Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The "Family Jewels" and What's Contained Therein: Some Notes

I remember reading New Directions publisher James Laughlin's account of being a student of Ezra Pound's; Laughlin was looking through some of Pound's books in Ez's place in Rapallo, and took from the shelf his copy of Herodotus, which, like most of Pound's books, contained vivid marginalia. And in one place Pound had simply written "Balls!" Apparently Pound was of the (probably?) majority opinion that Herodotus, the "Father of History," and a proto-itinerant journalist/investigative reporter, was also the "Father of Lies."

I suppose it might be more accurate to just say the Father of History was gullible, and that the fine stories he was told were colorful enough to stand alone. I love Herodotus...

                     The delicate orchid. Hitler only had one testicle; a medical 
                     term for this is "monorchid." Hmmm.

The term "balls" used as an expletive, has, sadly, faded in my microsocial region of the world. Growing up I heard British people hurl "bollocks!" as invective. I'm not sure if it's still all that hot, not being "up" on my sociolinguistics.

Anyway: In this blogspew I'll touch on balls, testicles, semen, condoms, etc. It's likely either you or a loved one has these Things, so please consider the info to ensue as pertinent.

I thought of using the title "Have a Ball With Your Family Jewels," but it seemed to lack a brassy gravitas I sought.

Some Basic Physiology
Testosterone, a steroid hormone made from the most basic dietary constituents coupled with an uber-complex set of genetic instructions, is secreted in the testicles of males and the ovaries of females. It has been studied extensively and arguments over some scientific findings have made their way into academic brouhahas and various political and social science arguments, which have seeped into our newspapers and popular magazines. The rise of feminist theory has done much to make testosterone into a rockstar hormone. In the early 1970s, one might pick up a feminist rant about militarization or the Vietnam war or some stupid thing a male said, and hear or read a feminist ejaculate, "It's testosterone poisoning!"

Indeed, testosterone is also an anabolic steroid. It builds muscle and gives those muscles more endurance. It's associated with risk-taking and selfishness...and seeking to punish those who have behaved selfishly toward us. More basically, it's heavily involved in the masculinization of physical features and is very heavily linked in its effects on attention, spatial performance, and memory. Men's blood will show about seven or eight times more testosterone than a female's blood sample, but men metabolize it so often their daily production of the stuff is about 20 times that of females.

The Semantic Unconscious and "Truck Nutz"
Dig this story about a 65 year old woman who got into a legal tussle over her truck nutz. Written in requisite Gawker style, I think it begs many questions. The writer linked the imagery of testicles dangling from the bumper of one's truck to the American South, trucks filled with guns and anti-Obama stickers, the possible hypocrisy of South Carolina here and ex-Governor Mark Sanford, jerky and lottery tickets, and an overall hint at backwardness in the South. To whatever extent any of this is true, trucks and guns do seem to go with the physiological effects of testosterone, and their phenotypic signifier, testicles. What I found most funny was that a 65 year old woman is the one dangling those signifiers.

Maybe it's me, but this is one I can ponder all day (okay, maybe a third of a day): a problem for the lady was the display of something deemed by community standards as obscene due to reference to "excretory functions" "sexual acts" or "parts of the human body." We don't want to be reminded of what's true...because...sex is exciting? We ought be reminded of it by the covers in all the magazines in the Quik-E-Mart, but not by the danglers hanging from the truck parked in front of the Quik-E-Mart?

Just ponder how many men choose to hang Truck Nutz from their vehicles (I have yet to see them hanging from a Prius, by the way, just an observation) and the number of cops who look the other way. Could it be...sexism here? Perhaps the unstated rule was: if you're gonna hang truck nutz, you better have nuts for realsies? A 65 year old woman? That's...indecent! Violates community standards. And so, the local Buford Pusser strikes out for Justice.

Aside from a multitude of pregnant surmises about the paradox of guns, trucks and territorial aggression in driving, anti-Obama bumper stickers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or better: Charlie Daniels Band?) blasting from the truck: these truck-nut things "are" indecent! I wrote "paradox" but that implies something open. Indeed, hypocrisy seems to not fit here, either. This is why I used the term "semantic unconcious," and it's a topic of surpassing interest to me: the seen-but-not-noted everyday, right in front of you aspect of "reality." (I've written on it in other guises HERE.)

Quick side note: I actually like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band. It's complicated.

Bullz Ballz: the True Face of Murrrka. Why go second best when you can have 2nd Gen Brass and Chrome ones for only $49.95? Go ahead! Live a little and let your neighbors know your political attitudes. Let 'em hang out, you Bad Ass! No diplomacy, which is for pussies. So are gun permits. No wonkiness or pragmatism, or concern for the environment: Might Makes Right, and you have the premium Truck Nutz to show it! You'd like us all to think that, wouldn't you, Jethro? And, like the Murrrkin flag's colors, you won't run, either. (We'd like to think you're joking, but are afraid you're earnest. Oy!)

I know I seem like just another truck-nutz hatin' liberal, but really people: if you're gonna dangle your truck nutz? To borrow from Ben Franklin's spirit: do it proudly. Amen.

                                            Kiwi fruit, one of my favorites. 

A Joke From My Childhood
The first jokes or riddles I was exposed to stuck with me for reasons I can't understand. I remember being six or seven and immensely enjoying the riddle, "What do you do if you find Chicago, Ill?" The answer was "Find a Baltimore, MD." Does this hint at my future geeky-bookishness?

At 14 or so, using my rapidly changing brain (under the influence of testosterone and a panoply of other androgens), I was exposed to a joke in quasi-ritualistic tones:

Q: What's the very definition of "macho"?
A: When a guy jogs home from his own vasectomy.

As I headed towards physiological viability (i.e, "My boys could swim"), my friends and I were encouraged (often by our moms, who Knew Things) to buy these padded things called "nard guards" to affix to the handlebars of our bicycles. The guards fit right in the middle of the handlebars - an area roughly called "the gooseneck" - where, if you were to crash head-on into some relatively immovable object, the pads would...insure the family jewels. Small price to pay to get that bit of alloy padded. We were vaguely aware of the longterm consequences of such an injury, but more immediately: how a smash there would hurt!

Later, I pondered Michaelangelo's David. I wondered how I measured up. Then: junior high and the showers.

I was okay.

                                    David says, "Hey Goliath: my eyes are up here."

Serious But Not THAT Serious? Two Different Street Fights
So a Chinese woman in her early 40s tried to park her scooter in front of a store, but the 40-ish proprietor said no. A scuffle ensued. The woman called her husband and brother, who escalated the unpleasantness into a fistfight. Then the woman grabbed the shopkeeper by the balls, squeezed, and killed the guy. What a world we live in. Testicles Squeezed In Street Fight Causes Man's Death.

What got me about this story: the husband and brother had been called in, and yet it was the woman who went for the junk.

I imagine women and men read accounts like this and it sets off very different cascades of neurotransmitters and hormones within them. (It set off my Bullshit Detector. China? Okay...But let's take the story as is, if only for pedagogical purposes?)

While I find dying this way horrendous - especially over a parking space - other similar stories bring out the worst in me, like the cleric in Iran who saw a woman on the street who he thought was insufficiently covered up. He confronted her. And she beat the asshole to a pulp. I felt guilt over the amount of glee I felt with this one. Maybe if more priests and clerics and imams and rabbis got their asses kicked by the Faithful a bit more often, things would get a tad more Real. Maybe? Probably not...

