Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World Book Night, 2013, Late Edition: Conspiracy Reading and Patterns

Because I'm on Pacific Standard Time, I get the news late. Let me explain international time zones to you. Some places are 15 minutes off. Others 30 minutes. If you're in Nepal you're 15 minutes behind Bangladesh, but Myanmar (Burma) is 30 minutes ahead of Bangladesh, which means if you're a major player in the Myanmar junta and want to call your friend in Nepal to say "Wassuuuuuup!?"...add 45 minutes. Which just seems Discordian to me. London is something like nine hours ahead of me; it's already tomorrow's middle-of-the-morning there "now."

Wait a minute: I can't explain that. The half-hour thing, I mean. I'm used to New York being three hours "ahead" of us. Tokyo is something like 16 ahead, so presumably they Know Things that I don't. The inscrutable, Wise East, aye. I'm not really sure how I started off on this time zone crap when the title of this blogspew was supposedly about books and conspiracy "reading and patterns." Sorry.

Anyway, from where I stand/sit, from my relative inertial position and perspective, it's still April 23, or World Book Night, which, if I can trust Wikipedia, started around 1995 in London.

Buncha do-gooders tryna get more folks to read. Okay, I admit I'm a sympathizer...

April 23 - on or about - is also the day the demonic, horrible events in the 805 page tome Illuminatus! Trilogy begin. If you haven't read that book but are thinking about starting it: don't. It screws with your mind. It most definitely wrecked me forever. I'll never be the same. Others have said very similar things. I know it's "only" a novel, but at least half of it refers to actual historical events.

Many have admired the Book for its wry satirization of conspiracy thinking. I have adopted that point of view, if only for my own sanity.

There's been a long strain in academic discourse about books belonging to one long thread of previous books. All books are in some sense a response to previous books. I like this idea a lot, although I'm not totally sold on it being "correct."

There's some interesting fancy computer research being done on "macroanalysis" of texts based on an author's word choice, style, themes, and "overarching subject matter" that suggests some interesting things about relative "originality" and the influence of a previous author, whether a writer knew they were influenced or not. See, for example, HERE.

I've made very many guesses about the influences on Shea and Wilson in the writing of their damned Illuminatus!, but I'd like to see what some future computer algorithms say about Robert Anton Wilson's influences. He's openly stated about 30 or so; what would the computer say?

Anyway, the Illuminatus! cites innumerable books - mostly ones that "actually" exist in my own phenomenological/existential sensory-sensual world in space/time. Possibly yours, too.

And today's "real world" news feels like it's been influenced by the aforementioned book. Just a sampler:

  • Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an Alex Jones fan. Maybe? Quite possibly. And let's not even address the insanely delicious irony, but I'm reminded of Shea and Wilson's "Tar Baby Principle" mentioned in Illuminatus!: You will become attached to what you attack. This idea always seemed a cousin to Buddhism's "you become what you behold." But wait a minute...
          ...if Tamerlane was really influenced by - or "understood"? - Jones, he sorta horribly ironically
          got it wrong, because Jones thinks attacks blamed on Muslims are really set-ups or "false flag"     
          attacks engineered by the Evil Gummint. So...how does some pernicious idea about terrorism in 
          the name of Islamic jihad figure in? (I still see the brothers Tsarnaev as more like Harris and    
  • Glenn Beck thinks that whatever imbecilic conspiracy theory his own pea-brain imagines, it must be accepted as true unless the government can prove it's wrong. The word "thinks" in the previous sentence should be taken ironically. Of course. This is ethics, law, and logical thinking straight from the Idiot's Fun House. Lemme see if I can get on Beck's wavelength here. <Ahem> Okay: Hey, Glenn Beck? I'm not so sure that the decent real Americans haven't not negated their "misunderestimation" of you. Now: prove me wrong, or you're Evil Incarnate and I'm the True Bestest Murrkin who truly loves his country, mom, the flag, a baby's smiling face, Betty-Sue's halter top, NASCAR, and hard cider on a sweltering Missouri summer night, etcetera! <the OG wept>
  • It appears as if the paranoid Elvis impersonator from Mississippi who mailed Ricin to Obama may have been framed. This seems whacked enough to have been in Illuminatus! In case you haven't been following this story (i.e, you "have a life"), the Elvis impersonator who apparently did NOT send Ricin to the POTUS did think he was trying to expose a shadowy world of human organ harvesters. I am not making this jit up.
Meanwhile, some pretty hardcore scholars see a network of global corporate control.

Professor Jennifer Whitson says, based on her research, that if we feel out of control, we will find patterns and connections and "see" things that aren't there; our brains so need to feel like things "make sense." See reportage on her findings HERE, HERE, and HERE. It's interesting stuff, and those who've read Kahneman will be familiar with this. But I'm not sure if it describes all conspiracy thought. That's far too rationalistic for me. Why? Because, well, Watergate really happened. There are conspiracy laws on the books and people go to prison for it all the time. Watergate really was a conspiracy. "Conspiracy" seems a huge semantic spook that needs some robust and fairly massive and creative intellectual work in order for us to be able to think more clearly about the concept. The idea that aliens from another planet or dimension have been controlling us for our entire history as a species ought not, it seems to me, be on an equal epistemic footing with the idea that the Neo-Cons lied Unistat into the Iraq War.

But hey, I'm biased. (And so are you.)

Does Whitson's work account for all "ritual" and "superstition" and "religion"? Maybe a lot of it, is my guess as of this date.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Society, everywhere, is in conspiracy against the manhood of each of its members." Let's be charitable and update his 19th century assumptions to include the fairer sex. What does Emerson mean here?

In Castaways of the Image Planet, Geoffrey O'Brien writes about Fritz Lang's Spies and the 20th century mindset and logic of paranoia and conspiracies: film, the bureaucratic state, the collage-like logic of images. Those who are fans of Lang's (like me!) know he saw Osama bin Laden and Goebbels figures long before those guys were doing their schtuff. (See his Dr. Mabuse films!) Is all the "news" about secret underground terror networks and the Deep State - secret networks that operate within and outside government agencies who cooperate (at times) in order to maintain the status quo - is all this really "new"?

Would it help to stop calling some ideas "conspiracies" and start thinking of them as "normal primate-mammalian politics"?

Or, yet another of many paths to take: conceptual blending? (More serious writers on conspiracy need to become thoroughly acquainted with this idea!)

So far, the best and most underrated book by academics that takes conspiracy theories seriously as a philosophical problem - a problem of epistemology - is Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, ed. by David Coady. (Get it via your library: that's an insane price.) Robert Anton Wilson is mentioned in there. Such problems of demarcation lines vis a vis Karl Popper! And what about the pragmatic approach?

"Any epistemological elite, religious or secular, must develop a system of cognitive defenses to defend its claims against the outside criticisms, but also, very importantly, to assuage the doubts harbored by insiders..." - Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, by Peter Berger, pp.36-37

An academic writer with a law degree, Mark Fenster, had a hit with Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power In American Culture. So much so that he's updated it for the post 9/11 era. He's the only academic I've read that seems to understand the philosophical aspects of deep play - the ludic aspects - in Wilson's work. When citizens feel like voting isn't enough to satisfy their need to participate in the power process, they resort to conspiracy narratives as a way to participate. And largely, they draw upon popular culture's narratives, and creatively tweak and combine. Some of it should give us much cause for alarm. With further and further connections and deeper, hidden orders uncovered, there's a quite-human neurobiological buzz of adrenaline...and "wonder and awe." And let's face it: delight. Conspiracies are exciting.

"Let us not, in the pride of our superior knowledge, turn with contempt from the follies of our predecessors...He is but a superficial thinker who would despise and refuse to hear of them merely because they are absurd." - Charles MacKay's 1852 ed. of Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Professor Timothy Melley's Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America reminds us of Jennifer Whitson's thesis, but combines the multifarious ideas about mind control and surveillance and other aspects of "control" a citizen may feel is in the hands of Others. Melley's key term is "agency panic" and I think he was not drilling in a dry hole in that book.

"Or maybe it's the repetition. Maybe you've been looking at this stuff for so long that you've read all this into it. And talking with other people who've done the same thing." - Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, p.109

There are many other above-average, well-researched books on conspiracy thinking and paranoia. But I still see Robert Anton Wilson's oeuvre as an ideal Ground Zero for all that. Or rather: a Staging Area.

Yes, yes, yes! These books refer to other books, which refer to others ad inifinitum. Nice bibliographies. Reading about reading and interpretations about interpretations. Does something seem...missing there? Maybe?

Fiction about truth can be stranger than whatever "reality" seems. And the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

Happy reading! (But you've been warned about the Illuminatus! Trilogy)

The opening 2 minutes and 17 seconds from Fritz Lang's 1928 film Spies:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

This Is The Week That Is: Crazy?

Humanity: if you break it, you bought it.

Some poet wrote in some whacked long poem edited by Ezra Pound that "April is the cruellest month..." Okay, I'll bite: why?

Oh. That.

Now that Dzhokhar (friends called him "Jafar" according to some social media stuff I've seen) Tsarnaev has been apprehended - after half a state was locked down to search for an (admittedly dangerous) - badly wounded 19 year old wearing a hoodie, I was reminded that the Columbine shooting happened on 4/20 too. That's a day we should all be getting stoned LEGALLY, listening to music, talking wild speculative philosophical talk, reading poetry, and having transcendent sex.

April 20: it can be more than Hitler's Birthday and Columbine. Really.

No, but seriously: not to get all teleological on yer asses, but the goddess put cannabis there to help prevent people who'd listen to a little Loudmouth with a funny mustache...from taking him seriously. Sure, the Treaty of Versaille was a bum deal and we've dealt with an epically lousy economy, but dude! Get real. I don't like the way you say "lebensraum." You've got a malicious vibe goin' man. Chill.

Oh and the Oklahoma City bombing was on April 19th. And so was the Unistat government starting a fire and burning some religious nuts and their children alive, near Waco.

[Readers who do not live in Unistat: forgive my relatively selfish non-cosmopolitanisms here. It's a fair bet some really heinous things have happened in your neck to the planetary woods between the dates 19-25 April. For example: if you live in Rwanda I'm honored that you're even looking at this, but you must be rolling your eyes already. There are many more examples. Like this next bit.]

21 April: Nine years ago, in southern Iraq, in the place often cited as the possible "real" location for the Bible's Garden of Eden, Basra? Fallout from the Unistat war which was started under false pretenses: five suicide car bombers, in a coordinated attack, targeted police stations. 74 were killed, 160 wounded. And Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Bush...are still free men. Which I take as a very ominous existential fact.

Are there any historical forces from this week that may be working to oppose..."all that"? Aye, viz:

Earth Day is April 22nd. Albert Hofmann, one of the most brilliant chemists of the 20th century, sampled an ergot from his lab at Sandoz, thinking it a very small amount. He started to feel odd, so decided to ride his bicycle home. Turns out the lysergic acid dose he'd ingested was a very large one, for humans of any size. This bicycle ride took place on April 19th, 1943. On a human historical time scale, nuclear fission - which could eventually make ending all life on Earth possible - happened a mere few seconds from the time Hofmann accidentally discovered LSD. Coincidence?

Stewart Brand was on LSD in San Francisco, thinking about a talk Buckminster Fuller had given, about how we're all inhabitants of one spaceship: Earth. If we could only get a picture of Earth taken from space; if only people could see the Pale Blue Dot they live on, their spaceship as seen by the rest of the cosmos, maybe enough of them would think differently about their perspectives, and we could avert catastrophe.


Brand successfully obtained that picture. It was very widely disseminated. That pic proved a major force in getting the first Earth Day going.

What is it about this week? Or am I just stoned and cherry-picking my sources? Who is the Wizard Who Makes The Cannabis Green?

If you're keeping score, here's how I've voted. How about you?

Period of the Year: one month into Spring in the No. Hemisphere, April 19-25

  • Shakespeare being born on April 23: Yes
  • Hitler born on the 20th: in this universe the outcome was bad: No
  • Earth Day: getting in touch with everything outside your own skin, AKA "the environment": Yes
  • Timothy McVeigh and the way he handled his "patriotism": No
  • cannabis, celebrated on 4/20: oh hell YEA
  • overkill, literally: The State burning humans alive near Waco, seemingly because their religion was weird: NO
  • the Tsarnaev Bros, and the symbolic "brothers" Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Boston Marathon bombing and Columbine school shootings, respectively), and the way voters and Authority responded: I'll go No on the violence and we really need to think about the responses.
  • Bicycle Day: Yes
  • all the other desperate acts of violence I haven't covered here: No
  • Unistat government under Neo-Cons and everyone who did their bidding in order for them get away with it, unspeakable levels of human misery and sorrow, a $3,000,000,000,000+ war (according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz) that was based on a series of lies: No
  • Buckminster Fuller's idea that the human species needs to notice the "omnidirectional halo" and get their act together in order to not end the Human Experiment on Earth and to become a "success in universe": I'll go with Yes
  • sex, music, poetry, wine, laughter, trodding more lightly on Our Spaceship: as the Poet has an emanation of the Goddess say, "yes I said yes I will Yes."



Pick any one of the events mentioned above and, using your imagination and research (your ingenium), close your eyes and meditate on "This event happened because of this and this and this." Then think of what may have led those things to happen. Go back in time and, even though this is a "fiction" think of possible causes. If it turns out that the 1939-45 World War happened because someone wasn't getting enough love in France in 1473, so be it. Charles "The Hammer" Martel and 732 CE? Easy. If Alexander the Great hadn't sneezed in 326 BCE "all this woulddna happened"? Someone saying "knife" and someone else heard "wife" in 1608, and this led to a pogrom in Russia? Metternich felt much better that day of negotiation - no indigestion for a change - and the Cold War never would've happened? A servant girl caught a nasty bug and Henry VIII's immune system did not fight it off, and he died early on? Just think! Stranger things have happened. Maybe. Counterfactuals. But what really might have happened? If Yeltsin's and later, Putin's people advised him to just let Chechnya go to Chechen rule...do we get the Boston Marathon bombing? How and why did your parents meet? What if someone's car didn't start "that day" and they stayed home instead and watched "I Love Lucy" re-reuns? This may sound like a fruitless or even "stupid" exercize, but you may surprise yourself. Report your finding, 'cuz, like, heck, ya know? I'd like to get to the bottom of some of this stuff too.                              

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Roe v. Wade and James Joyce: My Sick Lit-Drunk Meandering Mind

So I'm driving around the East San Francisco Bay on a dry, windy, cool and piercingly sunny afternoon, flipping the pre-programmed 24 radio channels and I hear a snippet about the drama of a clinic that could allow a women to exercise her right to choose under the law - an abortion - re-opening in Wichita, Kansas. Crazy, fucked-up Kansas. Poor women there. Flip the channels to find music. (Later I read up on this. Foreshadowing of synchro-mesh: the author just happens to be named Joyce.)

Hell, poor women nearly everywhere. There's a really maddening story about abortions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by a Dr. named Kermit Gosnell. The Fetus People have made the horrors that went on in his clinic into a football in their never-ending fight against Roe.v.Wade, and as soon as I heard this I knew that, if it's this nasty and horrific it's precisely because it's become more and more difficult for women to exercise their rights...and especially difficult for impoverished women. So the Fetus People club the Pro-Choice people over the head with this quack-hack doc-monster Gosnell, but to my reading Gosnell is only a story because of the Fetus People's relentless fight to save precious life (if they have to murder doctors 'tis a small sacrifice on their part for precious Life!), for they care so much for helpless babies...(But not much at all for them after they're born. Not really. Just look at how they vote!)

I wrote about North Dakota last month, but I could've picked any number of Red States. The Fetus People are making gains in the Taker States. In case it's not clear, I'm pretty close to what Jill Filipovic writes here, on the 40th anniversary of the ruling that gave women the right to do what they wanted with their own bodies, within sane prescribed limits.

Writing about North Dakota, then hearing about Kansas, then thinking about Pennsylvania (and Arizona...), I remembered the story from last year just before Halloween, about the pretty Indian lady Savita (longlastindianname) who died of blood poisoning/infection in Ireland because she couldn't get the abortion she needed to save her life, because "Ireland is a Catholic country." I guess there has been some re-thinking on this, but the Men will probably not give in...

Joyce would've followed this story. Just look at the virtuosic performance in the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses. It's set in a maternity ward. (An "Oxen of the Sun" overview that makes it sound more daunting than it is.)

Then I thought of how Joyce also used, earlier in the book, the Childs fratricide case, for his own eccentric reasons. The "Childs murder case." Sounds horrific. And indeed, it evokes much of the imagery brought up by all our Roe v. Wade combatants, but especially the Fetus People's stuff.

But the Child's fratricide case was a real thing. In 1899, Samuel Childs was accused of killing his brother. In October the trial was held. Joyce, at 17, knew someone on the jury and attended the trial, no doubt taking notes. He was fascinated by the intense, mythic dimension of brother versus brother. Cain and Abel. He and his brother Stanislaus. "Shem and Shaun" in Finnegans Wake. And another few hundred examples. Joyce was endlessly interested in familial strife, infanticide, abortion, contraception, women giving birth, women's biological power...

...To add to this synchro-mesh, Childs's attorney was named Seymour Bushe. (Childs was found not guilty, by the way.)

I bet more than half of the people who read Ulysses and see the name "Seymour Bushe" assume it's this nasty, Rabelaisian Oirishman Joyce having fun making with a bad pun.

Joyce mentions Seymour Bushe nine times that I've counted. In the "Aeolus" chapter, largely in the newspaper office of the Freeman's Journal / Evening Telegraph, around noon, the newsmen and other literate types are smoking and talking of men of "forensic eloquence" from bygone days. Someone mentions Bushe:

-Bushe? the editor said. Well, yes, Bushe, yes. He has a strain of it in his blood. Kendal Bushe or I mean Seymour Bushe. 

