Overweening Generalist

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

[Quick prefatory remark: This post was actuated by a blogger friend I admire, PQ, who writes with verve and erudition about James Joyce, hip-hop, sports and many other things. He'd just tackled Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow for the first time and wanted to know what I might have to say about Timothy Leary's reading of Pynchon. I've read his Pynchon piece, "The Allure of Gravity's Rainbow and Its Mysterious Author" and it's stellar. We meant for our posts here to be complementary. Let us know what you think! Thanks, - OG]

I wonder if anyone reading this has ever had the same recurring bizarre fantasy that I've had: I become so deeply immersed in the worlds of my reading and books that when what we so laffingly call "the real world" calls me away, I curse inwardly...and fantasize about Reading In Prison. I capitalize that because it seemed to demand it. It's such a crazy thought and I've only spent one night in a jail in my life. It was hellish. Does some antique area of my mind think prison is an amniotic desert island, with chow breaks twice a day, or some sort of zen book-meditation retreat?

And then there's the knowledge of what solitary confinement does to a person's brain: every good study I've read likens it to torture. All I think about when I've fantasized about Reading In Prison is the lack of The World calling on me to do, ya know: adult stuff, like work or pay the bills or take out the garbage. I've no doubt been infected by numerous books where writers talk about all the reading they'd done in prison. Not much else to do. I conveniently bracket off ideas about getting killed in a gang fight, or raped, or going mad from lack of intimate contact with other humans, especially females. It's an embarrassing thing to confess here, but I have my reasons, albeit nutty ones.

After Thomas Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966, for what we know, he spent the next six-odd years smoking cannabis in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Beach, California, writing the most dazzling, harrowing, encyclopedic epic of the second half of the 20th century, Gravity's Rainbow, which appeared in 1973. The number of scholarly books and articles about that novel runs into the thousands. It's a daunting read. Pynchon's erudition is on the level of Joyce, but his bend toward scientific knowledge seems particularly impressive. Robert Anton Wilson writes, "Pynchon shows considerable knowledge of information theory and other scientific matters generally ignored by the literary intelligentsia. In [Gravity's Rainbow] he uses calculus and quantum mechanics in the way Joyce used Homer in Ulysses."

                                  I own two copies of GR, but neither has this cool cover

While Pynchon worked on his magnum opus, Timothy Leary's years from 1966 to 1973 seemed, in retrospect, to have been imagined by Pynchon. Leary held court in a 100-room mansion loaned to he and his friends by heirs to the Mellon fortune in Dutchess County, upstate New York. He met and dined and became friends and collaborators with an absurd number of celebrities and intellectual luminaries: McLuhan, Jimi Hendrix, John and Yoko, Albert Hoffman, virtually everyone in underground publishing. He was married at Joshua Tree, with a director of TV's "Bonanza" filming. He toured putting on plays about Jesus and Buddha, was in San Francisco at the beginning of the Summer of Love and was recognized everywhere. He was at Altamont. He kept a home in Berkeley all the while he conducted experiments with his own mind at the Millbrook mansion. He became friends with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, based out of Laguna Beach, CA. He traveled to Manhattan to meet with Krassner, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin and clashed with their new visions of the Yippies. He went on lecture tours. He debated Dr. Sidney Cohen, who now opposed LSD; earlier Cohen had turned many Hollywood stars to the drug. He watched as the youth of Unistat grew militantly against LBJ and then Nixon as the Vietnam was escalated. He ramped up a run for Governor of California. He was continually meeting with his legal team to combat bullshit "busts" in Laredo, Texas (where cops "found" two roaches in his car), Orange County (where they pulled him over for no reason, planted a bit of pot in his ashtray and arrested him), and in upstate New York (where G. Gordon Liddy and his goons repeatedly harassed him and his friends). He went to Otto Preminger's apartment and turned him on to LSD, because Preminger wanted to make a movie about it.

Leary went to prison in 1970, escaped thrillingly with the help of the Weather Underground, made it out of the country to Paris, then Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver - another fugitive from the madness of 1960s Unistat, and seemingly damaged by prison himself - treated Leary and his wife like prisoners. (Cleaver's book Soul On Ice was one of many books that fed my demented Reading In Prison fantasies, no doubt!). He escaped Algeria and ended up in Switzerland, feeling at times very much under guard by a millionaire arms dealer Michel Hauchard, who seems one of the more enigmatic  figures in Leary's life during those six-seven years. (My litany barely touches on these incredible years; the interested reader is encouraged to read Leary's biography, Flashbacks;  Robert Greenfield's unfriendly but well-researched bio of Leary; and don't miss John Higgs's lucid and delightful bio of Leary: I Have America Surrounded. I'm still waiting to get my hands on R. U. Sirius's recent Timothy Leary's Trip Through Time.)

                                      Leary in 1969, by photographer Robert Altman

Getting back to this period in Leary's life: he gets caught in Kabul and ends up back in the California Archipelago. He once counted how many different prisons he'd been in: 36. It was in solitary confinement in Sandstone, Minnesota that Leary asked a trustee for something to read. "No books fro special cases," was the answer. Soon after, he "heard the clank of the padlock and the rasp of the metal slot being opened. He passively accepted a book which was pushed through the slot." It was the recently released novel Gravity's Rainbow. Leary, in solitary confinement, read it for 12 hours straight until the lights went off, then woke at sunrise and read it for 15 hours. When he finished the first reading, he began again at page one and annotated, "decoded, outlined and charted the narrative." (I wonder whatever happened to that copy?)

Why? Why was Leary so enchanted by this book? Because, somehow, this Pynchon guy, in postmodern prose (kaleidoscopic narrative, shifting perspectives of time, unworldly erudition, hundreds of characters, lowbrow humor, passages of phantasmagorical proportions) had described the very worlds Leary had been enmeshed in during and after his academic career. I will elaborate on this below, but first: solitary confinement.

I have some hyper-educated friends but not one I've talked to lately had thought much about solitary, except that it seems inhumane, even for a bona fide murderer. I agree, but if you don't: read up on solitary. To me, it's so medieval I want it stopped Yesterday. And we are making some progress. I will include links to a few articles I read on it in the notes. Solitary literally damages the brains of inmates, and many of them are there because of damaged brains in the first place. If anything, prisoners should be in environments that stimulate their brains. Off my soapbox, for now...

So: picture Leary, with people like Manson all around him, reading a book filled with robotic scientists bent on total control of humans and machines, in an all-out rush toward megadeath...and it's a "rational" world! How did Leary's brain cope with this?

Robert Anton Wilson visited Leary many times in prison, and one time Wilson asked Leary how did he manage to cope in such a situation? Leary said he was spending time with the most intelligent person he knew: himself. This sounds flippant and/or typical Leary, but it could be that Leary's prior reading and extensive cosmopolitan experience gave him such a cognitive surplus that he could deal with it all. Also: he didn't spend years on end in solitary, as many prisoners in California have. Remember: he was really a political prisoner. He was facing 50 years at age 50 for two roaches. (Friends of Leary say he was imprisoned, basically, for "Poor usage of the First Amendment.") Nixon had called Leary "the most dangerous man in America." Imagine this shit: it really happened.

Leary was a PhD in Psychology, a fierce individualist-libertarian and had written a dense book called Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality that his peers awarded him Best Psychology Book of the Year. And then there was the scientific mindset that had carried over to his experiences on psychedelics. (Still: I often wonder to what extent - if any - solitary confinement had damaged him; this seems an underrated discussion when writers probe Leary's life after 1976.)

If we look at the 20th century, many of us, when forced to use one word, might choose "bloodbath." Go back to the late 1890s and read the scads of scientist's proclamations that the 20th century will be a utopia. Why wasn't it? Leary says Pynchon nailed it: it was nationalistic forces using their brightest scientific minds to compete using neuro-technological know-how. "The national competitions of 1914 compelled the antagonist countries to master the tank, the airplane, radio and the rapid transportation of masses of people. The political lineups of World War II seem equally absurd until we understand that the genetic purpose of the conflict was to stimulate the development of radar, rocketry, synthetic chemistry, atomic fission, long-range naval maneuvers and accelerated aeronautics, and, most important, computers and digital linguistics." The teleological riff is Leary's; we don't know - of course! - if Pynchon agrees. Although, this?