I think some women have more testosterone coursing though their systems than maybe I do.

Ultrasonic Blasts to the Testicles in Lieu of a Male Birth Control Pill
Here's the story. It seems painless and cheap, but much more research will need to be done. We don't know if blasting your balls with the ultrasound frequency - which does lower sperm counts to "infertile" levels in test animals - is long lasting. Or if there's long-term damage. Or if it's reversible. And the most worrisome: if ball-blasting like this damages sperm, which could produce a damaged baby.

Even though this form of birth control leaves it as the male's responsibility, it still might not be available to those without insurance, so if you're thinking you can borrow your girlfriend's Joni Mitchell CDs and  attach your headphones to your sack and turn it up to 10 for a "treatment"? I'm no doctor, but I would advise waiting for better research to come in. Besides, some of us sensitive guys enjoy Joni Mitchell (I love her), and I think this self-experimentation may backfire, and you'd end up with triplets, all girls, who later grow up to be beret-wearing artistes, working in galleries and coffee shops with huge student loan debts, when all you were trying for was prophylaxis. Dude: condoms still work! (Okay, okay, if you're gonna experiment, why not just go with Dio or Anthrax? Where did Joni Mitchell come from? Oh yea: The OG just wanted to mention Joni in a blog post about testicles. Am I the first?)

Condoms still work really well. Yea, but it's like trying to take a nice soothing hot shower after a long day's work, but you're wearing a deep-sea diving suit.

I hear ya, man. O Science! Why hast Thou forsaken us?

So far?

Speaking of Condoms...
This breezy article speculates on links between a bad economy and condom use. Note that the subject matter is like catnip for writers. We can't help it with the puns. We just can't. Most of us, that is. So I'll sack up and talk turkey: rotten economy and condoms? Should you invest? Are you kidding me? We'd like to believe most people are so rational. But I have my doubts. Overpopulation being a seminal problem for those of us in the Human Condition, my preliminary diagnosis is that we have a long, long way to go here. And <ahem!> we do need to go all the way. We really do. If you're not ready for kids, use birth control. I dare ya.

There Is No God: Male Longevity and New Research
Okay, I've been beating around it all post, but the latest on Korean eunuchs was what prompted this entire blogspew. A recent study published in Current Biology got splashed all over popular science articles on the Web last week. A researcher found that records of the Korean Royal Dynasty from 1392 till around 1900 showed that, of 81 eunuchs, three lived to be 100 (which was oooooold for pre-1900 times!), and on average they lived 20 years longer than their testicalled brethren.

The idea that we could reach, say 70, go the castrati road late in the game, and it would help us make it to 100? Probably totally wrong. Because the Korean eunuchs got theirs chopped at an early age, which influenced puberty, maturity, and a bewildering complex of other hormonal interactions at an early age. They were probably old men-children and who wants that? We already have enough of those as it is, and they're often seeping with untoward testosteronal side-effects. Guys just now qualifying for Social Security and their bachelor pads reek of androgens and beer. You know the type. (I hope to be one, one day.) If it seems too easy, it's probably too good...wait a minute...WHAT AM I SAYING? I don't think "elective surgery" like castration is worth a few extra years.  And I seriously doubt I could jog home from something like that. Even the Dos Equis guy would probably hail a cab.

(Although: think of the conversation-starter your funky new lava lamp would bring!
You: Notice anything odd about my new lava lamp?
Her: I was going to ask you...those look like...are they...did you ask to keep your...? Oh wow...it's getting late, I gotta...go...I got a...thing.)

Scientists have long known that women lived longer than men, and it's long been suspected male hormones have something - perhaps a lot - to do with this. This study hammers home hard that viable nuts - dense, lively and energetic "man juice" - decrease our (male) lifespans.

It's been noted that if you're 100 you have had less children than most people, sometimes none. Fertility equals earlier death, in the most basic terms. Still believe in God? What's with this "procreation" game? It's about ego, right? Thou shalt pass on thine own DNA into the foggy future, no matter what. The Darwinian Imperative. Hell. Gimme an extra few years of doing things like dissolute sitting.

The problem is, or one of the problems, as I currently see it: how to have our sex drives, high-quality prophylaxes, and still get to 100, preferably still hitting the Farmer's Market and wearing tennis shoes while doing it. No going the eunuch route, which I will charitably describe as "overly enthusiastic." We patiently await some miracle from Science.

Okay commenters: the balls are in your court. OG: out.

Edit to Add: As soon as I finished this post on juevos, I clicked on Salon and saw this.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Promiscuous Neurotheology: Pt.4: A Line From Jesus

In John, 10:34, Jesus answered them: "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods?'"

I'm gonna have to go with the Rabbi and married man Jesus here. Realize you are god and act accordingly. 

Some may think, upon realization and a rather deep internalization of their New Identity, that this gives them carte blanche to lord it over others. But that would be a misuse of your superhero-ish newfound god status; someone once said something to the effect that godsmanship has its benefits for sure, but it also carries with it some big responsibilities. If you meet someone and they haven't yet realized they are a god or goddess, give them the benefit of the doubt: they are Holy too. They just haven't realized it yet. 

                              J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, head of the Church of the Subgenius
                              When I read in their first Holy Book, "You'll pay to find out 
                              what you think!," I was on board. If you ask me, Mitt Romney
                              looks WAY too much like "Bob." It's...indecent.

I do not self-identify as a Christian. If I had to identify as anything, go ahead and put me down as some variety of Discordian/Subgenius/Mystical Agnostic/Dionysian. Awe and lotsa laffs, sex and intoxication and music are strictly de rigeur in any religion or anti-religion that might have a congenital non-joiner like myself as a member. 

But this passage in John has always puzzled me: why don't people talk about it more? When I first read this, on my own, as a long-haired heathen/pagan/heavy metal rock guitarist around age 19 or 20, I thought, "Whoa! Check out Jesus's ethical gambit here! The rhetoric is solid: his audience knew the scripture. Check the Law book! Look in the Torah. It's right there. 'I have said you are gods.' Now: live accordingly. Brilliant move!"

A Disciple: Wait...where is that? I guess I skimmed past it...Can I get a page number? Jesus? Where is that...

Jesus (somewhat nervously): Somewhere near the back. But that's not the point. Believe me!

Somehow most folks seem to have not paid much attention to this bit, or they went off and interpreted it  in some odd or less salutary way. And me, alienated always, just wondered why people insisted they were less than gods and goddesses. I still wonder. But I try not to think about it too much. It seems like one helluva missed opportunity. One of those bottlenecks in history. Missed it by that much, Chief.

                         I love this rendering of Eris, Goddess of Chaos, who bears much
                         responsibility for the Trojan War, and therefore The Iliad
                         The Odyssey, a bunch of other books and thoughts and art, and
                         James Joyce's Ulysses. You don't cross Eris and get away with it.
                         If anyone knows who the artist is here, please write me so I can 
                         give credit...I don't want to cause any sort of Havoc!

