Overweening Generalist

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

On Cruelty

One of my favorite academic philosophers is Richard Rorty, who died in 2007. As I read him, he's a sort of radical small "d" democrat who seemed a lot like some of my favorite anarchist characters of personal acquaintance, but Rorty called himself a "bourgeois liberal." His essay on Orwell in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity was marvelous in fleshing out what he thought was the number one value among liberals: cruelty is the worst thing we can do. He was heavily influenced by Judith Shklar in this.

                                                        philosopher Judith Shklar

I recently re-read a bunch of Rorty (and the Shklar essay I linked to above, which I highly recommend) and, while I think we make up our own hierarchy of values and they are not dictated to us from some transcendent being, I subscribe to Shklar's idea. (I wonder about more esoteric readings of Machiavelli, but that's for some other blogspew.) I've been thinking and worrying this topic of treating others cruelly quite a lot lately, for reasons most of you may guess.

In delving into the library of the history of cruelty, I can't help but be cheered by some substantial gains over the centuries. Then again, I'm reminded we have a long way to go. Just today I read THIS.

The human running on the Republican ticket looks at this information and thinks - I'm guessing - "I can be more cruel than that." I have good reason to think the human on the Democratic side knows about this stuff, pretends to not know, and would privately give her assent to its continual practice.

In reading on the history of cruelty: my gawd! There's just so goddamned much, and I have (presumably) finite minutes left before I shuffle off my mortal coil so why don't I do something - anything - less depressing? I guess I get obsessed by certain ideas, even if some of them activate neural circuitry that seems to take a metaphorical machete to anything close to "euphoria."

Montaigne's (d.1592) essay, "Of Cruelty" shows him at his most proto-Modern Humanist. Get a load of this passage:

I do not lament the dead, and should envy them rather; but I very much lament the dying. The savages do not so much offend me, in roasting and eating the bodies of the dead, as they do who torment and persecute the living. Nay, I cannot look so much as upon the ordinary executions of justice, how reasonable soever, with a steady eye. Some one having to give testimony of Julius Caesar's clemency: "he was," says he, "mild in his revenges. Having compelled the pirates to yield by whom he had before been taken prisoner and put to ransom; forasmuch as he had threatened them with the cross, he indeed condemned them to it, but it was after they had first been strangled. He punished his secretary Philemon, who had attempted to poison him, with no greater severity than mere death." Without naming that Latin author, [I tracked it to Suetonius, in my Robert Graves translation of The Twelve Caesars, chapter on Julius, section 74. - OG] who thus dares to allege as a a testimony of mercy the killing only of those by whom we have been offended, it is easy to guess that he was struck with the horrid and inhuman examples of cruelty practices by the Roman tyrants.

I'll say it's "easy to guess," aye. Yea, ya gotta wonder about Suetonius ("mild in his revenges"?), but then I guess he'd seen quite enough. And, you know, something very much on the cruelty level as strangling pirates before nailing 'em to a cross as "merciful" has probably happened somewhere on our planet in the last year, but who knows? CIA torturers? Some Third World dictator (backed by the CIA?); who knows whiskey tango foxtrot goes on in No. Korea...Vladimir Putin, like his presumed ally and/or dupe Trump, merely has journalists killed. It's safe to say Suetonius would consider it almost "right neighborly" to kill a journalist by bashing his head in with a hammer, using contract killers, etc.

                                        Russia's Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist
                                                      likened to Unistat's
                                        investigative journalist Seymour Hersh

It may not be about making Russia or Unistat "great again" but you can be damned sure a lot of journalists will not look too closely at what might bring on bodily troubles for themselves, or - as Ari Fleischer said after 9/11 in response to a quote from comedian Bill Maher - that it's "a reminder to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do...." (See 98% of the way down on that transcript.)

As far as I know, Maher has not been strangled or nailed to a cross: Now that's progress!

(So far...)

Russian Journalist Murdered: Is Russia's Press Freedom Dead?

                                           искусство Бобом Кемпбелл

Friday, July 15, 2016

Gary Webb, Philip Marlowe, Robert Anton Wilson and Chapel Perilous

Investigative Journalists
I finally caught, on Netflix, Spotlight, this generation's All The President's Men. I had coincidentally been thinking a lot about investigative journalism and journalists and was moved by the story. And how could one not be?

The "Spotlight" group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe were in the belly of the beast of Catholicism in Unistat. Their footwork, tenacity and courage has seemed to actuate some real change in what seems like an endless run of pedophile priests, with cover-ups going all the way to the Vatican.

The Film Noir Detective Hero
But they were a team, backed by a major metropolitan daily. Woodward and Bernstein: two guys backed by the Washington Post. Still: when I look at ballsy investigative reporting, I keep thinking of some of my favorite characters in my favorite film style: film noir, which flourished in Unistat from 1941-1959, but has never gone away. Some of those film feature the lone private detective who gets hired to do a seemingly simple seedy gig, like finding out if a spouse is cheating. But one thing leads to another, and the detective (Chandler's Philip Marlowe is the best example) finds himself up to his ears in a bigger mystery. Things are not what he thought they were, and he's in great danger.

He's not being paid to solve this big conspiracy - much less report on it for a major newspaper - but he can't help himself: he's the Lone Knight in search of the truth. He takes risks, travels in the labyrinth of The City from the poorest neighborhood to the wealthiest enclaves, trying to piece things together.  Everyone, it seems, is lying to him. But why? He needs to know. He will eventually get knocked out, shot at, drugged, and punched in the solar plexus by hulking meathead gangsters.

He will come out alive, but with the gnosis. The myth of the private detective in films noir: he's a free agent, not well-off, lives by his wits and instinct and street-smart intellect and knows how to talk his way out of a jam and into more knowledge of the situation.

The noir detective drinks, loves beautiful women, and is obviously flawed, and he's no hypocrite. He seems like a profane character, but he's a mostly a man of honor who hates bullshit, who cares about justice in a world that only pays lip service to the idea. In a hopelessly corrupt metropolis, he keeps his integrity. And observes.

It's been noted many times that the Marlowe-type detective harkens back to the Knights of the Grail legends. Which brings us to Chapel Perilous.



Chapel Perilous
I had come across this term when I first tried reading T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in my early twenties. I didn't follow up on the footnote in the section "What the Thunder said," which tells us to consult "Miss Weston's book." I have since made a study of Jessie Weston's 1919 work of brilliant scholarship, From Ritual to Romance, which studies the Grail legends from primary sources. There are very many variations on Chapel Perilous, with interpolations by later writers. Weston's penultimate chapter covers a few of the versions that involve Chapel Perilous, with Sir Lancelot starring, or sometimes Sir Gawain, and even King Arthur appears.

A generic version of Chapel Perilous: the Knight is riding alone in the forest when a violent storm hits. He finds a chapel in a clearing, often near a cemetery. He'll take refuge from the storm there. He goes in and no one is there, except for a dead knight on the altar, with one long candle lit nearby. There is a window behind and above the altar. Suddenly a Black Hand extinguishes the candle and chapel-shakingly loud haunting voices are heard. The Black Hand looks evil and hideous. Maybe the Knight engages the Black Hand with his sword, and barely makes it out alive.

My favorite version in Weston: King Arthur has fallen off his game: he's a slob and is at risk of losing all fame and prestige he once had. His wife urges him to trek out to the Chapel of St. Austin, which is a very dangerous journey, but may be just the thing to restore Arthur's reputation. He will take with him a young squire, son of (get this) Yvain the Bastard. The squire's name is Chaus. Chaus is like myself: if I have a very exciting and unusual thing to do the next day, I sleep fitfully in anticipatory anxiety.