After all of Leary's run-ins with Authority and Control, who can fault his reading of Pynchon in this way: "Every character in Gravity's Rainbow is either an operative working for a Psycho-political hive-bureaucracy, or and Independent Intelligence Agent (Out-Caste) working counter to the hive-bureaucracy." In other places Leary calls these competing genetic "castes": Control vs. Expansion, with Pynchon elucidating a monumental treatise on human intelligence control - which Leary thought made people stupider - against intelligence expansion. Some readers may be thinking Leary's just talking about the freedom to explore one's own mind using consciousness-expanding drugs, but it's far, far, far deeper than that. And this is where it gets Really Weird.

Early on in your first reading of Gravity's Rainbow you'll notice the repeated allusions and hints and outright citations of academic-military types and their psychological test apparatuses. The Americans were steeped in their Skinner, the Europeans in Pavlov. Conditioned responses. Control. Not much thought for the dignity of the individual. All must be rational, quantified. There will be no limit to the delving into how much control can be exerted on agents (people). As Leary writes about this aspect in Pynchon:

"The Anglo-American Psychological Warfare Branch operates a mind control unit called Pisces (Psychological Intelligence Schemes for Expediting Surrender)...From a base in England, Pisces' agents probe the mysteries of consciousness, behavior and brain-function, using Pavlovian conditioning, ESP, brain surgery, hypnosis, clairvoyance, drugs, objective questionnaires, projective tests, personality assessments, behavior modifications."

                                    Henry A. Murray, colleague of Leary's at Harvard,
                                    sadist, one-worlder, "liberal," speed freak, Melville
                                    fanatic, CIA spook for MKULTRA ops. A real
                                    innarestin' character.

Back at Harvard, before he got thrown out for allowing undergraduates to take part in his experiments using psychedelics, Leary had turned on fellow Harvard Psychology professor Henry A. Murray. Murray had worked with the OSS during the war, and continued working for the OSS's successor, the CIA. Murray was a methamphetamine freak and sadomasochist (see Alston Chase's woefully under-appreciated Harvard and the Unabomber, esp. pp.240-326). Murray's great achievement had been the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), something both Leary and Pynchon knew a lot about. Biological organisms and machines were subject to entropy, a topic fascinating to two of Unistat's greatest scientific thinkers after the war, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. The CIA was interested to find out how humans broke down. They hired undergraduates, told them very little about what was going on, and basically drugged the students with quite large doses of LSD. One student remembered seeing an ad: he'd get $15 an hour to be a "psychopath for a day," saying to a friend, "Imagine getting paid for what we do anyway!" Theodore Kaczynski needed the money. He was subjected to LSD without knowing what it meant, then a battery of abusive psychological testings.

                                 Theodore Kaczynski as Math prof at Berkeley. He'd soon
                                 drop out - 1971 - and move to a cabin in Montana.
                                 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a letter Kaczynski wrote from prison to attorney Michael Mello: "We were told that we were to engage in a debate about our personal philosophies, and then found that our adversary in the debate subjected us to various insults that, presumably, the psychologists helped him to concoct. It was a highly unpleasant experience."

While Leary and his Harvard psychology colleagues were using LSD to gain insight into religious experience and seeing if it helped prisoners to see their own part in the "game" of criminal go-round that led to recidivism (it seems to have been very promising), Murray and his CIA-linked Harvard men were purposefully making their subjects "as confused and disquieted" "as much as possible" and that "All subjects became, to a varying degree, both anxiously and angrily involved in this stressful situation." Apparently, Murray thought Leary's importance of "set and setting" was something to sneeze at indeed.

[Above I linked to Pynchon's essay, "Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?" We now know the FBI suspected some very prominent writers as possibly being, or knowing who the Unabomber was: Tom Robbins was surveilled and visited by the FBI and questioned. The Feds gave William T. Vollmann quite a look as a suspect. Of course John Zerzan had been a suspect. Zerzan openly admires Kaczynski. Due to Pynchon's essay on Luddism and common interpretations of his writings about technology, many of us wonder to what degree the FBI took seriously the idea that Pynchon may have been suspect. Perhaps we'll hear from Pynchon on this one day. Maybe not.]

Back to Leary, writing on psychological warfare in Pynchon: (In addition to massive psychological testing and screening by military co-opted academics) "Diagnosis and treatment of psychological casualties - an entirely new concept of human nature - also developed. Machines break down; personalities could not break down until personality types were defined by our new mechanical-civilization. All our external technology serves as a model to understand internal (i.e, somatic-neurological) technology. Machines help us to understand our own bodily mechanics. Electronic computers lead us to understand and control our own brains."

Leary also spilled about who got to implement CIA "dirty tricks" and other espionage games. They too were dosed with LSD and tested. "Easy-going, trustful souls, given to cocktail fun, were transferred out to the Office of War Information. Distrustful, cagey, paranoid types were immediately screened-in as part of the Intelligence (sic) elite." Then Leary quotes Pynchon from page 434 of Gravity's Rainbow:

"...the New Chaps, with their little green antennas out for the usable emanations of power, versed in American politics, (knowing the difference between the New Dealers of OWI and the Eastern and moneyed Republicans behind OSS), keeping brain-dossiers on latencies, weaknesses, tea-taking habits, erogenous zones of all, all who someday might be useful."

O! The lives of Pynchon and Leary! Leary died on May 31, 1996. Pynchon seems very much alive as I write. Leary kept an archive of everything he did from an early age, and much of it is housed now in the New York Public Library. Has there been a more media-friendly intellectual who was not at the service of the Hive-State? And then there's Pynchon. Will he leave us with an autobiography? Will we ever know much of his life? It would seem we will find out whether or not we are allowed access to the personality of Pynchon, sometime in the by around 2030. (Pynchon turns 78 on May 8, 2015.)

Nevertheless, outside of academia, I think Leary should be more often noted as a wonderfully erudite exegete of Pynchon's magisterial novel. I've only quoted from a few of Leary's notes on Pynchon. I wish he had left even more. As a reader of Pynchon, I appreciate Leary's comments and notes on Pynchon; Leary clearly constitutes an "elite" reader of the book. In delving into Timothy Leary's reading of Pynchon we detect a mostly neglected but quite informed work in "deep politics."

NOTES:
- RAW's quote about Pynchon: Everything Is Under Control, pp. 137-138
- "heard the clank of the padlock..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "The national competitions...digital linguistics" - Neuropolitique, pp. 140-141
-"Every character in GR..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "The Anglo-American Warfare..." - Intelligence Agents, p.54
- "Imagine getting paid..." - Harvard and the Unabomber, p.252
- "as confused and disquieted" and "All subjects..." - Harvard and the Unabomber, p.251
- "Diagnosis and treatment of psychological casualties...our own brains" - Intelligence Agents, p.109

Large Study Links Psychedelic Use to Reduced Recidivism

solitary confinement:
The Horrible Psychology of Solitary Confinement
What Solitary Confinement Does To The Brain
How Extreme Isolation Warps the Mind
Does Prison Erode the Brain?
"From a Steel Box to a Wicked Young Girl," by Robert Beck, AKA "Iceberg Slim", originally in From the Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim; found in Outlaw Bible of American Essays, pp.7-16

film:
The Net: Unabomber, LSD and the Internet (dir: Lutz Dammbeck) (See esp from 57:05 to 1:02:50, about the Josiah Macy Group conferences: Henry A. Murray was a participant; and when Dammbeck travels to the heavily wooded and secluded Pescadero, CA, to interview pioneering systems theorist Heinz von Foerster, not long before Heinz died. Von Foerster has always seemed to me one of the trippiest intellectual characters to me, and this interview does not disappoint! The Heinz von Foerster sequence is between 1:07:50 and 1:15:40)

other books:
John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, by Steve J. Heims
Game of Life, by Timothy Leary
Chaos and Cyberculture, by Timothy Leary
Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon
A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, by Stephen Weisenburger
Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain

                                          artwork by Bobby Campbell

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Free Will: The Law, Philosophy, and Microbes

It must have been around age 15 when I first encountered "the problem" of "free will." What a kick that  some Greeks had said that everything reduces to atoms, and every billiard-ball atom in the universe impinges on every other billiard ball - including the ones in my "mind" and muscles - and so there's no free will. For a long time I thought it was sophistry - after I learned what that word meant.