Sorry: No Elaboration on McCullough and Religion and Self-Control
I wanted to elaborate on my last post, and had a link in my scatterbrained files for an article that seemed to want to address the issue of religion and self-control. The title of the article was "Does Thinking About God Increase Our Self-Control?" The link was dead, with no explanation. Then I realized: it had been written by Jonah Lehrer, for Wired. I will let the sad irony play out in your own nervous system...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Promiscuous Neurotheology: Pt.3

Denial and Forgiveness, Gratitude and Revenge
No, it's not the title of the latest from some prog-metal band from Norway: those are the topics that Dr. Michael McCullough of the U. of Miami (Florida) studies. He studies the origins of those actions in humans from an evolutionary psychology level. He appears to be a young hotshot in the field, with many papers published. He's interested in the origin of religion, too. He thinks it was adaptive because it helped people's self-control. McCullough thinks that religious people have more self-control, so that they set goals and meet those goals, their self-control via their religion helping them along the way. He did a multidisciplinary study of 80 years of worldwide research on self-regulation and the brain via meditation and prayer. Also, in his reading he found that when people viewed their goals as "sacred" they expended more energy and effort in attaining those goals. He also thinks people with religious "lifestyles" tend to have more of a God Is Watching Me So I Best Be Good outlook. Finally, he thinks religious people are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol (hey, alcohol is a drug), and they commit less crimes, are less prone to delinquency. "Religious people have more self-control than their less religious counterparts," or so goes a line from an article in Science Daily about McCullough's research.

Now I see from Dr. McCullough's Wiki that he also "holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religious Studies" at Miami. He co-wrote a book titled Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. He edited a collection of articles called Psychology of Gratitude.

I now beg the Reader for a short digression before returning to McCullough's ideas.

                                Wilhelm Dilthey (say "Dill-tie") had much to say about the
                                 late 19th century Methodenstreit - disputes on the methods 
                              of study - between the sciences of "Nature" and of the "Spirit"
                                  of human beings. Should the two be described differently?
                                   And if so: why? And: how?

Ideographic and Nomothetic Sciences
This has always seemed like heady stuff to me: tracing the origins of something like Revenge. And McCullough's sort of evolutionary psychology has been charged with telling Just-So stories by more than one high-powered critic. Personally, I find these books tantalizing, because, while they appear under the rubric of "science" they tend to amount to narratives culled from many studies. And there's nothing wrong with this! The old German distinction between Naturwissenschaften (studying Nature, or what we call the "hard sciences" such as physics, chemistry, and biology), and Geisteswissenschaften, the study of people and their systems: sociology, art, literature, anthropology, theology, etc: Nature was supposed to have been governed by descriptions that were "nomothetic," written in the language of mathematics, and concerned with the discovery of underlying law-like behavior of natural systems; the Social Sciences, primarily because we are dealing with the world we made and which includes ourselves and so is complex and filled with biases and the human spirit, were worlds of knowledge to be described in "ideographic" terms, or stories or reportage.

But for interesting reasons, this is not the way we try to reach the public about "science." Most of us non-specialists are not going to follow a book filled with equations. Give us our science couched in narrative! That light bends when it passes by a body of sufficient mass? Elaborate on this fantastic vision, please Mr. Smartypants! You can leave Einstein's equations - that chalkboard I once saw he was standing in front of in an old picture, filled with squigglies and numbers I ain't ever even a-hoidda? You can have it. Give us a picture. Please.

Value-Neutral Science Begins To Break Down, 1914-1944
Oh yes. There's one other face on all this I must address: for 100 years or more before 1945, there was an ongoing dispute about the sciences being "value neutral." Scientists were supposed to adhere to the idea that their work, their delvings and teasings-out of Nature's secrets, did not have social and political repercussions, or if they did, it was negligible. They weren't responsible for how their work might be taken later and used. Also: scientists were to consider politics as somehow beneath them. As the 1914-1918 war over some real estate near Alsace-Lorraine killed around 10 million people, this idea seemed less realistic. Mustard gas. Planes dropping bombs on people. All that.

Certain brilliant and courageous scientists came out strongly against the idea that their work has no ethical complications. On the contrary! And by late August of 1945, few scientists publicly stated that the pursuit of Nature's secrets was value-free. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was born, among many other advocates.

Still: Science Acts As Political Rhetoric
Despite the sniveling, embarrassing idiocy of much of the Unistatian public regarding matters such as evolution, stem cells, climate change, basic physics and how a woman's reproductive organs work - not to mention many have a rough go of it trying to find the Pacific Ocean on an unmarked map of the world - science is mysterious and carries a powerful rhetoric. When what scientific researchers are finding is convivial to business interests, it's great. When what they're saying might harm Big Biz's bottom line, they haul out their team of Public Relations (people trained to lie in very sophisticated ways) and create a counter-narrative and get it into the mainstream media, which they own, basically.

Now back to McCullough's work, keeping in mind that he may not think it has socio-political ramifications.

Well, maybe McCullough has some fine points to make about "religious people" and their ability to delay gratification, because their strong beliefs aid in self-control, and maybe that's an appreciable part of the narrative about why religion evolved. He certainly seems like a nice guy. And note McCullough's quote at the end of the short article I linked to. In his multidisciplinary studies on self-control and the origin of religion, he says he understands how strongly held beliefs in God can go the other way; his insights led him to understand the psychology of suicide bombers. "Religion can motivate people to do just about anything," McCullough says after reading 80 years of research.

I think my Dear Reader's own studies of the human condition would bear this insight out?

I dunno. I haven't read his work on forgiveness, but I've often wondered how forgiveness came about. Ditto denial and gratitude. He's researched revenge extensively too, but I've always felt I "understood" that one, and I think I might get bummed out reading about it.

The McCullough version of evolution of religion feels Just-So-ish to me, but I really don't know. There was one interesting thing that jumped out at me when I read the short article about his research: the rhetoric of having intent/goals, then using your religion (meditation or other endeavors that alter brain states) as a way to achieve desired goals...why does this seem familiar? McCullough hints at people who are religious sensing the presence of God. Hmmm. It's suggested that the "religious" view their goals as "sacred?"

Then I realized why this seemed familiar to me. McCullough seems like a conservative guy. Another section of my brain suddenly said to me, "Hey yahoo: Aleister Crowley has told you of the same little jewels, couched in a weird Modernist style!" (Albeit except for the drug stuff.) I had so compartmentalized my thinking that I didn't see it for two days: What young hotshot (seemingly) straight-arrow Professor McCullough found in his research had been urged on by the Wickedest Man of the 20th Century, the Great Magickian, Liber Al. Around 70 years ago. Only: Crowley used himself as scientific subject. Crowley's work and biography make his insights seem quite scientific (to those who don't know much about Crowley: he thought the experiments one does to change their brain should be noted in almost clinical detail, in notes and extensive other types of writings.) He'd studied many sciences - especially chemistry - and math. Whereas McCullough's arrival at these insights seems to have derived more from the Professor in the Library method. Who among us can listen to McCullough talk about the importance of "delaying gratification" without thinking of tantra? Anyway...

I had a good laff on all this...

We place no reliance 
On Virgin or Pigeon.
Our effort is Science
Our aim is Religion.
-Frater Perdurabo, AKA Aleister Crowley, another proto-neurotheologist

Finally, I'd like you all to meet Dr. McCullough, talking about religion and self-control. It's 3 minutes, and NB "If I were a betting man...":

Friday, September 14, 2012

Promiscuous Neurotheology: Pt.2

The venerable Wikipedia (as of today's date) gives Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island - a science fiction-y psychedelic utopian thing from 1961 - as showing the first use of the word "neurotheology," but the idea seems to have been around ever since hardcore materialism got going. William James seems to be hinting at neurotheology in his fantastic and still relevant and readable 1890 textbook Principles of Psychology, which Borges was influenced by, and which reads to me now as proto-cognitive science, 65 years before it was invented.

