actually adoptive Welsh) in his outlook, he uses a Freudian psychoanalytic platform alongside his studies of literature to make wise observations on the human condition.
I am suspicious of Freudianism (as I am of Marxism and of all grand intellectual projects) and I am often suspicious of the Jewish intellectual need to think the world through such systems as if all might be understood through the rabbinical project.
However, Phillips (however he uses it elsewhere) uses Freudianism here as a form of poetics rather than ideology. He uses it to build up our ability to understand ourselves and others through little stories. We need narratives, little tales, and such narratives often have to have a framework.
Although many of the pieces require some effort and Phillips is perhaps over-entranced by his own word play at times, the Freudian framework does work in opening the mind to possibilities without obliging you to accept them.
Above all, these pieces indicate a humane man, if perhaps one trapped by the text-based culture into which he has been led by historical circumstance.
His humane approach reminded me of another Jewish-British intellectual, the recently deceased Tony Judt, whose naïve politics were not mine but whose decency and good faith rose above the framework to offer perspectives unavailable elsewhere.
His essays on Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘The Lost’ and on W.G Sebald are startling in their insights into what we cannot know and into the structural miserabilism of the European literary intelligentsia. Again, Judt’s account of the same class, especially the Jewish element, spring to mind.
In many ways, as Judt forced out an admission of unintended Jewish intellectual complicity in the rise of radical nationalism in the post-1917 period, so his essay on ‘The Lost’ challenges the appropriation of the Holocaust by succeeding generations.
There is something in the British-Jewish secular intellectual tradition that refuses to deny its text-based origins but uses it creatively to be honest about its own history and origins that is a standing reproach to the cultural fanaticism of many of their American-Jewish counterparts.
Mendelson, of course, is an American gay Jewish writer whose thoughtful views on appropriation help in the transformation of recent Jewish culture from one of eternal victimhood and suppressed resentment to one of ‘balance’.
The murderous behaviour of people in Poland in the 1940s is returned by Mendelsohn and Phillips to the responsibility of the murderers and the actual murdered are given life as persons and not as symbols.
Their stories are told as particular and individual stories and are no longer owned and manipulated and falsified by the collective.
The dead weight of history can thus slowly be removed from a people, much as many of us Gentiles are removing the dead weight of bad family histories from ourselves so as not to pass on the story to the next generation.
There is certainly no reason why those from bad families need to make those who had good families feel guilty or do our will as recompense. In short, ‘deal with it’.
Phillips may not agree but this is the lesson I took from his essay. Psychoanalysis is not just about persons but their histories and History.
Interesting though many of the essays are (and I warn you that some are a little heavy-going to the extent that you just know that he could have made his point more effectively and succinctly), the Freudian ruminations are less interesting than the early pieces on excess and for the Guardian.
The first 100 pages are worth the price of the book alone. He deals with transgression and sexuality, with adolescence and with fundamentalism with both wisdom and humanity.
Each short talk or essay appears to stand against the judgmental idiocies of the anxious adult and for personal growth through experience. None of the pieces simply mouths certainty or conventional wisdom.
The item on fundamentalism has the courage both to give fundamentalists their due and to end on questions rather than moralistic assertions.
We are left with making our own choices about our attitude to those fellows who will not be argued with rather than simply be expected to accept demands to challenge the intolerant and risk our own tolerance. No easy answer is offered and this is good.
These are 100 pages that reassure me as a parent and which I would quite like to be read and understood by every parent and every member of that ‘autism for two’ (not his phrase), the couple, in the country. I wish he had offered us more on contemporary sexual neurosis.
I am perhaps less persuaded by his essays on, say, helplessness but I understand the argument and the complaint is not what he said but that he did not say more to clarify his position. There are moments when the Freudian framework obfuscates more than assists.
Finally, at the end, are two accounts of fairy tales (a common interest of psychoanalysts) – Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. These essays were written originally for the Guardian and are truly masterful insights into our condition through our story heritage.
I would urge any ‘boy’ to read his account of ‘Jack’ and any ‘girl’ his account of ‘Cinderella. I suspect the former will just tell most men what they know already but struggle to implement.
The latter may, however, be truly liberatory for many women working against a very real biological clock.
There is a real problem with the book. It is a hodge-podge of essays for very different audiences and Phillips is an excellent craftsman who can write precisely for his audience in each case. His Editor has attempted to pull them together into themes but it does look a little forced.
If his audience is the intelligent amateur or the Guardian reader, then he adds value, but when he is writing for other Freudians or for academics in English Literature, then he is wasting the time of most of us.
I doubt whether very many of us really care about WH Auden’s anxiety-driven Christianity and padding out the book with conference papers is unfair to the purchaser. It is no accident that the finest material in the book was originally produced for Radio 3, a major newspaper and the LRB.
Still, even the conference papers can be insightful (the excellent questioning piece on fundamentalism was such) and, so, on balance, the book is highly recommended.
Notes are private!
Aug 06, 2011
May 04, 2004
Although much-lauded, especially by those looking for a literary advocate for the re-integration of altered states of consciousness into our society a...more Although much-lauded, especially by those looking for a literary advocate for the re-integration of altered states of consciousness into our society and culture (a cause I tend to support on principle), this book has not stood the test of time very well.
This edition contains, in fact, two works – ‘The Doors of Perception’, an account of Huxley’s experience taking mescalin and ‘Heaven and Hell’, a somewhat rambling view of art from a somewhat self-appointed cultural Pontifex Maximus.
‘Heaven and Hell’ betrays itself as something to be expected from a famous European belles-lettrist with a bee in his bonnet, most of which is opinionated nonsense.
It is, nevertheless worth ploughing through (it is only forty pages) in order to reach and appreciate a curious set of ‘appendices’ on a variety of subjects that are genuinely informative and stimulating – albeit not really consciousness-changing.
‘The Doors of Perception’ itself is only fifty pages long and it stands as an excellent and well written account of how an elite member of the British literary class responded to an experience otherwise undertaken by Amerindian shamans and peasants and academics.
From that point of view, it is well worth reading although the responses are so embedded in the habits of Huxley’s class and expectations as to offer little insight other than that:-
- a) the experience is enormously interesting and
- b) there is cause to question the fear of it amongst our authoritarian bureaucrats (albeit with the caveat of caution as to its effects on the truly vulnerable).
Where the account breaks down is in the lack of detachment. This is a man desperate to believe in something and it shows.