At some point I started reading on "free will" and realized I could continue to read and think on it my entire life; there's quite a lot of ink already spilled on the issue. If it's an issue at all to you, that is. Because almost all Westerners assert their wills are free. Doesn't it just seen like you decided to read Overweening Generalist today, rather than skip it? You WILLED it, and it was so. And now I'm already boring you. I'll try to be amusing to keep you from "willing" your way on to the next of 23 zappazillion other possible Netpages.

I've found that there have been times since I was 15 - a long-assed time ago, friends! - when I thought like William James about the "free will vs. determinism" Big Q: To paraphrase James: Of course the world and everything is determined. And yet our wills are free. A sort of "free-willed determinism" must be the run of things. It was lines like this that won James lots of "man-in-the-street" fans; his academic colleagues? Not so much.

In other words, for James it's a tired subject. We've been debating it for 2500 years and can't come to a consensus, so let's just change the conversation, aye?

But then I'll get into periods when the topic is really hot. For example, I have mostly thought arguments against free will were hilarious, deep-down. Their adherents may have been dead serious. But really? You, Philosopher, did not have a choice but to write this rather dry piece of argumentation just so I could not choose to read it? (And yet I did read it...did I choose to or not? If it was so "dry" why didn't I choose to do something else? Clearly, there are more pleasurable things. Like masturbation...which is a lot like what I've just read from Mr. Philosopher.) Or: what if he's right?

Gedankens
I've spent entire weeks trying to remind myself there's no "free will." Not even for Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Neil was confused when he wrote that, probably under the spell of a ditzy libertarian. When I did or said something I later thought was ignorant I gave myself a break: It's just the way Things are. To borrow from William James again, I found this a delightful way to take a "moral holiday." I found that when I or others did kind things for others, it was probably a nice grace built into the fabric of existence. Others who acted like jerks couldn't help themselves. My stress levels seemed to dip. I'd constantly catch myself thinking in the "free will-ist" mode and remind myself that that was not allowed until next Monday, or whenever.

Being some sort of agnostic hedonist with Buddhistic and Taoist tendencies, I couldn't see this thinking linked to Judeo-Xtian ideas, although clearly: the Free Will v. Determinist worldviews (which I will from here on out refer to as The Main Event) have had huge play in theology and law. In Law, we apparently have a very very strong need for people to be blameworthy, and therefore what's commonly called the compatibilist view holds sway. Things are determined, but there's enough room for moral choices, unless you were coerced, or drugged, or not "of sound mind" and many other very interesting hedges...like maybe you murdered top public officials at point-blank cold blood because you were addicted to Hostess Twinkies, an addiction to which was symptomatic of a non compos mentis-level of depression.

Compatibilists
In 1962 Strawson had the audacity to argue for a particularly hardcore compatibilist position: let's say you are a sober, healthy bus driver and a child runs out in front of your bus. You have no time to react. You hit the kid and he dies. Strawson thought - if I read him correctly - that the consequences of your actions are enough to hold you culpable. Forget about any extenuating circumstances. If I have free will of the kind I hope I have, I hold Strawson in contempt for a sort of robotic punitive dickishness all too common among fascist Law and Order types. (Funny: one week I decided to adopt a hardcore No Free Will and I'd read Strawson: he couldn't help it. Poor guy. Oh well, it's part of some larger, Weirder Plan?)

                                                    Dr. Samuel Johnson

Sidelight
You've all heard/read the bit about Boswell relating to Dr. Johnson about Bishop Berkeley's views about "reality": we can only have experiences of things, we cannot know, do not experience Abstract Nouns. According to Berkeley, you're having an experience reading this rather prolix blogger write about The Main Event on a "computer." That's about all you can say about it. You see the computer, the words. You can feel the computer. You cannot infer about anything else "out there" that's causing you to have further abstracted notions about what might be going on; "God" put all those interesting ideas in your head. The sense data came from Him too. Anyway: Johnson hears this and it pisses him off and he kicks a rock and says to Boswell, "I refute him thus!" Supposedly Johnson hurt his foot, took the pain to illustrate that things really are "out there" and he chose to demonstrate and feel it. Guerrilla ontologist Berkeley never meant to rouse ire in a dude like Johnson, but Johnson seems to have taken it as a challenge to his own free will, and the will to believe other stuff is really "out there." Like things to kick by the side of the road. I see merit in both writers' ideas. Johnson's "I refute him thus!" and the kick has been referred to by wiseacres of much reading as argumentum ad lapidem. I hear this fallacy in bars all the time.

Incompatibilists
These folks see The Main Event as skewed toward determinism and so are reluctant to blame. However, libertarian incompatibilists see free will as far more important than whatever there is that determines us (genes, history, our upbringing, environment, etc), so they pretty much reject determinism and do find others blameworthy. A few incompatibilists who do not find people blameworthy are pre-determinists of the olde fashioned kind: atoms and billiard balls and all that: we cannot possibly trace the contours of causation. Do you know why you have a headache? How memories are formed? How vision is processed? Do you have access to how a suite of genes are turning on right now, coding for proteins, turning other genes off, modulating others like a rheostat?

Far more incompatibilists are "skeptical" ones: a shorthand for them: we don't have enough free will to find others blameworthy. As a general reader, it seems more biologist-types are going this way. My favorite thinker who's an incompatibilist is the eminent neurophysiologist and baboonologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. The eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett claims 59% of philosophers in 2009 were compatibilists, according to a Philpapers survery. He says only 12% of philosophers were determinists.

                                         Barbara Fried of Stanford law; she's a 
                                         strong proponent of skeptical incompatibility

Sidelight
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 20th c. novelist, was asked about whether he believed in free will. He replied yes, he had no choice. Which reminds me of an old joke. Think about the eagle, frog and truck driver as thinking they were executing their actions freely:

Moses, Jesus, and a bearded old man are playing golf. Moses drives a long one, which lands on the fairway but rolls directly toward the pond. Moses raises his club, parts the water, and the ball rolls safely to the other side. 

Jesus also hits a long one toward the same pond, but just as it's about to land in the center, it hovers above the surface. Jesus casually walks out on the pond and chips one onto the green.

The bearded man's drive hits a fence and bounces out onto the street, where it caroms off an oncoming truck and back onto the fairway. It's headed directly for the pond, but it lands on a lily-pad, where a frog sees it and snatches it into his mouth. And then an eagle swoops down, grabs the frog, and flies away. As the eagle and frog pass over the green the frog drops the ball out of its mouth and the ball lands in the cup for a hole-in-one. 

Moses turns to Jesus and says, "I hate playing with your dad."

Why I'm Once Again On a Kick Over The Main Event
It has to do with the literally hundreds of articles I've been reading over the past year on how bacteria in our gut has been strongly linked to debilitating dis-ease and how those microbes can influence our thinking. Our microbiome in general (bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes) outnumber "our" own cells 10-1. Peer-reviewed, well-designed studies have linked our microbiome to obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, colon cancer, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, lymphoma, malnutrition, hypertension, liver cancer, psoriasis, even ear wax. Whether we were born vaginally or by Caesarian seems to have an enormous influence on our microbiome, and therefore immune system and therefore general health. All of this makes me think 1.) In scientific endeavors, we as a species, hardly know anything so far. 2.) This stuff is very exciting and offers real hope for the cure or alleviation of lots of human suffering, but the complexity is staggering. 3.) If all of this stuff is true, it has bewilderingly fascinating implications for Qs surrounding The Main Event, no? One thing most of us can say: "Boy, my gut bacteria have really done a number on me!...I just don't know to what extent, to what part of 'me'...and why. I don't even know all that much about how bacteria work."

                                                Toxoplasmosis cycle

Briefly: A Few Other Mitigators
Enforced miseducation. Public Relations and advertising. Kahneman and Tversky's uncovering of a litany of unconscious biases in human minds, even the best of those minds, including these two last named, one of who won a Nobel Prize. Side effects, TV, social media, memes, possibly quantum indeterminism.