                               The quintessential American philosopher: William James

The very term "neurotheology" has proven offensive for some scholars, and the main charge has been reductionism. Huston Smith makes perhaps the best case against the discipline. Indeed, the physical sciences seem resistant to the idea, and apparently very few scholarly papers use the term. An alternate term, "neuroscience of religion," for some reason, appears more upright. But only by a little. I've also seen "spiritual neuroscience."

Of all the arguments against various neurotheological experiments I do find the "reductionist" charge compelling, but not because I really do think Gee Oh Dee really exists "out there" (although I don't discount some odd energy form or synergetic system in Nature that one might qualify as something godlike); rather, the philosophical term qualia - the ineffable is-ness of some experience that cannot possibly be nailed down by any measurement, equation, lit-up brain area in an fMRI, or sequence of poetic words - has me admitting that indeed and ironically: "Whatever we say about God is not true." (Experiment: try to do complete justice to the act of drinking a cold beer on a hot day, or having a totally satisfying orgasm...and these are simple "physical" acts/mindstates!)

Still: finding the neurobiological basis for religious experience in the nervous system appeals to my heretical weirdo overweening lust for dreaming about pushing a button and having a religious experience at will. Or ingesting certain plants or fungi, ya know? Albeit this vision seems horribly reductive, yet an experience is an experience, and that phenomenological experience "is" really "real" to the experiencer, despite the known quantities. One may counter those charging the investigators of neurotheology with "reductionism" by asserting it's - au contraire - "productive."

It seems to me a thoroughgoing all-out blitz to find out more about Non-Ordinary Experience (which admit it: we all want, but on our own terms) will boldly show us much more about who we are as a species.

As I see it, we're still in the Dark Ages here. Every now and then I think I can see a Renaissance up ahead, but then I may be prone to wishful thinking.

Finding "God" or gods or ineffable "spiritual" experience as purely mental processes, possibly located in one section of one lobe or another, or an influx of some neurochemical upon general brain systems...all suggest the normal science of materialism and yet it seems heretical. Upstanding scientists of impeccable credential ought to stay away from godstuff, perhaps. Taints the rep. Admits the woo-woo. Stay away! If only for your career prospects! My god, man! Hic sunt leones, etc.

And nonetheless, more and more intrepid researchers have been looking into the solely neurobiological basis of goddesses, gods, God, et.al, increasingly over the past 30 years, and I'll be discussing a few in passing as I go on.

Back to Dr.William James (his 1890 textbook is, along with Ulysses and Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy and a few others, one of my perpetual bedside books, so marvelous is it): "But whether we take it abstractly or concretely, our considering the spiritual self at all is a reflective process, is a result of our abandoning the outward-looking point of view, and of our having become able to think of subjectivity as such, to think ourselves as thinkers." (ch. 10, "The Consciousness of Self," italics in original)

                                    Dr. John Lilly, one of my favorite "mad" scientists

This seems a prefiguration of Dr. Robert Anton Wilson's take on Dr.Timothy Leary's metaphorical circuit in the brain that has to do with "metaprogramming." In the 1950s and 60s, Leary and many other investigators attempted to merge psychology with rare, "emergent" mental states in human evolution. RAW saw a very long historical lineage of worldwide mystics and scientifically-minded explorers who noted that thinking about thinking seemed to represent a qualitative change in a general orientation towards thought.  By thinking about thinking about thinking, or reflecting on the nature of thought and our symbolic systems, we seem to have bootstrapped our species into some Other Level of mind. The word "metaprogramming" was taken up from scientist-polymath Dr. John Lilly, who in turn used a metaphor borrowed from early computer science.

Speaking of "Meta- " and Thinking About Thinking
In a glossary preface to his 1980 book The Illuminati Papers, RAW gives us this:

Neuro - 
A prefix denoting "known by or through the human nervous system." Thus we have no physics but neurophysics, no psychology but neuropsychology, no linguistics but neurolinguistics, and, ultimately, no neurology but neuroneurology, and no neuroneurology but neuroneuroneurology, etc. (p.2)

Is this a joke? Yes. But it's sufi humor: in his own study of linguistics and neuroscience, coupled with Niels Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics, AKA the Copenhagen Interpretation, which seems to imply we are always at one remove from "objective reality" (whatever that is!), RAW thought that Bohr thought our descriptions of the quantum world were merely our best stab at a formal, mathematical description of "reality" at that level, and not a description of the one true, rock-bottom "reality." It was the best our nervous systems could do. (And, with the quantum theory, that's been good enough: it's easily the most successful scientific theory we have yet, and all of our fancy electronic gadgets have quantum-based equations built into them. Isn't all this...weird? Almost...ineffable?)

By applying the prefix "neuro- " to all our disciplines, we are reminding ourselves that we are particular embodied, biological beings on a planet with an atmosphere, that we have a certain bilateral symmetry and walk upright with opposable thumbs, seem programmed to live 75-100 years, breath a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen and a few other atoms, make tools, orbit a Type G star in a nondescript galaxy, seem governed mostly by emotions, make love and war with stunning aplomb, etc...who have limitations and are prone to premature certainties and, at times, howlingly bad interpretations. Look at the short history of Modern Science: much in the way of earnest but quite inadequate interpretation. There seems very little reason to assume we have crawled out of this cave of contingency.

I surmise that RAW would've called the current attempts to investigate neurotheology as "neuroneurotheology." Which I'm fine with, but will resort to the simpler "neurotheology" in order to save on bandwidth.

Then I guess the corollary to this would be that anything normally considered "theology" - like studying theodicy - would be the "neurotheology," so maybe when I'm talking about neuroneurotheology - religious experiences as solely brain-phenomena - maybe that really "is" more accurate? Oh, we'll know just by context, right?

The Dogmatic scientific materialist Eye-Roll set to go at three...two...one...aaaaand: ACTION!

Monday, September 10, 2012

OG as Promiscuous Neurotheologist Part One: Vico

O! Sing to me, Gods and Goddesses of sex, ecstasy, enlightened hedonism and equanimity! Breathe into me some...god-stuff! Only via the auspices of the Goddess of Cosmic Laughter can I see these Things through, which, aye, like all things and kidney stones, shall pass in the fullness of Space/Time. And if you're gonna go on being a bitch, I guess I'll just have to wait. Sheesh! Goddesses can be so temperamental!

Aye, but still: Sing to me?

                                     Erin C. Perry's image of Aphrodite. I think I saw that 
                                        outfit when I browsed Naughty Lingerie one day. 
                                     What does it say about our paideuma that we in
                                     the West have no female love goddess that competes for 
                                     the attentions of Yahweh? (Or do we?)