The account in both texts is by a patrician who has already decided how he wishes to understand the plebeian and who is subliminally looking for a magical means of reasserting his cultural authority in a mosern age with which he self-evidently has little sympathy.
His snobbery about the modern world and about ordinary folk is palpable. But let us step back because there are insights in the text even if the account demonstrates little of the validity of Huxley’s subsequent philosophical and spiritual claims about his experience.
He also does rather go on a bit about art. Art is a 'thing' with the European intelligentsia but his comments, though interesting, do rather seem to appear like a set of non sequitors.
If he wants to imply that European artists were as high as kites when they produced their great works, then the implication is daft.
He experiences mescalin and then relates it to art but in a way that tells us a great deal about him (perhaps a taste for the magpie gaudy) but very little about art.
He also tends to try and suggest that all meaningful experiences are ‘as one’. This is pure ideology, perhaps a forced assumption resulting from his naive ‘perennialism’.
He asserts but does not demonstrate his points and thus by scattering his shot, he fails to make well the better single valid point that the common experience of taking drugs that alter mental states taps into very similar mental effects in all persons.
He and others take this as meaning that there is some greater reality ‘out there’ but this is not logically necessary. It could (and probably does) equally mean that chemical processes trigger very similar perceptual and ordering processes and imageries in all or most persons.
There is also a determined self-centredness in the account (which is reasonable enough as an account of the experience of taking mescalin) but not of its wider implications.
There is a curious passage on dreaming in colour where you get the sense (I may be being unfair) that he rather resents not dreaming in colour (I do dream in colour and got bullied by a teacher for stating that fact once) and so must diminish it as having meaning.
In this and in his comments on visualisation, you get the sense of his feeling disadvantaged, as if he was disabled, by being an intellectual. But Huxley is an intellectual even if he perhaps wants to be other than intellectual.
Mescalin enables him to leap across to the category of spiritual on one bound. He wants to be a Platonist at a level that is more than intellectual – not merely to accept the existence of a world of forms as rational argument but to perceive them as ‘real’.
Of course, the Platonic always was absurd except as belief but over two thousand years of Western cultural history have been in deep denial about this. Squaring Platonic reason and Platonic faith has been no less a task than squaring Christian revelation and reason itself.
What Huxley, in his experience of mescalin, gets absolutely right is that the majority of the population, in their need to survive through maintaining social bonds, live in a constructed world of perception that is not necessarily ‘real’.
Unfortunately, he assumes that the break-down of our tightly controlled perception of reality, that is required in order to survive in nature let alone in society, can, under the influence of drugs, result in access to a ‘true’ reality.
The greater likelihood is that all we are seeing is the collapse of the controlling socialised and historically constructed reality in favour of contemplative stasis, not Reality but a new version of a reality because Reality is simply not available to us simply because of how we have evolved.
The unreality of everyday reality does not require drugs or altered states of consciousness to expose it as such.
Existentialist reasoning will take you to the same conclusion without needing you to adopt the illusion of seeing the universe in a grain of sand, lovely though such an experience might be.
What Huxley is experiencing is as illusory as socialised or constructed habitual reality but he is grasping at it as ‘true reality’ (like so many before him) because he cannot live without meaning. Indeed, his elite status and education requires that the world have meaning.
In this Huxley is in the same state of torment as his grandfather Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, in observing a world where the traditional Judaeo-Christian God has no credible role.
Once you start questioning social and personal-historical reality, it is hard to stop and you are left with only three alternatives.
You can accept the social and one’s own history pragmatically and make the best of it (or become grumpy and depressed), create a new self and so contribute to creating a new social reality (the way of the existentialist) or deny one reality and replace it with another (the way of religion).
The ‘normal’ path has both self and meaning (though both are false in the sense of being constructed by others). The existentialist path retains self but contains no meaning other than the meaning inherent in the self he or she constructs – which is a tough path to follow for most people.
The religious mentality in rejecting the forms of society or in seeking to change society (and, in this, communists are religious) in a collective way must retain meaning but can only do so by rejecting self. ‘Selflessness’ is a virtue to the social but not to the individual.
In the 1930s, many elite middle class Englishmen who rejected the social ‘given’ might have chosen the new religion of Marxism-Leninism or discovered obedience to Rome or even (at a pinch) fascism but Huxley found his salvation in the perennial philosophy, loss of self and oneness in ‘nature’.
Experience of mescalin, of religious ecstasy and of many other altered states that break down the conventional ordering of perception in the brain (and Huxley is no fool in his understanding that whatever is happening has a brain chemistry aspect) lead to the grand illusion of all illusions.
A process which should be understood as permitting the illusion of universal consciousness is so powerful in its effects that the person who is not detached and who is sub-consciously searching for meaning must impose non-dualism on the experience, absolute and not contingent.
From a sense of personal salvation (legitimate enough) through the insights given in altered states of consciousness, the mind slips into an assumption that the world out there is actually ‘like that’, imbued with consciousness or some meaning that exists outside the experiencing brain.
Huxley gets into knots here because he does not want to depart too far from the social. He worries about detachment from society and lack of compassion and he argues (probably rightly) that use of altered states must in stable societies (he is a true conservative) enhances social virtues.
In other words, context is all. He clearly fears that he might be confused with some radical anarchy of drug-taking that is not bound by conventions and belief systems. The book was written in 1954 and he died in 1963 so he was spared the worst of the hallucinogenic chaos of the later 1960s.
In fact, existentialist thought also tends oddly to an engaged realignment with the social despite the equally dangerous misuse of the philosophy by the sort of libertarian who has not read or certainly not understood Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Sartre.
If anyone is misaligned with the social – and there is every reason to be misaligned with the social since the social is always marginally misaligned with functional reality itself as its pragmatism catches up with itself ...
... then an illusory non-dualistic search for meaning in the world and the phenomenological creation of meaning in oneself against the world are going to be eternally with us.
In such responses to social reality, the illusory essentialism of taking the ‘reality’ of personal experiences of altered states as a greater reality will always compete with the colder, harder detached pragmatic observation of social reality as intrinsically absurd if pragmatically necessary.
Perhaps Huxley most gives himself away at the very end of ‘Heaven and Hell’ where he pictures mental hell as a paranoid picture of human robots in a ‘system’. This is the madness he fears and it significantly make up the last paragraphs of the last Appendix. Believe or fear!
