Overweening Generalist

Monday, October 31, 2016

Promiscuous Neurotheologist, vol. 6 or 7-ish: Alan Watts

My brother has a Theology degree and seems so much more sophisticated about Christiantity than I am that I will always defer to his statements on any subject within that realm.

There was a time when we disagreed so strikingly about this version of the monotheisms that I'd end up being a wise-ass jerk and he'd get sick of even trying to talk to me. Things have gotten wildly better since then, thank-Goddess.

His interpretation of Christianity has evolved. I think in the Darwinian sense of "evolve": not toward some Ultimate Form, but simply: cybernetic feedback from society/continuous thinking about his faith/exposure to evermore innovative and nuanced thinkers/and an active neuroplasticity, all of this from within an ecological niche of politics, economics, and other factors. He has an open mind, and it's capacious.

As I perceive it, his faith (as some of you may know, my only faith is in some sort of change) seems avant-Left, and I never see or even hear Christians in electronic corporate media who sound like him: not on radio, or TV, or even in film. Suffice: even if you're an atheist, you might not be aware of the very many varieties of interpretations of Christianity out there, now. His - if indeed he still even categorizes himself as "Christian" - is marked by compassion for the poor, the sick, and anyone downtrodden. He renders unto Caesar what's Caesar's, and it's a nuisance. He's accepting of gays, muslims...anyone that might get picked on in today's Unistat. He's in this world and is a sensualist, with the most sophisticated beer palate I've ever known, and an inscrutably detailed sense of guitar-sound textures. There's a pained sense of alienation from previous allies and alliances in Christian faith, and, because he doesn't evangelize at all, I must infer many of his intellectual and emotional stances toward aspects of the Transcendent, much like an astrophysicist infers there must be moons around a recently detected exoplanet: secondary effects. People who constantly talk about their religion? We've all known one or a few. Those who we know have very deep, nuanced and extensive knowledge of a certain religion but hardly ever talk about it? These people will interest us, no?

                                       Alan Watts: artwork by Randal Roberts

So, his birthday comes along and I didn't know what to get him, so I thought of my favorite theology book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts, which came out in 1951. I hope to learn something from my brother's comments, if he offers them. (He emailed me after receiving the book in the mail, "I hardly know anything about Buddhism. Cool!")

I read Watts's book every few years and it always seems "new" to me, although the part that seems "old" is the basic message: sciences are about knowledge of the past - observations and experiments - and its ability to predict the future; but "now" - this very moment - is religious, and we aren't in the now if we're thinking about being in the now. The core of true religion is experience, not citing chapter and verse. We know we've recently been in the moment, but now that we're thinking about that, we're probably not in It. The key is to just be in the moment. Watts never totally lets on, but this is stealth-zen. I love the idea of always being in the moment, but find it very difficult to accomplish.

(I find the idea of laughing at the idea that you're not in the moment precisely because you're thinking about "being in the moment" hilarious, and so: being-in-the-moment.)

And if you "try" that's not going to work. Trying seems one of the most counterproductive things to do if you want to be in my moment: 'tis far better to just go ahead and do or be.

As readers of the OG know: I have pronounced neurotic tendencies. Which have to do with worry (living in the future) and some regret (living in the past).

Still: I'm sure this book has somehow allowed me to have a higher quantity of "moments." Or at least it seems so. The book does seem to function reliably - por moi - as a short-term anti-anxiety Pill. The endgame (<---Ha!) does seem to set the bar fairly high, though. Which is cool...

It occurs to me that in our non-ordinary "realities" we seem to be more conducive to being-in-the-moment, possibly because our primary realities seem a tad too "well-known"?

It's for me an uncanny book: as I read it, I think, "Alan Watts is right about all this...how did he do it? How does he make it all sound so logically coherent?" (An olde classic: Wordworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us")

I also find myself thinking "This is one of the best Sophists ever," and I actually enjoy most of the Sophists we encounter in Plato. (Forget Thrasymachus, who seems to me the barking Id of every Pentagon Death Cult thinker we've ever had. Add to this "might makes right" dude: Callicles and Hippias. What a trio of a-holes.)

I know when we read Plato we're always supposed to be on Socrates's side, and I love the old pederast as much as the next Philosophy student, but some of his interlocutors are even more interesting. Gorgias the rhetorician must have seemed like a whigged-out weirdo thinker in his time, but he probably ends up as an underrated progenitor of trippy Neoplatonism. A case has been made that Gorgias is proto-Derrida.