Sounds Like Science Fiction: Toxoplasmosis gondii
A Czech biologist named Jaroslav Flegr, sitting in then-Soviet-controlled Czechoslvakia, was reading a Richard Dawkins book. Dawkins wrote how a flatworm gets into an ant and hijacks its nervous system by altering a protein. When the temperature drops, ants normally go underground. But a zombified ant instead heads to the top of a blade of grass, where its mandibles clamp hard onto the tip of the blade of grass, until it's eaten by a cow or a sheep. In the ungulate's stomach, the flatworm is in the perfect environment to reproduce. Flegr started thinking about his own behavior and the ant's around 1990. He knew some things about Toxoplasmosis gondii, a single-celled protozoa that cats carry in their bodies. Flegr remembered walking out into heavy traffic and didn't jump out of the way if cars honked. He had openly criticized the communists running Czechoslovakia, which could have led him to be imprisoned, but he was lucky. When studying in Turkey, there was sectarian violence and gunshots, but he stayed calm, to the surprise of his colleagues and even himself.

Flegr wondered if he had been infected by Toxo and if it caused this odd behavior. Luckily the Charles University at Prague, where he'd recently gotten hired, had just developed a superior test for Toxo: he had it.

It turns out around 10-20% of Unistatians are infected with Toxo. 30-40% of Czechs are infected. In France: up to 55%, probably due to eating undercooked meat. Billions worldwide are infected with it. It gets into your brain - I know this sounds like a Lovecrafty psychedelic horror story, but it's true! - and hibernates there, causing cysts. Now: take a guy like Flegr: he's not all that worked up about it, and he has it and knows as much about it as anyone. So it's not that horrible. But it is pretty effing weird...

Here's what Toxo does in your brain, according to the latest research: it forms little cysts inside certain neurons, quietly altering connections. If you watched the Sapolsky video I linked to above, you've heard a lot of this already. Toxo alters those parts of the brain that respond to dopamine and it just so happens its primary actions on human behavior have to do with the basics, the primal circuits: sexual arousal, fear, and anxiety. The protozoan Toxo knows exactly what to do to ramp up production of dopamine, causing pleasure-seeking: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Toxo alters trust in others and how outgoing we are, and this is sex-specific: men become more introverted and suspicious while women become more extroverted and trusting. Isn't this the WEIRDEST stuff? Toxo alters our response to scents. In lab rats infected with Toxo, they loved the smell of cat urine, which is supposed to scare the hell out of them. Toxo-infected rats become easy prey for cats...which is just what Toxo wants! Be aware of the kitty litter box! Wash your vegetables very well, cook your meat well-done, try not to drink water that might be contaminated with cat feces. (Difficult in much of the Third World, but they have other problems.) Toxo is linked to car crashes, suicides, and schizophrenia.

Car crashes? Yea: people just aren't as vigilant on the road with Toxo on the brain. Toxo-infected folks are 2 1/2 times more likely to be in a car accident. People don't mean to be bad drivers; they just sorta don't care all that much behind the wheel. Lapses of concentration, possibly an increased propensity to go into bizarre daydreams? Sapolsky thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are probably all sorts of "puppetmaster" microbes we haven't identified yet. Sapolsky also says the damage done by Toxo to drivers is not as bad as drunk or texting drivers. To make the roads safer, deal with drunks and texters first. Just the fact that a protozoa can get into your brain and influence us in such intimate ways: ain't life grand?

How does all this alter your ideas about The Main Event?

The world of biology is thronged with stories about insects, fish and crustaceans becoming "zombified" by some other organism with its own plans.

Besides Toxo, Sapolsky the incompatibilist thinks we can't come to grips with not having free will, and we suffer for it. For him, every move we make is part of an intricate cascade of genetic, cellular, cultural and personal factors. Toxo is just one more Damned Thing.

                                    Public intellectual and philosopher Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett
I'll give a compatibilist the last word here. I find his arguments nuanced but I also find him arrogant. He thinks neurobiology is no place to think about The Main Event. He rejects quantum indeterminism because we must look for explanations for a "free will worth wanting" at a higher level of complexity, a more human-leveled explanatory scheme. For Dennett, we are indeed enmeshed in causality and yet we are autonomous free willists. One narrative he goes for comes from John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games: when we take an intentional stance we have a theory of mind: we know what others know and know they know we know X, Q, Z, etc. On this level, we are free agents who can plan for possible exigencies, make rational decisions and be held accountable. He's used animals and plants as examples of living things that cannot possibly have the intentional stance. But some of the stuff I've read about plant  and animal behavior lately? I wonder if Dennett is guilty of not reading enough outside his own world of Expertise. I do like this passage from him, from an article in Prospect magazine, on our topic:

What people seem to want - though articulating this idea causes them to backtrack in embarrassment - is to be a sort of god, perched somehow on the edge of the physical universe, neither a part of it or remote from it, able to interfere "at will" with its ongoing streams of causation, without at the same time being caused by these very streams to choose which of the options to favor.

Thanks for reading this bloated rant...but maybe you had no choice?

just a few sources that were used here:
Dennett's review of Sam Harris's book Free Will, (2012):
http://www.naturalism.org/Dennett_reflections_on_Harris's_Free_Will.pdf

Dennett's article from Prospect, in which he champions fellow philosopher Alfred Mele:
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/are-we-free

In case you missed the link: Sapolsky's 25 min video-talk on Toxo:
http://edge.org/conversation/toxo

Kathleen McAuliffe's 2012 article on Flegr from Atlantic:
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/308873/

Discussion about UC Davis study about how random fluctuations in the brain may allow for free will:
http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/09/randomness-the-ghost-in-the-machine.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+3quarksdaily+%283quarksdaily%29

Barbara Fried's "Beyond Blame," makes a case for abandoning blame:
http://bostonreview.net/forum/barbara-fried-beyond-blame-moral-responsibility-philosophy-law

Sci-Am: "Is Free Will An Illusion?":
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-free-will-an-illusion/

"The Body's Ecosystem," The Scientist, Aug 2014:
http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40600/title/The-Body-s-Ecosystem/

microbiome superstar Rob Knight's TED talk:
http://www.ted.com/talks/rob_knight_how_our_microbes_make_us_who_we_are?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TEDTalks_video+%28TEDTalks+Main+%28SD%29+-+Site%29

"Turd transplant leads to rapid weight gain and obesity" Boing Boing:
http://boingboing.net/2015/02/07/turd-transplant-leads-to-rapid.html

"The E. Coli Made Me Do It": gut microbes and human behavior, New Yorker:
http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-e-coli-made-me-do-it
"Do Gut Bacteria Rule Our Minds?":
http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/08/116526/do-gut-bacteria-rule-our-minds
"Can Microbes in the Gut Influence the Brain?":
http://www.livescience.com/49373-google-hangout-on-brain-and-microbiome.html

"The Super-Abundant Virus Controlling Your Gut Bacteria":
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25954-the-superabundant-virus-controlling-your-gut-bacteria.html#.VQFhESgx9FL

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar..., by Cathcart and Klein

The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey


Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Haunting Frame For Generalist Intellectual Types in 2015

The optimist says, "The glass is half full."
The pessimist says, "The glass is half empty."
The rationalist says, "The glass is twice as big as it needs to be."

A general problem for insatiable readers and writers of journal articles, non-fiction books, novels, poetry, sociologies of science, histories of ideas, essays on arts, rants and diatribes by marginalized figures, economic ideologies, radical thinkers, etc: Let's let this dude sum it up for me:

"It requires in these times much more intellect to marshal so much greater a stock of ideas and observations...Those who should be guides for the rest, see too many sides to every question. They hear so much said, and find that so much can be said, about everything, that they feel no assurance about anything."

This is John Stuart Mill, in his diary, 1854. And for Robert Anton Wilson fans, how many Jesuses ago was this? 32? 64? 256? Oh wait: forgot to carry the three....several thousand J ago, arithmetically in fact.

                                         Emile Zola, apparently in self-portrait, trying to
                                         come off as a magician of some sort?

It's fairly well-known that, for a long time, intellectuals on the "humanities" side have wanted to foment revolution, and most-times a non-violent one. Some on the technical intelligentsia side have too. And the "intellectual" as well-known category traces only back, according to a popular intellectual riff, to the Dreyfus Affair. Emile Zola - a damned novelist so what the hell gives him the right to question?! - led the charge against the French military, and was hounded out of the country. But Zola and his fellow "Dreyfusards" were right: Dreyfus was innocent, and being persecuted largely for being a Jew. This story was resolved only 109 years ago.

And while the technical intelligentsia - specialist intellectuals in the physical sciences, to be brief - are a quite young group, maybe only 140 years old, the Humanist intellectuals go back perhaps 3000 years, if you include religious radicals, or just Old Men Who'd Read Everything.