Huxley’s short text still represents an entry point for those who are determined on ‘meaning’ no matter what –and no matter that, as he notes himself, the loss of self in this universal consciousness will almost certainly create a passive observing conservatism towards the world.
But, then, an aging Englishman whose world was dying and who feared the philistinism of the masses, might naturally have been drawn to loss of self in a fantasy world induced by drugs.
Yet this is not an argument against permitting those who are disconnected from the world, who are unable to take courage and be critics of the world and of themselves, to take substances that alter consciousness and create the illusion of spirituality.
On the contrary, vast numbers of people are very uncomfortable in any given 'social reality’ (they may be in serious mental or physical pain) and most will not be in such a position that they can afford to revolt with any effect from their condition.
Rather than live in misery, the solaces of religion and of ‘altered states’, with experienced guides concerned for the safety of their subjects, may be vital to the survival of society, pacifying a depressed and anxious population and allowing the energetic to move forward.
So long as spiritual types are not significant as a class in the allocation of power and resources, and their guides, the shamanic and priestly class, do not become bureaucratised into agents of power as in Constantinian Rome, then the more spiritual paths that are permitted the better.
Huxley is merely asking for the freedom to withdraw from society into ecstatic contemplation in order to cope with it … and that freedom should probably have been granted to all in the West a long time ago.
Notes are private!
Aug 06, 2011
Jan 01, 1963
Feb 12, 1985
The relationship between Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (and the latter’s various lovers) is the stuff of philosophical soap opera. All great...more The relationship between Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (and the latter’s various lovers) is the stuff of philosophical soap opera. All great soap operas have to deal eventually with the death of a leading character – in this particular case, it is De Beauvoir’s mother.
This is a very well written account of the death of an aged person under relatively comfortable circumstances. It is ‘a very easy death’, a phrase written with irony as we think of the conditions of the majority then and now.
It does not hide what death from cancer involves – anyone who has had a relative die under such circumstances (or no doubt been seriously ill themselves) will recognise many of the details of the account.
What is interesting is that this contains no serious philosophy. Sartre does not even have a walk-on part, just brief mentions. He and his circle are present by their absence.
De Beauvoir gives us a narrative that is really about the bonds of family where the Left Bank is suspended for the duration but I have to admit that I ‘doubt’ her narrative. Not because she is telling any lies at all but because she is too close to her own situation.
This means that it is true about how she saw things but not necessarily true about how things actually were for her mother. It is an interpretation. The mother is loved but their relationship is detached.
Indeed, it is a rather typical relationship between a twentieth century high-achieving feminist and a critical and perhaps neurotic (by force of circumstance rather than nature) woman who cleaves to conservative ways.
‘Maman’ is complex, not fixed at any one time in aspic but changing with her circumstances and (perhaps) presented to us in order to appear the type of the bourgeoise.
A woman who I know would have driven me up the wall as much as she did De Beauvoir in her young years becomes a different person – still limited perhaps but more herself and less insecure – by the time death appears.
I had the shock of not remembering the death of my own mother (despite the similarities in the case) until I was almost four fifths through the book.
I suspect that the very similar nature of De Beauvoir’s Maman and my mother caused me to go into the same sort of partial denial that De Beauvoir herself goes through as she deals with Maman’s clinging to life.
Indeed, it is only in writing this review that I recognise that the mother who died nearly thirty years ago, had she lived, was not likely to have been the person I remember but someone else connected to that person by the time she died ‘of old age’.
That person would never be known to me – death in that sense does cut off the ability of the organism to ‘become’ much as Heidegger suggested.
The portrait of Maman is fair and recognisable and is matched by a brief but understanding view of a husband (long since dead) who most contemporary feminists would have blackened as the devil himself.
De Beauvoir’s detachment generally, though as we shall see, not always, permits her to be fair to all the players in the game: “I do not blame my father. It is tolerably well known that in men habit kills desire.”
De Beauvoir refuses to engage in polemic about anyone’s situation. It would be hard to do so since Maman clearly chooses her own refusals to recognise reality while De Beauvoir herself shows a degree of understandable ‘mauvaise foi’ about truth-telling at critical times.
There are also neat little truths to be had from the book that seem eternals within conventional society.
A generation will tell two generations below things that they would never tell their own children but which their own children would have yearned to hear (a mistake I refuse to make with my own).
Then there is that point in time that you will often see at the side of the dying when being nice and being cheerful has no meaning because it was all an elaborate performance for ‘society’.
This is the moment when one sees a raw emotion or cynicism or frankness that shatters the myth of normality because it seems so out of place with the presumed character of the person. This is nonsense, of course – it simply means that no one ever bothered to ask who that person was in fact.
The book is about Maman’s death but it is also about death in general. De Beauvoir has seen other close deaths by this time but this particular death seems like an experimental test-bed for her existentialist values.
Heidegger introduced the absolute importance of death as both the defining end to which a person directed themselves and as a personal absolute in which no other could truly participate.
Sartre and De Beauvoir made this aspect of Heidegger’s thinking central to their own development of existentialism for a Cartesian market.
In this context, there is a certain unintended rightness about the fact that De Beauvoir is not ‘in at the kill’ so to speak. She is not there when Maman dies. She dies, as we all die, alone and, the implication is, never really accepting the reality of her situation.
To the twenty-first century mind perhaps one aspect of the book stands out. There is a lack of presumption that persons should be told about their condition or that experts should be questioned.
Faced with this as a fact on the ground, De Beauvoir own principles seem to fail her, as if the social reality that stands in opposition to individual understanding and commitment was simply too strong even for this woman. The power of the social over the individual is clear in this work.
More interesting perhaps is the possible contribution, nearly fifty years on, of the book to the very live debate on euthanasia. Unfortunately, it gives no answers.
On the one hand, De Beauvoir tends towards helping Maman out with a quick end. She gets frustrated with the doctors determination to keep her ‘officiously alive’.
On the other, Maman clings to life with tenacity, seems to abandon her interest in the solaces of religion (which now appear to be a cultural prop rather than inward reality) and will not ‘go gentle into that good night’.
This represents an unspoken incomprehension between author and subject. Maman was no existentialist looking death in the face with dignity and a final culmination devoutly to be managed of all that went before. She denied it and clung on and this is probably what most people do.
De Beauvoir’s horror at her suffering comes to look unintentionally selfish – a desire not so much to end Maman’s suffering but her own and her sister’s, and perhaps to halt having to think about what was happening and how the theory may have clashed with the brute reality.