Chaus decides to sleep in his clothes in the hall, to be ready to roll at daybreak with Arthur. He doesn't want to screw this up. He falls asleep, and then it appears King Arthur has already wakened and left on the journey without him. He immediately jumps up and rushes to his horse, trying to follow the tracks of Arthur's horse. Chaus happens upon a chapel in a glade, near a churchyard. He enters the chapel, but there's no one there, only a dead knight on the altar. There are golden candlesticks burning at the dead knight's head and foot. He takes one of the candlesticks and jams it into one pant-leg, mounts his horse, and goes off searching for Arthur.

Chaus then meets on the road a dark, foul man with a double-edged knife. Chaus asks him, "Have you seen Arthur?" The man says no, but I've met you and you're a thief! You stole that golden candlestick! You're also a traitor. Give me the candlestick! Chaus refuses and the dark man stabs Chaus in the side. Chaus cries out...and then awakens: he'd been asleep in the hall the whole time, yet he has the candlestick and he's been stabbed! Chaus, bleeding out, tells his story, confesses, receives the last rites, and dies.

Weston, after relating many variations of this story, asks what could it all mean? And she's convinced that it is "The story of an initiation (or perhaps it would be more correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried out on the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical." (italics in original, pp. 171-172 of the Dover ed.)

Robert Anton Wilson and Chapel Perilous
Robert Anton Wilson uses "Chapel Perilous" as an unforgettable metaphor in his autobiographical book, Cosmic Trigger vol 1 (1977). RAW told Sander Wolff in an interview in 1990 that the "whole book is an account of self-induced brain change." Self-experimentalists and Quantified Self-ies: are you aware that the heritage of your endeavor(s) is brimming with a history of daring, intrepid self-experimentalists like RAW? (I also find Scott Michaelson's take on RAW's self-experimentation compelling: that it was a synthesis of Aleister Crowley and modern neuroscience.) (See Portable Darkness, jacket sleeve, inside cover.)

As I write, there is a group reading of Cosmic Trigger vol 1 going on over at RAWIllumination.net, and if you're reading this at a later date, look for the archives of the reading and the scads of insightful comments and leave your own comments from your reading there, as I sense this is a case in which a "mere blog" will offer up many a nugget for future researchers...

Back to Wilson's take on Chapel Perilous as metaphor:

When researching occult conspiracies, one eventually faces a crossroad of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade). You come out the other side either a stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way. (p. 6, CT1) Wilson describes Chapel Perilous as a mind-state that, while undetectable by any instruments, certainly seems all-too real to the person who finds herself in it. Comparing Chapel Perilous to the human Ego, "once you're inside it, there doesn't seem to be any way to get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought." (p.6)

In reading of Wilson's determination to push his nervous system as far as it can go before it breaks (delving into ceremonial magick, psychedelic drugs, various forms of yoga, a deep research into conspiracy theories, even some investigative reporting on his own, etc, etc, etc...) he finds himself the psychologically functional equivalent of the Knight, alone in the isolated Chapel, with a dead knight before him on the altar, and then the otherworldly Black Hand appears...

What does he do? Read the book!

                                                Gary Webb, investigative reporter

Gary Webb
If you don't know who the reporters/investigators I'm talking about here, you really ought to look into their cases for yourself. (See Michael Hastings and Danny Casolaro too?) There are far too many (luminous) details and I suspect at least half of my readers are familiar with these figures anyway. So I'll try to make it brief: Gary Webb got a line on how the CIA was allowing crack cocaine to flood the streets of Los Angeles, in order to fund their covert war against the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Few believed him, but he was smart, with boundless energy, and he produced a series of reports for the small San Jose Mercury-News that made national headlines. Then, the CIA, with a deplorable amount of help from the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times - the reasons seem complicated: they resented being scooped by a relatively small-town paper and some liked the access the CIA allowed them? - Webb quickly went from award-winner to having his own editor and staff gutlessly retract most of Webb's work. There is much to be learned here, my friends, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Perhaps "mendacious" is too strong a word for these big-time journalists and editors, who, taking the CIA's idea an running with it, decided that Webb's work was shoddy and stoked the fears of an already "conspiracy-theory"- minded African American readership. Webb's own paper took him off the investigation beat and he eventually quit, pursued the story alone, but ended up dead in his hotel room eight years after his breakthrough reporting, with two bullet holes in his head from a .38

I read a lot of the full-frontal assault on Webb in the Big Newspapers. One thing that really troubles me (to this day) is that, apparently, we're not supposed to know that the CIA has been involved with gangsters and thugs and drug smuggling since...before they were even called the CIA! Don't reporters go to the library and read the astonishingly well-documented Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, by Alfred McCoy? How did you miss not reading about the OSS/CIA and their deal with Lucky Luciano and the Mob, the democratic elections in Italy, and the French Connection that flooded the streets of major Unistat cities with heroin?

Another galling thing: many of the "reporters" on the big-city dailies who attacked Webb for stoking conspiracy theories in black communities? Many of them were black themselves. I tracked down a handful and emailed them, politely asking if they've changed their mind about Gary Webb (who turns out to have been right about almost everything, of course). Only one wrote back: Donna Britt, who wrote in the WA Post that the whole CIA/crack cocaine-contra connection "just may not have happened." But still, paranoid cases will go on thinking their conspiracy thoughts. "They know the truth, or one truth anyway: It doesn't matter whether [Webb's "Dark Alliance" series - OG] claims are 'proved' true. To some folks - graduates of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and FBI harassment of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr - they feel so true that even if they're refuted, they'll still be fact to them." (Donna Britt, Washington Post "Finding the Truest Truth," Oct 4, 1996)

Here's what she said in her email to me:

Thanks for your note. The fact is that I honestly don't recall what I wrote about him. That was a long time ago! Sorry to disappoint.....


The boundaries are imaginary. The rules are made up. The limits don't exist....


Apparently she's a book-author now. HERE is her website.

When I think of Gary Webb, I think of his own Chapel Perilous. But: was it brought into existence by thought alone? I think there was more to his. I think Webb's Chapel Perilous somehow has something to do with us.

Other Sources Consulted:
Kill The Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Kill The Messenger (2014 film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb: trailer)

Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack-Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb

"Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb," by Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept

Censored 2016: chapter 7, "Dark Alliance: The Controversy and the Legacy, Twenty Years On," by Brian Covert, pp.227-253

Murder, My Sweet (1944 Edward Dmytryk) with Dick Powell as Marlowe
The Big Sleep (1946 Howard Hawks) with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe
Lady in the Lake (1947 Robert Montgomery) with Montgomery as Marlowe
Long Goodbye (1973 Robert Altman) with Elliot Gould as Marlowe
Farewell, My Lovely (1975 Dick Richards) with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe
Chinatown (1974 Roman Polanski) with Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes


                                           I personally posed for this photo. The book was
                                           artist Bob Campbell's idea. In reality, the number
                                           of arms is slightly exaggerated.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

An Idioglossary For Our Reading in the Info-Glut (Partial)

Last I wrote to you few weirdos, I groped toward a small section that I and possibly you encounter in your reading: your readings and their apparent effects on your sensoria.

Another approach would be a gathering of terms. If you're able to make use of even one term, I'll be happy. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

I aim my personal lexicon-blunderbuss, exhale, and fire:

exformation: In my previous blogspew I quoted David Foster Wallace on this term. Here are three other interpretations I've seen: 1.) Everything we don't actually say but which we have in our minds when - or before - we say anything at all. Whereas information is the demonstrable and measurable (in the Shannon sense of the math of information) utterance we actually come out with. 2.) "Useful and relevant information" 3.) A specific sort of information explosion.

I don't have in my notes who I am quoting in #2. I know it seems trivial, and perhaps it is...to you. And that's the very point. #3 seems a lot like DFW's gloss ("a certain quality of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient") to me. #1 reminds me of all those riffs you and your friends have about not coming up with the perfect comeback in time. It's only later when you think, "Oh! That would have been the perfect riposte!" I think the Italian term fare secco qualcuno means this, but I don't quite trust my memory on this...which is an example of exformation?