- He would have been on the bench long ago, the professor said, only for...But no matter.

J.J. O'Molloy turned to Stephen and said quietly and slowly:
- One of the most polished periods I think I ever listened to in my life fell from the lips of Seymour Bushe. It was in that case of fratricide, the Childs murder case. Bushe defended him.

I know, I know. I'm one sick mofo. Joyce, a well-known onomast! Why, with all this real-life strife, does my mind go there?

Joyce once wrote in a letter (I forget where in my notes) that his own writing was "mosaics." And Joycean A. Walton Litz wrote that "No piece of information was too irrelevant to find its place in the comprehensive pattern."

Works Consulted:
Ulysses, James Joyce, the 1934 text as corrected and reset in 1961, Modern Library
James Joyce: A New Biography, Gordon Bowker, 2011, Farrar Straus Giroux
Art of James Joyce, A. Walton Litz, 1964, Oxford U. Press.
Names and Naming in Joyce, Claire A. Culleton, 1994, U. of Wisconsin Press

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What's a Generalist Good For?

1. I spent over an hour Googling the term "generalist" and indeed I did come up with, on the first page, "a person with a wide array of knowledge, the opposite of which is a specialist." But most of the generalists now seem to be in the Information Technology field, or as medical doctors who have decided to not specialize and instead became general practitioners. Or they work in the HR field for large companies. Other generalists seem to have a wide array of knowledge in the field of architecture or social work. I saw that the famous Lloyd's of London - "the world's specialist insurance market" - sponsors a credential in a "Generalist Graduate Programme," which I assume is a field with a wide array of knowledge in insurance matters.

                                     Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals

2. Having closely read two of the Whiz-generalists in the field of the role of intellectuals in the 20th century, Russell Jacoby and George Scialabba, the last chance a "generalist" intellectual had of making a living at it was with the New York Intellectuals. (Which I wish they'd rename the Mets, but you can't have everything.) Both guys seem to mourn the passing of them out of history and both Jacoby and Scialabba have done a good job at fleshing out a narrative about the social forces that ended the generalist run. From 1945 till about 1980 (roughly), a thinker/writer/social critic/freewheeling art historian/Marxist theorist with a deep reading of the Great Books could afford to live in Manhattan and write for little magazines, give talks, write pamphlets and books. And it's still where the big publishing houses are; people cared about ideas. (The truly maverick genes moved West to San Francisco by 1955?) The NY intellectuals were almost all Jews, finally emancipated with their resources and passions formerly fenced-in, now free to vent. They took Western philosophy and the Western "canon" and used it to critique mass culture. Many of the Frankfurt School thinkers ended up there, teaching at Columbia or the New School for Social Research. Scialabba, a big admirer of the New York intellectuals, said they threw ideas together creatively and were passionate, knew everything or at least were very good at faking knowing everything. I've read some Howe, more Sontag, lots of Trilling and MacDonald, a bit of Kazin, almost all of Mailer, and at least some from just about everyone who gets named as a player in the era in which they held sway. Leslie Fielder and Paul Goodman had some amazing moments, to my mind. If you look at the hypertexted list in the Wiki, notice that the earliest movers and legitimators for the Neo Cons are there, too. (How this happened: that well-educated and prolific, formerly Trotsky-ish Jewish writers became the "braintrust" for the worst of Unistat Right Wing thought, is covered pretty well in a documentary film called Arguing The World.) I think it was Irving Howe who called his group, the New York Intellectuals, "luftmenschen of the mind." My favorite definition of luftmensch is "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income." But they did make at least some bank with their brains in that bygone era.

                                    Irving Howe, published a terrific essay on his own
                                    tribe, the so-called "New York intellectuals," I forget

3. Forces that ended the generalist intellectual's run: late 19th/early 20th century technology. It called for a strong mass education, which is a problem for the 1%, because with enough education, a significant number of the newly educated will learn to ask barbed questions about power, legitimate authority, privilege. This was a problem. Formerly, as either Scialabba or Jacoby (or was it Alvin Gouldner? Rorty?), you only needed a good ear for bullshit and then you exposed it. Think of Mark Twain or William James. When the government or banks or large corporations told the press their story and the press printed it, the smart set called them out on their bovine excreta. The ruling class then invented and deployed "expertise." And (hold your nose), "Public Relations." Using a term that I wish would catch on, Scialabba said the ruling class, who formerly sent their sons out to tell the press what they were up to, now hired "anti-public intellectuals." If you're a Chomsky reader, this is basically the same as his "commissar class" or "Mandarins." The anti-public intellectuals were experts in legitimation. They had advanced degrees from our finest schools. They truly knew. Hey, the social world had developed technologies and bureaucracies and machinations that truly did seem dazzlingly complex. Who could possibly know? Well, the New York intellectuals read up on business and finance and US foreign policy and advertising and still called the Official Edicts bullshit, but the corporate media seemed mighty impressed with people like MacGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger. They seemed to truly know this deep mysterious stuff; they have degrees, and besides, they're so readily made available to us. What could Mailer - a novelist! - possibly know about it? Best to ignore these...poets and philosophers, with regards to the Vietnam War/Cold War/"democracy." What could you possibly know about Unistat foreign policy with your Humanities degree? (It turns out you can see through the anti-public intellectuals' rhetoric even without a degree of any kind, but I'll leave that for another time.)

                                                      George Scialabba

4. Scialabba says it then took "investigative journalists" to put the anti-public intellectuals in check. People like I.F. Stone, Sy Hersh, Glenn Greenwald. Or: academics who were mavericks and were willing to answer "expertise" with another sort of "expertise" and a willingness to spend a lot of time doing deep studies, in the archives. These would be people like Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Dale Scott, J.K.Galbraith, William Appleman Williams, Christopher Lasch. 

But mostly, the media were taken by the anti-public intellectuals. To me, the most telling fact here is the virtual absence of Chomsky - in the Top Ten most-cited thinkers of all time - in Unistat corporate media. 