The Haunting Frame
The dream of making a war-less, border-less and much more equitable and human political state of affairs perhaps had a window, briefly open, now closed. How so?

Well, for one thing, the class of State-supported scientific intellectuals have won. Oh sure, the economy is bad enough that even their newly minted PhDs are having trouble finding work, but it's nothing like what's going on for the Humanities PhDs. (Bing "adjunct professors") Moreover, another quote to suit my dire thesis:

"In this tremendous contrast with previous revolutions one fact is reflected. Before these latter years, counterrevolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers, which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modern, the most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over."

That's Franz Borkenau, from his 1938 study of the Spanish Civil War. He's talking the military and police state apparatus, which will, it seems, always protect the interests of what's now called "the 1%." He had no idea about digital technology or the NSA, much less television. Even the Stasi were far in the offing.

What Were the Functions of Generalist Intellects?
I've seen a lot of answers, from the New York intellectuals themselves talking about their own powers and knowledges. I've read the lamentations in Russell Jacoby's book The Last Intellectuals. I've read just about everything Chomsky has to say about how his colleagues have used their knowledge and privilege to throw in their lot with the Owners of the country. (In this he's a lot like what Julien Benda said about his own class - in 1927! - in his The Treason of the Intellectuals. For those who see the irony here and like to savor it, please do so.) There is no end of books on intellectuals, if only because this "New Class" is so zealously protective of its own rights and privileges.

Whether from New York or London or Paris, or Hollywood's Hitler-inspired Jewish intellectual diaspora, or wherever else, a literate public saw how ideas hung together, how stylish sentences about important matters could revivify the mind, how discrimination among ideas could take place, how a writer could make something that you thought was not interesting was au contraire: quite a kick. Via wide-ranging intellect, the idea of a vibrant and informed popular culture was possible.

I think this may be all over. Not that there aren't still overweening weirdos who live for this stuff. But this one has to get All This off his chest. Possibly because I hope I'm wrong. Maybe because it's some sort of misery loving company thing. Or, you just like reading bookish jagoffs throw their erudite hissy fits; my misery loves your company. Could be I'm in a 30 Year Funk. Maybe I'm like the guy who just realized he got rooked by mega-unwisely investing in a chain of Foto-Mat booths, nationwide, in this year Our Lady of Eris, 2015.

It could be that, via some sort of magickal working, I confess my haunting frame here - many of you may be well ahead of me on this, I know, I know - so that it will ameliorate things and somehow cause them to go in the opposite direction. But this last "maybe"? I don't feel it. I know the words but not the tune. It feels flat. More's the pity.

Know Thy Enemy/Due Diligence
For me, it was a few solid years of feverish reading of the rise of Public Relations, and tangentially related areas. Such as the 1947 National Security State, which has never left us, only gets stronger, a Behemoth of untold proportions, one of its favorite moves being to make Itself invisible to almost everyone, all the while suctioning the sustenance from its own citizenry.

The signal fact about public relations experts - who Antonio Gramsci called "masters of legitimation" - is that they were so out in the open about what they did and why. Now? Not so much. But check out Harold Lasswell - or is it Edward Bernays? my notes are old and unclear; I had no idea I'd be blogging, and indeed, Internet wasn't really a Thing when I crashed on PR - anyway:

"The spread of schooling did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled a new technique of control, largely through propaganda..." He goes on to say this is the best means of controlling the proles because it's cheaper than bribery or outright violence.

It took a long time for me to not be struck by how arrogant these Mandarin intellectual officials were, or how gleefully subservient they were to the Captains of Industry and War. (And the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce, et.al) I was stunned by the disparity between what experts in legitimation for the Owners of the country think versus  all the patriotic "we're all Americans" "in this together" and "freedom" and "democracy"hokum I got in my own indoctrination camps (9AM to 3PM public schooling, minimum of 12 years served).

Some of these pricks just gave it all away. You think Lasswell (Bernays?) was crass, check out one of the fathers of the Neo Conservative movement, Irving Kristol:

"It has always been assumed that as the United States became more managerial, its power more imperial, and its population more sophisticated, the intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority -- would, perhaps, even be incorporated en masse into a kind of 'power elite.'" (origin of quote unknown to me due to bad note-taking, but found again in George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?, p.7)

If I had to pick two of the most egregious of these legitimators of State power today in Unistat, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman could easily lead the pacifist writer of this blogspew to punch either in the mouth, were I to come to within fist-shot of either. Talk about "treason"...

What intellectual on our side is seen talking about political ideas on the teevee in Unistat? Lemme see...Glenn Greenwald. (And you can only guess what multi-millionaire former head of the taxpayer-funded NSA Keith Alexander thinks about Greenwald: he ought not exist. Let's not even bring up Edward Snowden. Anyone got anyone I missed?)

Yea, But The Science Guys Can Come Around, Right?
Not likely. That's not to say there aren't physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers on the side of the huddled masses yearning to be free, or at least make their rent. Clearly there are many out there. But they still want their jobs. They're addicted to solving abstruse technical problems, then heading home to the spouse and kids. Compared to the average certified Humanities person, the physical science guys are apolitical. (In general.)

There's a heady literature (if you dig and have a library card) about the political commitments among the technical intelligentsia. Most of the best ones are about the morality of their commitments. My favorite among the minority of books that question those commitments from a libertarian position is a guerrilla ontological book, jocoserious, satirical and pissed: The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and The Citadel of Science, by Robert Anton Wilson. RAW has all the generalist chops of any New York intellectual, but rarely did one of that storied group take on the scientific elite. A golden passage here, and realize the book was published in 1986, but keep in mind Unistat's straddling of the globe with its military, and why Islamic militants are at such wit's end of desperation they're cutting off heads of journalists, knowing a drone could likely obliterate them with zero foreknowledge tomorrow afternoon, after having a piece of baklava:

"The late J.B. Priestly often animadverted among what he called The Citadel - the scientific-technologic elite which both supports and is supported by our military-industrial alpha males. The Citadel, in most countries, gets millions of pounds for every twopence doled out to the humanities, the social studies or the arts; it devotes most of its time and intellect to the task, as Bucky Fuller used to say, of delivering more and more explosive power over greater and greater distances over shorter and shorter times to kill more and more people. For this reason, The Citadel increasingly frightens most of us and there is a vast,  somewhat incoherent rebellion against it all around the world. The rebellion takes the form, most of the time, of return to some earlier philosophy or reality tunnel (hello ISIS and al-Qaeda! - OG), although within the scientific community there is also a rebellion which is seeking a new reality-tunnel, which is usually called The New Paradigm." - pp.20-21 of my tattered, pages-falling-out copy



RAW goes on to say Citadel personnel are intensely territorial, including in ideology, and they're proud of their atheism. He's appalled by death-centered nature of this well-educated group, but makes it clear his book is not an attack on the Citadel's moral grounds, but rather its violations of what he sees as the right of free speech and for every scientist to report any finding, even if it's in violation of the current paradigm(s). He particularly loathes the inquisitorial doings of the Citadel's ideological protectors in persecuting scientific heresy, as this simply should not take place in a supposed Free Society. Although RAW uses a rhetoric that at times seems outlandish in The New Inquisition, I think his thesis is very strong and ought be heeded. The academic version of his approach to the philosophy and history of science would be found in Paul Feyerabend, in a work such as Against Method, and possibly in Imre Lakatos's work. Bruno Latour's application of ethnomethodological-like inquiry to practices in actual scientific labs seems to bolster RAW's more Swiftian/Nietzschean/Fortean rhetorics. I also see a family resemblance in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

However, I don't need a weatherman to know blah blah blah, and I guess we will just have to see if "Reality" can deal us a surprisingly good hand. Meanwhile, we do what we can.

Whither the University in General?
This deserves a few other blogspews of its own, but student debt is now well over $1,000,000,000,000 and mounting fast, and not only do young people "graduate" with a "degree" but they seem to not be able to think all that well for themselves. But then there aren't any jobs for them anyway. Meanwhile the highest paid public servant in most states is the head football coach, and that entire system stinks to high heaven. Go ahead, lift the lid and take a whiff. It's sulphurous-rotten and the older, comfy alumni say "Let's go all the way this year!" Their best players don't get educations and barely have enough to eat. If they're lucky they won't suffer brain damage by the age of 45 from too many violent blows to their inadequately helmeted heads. And undergraduate costs have vastly exceeded inflation (gee...why?), and your freshman is largely being taught by "adjunct" professors who make less take-home pay than a head manager at Burger King. Try to tell me how this is sustainable. Meanwhile, Obama seems to think  it's of the utmost importance to keep sausage-grinding-out "college graduates." So they can...monitor robots?