Dare I say it but at this point, De Beauvoir is drifting into ‘mauvaise foi’.
Paradoxically, she is perhaps in denial about her motivations in no less a way than her Maman about death in itself. Since this is not something she talks about in the book, one assumes that the denial continued after the event.
Even the philosopher whose escape from bourgeois normality was engineered through rational thought and detachment finds, at this point, that rational thought and detachment have taken on lives of its own.
At the last, rationality (and writing) becomes a means of attempting an escape from the reality of death, the central fact in her philosophy .
Notes are private!
Jul 03, 2011
Jan 01, 2006
Jun 01, 2006
This is a truly infuriating book – on the one side, there are some serious insights into the therapeutic value of non-rationalist interpretations of t...more This is a truly infuriating book – on the one side, there are some serious insights into the therapeutic value of non-rationalist interpretations of the human condition.
On the other, there is the worst sort of gullible and naive wide-eyed New Age nonsense. Patience started to be strained with the cultish adoration of an Indian guru near the beginning.
Patience threatened to run out completely by the time we got to the crystal skulls. This is a shame because what is good is very, very good.
I am glad that I stuck to my rule of finishing a book unless it is truly beyond redemption.
There was wisdom to be had in the final sections even if the book ended with the standard Californian eco-nonsense that Adam Curtis has recently and so effectively undermined in his recent BBC documentaries.
The book is a form of anecdotal biography by a significant figure in the Esalen circle.
Grof uses incidents in his life to ‘demonstrate’ that there are more things in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in our analytical and positivist philosophies.
The problem is that a serious investigation of anomalies is being discredited here by an over-enthusiastic acceptance of what people say and of what is perceived by the author to be true.
For example, the experience of universal consciousness is a widespread one but this merely means that there is widespread experience of a universal consciousness.
It does not mean that there is a universal consciousness at all! This elementary analytical truth gets thrown out with the bath water of positivism.
Grof cannot decide whether he lives in a land of faith - and faith in some pretty daft as well as reasonable things – or in the land of thought.
The latter is not necessarily a land of pure reason or analysis but it is a land of open attitudes to possibilities and of a critical view of the evidence.
He is desperately keen to prove his ideological position but this really comes down to a lazy liberal eco-hippy belief system.
He piles one incident on another without realising that some of the uncritically accepted absurdities are discrediting the very real anomalous phenomena that he identifies elsewhere.
This is why his self-indulgence makes me a little angry.
The self-indulgence of American New Agers creates the conditions for the majority to reject open inquiry on the basis of absurdities and so puts back real enquiry by decades.
Worse, the indulgence of nonsense by figures with undoubted expertise and talent results in a democracy of idiocy, culminating in a world of simplistic ecologism.
There is thus an inability to develop viable alternatives to our current busted system and populist rhetoric. Weak minds are not equal to strong minds and Grof’s tolerance goes too far.
And yet, when he gets off his high New Age high horse, he does have something important to say and no doubt has said these things better in more serious forums.
I am not necessarily persuaded by his interpretations of the perinatal effects on trauma but I do think it is a very fruitful line of inquiry.
While his ‘strong’ transpersonal position seems to be un-evidenced, a ‘weak’ version that takes account of instincts and non verbal signals as well as common unconscious reactions, strikes me as very plausible and worthy of more research.
Similarly, while I disagree profoundly that altered states represent a deeper reality (as opposed to a differently experienced reality), consciousness studies that involve exploration of altered states for therapeutic purposes strikes me as one of the most important research issues of our time.
I also profoundly agree that altered states and shifts of consciousness cannot be seen in analytical or positivist terms.
The role of irrationalism and of performance in permitting individuation is profound and is something that our still rigid social structures and forms have not taken full account of.
Secular rationalists loathe religion while political liberals position myth in the world of Eliade’s radical conservatism.
Yet, moments of madness, of faith and of loss of self in the all can take a person from sclerosis and anxiety into growth and life - and it is not for anyone to define the destiny of another.
Similarly, consciousness-altering drugs and religion as well as such tools as Second Life or ‘safe’ BDSM are almost certainly far more therapeutic than the endless and expensive process of the ‘talking cure’ for most people most of the time.
Alongside CBT as the distillation of behaviourism into decency in dealing pragmatically with acute issues, radical consciousness-altering interventions, such as those experimented with by Grof, strike me as the pathway to dealing with chronic conditions and psychic logjams.
Grof refers to these logjams as ‘spiritual emergencies’ (or we might call them existential crises) but the evidence is growing that, under the protection of those able to look out for the descent into madness or suicide, there are radical, experimental means of transforming one’s relationship to the world.
This repositions the clinician as half-way between scientist (where CBT and pharmaceutical intervention sits) and priest (who seeks to impose social demands on a private crisis).
The nearest analogy is the shaman who also mixes effective intervention with a degree of possibly self-delusion. We need to take the risk of allowing more people like Grof to experiment.
Perhaps there is a way between open acceptance of what individuals say they are and need (even as reincarnated Egyptian princesses) and a cool responsibility for helping those individuals move from one state to another.
Research must continue into the commonalties that Jung interpreted as the collective unconscious.
It is not that we have to accept either a species consciousness or some universal consciousness but that there is a phenomenon here that needs a plausible theory.
What we have to understand is what mechanisms make us believe in these things.
Instead of breeding them out as irrationalism within our species, we must ask how we can accept and come to terms with them as important facets of humanity, alongside psychopathic personalities, radical rationalism and autism.
The outcome of such a programme of research – in which Governments and corporations must have minimal say – should be a population in which persons were no longer required to be rational but could choose the expression of their own inner nature and needs.
The risk, of course, is that individuating loons would take over mighty warrior States and empires and drive them into new structural irrationalities.
These might end up causing serious damage to the human species. The idea of eco-warriors in charge of drones and the US Navy should scare us shitless.
We are already suffering from the idiocy of liberals who think that the military-industrial complex is a toy to be used to restructure the lives of tens of millions of people, along lines developed from their armchairs.
Giving such a toy to New Age eco-populists would be a very, very dumb idea.
Our current structures, as a result, seem designed to impose a cold, detached and deeply anxious elite control over a population that is resentful.
Yet some of us may accept the truth (exemplified by the Nazi experiment) that manipulative control by the relatively benign may be preferable to populist lunacy.
Grof worries me because his book is an unintended argument for continued elite control by the back door.
