Monday, December 6, 2021

this one could use about fifty bibliographic footnotes, but for now, here goes

In an M.A. thesis I was never able to turn into something publishable, I remarked that Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God was a flawed effort at encompassing the whole field of mythology that needed to be corrected in very fundamental ways but not discarded in its entirety. Reading some survey texts written for a general audience (and I get more general all the time as the decades pass since my doctorate), I am recalling some of the passages in volume one, Primitive Mythology, a title that already suggests some of its difficulties. But its grounding of the impulse towards emotionally committed storytelling in basic human characteristics and the even more basic biological characteristics that underpin them seems like a reasonable starting place for reframing without reductionism.

As a much-derided twentieth-century thinker once wrote, when physics explains the nature of light, nobody expects that as a result there will be no longer be any light.

In fact, we probably need to think more about the relationship between our hard-wired tendency to jump to conclusions and our childhood penchant for making things up that we know aren’t true, alongside things that we wish were true but right now are not, and things that we think explain the full truth of things (but really don’t).

Reality stays constructed that way in the grown-up world, and the greatest dilemma of human societies may be the way in which that tendency to construct stories is exploited and expanded for purposes of social domination on the one hand, and individual gratification on the other. Few people grasp the reasons why they not only distort their own perceptions of the world around them, they fail to see the consequences of those distortions. Even when they are grasped, nobody ever grasps them fully. The best mystical traditions were devoted to uncovering those distortions, even though most of what is called mystical is as blindly unaware of its distortions as the hardest-nosed rationalism, which is almost always devoted to excluding as much of reality as it can manage.

A science of the imagination really ought to be possible that would be devoted to eliminating the most commonplace and curable distortions, while heightening the awareness of the inevitability of distortions and their useful emotional functions, and trying to cultivate more satisfactory versions of them. As it is at present, the human ability to imagine things that do not reflect the world as it ordinarily is has too often been divided up into unpleasantly sterile categories: on one hand, fantasies that placate the starved demands of the inner child that has never left us (and usually do so with embarrassing simplifications); on another, hypotheses for future social and/or technological scenarios that take into account all the factors except those unfulfilled infantile needs; and as a corollary of the latter, fantasies of all sorts that are regularly taken for the hard facts about how things are and how things have to be.

These differently distorted visions of the world can’t be cured by the ordinarily recommended methods. I gave examples of these in an earlier draft of this, but then decided to put my concluding paragraph into practice.

The best of the world’s mystics really were trying to break apart the ossified structures that had become tools for self-destruction of the species, and to replace them with connective forms of awareness that would be both supple and rigorous. But of course they didn’t use those terms, and the frameworks they used were shaped by the cultures in which they lived, even as they sought to reshape those cultures. And their practical insights were turned into superstitious repetitions of meaningless practices almost as soon as they had been articulated.

And what, exactly, lay beyond the margins of their merely practical insights is something that is barely open to exploration, much less comprehension. But they taught us that it is our job to explore it and comprehend it. Some of them said that that task is the only reason that we are here, though that assertion always was open to contestation and/or interpretation. The contestation and/or interpretation sometimes led to bloodshed, which is the way we humans like to resolve our disagreements a large part of the time.

We have more pieces of the human puzzle available to us today than ever before in this present cycle of civilization (and probably than in all the previous cycles, but we’ll never be sure) but the pieces need to be put together in a different order, or put together in the first place. And all the flaws and predilections of our mammalian inheritance combine with our inventive capacities to make things up that make us feel better or lend us a competitive advantage, creating prevailing forces that make that happy outcome unlikely to happen.

One place to start might be by cultivating an awareness of people’s many triggering mechanisms, and framing discussions in terms that will not set off antipathy right from the start. But almost nobody seems to know how to do this, even though the tools with which to learn how to do it are readily available.

Monday, July 19, 2021

an explanatory footnote to the previous post

I have no particular enthusiasm for Eugene Thacker. But I am struck by his remarks on the relationship (even though it is an inverted relationship) between mystical theology, the experience of the sublime, and "the fantastic" and contemporary attempts to grasp the age of the hyperobject and potential planetary extinction.