Origins of Religion: Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)
In his Autobiography (one of the first true modern ones), Vico writes of his Newtonian breakthroughs in what today we'd call the "social sciences":

"He discovers new historical principles of philosophy, and first of all a metaphysics of the human race. That is to say, a natural theology of all nations by which each people naturally created by itself its own gods through a certain natural instinct that man has for divinity. Fear of these gods led the first founders of nations to unite themselves with certain women in a lifelong companionship. This was the first human form of marriage. Thus he discovers the identity of the grand principle of gentile theology with that of the poetry of the theological poets, who were the world's first poets of all gentile humanity." (167-168)

A "natural instinct that man has for divinity." We will soon see that this is still a hotly contested topic in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

Okay, also note that Vico brackets off the Jews, who he considered to be the one tribe truly under a special dispensation from Gee Oh Dee. Over the years, in my reading of Vico, I think this is just a convenient way to seem like a Bible believer: he thought he'd perhaps score points with the Inquisition everywhere. But if you read Vico - just check out the Autobiography - you see he was influenced by Lucretius, whose hero was Epicurus. This is a stark fact that I find hard to square with most scholars' reading of Vico, and certainly a NeoCon like Mark Lilla doesn't see it this way. (But of course!) Vico knew of the persecution of heretics. Some of them had been his friends. Bracketing off the Jews made his sly act of writing as if he was a devout Roman Catholic, while a deeper and more nuanced reading shows him to be the first modern Anthropologist, and perhaps the inventor of the sociology of knowledge, which shows that people will tend to have certain political and other ideas based on the time, place, and social stratus in which they were born and raised and educated, and that what people believe is knowledge anywhere and anytime should be taken seriously, however much most other scholars would scoff. That which we do not consider "rational" can, when studied closely, reveal much about humankind. (And possibly suggest ways to avert socio-political dead ends?)

At present, I surmise that Vico's bracketing of the Jews was a move that made his work simpler: he had even bigger fish to fry; accounting for the Jews in his grand schema would only create more work for him. Hence: why not grant them their special one-to-one relationship with the Big Guy, and concentrate  on more interesting things? Like how class warfare is always being fought by the Owners against the Workers?

                                    Here's a vision of Zeus, a thunder-sky-father god. Note 
                                    how important it usually is for Angry Daddy to be ripped.
                                   Zeus here is so godly he seems to have an 8-pack, and he's 
                                   ready to run for Mr. Olympia yet again. And who would DARE
                                   vote against him? (Pssst: word on the street is this dude was
                                   into bestiality, which I can neither confirm, nor is it up to
                                   mortal me to deny.)

For Vico, "gods" first spoke through us as we began to try to interpret the entrails of animals and other acts of "divination;" very slowly we began to think in metaphors. Then most of language was based in metaphors, and we had learned to mostly think in language-constructs, or metaphors. The metaphor, in some sense, was a hypnotizing symbol for Objective Reality, but words can only be signs at the most...And language has always been used as Class Warfare by the landowners and the rich and the aristocratic, against everyone else. Vico argues that there's always been a dialectic: the intermarried Owners versus Everyone Else. The proles eventually gain more and more rights, things become more and more secular...then the local civilization, anywhere in History, falls apart, and then the Whole Thing starts up again. It's an idea - the cyclical model of history - that had been used before (Vico was influenced by people like Varro here), and it's been used again, most notoriously by James Joyce. It seems a poetic conception foremost to me, and in the case of Vico, it also provided a bulwark against persecution: he's really some stupendously weirdo thinker who's still totally brilliant. The Authorities probably didn't know what to make of him. He got away with it. (But he paid for it too: his grand masterwerk was neglected while he lived - though he worked the "social media" of 1725-1740 Naples/Europe as best he could - and it drove him over the edge, and he died soon after.)

Gods and goddesses in every country, every religion, came out of the sky and ground (metaphorically) and spoke to humans in poetic ways, via the first poets, who, funny enough, spoke in terms of Laws in such a way that seemed to favor the Landlords overwhelmingly. At one point in his magnum opus The New Science, he says that, initially, the Law was a "severe form of poetry."

Those who follow the latest neurobiological ideas about how language is instantiated in neural clusters in our brains, which we picked up via experience and repeated hearings, will find in Vico an 18th century Neapolitan weirdo-genius (my favorite types!) who prefigured it all. George Lakoff acknowledges as much in his The Political Mind when he writes, "A few philosophers (such as Vico, Nietzsche, and Cassirer) and literary critics (such as I.A. Richards) had noticed the existence of metaphorical thought, but none had figured out the scientific details of how it works." (252) Nietzsche was born in 1844, Cassirer in 1874, and Richards in 1893. Vico, again, was born in 1668.

So: the origin of gods and goddesses come from, first: the Ruling Classes, then the Workers have divinities speak through them. The local gods - especially the thunder/bird of prey/vengeful/Father God - will sometimes be used by the Ruling Classes as a political form of crowd control, but the Workers will come back with their own gods. (There's really an hellaciously lot of more from Vico, but no one likes it when I go on too long...)

Let us consider this a First Model for thinking about Neurotheology, based upon one Overweening Generalist's readings of the staggeringly brilliant and at times maddeningly opaque Vico.

If The Reader has a favorite origin model for religion, I wouldn't mind hearin' it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

John Cage at 100: Ideas About "Silence"

The fine non-fiction writer Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) wrote a book about radical biologists who climbed the tallest redwood trees in the most remote areas of Northern California. This book was titled The Wild Trees. Think of climbing a tree that's 350 feet high. There, above the old-growth redwood canopy the tops of the trees knitted together and one could walk around, there were new species to discover, an entirely new niche. And Preston writes of the overwhelming silence up there, only windsounds if any. Sound, time become warped. Space-sky and perception, silence overwhelming. 

John Cage, with one of his Nocturnes from 1948 in background, talking about sound. How much more zen-masterishly can you get? It's 9 minutes. It might slow your cells down and make you forget Mitt Romney and Barack Obama:

"Abstaining from speech marks him who is obeying the spontaneity of his nature. A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for a whole day. To whom is it that these (two) things are owing? To Heaven and Earth. If Heaven and Earth cannot make such (spasmodic) actings last long, how much less can man!" - Tao Te Ching, from chapter 23, Lao Tze, James Legge trans.

The firebrand schoolteacher and critic of public schools John Taylor Gatto thought one thing schools do to kids is a "manufacture" of "restless anti-solitude" and that schooling stood in the way of the problem of "solitude's mastery." Kids in Unistat grow up not knowing how to be alone with their thoughts.

Morris Berman, another radical critic of Unistat society, thought corporate consumerism and advertising militated against a possibly dangerous to the social order solitude among citizens. He quotes the great literary critic George Steiner, that we live in a "systematic suppression of silence."

"It can't get too quiet for me." - William S. Burroughs

"The marvelous and mysterious which is peculiar to night may also appear...in the remarkable silence that may intervene in the midst of lively conversations; it was said, at such times, that Hermes had entered the room..." - Walter Otto, The Homeric Gods

The poet Gary Snyder once wrote of eustacy, which looks like ecstasy, but he defined the former as "silent, solitary illumination."

When we're in very unpleasant mental states, it seems the last thing many of us want is silence, solitude. Or as my friend Mari L'Esperance put it in a line in one of her poems, "Silence ticking like something alive."

Wine-hearted solitude,
Our mother the wilderness,
Men's failures are often as beautiful
as men's triumphs, but your returnings
Are even more precious than your
first presence.
-Robinson Jeffers, "Bixby's Landing"

The aforementioned Burroughs (was he joking?) thought silence was once the primary reality. In this he probably was using Alfred Korzybski's idea about silence at the event-level of phenomenal experience, pre-verbally. Burroughs took this idea and made brilliant variations on the theme: language as a virus. We talk because the word-virus had found a host: us. I find this one of the funniest and most amusing ideas of the 20th century.