Well, The Citadel does need a plentiful supply of STEM students. Fuck the Humanities bastards, with their questioning of the political economy and values and all that.

It should get pretty interesting. I can't help but imagine the increasing numbers of very bright, hyper-educated Humanities types, and their degrees and their debt and the increasingly fucked job market. Will they get political knowing the NSA might be tracking their every move?

The entirety of scenario(s) above constitute a mere model, or frame. Since I'm not a modeltheist, I don't think I'm presenting "the Truth" here. I merely affirm it might have some weight and heft, and that I don't exactly consider the model as anything close to a felicitous state of affairs. I've tried working myself into a lather about the cup being twice as big as it needs to be, but it's not taking.

I will leave us there, to escape back into my comic books.

                                    image by Bobby Campbell    

Friday, February 20, 2015

Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present (Thoughts on "Performance Art")

Streaming on Netflix as I write this, this documentary about Abramovic's 90 days of sitting in a chair silent at NY's MOMA in 2010. The film also covers parts of her long career as a performance artist. I loved the film.

                          Marina Abramovic: Balkan Baroque: Dozing Consciousness (1997)

Definition of "Performance Art": Dicey at Best
The definition of "performance art" is famously contentious, and when I read the Wiki on it one of the further links is to an article "Classificatory Disputes About Art," and this very nebulousness is one of the things I most like about performance art. Read a few textbook-like articles that explain what performance art "is" and you will very likely run into a sentence or two that could easily apply to why people use psychedelic drugs. Some people really don't like the effects of performance art; it wigs them out. I'll return to this subject below.

(I wish the filmmakers in the Abramovic doc would've gotten responses from some of the people who were caught looking on quizzically and then turning away with a semi-disgusted look as Abramovic sat still and gazed into the eyes of fellow museum-goers, but maybe that's just me.) The eminent art critic Arthur Danto sees Abramovic's sitting a New Thing in the history of art, because it's well-known that most museum-goers spend about 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa, while lo!: they sit or stand all day watching Abramovic sit and gaze. Taking in The Artist Is Present makes Waiting For Godot look like a Jet Li flick...or Cirque du Soleil. (Only if you feel like it, no pressure: think about that?)

I found Abramovic's family background edifying vis a vis what she ended up doing with her life. Some writing on her suggests that performance art was a big deal in the Eastern Bloc because of its transitory nature, which makes sense to me.

One thing I think of immediately when someone says "performance art" is "nude bodies?" Indeed, there is a lot of Marina and others nude in the documentary. And in performance art in general. Why? Well, how else to make claims for a relatively new form of art? Shock people. How? Nudity, violence, blood, gross-outs, and outrageous speech acts, for starters. In my personal aesthetics, shock is rock-solid legit in Art. I want more shock from Art. (But is it all tapped out by now? As one young Abramovic-watcher at MOMA says, "Pretty soon you'll see someone shoot someone else in the face and they'll call it art." I paraphrase from memory. Let's hope Art doesn't go there. But: it has come pretty close.)

You Say All Performance Art Is Bullshit?
How close? In an early performance in Belgrade, 1974, Abramovic decks out tables with all sorts of implements, tools, gadgets. 72 items. The audience can do whatever they want with her. The audience can walk up to her and pick anything from the table and apply it to her body. She has her clothes ripped off rather quickly. Among the 72 items: feather duster, olive oil, whatever. Some cut her body with sharp instruments Abramovic has supplied. Someone else drinks some blood from her neck. She just takes it. The kicker: the audience is informed the pistol over there on the table is loaded. Someone puts it to her head but doesn't pull the trigger. Someone else pushed rose thorns into her stomach. There was always the chance some suitably deranged individual could have shot her. But they didn't. Many did do vicious things to her. She was tearful but elated (and laughs!) after the six hour piece because she wasn't shot or mutilated beyond repair, and she got her point across: a group of people can take on a nasty tone and do some fairly heinous acts to someone else's body, just because it seems it they have carte blanche to do so. I know people who think performance art is bullshit, but you have to admit: this seems compelling.

William S. Burroughs, in one of his apocalyptic moods, wrote about Art spilling off the pages, escaping the frames and filling the streets, becoming Writ Large. In a way, certain performance art is a step towards this, but it is still "framed" by the various notices and literature that performance art will take place at a certain venue, a certain time, admission is $16, parking can be found in a number of lots nearby at $20 for three hours and the subway is just around the block, etc.

As I write, Marina Abramovic has just arrived in Australia and is "like the Beatles," as a promoter waxes hyperbolic.

Zen Shit
But let's not be cynical. I love her work. But I also laugh at almost all of it, because she's able to carry it off. Someone once said that "Art is what you can get away with," and I have to agree. Abramovic also seems genuine to me. She's 68 as of last November and in the documentary, in an interview at age 63 she states her age and - yes, she's in makeup for the interview - but she's astonishingly gorgeous at 63. Now here's some cynicism on my part: would she have attracted as many followers if she didn't look like a Slavic Goddess archetype? (Maybe...)

Abramovic has done a few pieces in which nothing happens; she just sits there. One of the main reasons for doing this is to test the limits of her body. Indeed, much of it seems brutal, grueling. But she also hints there's a political component to these pieces: in the West, it's anathema to Do Nothing. Just sit there; it's provocative!

To prepare for these works, she does "zen shit." There's a sequence in the documentary where she takes thirty or so young artist-recruits to her house in upstate NewYork, where they prepare mentally and physically to perform some of Abramovic's past pieces at MOMA, along with performance pieces by other artists. It all looks like very zen-retreat-ish with a dash of surrealism to me. (Yea, maybe you wanna see the film.)

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
Not long ago I read this novel and let me just say that if you're a performance art junkie who also likes to read novels, you might want to look into this one, which addresses serious items about the possible damages parents may cause their children, if the parent-artists take this sort of art too seriously. And I found it quite hilarious and entertaining too.

One of the ideas highlighted in this book is this: if you live with these sorts of artists - or actively seek out that which constantly challenges your ideas about what's "real" and who or what to trust, etc - often the most mundane situations you find yourself in can be fraught with High Weirdness. 'Cuz now you're on your toes, more than most people. About the whoopee cushions of "reality."

Toward a Taxonomy of Performance Art
Is a Marilyn Manson show "performance art"? I leave it to you. What about Christo's various monumental environmental installations? What about pranks? Guerrilla ontology? Hoaxes? Art "Actions"? Flash mobs? Fluxus performances? Interventions? Happenings? Neo-Dada? "Manouevres"? Circus freak shows? Yes, I take your point that hoaxes seem to be done for gain, and that generally the hope is that no one will catch on. And all of these things might fall under "guerrilla ontology" in that they hope to make the audience re-think what they thought was "real." Must the Work have an intended agenda or message? When, if ever, is a well-thought-out prank not performance art? (There are certain performance art aficionados who will not allow pranks in their club.) Sometimes those who take part don't know they're part of the Thing. To what degree is the audience necessary or complicit in the art-form? "Happenings" in the sense of Allan Kaprow's works seem to begin with a few parameters and then, like a scientific experiment, wonder how it will all turn out. In this sense they remind me of magickal workings. Does ceremonial magick belong somewhere in this taxonomy? Must there always be disruption? The possibility of danger? An overtly (or semi- ) political statement? Nudity? Profanity? (One would hope so for those last two...) One of the most pervasive ingredients in these things seem to be Indeterminacy, which has me buying it if only for that, because, ya know, life's too short.

Some of this stuff seems mostly to want to delight or entertain certain types of cognoscenti, and to piss off the philistines, which is all good to me. I've yet to see a very convincing taxonomy. Anyone got one?

Children
In an ideal world, children and other innocents would be spared exposure to violent ruptures in "reality" but we all know a few hearty kids who thrive on this material from the get-go. Clearly there were children entranced by Abramovic just sitting there. There were adults who looked outraged that this was A Thing. At some point in our lives, we can go on enjoying the shock or the surrealities of these things; others shut down. It's genes plus environment plus memory and experience plus a few other things I can't remember just now. Which brings me to...