HERE is the current Wiki on Exformation. That which was not said and that which was explicitly discarded? Tor Norretranders - the neologizer for exformation - wrote a book on consciousness that came out in Unistat around 1999. He said that which our consciousness rejects is the most valuable part of ourselves. Our brains are fantastic processing systems meant for survival. Apparently we make an image of the world in our heads, which is a fantastic strategy for biosurvival, and this nervous system processing information from within and from the environment...including an image of the imager itself, that very helpful phantasm: our "selves." It seems this idea about consciousness keeps being rediscovered and reframed. Just three days ago, George Johnson of the New York Times reported on consciousness in this way. It violates almost all of our notions about our "self" but there we go: my digression is already out of the way for this particular blog article.

Exformation seems to bear some sort of anti-matter family resemblance to Ezra Pound's idea of excernment, which was "The general ordering and weeding out of what has actually been performed. The elimination of repetitions...The ordering of knowledge so that the next man (or generation) can most readily find the live part of it, and waste the least possible time among obsolete issues." - Pound, as quoted in Christine Brooke-Rose's A ZBC of Ezra Pound, p.18. It's one of the functions of the critic, according to Pound.

                               a random beautiful fractal image, because why the hell not?

Noocene Epoch: I forgot how to place the umlaut over that second o. O well. I found this term in another 1999 book, The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: "How we manage and adapt to the immense amount of knowledge we've created." The Noocene seems like a subset time-frame of the newly minted Anthropocene: the period since humans created massive Industrialization.

"Knowledge," not information. We all have our favorite ways to define the difference between these two phantoms. I see knowledge as of drinking age, and it's been around the block. Knowledge tends to grate on our nerves by being a know-it-all, but then it can be contrite and quite charming. Info tries to get away with whatever it can. It's underage, hangs around the pool hall and smokes cubebs stolen from its grandpa and who the hell knows where info will end up? Let's hope it makes good use of itself and doesn't kill somebody.

Wisdom watches both of them and shakes Its head.

componentiality: An aspect of modern consciousness. "Technology induces a cognitive style we call 'componentiality' - breaking up reality into separate components that can be analyzed and manipulated." - found on p.121 of Peter Berger's Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, when writing about his 1973 book The Homeless Mind

At first glance: what a stupid term. But we swim in a componential world; obviously there were many millennia when human consciousness did not know of such a Damned Thing. It therefore seems manifestly not a stupid term. In fact: Sing to me! O Goddess! Of words that describe something right in front of my face, that I never noticed! I owe you one...

apophenia: German psychologist Klaus Conrad (d: 1961) coined this term, but I picked it up while reading William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, and he gave at least two glosses in different spots in the book: 1.) "The spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things;" 2.) "Each thing conceived as part of an overarching pattern of conspiracy." (pp.115 and 294)

Possibly related ideas: metanoia, paranoia, abduction in logic, reading Chinese, gestalting, pronoia - all or some of these terms as cited by the OG in the current context as being (possibly?) an example of apophenia. If I have been apophenic here, I blame it all on my reading. Don't look at me. I didn't do it.

Another text I read says people with mental disorders are prone to apophenia. Okay, so maybe I am a little "off." So what? Anyway...here's an interesting Q, and it gets to near the heart of problems of Info-Glut 2016: are experiences of apophenia the symptom of mental illness, or the cause?

enmindment: I'm pretty sure the poet/classics scholar/writer on the "Deep State" Peter Dale Scott minted this term. He contrasts it with "the Enlightenment":

I believe in enmindment
the translation of light
into awareness of the dark
and understanding of that fear
we return to
whenever we forget
-from Minding the Darkness, p11

At first glance, lapping into second, this seems part of the overtone series for exformation, but it addresses an emotional component of it. It certainly seems to address all that reading we do that is not "fiction" that nonetheless makes us feel like we've been reading a horror story, eh?

Kampung culture: Another term copped from Peter Dale Scott. It means "narrow world-view" in Javanese culture. PDS was trying to find out more about Unistat's involvement in the slaughters of East Timor. Suharto, Sukarno, CIA and Dutch imperialism all appear. See p.213 of Minding the Darkness, but I hafta warn ya: it's not pretty. This unpacking of "narrow world-view" can take on some nasty hues. Even after the Dutch left, the Javanese still bathed in the blood of their brothers. Why? Kampung culture:

PDS quoting Pramoedya:

Even in the belly of Dutch power
Java still glorified

its Kampung culture
they bathed in the blood of their brothers
right up through 1966

And because Java was no longer
in the belly of European power
the slaughter reached an unlimited scale
Etc.

Suffice to say: It Can't Happen Here!

Giambattista Vico used the term sapienza volgare, or "popular wisdom," which to Vico were ideas expressed through myth, rituals, traditions. I do not see this term as the "same" as Kampung culture, but it seems related. (via my own apophenia?)

anamnesis: An SAT-like word I shouldda known, but didn't: To remember. A recalling to mind. Plato's use: all souls need to be stimulated in order to remember an eternal Truth, or to accept axioms as self-evident. Chomsky seems to like this idea. I get it.

jouissance: Obviously French (cough): Enjoyment, or our French brothers and sisters seem to mean "Whatever gets you off." It seems aimed at our transcending of our ordinary/primary "reality." It's probably a good description for why I read. Leo Bersini considers jouissance intrinsically self-shattering and disruptive of the "coherent self." (possibly see McKenna, Terence?) In my delvings into glosses of jouissance a competing term, plaisir, often shows up, trying to get in on the conversation. Plaisir sounds like "pleasure," but it seems to strengthen dogma and individual me-ness. Roland Barthes eloquently defines plaisir as a "homogenizing movement of the ego." Plaisir might be defined as going for what you already know - more of the same stuff - while jouissance seems like an attempt to fracture the structure of the ego, whatever the ego "is," after reading about exformation...

Einfuhlen: Gore Vidal says he got this term from Johann Gottfried Herder, German polymath who died in 1803. Vidal unpacked it thus: "The ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people you know dressed up in funny clothes." I tend to link this term in my own thinking with Vico's entrare, which Vichian Isaiah Berlin described as the force of imaginative insight used to understand remote cultures.

I had always wondered vaguely about this when reading history, and fearing my imagination was falling short. This term helped remind me of how much is missing in history, which I guess we'll just have to learn to live with. The "missing" part, that it. Let us continue to develop our historical imaginations till death parts us! Why? Oh, all the usual reasons, but also: it might help stave off Kampung culture where you live.

unthinking: As opposed to re-thinking: I first noted this term in Immanuel Wallerstein's Uncertainties of Knowledge, p.104: He wanted to emphasize very deep-seated notions that, even though physical sciences have shown to be inadequate, nevertheless stay with us and lead us epistemologically astray. The great anthropologist Weston Labarre gave me a term similar: group archosis: "Nonsense and misinformation so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking." Thomas Vander Wal coined the study of folksonomics/folksonomy as the ordered set of categories - or "taxonomy" - that emerges from how people tag items, which works in cognitive anthropology. Oh hell: let me drop in another fave here: logophallocentrism, which Robert Anton Wilson interpreted as "We have a social system based on belief in the special magic power of words and penises."