I need to refine my own thoughts on these topics, and have promised analytical essays for too long a time. Thacker's observations are enough to spur me into motion, I hope. I hope.

summing up one philosopher's take on any number of my past topics, by excerpting a Eugene Thacker interview

The old maxim “All things come to those who wait” is self-evidently not true (my all-expenses-paid invitations to the Helsinki or Riga Biennales haven’t showed up yet, for example) but some of the topics on which I have been promising for years now to write my own reflections are dealt with, albeit obliquely, in Daniel Beatty Garcia’s 2019 interview with Eugene Thacker for the culture-and-fashion site and print magazine 032c. I have strung together some highlights that I think are obviously relevant to the several topics on which I have been writing for the past few decades, initially in Art Papers magazine but more recently in my blog and (I thought I included a brief discussion of Thacker’s books in my 2015 “History of Religions and Cultural Fashions Revisited” essay in Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions, which you may download free of charge from Cluj University Press, or you can download just the essay from, though you may have to sign up for a free account. But on consulting the text I discover that I only cited some of his companion philosophers on the same subject matters. Never mind.)

[The sentences set off by triple hyphens are Daniel Beatty Garcia’s responses to Eugene Thacker’s remarks.]

For me, the most interesting horror criticism isn’t necessarily academics from film studies writing about horror films. I’m more inspired by theologians writing about religious experience, for instance. They aren’t talking at all about horror film, but there’s something in what they are talking about that resonates with the kind of films that I’m interested in. …if you look, say, at mystical traditions, they’re simply using the terminology of religion or theology to talk about the same structural issue, which is a horizon to human understanding. ---In that sense you could say that the ancestor of modern horror is negative theology.---


And you see some of these motifs historically: in Tarkovsky, in Ingmar Bergman’s films – Through a Glass Darkly especially – all the way back to German expressionism.

It’s also there in a lot of Asian horror. There’s a lot of film coming out of South Korea that I find really compelling. There’s a recent film called The Wailing, and another called A Tale of Two Sisters. Both of these not only have that slow horror feeling about them, they also explicitly deal with a dilemma: is something supernatural happening, or is it all in my head? You have a split between the scientific and the religious, or the psychological and the supernatural, and an uncertainty that’s held all the way through to the end. That’s really hard to do, and it’s another example of just holding or inhabiting uncertainty and confusion and not trying to resolve it too easily.

---That sustained uncertainty – what the literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls “the fantastic” – and that slowed down dread seem to be spreading. Part of the movement comes from the other direction – other genres incorporating horror tropes, directors like Nicolas Winding Refn using the Giallo horror aesthetic.--

Absolutely. Crime thrillers like You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s film. These are out of genre, but you can see how they’re importing that same sense of slow, almost lyrical dread. There’s again this zoomed out sense that these characters aren’t really making decisions. There’s some other nebulous set of forces, and the human beings are just puppets. That it’s leading them to some end.

Sometimes this is expressed visually. I just watched this TV show, The Terror. It uses a technique you see a lot in film in which you cutaway to the landscape. The contrast is between the smallness of human beings – the intensive little human drama happening aboard this ship – and then this vast indifferent landscape that is surrounding it. Again, there’s some resonance between that sort of experience and earlier accounts of mystical experience or religious experience.

---Couldn’t this experience of our smallness in front of the vastness and incomprehensibility of nature be a positive one? Poets have called it “the sublime.”---

Of course, for some philosophers like Kant there’s a happy ending to the story, because human reason is able to recognize this limit and then say, “Well, okay, that’s off limits, but within this domain we can obtain a certain level of mastery.” It’s interesting to quote somebody like Lovecraft in juxtaposition to Kant, because they’re both talking about that distinction between the world in itself and the world as it appears to us, but Lovecraft goes all the way, and says that there is no moment of redemptive reason.

---Bruno Latour has an interesting take on this. He points out that if new research into the Anthropocene shows the nonhuman world to be marked at every point by us, human influence has “scaled up” to the extent that we are no longer so small compared to nature. So experiencing the sublime, that feeling of being dwarfed, becomes impossible. What this shows, for him, is that what we took to be an unreactive or indifferent nonhuman world was in fact sensitive all long, and that we are enmeshed in it at every point.---

There’s some interesting things in those kinds of theories, but they are still heavily anthropocentric. I think one of the lessons of the Anthropocene is that there seems to be a species-specific solipsism that we’re so stuck in that we’ve actually named an epoch after ourselves.