Drugs and Performance Art
Abramovic is against drug use, and claims to have smoked a cigarette in the 1970s, because it was supposed to be cool. I think her work is about zen, the body, endurance, and facing fear and overcoming it. (Much of her earlier work with her lover Ulay seemed to be about incommensurability between men and women, too.) I see her work as having a drug-like effect. It works this way for me; it may not for you. What I want from any altered state is a novel perspective on some phenomena. I look at all art as a chance to enter into what the phenomenological sociologist Peter Berger calls a "finite province of meaning." I exercise a lot and enter a non-ordinary state. I meditate, smoke cannabis, read Finnegans Wake, listen to Bach/Stockhausen/Coltrane/Sun Ra/Vilayat Khan/Balinese Monkey Music/Pink Floyd, have sex, do math or logic puzzles, eat very spicy foods, sit in a hot bath in the dark with earplugs and eyeshades on, engage with sophisticated technology, watch films: voila!: non-ordinary states. I think this came with the Instruction Manual for the owner of a Mind. Many seem to have displaced their manual. Personally, I model all of these wonderful gimmicks as sorts of things and of a piece with the practice of magick. Your Mileage May Vary. To me, it's all Drugs. Try to stop me from doing my bathtub routine, DEA!

Some people do not like many (or all) of these sorts of things, and they should not be forced to engage with it, much less endure it. As with Timothy Leary's Two Commandments:

1.) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2.) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow men from altering their own consciousness.

With the First Commandment and taking into consideration the somewhat fugitive nature of much of "performance art" in the wider senses of the term, sometimes we cannot help it. It could be the Times we're living in?

Other Perf-or-mances/Other Arty Mental States
A lot of the enjoyment of this - if enjoyed at all - seems idiosyncratic, a matter of taste. I have gotten my rocks off watching sword swallowers and gorgeous mostly-nude babes walking barefoot on a bed of broken glass at freak shows like the CIA in North Hollywood. Then again, I would return again and again to David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology because I was never sure what was a put-on or what was legit, and it was all so incredibly well-done. (And I liked not knowing for sure what was a put-on or fancy; I love the indeterminacy.)

If extremes with the body is the subject, many artists come to mind. Like Bob Flanagan. Or Martha Graham stuff I've seen. Ever heard of Fakir Musafar? His stuff set a mind a-wonderin', aye.

Some of the best altered states I've been in were when I flew to Tokyo or London or Amsterdam or Lisbon or Kathmandu...and jet-lagged, I got out and walked aimlessly around those metropolises. This is not art, but it does seem linked to Abramovic's body-based work. Yet no one else can enjoy it but myself. And then I get back to my hotel room and collapse from sleepiness and the dreams extend that overall weirdness. The worst part of this is the actual flying part, hands down. What, in these scenarios, is the Art? I say to you: the cities and their inhabitants. It's yoga, a connection: my blitzed nervous system and the new city's overwhelming info-density and novelty.

I remember getting high off the hijinks of Andy Kaufman. I could rely on Andy to knock me into the finite province of wonder. There's a funny put-on/performance artist alive today (not saying you're not still alive, Andy!) named "Hennessy Youngman" who cracks me up. He seems like Sacha Baron Cohen ratcheted up a notch, and he makes Modern Art seem a lot more fun than some overly serious staid lecturer at Uni. I've seen lots of video of the robot anarchy from Survival Research Labs that really blew my balls to the far side of Eris. I recall when, around age 20, I read and delved like a madman into John Cage and Lamont Young, and felt a quite visceral thrill when I read that one of Nam June Paik's "serious" music performances consisted of coming out to applause, and, instead of sitting down at the piano, he took an axe and a chainsaw and cut the piano in half. Because...it had yet to be done?

As far as pranks go as a possible subset of performance art, here's one of my all-time favorites:
If you aren't familiar with this prank, please READ HERE. Effing genius.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson: Missing Books

I've just finished reading Patton Oswalt's book Silver Screen Fiend:Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film (2015) and it was of course very hilarious and entertaining: it's Patton Freaking Oswalt. But I had had no idea he'd haunted the New Beverly Cinema as I had. LA's greatest revival house for film, it had and has a cult following of film freaks and the book is dedicated to Sherman Torgan, who ran the place while Oswalt saw gawd only knows: probably 400 films there over a four year period, 1995-1999. The Appendix (pp.189-222) lists all the films, so I guess I could count but I'm too lazy... Yea: Patton Oswalt saw hundreds of films in movie theaters in those four years, he lists them all: date/film(s)/venue, and it's a lot like my own lists, only his manic phase of crashing the canons of film seemed deeper and more intense than mine. Torgan's programming easily convinced me he knew what films were worth seeing. I knew that if the New Bev was showing it it was probably worth seeing, it didn't matter if I hadn't heard of the film, or if it was from a genre I don't strongly gravitate toward (musicals and gorefest, anything with Doris Day in it). There's a hilarious chapter where he details the unhinged drive to see 12 Hammer Horror films in two days, and eventually, from sleep deprivation and insane film gluttony, the Hammer films begin to run together in his mind with other classic Hollywood films he'd seen recently...he's having a bad hallucination trip while awake, hilariously described, like something out of Alexander Trocchi, while in the theatre supposedly watching another film. A fellow film weirdo asks him if he's okay. Yea. (Noooo.)

I think I started driving from San Pedro up the Harbor Freeway (to the 10) to that predominately orthodox Jewish neighborhood of LA (near the corner of La Brea and Beverly Blvd) around 1996. I drove that stretch a lot. From one corner of the metropolis to another. I think I was aware of Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, and I may have seen him there, but I saw a lot of familiar screen faces there. I remember one night I took a seat in the dark moments before a double feature of Jeunet et Caro: Delicatessen (one of my all-time favorite films), and City of Lost Children. When the delicatessen owner asks "Have I got something right here?" the crowd erupts in laughter (as it should: one of the great anarchic comic moments in cinema history), and I look over at a guy cracking up and note I'm sitting next to Doogie Howser's, best-friend Max Casella.

I remember dragging my wife to see a John Frankenheimer double feature, because Seconds was the second film. Seconds totally slays me. Always. It was a Friday night - date night, when young, well-educated hipsters invaded the New Bev, usually to see the first film, then leave for - their actual lives. They all saw the admittedly great and famous 1962 Manchurian Candidate then left, despite my leaning into the aisle and telling twentysomething strangers filing out: "If you thought that was good, wait till you see Seconds," and no one would even make eye contact with the Scary Old Guy.

                                       a bit from Seconds (1966): Rock Hudson rocks!

Anyway...After Sherman Torgan's death (and Quentin Tarantino publicly standing up for film freaks all over LA by saying "As long as I draw breath, the New Beverly will remain open"), Oswalt attends a "sloppy, spontaneously organized 'wake'" inside the not-too-far-away Egyptian Theatre. (Everyone agreed it wouldn't be right to do it inside the New Bev). Oswalt tells the anecdote about the night Lawrence Tierney walked into the middle of Citizen Kane and sat behind Oswalt and started talking out loud to the screen for about 15 minutes before his handler finds him and ushers him out. Tierney had never seen the film, but the stuff he says, like the best DVD commentary ever - as remembered by Oswalt, coupled with what we know about Tierney's history and that voice - a shimmering anecdote in a book filled with them. (see pp.94-98) (I wonder how many RAWphiles that know of Tierney and his work think of him as a classic 2nd Circuit type as I do.)

After the wake, Oswalt programmed an entire month of fantastic, non-existent films for the New Beverly in Heaven, just for Sherman. Oswalt writes that he got the idea from Neil Gaiman's storyline in  The Sandman books, of "Brief Lives," where there's a "dream library" of books that famous authors never got around to writing, like Raymond Chandler's Love Can Be Murder, or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures on the Moon. I for one would drop everything going on in my life to go see every one of these dream films, which includes Orson Welles's 1942 Heart of Darkness and Orson's 1944 Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul, starring Gary Cooper as Bruce Wayne/Batman. "And leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman's cast of villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra's al Ghul. The Richard Widmark cameo, at the end, as the newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of the chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival." (p.174) I see the great RKO noir Director of Photography, Nicholas Musuraca, doing the lights and camera here, with Orson, of course.