Marshall McLuhan, riffing of one of his favorite themes, the relation of figure/ground:
"New media are new environments. That is why the media are the message. One related consideration is that antienvironments, or counterenvironments created by the artist, are indispensable means of becoming aware of the environment in which we live and of the environments we create for ourselves technically. John Cage has a book called Silence in which, very early in the book, he explains that silence consists of all of the unintended noises of the environment. All of the things that are going on all the time in any environment, but things that were never programmed or intended - that is silence. The unheeded world is silence. That is what James Joyce calls thunder in the Wake. In the Wake  all the consequences of social change - all of the disturbances and metamorphoses resulting from technological change - create a vast environmental roar or thunder that is yet completely inaudible."- "Address At Vision 65," p.225, The Essential McLuhan

And the Greek irony: McLuhan the Great Talker suffered a stroke that pretty much knocked out his ability to speak. Oy! (see Philip Marchand's bio of McLuhan, pp.281-287 for the horrible, profoundly moving deets.)

Ez Pound's silence was self-imposed. He'd fucked up everything with his idiotic antisemitism, he'd hurt everyone he loved, he'd been a damned fool, his entire life was botched, like the civilization he thought he was trying to save. And Allen Ginsberg visiting him in Rapallo, singing Hari Krishna, playing Pound his Bob Dylan records, trying to get Pound to realize that sure, his antisemitism was his "fuck-up," but his poetic revolution had been a success; he'd influenced everyone, etc. Ginsberg to silent Pound, about Julius Orlovsky, "Manichean who wouldn't speak for 14 years because he believed all the evil in the universe issued from his body and mouth." - What Thou Lovest Well Remains, p.33

Pythagoreans and silence. Leary reading Gravity's Rainbow in solitary confinement. Buckminster Fuller, ready to commit suicide because of failure-feeling, deciding he didn't have the right to: he belonged to Universe. Bucky goes silent for a year to see if language was tripping up basic golden thinking-in-pictures. But once Bucky began speaking again, he never stopped. One wonders about the experiment of silence and his prose style.

I'm not sure if any of these thought-snippets on silence made any sense, and 57% of me doesn't care.

Here's a performance of Cage's Imaginary Landscape Number 4 , for 12 radios, etc:

Celebrating Cage's love of wild mushrooms
Alex Ross on Cage turning 100: The John Cage Century
The John Cage Database

Monday, September 3, 2012

Hoarders: Glad It Ain't Me! (or...is it?)

Ever see the TV show Hoarders? I've seen a couple episodes, which were enough for me. I'm told there is at least one copycat show on cable TV on roughly the same subject. What made me wonder: is this a serotonin imbalance? Is it related to OCD? What? Some researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health are making some inroads using fMRI machines and things like junk mail, but I'll get to that later.

I previously wrote about my baseball card collecting as a youth, and tried to link it to Walter Benjamin's idea about the essence of the Original, which, in my research on Benjamin, I linked to a hashish-inspired idea that has influenced the postmodernists.

Lately - in addition to Hoarders - I've gotten into conversations with friends over their collections, their prized possessions that seemingly would have no value to anyone but themselves, and experiences being in others' dwellings that were...how do I put this delicately? Cluttered badly.

                            I've never been in a house that was this hoarded-up. Click on
                            the pic for a more in-your-face view. You thought You had 

Robert Sapolsky and Rice Krispie Treats
And I've been thinking of one of my intellectual gurus, Robert Sapolsky, who emphasizes the metaphor of the Continuum when we think of diseases, and it's really easy to see it when we think of things like, say, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Sapolsky would hold a little end-of-the-semester party for students at Stanford, and make sure Rice Krispie Treats would be part of the celebration. The picture I linked to there, notice, has all the little treats cut from the pan in idealized rectangles or squares. At some point, during every party, Sapolsky would sneak back into the room where the cookies and cakes were, and notice that people who had used a knife to cut their own treats would always cut at nice 90 degree angles. Sapolsky would quickly and surreptitiously make some odd, uneven, symmetry-ruining cut in the Treats, eat his confection, then rejoin the party. After a short period when others had gone into the food room for Treats and other goodies, he'd go back in, and sure enough: someone had "fixed" the irregular angle he'd cut and recouped the 90 degree angle. His point? We all have a bit of this OCD-ishness in us, even the best and brightest Neuroscience students at Stanford.

When you drop mail in a public post office box on a street corner, do you ever check again to make sure your mail actually fell into the box and didn't get "stuck" inside the lid? If you do, don't feel bad: more people than you'd think also do this.

If you want to read a really mindblowing essay on how this might relate evolutionarily to the rise of religious ritual and dogma, read "Circling The Blankets For God," from Sapolsky's book The Trouble With Testosterone. Or: HERE 'tis from Scribd.

Ahh...but what does this have to do with hoarding? I'm not sure. Let's delve a bit deeper.

My Own Magical Thinking
When I met my future wife's parents I quickly took a strong liking to her father, who had been born in North Carolina in 1919, with four brothers, and they did subsistence farming near Chapel Hill. During the Great Depression they had nothing except what they grew for themselves. When what we call "World War Two" came around, he enlisted, but his eyes had been crossed since he was born, so the Army fixed his eyesight and he learned radio repair instead of having to fight Germans or Japanese. He caught tuberculosis during the war, and was in a TB ward for five years, until they were sure they had one of a new class of miracle drugs called "antibiotics" that could fix him up without harm. While in the ward he taught himself advanced mathematics, relativity, and the basics of quantum mechanics from books brought around in a bookmobile. After the war he owned the first TV repair shop in Los Angeles - he had no formal college! - and then spent the rest of his life working in aviation and on NASA-related projects as an engineer. This guy was amazing. He was wry, very funny, relentlessly logical, and had a thick North Carolina accent until death. What's my point?

One day my wife, after visiting him, brought me a bunch of his old cardigan sweaters and asked me if I wanted any of them. I said Hell Yes! I had never been a cardigan-wearer, but just wearing her Old Man's old sweaters would be cool. They had something to do with Him.

I wore those sweaters until they were totally unwearable: holes in the elbows, the seams ripped at the shoulder, etc. I guess part of it was I thought my cardigan-wearing fit my "weirdo intellectual" image of myself, but maybe just as much: I thought possibly a bit of my beloved father-in-law's Cool Guy essence was seeping into me, and it's making me a smarter and funnier dude. I dunno. Maybe? I "know" this is crass mysticism on the Main Level. But I didn't throw those cardigans away; I kept them in my closet. After he died, every time I saw those things piled in my closet I thought of him. A few of 'em are still around.

What is this all about? Respect? Yes, but respect doesn't totally explain it.

Dr. Bruce Hood and the Essence Behind Sacred Objects
Cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood sheds some light on all this, I think. In his book Supersense: Why We Believe In The Unbelievable, he relates his delight in a jam-packed memorabilia shop, and how he liked to talk to the owner about why people felt sentimental over Olde Things. Things that were, seemingly, ephemeral. Like trinkets and old postcards. The owner told Hood he thought people collected things in order to remind themselves of when they were younger and happier. Here's Hood:

"Why do people do it? Collecting seems such an odd behavior in a world of instant upgrades, duplication, and modern innovation. Why look backward? When I entered the collector's domain, I discovered a mirror world populated by legions of people who traipse around car trunk sales and flea markets every weekend seeking authenticity. Come rain or shine, these people were out in droves, looking for the original." (198)

                                          A curio shop, somewhere in the East.

The original. We're back to Walter Benjamin again, in his ingenious "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Or are we? Is there another, somewhat less romantic way to model the search for the value of the Original? Hood cites superstar neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of "Borat" Sacha Baron-Cohen, btw), who has shown that men seem more naturally inclined than women to order and systems, and Hood thinks "completing the set" seems more a male thing than female.