5. I enjoy and admire Jacoby and Scialabba a lot, but they seem far too enamored with what I'll call the New York caste of mind. They seem to not want to deal with that other part of the New Class that Gouldner wrote about, the technical intelligentsia. Oh, they touch on it. Scialabba thinks specialization in the sciences is a sign of true progress, and that in a little over 100 years, an accomplished person in any field of the physical sciences could pretty much know the entire field, but now when you specialize - in some area of cognitive science or molecular biology or math or physics or organic chemistry - you can't possibly keep up with everything that's going on. And this is true progress. I agree with Scialabba.  But the nature of McLuhan's re-tribalized mind via all our digital whiz-bangs makes his point something tangential. A chasm has opened up, and readers of Austen and Proust who study the esthetics of John Ruskin and link "Breaking Bad" to Auden or 9/11 or de Quincey in passing conversation? They will not rescue us. (But I'm glad some exist!)

We are not so much Gutenberg Man anymore. McLuhan predicted this and knew he wouldn't like it; Scialabba, Jacoby, Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts, Morris Berman and many others do not like it, but they are searching for a way out...

                                           Christopher Lasch, an anti-modern
                                            that both Jacoby and Scialabba admire

6. Academia has become increasingly market-driven. It's beholden to business interests or it's run by business people themselves. And in the non-physical sciences this seems to have contributed to a lot of insularity and impenetrable language. If you seem innovative and novel with some critical theory of society or a way to interpret literature or history, hey, it's attractive...to the wrong people. My gawd, look at the language used when the Humanities in Unistat became enamored of French post-structuralists. How did this "innovation" help society? I think it was a backward move. It was faux innovation, for the most part. With some exceptions. A lucid and intellectually interesting Third Culture writer, Steven Johnson, majored in Semiotics at Brown and he wrote a blog post about how infected his writing had become at the age of 19. I've experienced the same thing, reading Derrida and Lyotard and Foucault and Frederic Jameson. Hell, even Adorno. Don't even start me on Judith Butler. That stuff warps your style, and your style seems like a big part of your "mind." What's all that about? How the French Academy works? The resultant of what was once called "Physics Envy"?

7. I used the term "Third Culture" above. I used to blog about it, e.g, HERE. Scialabba and Jacoby seem so utterly taken by the Humanities as the true land of the generalist intellectual that they barely, if ever, even acknowledge this new type of thinker/writer, and it seems a main reason why they both feel too mired in a New York/Harvard cognitive style. I like both guys a lot, let me reiterate. Especially Scialabba (who I found out is a depressed guy who thought about suicide, which really bummed me out because I really love guys like him: he's a long-time office-worker at Harvard who manages to write better than most of the professors at Harvard and he's like Sven Birkerts: both guys seem to have a wealth of things to say about the phenomenology of reading), but I do think they make a good, hard case for "their" intellectuals. Read both guys! (But the Third Culture writers seem to have won. As of today. Anyway...)

8. My favorite writers and intellectuals are generalists/polymathic types who seem nowheres near the radar screens of Jacoby or Scialabba (<----btw, say something like "shuh-LAH-buh"), probably because my squeezes seem too frankly interested in the academically declasse: the semantic unconscious, mind-expanding drugs, Eastern religious ideas and techniques, "underground" knowledge and societies, tricksterism and irreverence, the frontiers, hacking, the cutting edges of science, science fiction, sex, the speculative mind untethered, High Weirdness, and, at times, an utter contempt for Authority of any kind. As far as generalists go, this is a different breed of cat. They're hermetic and/or Dionysian with an information density that tends to be very high; they're heretical and offensive. Some have written eccentric quasi-encyclopedias. Many have stupendous and compendious minds. A few might have some of those genes expressed that cash out as schizoid or histrionic, manic or alcoholic, and a few seem given to expansive, even grandiose states. Quite a few were just bats. They're weird. Maybe they constitute a Fourth Culture, but I prefer to think of them as Ecstatics and Gnostics and Tricksters who happen to write books.

Although this may seem like a brief, almost occult statement, they all articulate the dimethyltryptamine aspect of basic human neurobiology.

(There are also some quite "straight" writers/thinkers that put me in a psychedelic head space. I always imagine that, were I to tell George Lakoff that his books were so stimulating to me they made me feel stoned and filled with wonder, he'd somehow not appreciate hearing this. But it's true.)

                                 John Lilly, an example of my favorite kind of intellectual

9. Given the $1,000,000,000,000 student loan bubble right now, the greatly watered-down quality of what constitutes the "university experience" these days (not for all, just most), and the evaporation of real jobs to pay for real rent, real food, real health care, and something like a maintenance of "sanity," I really do not know what a "generalist" (in the sense that the New York Intellectuals were) is good for these days. Anyone got a line on this?

10. Out of the mouths of Google employees: when in the course of doing an exploratory search for "generalist" (see #1, above), I stumbled upon the blog of one Tomasz Tunguz, who gives a quote from Management Guru-Wiz Peter Drucker on the idea of a "generalist": "The only meaningful definition of a 'generalist' is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge."

As much as this smarts, it seems, in my experience, only too-true. To paraphrase Brando from On the Waterfront, "I couldda been somebody. I couldda been a specialist!" (I couldda learned to write code like a bad mutha while reading Ulysses and books on quantum mechanics in my spare time?)

What are generalists good for? Could we replace Edwin Starr's "War" with "Generalist" and come up with the same answer? 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Insect Imagery In Kafka, Pound and Burroughs

A Jungian psychoanalytic riff that, to me, feels intuitively right (<----A-HAAA!) is that, if we see insects as mindless robotic beings, generating at a cartoonishly fast rate relative to our own generations, we probably subconsciously see the Six-Legged Majority as a force or threat to our reason. We seem to have some predilection for Mind, what we think Minds ought to be.

On good days - most days - I'm mesmerized by the variety and intricacies of insect life, morphology, and their modes of making their ways. I enjoy entertaining the thought that that insect there, the one over your shoulder and near the drapes? He's of some sort of Alien Mind. I mean, just look at Him.