Oh yea: how perfect is this?: In some alternate universe/Torgan's Heaven that Hal Ashby directed A Confederacy of Dunces? John Belushi played Ignatius in a miraculous performance without ever having read John Kennedy Toole's novel. With Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. Oswalt goes on with this, an invention of 29 films. Hey! I just noticed the blogpost that forms this chapter of "dream films" is HERE! (<----In the blog there, you only get the names of the nonexistent films; you have to get hold of Oswalt's book to read the synopses.)
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Reading this bit from Patton Oswalt's film addiction book reminded me of the Books Missing From Robert Anton Wilson's Oeuvre. Many of us have discussed what RAW's Tale of the Tribe would have been, but he died before he could write it. We got a precis, tantalizing to the utmost, at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. If we could pool the no-doubt thousands of pages of notes from RAWphiles on what RAW was hinting at, we might be able to cobble something together. But it wouldn't be RAW.

Now please bear with me: I've gotten hold of some...well...let''s just say I've gotten lucky and was able to obtain a hot underground tryptamine drug made by the Disciples Of Shulgin (DOS). Psychonauts have been reporting that at the half gram dosage level, they've had very pleasant glimpses of other possible worlds, but only those worlds the person had been daydreaming or thinking about in their ordinary, non-stoned lives. I took some after thinking of RAW's books and, for whatever it's worth, here's what I've come back with:

The Shea Correspondence Course: Letters Between Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (2017): RAW finally collected the vast trove of letters received from his friend Robert Shea, and via excessive volunteer wrangling by RAWphiles, found well over 40 long type-written letters he'd sent to Shea. All of the letters from both men had been dispersed, scattered among numerous friends and collectors of literary ephemera. Interviewed by NPR about the 423 page tome, RAW says from his home in Capitola that he was surprised how much he'd forgotten about how Illuminatus! eventually coalesced, but was grateful such a large number of the letters had shown up after an Internet call-to-arms from his fanatic readers. NPR seemed most interested in the fervor of glee among the cultish readers of Wilson over the publication, long awaited and thought at one time impossible. Why the word "course" in the title, NPR asks? Wilson said his friend Robert Shea was the sort of person whose anarchic intelligence always made him think, and re-reading their letters before publication he realized how much he'd learned. Shea died in 1994. Reviewed at BoingBoing: "I've never seen a correspondence that was so funny and at the same time brimming with endless ideas. Even when they seem to have a simmering feud over some idea or another, you can always tell they loved each other."

Hollywood Notes (2012?): The long-awaited chronicles of RAW's first-hand experiences seeing his books Masks of the Illuminati, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the midnight movie Reality Is What You Can Get Away With made into films and the sausage-factory behind the scenes. RAW agrees with Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald: if they want to pay you for the rights, best to just take the money and leave Hollywood. But RAW's too interested in the machinations of filmmaking and while he has grave problems with the liberties directors, editors and script "doctors" took with his material, he seems pleased by the results, all in all. My favorite part of the book is RAW's anecdotes about the film community party scenes in the hills above Hollywood.

Heretic: How Timothy Leary Foresaw the "New Teleology"(2025): This short tome is a surprise hit with academics who had been trying to forge the "New Synthesis" sometimes called the "New Teleology," since the rise in prominence of Sheldrake, epigenetics, CRISPR techniques that helped to rapidly cure most diseases and food shortages. Other texts had emphasized the rapid falling out of favor of "selfish gene" ideas as the main motors of evolution. RAW traces the history of self-organizing life to cosmic panspermia notions and the long list of scientific "heretics" who emphasized latent "systems" inherent in the human nervous system. This book argues that Leary's ideas about the brain and evolution were far ahead of his time (Leary died in 1996), that Neo-Darwinism was always a big chunk of the puzzle, but that scientific visionaries - once marginalized as "crackpots" or "mystics" such as Bruno, Reich, Lamarck, Sheldrake and Leary - are now seen, retrospectively, as victims of a sort of mass hubris and "Mind-Forged Manacles" of working prole scientists/old paradigm adherents (RAW loves to quote the poet Blake). It was said that the philosopher Thomas Nagel was a fan of this book, but this can not be substantiated at the moment you're reading this. At 225 pages and good humor, this one's on many a college syllabus and wins RAW a National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

New Age Sewage (2016): RAW seems to be channeling George Carlin here in his non-fiction satire on anti-vaxxers, Randroids, supply-siders (these last two not New Age per se, merely bad ideas), New Earthers, "race-ists," orthorexics, those fearful of taboo words, and fundamentalists of all sorts. Perhaps surprisingly, the book receives very good reviews from those Skeptics that RAW lampooned in many works. RAW at his most polemical, this book is at least the equal in tone and logical vigor as The New Inquisition and Natural Law.

Life Plus 3000 (2030): RAW's immortality book, which in the Preface he says he'd radically revised at minimum 32 times because of the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon." A very old version had a working title Death Shall Have No Dominion. I found it most impressive that RAW doesn't gloat here: he'd been writing about longevity and immortality since the 1970s and was scoffed at by New York intellectuals. When the worm began to turn most decisively around 2023 he decided to wrap it up. Now he's been proven "correct" for the most part, but rather than name his fairly "wrong" (and mostly forgotten) detractors, he seems more in awe of Nature than ever.

Collected Writings on Joyce (2014): Joyce scholar Fritz Senn was the impetus behind this. He thought young European readers needed an introduction to Joyce by an intellectual non-academic Joycean. I had no idea RAW had written this much, in such detail, on Joyce. Lovers of RAW's book Coincidance will want to graduate to this text, many of the ideas of which were once too "far out" but have now made it inside mainstream Joyce scholarship.

Robert Anton Wilson's Book of Black Magic and Curses (2007): A rollicking book of humor about domesticated primate hypnosis and words, psychoneuroimmunology, the omnipresence of metaphor, a vindication of Vico and Korzybski, and "How To Tell Your Friends From the Other Apes." One reviewer blurbs on the back cover: "A linguistics book sui generis if I ever saw one. Highly recommended." RAW scholars can now see what Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words was supposed to be, before the editors took out all the most interesting parts. Or, as RAW put it, "The editors at Playboy Press, like most editors, want to pee in the soup before they let go of someone else's work."

Bride of Illuminatus! (2019) Long-awaited. Carries his (and Shea's) saga of certain families and ideas through the Age of Surveillance. The plotlines developed with Edward Snowden vs. Dick Cheney (under disguised names, for this is one long True Shaggy Dog Story) makes this Trip worth reading over and over.

Babylon L-5 (2021) One of the best of the sixty-some-odd books preparing humanity for space colonization. Said to have cheered Elon Musk, who, after reading it, redoubled his efforts to get LaGrange point communities going for industrial production in zero-gravity, followed by his (and others') move to make Project Exurb a reality. Meanwhile, space travel impact on human physiological systems are being solved almost weekly. RAW keeps up on this stuff.

Untitled Epic Poem on Evolution: So far: no publisher. He's said to still be working on it, although over 100 chapters exist in the version that passed through my hands. Seemingly influenced by both Pound's Cantos and Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as the wildest, most outre ideas about baby universes, brane theory, black holes, and self-organizing Taoist cybernetic feedback loops within loops, the loose-leaf copy I had was over 1700 pages of "holographic poetry" and seemed to fuse in equal measure hardcore-scientific, poetic and mystical ideas. The work functions as an encyclopedia of history and hard science, while reading as poetry. One strain of poetic rumination, about a divine feminine and repressed aspect of history, coupled with - believe it or not - the history of economics (!) makes a bracing case for universal liberation and "true freedom" for all "sentient beings" and a freedom from fear, want, and State and other Gangster coercion, based on communication, humor and massive cybernetic feedback loops of information so dense...well, I just want you all to be able to get hold of a copy some day, as this is a true Terran Archive and "Blueprint For Humanity" (<-----the name of one of the poems.) There were references and allusions enough to support the argument that this might truly constitute RAW's Tale of the Tribe. Difficult and psychedelic. Readers new to Wilson are advised to study his works from 1959-2005 first. Another helpful idea, until the work is finished and published: RAW includes an annotated bibliography that in itself was over 200 pages and quite cosmically hilarious, I thought.

That's all I can remember until I take that particular tryptamine again. If any of you have similar access and find something out about RAW's nonexistent-in-this-world oeuvre, please report back here in the comments!

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell