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.