Protagoras was the Clarence Darrow of his day: he said there's gotta be at least two versions of everything, and was really good at making the weaker account sound better than the stronger; he also said: you can have the gods, but I say they're unknowable and furthermore: humans are the measure of all things. Antiphon reminds me of a billionaire libertarian who wants unlimited pleasure, life, comfort...and pesky laws and other people's meddling just get in his way. Antiphon thought Protagoras was a dick. I don't like this Antiphon guy very much, but he's not boring and I feel like I know him: Antiphon Lives!

Socrates quite often pales (according to my own evaluations) when engaged in dialectic with these rock-star talkers and thinkers in Athens. Anyway...

Back to Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity: it's also Beatnik philosophy nonpareil. Watts was doing what Aldous Huxley was doing for open-minded Protestant and quasi-lapsed Catholic thinkers in the West at the time: arguing point after metaphysical point and then citing passages from the Bible juxtaposed with quotes from Buddhism, Taoism, and the Vedas and showing how much they had in common. That Old-Time Human Ecumenism. I go for that, as a person who really never went to church. I strongly suspect even the most rabid atheists out there desire transcendent experience. (Hell: I know they do.)

Watts has also always seemed fantastically entertaining to me: playful Trickster-Guru, erudite, absurd, wonderfully frank, heretical. With marvelous British elocution. This might be the key to a good theologian in the 21st century ("good" according to my own hierarchy of values): be a philosophical entertainer. (Aye: Philosophers could stand to be more "entertaining." Or, failing that, at least drop most of the post-1945 jargon. It's decadent!) Here's a decent line I just found in Watts's essay, "Psychotherapy and Eastern Religion":

Now, I'm a philosopher, and as a philosopher I am grateful to some of the great pioneers in psychotherapy like Freud, Jung and Adler for pointing out to us philosophers the unconscious emotional forces which underlie our opinions. In a way, I'm also a theologian, but not a partisan theologian. I don't belong to any particular religion because I don't consider that to be intellectually respectable.

20 years ago, when I read that, I realized, "Okay, I previously discounted all theologians as pernicious dinosaurs, but I must consider any that say such a thing as this!"

Later, when I stumbled onto my favorite writer, Robert Anton Wilson, I found that RAW's wife Arlen had turned him onto Watts. In turn, Watts became a sort of mentor to Wilson, telling him there were some very interesting Harvard professors investigating psychedelic drugs in the context of religious experience. (RAW and Leary became friends and intellectual collaborators from the mid-1960s to Leary's death in 1996.) At another meeting, Watts told RAW he'd just read a fantastic book by Israel Regardie, about Aleister Crowley. RAW went on to become one of the world's most erudite explainers of Crowley, and indeed an Adept himself. At another time, Watts said that the biggest error in history books is the idea that the Roman Empire "fell." It never ended. This became a riff repeated in RAW's and Philip K. Dick's books. Watts turned RAW on to zen, and even though Watts quit smoking cannabis by 1959, the notion of zen and being awake in-the-moment has always struck many of us lovers of Mary Jane Warner as an easy way in to a simulation of zen...for reasons I'll go into in some further blogspew...

Watts was alcoholic and a sensualist. He was an ordained Anglican priest, taught at Harvard, was an editor, broadcaster, a dean, a consultant at psychiatric hospitals, and one of the West's great exponents of Comparative Religion. He wrote one of the first books on psychedelics and religion, The Joyous Cosmology. By late 1959/early 1960s he'd found his calling as self-described "philosopher-entertainer," a religious virtuoso who was "in show biz" and was a "genuine fake." When RAW met him, Watts had left his wife Dorothy and their four kids, with a fifth on the way. He was not perfect.

I remember a talk Watts gave on Pacifica Radio in which he said the numbers for outcomes in traditional psychotherapy were: 1/3 get get better, 1/3 get worse, and 1/3 stay the same. That floored me. He foresaw a "Zerowork" society as far back as the 1950s. He was very well-read in the sciences, and in one of the few quotations from The Wisdom of Insecurity we get, in a footnote, a quote from the uber-cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, who seemed to be aware that our rationality and machines might kill us...in a book from 1951.