Hood has some neuroscientifically fine riffs about art and forgeries. There have been forgeries of famous paintings that sold for a lot of money, because "experts" vouched for the painting's authenticity. When it is found that the paintings are forgeries, the shit hits the fan, people are outraged, and the value of the now-realized-fake sinks into the abyss. But if everyone was fooled until some sleuth figured out there was something amiss with the provenance, why does it matter to people if it was real or a fake?

All of us think we know the answer, and perhaps many of us do know, but what Hood says about Why we care so much seems very interesting to me.

"I think that an art forgery is unacceptable because it does not generate the psychological essentialist view that something of the artist is literally in the work," says Hood on page 203, op. cit.

Psychological essentialism? Well, I get it, if only because of my father-in-law's cardigans. But let's dig a  tad deeper with Hood before I get to the whole hoarding thing...

Plutarch told the story of the preservation of legendary Athenian king Theseus's ship. As years passed, some of the wood rotted and was replaced by new planks. After awhile it became unclear if the ship was still Theseus's. Was it "really" the "same" ship? What if the old rotted planks had been kept and reassembled into some battered old ship...would that be the "real" one?

(No matter how old you are right now, sitting there reading this, most of the cells in your body that make "you" are only ten years old at the oldest. That "you" from 12 years ago? All of the cells have been replaced!)

Hood and colleagues built an impressive-looking Big Machine with lights and dials on it: a Copy Box Machine. Here's what it could do: you asked kids to put their beloved blankie or teddy bear into it, and  one exactly the same but "different" would come out the other side. Every kid wanted the Original back.
(see Supersense, pp.203-213)

"So I would argue that the behavior of the toddler toward his grubby blanket and the obsession of a fanatical collector to own original memorabilia reflect the same human tendency to see objects as possessing invisible properties that originate from significant individuals. By owning objects and touching them, we can connect with others, and that gives us the sense of distributed existence over time and with others. The net effect is that we become increasingly linked together by a sense of deeper hidden structures." (221)

"Distributed existence over time and with others." Is that too much for our egos to ask in an indifferent universe? Apparently not! (More than one blogger has cited their blog as Internet immortality, so I guess you can count me in as one desirous of my existence distributed over time, with others.)

Mutt: You want your existence distributed to others over time?
Jute: Aye! Hey why not?

Then what's with all the hoarding? Dr. David Tolin, working under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health, had a control group, a hoarding group, and people with OCD collect their junk mail for a long time, and bring it in to the lab, where they were asked to climb into an fMRI machine. When a picture of their mail came up, the areas of the brain in the hoarders that have to do with weighing the value of things, emotional decisions and assessment of risk, unpleasant feelings, and making a decision about personal possessions showed an unusual lighting pattern: hoarders's brains were not the same as the OCD people's, and the control group was, of course, more "normal." If they saw a picture of someone else's junk mail, the hoarders had an easier time thinking about what they would do with it. Two basic reports on Tolin and his team's findings are HERE and HERE. A CNN video on these findings is HERE.

Bruce Hood, like Sapolsky, emphasizes the Continuum when analyzing his data. Some of us seem to have much less of a magical/religious-like impulse with regard to special objects. Some people may watch Hoarders for lurid reasons, for many reasons, but I think it's well-established that hoarders just have a bit more trouble making sense of what objects are truly valuable than the rest of us do. And as for objects that we're attached to, for sentimental reasons, this seems roaringly on a continuum, and at odds with publicly-stated norms. For example, as Hood writes, "Most people are too embarrassed to admit they still have their sentimental childhood objects. However, a recent survey of two thousand solitary travelers by a U.K. hotel chain revealed that one in five men slept with a teddy bear - more than the female travelers." (210)

Whew! Now I don't feel so weird about hoarding my 2000 some-odd books, many of which I probably won't read again. (But what a pain in the ass when you need to move!)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Drug Report: August 2012 (a few hours tardy...with an explanation), With A Prolix Addenda About Weathermen

Pleading guilty, but with "an explanation" reminds me of some Woody Allen film where a guy is in court and they call his name and he stands and takes the witness stand. The bailiff reads the charges - a long string of heinous acts, like aggravated assault with intent to commit larceny, conspiracy to murder a priest with a blunt instrument, etc (I don't remember the charges exactly) - and finally, the judge asks the guy, "How do you plead?" And the guy responds, "Guilty, your honor...but with an explanation."

A Couple of Book Nuggets From the Cannabis World
I've been reading a lot on pot, and I mean that in at least two senses, but nonetheless: there are a lot of fascinating books on cannabis that have appeared in the past five years. A week or so ago I finished a sorta New Journalism-style book called The Heart of Dankness, which is good if you want to know more about the front lines of underground botanists and the stakes for winning the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. (Your strain will sell a lot of seeds and you stand to make some hairy coin; the voting seems questionable, it's very political, but of interest if only for the attempt to describe different strains of indica and sativa as if they were fine wines.) It's a picaresque non-fiction book, with Mark Haskell Smith going from Amsterdam to different parts of LA (in one chapter, meeting an enigmatic genius who has big plans for isolating certain psychoactive chemicals that engender certain effects, in order to learn about the mind), to Northern California, with "Hempfest" forays into places like Toronto and finally ending up back in Amsterdam, when, stoned on Liberty Day (May 5th, celebrated for liberty from the Nazis), Smith hears a commotion and wanders out to the edge of a canal, works his way to the front, and sees two very large TV monitors set up across the canal, which will show the Queen and her family on a boat sailing its way toward this point. Also across the canal: the Royal Dutch Philharmonic. And as the Queen gets closer, the music begins to swell gorgeously. Smith is very stoned and intrigued: he's not much of a classical music fan, but this music is beautiful and seems vaguely familiar. It gets louder and suddenly he realizes it's Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." (!)

The entire book is a search for the best definition, or a clarification of just what "dank" means. I find the entire premise a tad artificial, but at least he's trying to write about some aspect of quality, which plays to our sensual-sensory-continuum worlds...It does make for a memorable title, too, eh.

Friend: What have you been reading lately?
OG: Something about the world of gourmet pot called The Heart of Dankness.
Friend: <laughs>

                                  illustration of Cannabis sativa by Hermann Adolf Kohler, 
                                         who lived from 1834-1879

The bizarre thing about reading Smith's book: it's a recent release, but even more recently the Dutch have made it difficult for Unistatians to travel there and smoke in the coffeehouses; they've rolled back a bit on their famous tolerance. And Obama and Holder have reneged on their word; they've been repressive like Bush43 towards the medical pot movement. I imagine Smith assembling/writing his book, and cursing at the morning news, which seemed to be making the very book he was writing sound a tad dated.

This is all very maddening and dramatic, but more and more Unistatians of all ages are in favor of legalization; one would think it's only a matter of time...

But how many times are we gonna get our hopes up, only to feel like some federal government Lucys have pulled the football once again away from us stoner Charlie Browns? (And believe me when I say "good grief!" to sum up my feelings about the totally insane War On Certain People Who Use The Wrong Drugs. Sometimes two words are enough, and 10,000 are just plain agonizing.)

An even more recent book, Jonah Raskin's Marijuanaland, subtitled "Dispatches From An American War," is about the Emerald Triangle of Northern California, where the best and most cannabis is grown in Unistat. It's a sine qua non bit of reportage from this area of the world, with historical context, lots of digging and interviewing (from sheriffs to growers and everyone in-between), and anecdotes that make this tiny but dense book by a wise and well-seasoned radical journalist a must for those who wish to grow their own counterculture libraries.