I would be really scared if nutters who believed in crystal skulls and the existential reality of Gaia and universal consciousness seized control of the massively powerful state systems we have developed.
And yet I would argue against Grof only in order to save his real insights. I suspect Grof is a child of his personal reaction against living under Soviet control until his twenties
Decentralisation of power and a new respect for individuation strategies have a place for irrationalism, altered states of consciousness, madness in the community, deviance, transgression and spiritual crises.
What we need is a structure that recreates society as a network of safe spaces for individuation that is still run rationally and pragmatically by the most qualified to do so.
So, sadly, this is not an important book and yet it bears reading.
Some of the case studies are plausible accounts of the distressed mind that do move beyond materialist interpretations based on the five observable senses.
Things are going on within and between brains that require open minds to investigate further. Transpersonal psychology must be taken seriously as part of that investigation.
Grof’s account of his dealings with Carl Sagan (if reported fairly) shows the degree to which scientific materialism can degenerate into a religion of its own.
It was at this point that I saw that Grof was still capable of thinking like a scientist should think, questioning everything where Sagan could not.
Grof also refers to spiritual intelligence. I think he is on to something here but not what he thinks he is on to. He is taking universal consciousness at face value.
Then he extrapolates anomalous experiences outwards, taking the symptoms (including the world religions) to imply a cause.
What he may really be looking at is brain functioning within a holistic system that includes perceptual capabilities operating at rates far faster than the mind can usually cope with.
Intense physical responsiveness to the environment need not be conscious and internal mental self-organising principles can re-order perception into total realities that appear as real as social reality.
It is perfectly possible for the mind to re-craft reality outside the social.
From there, the error is made by Grof that the construction of individual reality in opposition to social reality MUST be universal simply because it is total.
It is equally (I believe, more) likely that the human mind can totalise reality for itself under certain conditions.
Furthermore, this totalising of perception into a plausible reality includes a belief in its truth that is in-built into the species’ brain as a potentiality.
Brain chemistry can kick start such total perception. It may even be able to link with other minds to do so in certain circumstances.
I would also concede the possibility (no more) that minds, operating at a level of physics beyond our current understanding, might connect with minds in the past or the future (though this is surmise).
The assumption that there is a universal consciousness into which minds tap is simply a bridge too far. The case of synchronicity which plays a major role in the book is a case in point.
‘Official’ science simply refuses to take it seriously as a phenomenon and yet it is demonstrable in many people’s lives and, furthermore, tends to happen at certain key points of receptiveness.
Grof is persuasive that it exists – Jung was equally fascinated by it.
However, Grof leaps to massive universal consciousness conclusions without considering more material explanations.
These would be based on the ability of human minds to process and order more data than we currently think it can and on the operation of unconscious willing and management of perception and action.
Telepathy, OBEs, astral projection, precognition, clairvoyance, psychometry, psychokinesis and even survival of consciousness after death are not to be dismissed.
They can all be conceived of within monist materialist terms if we reasonably see the phenomena as linked to unknown physics without bringing in God or some ordering consciousness.
To be blunt, we can have evolved what Grof has called ‘spiritual intelligence’ as might creatures on other planets.
Such evolution might reach proportions of which we can currently know nothing (as implied in trans-human thought) but there is no justification whatsoever for claiming that this ‘essence’ preceded our existence.
Existentialism and monist materialism thus remain secure even amidst acceptance of anomalies and even if what we include within monist materialism is expanded to include phenomena that are beyond the understanding of the plodding materialist of today.
Grof has to decide whether he is a scientist (in which case there is nothing anomalous that is forbidden to him for study) or a religious thinker (in which case he inhabits an entirely unproven community of belief).
This book demonstrates that he has let his science become infected by belief.
In doing so, he has unthinkingly placed the scientific study of anomalous phenomena and the experimental altered states approach to therapy at threat from mindless materialist reactionaries.
Notes are private!
Jun 19, 2011
Nov 14, 2008
Oct 01, 2008
Ken Hollings is part of a crew of imaginative writers in London who are interested in the byways of popular culture and consciousness and are perhaps...more Ken Hollings is part of a crew of imaginative writers in London who are interested in the byways of popular culture and consciousness and are perhaps best represented by the Strange Attractor Journal (now into Issue Four) and by the broadcasts on Resonance FM.
Mark Pilkington, who runs Strange Attractor Press, covers some of the territory of this book in ‘Mirage Men’ (2010) but the two works are complementary rather than competitive.
Pilkington’s primary concern is in the disinformation and paranoia surrounding UFOs. He writes a personal narrative based on his own search for the truth behind the mythos, an investigation that leads him into the murky world of the military-industrial complex (of which more another day).
Hollings looks at the same cultural milieu but from a different perspective – by observing events during the early Cold War (1947-1959) year-on-year and looking for instructive connections.
If you want a simple answer to what was American culture during the age of its maximum militarisation and organisation into conformity, then you won’t find it.
Hollings’ technique is not to force a narrative on you but to tell sufficient of the tale that you can start to build your own narrative from his anecdotes and interconnections.
So this review is my narrative – yours may be different. Although there are occasional ambiguities and the story, perforce, has to stop in its trajectory, so to speak, in 1959, begging for a sequel about the 1960s, he succeeds magnificently.
Hollings intertwines popular culture (largely through the science fiction films of the era), the construction of the UFO mythos, social changes that developed out of military planning, the use of science by the military, organisational theory and the invention and exploration of pharmaceuticals into a tale of a culture that lost its moral compass without ever falling into the dreadful criminality of more obviously totalitarian regimes.
But let there be no mistake in this. American culture remained free enough to enable resistance to its own extremisms, a flowering of which briefly took place in the 1960s only to be crushed soon after, and it remains free in that sense of possibility today
However, the construction, out of the world of the New Deal, the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, of the military-industrial complex was to all intents and purposes quasi-totalitarian in effect.
To read this book is to see America in a new way, a way that does not mean that it was precisely equivalent to the evil regime it defeated or its rival in communism.
Nevertheless, fear and anxiety in the American State created not merely paranoia within itself and in the popular culture of the period but also a profound loss of moral compass in using persons as means instead of ends in themselves.
In the end, it rationalised the balance of terror to the extent that the criminal horrors of Vietnam under Robert McNamara seem now not merely possible but inevitable.
Two acts jump out of the pages of this book that suggest why this nation has become so dangerous and why the ‘beacon on the hill’ of the crusade against fascism is not the same nation today.