Let's hope all that categorizing leads to something we can cash out and invest in the Sanity Sweepstakes...RAW reminded us we seem to have inherited a lot of our ideas from the apes. No wonder this crap is so hard to root out and overcome! This all seems something akin to...

unspeak: I found this term used by Steven Poole. It's language that "says one thing while really meaning that thing, in a more intensely, loaded and revealing way than a casual glance might acknowledge." I think I know what Poole was getting at here, but I may need to make more multiple glances. Is this like "enhanced interrogation"? I suspect so. Orwell's doublespeak, let's remind ourselves, was a form of language that says one thing while really meaning the opposite. So far, of the thousands of real-life examples, I like Bush43's "Blue Skies Initiative" which would have gutted the Clean Air Act and allowed corporations to dump their toxic garbage - or "negative externalities," in economist's-speak - anywhere they wanted. I may as well tack on cognitive policy, which, according to George Lakoff, is the policy of getting an idea into normal public discourse, which requires creating a change in the brains of millions of people. (see The Political Mind, p.169)

campus imperialism: Coined by Jaron Lanier, as far as I know. He touches on it HERE. Representatives of each academic discipline assume something like a Philosopher-King's eye view of all other disciplines, which are subsumed under their own. It gives rise to thinking such as the very common idea now - I touched on it earlier - that we humans are merely sophisticated computing machines. It's all data-processing, all the way down. While I side with Lanier and other qualophiles (a term I got, ironically, from Daniel Dennett, who seems a qualophobe of some sort): our own experiences seem not covered by any academic domain, while each area of the campus has its own particular ways to model what it thinks is my experience. Okay, this is at least my second digression, but while I'm on it I may as well: currently I see the admittedly brilliant Nick Bostrom's notions about the "Simulation Hypothesis" as taking up a lot of cultural space, perhaps deservedly so. However, a small gaggle of minions will make of this idea - an astounding one for sure! - more than perhaps it deserves: campus imperialism? I will admit the Simulation Hypothesis leaves me pretty damned spaghettified, which is a more extreme step - or colorful phrase! - than having one's mind "blown" or "stretched" by a novel set of facts or ideas.

Which brings me to another German term:

Unbehagen: something like "uneasiness." Einstein felt this in the face of the quantum theory, and he tried to get rid of it the rest of his life, to no avail. Because I'm a Soft Whorfian, I think Germans who use this word mean something a little more than uneasiness, but I don't have the German chops to say so or not. Bostrom's "Simulation Hypothesis" - that there's a better than 50% chance we are all simulations made by other Beings -  makes me feel Unbehagen, but even if it's true I don't know why it should matter. I mean, we were all getting along fairly well before the Sim Hyp, weren't we? Please say we were. Oh hell, it's all just campus imperialism anyway, right? Right?

Much of my reading, on the other hand and ironically and paradoxical to boot, seems to chase after this feeling of Unbehagen. Some H.P. Lovecraft can do it. Much of actual history does it. Certain conspiracy theories can do it. Borges does it, and even Argentines without means do it.

depressogenic: One of my favorite scientist-writers, Robert Sapolsky, used this term in an essay about what might be in all our futures. "Why do I assume we'll all be getting sadder? Mainly because it strikes me that there is so much in our present civilization that is depressogenic." - found in The Next 50 Years.

No comment...

ideology: "Ideas serving as weapons for social interest." - one of my favorite definitions, from Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, in a discussion of Marx.

How much of what we read fits into this definition of ideology? Keep your powder dry. (Or is it "powders"? Let us keep our various powders and powderings dry...)

Alright, I've done enough harm for today. My intent was to maybe give you one term that you might make good use of, not to make you feel even more annoyed (you know the definition) than you already were, which would defeat the purpose of this post.

                                           conception graphique par Bobby Campbell

Monday, June 27, 2016

Phenomenology and Info-Glut

At some point in the past 12 years I began to develop a Shadow that watched me consume information. Metaphorically, the Shadow set up lines of communication with "me" and took measures to insert redundancy and insulated wires, etc: the clarity of signal between Shadow and "me" became less and less noisy. I am not describing a clinical picture here; I'm not mentally ill.

Not yet, anyway.

The Shadow seemed only concerned with how I felt when reading books or on Internet, or any other media in which we decode alphabetical "words." (i.e., It's a lot like what you're doing right where you are sitting now.) I noticed It didn't care very much about my listening to music or watching TV. There had been a similar sort of Entity many years ago that watched my TV watching, but it was blunt and always correct. A typical message: "You're not really enjoying this program. Not anymore. Turn it off and do what really makes you happy."

A lot of the time that happy-making thing was reading. It still is.

I know now this Shadow and the earlier Entity were parts of myself I'd constructed from reading and thinking about how media affects me. And I know my reading can make me unhappy, but sometimes I ward that off by saying to myself, "This is very unpleasant information, and it seems mostly true, or true enough. But I'd rather be one who knows how the world 'really' works than an oblivious bore. It's what Jefferson said was essential for democracy to work." Something like that.

Mostly my reading brings me great joy and wonder. That's why I'm addicted to it. I'm okay with the addiction. Resonant energy-language from books interacting with my nervous system has become some sort of activity that acts symbiotically: I derive a sort of secular religiosity of wonder from it; it derives my attention and money, but I think the thing it really likes is how I propagate its seed. It wants pullulation; I deliver. We're both happy.

And, like playing a musical instrument, reading on and on for years and really challenging yourself makes you a more formidable reader. I can pick up Finnegans Wake at any point, read a page and yack about my interpretations there for 20 minutes. I'm currently reading my first Murakami book (and it's great!: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, not that you'd asked) and I get the palpable feeling that my intense readings of Borges make this book "easier" because of the earlier heavy lifting of the Argentine and Chandler, maybe William Gibson and a handful of like-marvelous writers...

I've at times (twice at minimum) read myself into Chapel Perilous, and reading was part of finding my way out. Nowadays the only worry I have in these regards is Info-Glut. I first became aware that I was not the only one who experienced the vertigo of info when a book called Information Anxiety appeared on the New Books shelf at my local library in 1990. It was by some guy named Richard Saul Wurman, who later invented the TED Talks. He gave some historical perspective. Misery loved company yet again. I forget whether Lassie ever really did come home...

Since then: a flood/deluge/onslaught/barrage/din of books and articles on the effects of too much information interacting with the nervous system. Ironic? Hell yes. Those terms (flood/deluge, etc) are some of the same ones people use when they talk about their own "info overload."

So: I guess I model internally my reading on some sort of Bell Curve, and most of the time I'm right near the top, on the lefthand slope, enjoying myself. And if I get to the top and tip over and start sliding down the righthand side, I know some good breathing exercises. I know to go be with friends. I know when to take a walk or play guitar, lose myself in that.



Some Notes From Outside Me and My Shadow

-David Foster Wallace, in an essay collected in Both Flesh and Not, addressed the combination of boredom - which his friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen said DFW died from (boredom) - and information anxiety: Total Noise. He not only addressed the personal responsibility to be informed as a citizen in a "democracy" but he felt like he was drowning, losing his autonomy, in "the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective." In order to stay afloat, we need allies, proxies, and subcontracting friends who will maybe read that long article for you, and tell you what's the gist and pith. A bulwark against info-glut were those invaluable writers of concision who knew how to marshall the flood of facts and convey them meaningfully. They seem to be essayists.

While I doubt I'll ever totally understand DFW's boredom problem - some things seem simply beyond me, temperamentally - the irony for us here is that he was one of those writers who provided that bulwark for us.

What further complicates DFW for me: in his brilliant discussion of Kafka and short stories and jokes in Consider the Lobster, he addresses Danish science writer Tor Norretranders's idea of exformation, "which is a certain quality of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient." - that's how DFW unpacks Norretranders here.

DFW's suicide is too sad -not to mention too arch and far too simplifying - to posit that his boredom-unto-out-of-control-depression-and-suicide was due to going over the Bell Curve, down the right-hand slope, careening into oblivion. His writing gives me nothing but pleasure; he makes me feel smarter. He helps me deal with the Glut.

-In David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading he tells us about the Global Information Industry Center's 2009 study about information consumption by Unistatians in 2008: tons of shallow crap. Okay, but why? This led me to Elizabeth Eisenstein.

-Around 1962, the honcho primo of the American Historical Association, Carl Bridenbaugh, gave a talk about how the new media of TV, telephones, polaroid cameras, transistor radios, data processing machines and "that Bitch Goddess, Quantification."

Bridenbaugh: "Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult."

Eisenstein's massive, 2-vol The Printing Press as an Agent of Change argued the opposite of Bridenbaugh, who thought we were losing our history, our memory, who we are, due to the new media. Eisenstein showed how utterly profound the Gutenberg explosion was responsible for the rise of science, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. She cited Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy for pointing to scholars that they can be blind to the very medium in which they swim: books. The past was becoming not less accessible, but more accessible. Scholars translate books, crack codes like Linear B, uncover the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.

Still: how to make sense of that part of the glut you're mired in at present? Does info glut make us culturally crazy? Is this ultimately behind the phenomena of "FOMO" and other mediated maladies since 2000CE?

-T.S. Eliot, by 1934 quite the reactionary, but still:

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
-"The Rock"

While I don't share Eliot's Anglican bend by any stretch, why not constantly wonder about the principles and workings in us of data/information/knowledge/wisdom? And, perhaps especially: silence? It seems to me worthsomewhiles.


-Aldous Huxley and the stoned intelligentsia that followed in the wake of his Doors and Perception and Heaven and Hell often picked up Aldous's metaphorical riff: that tripping on LSD and psilocybin was flooding the nervous system with information. Huxley compared the experience of rapid info-flow on psychedelics as if ordinary life was spent while your mind was a garden hose with a crink in it, so we experience those dribbles and drabs as "reality. With psychedelic drugs, the garden hose is straightened out, and it feels like a goddamned fire hose of info-deluge. With the slightest tweak of a serotonin molecule, "reality" is seen in a profoundly new light. Lots of us have at times freaked out on that...glut.

It doesn't seem too much to see why robotic cults follow in the wake of this: the replacement by a very low-info environment. The grasping at quotidian Our Leader Will Tell Us crap. Jesus Told Me To Tell You crap. In order to feel better. I get it.

Back To My Shadow and Me

One thing that helps me in staving off the fear from Info-Glut: I find it feels good to imagine being part of a conspiracy of readers/knowers who are privy to certain things. (If I recall correctly, the Shadow turned me on to this cabal.) This seems to me at once both a product of my arrested adolescent Walter Mitty-mindedness, and a hedge against, for lack of a better word, insanity. I mean, Ted Kaczynski read the Great Books. Cosmic humor and frequent erotic flings with the Infinite Goof seem quite on the jocoserious order in face of the Glut. Or: do you have a better way?

                                             l'image de bobby campbell                                       

Friday, June 17, 2016

Obscurity, Codes and Puzzles in Books: Ponderings

"Censorship is the mother of metaphor." - Borges

While I'm on record as being with the cognitive neurolinguistics of Lakoff, et.al., as my main model for the mother of metaphor, Borges here gets at something I find exceedingly interesting: the now-marginalized idea that writers have used coded language for various reasons, and one of them would be to escape persecution by the State. I give Borges his point here.
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Joyce's Friend Byrne's Crypto

With the debates about mass surveillance and encryption continuing on to what I assume is a slow boil, and with brilliant high school students bringing the debate (literally) to Capitol Hill, many of us of a certain caste of mind eventually wonder where and when this began. One day we find ourselves in the archives and indexes of old books. We learn some of what we set out for. In my case - and probably (?) yours - you get the serendipitous hit, too. A recent example from my own forays:

John Francis Byrne, who was James Joyce's best friend at university in Dublin, later invented a cryptographic device that he thought might make him rich, because it was an uncrackable "Chaocipher," which used what's called an "autokey" in the trade. It was a cigar box with some bits of strings and a few odds and ends. When Byrne showed it to his cousin she said it would win him a Nobel Prize, "not for science, apparently, but for ushering in an age of universal peace by conferring the gift of perfect security upon the communications of all nations and all men." - The Codebreakers, Kahn, p.767

                                                       J.F. Byrne, Joyce's friend

Byrne thought his device would be used by businessmen, brotherhoods, religious groups and social institutions, and by "husband, wife, or lover." (Kahn, quoting Byrne, p.768) Anyone could use his device anywhere and it would provide perfect encryption. Byrne met with and tried to sell his device to the US Army, State Department, AT&T, and the Navy, and was turned down. The State Dept sent him a form letter, telling him their own "ciphers are adequate to (our) needs."

Byrne, who published a book in 1951 called The Silent Years, mostly about remembering Joyce, devoted the final third of his book to telling the world about his amazing encryption machine, and actually challenged the public to crack his code, offering "$5000 or the total royalties of the first three months after publication of his book..." (Kahn, 768) Byrne challenged the American Cryptogram Association, the New York Cipher Society and Norbert Wiener to crack his code.

Kahn:
"Nobody ever claimed the money, and Byrne died a few years later. One may presume that the reason both for the failure of the public to read his cipher and failure of the government to adopt it was that while the cipher probably had its merits, its many demerits outweighed them for practical use. Byrne, like many inventors, both won and lost. His cipher was never broken. But his dream never came true." (768)

                                            David Kahn, 2013. His book The Codebreakers
                                            is a tour-de-force.

When Joyce came back to Dublin in 1909, another of his old friends from university, Vincent Cosgrave, told Joyce that Nora had "walked out" with him - Cosgrave - around the time Nora fell for the dreamy writer, which devastated him. He wrote accusatory letters to Nora, who was living at their home in Trieste. He wondered if Giorgio, his first child and only son, born in 1905, was really his. Byrne tried to convince Joyce that Cosgrave and Oliver St. John Gogarty (the model for Ulysses's "Buck Mulligan") were trying to ruin Joyce. It was a plot. Joyce's brother Stan told James that Nora had rebuffed Cosgrave, and this calmed the Irish/cosmopolitan bard.

In real life, Byrne lived with cousins at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin, which is the address of Leopold and Molly Bloom. Byrne is "Cranly" in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the character who lends a sympathetic ear to Stephen's aesthetic ideas, amongst other things. The section late at night in Ulysses, where Bloom has forgotten the key to his house, so he jumps the fence and gets in through the backdoor and lets Stephen in? That actually happened with Byrne. Joyce makes me think of it as a mythic thing, which is marvelous on his part...

By 1910 Byrne had emigrated to New York, where he worked as a journalist under the name J.F. Renby, an anagram of his last name. He died in 1960.
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Arthur Melzer Makes Me Think

"Against history, we developed community through the use of a subtle and ambiguous language that could be heard in one way by the oppressor, in another way by your friends. Our weapons of sabotage were ambiguity, humor, paradox, mystery, poetry, song and magic."
-Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian essayist, broadcaster and poet, in his 1990 The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto For Escape, pp.38-39

In a dizzyingly wonderful book that leaves me wondering what I'm missing, Michigan State professor of political science, Arthur Melzer, published Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (2014).

[Get a load of his out-of-book appendix, a real data-dump of historical textual examples that bolster his claims that esoteric writing (writing in a tricky way in order to not be persecuted or not damage the body politic, but it's more complicated than that) has basically gone on since writing and the State emerged.]

The book was reviewed widely and positively...by NeoCons. The bad reviews seem to be from anti-NeoCons. Melzer says the book needed to be written, and the subject - which was one of Leo Strauss's main riffs - wasn't really Melzer's thing. He doesn't like esoteric writing. He wants to read writers who say exactly what they mean.

I've read the book and find it magisterial. Then I made the mistake of re-reading a book of essays, mostly by Umberto Eco, with contributions by Christine Brooke-Rose, Richard Rorty, and Jonathan Culler: Interpretation and Overinterpretation. I find it heady stuff. But it worsened my probably paranoid overinterpretation of Melzer's avowed reluctance to address the topic, and his NeoCon ties.