[At this point I'd like to interrupt for a commercial and tell you good folks about James K. Wangberg's book Six-Legged Sex: The Erotic Life of Bugs, copiously and deviously illustrated by Marjorie C. Leggitt. It'll easily make it into your Top Ten books of the year 2013 to feature actual science with chapters like "Bug Bondage and Insect S&M" (chapter 18) or "Insect Sex Hangouts" (chapter 8), all featuring the coincidentally-named Leggitt's illustrations. Top 10, easy. Sure to start conversation as a coffee table book, the cover alone worth the price of admission. And I do not receive a kickback from Amazon, where most of our favorite bugs live. I'm plugging this book simply for Art's Sake. Back to our show.]

I think it was JBS Haldane the great English intellectual and geneticist who, when asked about God and nature and creation, said that if there is a God, He seems to have an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles. There are an enormous number of beetles in the world, indeed. (Aldous Huxley knew Haldane; Haldane's ideas about eugenics influenced Brave New World, and in Aldous's early 1920s novel of ideas, Antic Hay, a character modeled on Haldane is too wrapped up in his biology studies to notice his friends are fucking his wife, but there's my digression...)

Regarding the idea of insects overtaking ourselves and the works of Kafka, I will simply submit your own reading(s) of The Metamorphosis. While I nominate Joyce as the greatest novelist of the 20th century, arguably Kafka captured the tenor of the century better: modernist society, the machinery and bureaucracy of everyday life, the Authoritarian State, the sociobiological anthill of overpopulated cities and your number tagged to your name. It speaks to the absurdity of everyday life in the 20th century up to, oh, at least April of 2013. Inadequacy, guilt, glaring inequality, alienation, isolation, anxiety. Knowledge of genocide and the atomizing threat of human extinction due to squabbles over territory, material, and ideology. (All of this - Kafka - informs the deep structure of film noir too, but I can't get into it here, now...)

From the cognitive science/psycholinguistics and the-primary-mode-of-communication-is-as-metaphor POV: in the bureaucratic State, I feel as if I'm a bug that can be squashed, at any minute, unannounced, for any "reason."

Why does Kafka have Gregor Samsa wake up as a giant bug? Could it be he intuited the threat to his own sense of rationality versus what a monolithic State seemed to have in mind? Well, yes, but Franz's father was fairly brutal, and Kafka wasn't sure if his identity was as a Jew, a German, or a Czech. But he does seems to see fascism coming...in 1915? (This riff on insects and great writers seems to lend another level of meaning to Ezra Pound's "artist" being "the antenna of the race.")

Speaking of Pound, in Cantos XIV and XV, his Dantean "Hell" Cantos, we see imagery of politicians:

      Addressing crowds through their arse-holes, 
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,
                newts, water-slugs, water-maggots

[I'd like to add as a gratuity, war profiteers and bankers "drinking blood sweetened with shit/And behind them [...] the financiers lashing them with steel wires."]

More insect imagery, and need I exhort you to NB the context?:

The petrified turd that was Verres
              bigots, Calvin and St. Clement of Alexandria!
black-beetles, burrowing into the shit, 
The soil a decrepitude, the ooze full of morsels

Ain't life grand? But wait! There's more:

Ez is really letting London have it ("The great arse-hole/broken with piles/hanging stalactites/greasy as sky over Westminster"), after WWI, in Canto 14, and in the midst of a blast of righteous vituperation:

malevolent stupidities, and stupidities, 
the soil living pus, full of vermin, 
dead maggots begetting live maggots, 
usurers squeezing crab-lice, pandars to authority

WHO is Pound putting in these delightful hellholes? Bankers, war-profiteers, politicians, journalists who repeat State propaganda, and anyone who obstructs the free flow of vital knowledge. There's more, and I'll quote this snippet because it shows how Burroughs really was influenced by Pound, something that's not often noted, though WSB said in more than a couple places that Ez influenced him:

          And Invidia,
the corruptio, foetor, fungus,
liquid animals, melted ossifications,
slow rot, foetid combustion,
        chewed cigar butts, without dignity, without tragedy,
. . . . .m Episcopus, waving a condom full of black-beetles, 
monopolists, obstructors of knowledge, 
               obstructors of distribution.

And that's just Canto XIV. I think the condom full of black beetles proto-Burroughs. It shows up again - as if a "cut-up" reinserted? - in Canto XV. I have not checked to see if some hot heavy metal band has taken to calling themselves "Liquid Animals," but if not, it's not too late! And "Invidia" in Latin means envy or jealousy, but here it appears as a malevolent, demonic force or Spawn of the Demiurge.

In Canto XV Ez really lets loose. We get the usual flies and maggots, but now the ruling class and their lackeys are deep in the shit, face-down, money-grubbing in the farting ooze, but they themselves appear insectoid, "all with their twitching backs/with daggers and bottle ends/waiting an unguarded moment."

For the possibly uninitiated: Pound had declared he intended to cause a revolution in art, poetry and aesthetics. And some of his best revolutionary-artist friends died in the War of 1914-1918. He has a right to be pissed to this level, eh?

To contrast Kafka with Pound seems too easy, but Pound's insectoid imagery accompanies natural habitats for insects: hovering on, in or around human- caused Decay brought on by, among other things, Greed. With neither Pound nor Kafka do we get a sense they consciously loathe insects. Let us say each uses insectoid imagery as a concomitant to the projection of their feelings of fear and loathing over the state of things after the period often referred to as "World War I," but which I think of as The Period of World War from 1914 to 1918; there's been nothing but wars ever since, and I wish Steven Pinker would pay more attention to his teacher Chomsky's political writings and less on his linguistics...