There is the addition of the phrase ‘Under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and, in 1956, Subtitle I Part A Chapter 3, Section 302 of the US Code replaced ‘e pluribus unum’ with ‘In God We trust’ as the nation’s official motto.
These two changes at the height of the Cold War are not trivial.
They are truly totalitarian because they lead to the assertion that loyalty is not to a community of persons organised in a contractual State (the original secular concept of the Republic) but to a community that is, in some way, beholden to a concept outside itself.
Godless communism was to be faced off by a republic, if not with divine sanction, one placing itself under God’s protection even though there was no sign that he existed any more than the flying saucers that ‘appeared’ periodically.
This belief in God and the belief in flying saucers appear to be two sides of the same coin of an irrationality that became necessitated by the excess of rationalism in the search for military superiority.
America lost its core rationality just as it presided over the most determined imposition of rationalism on human existence since the New Man Soviet experimentation of the interwar period.
Paranoid cinema, the selling of bunkers and high military expenditures on nuclear fear and flying saucer scares (which originally had marginal support as signs of extraterrestrial visitation) were all aspects of a system where resistance could only be expressed either in codes or in ‘delinquency’.
The US had long since suppressed an open attitude to sexuality. We must not forget that political dissent was quickly crushed in the atmosphere of fear surrounding the ideas of any liberal who saw redistribution and popular control of the means of production as possible.
Now, the State consciously suppressed information and bound its population into a growth scenario that was very much based on military expenditures, either to its own convenience or as spin-off benefits.
The transfer of military factories to distant locations was matched by the creation of suburbs that had been designed on principles derived from modernism and military pre-fabrication.
The highway system was designed to ensure rapid evacuation of citizens and free up troop and hardware movements - and helped to create America’s now-fateful dependence on the automobile.
The corporations that built nuclear power plants also made the household equipment that went into the new suburban homes.
Walt Disney used Nazi war criminal Von Braun to promote Disneyland and so helped promote the ambitions of the rocketeers to take war into space.
Everything was ambiguous. Consciousness-changing drugs (like LSD) were liberatory for a small elite but also of considerable interest to the CIA who attempted to corner the market in them and to take indirect charge of their scientific investigation.
They also became intimately connected to the application of behaviourist techniques to mind control that could double up either as mental health solutions or as means of controlling foreign populations and agents.
The ambiguity extended to the very non-Kantian and post-Nazi use of persons as objects in experimentation.
This was scarcely a moral issue in any Western culture until the Nuremburg Trials resulted in a Code of Ethics that limited psychological and health experimentation - but only up to a point.
To discipline the profession, you had to know precisely what it was up to ...
Government agents in small units were not merely experimenting on colleagues without their consent but positively misleading large numbers of citizens, notably children in Massachusetts in 1950, into taking dangerous substances.
In San Francisco, a dodgy special unit of the CIA was using hookers to test psychotropics on visiting businessmen not long after that.
Behind all this, was an attitude of mind that was positively and deliberately both modernist and scientific, a different form of scientific materialism perhaps.
If so, it was a scientific materialism with God added as a political and cultural afterthought as if a deliberate differentiator from Sovietism was now needed in addition to a not very secure sense of ‘freedom’.
As Reynolds has pointed out, the ideal of liberty competes with the idea of God in American culture - bringing God into play conveniently lessens the need for freedom.
This was a culture of behaviourism in psychology and of game theory in strategy, of engineering to build better weaponry and of organisational excellence, of command and control.
It positioned anti-Soviet capitalism as mirror image, only more effective, of its chief enemy.
This was the triumph of the autistic rational man, the person who had no understanding of the masses except as a mass to be analysed and normalised (or abnormalised) sexually (Kinsey), psychologically and materially.
Even the Mental Health Act of 1946 was largely driven not by the welfarist needs of the population but by the discovery of the numbers of mentally disturbed servicemen in wartime and a need to reform in order to mobilise.
The best that might be said was that this culture was national-paternalistic, a mild throw-back to that aspect of the New Deal that sought to save free capitalism from fascism and socialism by mimicking some of its attributes.
Contemporary America is thus the creation of this era as much as it is of all its succeeding and preceding eras.
The Nixon reaction to the libertarian revolt of the 1960s was based on his mental perceptions of what America had to offer to counter Khruschev.
Reagan's culture was that of the Western States (like Nixon) whose economic and political power was created out of the development promoted by military-industrialism.
Reagan merely returned the country to its freedom-based mythos without tampering, indeed by extending, a machine that now no longer needed to control its population (a situation being reversed today under the cloak of the paranoid fear of terrorism).
Reagan’s genius was simply that of confidence that things would hold together and that ‘special measures’ were simply not necessary. Interestingly, Reagan wasn't that much interested in God.
Above all, though it would be foolish to deny that in many respects the US is still more free than much of the rest of the world, that the US is as free as it thinks it is must be very moot point.
That is another debate entirely but the insertion of theism into the American system, the integration of science with strategic-military rather than national welfare ends, the ambiguous role of the entertainment and media industries as social steam valves as much as oppressive agents of conformity and the mutual dependence of big business and the strategic-security lobby now appear to be embedded in this imperial culture.
This book does not provide a theory. It is simply a narrative.
Nor is it a complete picture by any means (a far better guide to history would be David Reynolds’ ‘Empire of Liberty, also reviewed on GoodReads).
But it is highly recommended for teasing out connections that come down to presenting us with a sub-totalitarian system developed by a small rationalising elite to which resistance became not futile by any means.
Not futile but reduced into ‘beatnik’ and popular cultural codes and teenage rebellion by fear and a lack of access by dissenters to the media that otherwise spoke to them directly.
From this perspective, the potential importance of the internet, created by the same military-industrial complex, is considerable – except that it is danger of becoming an outlet for paranoia, rage and despair in the social media rather than an agency for effective political or cultural reaction.
In that sense, as liberals hissy-fit over the latest bit of cultural politics or tin-pot war, ‘plus ca change’.
Hollings tells the story of the naivete of EC Comics whose schlock-horror comics were faced by the damning testimony of a rationalising scientific ‘expert’ to Congress.
The truth was that the comics were doing no harm at all (later, the adult industry would handle things better) but this ‘expert’ spoke to the conservative fear and paranoia of politicians.
This eliter group feared the ‘enemy within’ and saw children not as persons in themselves but, effectively, as survival fodder for the coming nuclear exchange.