Melzer:
"My friends and colleagues all regard it as curious that I should be the one to write this book. There are people who have a real love for esoteric interpretation and a real gift for it. I am not one of them."
-p.xvii

And yet there's 450 pages (plus that online appendix!), scholarly throughout. And then I'm into Eco, illustrating how paranoid overinterpretations occur. And there's NeoCon Mark Lilla, in his book on Vico (who to me is the most interesting example of what Melzer calls "defensive esoteric" writing), saying he disagrees with Leo Strauss on an esotericist reading of Vico. (See G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern, pp.243-245)

Before Melzer's book appeared, for years I'd accumulated notes on the topic on my own, but I hadn't read NeoCon godfather Strauss's 1952 Persecution and the Art of Writing. I accumulated notes based on my readings of Robert Anton Wilson, William S. Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Norman O. Brown, Frances Yates, Nietzsche, etc.

The British empiricist Isaiah Berlin knew Strauss and liked him, admired his mind, but thought a lot of his ideas were wrong, including the esoteric idea:

Berlin:
"Strauss was a careful, honest and deeply concerned thinker, who seemed to have taught his pupils to read between the lines of the classical philosophers - he had a theory that these thinkers had secret doctrines beneath the overt one - which could only be discovered by hints, allusions and other symptoms, sometimes because such thinkers thought in this fashion, sometimes for fear of censorship, oppressive regimes and the like. This had been a great stimulus to ingenuity and all kinds of fanciful subtleties, but seems to me to be wrong-headed. Strauss's rejection of the post-Renaissance world as hopelessly corrupted by Positivism and empiricism seems to me to border on the absurd."
-Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, with Ramin Jahanbegloo, pp. 31-32

And yet Berlin seems to me one of the most astute readers of Vico. And yet: I agree with Berlin about Strauss's rejection of Modernity. And yet: Melzer's book seems overwhelmingly persuasive.

I have not read my way into yet another Chapel Perilous. But I have once again become, lately, ever-more hyper-aware of my own interpretive schemes in reading.

The headspace? Cosmic hilarity!
-------------------------------------------------------
Ending in a Southernly Direction

Lee Server interviewed the late great Terry Southern, and here's a passage apropos:

Server: Reading Candy as a kid, I'll confess to you, played a definite part in my growing into manhood - I don't intend to go into details. What would you read for "erotic purposes" as a youngster?

Terry Southern: When I was young, they had what were called "little fuck-books" - which featured characters taken from the comics. Most of them were absurd and grotesque, but there were one or two of genuine erotic interest; "Blondie" comes to mind, as do "Dale" and "Flash Gordon" and darling "Ella Cinders." For a while, convinced there was more than met the eye, I tried to "read between the lines" in the famous Nancy Drew books, searching for some deep secret insinuation of erotica so powerful and pervasive as to account for the extraordinary popularity of these books, but alas, was able to garner no mileage ("J.O." wise) from this innocuous, and seemingly endless, series.
-Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995, ed. Mike Southern and Josh Alan Friedman, p.2
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                                                   grafica di Bob Campbell

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On "Maps" as Maybe the Best Metaphor For Our Knowledge?

I was talking with a friend of a friend about GPS devices and I said I didn't have one. He didn't either. I said I like the challenge of getting lost (my sense of direction in non-familiar environments seems sub-optimal) and trying to "figure it out." We both still carry road-maps in our cars. About GPS systems: Apparently they're getting smaller, cheaper, more portable, and are causing trouble with not only the cops "illegally" tracking someone, but citizens are using them to spy on each other. (But of course...)

(I've already digressed?)

I still use road maps in my car. I love maps of all kinds. They fire my imagination.



"The map is not the territory." - Korzybski, who apparently annoyed certain segments of the cognoscenti by repeating something so obvious. (But is the phrase so obvious when looked at from from the angle of personal knowledge? Human behavior? Our own neuroses?)

Robert Anton Wilson, elaborating on Korzybski's famous riff, reminded us that for a map to actually "be" the territory it would:


  • Have to be as big as the territory
  • Have to show every inhabitant, including animals, plants, and microbes
  • Give an account of every change, which it cannot do: maps are inherently frozen in time

In a fragment by Borges, "On Exactitude In Science," the cartographers of the Empire zealously mapped the entire Empire, point-by-point. The map of the Empire was as big as the Empire: what a pain in the ass. Eventually, they realized the uselessness and "pitilessness" of such a venture.

In reading a collection of articles on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (AKA: the DSM-V), I became ever more aware that Big Pharma had succeeded in making more behaviors "diseases" that could be treated by drugs, while things like "homosexuality" had been taken out of earlier versions of the book. Psychiatrists apparently listen to their patients, and if they don't "know" enough about what drug to prescribe - what they decode as a specific set of mental symptoms - they consult the DSM-V. But it's only a "map" of human complaints and hypotheses and theories and ideologies about what might help "remedy" the patient's unhappiness.

Here's where I think Korzybski's "map" metaphor is still underrated. Practically all of our knowledge "is" "maps". Certainly all of our books are maps. Even "fiction" books. (I welcome a spirited disagreement in the comments!)

                                                                               metaphor

Veteran Korzybski scholar Robert Pula:

By "maps" [in the korzybskian sense] we should understand everything and anything that humans formulate...including (to take a few in alphabetical order), biology, Buddhism, Catholicism, chemistry, Evangelism, Freudianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Lutheranism, physics, Taoism, etc, etc,...!"
-Preface to the 5th ed. of Science and Sanity, 1994, p. xvii

This entire blog - any blog you read - mostly consists of maps, or maps of maps, or maps of maps of maps, etc. And what of it? Are we still sub- and/or un-consciously looking for Someone with The Truth? (What we want is "more of the truth," no?)

What truths do we want most for ourselves? How to go about it? When do we know we're on the "best" or one of the better trails?

Computer scientist Alan Kay, on "science":

Science is a relationship between what we can represent and think about and what's actually "out there"; it's an extension of good map making..."
-p.118 What We Believe But Can't Prove (ed. John Brockman)

Kay appreciates Korzybski. Here's Blake Victor Seidenshaw on Alan Kay on Alfred Korzybski (or a map of a map of a map?):

I enjoyed Alan Kay's perceptive comments about the irony of the Korzybskian "null-A," since the "null" is itself an Aristotelian operator! Alan mentioned that he thought Korzybski himself probably would have found this hilarious, since he had obviously never intended to do away with Aristotelian logic entirely. This is an important, if obvious point: if you think about it, as Korzybski certainly did, we cannot logically - intellectually - do away with classical logic; the very attempt to do so would precisely reproduce it. This amounts to an excellent paradox; it is literally unthinkable.
-ETC: A Review of General Semantics; vol.67; no.1, January 2010, p.3

With Robert Anton Wilson, "The word is not the thing" being called Korzybksi's First Law, the 2nd Law is "The map is not the territory." Aside from the philosophical zombies and the possibility I'm a brain in a vat imagining/hallucinating my "reality" (or the recent lysergic philosophical idea that we're probably Sims created by more advanced beings from Elsewhere, although, with this last, on some level, so effing what?), there seems to be a booming, buzzing confusion of a pre-verbal world "out there." Once we note it and begin to make sense of it we're abstracting/making a "map" of "reality" in our nervous system. (I think that guy is going to make a left-hand turn...why can't he use his turn indicator?: This forms part of your own mental map of "driving" or "other drivers", etc)

It seems there might exist some exceptions to this? Maybe. How about when maps are part of the territory? When I'm teaching a class and I talk about how "maps" work, am I not using maps as part of the territory about representation from within a teaching framework?

[...Or does this constitute a Strange Loop? Can I JOOTS (jump outside of the system- Douglas Hofstadter) and aver the teacher is using his knowledge (map) to talk about how maps work, putting teacher in a larger set/system of "reality" of map-users and map-makers? Just asking for a friend...]