---What are Anthropocene theories missing?---

They usually ignore two kinds of indifference at work. The first is that we can call the world whatever we want and measure it however we want – there’s still the unbreachable opacity of the something-else out there reacting or not reacting. The second kind of indifference is more specifically contemporary. If you look at the tradition of the Gothic novel, there’s a tension between science and religion, and often that boils down to a conflict between the rational and the non-rational. Now added to that is something we could call “cold rationalism.”

Every day you can look at The Guardian, and there’ll be some article with a lot of facts and data about the amount of biomass we consume, or the sixth mass extinction, or whatever. We’re inundated with this big data level of horror. It’s not so much a failure of science – the science works almost too well. What it reveals to us is exactly how indifferent the world is to all of our attempts to master, or control it, or produce knowledge about it. Authors in the early 20th century like Lovecraft and other “weird” authors already understood that the more horrifying path was not anti-science, the non-rational. Far more horrifying is what science will reveal.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Welcome to my world, or discovering the extreme self before the extreme self was cool, or even digital

Today is the official publication date (in Europe, but not in North America) of “The Extreme Self: Age of You,” the followup to “The Age of Earthquakes” that Hans Ulrich Obrist, Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar compiled with the collaboration of a slew of artists and designers. I’ve ordered a copy despite the fact that the shipping costs as much as the book, because (and this is increasingly characteristic) I am afraid that by the time it finally becomes available through Amazon US, I’ll have moved on to other research areas, even though this is a research area that it is impossible to move away from because it is me and how I do things in this rapidly altering era, and you and how you do things, and maybe you more than me. I remember how by the time Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope” finally became available in English, nobody, me included, felt like reading it anymore, because the circumstances that had made it seem urgently relevant had been altered beyond recognition. I joke about “you more than me” because it has just now dawned on me that although I now spend more time online than immersed in the daily-changing stacks of books that surround me, my perceptual habits haven’t shifted, just the media involved in them. I have always been influenced by the accidental juxtaposition of unsuspected relationships, books put next to each other like windows left open on a laptop screen that were originally part of completely separate searches, but that now suggest previously unsuspected causal connections that have to be evaluated as to their actual relationship to one another, because pattern recognition. (I love that now-already-dated idiom in which implicitly obvious ends of sentences are left off, making it incumbent on the reader to fill in the blank. In this case the part left out takes up roughly five thousand words, but they are words I have written so many times in the past that I assume anybody who has read this far already knows the drill.) And since I thought I was finished writing this, before posting it to the Counterforces blog and Facebook I checked my e-mails and discovered an online exhibition that opened in April that I had somehow overlooked, from Museum of Design Atlanta, “The Future Happened: Designing the Future of Music.” The “About the Exhibit” essay by Sarah Panzer does an excellent job of explaining the premises behind what I’ve written in this brief essay of my own, although it does so in terms of a completely different topic. “Examining innovation in design and technology that deepens our relationship with music, we open our eyes to new and radical narratives that have the power to transform our ways of being in the world.”

Friday, May 14, 2021

An updating slightly rewritten from my Facebook post, a companion note to a 2015 review of "The Age of Earthquakes"

Nothing like starting out the day with news from Hans Ulrich Obrist of the imminent publication of "The Extreme Self: Age of You," the pandemic-delayed book on which an exhibition was based that premiered in Toronto just before the pandemic and is now on display in its co-sponsoring venue in Dubai. I am sure that if I searched further I would find the art magazine coverage that more au courant friends read back around Christmas 2019, when I was otherwise distracted. I like the irony that an exhibition and book premised on the problem of extreme change (the followup to "The Age of Earthquakes," about which I wrote on this blog when it was published in 2015) should have had its schedule delayed by the extreme change of a planet-wide pandemic, such as was prophesied, at more or less the same moment, by William Gibson's novel "Agency," the second novel in the Jackpot trilogy. And as I have pointed out repeatedly over the past twenty-five years in other contexts (and less often in the half-dozen years since the first Obrist/Coupland/Basar collaboration), Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar are excellent diagnosticians (slickly hip, but that is the root of their excellence) for a widely distributed global socioeconomic class. The extreme self is not the same experience for former members of that class for whom even basic Skype connections are intermittent in between bombing raids. But it has close relatives among less prosperous populations in countries where almost all banking is conducted on mobile phones because the economy does not support readily accessible bricks-and-mortar bank branches. Anyway, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know about all this back when it first became news a year and a half ago, but for those of my Facebook friends who also didn't get the memo, here is a review: I also recommend the website of the institution in the United Arab Emirates that will be hosting the exhibition through August 2021; it is most instructive to peruse the perspectives of the world as seen from a country that a few of my friends know well, but that I know only through the blurry lens of my frequently bad internet connection.