Raskin himself seems a marvelous figure to me. From a long line of leftist intellectuals and political radicals, he studied under Lionel Trilling at Columbia, left East Coast academia to be a West Coast radical journalist, was heavily involved with SDS and then the Weathermen, taught at Sonoma State University, and is still, with Marijuanaland, doing probing radical journalism in addition to his earlier books on people like Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, the enigmatic figure B. Traven, and Jack London. Two years ago I read back-to-back-to-back-to etc the memoirs and autobios of as many SDS and Weathermen figures as I could find, and I really liked Raskin's autobio, Out of the Whale, which first appeared way back in the still-pretty-crazy days of 1974! (1)  Raskin turned 70 in January of this year, and he knows his pot.

For me, the most palpable vibe in Raskin's pot book is the paranoia combined with a strong, old-fashioned libertarianism amongst the growers. One must understand that loggers of redwood trees gradually lost jobs; those loggers and truckers had to do something to maintain a decent standard of living, so why not grow pot? There's certainly demand and it's the biggest cash crop in the country. And further weirdness: a lot of these ex-loggers and truckers and diesel-pump attendants are "rednecks," who listen to Rush Limbaugh! The culture of cannabis in the Emerald Triangle: (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, and probably a lot of Lake County) makes for odd bedfellows, literally: some of these rednecks meet very liberal Earth Woman and hippie chicks and they get together. The economics and politics of cannabis - if not the smoke itself - gave me a contact high in Raskin's stories. (2) Other highs, not quite contact, are even weirder. Here's one short anecdote from Raskin:

"For a brief time, the only real function the old lumber mills played was to incinerate tons of pot confiscated by the sheriff. (Now, confiscated pot is buried in the ground.) In the 1980s, I watched as thousands of plants caught fire and burned. I saw the wind carry the smoke into the air toward the town of Willits, where citizens smelled it and, just by breathing it, got high - a real-life incident that inspired me to write the story for the marijuana movie Homegrown." (pp.25-26)

Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture?

"Kid Cannabis," by Mark Binelli, originally in Rolling Stone, Oct 19, 2005. I read this article in Rolling Stone years ago, and hunted it down; at RS's site, now, it's only available to online subscribers and I think it's  sorta crude that this "Dan Heinz" guy doesn't put Binelli's name up prominently, but it was the place I found this gripping true story - soon to made into motion picture directed by John Stockwell? When I read it again today, I thought of the Johnny Depp film Blow. See what you think. It's funny: I read this piece around late 2005 or early 2006, and I've thought about it many times since then, but I sorta forgot that it was non-fiction; somehow my brain had turned it into a fiction piece. When I tracked it down and read it again - the great title stuck in my head: "Kid Cannabis," like Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" - I went, "Oh yea...this really happened!" The way pudgy Kid Cannabis acted when he suddenly had dough seems, as Nietzsche might've said, human, all too human. Wot?

(1) Other books I consider wellworthsomewhiles about this epically wild period of Unistatian history:
Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers. 2008. I finished this just as the ditzy fascist named "Sarah Palin" started to repeat what her handlers had told her, about Obama "palling around" with terrorists like Ayers. Aha! It was coming together! I had only known about Ayers from reading in other books on the Weather Underground. This was one well-written book, from his POV.

The 2002 documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, The Weather Underground is tremendous. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2004.

Carl Oglesby's Ravens In The Storm gives us the memoirs of possibly the most "balanced" individual involved in those radical factions. He was a leader in SDS but thought the splinter faction Weather Underground was a bad move, and he was probably right. Oglesby - like most of these writers about their time in SDS/The Weather Underground - went on to become an academic, avoiding prison. After the craziness of the late 1960s/early 1970s died down, Oglesby wrote one of my top ten most intriguing conspiracy theory books, The Yankee and Cowboy War, which really should be brought back into print. I have written at least four publishers trying to convince them to bring it back, but so far, nada. HERE is something that reflects on this a bit. It contains most of the text of the book...but why did someone have to type it up? Read it and I think you'll agree, there's almost something "fishy" going on as to why this book isn't back in print. (I personally do not enjoy reading a long non-fiction book on a screen and would happily buy a new edition - possibly with Intros and Forewords by Peter Dale Scott and Michael Parenti? - for $15 or whatever. Make it paperback, I don't care. Just bring this thing back into print!)

Kirkpatrick Sale wrote a thick and truly, seemingly exhaustive history and analysis of SDS, and I looked back in it recently and am still impressed. He's since gone on to be at the forefront of radical ecological wisdom, of the kind that might bring a smile to Kaczynski, languishing in a SuperMax federal prison. Or, as I understand him lately, Thomas Pynchon? For me, Sale is never boring, even if I don't agree with him.

In 2009 Mark Rudd's Underground came out. Starting with the occupation/sit-in/takeover at Columbia, Rudd liked the radical limelight maybe a bit too much, and went for a wild ride. This one read a lot like Ayers's book.

David Gilbert's Love and Struggle came out earlier this year, and he's in prison until 2056 (if memory serves), for a 1981 Brink's job made up of former Weathermen and members of the Black Liberation Army. This dude was hardcore. (In the documentary, it's difficult for me to watch him talk and reconcile that person with his deeds.) Four people died, including two cops and a Brinks guard. When I undertook my studies of these leftist outlaw-radicals, I was quickly struck by how passion, resistance, idealism and education at our best universities binds all these leftist-outlaws. Gilbert really got caught up and paid the price. I'm about a quarter way through his book...

Flying Close To The Sun by Cathy Wilkerson (2007) shows a side the of this movement that the others barely touch upon: that despite the radical left equality ideals spouted by the leaders, the women in the movement were not treated as equals. Also, despite the propaganda victories, there were lots of egos caught up in the romanticism of the underground and some incompetencies. Also: the Weathermen set off a LOT of bombs that damaged structures (they were fairly scrupulous about not killing people, warning them you better get outta there by zero hour!), but they didn't carry off their revolution. This we all know, but Wilkerson is more blunt about these little details.

I also liked Ron Jacobs 1997 The Way The Wind Blew and Dan Berger's scholarly Outlaws of America Berger is a young radical activist who has researched this time, and it's the best thing I've yet seen written by someone who was not on the scene.

There are many others...

Robert Anton Wilson, who lived and wrote amidst the craziness of the times of SDS and the WeatherUnderground (this latter group helped his friend Timothy Leary make a daring and successful prison escape), had read Ezra Pound very closely, and knew that, by fighting against injustice or for some high-minded ideal, one can lose one's center. It seems that their very educations warped their senses of their own centers, and some just jaw-dropping craziness ensued. While I admire these figures, reading their stories, the stories they tell about their lives and why they did what they did, I see them as ultra-romantic figures, all of them. But I do see RAW's point about one's center, too, and all of these books serve as cautionary tales, among other bits of True Wisdom one finds there...

(2) Truth be told, almost all of the books I read give me contact highs, whether they're about pot growers in the Emerald Triangle, or some dense theoretical text on Being and Nothingness, or a graphic novel/comic book on the history of economics.

Here's Jonah Raskin riffing on his book Marijuanaland. It's 7 mins.

Here's Mark Rudd talking about his book, the SDS, and the Weathermen. 3 mins.