Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where The Hell Am I?

Often, when meditating whilst sitting quietly or even walking alone with "my" thoughts, I often use the gimmick of thinking about the Bohr Model of the atom (leave aside that it can be viewed as a "flawed" model for now), and how we're made up of atoms, which have a tiny nucleus with neutrons and protons "inside." And inside that are just all sorts of quarks and other surrealist "material" shenanigans.

And I read once in some popularization of quantum mechanics that the nucleus is so small relative to the electrons buzzing around in discrete "orbits" or "outer shells" that, if the nucleus were an orange put at the center of the 50 yard line at the Rose Bowl, then the electrons are whirling around - relatively speaking - outside the entrance gates, all around. What's "inside" all that "space"? It's empty! (But it's probably "really" not...no time to get into it now, here.)

Hell, every-thing else on this planet seems subject to the same laws of physics, and as Stephen Dedalus said, we are "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." (Ulysses, p.697, "Ithaca")

[Interestingly to me, Joyce wrote Ulysses between 1915-1922; it was published in 1922. Quantum physics would show there was a physical basis for this poetic line, but not until 1925-27 or so.]

And therefore "I" am mostly empty space. "I" just seem solid because "I" can only make investigations with the sensoria Nature gave me: clunky stuff. Gigantic, really. And seemingly a plenum of bone, skin, blood, lymph, viscera. But - and "I" still think on one level this model "is" legitimate - "I" seem really quite ghost-like. "I" only bump into stuff because the stuff "I" bump into has roughly the same levels of non-emptiness that "I" have. What a world!

Usually this has served me well: thinking of myself, as Bucky Fuller said, "I seem to be a verb." Yea: what's not all about the empty space seems more about electrons and energy exchanges between "me" and my surrounding environment. I meditate on this physics and get outside of my (mostly empty?) "self."

I end up summoning some picture of myself as a cloud of energy, with a module near the top that seems to want to make everything into some solid "meaning." But that module seems utterly foolish and but one of the modules that make up what Marvin Minsky called The Society of Mind: what's going on seems a "booming buzzing confusion" of energies, everywhere and everywhen. When I do this I've entered what the phenomenological sociologists call a "finite province of meaning." This particular province of meaning seems about blissful meaninglessness, and it's a second cousin to being stoned on cannabis, only it's still legal. For now...

Going "Up" One Level
But lately - say, the last 24 months - I've been trying to understand the human genome. It turns out to be  absurdly complex, for the OG. But it's abecedarian compared to what I found out about epigenetics. HERE's an amusing short explanation about some of what is entailed by epigenetics. He does it far better justice than I could; I'm afraid I'd bore you with my explanations about methyl groups and histones and how your grandmother's smoking habit effects your health. My favorite metaphors so far for the genome and the epigenome are this: the genome is the hardware; the epigenome tells the genome what to do with its information, and when. Talk about complexity!

So getting back to trying to find out where "I" am: who and what I seem to be is not only atoms and the void, but information inherited roughly 50/50 from mom and dad, plus the environments I've accidentally been born into or found myself in, the choices I made about what environments to go into (and "environments" here means something closer to what McLuhan meant than saying "I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County"). Although geography does seem to matter quite  a lot. But what my parents worried about, what they ate, what their parents experienced...and just an enormous amount of CHANCE occurrences seem to be a lot about where "I" am.

Then I found out something wonderfully disturbing that makes what I've mentioned so far seem trivial.

Going "Up" Another Level
In the 20th century, modern medicine finally arrived. O! The things we learned! About surgery (lots of insanely brutal war wounds provided ample practice), and what worked and what didn't, and doctors caught up to the washing their hands dealio. And we began to merge our physics (harnessing light) and chemistry with technology and imaging, and...we're on our way! We even found out we'd been acting like superstitious fools for millenia: if we wipe out bacteria, we'd live a lot longer, and healthier. And so: antibiotics (miracles!), antiseptics of all sort, cleaning products in every modern home. But we were wrong about bacteria: we need Them to maintain a healthy immune system. And oh wow: just sooooo much more.

You know this "I" that I'm trying to find? Turns out "he" is part of a system that's not only genome and epigenome, but microbiome. 90% of the cells in "me" are bacteria. And I'm healthy! "I" took a long bike ride today, got all kinds of work done, had some Big Laffs. But if "I" am 90% bacteria...I'm not sure what to think. And it turns out bacteria in my gut influences what I think and feel.

Who is running the show here?

Preliminary Ideas About Where the Hell "My" "I" "Is"
I understand the history of modern "self" hood had to do with rationalistic ideas about agency and law and responsibility. It was a convenient fiction. If some crime was committed, we want to gather the evidence and convict that rational actor for his wrongdoing and make that person "pay" a debt to another convenient fiction: The State. Or "society." But if we're driven by things our ancestors did and we're mostly empty space or bacteria, as the kids say, WTF?

At this point I take a deep breath and remember what Robert Anton Wilson said, in generalized account of what the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics: every model we make to account for some aspect of "reality" tells us as much about our own minds as it does Nature, or what's "out there." As we grew up, toddling around some environment, as mostly empty space, our genes being played by histones and methylations and other Damned Things, we were constantly ingesting atoms and incorporating them into our "selves" without knowing it. Most of us still seem blase about the whole schmeer! And even then we were mostly bacteria. And if our parents found out this fact, they probably would've killed us. Literally. With antibiotics and a lot of scrubbing.

We're toddling around and our brains are receiving signals and ignoring others, setting up our nervous system to perceive the world a certain way and - this is crucial - not other possible ways. But some kid on the other side of the world was making grooves in his brain, connecting neural clusters in a different schema. That kid was "learning" a different language, for one thing. And language, being part of the world, also influences further how we'll "see" the world, and take action. (Sorry anti-Whorfians! You're on the outs, now.)

And yet: many of us grow into adulthood and enjoy enduring alliances and deep, satisfying relationships with someone from a remote (relative to "us") region of the world. We're terrifically malleable, plastic. But not infinitely so. Yep: I was born in LA, grew up there, lived in Colorado for a a few minutes, then moved back to LA, lived in a few areas in the vast sprawling metropolis around La-La Land, then moved to a different state within the state of California, a place called "Berkeley." And yet: I have friends who speak Chinese, who are also mostly empty space and bacteria. And it's good.

Okay, okay. I'm starting to feel better now. "I" accept my verbishness, my existence as a dissipative structure, and don't really care all that much where "I" am. Because, not being a solipsist, I assume you're reading this now, and you are enough like me, so what does it matter? How do I know I'm not being dreamed by some gaseous vertebrate of astronomical heft? I don't. Hell: maybe YOU are dreaming all this? And "I" don't care. This seems like a cosmic funhouse to me. All of it. What the hell: I'll just assume we sort of exist, and that it matters, bacteria and all.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cosmic Schmucks: Addenda in Rhetoric, Metaphor and Digression

Just a few items and then I'll let you get back to your porn. But first, if you'll permit me:

Addenda on Robert Anton Wilson's "Cosmic Schmuck" Principle
I recently read a summary of academic philosopher and specialist in argumentation theory Daniel H. Cohen's TED talk (linked in this article). The most interesting thing to me was that, in the "argument as war" metaphor, the "winner" of the argument wins ego strokes, maybe some prestige, or maybe a firmer conviction that s(he)'s "right." What does the "loser" get? The loser learned a better way to think about an idea. (I am bracketing those who are truly interested in thinking better about topics from those who, when admitting the other has a much stronger argument nevertheless revert - everyday perversity? - to their comfortable positions.) The "war" metaphor presupposes "losing" as "learning." That's wonderfully wrong, it seems to me. I love Cohen's idea here. (My bias, stated outright: learning seems much more like "winning" something than the feeling of "losing.")

The monstrous and firmly-embedded "war" metaphor in our culture isn't going away soon, although Cohen has a vision of how we can improve on the quality of arguments, and move away from the structure of "I win/You lose" ugliness. Which I'll get to shortly (or you can watch his 9 minute spiel on a TED stage and skip ahead; the porn's tapping its toes).

Cohen doesn't mention George Lakoff or Mark Johnson, who, very early in their landmark 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, show how "argument is war" is a basic assumption in our culture, built into the fabric of our metaphors we subconsciously think with, viz:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I've never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
-p.4, op. cit

Prof. Cohen also cites two other argument structures: argument as proof, which seems much closer to deduction and therefore more collaborative-in-agreeing-upon-principles or axioms. And then there's the argument as performance, which seems underrated to me, at least in the sense I imagine Cohen means and definitely in the senses that I imagine. But the argument as war (equality of the sexes, whether utilitarianism is the best ethical philosophy, whether we ought to let the poor starve, etc, etc, etc), is the most common and in Cohen's words, "deforms" our thinking because it accentuates tactics over logic, magnifies the differences between "me" and "you" and "us" and "them," and glorifies winning while encouraging the idea that the loser has been an abject, embarrassing failure in "defeat." (But the "loser" is the one who gets the "cognitive gains," remember?)

[But first: Let me get this out of the way: I've played the argument as war game far too many times. More than I can remember. Quite often I think I probably pretended to "know" more than I actually did, and so I was being a Cosmic Schmuck...which, by the Principle, makes me a little less of one by admitting it, just so you know I've fully internalized the meta-game rules of the Cosmic Schmuck Principle.]

What is it with all this pretentious chest-thumping in our culture? Do we secretly feel we're at sea, afraid we're clueless, so we become as much the Prosecuting Attorney as possible to force our fears back down, and keep up the Game that we're "right" on the Tough Questions? Prof. Peter Berger, one of the gods of late 20th/early 21st c. Sociology, wrote much on what he called the "epistemological elite," who were high-ranking intellectuals in institutions such as the church, psychoanalysis, Marxism, economics: these people were the masters of sectarian knowledge in their domains: "Any epistemological elite, religious or secular, must develop a system of cognitive defenses to defend its claims against outside criticisms but also, very importantly, to assuage the doubts harbored by insiders."
(see p.37 Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist)

The argument as war "winner" would seem to be heavily concentrated within the epistemological elite, although no doubt every street gang and sports team and gang of white collar business criminals has one of these guys too...

Maybe the worst aspect of argument as war is, according to Prof. Cohen (and I very much agree with him here), that it pretty much forecloses on deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration. (I'd add there seems to be something utterly antagonistic about the argument as war mode of thought and the ludic, fun-loving beings most of us want to "be.")

                                             Kenneth Burke, who changed the field of
                                             Rhetoric from an idea about literary and
                                             oratorical devices to basic human 
                                             communication, which seeks largely to

I think Robert Anton Wilson wanted much more of all of that (deliberation, negotiation, collaboration, compromise, playfulness) in his thinking that actuated the Cosmic Schmuck Principle. Why? Well, for one: the need to be "right" all the time seems linked with being repressive and Authoritarian. RAW used a term he attributed to Mike Hoy: "Correct Answer Machine": this is an assumption deeply embedded in out culture, so we take it in, seemingly, with mother's milk: that we must have The One True Answer to any question, as if there were a little machine in our brains that always knew the "correct" answer to everything. Wilson thought this was basically the same as an ideology, but an authoritarian one, almost always based on Aristotelian two-value logic, with no room for the Excluded Middle. Wilson called it "robot circuits in our brains." (see Email To The Universe, p.135) This seems cognate with the I Am Right You Are Wrong problem that Edward Debono wrote so engagingly about. Let's have more arguments using "water" logic and less having "rock" logic. Here! Here!

Wilson thought, somewhat Dao-istically that, from the most elemental forms of energy and life systems on up to inter-accomodative systems in nature and society: cybernetic feedback loops, unhindered by rigid and artificial stumbling blocks, were a key aspect of freedom and evolution. I simplify his views far too much here, but suffice: the need to consult a stupid-making Correct Answer Machine (installed when? by your daddy or the priest at age 13?) led to human misery. Open systems in nature, open minds in society: we go with the best we know, we make "gambles," but it's always contingent; we ought always be ready to take in new forms of information in order to hone our thought, and to never decide one day we needn't do this any longer, for we Have Arrived at The One True Way...

So: the need to be "right" is a big problem.

For another: "reality" does not seem to conform to the structure of our Indo-European sentences of SUBJECT +(linking verb) + PREDICATE all that well at all, at all. Not as well as we seem to assume. Especially those sentences with the troublesome linking verb forms of BEING (am, is, are, was, were, be), which tend to hypnotize us into going along with a static eternal Thing-ness to abstract nouns and ideas. Also: these linking verbs tend to make us forget the thousands of other "things" an idea could stand for. That's why he advocated for the use of E-Prime, or English without "is" forms in it, as a tool for improved communication and to root out bullshit in one's own thinking. (See any comments by Eric Wagner left on this blog for examples of E-Prime.)

I use E-Prime only some of the time, mostly because I "am" lazy, but I think some forms of "be" or "is" in sentences, while ontologically misleading according to D. David Bourland's standpoint, my language becomes stilted. I have not learned to use it in a consistently eloquent way. Finally: I am more impressed with ideas about how metaphor and rhetoric actually function in our nervous systems and culture, and the Big Names that have influenced me here are: Vico, Nietzsche, Cassirer, I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Erving Goffman, and George Lakoff. I see E-Prime as a valuable tool for exploration as of this date.

As a way of making my way toward some sort of detente and the ethical problems around subtly hypnotizing others into possibly false artificial ontologies ("Xs are Qs" or "P is Y, and at times W and V"), notice any sentence I use with the form of "be" in it and "be" just a little bit suspicious of my intentions, okay? If I write, "What the NSA is doing will be found in any history of totalitarianism; with the Obama administration's blessings, Obama's being a fascist now," E-Prime would put it as, "From the reports I have read about what the NSA has done, this reminds me of my understanding of what gets labeled 'totalitarianism' in books and other discourse, and Obama seems to have over-rode the Constitution, which reminds me of certain historical examples often called 'fascism.'" Say what you will about the stilted style, but don't I sound a lot less know-it-all-ish in the E-Prime version?

Take away: stay vigilant about the OG's use of "is" "am" "was" "be" "being" "were." (This seems another way for me to lessen my Cosmic Schmuckitude.)

Back to Prof. Cohen: I loved his idea of changing the argument as war assumption in our culture with changing how we perceive the role of arguer. What he idealizes goes something like this: with deliberation, negotiation, compromise and collaboration (and I'd add our ludic nature), we enter into an argument as an arguer, but also as an audience member to that argument. The goal would be to arrive at the endpoint of an argument and have the participants (including any audience members) saying, "That was a satisfying argument!" So: even if you "lose" you feel no shame. And the "winner" feels a sense of accomplishment in bringing about an invigorating aesthetic experience for all. (I might be reading into what Prof. Cohen wants here, so these observations can be considered as Cohen/OG ideas, but let's give Cohen the kudos; I don't wanna come off as some Cosmic Schmuck!)

Prof. Cohen's ideas about improving the quality of argumentation remind me of a similar sort of idea that I first ran across in the journal EtcA Review of General Semantics, when Edward MacNeal used the term "grokduel" on p.270 of vol.63, #3, July 2006. Apparently he coined the word in 1999, and here's a definition:

grokduel: a contest in which two or more parties vie to see who best understands the positions of the others.

MacNeal quite likely got the "grok" aspect of his coinage from Robert Heinlein's 1961 mindbending cult novel Stranger In A Strange Land. The idea plays out in my mind, somewhat ideally, as very much like what Prof. Cohen would want in new argumentative forms. There seems a sort of possibly ironic chest-thumping aspect to MacNeal's "grokduel," but I do think much mirth and learning could take place during such experimental arguments.

Back to Cosmic Schmuck: You know who's a quite a lot less of a Cosmic Schmuck these days? Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a very charming and handsome TV Doctor, who admitted recently - and quite publicly - that he'd been duped by anti-cannabis government propaganda. He - finally! - actually looked at lots of evidence for himself and concluded he'd been wrong, wrong, wrong. (I assume most readers of the OG wonder why anyone would believe what the government said in the first place!) And I barely know who Gupta is, but Unistatians love him, so his play within the game rules of the Cosmic Schmuck Principle (which no doubt he's never hoidda!), with regard to the subject (cannabis prohibition and the efficacy of marijuana for health reasons), makes his recent lessening of Schmuckiness quite a felicitous thing, aye?

So: get to grokdueling, my fellow schmucks! And lessen your schmuckiness a tad for the day! And then: on to porn! (829 gadzillion troglobytes of new porn went up while you read this...stuff you haven't yet seen! Have fun!)

                                     computer scientist Lofti Zadeh, who developed a 
                                     fuzzy logic that admitted a very large number of
                                    values between 0 and 1, but Zadeh took great pains to 
                                    distinguish his logic from probability theory.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Time of Useful Consciousness

The Irish/Anglican empirical philosopher and guerrilla ontologist Bishop George Berkeley (b.1685, same year as Bach/Handel/Scarlatti) said "Westward the course of empire takes its way...," and later, in far West California in the 19th century, a man named Frederick Billings, knowing Berkeley's line,  suggested "Berkeley" as the name for a college site, 1866, but perhaps this is all immaterial. (<---I hope at least one of you enjoyed what I did right there.)

Time of Useful Consciousness

In aeronautical lingo, the "time of useful consciousness" is the period between when your oxygen runs out and you go into unconsciousness. The hypoxia zone is in your cabin and you are in a life or death situation, high in the sky. You have a brief window of time in which to save yourself. Ferlinghetti, writing as well as he ever has at age 93 (!), thinks the world is at a similar point, and in less then 100 pages he's written a stream-of-American historical consciousness (and, it would seem to me: a skimming in the collective unconsciousness, the paideuma, if only by inhabitation of the territory over the course of a long poem), accelerando, the form somewhere between Eliot and cummings, and latter-day historically-minded American bards Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. (I consider Pound's similar project as far more expansive and taking the stream of consciousness of "humanity" as its subject OR: The Tale of the Tribe.) Let us consider Ferlinghetti's work here - and the book follows in wake of his earlier Americus vol I - to be telling fragmented shards of the Unistatian Tale?

But Ferlinghetti's work here is tight and a delight, if mostly Whitmanic, then waxing desperation, with a final-moment culminating in a Whitmanesque yea-saying, seemingly, if only because it's such a drag to dwell on the possibility of whimper-not-a-bang apocalypse, brought on by a collected willful ignorance.

Ferlinghetti, at the end of his poem, having moved structurally from East to West, and gotten darker with the skies and cars and Narcissistic Net, shouts:

Enough! Enough!
Enough of this "loud lament of the disconsolate chimera"
in some waste land of our impoverished imagination.

He then seems to plaintively ask for Whitman's presence: isn't there still hope? And as the poem draws to a close:

Walt Whitman, you should be living at this hour!
Optimist of humanity en masse

Why? His bardic love for Whitman...is Ferlinghetti saying, "I wonder if you could still 'Sing in the West' in a culture of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the North Pole as a lake?" Or maybe: "Your type of loving optimism is needed now more than ever; if you can't show up I'll take your place, but know this, Walt: this is some serious shit we're dealing with here, now."?

In nine sections, we inhabit the Mind of the "hinternation," then "sailing westward/from the crenellated old world/of over-age Camembert Europe --/millions wash up on virgin shores/bright with promise"

Rarely have I read poetic lines more exuberant about the good of immigrants, and Einstein, Kerouac, Chomsky, W.E.B. Dubois, Emma Goldman, Zinn, Sacco and Vanzetti, and even Jim Jarmusch make it in here, along with other Unistatian "types" from far-flung lands. Chomsky and Zinn:

With other immigrants causing caustic critiques
of the American Way of Life
like Noam Chomsky
with a father from the Ukraine
and a mother from Belarus
and Howard Zinn rewriting history and herstory
with a father from Austria-Hungary
and a mother from Siberia

Then the impact of the Iron-Horse railroads on Unistatian consciousness, then a brief section on Chicago, which I loved. I hadn't known anything about the Dil Pickle Club, but now I want to read an entire book about it:

And on Near North Side Chicago
in a shack of a barn in broken-down Tooker Alley
the Dil Pickle Club (with one "l")
the hobohemian nightspot
after its glorious beginnings
in 1916 or thereabouts
didn't close 'til the 1960s
a place where everybody and everything was anti
"the flaming crater of Chicago's revolution in the Arts"
frequented early-on by the likes of
Big Bill Haywood Eugene Debs Emma Goldman
and Mother Jones

Aye, and James T. Farrell, Harriet Monroe, Vachel Lindsay, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Studs Terkel, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, and Nelson Algren, who apparently had had some interesting fling with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris that I need to look into.

And Thorsten Veblen drank the bitter drink alright

Ferlinghetti actually took a trip down the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana, and, like the River and its own stream and Huck and Tom and Twain and their place in the consciousness of Unistat, it appears near the middle of the book:

But it ain't the river of Mark Twain's dream
the pre-coal river, the ancient dreamin' river
Ask the river pilots and they'll tell you
The river towns all dying
all the way down
(home-towns boarded-up
all over America
stamped out by shopping malls
on nearby Interstates

I guess Lawrence couldn't bring himself to include the noun Wal-Mart in his sounding.

Section 8 of the poem completely floored me. It's not only a companion to Allen Ginsberg's writings on Moloch, but it's strongly reminiscent of Ezra Pound's "Hell" Cantos. And now the poem has moved to the Unistatian southwest and especially Las Vegas and the gangster-cowboy mind. In this sense, the poem contributes in a sense to Peter Dale Scott's writings on Nixon, Watergate, and the Mafia. It also seems to speak in a bardic way to Carl Oglesby's The Yankee and Cowboy War. I feel compelled to quote from this chapter at length, but will resist, as I wouldn't be able to stop and I've probably already skirted the fringes of Fair Use. Read this chapter - the longest one in the book, pp.45-61 - if only for the conjuring powers of a 93 year old Bard! Uncanny...

Neurogeographically the poem ends in San Francisco, across the Bay from Berkeley. And Ferlinghetti's famous bookstore City Lights is there, but...after a celebration of the Mind of the City, the trope of loneliness sets in. Sadness, homelessness, alienation, the Mind of Unistat in the 21st century. And Ferlinghetti came of age during the 1939-45 War. And so, in the City most associated with "progress" in the digital revolution:

It was still high noon in America
until along came the digital revolution
fated to destroy or ingest
all the age-old cultures
of the world
in a World Wide Web
of globalization
in an Ayn Rand projection
of world domination

Well, yes of course you'd say that: you're 93, a poet, and owner of a bookstore that still thrives somehow. (I admit some resonant sympathy here, relatively young cuss that I seem.)

At 5 o'clock the rush to the freeway to burn home to loneliness just bums and worries Ferlinghetti. As does what I call our Earthquake Ritual, but he puts it like this:

The bedsprings quake
on the San Andreas Fault
The dark land broods
Look in my eye, look in my eye
the cyclops tv cries
It blinks and rolls its glassy eye
and shakes its vacuum head
over the shaken bodies
in the bed

Possibly I make this rapid shutter-speed trip through Unistatian historical consciousness as a bad trip, and if I did I misrepresent the book. It seems Truth-Telling to me, and so even the unpleasant becomes somehow transformed into Beauty. And then there is the sheer beauty of many, many lines by a wizened old Bard who never considered himself a "Beat" but a bohemian. He wants us to make it. So do I. So do you. Enough of the thick haze of impoverished imagination! Let us do a rear-guard action and...not be a part of it, and thereby forestall its extensions. You know what "it" is or seems? We still have time of useful consciousness, and maybe in 200 years this book will be a curious relic from the Dark Days, who knows?

How easy  it would be to dismiss the Bardic filtrations of the Unistatian mind in history, tuned in by Ferlinghetti, at 93, as the expressions of the old boho who feels his cherished hopes thwarted. It's far more serious than that. Look at the facts and then yourself in the mirror: is he just on a bummer? I think not. He's on to something Big, and that's precisely why we want to read this sort of poetry. Admittedly, in the artificial hierarchy of data-information-knowledge-wisdom, the last term is, as Robert Anton Wilson said, "private, not public, and somewhat more mysterious." But who doesn't crave some wisdom these days? I say Old Man Ferlinghetti shows it here in spades and you're a damned fool to ignore it.

If only for these meagre reasons, I urge The Reader to read this book. In a unique semantic sense, it's completely fantastic! (Especially the Unistatians: check this jit out.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Books: Passing Remarks On Select Titles, Fictional, Non-Fictional and Nonexistent

Not long ago I was nosing through Sally Wade's The George Carlin Letters. She was Carlin's love the last years of his life. Before they got together she was in Dalton's bookstore in Santa Monica and overheard his distinct voice: "I'll take Our Culture and What's Left of It, The Anatomy of Dirty Words, and Rationale of the Dirty Joke...if you can get 'em to me by Friday," he says to the clerk who's helping him, "I'll give ya a tip to buy yourself some weed." These titles may sound like they were made up in the mouth of Carlin, but as you can see by the links (which I do not profit monetarily by citing here; I'm merely a cheerleader for Book Kulchur), they're real. And I'm sort of surprised Carlin didn't own two of those already: Sagarin's Anatomy  and Legman's Rationale. They had long been in his wheelhouse. (Maybe he lost his old copies?) I looked up Our Culture and it's by Theo. Dalrymple, of whom I've only read a few articles. This one seems reactionary, no? But I don't know; haven't read it.

Sagarin was influenced by Benjamin Lee Whorf and was one of the intellectual founders of the modern gay rights movement. What a fascinating figure and unsung hero! He was a pioneer in using sociological analysis to show that laws that persecuted people for "obscene" language or other behaviors the dominator culture labeled as "deviant" were unjust laws; these "deviant" behaviors and utterances were legitimate expressions and should be protected and not prosecuted.

Legman was one of the great lone archivist-intellectuals. I own a copy of Rationale and it's a stunning, thick work of readable deep scholarship about a "taboo" subject. Note the line from folklorist Susan Davis about Legman's term "Hell Boxes": they're "a substrate of material that almost everybody knows is there, but can't talk about in polite circles." Legman was all about mining the Hell Boxes, which seem a level or two "above" what Frobenius and Pound called the paideuma

Robert Anton Wilson told me that the function of a good comedian was to touch on these subjects, because they discharged pent-up energy about the subjects into laughter.

Legman's archival bend reminds me of Ed Sanders, who supposedly has just an unbelievably large archive (500 banker's boxes? Wow) somewhere in upstate NY near Woodstock. In one of his books he mentions he was writing or had written (I lost my notes!) a history of surveillance by Authority of artists, poets, and other Thought Criminals. I have never seen it, and don't know of a library that owns it (a library I could borrow from). Here's a link to something called Sanders' Report: Surveillance Stories of the 60s and 70s, but I'm not convinced this - whatever it is - is the epic "surv" (as Sanders writes it) book from him. I hope something really huge comes from him, culled from his massive archive. As Charlie Parker blew, "Now's The Time."

This reminds me of a review of a book I haven't read: British Writers and MI5 Surveillance: 1930-1960, by Smith. The idea that intellectuals and poets were/are a threat to the existing order: artists seem to devoutly wish it were true, the evidence seems sketchy, and the spies and cops that persecute the artists, as Orwell points out as quoted in the review, don't know what the ideas "are" that has them arresting/harassing/bugging the "red" artist. The leader of the Communist Party in Great Britain considers the intellectuals "less than nothing of their value to the party."

Speaking of which: has anyone written an actual book called Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism? O'Brien, et.al in Orwell's 1984 wrote it; now seems the time to write an actual version. I'd read it if it came out, probably right after The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (a book by Hawthorne Abendsen in Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle), or The Bawdy Humor of Noam Chomsky (a sarcastic in-group joke title by McCawley, Lakoff and other of Chomsky's ex-students, as found in Randy Allen Harris's excellent Linguistics Wars).

While I'm on this stuff: William F. Buckley wrote The Wit and Wisdom of Vlad the Impaler in Robert Anton Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy. RAW has to be in the Top 20 of authors who loved to make up titles of books; his books are stacked with fictional fiction and fictional non-fiction, usually in his own fiction. Wigner's Friend by Timothy Leary (a fictional non-fiction book - about the epistemological underpinnings of quantum mechanics - by a non-fictional person); Little People With Big Ideas by Markoff Chaney is a non-fiction book, presumably, by a fictional character who's related to the family that produced Lon Chaney, but Markoff is a midget  (or "Mgt"), or "little person." His fictional name is a pun on a mathematical concept that I think I "grok" but maybe not. The idea that a "simple random walk" is an example of a Markov Chain...and this is related to Brownian motion, chaos theory, and Monte Carlo? Maybe I don't grok it yet.

Anyway, Markoff Chaney also wrote a book called Reality Is What You Can Get Away With. (citation: see the omnibus edition of Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, p.538). This fictional character Chaney wrote a book about ontology, or how and what constitutes "reality" or Being-ness. Later, the writer that wrote Chaney's Being-ness into...some ontological status? himself wrote a book by that same title. There is no way to tell if both books "are" the same book, as one is a non-fiction book (maybe?) in a fictional work, while the other appears to be a "play" of some sort that includes a lot of non-fiction, but most librarians would consider it a "fictional" work...unless they classified it as "Screenplays - United States," which I'm not sure is a "real" Dewey or Library of Congress classification term or not...At any rate, "Robert Anton Wilson" appears to have written two books of the same title, and my educated guess is that the books are quite different. I hope I haven't lost you here, Dear Reader. The version with more ontological status seems HERE. Buy your own copy (more ontological status?) HERE. Do not confuse all this with something about Terry Gilliam!

A book that RAW seemed to have made up, but I found out was real, was Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality, written and/or edited by Glenn C. Ellenbogen. RAW thought the book was a terrific parody of academic Psychology. I have not read the book, but when I need that sort of laff (PDQ), I'll seek it out.

Pseudo-Explicational Omnibus is the title of my own nonexistent book about certain writings by Borges, Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Robert Anton Wilson, and Stanislaw Lem. To give you an idea of what the book is about, see Lem's book A Perfect Vacuum.

Here's a book: Universal Ecstatic Tautology, by Alejandro Favian. This appears to exist. I found it in a book on that fabulous weirdo-genius-scientist-Egyptologist-Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. The title would sound like a satire on Kircher, but it was written by one of his greatest admirers, and it's in five volumes, totaling 3000 pages, and like Kircher's books, it's about everything.

3000 pages is nothing, really. The other day a few of us were talking about documentaries we'd seen that knocked our socks off. I struggled to recall the name of the documentary, but when I mentioned it was about the Outsider Artist Henry Darger, someone came forth with In The Realms of the Unreal, directed by Jessica Yu. (HERE's a trailer.) Darger invented his own world and painted it. The expansion of the mythos of his world, The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused By the Child Slave Rebelllion, allegedly runs to 15,145 pages. I have not read it.

Medicine Chest Against All Heresies sounds like something Wilson made up (to me), but it was written by the orthodox early Christian, Epiphanius of Salamis. When I first saw the title it seemed like something parodical about fundamentalist materialists, Ayn Rand followers, or far-right-wing Christians. It appears Epiphanius was on the ep and ep.

The Etymologicon was a book Giambattista Vico imagined, and if he'd had the support of Readers, he may have written it. It was a book that would give all the deepest roots of every word in every language, so the reader could travel back to the Beginning of human language. I found out recently that Mark Forsyth had written a book by that title (2011), with the intriguing subtitle, "A Circular Stroll Through The Hidden Connections of the English Language." It's only English, but I think Forsyth has me with "hidden connections." I'll get to it soon, or at least take a "stroll" through it.

One of my favorite thinkers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, doesn't like business books much. Neither do I. NNT gives us advice on reading: "With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with academic books, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books, skip the text and footnotes." Bed of Procrustes, p.46. Also: "What we call 'business books' is an eliminative category invented by bookstores for writing that has no depth, no style, no empirical rigor, and no linguistic sophistication." (op.cit, 47)

I'd like to end yet another blog on books spew by returning to Prof. George Carlin, who thought a book called Doorway to Norway would be a good idea for a travel book to that country. (See Napalm and Silly Putty, p31)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bigfoot: Impressions On Charles Fort's 139th Birthday

Bigfoot (Sasquatch, Yeti), has been included in the set of beings called Cryptids, and some cryptids have turned out to be "real." I have no idea if Bigfoot (about 1/3 of all "sightings" in the Pacific Northwest, the rest scattered all over the globe, except for Antarctica), "is" real, but, like Jane Goodall, I hope they're real. Around 10 years ago she told NPR's Ira Flatow she was "sure" Bigfeet were real; recently she admits there's no evidence, but still has hopes. (Video, bad sound, but skip ahead to 7:20)

In the last 24 months, Dr. Melba S. Ketchum of Texas, a veterinarian turned animal geneticist, has asserted she saw Bigfoot, obtained DNA that shows Bigfeet are a separate species that arose when males of some previous hominids (unnamed) had sex with female homo sapiens around 15,000 years ago, somewhere in or near Europe, then crossed the Bering Sea land bridge before the last Ice Age thawed ("they're very fast"), and are a sensitive, inquisitive but very shy species. And they need legal protection from Man.

                                                    Dr. Melba Ketchum

HERE's how Live Science reported on it.

One thing that struck me in following up this story: there is no end of articles from two groups on Ketchum: 1.) the True Believers, but even moreso; 2.) the sarcastic group Robert Anton Wilson called "fundamentalist materialists," or "skeptics," who knew her data must have been contaminated, or she was some nut, an attention hound, delusional, naive, a fraud out to cash in. I thought the Live Science article was fair. But HERE seems the fairest article I've seen, in my present state of ignorance.

Ketchum took her evidence to a forensic scientists, and note why Timmer sees this as a problem, a big one. Forensic scientists are very good at finding what they want to find, and presenting it in court. Also, I learned about how DNA breaks down over time. But the idea that Ketchum's team was coming up with human DNA that looks like it had coupled with something far more remote genetically from the Neanderthals and the Denisovans - primates we homo sapiens probably did/could have mated with...gave me pause. And yet Timmer thinks Ketchum's sincere in her beliefs that Bigfeet are human.

On the other hand, Bigfootologist Dr. Brian Sykes will release his study of DNA evidence collected from European sources in the Fall. So...Six or Eight weeks from now, we may get a Big New Wrinkle in the Bigfoot Story. Or maybe a wart or a zit...

                                              Charles Fort, proto-phenomenologist,
                                               surrealist, data-collector

A Procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
-Charles Fort, at the beginning of Ch.1 of his The Book of the Damned. A book that you may find works magick on your nervous system, simply by taking up and reading randomly: The Complete Books of Charles Fort: over 1100 pages of data he'd culled from newspapers or High Weirdness, and an overweening sense that the Scientists were too too enamored of, and blind to, the metaphors they were systematically sifting through to eliminate what Can't Be from What Is.

For (Robert Anton) Wilsonologists, it's indispensible, especially if you want to mine his stances on epistemology, his poetic humanism, his style in The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, which seems fed heavily by Fort and Swift. (His epistemology was also, of course!, heavily influenced by quantum mechanics, Hume, Korzybski, Nietzsche, Husserlian phenomenology, the most current neuroscience in perception, and literary modernists. And Charles Fort! Etc.)

                                         Our Man in the Pacific Northwest

Vico's Bestioni
Noah's sons, according to Vico who died in 1744, neglected their dad's one true God after The Floodwaters receded. They then scattered and wandered "like brutes through the earth's great forest." Where did Ham go? Through Southern Asia, into Egypt and the rest of Africa. What about Japheth? Through Northern Asia, into Europe. Shem? Central Asia to the Near East. (Vico is writing in Naples, Italy.) It's nice that the brothers, while "brutes," could divide the known world up so strategically.

To be fair, once they went their separate ways, within this great Vast Forest, they were pushed further away from each other by "wild beasts which abounded." And in seeking pasture and water, they were further separated. Vico also tells us the brothers "pursued women who in that state were wild, timid and intractable." (These must have been women who survived The Flood and were just wandering around the Great Forest in packs. Those are the best kind, I've found. So I have something in common with Noah's brutish sons. I also dig the vast forests. What's left of 'em, anyway.)

Here's Vico, in the section of The New Science, on "Poetic Wisdom":

(It's after the Flood):

Since mothers abandoned their children, they grew up without hearing any human speech, or learning any human behavior, and sank to an utterly bestial and brutish state. In this case, mothers merely nursed their infants and let them wallow naked in their own feces, abandoning them forever once they were weaned. Wallowing in their feces (whose nitrous salts wonderfully enriched the soil), these children struggled to make their way through the great forest, now grown dense after the recent flood. And as their muscles expanded and contracted in this struggle, the children absorbed more and more nitrous salts. At the same time, these children lacked that fear of gods, fathers, and teachers which tempers the most exuberant phase of childhood. As a result, their flesh and bones must have grown inordinately large, and they became so vigorous and robust that they turned out to be giants.

...Vico then goes on to elaborate his theory of giants by citing Caesar, Tacitus, Procopius, Jean Chassagnon's treatise On Giants, archaeology (such as it was in Vico's 18th century), Greek and Latin myths...and he's sure most accounts are exaggerations! People tend to go on and on and let their poetic ingenium go wild. Let's be more sober-minded about giants. Clearly though, they interbred and covered the Earth. (I'm drawing from 369-371 from the Marsh translation.)

The Jews - Noah's clan - were taught cleanliness and fear of fathers and so they remained of normal stature.

Okay: so, for Vico, after the Flood, Noah's sons forgot all about the Jewishness, caroused about the Forests of the Earth, shitting everywhere, fucking any Wild Women they could find, and behaving like Freshmen from State on Summer Break, for a long, long time. They were, after all, hopped up and fortified by nitrous salts from all the shit in the soil, which, we all know, makes you huge like Andre the Giant. Or Lou Ferrigno. (Or Barry Bonds?)

The "poetic wisdom" here, as I glean it, not being descended from Jews myself, is this: I am descended from Bigfeet. It's a long story and Vico and tell you a lot more about it - or ask me about my ancestors, according to Vico! -  but right now I'm hungry for something nitrous, a timid and intractable woman, and maybe a Pop-Tart and some wrestling on the telly.

So: The Bigfoot Q: I don't know. Let's see what Prof. Sykes comes up with?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Drug Report: Matthew Gavin Frank's Pot Farm and Some Other Pot Books

So: if you're part of the "true" Stoned Literati, you've probably read Terry Southern's Red Dirt Marijuana, you're somewhat likely a Pynchonite and are pretty sure you read Vineland, but...that was back when some really good stuff came down from Mendocino or Humboldt; it seems like you read it. Zoyd? Oh yea! You've read scads of non-fiction books on pot, and the number of good ones has flowered over the last 12-15 years, with the Kulch (if not the Feds) becoming evermore accepting. I liked Martin Lee's  Smoke Signals and Julie Holland's The Pot Book is something I want on my shelf; I read it via public library and dug her research and style.

                                        Poet-novelist Professor Matthew Gavin Frank

Getting back to "fiction" (I'll explain the quotes in a bit), T. Coraghessan Boyle's Budding Prospects illustrated how hard it can be to cash in on America's biggest cash crop if you don't know what you're doing, have bad luck, and are kinda lame. That's some mordant stuff. Harsh, even. But the sentences flit like the tiny starry flame of a roach behind a barn in a Sonoma County pitch black night. Even better - to my poetic ears and eyes and oh hell entire nervous system - was Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. Although it takes place on the East Coast, the novel, like Robert Anton Wilson's books, will always function as a reliable contact high if I don't have any of the sticky icky lying around. (Charitable friends give some to me every now and then - possibly for the entertainment value of the buzzed talking OG? - 'cuz I can't afford to buy it.) The allusions, the pop culture guru's bizarre contrarian yet learned opinions on everything, and his seeing of conspiracies everywhere...would be enough. But the influence of Philip K. Dick, coupled with Saul Bellow (!) and Hitchock's Vertigo...I'm feeling buzzed just writing about it.

                             photographer unknown, but looks like a pot farm to me

Alright: Pot Farm, by an assistant professor of creative writing at Northern Michigan University, had at first glance an enticing title, cool cover art...but it was thin (223 pages) (this seems a bit light, man!) and it was on U. of Nebraska Press, so I had my doubts. I was skeptical this stuff would be any good. I had never heard of Matthew Gavin Frank. I tried it anyway.

This one's a "creeper" as we said back in high school: it's filed under "fiction" in my library, but this was one book that could easily be given a Dewey Number and filed under non-fiction, say with Julie Holland's and Martin Lee's books; there's enough of the sociological/ethnographical this-is-what-it's-culturally-like-working-on-a-pot-farm-in Northern-California-ishness to it. In my eyes, the mixed approach in the novel makes it guerilla-ontological; the structure alternates subtly between poetry and ethnographic "facts" and I felt mentally disjointed, and I'm freak enough to admit I do enjoy that buzz.

And yet: it's filled with astonishingly great poetic writing, and Frank - an itinerate writer, who's worked in vineyards in Italy and restaurants in Key West and who knows what in New Mexico, married a Swedish girl who quit being a nun, is a Chicago boy, widely traveled and no stranger to living in tents - enchants with his poetic prose to the point where, despite the well-researched facts about the legal status of cannabis in California, how a large crop is cured, how any number of local/state/federal cops can do violent harm to you with impunity (including local "militias," something I didn't know), that farms employ spotters/snipers housed high up in redwoods to protect their interests, how pot farm owners gave many of the victims of Katrina good jobs, how the economy in Northern California changes overnight when the harvest is in (there's a surreal, carnivalesque chapter 10 about being on the scene in a small town in the cannabis-steeped economy of Mendocino County, waking up to the sudden smell of the pot harvest and money and the...uhhhhh..."free spirits" that attend this scene, mostly in the streets, and I found it contact-high-ish), this feels like poetry.

Just the ethnographic factual-ness of what it's like living on a large pot farm in Mendocino County...but I can see why librarians are filing it in fiction. Yea...(Why am I using ellipses there? Why the frag sentences? The commas above and not semicolons? Why?)

It's autobiographical, although Professor Frank is steeped in his postmodernism enough he uses the device of a baldly stated "I am an unreliable narrator" (because I was stoned/want to tell a good story/human memory is all-too fallible/my notes are illegible so I'll just say this/I can't remember if I dreamed this or if it really happened to tell you the truth, etc) throughout. That aspect alone may have turned librarians toward the fiction section. But - I think - it's all true! Hell: it may as well be. It harmonizes with my intuition well enough. (What does that even mean?)

(If it's not "true" - and I've read a few interviews with Frank - he's a better fake than Carlos Castaneda, no doubt!)

                   Fiercely secretive sphinx-like recluse Thomas Pynchon, on The Simpsons

And it's about loved ones dying and death, how your childhood bedroom mixes in with your adult life somehow, and how listening to your co-workers for their poetic minds' utterances can make life worth living, and the awkwardness of being an itinerate writer, wondering what "home" means, what it means to be with the chronically ailing and downtrodden. And yet, most delightful: the characters and then Frank's virtuoso phanopoeia! His melodious prose, his evocation of memories surrounding family and upbringing, his luminous details: read this book!

A few years ago, I read Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire, and there's some terrific non-fiction writing about cannabis in it. In one passage he discusses the findings of Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered the structure of THC and that the body makes its own THC analogues, called the anandamides, and how both neurochemicals help us to forget, which is very important. (Or, this is what I remember Pollan writing about; I don't have the book on hand and I might be mixing it up with someone else?) We take forgetting for granted, but if we didn't have anandamides flowing through our exquisite little neurochemistry sets, we'd remember far too much trivial stuff! Who cares, what can it possibly matter, if the 97th car you passed on your way to work was a parked 1994 Toyota, red with a slight dent on the driver's side? There are millions of things we encounter every day, just puttering around the house, that are more than worth forgetting. Think about it.

Then forget it.

Of course, smoking pot tinkers with this set a bit, but many of us know it's worth it. I mean, if it wasn't for cannabis alleviating pain and making suffering more tolerable, while making food, music, colorful speech, jokes and sex even better than those things already "are" (and don't get me wrong: those things are "good" enough as they "are"), then the drug would be utterly worthless.

With that in mind, Pot Farm is worth reading if only for the gorgeous poetic prose, and the little instances of almost Pynchonesque whackiness, like the origins of Fred Flintstone's joyous "Yabba Dabba Do!" as the horn sounds for him to get off work. Trickster etymology, stoned, involving a Thai meth-like drug, the phenomenology of working a rough job, a Hanna-Barbera conspiracy theory, etc. (see pp.53-54)

Where was I? Oh yea: Mechoulam's findings and I was reading Pollan. I...oh yea!: followed up Pollan with a reading of Paul Krassner's One Hand Jerking: Reports From An Investigative Satirist. I know I did this because I made notes of it. Anyway, in a piece seemingly flung far from Pollan, about how politicians have evaded tough questions by saying they "forgot," Krassner cited from a passage in the neuroscience journal Neuron, about findings in memory and the hippocampus. Then, he quoted his old friend Wes "Scoop" Nisker's The Big Bang, The Buddha, and the Baby Boom - a book I'd happened to have read a year or so before:

"Recent research in molecular biology has given us a clue to the connection between THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and the actual experience of getting high. It turns out that our own body produces its own version of THC and that the human brain and nervous system have a whole network of receptors for this cannabinoid-like substance. That means you've got a stash inside you right now, and nobody can even bust you for it. Our body's natural THC was discovered by Israeli neuro-scientists, who named it anandamide, from the Sanskrit word for 'inner bliss.' The scientists believe that our system produces this THC equivalent to aid in pain relief, for mild sedation, and also to help us forget, because if we remembered everything that registers in our senses from moment-to-moment, we would be flooded with memory and could not function. So anandamide helps us edit the input of the world by blocking or weakening our synaptic pathways, our memory lanes." (p.148 of Krassner's book. I don't recall the pagination from Nisker's book, largely because of anandamide or its analogues found in flowering plants. It does seem like Jorge Luis Borges foresaw or posited what a faulty anandamide system would look like when he wrote his immortal and literally unforgettable "Funes the Memorious.")

Sorry for the above being somewhat repetitious, but it's good for the memory. What goes around comes around?

I end with an apt passage from Pot Farm:

They both pronounce the word 'equivalent' as if they had invented it moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they're probably high. Of course, I am too. Who remembers? When a brain cell falls into the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?