He was friends with Huxley and an influence on Leary. All three of those men and Wilson influenced me to learn to use my own brain, to think for myself, to acknowledge that I might be one of those weirdo-thinkers who may have to do it outside of The Academy. Against "rugged" American egotist individualism, we as a culture need as complement: transpersonal intersubjectivity and a non-intellectual public meeting of limbic minds.

Watts's most famous abode was probably his houseboat at Sausalito just north of San Francisco. It was on his boat that a much-written-about meeting ("Houseboat Summit"of 1967) of 1960s guru-minds was held. The problem? Do we forget about politics - because it's hopeless - and "drop out" and continue to "turn on" to our own thing? Or do we engage in politics, trying to bring what we've learned from esoterica and psychedelia to the table? Or something in-between? On the boat that day: Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Leary. In this same year, Watts began championing Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. The Summer of Love was happening (or is it capital aitch Happening?) a few minutes down the way, in the Haight-Ashbury district.

In his Introduction to Dark Destiny: Proprietors of Fate, a book of short stories about the "world of darkness" which is an apt title to happen upon as I write this, nearing the Witching Hour on Halloween, RAW, in an eldritch mood, writes:

Emerson's Brahma, who says"I am the slayer and the slain," presumably enjoys the slaying even if He-She-It also suffers the pain of the victim. This view really implies a cosmos consisting only of a god playing with itself (Transcendental Masturbation) or playing hide-and-seek with itself (the view of Alan Watts and all Gnostic conspiracy buffs in the Phil Dick tradition). 

When I first read this passage, I had never thought Watts a gnostic, but then realized: that's probably right. The idea that Rome never fell seems one of the main riffs in modern gnosticism. Further: one easily gets the feeling, reading or listening to Watts, that he had "sight of Proteus rising from the sea." And besides: RAW knew Alan Watts.

                                                  कलाकार: बॉब कैम्पबेल

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On a Few of the Many Varieties of Codes and Deceptive Behaviors in History

Buckminster Fuller writes about the earliest Polynesian navigators, who were wizards who learned to sail East to West against the winds, with secret knowledge that was only shared orally with their sons, or coded in their chants: 

"Knowing all about boats/These navigator priests were the only people/Who knew that the Earth was spherical,/That the Earth is a closed system/With its myriad resources chartable./But being water people,/They kept their charts in their heads/And relayed the information/To their navigator progeny/Exclusively in esoterical,/Legendary, symbolical codings/Embroidered into their chants."- Synergetics, pp.749-751

I see this as an example of a small group who protect their knowledge because it was powerful and probably because it was thrilling for small-group cohesion.
How do we decode writing such as what you're looking at right now? In 11th century Fatimid Egypt, under science-loving Al-Hakim (who had become ruler at age 11, but then disappeared mysteriously during a solitary walk 25 years later), Cairo was the apex of learning in the world: lots of trade with Mediterranean neighbors, a fearsome army recruited from Sudanese, Turks and Berbers, the Polynesian's sailing code long since cracked. Among the brains that drained toward Cairo at this historical moment was al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (Western scholars called him "Alhazen"), from Basra. One project was to explain perception. Al-Haytham had read the recent translations of Aristotle and agreed that things we see enter the eye via the air, but al-Haytham elaborated with more physiological and mathematical suppositions about how perception happens. Furthermore, he said we perceive via a faculty of judgement, after inference. Pure sensation was different from perception, the latter requiring a conscious, voluntary act on our part. Here was a theory of gradations of consciousness, 900 years before Korzybski: there was first pure sensation (whatever we experience before words, analogous to Korzybski's "event level"); then we voluntarily attend to some phenomena (say, paying attention to letters and words and sentences on a page: perception); then we "decipher" the words, and finally: we are reading. Al-Haytham died in 1038. (I mention the 20th century polymath Korzybski; in the first half of the 18th century the Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Vico wrote, "People first feel things without noticing them, then notice them with inner stress and disturbance, and finally reflect on them with a clear mind."- The New Science, #53

                                 al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, b.965
                                 wrote possibly the first great work in 
                                 optics, influenced Roger Bacon and 
                                 Leonardo da Vinci

Roughly 200 years later, under Europe's Catholic mullahs (led by Pope Clement IV), Roger Bacon - one of those guys interested in everything - was interested in optics. He'd read Al-Haytham, but was keeping it on the QT and yet still got persecuted for "unorthodox teaching." There were a lot of Churchmen who insisted rather violently that scientific research was dangerous to Church dogma (They have made some progress since then...). Bacon explained to the Pope how optics/perception/reading probably worked. Bacon and al-Haytham had both realized it's got to be far more complex than they'd suspected. In 11th century Islam, al-Haytham was not persecuted. Roger Bacon, soon after trying to explain to the Pope roughly the same theory, found himself in a cell. 

250 or so years later, Leonardo da Vinci was interested in this same problem of decoding perception and reading. But he was smart enough to know he could get in trouble: he wrote about it in his notebooks in a secret code that could only be read when held up to a mirror. 

It's only in the last 80 years that we've gotten a thick neurobiological account of how reading occurs and there's still interesting problems being worked out at this minute.
When looking into codes and ciphers, codes are one thing, ciphers another; all translation from one language to another is codework; any language you can't read can function as a code to crack; at one time only priests, kings, and scribes/accountants knew how to write and read: for everyone else in the culture "writing" was a code. 

O! So many codes! And right out in the open. If only we could crack/hack/decipher/decode...
Not long ago I yet again re-watched one of those films from the Great Age of Hollywood Paranoia (c.1971-1976): Three Days of the Condor, in which Robert Redford plays a CIA agent whose specialty is reading novels, looking for codes embedded in them. These codes would apparently qualify as steganography. Messages hidden within other messages...and how do you know I'm not doing that right now? (If I'm doing it, please take my word for it: it's all in good, clean fun.)

I remember when I first saw Condor: I thought Redford's job was a fiction-writer's fancy. But apparently it's a real thing, and being taken more and more seriously by...yes, CIA, but all sorts of others working in the (not so) Great Game.

What if some of our best conspiracy writers and novelists of exquisite paranoia were leaving code in their books that hadn't yet been cracked? I mean...it could happen, right? Maybe not, but we never know. Let's not rule it out completely. Which reminds me of a passage in Don DeLillo's haunting, hilarious, deeply paranoid and postmodern White Noise. The main character - who is a professor specializing in "Hitler Studies"? - his ex-wife works for the CIA:

She told me very little about her intelligence work. I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures. The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation. She spoke Spanish to someone on the telephone, was a hyperactive mother, shining with an eerie stormlight intensity. The long novels kept arriving in the mail. 

It was curious how I kept stumbling into the company of lives in intelligence. Dana worked part-time as a spy. Tweedy came from a distinguished old family that had a long tradition of spying and counterspying and she was now married to a high-level jungle operative. Janet, before retiring to the ashram, was a foreign-currency analyst who did research for a secret group of advanced theorists connected to some controversial think-tank. All she told me is that they never met in the same place twice. (p.213)

Maybe it's just me, but "high-level jungle operative" makes me laff. 

White Noise is one of DeLillo's short novels, but there are some really "long serious novels with coded structures." Hmmmm...
Speaking of postmodernists, Douglas Rushkoff, in his wonderful book Program or Be Programmed, writes that the postmodernists were right to be suspicious of language and "reality," but they didn't go far enough: they hadn't accounted for the hidden biases of code writers whose codes were embedded deep within our digital gadgets. (see pp.83-84, ibid)
Well, the pre-postmodernists, often called simply Modernists? A few of them left works so cryptic (and therefore threatening to dull minds, like J. Edgar Hoover's), that they became suspect. 

Even though James Joyce never set foot on Unistat soil, Hoover saw him as a threat. Joyce had an FBI file. Because someone in Joyce's extended circle was a known communist, Joyce was suspected as one, too. (He was more of an individualist-anarchist of some sort.) From Claire Culleton's Joyce and the G-Men:

Even as early as 1920, Joyce had been plagued by rumors about him and his work, and he was (laughably) reputed to be a spy for the Austrians, the British, and the Italians. He even complained to his brother Stanislaus that Ulysses was believed to be a prearranged German code; Ezra Pound had heard that "British censorship suspected Ulysses of being a code." (p.45, Culleton)

Anyone who's looked at Finnegans Wake for 5 minutes might wonder what the eternally paranoid agents of Control thought Joyce must have been up to. If we go back to the early distinction between codes and ciphers, and al-Haytham's and Roger Bacon's and Leonardo's forays into human perception and reading, well, then surely Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are written in code, only in a different semantic sense than what an asshole like J. Edgar Hoover would sense as "code."

Similarly, Ezra Pound, after being captured by the Allies in Italy, had to answer to the charge that his Cantos were some sort of code. (see one of my earlier posts on codes, HERE, skip down to "Modernist Investigative Poets Are Suspects (By Definition?)"
The great cryptologist David Kahn writes about the enigma of the "emotional bases of cryptology," reminding us that "Freud stated that the motivation for learning, for the acquisition of knowledge, derives ultimately from the child's impulse to see the hidden sexual organs of adults and other children. If curiosity is a sublimation of this, then cryptanalysis may be even more positively a manifestation of voyeurism." (p.755, The Code Breakers) Kahn follows with a long line of later psychoanalysts who basically agreed with Freud, and many who challenged his idea. Nevertheless, I find the idea cosmically funny. I mean: if Freud's right - and I don't think he is, but anyway - then if you've read this far and feel like you acquired some knowledge from the OG, 'tis only 'cuz you're some sort of very well-practiced voyeur! Which reminds me of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Fairly early in the book, you'll recall, Allied spies have noticed that US Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop has sexual conquests all around London, and they're followed by V-2 rocket hit - in the same place he had sex - a couple/few days later. They don't know why, but there are theories. Rockets and hard-ons...Slothrop's penis must have a "code" to crack...it - his dick - was possibly encoded by...who? Does he know? Slothrop seems to not know. How are they going to crack this code? Talk about an Enigma!

                                       psychedelický grafický umělecké dílo Bob Campbell

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize For Lit

Well, that was a surprise. Those Erisian Swedes! In the quantum universe next door, my main pick, Thomas Pynchon, won. Finally! He has not appeared in public to say anything. Of course. There are rumors he'll send Jon Stewart to Stockholm in his stead. (When Pynchon won the National Book Award in 1973, he sent zany Professor Irwin Corey to accept on his behalf.) Pynchon's publisher has given a very short press conference, saying Pynch has already given the award money away, to be divided up among Black Lives Matter, the 9/11 First Responders who still need medical relief, Doctors Without Borders, and John Perry Barlow, who, the press release reads, is a "member of the loyal opposition who needs it."

Since it was announced, I've caught myself thinking more and more about Dylan and my associated mental relationships to him. My mom had Dylan's LP Nashville Skyline playing when I was a a pre-teen. I remember looking at the cover and reading his name as "Bob dye-LAN." I loved my mom's Beatles records more than the Dylan. Hell, I loved her Carly Simon record, No Secrets, more than the Dylan, but maybe it's because Carly's braless look was jacking up the baud rate on my boy-organism.

                               believe it or not, this is really Dylan and not Cate Blanchett

Speaking of the Beatles, Dylan in 1964 was shocked to meet the lads and find out they hadn't tried weed. He turned them on, and there's a wonderfully drawn-out piece on this historical moment in George Case's book Out of Our Heads: Rock 'n' Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off.

A passage from Harry Shapiro's Waiting For the Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music:

In 1964, Dylan refused a request from Ginsberg to lead a peace rally at Berkeley and earned the unbending enmity of singer Phil Ochs, who called him "LSD on stage." Dylan reported that Ochs was writing bullshit because politics were absurd and the world was unreal. Dylan took his personal drug-inspired research for freedom and escape through "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Highway 61 Revisited," to the ego-dissolution of "Like A Rolling Stone" and Blonde On Blonde. Nevertheless, claims that all references to "railways" and "tracks" and capitalised H's on lyric sheets demonstrate that Dylan was a heroin addict or that "Blowin In The Wind" was secretly a song about the wonders of cocaine are probably best led in the more extreme realms of Dylanology.

In the early sixties, sharing the experiences of marijuana and LSD between creative spirits had a missionary zeal about it. Rock writer Al Aronowitz turned both Ginsberg and Dylan on to marijuana; Dylan in turn introduced dope-smoking to the Beatles. They met him on their first tour of America. Dylan was "anti-chemical" at the time, probably due to a surfeit of amphetamine, and suggested that the Beatles try something more natural. Dylan rolled the first joint and passed it to Lennon, who, too scared to try, passed it on to Ringo. The episode ended with everyone rolling round the floor in hysterics. (pp.116-117)

Sociologists who made a study of the "Woodstock Generation" found that, of the 1000 respondents, 43% believed most of the music of the sixties could only be understood by someone who had undergone the marijuana and psychedelic drug experience. This study was done in 1977-78, and the majority said their first pot experience was in a college dorm, with either Dylan or Led Zeppelin playing in the background. (Let us take: people who went to Woodstock who were age 20-25: they were born between 1944 and 1949: the first Boomers.)

Which brings me to Dylan's 1965 Newport Folk Festival "outrage."

Dylan appeared there playing an electric guitar, and much of the audience was famously outraged. It's difficult to gauge, in reading multiple sources, the extent of the disapproval, but when I learned about this historical moment, I was deep into playing Black Sabbath, Rush, and Deep Purple guitar solos on my electric guitar. I had always noted any overt response between what a person thought about the acoustic guitar versus the electric. I now think Steve Waksman's book Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience is the finest explication of the social construction of acoustic vs. electric. I also think the fascinating aspect of timbre and its cultural and existential-phenomenal impact is worth delving into, if it's your kinda thing. Dylan's move to electric illuminated the extent of culture's hidden ideologies surrounding electric vs. acoustic, and maybe he deserves a Nobel for just this....

Oh, but the Nobel was for Dylan as literature. Right. I got off-topic. Oh, well...

I consider "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to be proto-Jewish rap from the sixties.

One of my favorite bloggers, Tom Jackson, wrote a bit on Dylan's Nobel HERE.

"Acid isn't for the groovy people. Acid is for the president and people like that. The groovy people don't need to take acid." - Dylan in 1967, found on p.24 of R.U. Sirius's Everybody Must Get Stoned: Rock Stars on Drugs

A funny conversation about Dylan's win.

I like this passage from a June 1984 Rolling Stone interview. Kurt Loder had asked Dylan a question about starting out on guitar and Dylan gives the rundown from his first Sears Silvertone guitar to hearing Woody Guthrie. "And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over."

Loder: What struck you about him?

Dylan: Well, I heard them old records, where he sings with Cisco Houston and Sonny [Terry] and Brownie [McGhee] and stuff like that, and then his own songs. And he really struck me as an independent character. But no one ever talked about him. So I went through all his records I could find and picked all that up by any means I could. And when I arrived in New York, I was mostly singin' his songs and folk songs. At that time I was runnin' into people who were playing the same kind of thing, but I was combining elements of Southern mountain music with bluegrass stuff, English ballad-stuff. I could hear a song once and know it. (found pp.424-425 of 20 Years of Rolling Stone: What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been)

Dylan led me back to Woody Guthrie. Point: Dylan.

Paul Krassner writes about a moment when Dylan was taking Hebrew lessons:

"When I asked why he was taking Hebrew lessons he said, 'I can't speak it.' Now I pointed an imaginary microphone at him and asked, 'So how do you feel about the six millions Jews who were killed in Nazi Germany?' His answer: 'I resented it.'" - Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut, first ed, p.182

Mercurial Dylan Nobel Prize winner. Folk hero, beatnik, hippie, iconoclast, non-joiner, born-again Xtian, Jew, proto-rapper, proto-punk, oracle for a generation, influence on my god Hendrix, altered history by getting the Beatles stoned, enigmatic forever. I love Pynchon, but I'm okay with Dylan winning it.

                               s'il vous plaît voir M. Bob Campbell à propos de plus psychédélisme

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Our Neurogenetic Archives: A Few Notes

I have a guitar student, and she had a high school assignment to write on John Locke and was worried. I piped up, unwisely: "Ask me anything about John Locke! I'm here to help ya!" She had the vaguest notion of what Locke was up to, but she did know he influenced the risk-takers and revolutionaries who established Unistat. I told her Locke has been shown to be pretty far-wrong with his notion of our minds at birth as tabula rasa. Already, I had lost her.

But aye...I think the jury has come in with a unanimous decision on this: we come equipped, fully loaded. For presumably many but not all imaginable things. This has been established, in historical time, a few seconds ago. Or say 1950-now.

But to what extent are we loaded? Is it only activated with experience in-the-world, with language, with education? Certainly we inherit a shuffled deck of genes from mom and dad. Is that it?

(Aside: this genetic inheritance, modified by drugs, learning, changes in environment, bombardment by cosmic rays, alterations in diet, etc: this is my best unpacking of "Plato's Problem" as mentioned briefly in the review of Knight's book on Chomsky, below.)

In his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968, Marshall Nirenberg talked about "genetic memories." Well of course, our genes can be said to have "memories" in a certain metaphorical sense, but details about this metaphorical sense? As I tried to read his lecture (quite technical...but it turns out Nirenberg was wrong about "nonsense codons"!), I can't get a line on it. He's certainly not going off about how the Akashic Records were "right after all!" or anything like that. Nirenberg gets as close to mentioning the astral plane as Keanu Reeves gets to winning Best Actor.