Well, as we saw in my prior OG-spew, many Serious Thinkers thought Korzybski "nutty" and gave plenty of snarl words and "reasons" why. I'm not buying. Korzybski was weird, but also: pretty damned genius, in my opinion. Here's a passage from deep in modern cognitive neurolinguistics:

(The author has spent 190+ pages addressing neurons, how they fire, how the nervous system of humans make neural circuits based on embodied being-in-the-world, and how conceptual schemes arise, allowing us to categorize our experiences and understand the world. - OG):

How do people learn the concepts and language covering rich array of cultural frames such as baseball, marriage, and politics? In particular, what does the embodied NTL [Neural Theory of Language - OG] have to say about learning and using the language of cultural discourse? 

The answer is metaphor. Metaphor in general refers to understanding one domain in terms of another...The NTL approach suggests that all of our cultural frames derive their meanings from metaphorical mappings to the embodied experience represented in primary conceptual schemas. 
-p.194, From Molecule To Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language, Jerome A. Feldman (2006)

Now: you're an embodied human reading and abstracting from what I've written here. You're making sense of it in the best way you can for right now. (I am trying to do this, as you read and breathe.) Feldman is reporting on not only his own work, but the work of hundreds of other cognitive scientists and others. He's trying his best - presumably - to get us to understand this exciting set of ideas. And, as I abstract from this, it's all about "metaphorical mappings."

We are attracted to people who make really interesting maps. A lot of the time we call these people "artists" or "inventors." We love them because they help us make our own maps richer in detail.

If you accept the idea in the title for this blog-spew, what other sorts of metaphors exist but maps? Metaphors here "are" maps. Maps are metaphors, by a process of algebraic thinking.

Where might I have gone wrong here?

                                            artaĵo por Bobby Campbell

Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Korzybski Waned: Some Educated Guesses

As I meditate - even ruminate, at times - on the quandary of climate change, income inequality, the Supreme Court's tragically stupid ruling that money "is" speech, that Trump or Hillary will probably be the next POTUS, etc, lately I've been thinking that, were Korzybski's "General Semantics" (from now on: "GS") taught in schools, or talked about on teevee or lauded in pop kulch, we couldn't possibly "be" in the mess we seem to be in now. I recently re-read Ezra Pound's 1937 essay "On the Immediate Need of Confucius" and thought, "We need Korzybski immediately."

And GS had its moment in Unistat education (c.1938-55 or so); now it's apparently thought of as something from the "fringe." While I constantly re-read the Ur-Text of GS, Korzybski's Science and Sanity, and can always "see" something sort of "wild" in the text, I think it's one of the great underrated books of all time.

I will try to provide a brief, necessarily idiosyncratic and truncated sketch of GS's marginalization. The following ideas, while numbered, represent no particular hierarchy:

1. The late media theorist Neil Postman (d:2003), who was a great student of Korzybski's writings, gave two reasons why Korzybski had fallen out of favor:

"Many academicians do not care for Korzybski - in part because he was not careful, and in part, because they have no patience for genius." - originally in Postman's "autobibliography" in his own book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, but my immediate source is "Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk - Redux," by Martin Levinson, PhD, in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, vol.63, number1, January 2006, pp.67-76

Brief comment by OG: Yes, Korzybski seems at times not-careful (ask me about the jazz irony sometime, for example); also: he clearly seems like an overpowering generalist-genius to me. If academicians have no patience for such a cat, my current main interpretation is that specialization has so manically taken over academe, and someone who writes about - on many pages all-at-once - neurobiology/philosophy/mathematics/biology/anthropology/physics/psychology and chemistry: can't possibly be taken seriously. I see AK's synthesis of what was known by 1933 as astounding.



2. Korzybski was a Polish count, polyglot, and not a bona fide academic, under Western standards. Hence, he was often seen as a cranky weirdo by academics. Not one of "us." Tries to cover too much. Too esoteric and generalistic. Now: many writers in different fields loved Korzybski and wrote interpretations (abstractions?) of his work. One of the earliest popularizers of AK's work was by Stuart Chase, whose Tyranny of Words (1938) was a best-seller. Chase was an MIT social theorist and advisor to FDR.

Brief comment: While Woody Allen's joke about the intellectual class being like the Mafia - "they only kill their own" - is one of my favorites, this seems like an exception.

3. By the late 1950s/early 1960s, AK and his GS was seen by the "responsible" intellectuals as allied with the outre and growing culture later known as "the counterculture." William S. Burroughs studied under AK briefly, and used ideas about GS in a science fiction-y way. (By extension, Allen Ginsberg was influenced by WSB's interest in Korzybski, and so Ginsberg was obviously influenced by GS too. When mentioning Ginsberg in this context, it seems Alan Watts's AK influence need be added.) Indeed, for a while, GS was seen as synonymous with science fiction-thought, with Heinlein being an exponent of AK. A.E. Van Vogt wrote SF novels trying to popularize his interpretations of GS. (Sorry about the initial-stew here!)

4. AK and his GS have gradually become "infected" (my word) by its association with Scientology. Perhaps the richest irony here: an adequate understanding of GS would reveal that a mere association of one group with another does not mean that one groups's idea "infected" the following group. The notion that previously-created knowledge is utilized by many subsequent groups, for their own ends, still seems a pillar of sophisticated thought.

In Lawrence Wright's riveting book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (2013), while science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was formulating his new religion, Jack Parsons's ex-mistress, Sara Elizabeth "Betty" Northrup, read to Hubbard from Korzybski; and Hubbard, "immediately grasped the ideas as the basis for a system of psychology, if not for a whole religion." (p.60) A further taste:

"Korzybski pointed out that words are not the things they describe, in the same way that a map is not the territory is represents. Language shapes thinking, creating mental habits, which can stand in the way of sanity by preserving delusions. Korzybski argued that emotional disturbances, learning disorders, and many psychosomatic illnesses - including heart problems, skin diseases, sexual disorders, migraines, alcoholism, arthritis, even dental cavities - could be remedied by semantic training, much as Hubbard would claim for his own work. He cited Korzybski frequently, although he admitted that he could never get through the texts themselves. 'Bob Heinlein sat down one time and talked for ten whole minutes on the subject of Korzybski to me and it was very clever,' he later related. 'I know quite a bit about Korzybski's works.'" (p.60)

Comment: There's no doubt Science and Sanity influenced Dianetics. I feel quite confident that Korzybski (who died in 1950) would disavow such a thing. Is it the fault of a writer if a later writer takes their work and uses it toward entirely different ends? Nietzsche's sister played her brother's work into the proto-Nazi's thought. I also have no doubt Nietzsche would have been appalled by Alfred Rosenberg's use of his thought, not to mention Hitler's bad reading in Mein Kampf. I will not comment on the parade of Christian fascists we've seen in the grand historical sweep.

5. As Unistat gradually took on the character of the National Security State after 1947, there slowly grew an apparatus of apologists for the State (of which I prefer Chomsky's term "commissar class"), and some of these intellectuals appointed themselves as "debunkers" of challenges to scientific orthodoxy. Darkly ironic, and seemingly at odds with the spirit of scientific investigation itself, probably the most famous and enduring Official Debunker was Martin Gardner, a brilliant writer who seemed polymathic in a way that mirrored Korzybski. However, in his enormously influential book Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science (1952), Gardner lumped Korzybski in with flying saucer fanatics, psionics, the Bates theory of eyesight, Atlantis, Bridey Murphy...and L. Ron Hubbard. The zeitgeist and Gardner's formidable writing chops cannot be overestimated here. The chapter, "General Semantics, Etc," gives (to my eyes) a bad-faith ad hominem reading of Science and Sanity. While prefacing that he thinks Korzybski's bad book is not as bad as previously-discussed pillories of Wilhelm Reich and Hubbard (separate chapters are devoted to taking down those guys too), Gardner writes of Korzybski's magnum opus:

"It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy." (p.281)

At the same time, Gardner - who for some reason links Korzybski with Jacob L. Moreno, the Rumanian who invented psychodrama - says Korzybski "may or may not have considerable scientific merit." Then he gets down to debunking. If Korzybski ever had a good idea, it was not a new idea. usw.

Comment: At the risk of taking 10,000 words to debunk this debunker, I would merely aver that Korzybski's psychology of perception and individual/societal "making sense" of phenomena is still on very strong ground, and that Gardner should have at least acknowledged this and written, "It seems to me that..." (It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive...etc). I charge Gardner with ad hominem, but he's canny about it. It seems mean-spirited and underhanded to me, with lots of appeals to authority and almost zero charity. See for yourself: Chapter 23, pp.281-291.

6. Many years ago I was sitting in a very large room on the 5th floor of the hall of justice in Long Beach, California, waiting to see if I would be impanelled on an actual jury. I was reading Korzybski or another book on GS. An older lady stopped and took note: "You're reading General Semantics! I used to teach that." I asked what ever happened to it? How come I wasn't taught it? She said "The business community hated it." She also said she thought the local churches and politicians didn't like it, either. I remember saying this reminded me of Socrates getting busted for "corrupting the youth" of Athens. I recall the older lady saying it was sort of like that, yea.

Comment: I mean this as an endorsement of Korzybski.

                                   A Chomsky diagram: how will this tell you how
                                   "the death tax" really works?

7. In 1957, Noam Chomsky broke radically with a long historic tradition in linguistics, publishing a thin book titled Syntactic Structures. It was so obscure at the time the only place he could publish it was at The Hague. In what myself and many others take to be a prime example of "physics envy" in areas of the academy that were not physics, this book gradually achieved academic cult-status, filled with abstruse diagrams of transformations of sentence structures, as an attempt to get to the "deep structure" (still a potent metaphor, with legs!) of English. The goal was audacious: scrap the entire history of empirical linguistics and, using the latest mathematics and following a Cartesian philosophical rationalism, to eventually show that human language contains Universal Grammar that only humans are endowed with, by...well, not the Creator-creator. Not evolution, either. Oh, he'd deal with that some other day.

Comment: This may be the most underrated reason why Korzybski is now seen as a fringe figure: Chomsky's linguistic work, which now looked as important and impressive as physics diagrams on a blackboard as scribbled by Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, or Feynman, was too seductive to not jump on board if you were an academic who wanted in on the Newest Abstruse Theory. Or: a new, possibly more-encompassing language paradigm, which, if legit, was a real winner. Couple this with Chomsky's tireless humanistic ethics against the State, war, inequality, official lies, Behaviorism, and most of his fellow intellectuals' overweening ambition to serve the State: you have the conscience of the entire Intellectual Class residing in one man's thought. I think Chomsky's odd non-charismatic charisma helped his linguistic program, which was doomed, probably from its inception, to never be able to account for the most important aspect of language: semantics. Intellectual attention space is limited. Chomsky's language ideas and his background as a properly trained academic seemed more impressive. Hence, GS waned. Unistat culture suffered. I now see Chomsky's linguistic gains, over 60 years, to be quite modest considering the declared ambitious grasp in scope. It was a bifuration point, culturally, and to our detriment and for complex reasons, it went the other way...

8. "Popularizations" are not serious reading. This, in the age of Specialization, seems gospel in Academe. Now not only AK but his popularizers are seen as not only "wrong" because non-Chomskyan, but debased, because for the masses. I have on my shelves GS-popularizations such as People In Quandaries by Wendell Johnson; Levels of Knowing and Existence by Harry L. Weinberg; The Language of Wisdom and Folly, by Irving J. Lee; Mathsemantics: Making Numbers Talk Sense, by Edward MacNeal. Oh, and Samuel Hayakawa's Language In Thought and Action, which has proven to be the most famous of GS popularizers. (More about this last book and author below.)

Comment: All of these books consist for me as guides to what might have been. Korzybski's work was so fecund that none of these books are alike. Just one irony among many I could point out here: In Chomsky's Understanding Power, he extolls 1930s leftist intellectuals for popularizing difficult subjects! (see pp.331-333) For more irony, see pp.37-44, where Noam - not doing linguistics but championing human freedom against the State and its violence, gives one example after another of how the State uses Orwellian language against the masses, who are defenseless unless they somehow learn one or another form of "intellectual self-defense," none of which could possibly include GS because that approach is "all wrong."(<----I read an email from Noam forwarded to me by a friend who asked what Chomsky thought of GS)

Popularizations are not to be taken seriously, but we want the public to understand the increasingly opaque world. So: popularizations are no good unless they're good. Since 1930: it looks to me like the Commissar Class doesn't really care if a small minority of the population reads something very truthful about power. As long as more than a "few" don't catch on?

9. In what functions as an update on Gardner, Steven Pinker's popular book The Language Instinct (1994) has an entire chapter showing why Korzybski/GS/Sapir-Whorf "are" all wrong. Pinker has picked up the Chomsky linguistic model and assumed the role of Public Intellectual. When I read his chapter, "Mentalese" from TLI, I get the feeling Pinker has never actually read Korzybski. I emailed him; Pinker never wrote back. In my opinion Pinker contributes to the enormous disservice to the public by making fun of the previous model of how language works. (See The Language Instinct, pp. 55-82 and see what you think?)

10. Regarding S. I. Hayakawa, the most popular popularizer of Korzybski: it's pretty complicated. Because Hayakawa was teaching mostly writers and humanities types, his biographer, Gerald Haslam, has called Hayakawa's GS "General Semantics Lite." Language In Thought and Action is a delightful read, and will make you "smarter" right away. However, if you decide then to look at his source - Science and Sanity - you will probably be STUNNED by all the math and science.

In Robert Anton Wilson's book The Illuminati Papers, there's a page of Erisiana that may seen obscure now. On p.92 (I have the olde And/Or Press issue), there's a jokey-ornate form letter from, among other "groups," the American Anarchist Association. The letter is addressed to someone named S.I. Hayakawa, and cautions the recipient to read another person with the same name, because the other Hayakawa was evidently a sane reader of GS who knew and wrote about  Korzybski well. The recipient of the letter would benefit, because "He might also teach you something about neurosemantic relaxation. In the last photograph We saw of you confronting the dissidents, your entire face, shoulders, and body showed rigidity, neurosemantic 'closedness,' and the general nonverbal message, 'Don't talk to me; my mind is made up.' General Semantics might teach you how to grow out of this infantile and primitive attitudinal set and function as a time-binding and open personality. Please get in touch with the other Dr. Hayakawa an give this a try." - signed by "Theophobia the Elder," a Robert Anton Wilson pseudonym within the Discordian religion.

Some background HERE.

Here's his biographer, Haslam, giving a talk to General Semantics Symposium.

A defense of Hayakawa by his son: Let's remember that S.I. Hayakawa1 is not the same as S.I. Hayakawa2, who isn't the same as S.I. Hayakawa3, etc.

Comment: Hayakawa famously slept in the California Senate. As Haslam notes, it's ironic that this is all people remember about Hayakawa (who was Marshall McLuhan's paperboy in Canada when he was very young!); it seems very unfortunate that his semantic reactions at SF State during the anarchic late 1960s has been used to denigrate GS.

11. Robert Anton Wilson - who turned me on to Korzybski - told interviewer Charles Platt in the early 1980s that there were "defects" in his [Korzybski's- OG] system, but his body of work is something "everybody should grapple with." RAW told me he thought Korzybski could be personally abrasive, and that may be why he fell out of favor. (I forget where I read that some of Korzybski's students said he could be "blasphemously cheerful.") There's an idea that runs through a lot of RAW's heavily-influenced-by-Korzybski oeuvre: that there is a semantic unconscious - which Pound called  paideuma - in which it is taboo to know how power, sex and knowledge "really work." In my opinion, this may be the deepest "reason" why Korzybski waned.

                                           बॉबी कैम्पबेल द्वारा कलाकृति