The inchoate ‘baby boomer’ rebellion eventually took the tools given to it by the system and turned them against it - but then had no theory or strategy to resist the reaction of conservative America.
In the end, the ‘sixties’ were simply about one generation of the elite turning on the rest but developing no communication with the masses of their own generation or any persuasive language for speaking to their elders.
The great victory was perhaps to assist in bringing blacks and women into the political process and to ensure that a genuinely liberal coalition always faced off a genuinely conservative one but the actual structures of power have scarcely changed.
Today, America is in pain (as it was in the 1970s) only because blindness to the actual structures of military-corporate socialism is not being made politically irrelevant by continued economic growth.
The huge welfare structure that has grown irrationally on the back of the New Deal (the pre-condition for acceptance of militarism) is competing with a Great Power mentality.
The highest result of all that sixties liberalism is that a black and a woman now order tomahawk missiles and drones into battle.
American liberals are terribly impressed with all this ‘achievement’ but, after reading this book, it now seems like some gilding on some very tatty furniture.
Although the liberals have succeeded in stopping persons being treated as things within the bounds of the United States, they have not stopped the imperial monster from treating foreigners like things instead of persons.
The killing continues, if more subtly than in the days of Robert McNamara ...
Notes are private!
Apr 03, 2011
Jul 22, 1992
Sep 01, 2005
The classic short graphic guide to Lacan is written by Darian Leader who is generally worth reading in his own right. However, the graphic format shou...more The classic short graphic guide to Lacan is written by Darian Leader who is generally worth reading in his own right. However, the graphic format should not be confused with simplicity - this is a difficult liitle book because Lacan is very difficult. You may need to read it more than once to 'get' it.
Lacan is worth the effort but perhaps with a critical eye towards the Freudian framework within which he was writing. Perhaps he might best be thought of as someone struggling to find the language for what it is to be a human being and contributing significant insights without, in the end, succeeding.
A useful introduction but only the first step on a very long journey which you may not want to take - if only because life is short and there is no guarantee that the train will end up where you want to be.(less)
Notes are private!
Mar 22, 2011
Feb 28, 2010
The ghost at the centre of this invaluable testimony about the early days of consciousness studies surrounding drugs that alter mental states is, of c...more The ghost at the centre of this invaluable testimony about the early days of consciousness studies surrounding drugs that alter mental states is, of course, the late Dr. Timothy Leary.
This is the well edited transcript of a conversation, mediated by Gary Bravo, between Leary's two main associates in the experimentation that took place, first at Harvard, then at various experimental locations and finally at the Millbrook Commune, between 1960 and 1966 - Richard Alpert (here in his later ego as Ram Dass) and Ralph Metzner.
Both Dass and Metzner moved on from psychedelic studies to Eastern Tradition spiritual and West Coast consciousness studies respectively, while Leary became part of something that might be called part cultural phenomenon and part resistance movement against authority that has overshadowed the scientific, intellectual and finally artistic work that took place in those critical years.
The interviews are also interspersed with contributions from other, less central but still important figures involved in this period, including a strong contribution from a number of women involved in the experiments and the commune.
There are also facsimiles of key documents and leaflets and a generous supply of photographs in a well designed and attractive book from Synergetic Press. It is highly recommended to those interested in the origins of modern consciousness studies and of North American culture.
Why this book is so useful is that it moves the centre of our attention away from Leary as icon and cultural guru, a frenetic ambiguous character whose judgement was often poor but who was clearly an important figure in the transformation of Western culture in the 1960s.
Instead it gives us a more rounded picture that starts with a group of young middle class nerdish Harvard academics - straight out of 'Big Bang Theory' – and watches them change as they come across the standard problem of peers and superiors failing to ‘get’ their paradigm, so they go out on a limb and do their own thing.
They were moving into territory - consciousness studies – that threatened to undermine both of the prevailing controlling psychological paradigms of the day: psychoanalysis (which plays no role in this story) and behaviourism.
Leary never quite abandoned his behaviourial mentality during this period. A common thread and ambiguity is the degree to which Leary and his team struggle with the controlling, experimental instincts of science and the liberatory anarchic aspects of the experience.
Often this would appear to have degenerated in the later stages into games-playing (the best example of this has nothing to do with Leary but represents Ram Dass’ connection with the equally charismatic and manipulative R. D . Laing in Scotland), into ‘mind-fucks’ and into experimentation for experimentation’s sake.
The degeneration was logical when such people were effectively not given the chance to challenge prevailing paradigms within the existing system yet themselves had been raised within the prevailing paradigm’s neurotic demands for order and logic.
Ram Dass’ own secretive (at the time) homosexuality is not analysed within the text yet it is clear that psychic liberation under the influence of drugs was often more illusory than real or else he might have behaved differently himself. This more negative conclusion is arrived by implication by the two protagonists themselves towards the end but is perhaps a theme throughout the book.
Everything happens within a bare six years and none of the protagonists were mature enough (as they seem to recognize later) to understand how they should deal with establishment rejection and then its overt and aggressive hostility, while a wider revolution, of which they were part, unfolded around them. In short, they were young and confused.
In retrospect, not only were they hobbled by the behaviourist and analytical mentality within which they conducted their initial experiments but by the lack of any political or social scientific component to their work.
There was no real understanding of the structures of power (and they would have benefited from the cynicism and nihilism of the Foucauldians at this point) nor of what would happen when ‘closed system’ ideas reached out to the masses. The ‘games theory’ aspect of their work did not help them understand that they were children playing in an adult’s world.
There is a class element in this. These were broadly middle class elite kids whose links to the less well off were either as subjects (in prisons or as patients) or as marginal figures dealing in drugs or bumming around happily enough in the New York world as musicians and artists. Ram Dass was of wealthy background while Millbrook was a large house and estate that was granted by admirers for a dollar a year.
Leary and the others faced off the establishment on credit and what amounted to cultural busking. This attitude to money is important because it helps to link the attitude of the ‘me’ generation to their eventual nemesis in the credit crunch of 2008.
They discovered credit cards and patrons – no working class or hard-working middle class family could live like that easily in the 1960s. Dass simply told his colleagues (page 120): “oh, you just use credit cards and you just pay a little bit every month … It opened a whole world of possibilities that had never occurred to me (he adds).”
From easy grants within a mothering university system (that ultimately owed its scale to the patronage of State and finance capital), the team moved from serious investigation of consciousness to an experiential approach that was still within the bounds of learning (which is where the paradigm should really have challenged the official system).