But that was way back in 1968.

Since then, there's been an explosion of knowledge about epigenetics: it turns out experience-in-the-world of our immediate forebears does have influence on our genes/lives. Poverty has been linked to epigenetic changes and mental illness, for example. Epigenetics is the study of how genes get expressed, and the more I read about it the more my head spins. RNA has much ado about gene expression. It's not merely a "messenger," as many of us were told in skool. Some genes get turned on or off like a binary light switch; others get modulated like a rheostat, gradually becoming more and brighter, or less and dimmer.

Here's another example from the past year: the methylation of the genes coding for the hormone oxytocin - a hormone linked to nurturing, trust and social skills - can get taxed by intense emotional experiences. What a wonderful example of the new reality of understanding biology: a gene that helps us do very important things such as falling in love with baby as soon as she is born? It's processed in the brain, like a drug. (Hell: I see oxytocin as one of the more interesting endogenous drugs we have, and we can synthesize it too!) This hormone/drug, via social interaction in the world, affects our behavior, and the social world/environmental feedback can alter the expression of the gene. This circular-causal feedback looping of nature/nurture ---> nature/nurture, ad infinitum, till death do us part - seems like a microcosm of how Everything works. (And remember: then the epigenetic effects can get inherited by the next generation, via what happened historically in the environment, and just, wow. So: death is not the end of our story. We're connected in ways we didn't know before.)

Gosh dad!: Father may pass down more than his genes: his life experience too?
Oh, my: a bad night's sleep can epigenetically alter your genes.
Our genetic cups runneth over: epigenetic drugs are in the works.
Not fair: Study of Holocaust survivors show trauma passed on to children's genes.

Think of how all this impacts the roiling and boiling issue of income inequality...

There's plenty more where that came in. A fine readable book for non-specialists that I can point to 'cuz I read it and was enthralled: Nessa Carey's The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance

Combine this with a few books on the new synthetic biology, CRISPR techniques, and what the hell: quantum computing and ye head shall be spaghettified.

But back to the neurogenetic archives. They seem to have some ontological status outside the drawing room where the Theosophical expert waxes on about past lives. But to what degree?

Darold Treffert is a psychiatrist who's been studying savants and autistic people with extraordinary abilities in some domain of life. He's been at it for many decades. He became personal friends with Kim Peek, the person "Rain Man" was based on (though that character was a composite of many savants, says Treffert). In the beginning he was a traditional scientist who read Jung and thought it wasn't science: too soft. Now he thinks Jung was on to something; he thinks we may have genetic memories of things experienced in the past by others whom we often cannot identify. See his two books (mentioned in the text linked to) and give us a better explanation.

How wild this is! We can inherit knowledge? We can get bashed in the head and suddenly write symphonies, when before we couldn't even carry a tune? (Being somewhat conservative in certain areas, I'd rather not get my head bashed in and instead risk continuance of not being a genius.) Treffert says we inhabit a metaphorically left-brain (linear, rational) society; maybe activate latent abilities by spending more time doing what the Kulchur is telling us as "wasting time": doing art. (Here's yet another argument for Basic Income?)

Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson have a collectively dizzyingly rich series of speculations on neurogenetic memory, based on their reading in genetics, mythology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, and literature; they scattered their ideas throughout their many books, and I'd point to Leary's Info-Pyschology and Wilson's Prometheus Rising for starters...

David Foster Wallace, in an essay on David Lynch collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, riffs on our topic, saying our internal impressions and moods are, "An olla podrida of neurogenetic predisposition and phylogenetic myth and psychoanalytic schema and pop culture iconography." (p.199 in my copy) I hadda look up "olla podrida."

Well, now I said to myself, "I think I write too much for this texting world. I'll try to make this OG spew a short one," and so I'll end with a quote from my favorite cognitive neurolinguist, George Lakoff:

"When we understand all that constitutes the cognitive unconscious, our understanding of the nature of consciousness is vastly enlarged. Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia, beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all of the above, plus the immeasurably vast constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all."
Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, p.11

Thanks for bringing your immeasurably vast constitutive framework of your cognitive unconscious to the OG: see ya!

                                      художник Боббі Кемпбелл зробив цю графіку для мене