Two Popular Scientific Sources of Early 20th C. Insect Imagery: Haeckel and Fabre
Ernst Haeckel died in 1919. He knew Darwin. He was a very Germanic professor (there is a unity to all living things), a physician, an embryologist ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"), and just a jaw-droppingly great artist. I marvel at his drawings of tiny living things. Check out his Art Forms In Nature; it's one of my favorite Art books: psychedelic and accurate, beautiful and intellectually provoking. I love looking at it when I'm stoned. No doubt many 20th century writers saw Haeckel's work and were inspired. It's easy to imagine the French filmmakers Nuridsany and Perennou (see 1996's Microcosmos!)(trailer HERE) were steeped in their Haeckel. But also: Jean-Henri Fabre. He died in 1915, and Darwin admired his work, although Fabre was an early French thinker against theory, and check out his "A Dig At the Evolutionists," chapter viii from his book More Hunting Wasps. (The translation by Alexander Teixeira De Mattos, F.Z.S. seems utterly fantabulous to me: fans of Joyce and Nabokov and Stevens? check out that short Chapter 8, "A Dig At The Evolutionists.") Also see the list of scanned materials in that Wiki article. Fabre etait un virtuose merveilleux!

Insect imagery runs through much of WSB's massive oeuvre, but if you've only seen Cronenberg's celluloid interpretation of Naked Lunch you might get the feeling Burroughs was obsessed with insects. He wasn't. But like Kafka and Pound in their own ways, insects seem aligned or contributive to: Control, Authority and State Power. Oddly: State Power and Control are theorized by Frankfurt School types as fatally in thrall to overweening instrumental rationality - techne without telos - simply "more and better" for its own sake, without "human" values as much of a consideration; for Burroughs, Pound and Kafka, insects - as non-humanly non-rational as any of the creatures on the planet? - represent a rationality that has completely transcended the values of the individual as subject within the Modern State apparatus. Human warmth, love, patience, nurture - the Divine Feminine - seem an antithesis to Instrumental Rationality...although with Burroughs's well-known misogyny, he obviously represents a slightly different case.

In Naked Lunch an agent wonders who another agent is working for: it could be for similar people as himself, or "It is rumored that he represents a trust of giant insects from another galaxy." Here insects literally function as ETs. But a more common Burroughsian insect trope is insects as instrumental rationalists with no regard for any human values. And let's hone in further: WSB had some major suspicions about the wielding of Power by the AMA and the modern Western medical establishment in general. Here's an appropriately phantasmagorical passage from Naked Lunch before I hightail it outta here for some of majoun's popular accomplices:

Doctor "Fingers" Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, rises and turns on the Conferents his cold blue blast of this gaze:

"Gentlemen, the human nervous system can be reduced to a compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix...I give you my Master Work: The Complete All-American Deanxietized Man...

Blast of trumpets: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality...The Man wriggles...His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach. -p.87

I feel compelled to add that Allen Ginsberg's testimony about Burroughs - that he was a satirist on par with Swift - is something I agree with on one major level. So here I'd like The Reader to also consider the comedic aspect of such a passage as rhetoric about the elements of Control that WSB did indeed seem menaced by, but at other times he simply seems to be the proto-punk artist-intellectual and heir to part of a fortune, sneering derisively. Burroughs at one time trained towards the M.D, but his homosexuality was officially a "sick" existential mental state to the State. And yes, he was a heroin addict, and his family was well-off. We're interested (just a little bit?) in insect imagery in three of the great figures of Modernism.

Were Kafka, Pound and Burroughs paranoid weirdos? Of course. But so am I. Why else am I sitting here, seeming to argue their cases?

Here's a bit from a 1970s "documentary" that wants to argue that insects will inherit the Earth. Anyone remember The Hellstrom Chronicle? It's campy and sorta shrill and won the Oscar. (Watch Microcosmos first?)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Stephen Wolfram's Model of Information

In the 1940s, John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam began playing around with the idea of natural systems being extrapolated to initial conditions, then playing out as a sort of cellular automata. And I remember when I first read about cellular automata - James Gleick's book Chaos: Making A New Science had just come out - and it was filled with mind-spaghettifying ideas. Ideas like artificial life, the now-famous "Butterfly Effect," chaos mathematics and Benoit Mandelbrot and fractal geometry and fractal art, and it was  - much of it - way over my Generalist's head, but exciting. Cellular automata was in there. I had never heard of it.


Years later I picked up Stephen Wolfram's book after it came out in 2002: A New Kind of Science was about 1300 pages long, and was the manifesto of a guy who graduated with a PhD in particle physics from CalTech when he was 20, then received one of the first MacArthur "Genius" awards at age 21. This guy had a way to model just about everything: syntactic structures, social systems, particle physics.  Just about everything. It turns out he was a big-time guy in cellular automata, carrying on in the tradition of another "Martian," John von Neumann.

Wolfram's math was over my head, but books like this make me excited just to be in the presence of this sort of compendious mind. It's the kind of book I take off the shelf and open at random and read, hoping for some sort of inspiration. It usually works. Wolfram models information in our world upon his forays into cellular automata, in which you have a very basic system under initial conditions, and watch it evolve. He developed a taxonomy of the sorts of systems that arise, that he called "Class 1" "Class 2," and so on. These first two classes exhibit a low order of complexity; they tend to reach a level of constancy and repetition that's sorta boring. There's no surprises. They go on and on, ad nauseum, or die. A system like this? A clock.

His Class 3 level I think of as "noise." You can't predict anything. It's seemingly entirely random, like being bombarded by cosmic rays. If there's any structure at all, it's too complex. It seems akin to entropy. A system like this? Your TV tuned to a dead channel: all static and noise.

                                        cellular automata being simulated, played out. 

Wolfram's Class 4 is where the action is: these systems turn out lots of surprises. They're complex but there's structure; you can model from them and make a certain sense out of what's going on. Systems like this are intellectually exciting and basically describe any theory or "law" in the sciences. They're surfing the edge, almost falling into "noise" but never quite. It reminded me of Ilya Prigogine's ideas about complex adaptive systems and negative entropy, how life flourishes despite how "hot" it burns and uses resources. It creates information, structure, patterns, complexity. Indeed, Prigogine and Wolfram seem compatible enough to me...