On the Fantastic, and Other Endless Enigmas; another post written years ago, but never made public until today

I am amused by the fact that now that nobody sends me review copies of anything, I find myself promoting more books at my own expense than I was ever able to when I had access to venues that published book reviews regularly.

I promise, not without cautionary footnotes to my promise, that I’ll pass along my opinion of this book once I read it. (It comes from David Zwirner Books, the catalogue for an exhibition that the gallery staged in the autumn of 2018.) One of the authors is Dawn Ades, whose Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents [“Documents” being the name of Bataille’s Surrealist magazine] is another one of those books gathering dust as it awaits a proper reading ten years after I bought it. The parts I have read have validated some of the things I was already doing.

One of my perennially postponed projects is a re-investigation of “the fantastic,” and its function across societies. Rationalists of the functionalist school have no difficulty with the fantastic as entertainment—people need impossible fantasies as an escape from the restricted world in which they really live, whether those impossible fantasies be tales told around a campfire in past or present times or CGI-assisted multiseason series suitable for eventual binge watching by people with access to the appropriate viewing media.

What these folk tales or tall tales gone wild have in common is that nobody takes them seriously, even if they choose to dress up like characters in the series. Such tales fulfill a different need from, say, romcoms or their print-media relatives, in which the stories of improbable romances include conventional tricks such as “meeting cute” that sometimes, once in several blue moons, happen in real life. Americans were charmed when a princess from Hollywood married the ruling prince of a real-life principality sixty or so years ago, back in the days when “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you” were song lyrics on prime time television. More recently they were delighted when another Hollywood personality found her charming prince, albeit one that is a bit more distant from assuming a throne. (This led to a couple of sick Game of Thrones jokes.)

Ernst Bloch wrote three thick and sometimes ponderous volumes (The Principle of Hope) trying to puzzle out the relationships between pure escape from reality and the possible futures that lay behind imaginary Lands of Cockaigne and, later, behind political revolution that made possible some ways of everyday living that previously had existed only in fairy tales. Given Bloch’s commitment to styles of politics that his fellow Marxists decided were beyond the pale, it would take considerable re-visioning to make The Principle of Hope worth taking up again, just as, in a completely different register, Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God is no longer a viable guide to the meanings and functions of world mythology, even though Campbell did his best to incorporate everything that the human sciences and the so-called hard sciences had discovered about the human condition at the time he was writing.

Nevertheless, the problems remain that Bloch laid out in one language and Campbell laid out in another, diametrically opposed one. How and why people in all cultures expand the counterfactual into the openly impossible is worth contemplating, with slightly less highfalutin terminological obfuscation. “Wouldn’t it be nice” has been transmuted again and again into “Once upon a time,” but “they lived happily ever after” has not always been part of the equation. Stories that begin with “What if” are frequently another genre altogether.

One of the areas that interests me in particular is the point at which the acknowledged impossible blurs or shades into the only way to approach possible reality. Bloch can only cope with the political and social side of this, but the side that Jeff Kripal, Michael Pollan, and a host of others have been dealing with in recent decades is of equal interest. If narwhal horns were considered material proof of unicorns in past centuries (which leaves the origins and functions of the remainder of unicorn lore unexplained) and dinosaur fossils in time-weathered rock gave rise to tales of monsters of all sorts (which leaves the gory details of those tales likewise unaccounted for, beyond the love of humans for the pleasurable shudder of considering dreadful topics), are hallucinations likewise an adequate debunking explanation for all sorts of stories that lay claim to truth, or do our “explanations” exclude by arbitrary definition all sorts of so-called paranormal phenomena that seem—sometimes—to have some amount of cognitive value? (We might consider the unpleasant fact that even our most self-assured perceptions have only “some amount of cognitive value”—the difference being that we very rarely misinterpret sets of perceptions that we describe as, for example, “the glass broke because I knocked it off the counter,” even though every once in a while the glass fell to the floor for some other mundane reason that we didn’t notice.) Should the paranormal be redefined, not without deliberate jokery, as “the new normal,” or the normal that most of humankind has acknowledged all along, even if it was always interpreted wrongly? Should we be redrawing the boundaries of human existence differently, even though the prospect creates deep discomfort in skeptics and believers and genuinely puzzled inquirers alike?

But like I say, that’s one of those awful topics I’ll probably never get around to unpacking properly, or even evaluating how other people have been unpacking it. As my friends can testify, I tend to leave lots of stuff firmly packed.

A less consequential subtopic I’d like to explore but probably won’t is almost the opposite, why there are so many Facebook groups that can simply post images under the topic “Bizarre, Peculiar, Odd, and Strange,” or “Weird and Wonderful,” or “Spooky, Weird, and Cool,” and sure enough, despite some missteps and stupid mistakes of aesthetic taste, most of the images evoke a small shudder or surge of delight or charge of emotional energy of some more difficult description, in spite of their lack of anything resembling an accompanying story. I suspect it has something to do with the same triggering mechanisms that allow many people to respond with a surge of positive emotion when they see particularly adorable pictures of cats online, even when in real life they regard cats as destructive predators causing the extinction of endangered species.

Campbell has some, but only some, useful things to say about this in the early pages of The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, in which just the outdated wording of the title serves as a warning of problems to come.

written long ago, but never posted, for reasons I no longer remember.

And now for something completely different....

From book three of John Crowley’s four-book Ægypt Cycle of novels:

When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn’t come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse’s skin. … But though the world ends sooner for some than for others, each one who passes through it—or through whom it passes—will look back and know that he has moved from the old world to the new, where willy-nilly he will die: will know it even though all around him his neighbors are still living in the old world, amid its old comforts and fears. And that will be the proof, that in his fellows’ faces he can see that they have been left behind, can see in the way they look at him that he has crossed over alive. [John Crowley, Dæmonomania, Book Three of the Ægypt Cycle, © 2000]

— I have been struggling with how to define the end of a world ever since RIBOCA 1, the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art presented under the title “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.” I quote the John Crowley passage above (and post as accompanying illustration “The End of a World” book title in a film still from Wings of Desire) because I have been pondering the subtitle of William K. Klingaman’s 1989 book 1919: The Year Our World Began. There are those who would say that his subtitle was wrong already by the end of the year his book was published, but that’s true only of Europe; I hold for those who favor 1979 for the start of the passage time, but the end of the passage time—well, that’s open to contestation up to this very moment. Yet it feels ever more evident that the world that began in 1919 and persisted, despite great changes, in 1989 is not the world in which we now live, even if some of this year’s anniversaries seem eerily familiar. (December 21, 1919 saw the culmination of the roundup for deportation of anarchist immigrants, when they were put on a chartered ship and sent off to Russia via a Nordic seaport with forcible transport across the border.)

One of the things that keep defeating me in my efforts at definition is the difference between fundamental transformations and transformations that have enormous, seemingly permanent effects that nonetheless turn out to be transitory. Cambodia has been put back together as a different but recognizably Cambodian society even though it has gone through several near-total upheavals in the past half-century, just as Western Europe was put back together after World War II as a set of sometimes dramatically different societies that were nevertheless related in some major ways to their prewar modes of being. In some ways, Europe and the United States are undergoing more fundamental, possibly lasting transformations at the moment than in any time in the previous century, and the world as a whole is undergoing more fundamental transformations, between the spread of the digital revolution and the consequences of climate change. More so than when Marshall McLuhan first proclaimed it, it seems that a change in media often creates a genuine change in consciousness and self-definition. Granted, a sufficiently drastic change in material circumstances would seem to do the same, although the other way round is equally demonstrable, as a shift in what is considered significant, and what is perceived consciously as a result, has dramatic consequences for forests, aquifers, and air quality, to name only three material systems.

But that's quite enough of that.