But from there, the story degenerates into a briefly tedious soap opera involving beautiful models and the New York scene through to a last phase where the academics became, in effect, entertainers on a hand-to-mouth artistic-cultural ‘wannabe’ circuit, eventually breaking up and taking their separate routes like a rock band that had spent too much time together on the road.
Meanwhile, what became a somewhat hapless crew were being besieged from the Right by an increasingly dark and nasty authoritarian State (which is largely off-stage in this story except when it actively intervenes with a bit of thuggery and skull-duggery) and from the ‘Left’ by the populist approach to ‘acid’ of Ken Kesey and his anarcho-libertarian Pranksters.
Everyone then gets seduced by this huge cultural phenomenon we now call ‘the Sixties’. We are now a long way from the serious academic and quasi-spiritual (and rather conservative) model of informed intellectuals exploring consciousness studies and using it to expand traditional freedoms against the State and mass society, the approach that we see in the earnest Aldous Huxley.
Within six years, serious studies had imploded and a new form of counter-cultural mass society took on the mass of the population (which remained conservative about sexuality, consciousness and authority) in a straight fight and lost. They should have spent more time with Sun Tzu and less with Buddha.
Liberals castigate themselves for Altamont and Manson but this misses the point. The shattering naivete was not only about human nature which many still do not ‘get’ (the problem that a psychopath on drugs remains a psychopath but with heightened awareness) but the fact that consciousness studies brought nothing to the party for people struggling to build a material life, working very long hours and trying to hold their families together.
The net result was a lot of entertaining stuff and major cultural change as the masses, business and authority adapted to the desires unleashed by the 1960s but we still have an expensive, vicious and counter-productive war on drugs, serious research on psychedelics has only been permitted again in the last decade or so and there has been no effective change in the actual structures of power within the US. Indeed, the mass of the population continues to get poorer while the economy apparently grows.
This may seem like a curmudgeonly view of the Harvard team. It is unfair to criticise politically naïve young people for not having a command of their situation under the conditions of the time. Blame should perhaps be more appropriately attached to the provocations of the Pranksters.
But far more good than bad was done by opening up consciousness studies despite the new age nonsense, the blocking of research by repression, the political and economic failures and the Mansons , ‘bad trips’ and bad art.
Given the original asinine decision of Harvard (which must count as a perfect example of the very clever not being very wise) to work against the new research, the team had the courage to keep going and provide a massive amount of material, much of it perhaps negative but still useful, about psychedelics and their uses.
They were also an ‘iconic’ example of the will to freedom and, for that, we must be truly grateful. By doing this, they made sure that the authorities had to take note of a genie that had been let out of the bottle.
The self-defeating response of the Establishment is now coming home to roost as drug culture has degenerated (as did alcohol production under prohibition) into the creation not of a merely cultural force that challenged the State but something far more serious – a physical force with large accumulations of capital and the willingness to use guns and terror to extend its empire.
We see the state of Mexico today and in it maybe we see the state of a depressed America tomorrow – and all because small-minded frightened conservative ideologues could not keep scientific experimentation and the desire of the human spirit to discover new things within the capitalist fold.
There are also useful descriptions in this book of the experience of taking psychedelics though, beautiful and consciousness-changing as they were, what also comes across is that they change much less than has been claimed by many. These are very limited tools, way stations in personal development perhaps or of use in extreme situations (as Huxley took LSD in his dying moments).
Similarly, this was not a particularly intellectually broad community and their limitations have perhaps guided the subsequent community of followers down some very limited paths. These were scientists and perhaps artists but they were not intellectuals within their own tradition. This alone meant that they had difficulty communicating with the mainstream in the West.
The texts on which their creative work was based seemed to be limited to those of the Eastern Traditions (based on the initial central role of the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and to Hermann Hesse (whose Glass Bead Game was seen to approximate the personal development journey of the psychedelic adept). There is little engagement with public intellectuals in science or public policy or continental philosophy or debate with the religious West or the conservative mythographers.
Given the rich intellectual heritage offered via Huxley and the chance to challenge psychoanalysis on its own ground, the palette for Millbrook appears to have been strangely circumscribed, salted with the occasional enthusiasm for some guru or other.
All in all, this book is highly recommended . Almost every page has some insight into the relationship between freedom, politics, religion, sexuality and science in the period – a world half way between the world of ‘Mad Men’ and the political turmoil in the years before Jimmy Carter took the American throne.
Where next? A full economic cycle has passed since then. The experiments started a full fifty years ago. We know that the war on drugs has failed and the population of the US is no longer fully conservative – if not a majority, a very very large minority are social libertarian. Young scientists no longer consider experimentation in altered states to be career-ending and a few don’t care any way.
The authorities, if not in America then in the UK, are now beginning tentatively to be interested in applications as part of a much wider interest in understanding consciousness and decision-making, if for possibly their own manipulative reasons.
The internet now spreads radical ideas even if the law stops the easy spread of the drugs themselves although it seems unable to halt the spread of heroin from Afghanistan or cocaine from South America.
Leary, Watts, McKenna, Anton Wilson, Crowley are just some of the radical libertarians now easily accessible on the internet. Some new compact is in the air – perhaps in Europe before America and despite being held back by American official protests.
Perhaps we will see the eventual slow decriminalisation of drugs (after the successful experiment in Portugal) to enable mind-altering substances to be integrated into the State system in order to provide revenue and concentrate resources on protecting the vulnerable. A situation where 13 year olds are being supplied heroin in a small English town like ours indicates just how out of control things are.
From this point, serious research can start again, research that can set social conditions of use that return to Leary’s original insight (which was lost under the pressure of history) that psychedelic use as therapy or personal development requires careful assessment and management of ‘set’ (the needs and personality of the individual) and ‘setting’ (the conditions of use).
Once lightly regulated to ensure responsible use, society might integrate psychedelics into healing, pain control, psychotherapy under trained specialists – much as Ayahuasca and Peyote are used in a religious setting.
We are still a long way from such a wise and common sense approach (I write as someone with little or no interest in taking psychedelics myself), one which starts to treat altered states as normal and even vital for some but which equally treats them seriously as social and healthcare phenomenon.
Within a generation, society might then come to be more at one with itself even if, on balance, very few will be changed as radically as the gurus of psychedelia might claim. The necessary changes to the power structures in society, however, will require something a bit harder than losing yourself to the flow …
Notes are private!
Nov 20, 2010