                                 Shannon's basic equation for information theory:
                                 world-shattering stuff, turns out

My Other Information Systems
Probably because of my intellectual temperament - which includes not being particularly adept at math - I had always been very impressed with guys like Wolfram and what they were able to do with math, but I have also been suspicious that they're somehow operating from the conceit...or rather, flawed assumption that numbers can describe everything and that everything that's interesting to us is really just stuff that's interacting with the environment and doing computations. I thought these weird math geniuses had become hamstrung by the computer metaphor, and as I saw how different the human brain was from what they had asserted it was - a "biological computer" - I felt my suspicions confirmed.

I remember Timothy Leary giving a talk in Hollywood. He had been reading a recent book and was very enthusiastic about it. It was titled Three Scientists and Their Gods, by Robert Wright. So of course I had to read it. It's about Ed Fredkin, E.O. Wilson, and Kenneth Boulding. Leary seemed taken by Fredkin especially. This was an Everything Is Information Processing in a digital way stuff. Leary's psychedelic intellectual friend Robert Anton Wilson seemed interested in this view too, but never committed to it. RAW always seemed more committed to Claude Shannon's mathematical theory of communication - which is the gold standard for quantifying information - but Shannon's theory has information with no necessary semantic component; RAW made a heady brew from combining Shannon with Korzybski, who was all about semantics and our environment and how we make meanings.

Earlier, the originator of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, had developed a theory of semiotics that took into consideration the content of information using signs and a mind interacting with signs; he had begun to work out a system of defining, quantifying, and taking into account the evolution of a piece of information. This was the "pragmatic theory of information," but it hasn't gone all that far. Shannon's 1948 paper blew it off the map. But still, "information" had to have some sort of semantic component to it, or I had difficulty grasping it. Shannon's and Von Neumann's and Fredkin's and Wolfram's and Leary's ideas about "information" felt too disembodied to me; my intuition told me this couldn't be right. But I'm starting to come over to their side. Let me explain.

Modeling Natural Processes
Via cellular automata theory and the gobs of other stuff a Mind like Wolfram has, he said you can only get so far by modeling life as atoms, or genes or natural laws or as matter existing in curved space at the bottom of a gravity well. More fruitfully, we can model any natural process as computation. Big deal, right? Yea, but think of what this implies: Wolfram thought we can model a redwood tree as a human mind as a dripping faucet as a wild vine growing along a series of trees in a dense jungle thicket in the Amazon. Why? Because all of these systems were "Class 4" systems, and these are the only really interesting things going on. All of these systems exhibit the behavior of "universal computation" systems. (If this reminds you of fractals and art and Jackson Pollock, you're right: I see all of this stuff as a Piece. And so, apparently, does the math.)

Also: you cannot develop an algorithm that can jump ahead to predict where the system will be at Time X; this was proven by Alan Turing in 1936. You can't predict faster than the natural process itself. You had to wait to see what the system did; this blows to smithereens any Laplacian Demonic idea about knowing all the initial conditions and being able to predict everything. So guys like Ray Kurzweil - who has become more and more a sort of Prophet for quantifying the acceleration of information and making bold, even bombastic prediction about what will happen to our world, our society? Wolfram/Turing say no. There are no short cuts and our natural world is irreducible to anything close to Laplace's Demon. The system is too robust to reduce to even what Kurzweil seems to think it is. Robert Anton Wilson used the term "fundamentalist futurism" to criticize those groups of intellectuals in history that Karl Popper had called the enemies of the Open Society. I think the term may apply to Kurzweil too, but I'm not sure. Certainly it seems to apply to Hegelian historicism, most varieties of Marxism, Plato's Republic, and Leo Strauss and the Wolfowitz/Bush/Cheney Neo-Cons.

As I read Wolfram and Kurzweil, the latter seems to see our world as modeled within Wolfram's classificatory scheme as something like a Class 2 system: complex, but if you know enough about the algorithm that undergirds the whole schmeer: fairly predictable.

Arrogance? Aye, but human, all-too human, as Fred N wrote.

                                                    Drew Endy, now at Stanford

Synthetic Biology
Leary, with his penchant for neo-logizing, had in his 1970s book Info-Psychology, defined "contelligence" as "the conscious reception, integration and transmission of energy signals." There were eight fairly discrete levels of this reception--->integration----> transmission dynamic (modeled on the syntactic actions of the neuron). All well and good and trippy, but a team at Stanford led by Drew Endy has made a computer out of living cells.

Engineers at Stanford, MIT, and a bunch of other places have made biological computers. Do you know how a computer must be able to store lots of data? Well, it turns out storing data in DNA is insanely, wildly do-able and has more storage space than you can imagine. Perhaps you heard that some more of these everything-is-a-computer types stored all of Shakespeare's Sonnets in DNA. But that's small taters: it looks like we'll be able to store entire libraries, TV shows, movies, and CDs in DNA. Read THIS and see if you don't feel your mind getting a tad spaghettified.

So: a silicon chip uses transistors to control the flow of electrons along a path; Endy and his team at Stanford have developed a "transcriptor" to control the flow of proteins from one place to another, using Boolean Integrase Logic gates (or "BIL gates" so there's your geek humor for the day!). Endy says their biological computers are not going to replace the thing you're using to read this, but they will be able to get into a tiny, tight quarters and feedback info and manipulate data inside and between cells...something your Smart Phone cannot do.

Endy sees his biological computers as inhabiting a cell and telling us if a certain toxin is present there. It could also tell us how often that cell has divided, giving us early info on cancer, for example. It could also tell us how a drug is interacting with the cell, and make therapeutic drugs more individually tailor-made.

In a line that reminded me of dear old Crazy Uncle Tim, Endy told NPR that, "Any system that's receiving information, processing information, and then using that activity to control what happens next, you can think of as a computing system."

For more on bio-computing, see HERE and HERE.

I'm starting to swing more with Wolfram. But there are many other little snippets that are swaying me. I still like older forms of "information," more human-scaled and poetic and embodied.

But then there are the intelligent slime-molds, which I will leave you with. Grok in their fullness. Don't say I ain't never gave ya nuthin'!

How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence.