joculum: (cupid in the tropics)
Fans of Ronald Hutton Should Be Patient. This Will Eventually Turn into a Review Essay About His New Book Pagan Britain

It is extremely unlikely that anyone encountering this on their LiveJournal feed will feel like stopping everything and reading eighteen hundred words about methodology and degrees of certainty in topics beginning with meteorology and cosmology and ending up with visionary folk art, while spending a great deal of time en route dealing with Ronald Hutton’s book on prehistoric religions and their possible survivals in Britain. I recommend clicking on the LJ-cut mark and then downloading or copying the whole thing for later perusal, if you find it of the slightest interest.

John Crowley might be particularly interested in a quotation from Hutton that I have situated at the very end of this much too far ranging essay. —Jerry Cullum

”more” )
joculum: (cupid in the tropics)
hyperobjects and hyperobjectives: notes towards an exhibition I do not actually plan to curate, but wish I did

I have the dubious distinction of being an increasingly elderly white male who still owns a considerably battered copy of the Marshall McLuhan issue of Aspen, “the magazine that comes in a box” that was the forerunner of numerous deconstructed pieces of print media (mostly artists’ books, though a 1968 issue of a college literary magazine I edited and an entire 1986 “bagazine” architecture issue of Art Papers took their cues from Aspen’s example). I assume Aspen took its inspiration from Fluxus’s intermingling of the highly aesthetic concept and the commonplace object, since Fluxus itself was the topic of one of the later issues. (All the contents of the seven years of the magazine can be viewed via ubuweb, but of course the point was to handle this incredible variety of objects and textures, and that sensory experience can’t be communicated online—yet.)

I bought said volume with considerable excitement because it was clearly attempting to extent McLuhan’s insights regarding the impact of media by defeating our expectations of what a magazine ought to be while forcing us to think, via what a subsequent generation would call the deconstructed print medium, about the new electronic media. In so doing, it questioned the limits and the legitimacy of both.

Or so we thought, anyway, even if we didn’t quite understand what McLuhan was telling us about the dialectic in question.

The reason we didn’t quite understand was that a great deal of what McLuhan was saying was nonsense. And this is a problem I have encountered again and again over my lifetime: the writers who perceive the full dimensions of a previously unconsidered question almost always articulate their perceptions unintelligibly, with explications of the topic that are frequently just plain wrong when they can be deciphered at all. But the fundamental perceptions behind the wrongly conceived articulations are completely valid.

This generalized insight could be pursued in so many different directions that for once I do not wish to attempt to analyze all of them in a single blog post. However, I do want to present references to two or three ideas that I may never get around to pursuing beyond these preliminary notes. (My blog seems to be turning into a series of prefaces to projects that are never begun, something that in itself has a distinguished history, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project being a classic example of the larger category of books for which there exist an immense amount of preparatory materials but no actual product beyond a few preliminary fragments.)

Anyone who wishes to pursue this topic on the other side of an LJ-cut is welcome to click here )
joculum: (cupid in the tropics)
“our hearts are restless...and we don’t know why,” part two

I am afraid that, based on my earlier musings on why we should ever have become lovers of impossible wonders, I am going to inflict some reflections of the imaginal and the imaginary on my readers without benefit of citations of most of the theoretical volumes that have probably influenced my ideas.

Lonnie Holley’s performance “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants” is an excellent test case, because a good many people will react to it with dismissive irritation simply because for them, the whole premise of six space shuttles and 144,000 elephants celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s birthday is arrant nonsense. Those of us who delight in it may find pleasure in its incongruity plus its intuitive formalism: after all, space shuttles and elephants are logical opposites when it comes to soaring versus being difficult to get off the ground, but both possess the quality of being large and attention-getting, hence obscurely appropriate for a celebration of royal power (think ancient Roman processions and contemporary Air Force flyovers). The off-the-wall numerology borrowed from the Book of Revelation signifying the population of redeemed souls further reinforces the notion that something very important and dignified is being symbolized by a juxtaposition that, nevertheless, is incongruous enough to be hugely amusing. Whether this leads to serious reflections on what constitutes incongruity and why we find it funny—that depends on who we are.

The amusement or disgust at violations of the rules of “things that go together” and “how things ought to be done” is functional enough in terms of maintaining social order, but it does raise the question of why “we find him, as far back as we can trace, making this thing other” (misquotation of David Jones somewhere in The Anathemata, I think, and in Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body). We can understand why our remotest ancestors buried objects with their dead (whether they did it because they expected the dead to use them in the afterlife or because objects once used by the newly dead made them feel nervous). The motive for metaphor is a little more obscure; the part for the whole, or the abstract image that apparently conveyed as much meaning as the exquisitely rendered animal or cartoon shaman(?) in the cave painting.

It’s curious that Aby Warburg should have intuited the relevance of the question when he used his researches among the Hopi to ponder the implications of Renaissance iconography and image-making in general—a career choice that horrified both his relatives who still practiced Judaism and his assimilationist family who had found a language-centered Protestantism an easy enough leap from a militantly aniconic Jewish tradition. (I started out with the Warburg Institute folks when I was twenty-two, but this latest meditation is based on Michael P. Steinberg’s “Aby Warburg and the Secularization of the Image” in the 2013 survey volume Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy, eds. Peter E. Gordon and John P. McCormick.)

I can see how the capacity to pursue multiple lines of thought that turn out to be useless dead ends would actually be evolutionarily useful—the solution that no one had yet thought of comes out of all that maundering and idea-mongering, more so than from simple trial and error. But how we as a species got so fundamentally wedded to dysfunctional pursuits, behaviors that make individuals and sometimes whole societies less likely to survive—well, that was a question being discussed in anthropology half a century ago, as belief in the dogmas of functionalism waned. The notion that a dwindling number of economists and far too many evolutionary psychologists still operate as though functionalism were the default position is nothing short of dismaying. There is a large enough number of human beings who actually do operate according to what seems to them the most immediately advantageous course of action, and who have no use for any aspects of their own culture that doesn’t offer immediate sensory rather than intellectual gratification, to make us wonder why the more functionless imaginative options have survived, plus why the excessive social rules that such folks treat with cynical disdain ever became so excessively codified in the first place. As in the once-contemporary idiom that comes to mind at the notion of six space shuttles and 144,000 elephants celebrating the Queen’s birthday: “that’s just wrong.”
joculum: (cupid in the tropics)
“Inquietum est cor nostrum...nescimusque cur,” Augustine did not write.

Why are we lovers of wonders?

Lovers of unheard-of luxuries, yes. The imaginations of the powerful in all ages have led to the creation of objects that fulfill the most extravagant fantasies, all of which fantasies are no more than refined versions of the Land of Cockaigne where food and drink and comfort arrive effortlessly (the Big Rock Candy Mountain being a more recent American version of this). The sufficiently well-to-do in more imaginative times have created earthly paradises far beyond ordinary wish-fulfillment and paid scholars to make them immortal within their alternative worlds. (Today, luxury objects and luxury environments are merely fancier versions of the common folk’s geegaws and getaway pleasures, and the quest for immortality involves flatfooted genetic manipulation, but all that is another story.)

We need not agree with Augustine or C. S. Lewis about the God-shaped blank or the notion that there must be a fulfillment for the wish for an absent Paradise just as there is a fulfillment for the wish for sex or for food. (Strange that a man who composed about allegorical fantasies and wrote them himself did not think as he composed the argument-from-Sehnsucht, that his argument was identical to “we have a desire to see unicorns, and....” But for him, Aslan and Narnia were symbolic parallels to the shape of the real world that was there but that could not be seen or spoken of openly.)

Evolutionary psychologists seem curiously oblivious to this dysfunctionality of the human condition. (Harrell’s new book Phantasmal Media confronts, happily, the computational model of consciousness with the imaginal model—although his focus is the potential for social manipulation and social liberation through such images. But the larger point is that the human mind is doing more than operating probability-calculating wetware.)

For survival, we must visualize more or less adequately as well as compute probabilities, but even so, it seems highly unlikely that ancestors inclined to sit down and fantasize about all the wonderful things that could or ought to be on the other side of that grove of trees, rather than finding out one way or another and/or figuring out how to make the desired result happen, would have passed along their genes in sufficient quantity to make fantasy and the lust for wonders into such a major human capacity.

We may be a storytelling species, but why aren’t our stories more consistently humdrum? There certainly are enough people for whom the humdrum is sufficient to make us curious as to why it isn’t a universal trait.

Is it just that once the capacity for imaginative solutions has been inherited as a genetic trait, there is no stopping it at functional limits? Imagining the impossible, and enjoying imagining the impossible, would have their own desirable outcomes.

But why should we enjoy imagining the completely impossible in the first place? As distinct from imagining the not-yet-possible, or the world that might very well exist out there beyond our immediate perception...but here we are getting into the problem of whether all fantastic stories begin as tales of belief, or alternately, as conscious lies. Our capacity to state the counterfactual even as we know that it is counterfactual obviously comes into play in the initial creation of fantasies...adults’ fantasies and children’s fantasies both. But why the capacity for the counterfactual hypothesis should stretch from childhood to adult tale-telling...this takes us into realms of psychology that presumably have been researched to the point of boredom, but who has written the definitive study of how narrative is birthed from childhood’s early imagination? The famous studies of children from sixty years ago were grounded in local cultures and social classes so much as to make their conclusions hopelessly suspect, though we have a good many collections of stories from around the world that offer evidence with which to supplement them.

Obviously there is something evolutionarily desirable in the extension of the childhood fluidity between the real and the unreal...but if the ability to fantasize leads to ritual and social order, it also leads in more or less equal measure to pointless pathology and to productive (even when functionless...) art. I presume that this dual outcome is a structural constant of the capacity to imagine and the influence exerted upon it by early childhood experience. (This allows guardians of social order to equate functionless art with personal pathology, as we know very well from the past hundred years or so of history.)

I am plodding painfully through what is very familiar territory for various academic disciplines, because I now have trouble making the academic disciplines line up satisfactorily. Every one of them picks up at a different point in the human story, and I cannot quite discover how some imaginative faculties can remain dormant for so long until refined by circumstance (this is nothing mystical...I mean such things as the ability to see, to understand preverbally, what is going on in a painting, for example, something of which I was incapable even after years of graduate study in verbal disciplines...something of which some would accuse me of still being incapable, but my life as an art critic depended on having developed a certain amount of capability in this department).
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
Fresh from a triumphal tour of music venues all over Europe (smaller venues, but extremely enthusiastic audiences), the African-American self-taught artist Lonnie Holley is the subject of an extended profile in the New York Times Magazine:

Holley has been a legend in the folk or vernacular or outsider art world (whatever you prefer to call it) at least since his spectacular site-specific installation in the "Souls Grown Deep" exhibition presented in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Now his recordings from Dust-to-Digital (which is an enterprise that deserves a post in and of itself) have been named by more than one music critic as among the best releases of recent years.

Having written about Holley for many years, I am gratified at this breakthrough in terms of international attention of his unique oeuvre.
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
As I mentioned, I'm looking forward to tackling D. Fox Harrell's Phantasmal Media for its perspectives on how things can or cannot be changed for the better, and by whom and under what circumstances. (The relationship to such movements as Afrofuturism is a side topic of the larger issue, which I state as baldly and stupidly as possible.) Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming approaches the same problem from the direction of design rather than digital media, and with less awareness of the perspectives of specific ethnic communities; but part of the point is that those perspectives are altering with increasing speed in advanced digital society, anyway. Part of the problem is that those perspectives are being reinforced in other quarters by the dislocations created by advanced digital society, as it is presently constituted. (Joe Nocera's summation, in his January 7 New York Times column, of Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? cites Lanier's point-blank observation that corporations have engaged in technological activities that result in the impoverishment of their own customer base—never mind whether the bottom-rung employees still left are being paid fairly for their services, which is a separate issue from whether there will be enough bottom-rung jobs to keep the potential employment pool from scrambling in desperation to have them. Whether Lanier's core idea makes sense—that of renewing the middle class by paying people for clicks on such things as essays like this one—is a side issue, however important. And discussing how corporations maintain their own sustainability in the face of dwindling demand by investing capital in financial transactions and decreasing employment is most decidedly a side issue en route to where I am going.)

Dunne & Raby may be hopeless utopians in their insistence that keeping imaginative alternatives in play is itself an activity that makes possible a different future. That leads back into some of the questions Harrell is dealing with in Phantasmal Media, and a good many other questions.

What brought me up short, early in the book, was their offhand discussion of defining possibility by showing how little is genuinely impossible, rather than merely improbable. Citing a book (and previous TV series) by Michio Kaku, they state that scientifically, there are only two genuine impossibilities: perpetual motion and precognition. Either one would require a complete reformulation of our present knowledge, whereas some of the most impossible-seeming of other eventualities would not.

Dunne & Raby may well have misconstrued what was meant as an observation meant to grab the attention of a mass audience, but the claim sheds a different light on any number of topics I have written about previously, from the chequered legacy of Ernst Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung to Jeffrey Kripal's attempts to revalorize the only presumptively impossible.
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
I belong to a generation that cannot read or hear “Dinka and Nuer” without thinking “Evans-Pritchard,” probably because the only core-course lectures on anthropology we heard had to do with Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard (lectures that led some of us to be delighted when we encountered the line from the Fugs’ song “Nothing,” “social anthropology, a heckuva lot of nothing”).

Having long since left behind Evans-Pritchard and his ilk (though his student Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols was one of those books we swore by rather than at in my youth), I was shocked to learn from the Wikipedia entry that Evans-Pritchard’s youthful fieldwork among the Nuer and the Dinka had begun as recently as 1930. The difference is less than two decades, but I had vaguely placed him with the generation of Malinowski, legendarily stranded in New Guinea as an obviously harmless enemy alien, unable to return to England but allowed by the Australian colonial authorities to potter about with the Trobriand natives. (Incidentally, how many great moments of modernity depended on would-be humdrum intellectual careers being blocked by war and shunted off in different, more consequential directions? I can think of several, but that would be a monumental digression.)

Instead, Evans-Pritchard belongs to that generation of the colonial ’30s that then had intriguing adventures with folks whose descendants also show up in more recent history (he was an administrator in British-occupied Cyrenaica, where he wrote about the Sanusi resistance to Italian colonization, and before that, he had been facilitating guerrilla activity with the Anuak people of South Sudan against the Italian occupation forces in Ethiopia).

“They do say that all things are connected,” goes the line in a traditional teaching story, and although many of the connections are ridiculously inconsequential, some are not.

I cringe at the thought that the Guinea worm eradication program is being put in jeopardy by the mass migration of refugees in Mali and South Sudan, just at the point when eradication seems possible. A few freshly contaminated bodies of water in the adjoining countries, and the disease is off and (almost literally) running again.
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
For the record, I remembered several pertinent details of the NPR story wrongly. (Q.V.) This is how variant versions of tales make their way around the globe with alarming speed, and have to be batted down on Wikipedia with great regularity. (It may say something about my search interests that almost every Wikipedia entry I pull up begins with "This article has issues."
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
NPR featured a three-years-running mystery of the Internet that, remarkably, I had never heard anything about. Apparently in 2012 and 2013 an unknown organization posted on January 3 or 4 a number of puzzles to solve, with the understanding that anyone who decrypted the first message would be led to sites with still more stuff to decipher. Those who made it to the final destination were the sort of people these mysterious folks were looking for.

Two years running, perhaps a dozen people have made it to the website in question, which both years has been shut down as soon as these few first arrivals have made their presence known. So far in 2014, the various puzzles put up have all been hoaxes.

None of the people who made it to the end of the rainbow (as it were) have been contacted by the organization. They didn’t say they were recruiting candidates, now did they? if the paraphrase on NPR was correct. If in fact the whole story wasn't a fiction, or a legend of the internet era, like the rumor forty-five years ago that listeners who could decipher the puzzles on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album would be taken to the Beatles' secret island.

I suppose these days people think of the internet mystery as a parody of a Dan Brown novel, but of course some of us are more reminded of George Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men, or all those pre-Dan Brown fictions in which the trail leads to something as stunning and extraordinary as Gurdjieff’s (also imaginary) World Brotherhood and Sarmoung.

I suppose that in spite of a fondness in adolescence for the (then almost impossible to acquire) fictions of H. P. Lovecraft, I was shaped by the lessons of Blow-Up and The Magus to suppose that the trail might lead nowhere...that at a certain point the tracks had been covered, and the multiple possibilities thereafter so overlaid with false clues leading nowhere and real ones that led to preplanned dead ends, that connecting all the dots would result in nothing but an attractive but meaningless network of connected dots.

I do wonder if the point wasn’t to make the seeker become an expert in connecting just those particular dots, resulting in information and technical skills that would be useful in other endeavors. The folderol, mountebankery and mystification would then have been part of a teaching exercise, akin to the traditional story of the ne’er-do-well sons whose father told them his treasure was buried in a large field. The sons dug up every corner of it after the father’s death, and having found nothing decided that since the ground was all plowed up, they might as well plant something and make a little money for their wasted effort. The next year they did the same thing on the assumption that maybe they just hadn’t dug deep enough the year before, and after the second year of farming they decided they were doing well enough at it that they might as well keep planting crops. This would-be edifying tale neglects the likelihood that the sons would be incapable of bringing a crop successfully to harvest, but there is a story that addresses that difficulty, too.

There is more than one Great Game, and probably more ludibria than we have ever suspected.
joculum: (Default)
I am not completely satisfied with my first-draft versions of these and am keeping them, for the moment, on until I am satisfied with the flow of the argument. I may have posted part one to dreamwidth prematurely, for that matter.

The goal is to have the logical connections between these posts a bit more self-evident than has been the case on the LiveJournal postings, in hopes that a more fruitful dialogue will eventually emerge. This may be an impossible undertaking, given the number of topics that should properly by discussed en route.
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
What I can't tell is just how dense these reflections seem to someone who hasn't read the academic literature; I suspect they sound simple-minded to academic specialists because I don't stop to footnote the specific views I am critiquing or supporting, and I recast them in less jargon-filled language, or use a different jargon in an effort to reformulate the terms of the debate. Last night I was reading a series of scholarly papers in an academic journal that reconfirmed my supposition that I am not just blowing hot air or expressing my own peculiar opinions; although nobody else is putting together the pieces in quite the way that I am, I have gotten the various pieces from intellectually respectable sources—even if I have sometimes fallen for inadequate confirming data, a flaw I am trying to remedy. What I worry about is whether I am being at all intelligible in my attempts to refine and explicate these sources.
joculum: (magi from Ravenna mosaic)
We need more comprehensive and better-structured cross-disciplinary models of the imagination, and as far as I can tell we don’t have them. Kripal has to waste a huge amount of time just arguing that there is a dialectic between marginal or “paranormal” experiences (let’s bracket for now, as an unproductive argument, just what is para- about the paranormal) and socially constructed interpretations of experience. This particular brand of social constructionism doesn’t debunk the marginal forms of experience, it simply ignores them and generally proceeds as though human beings never do anything more than respond to social cues or environmental pressures.

But anyone who browses the internet can affirm that even though millions if not billions of people spend their free time rehashing the details of the final episode of Breaking Bad, or the fourth season of Downton Abbey, or what Kim Kardashian did last week or last year, in much the way that their ancestors rehearsed the verses of the latest murder ballad or adapted anew the stanzas of the epic the griot recited, and even though more billions never get beyond arguing about the local sports statistics, those same billions put more emotional weight on certain aspects of those things than on other aspects of them, without ever thinking about it. Symbols emerge even from the stupidest situations.

And many, many other people spend their time remixing and mashing up the elements of popularly given imagery and narratives—some of them engage in cross-disciplinary discourse without realizing it, because they aren’t academicians. Others create spontaneous fictions that form striking parallels to books they have never read, because the great strategies of literature and art are transmitted in their structural essences. They are transmitted in their structural essences, via the forms generated in society, because they resonate with inbuilt (I don’t mean “built” literally) psychological proclivities that are not the same in each individual, but that repeat often enough in a variety of combinations.

Many, probably most, of the personality types represented on the internet obsess disproportionately over one or another of these structural essences, because their personal circumstances have made those particular essences particularly attractive. They also often don’t do a very good job articulating their obsessions, because they aren’t all that creative—“creative,” like “imagination,” is a cuss word or a god term for contemporary academicians that can be analyzed much more accurately than it usually is.

Some “creative” folks recombine the elements of the word and the world much more unexpectedly and unusually than others do—whereas some “uncreative” folks replicate the expectations of the society almost perfectly, although some of those still produce better replications than others; and many of the more imaginative others, far from being creative geniuses, do a modestly competent or an embarrassingly flawed job of expressing their own idiosyncratic reinterpretations or subversions of socially given expectations as to how things are supposed to be put together. We don’t have to put an absolute value on degrees of complexity to assert that some creative outcomes are more complex and unexpected than others; whether we find that unexpected complexity “intriguing” and/or “pleasing” depends on our own internalized criteria for interest or pleasure.

And somehow many, many people—no, actually, all people—are in some measure incapable of distinguishing between the structure of physical reality and the imaginative forms they themselves have generated. The most rationally inclined are capable of distinguishing and deploying the forms that are the most descriptive and emotionally filtered (not emotionally neutral), and we call these forms the sciences and the other academic disciplines.

We all live, to some degree, in a shared hallucination, because we never see reality unfiltered by social forces and by our own psychological/neurological factors. We advance in rationality by recognizing and analyzing the hallucinatory elements and realizing that there are other hallucinatory elements we haven’t yet brought to conscious awareness.

We need, and are getting, better analyses of hallucination in its more ordinary meaning of immediately perceived sounds and sights that are generated completely from within the brain, rather than from the interplay between the brain and the body’s sensory evidence of the physical world, which is always misinterpreted to some degree or other. But we also need better analyses of how interpretations can shift abruptly according to circumstances—all of us see what we think is “the real meaning of events” when viewed in retrospect. Most of us reinvent the past to improve our self-image.

But not all of us (or am I wrong in this?) undergo reinterpretations of the magnitude of the ones recounted by the flood of letter writers who told one visionary (the incident is described in Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics) that they themselves remembered having been imprisoned in subterranean chambers after they read about the visionary’s traumatic experience of same. The fiction writer who discovered and championed this particular visionary pointed out that during the time the man claimed to have been imprisoned beneath the ground by aliens, he was in fact detained in a mental institution. (This is one of those real-life parallels to a mytheme that leads, in one direction, to novels like Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell.)

The aforementioned visionary fits into a commonplace model, but we know less about the apparently just as commonplace model of the letter writers. Would they, granted more complex faculties of imagination and personal circumstances, have turned out like Howard Finster or Sun Ra, creating art out of a mixture of marginal experience and total fantasy? What do we know about the shared structures of such reinterpretations?

Whitley Strieber brought forth a similar flood of letter writers’ recollections of alien encounters that were, if not just like the ones he described, then close enough. None of Strieber’s correspondents, as far as I know, spontaneously recounted suddenly recalled experiences that were parallel to Finster’s or Sun Ra’s—neither of whom, as far as I know, ever reported sightings of gray-colored insectoids. The well-known power of suggestion is even more powerful than most of us think, apparently; but what is equally interesting is the range of creative experiences in which the memories are structured in individual directions based on no more than a few vague cultural hints. In their more pathological forms, the remarkable delusions that stem from such combinations of complex experience and inherited cultural information go off in all sorts of directions, but the directions are not infinite.

We have clinical descriptions of these delusional states in terms of their specific mental miswiring; but of course the miswirings are only extreme versions of the wirings (and I don’t mean “wirings” any more literally than I meant “built,” above) that we already have as a species. We have symbol-using and storytelling capacities that go astray because they are errant and erring to begin with. This is a boringly familiar commonplace, but one that ought to stir more conversations across academic disciplines than actually take place.

Too many of the attempts at such conversations do no more than correlate mutual misinformation, and other attempts simply confirm mutual incomprehension. There need to be more situations in which one specialist paraphrases what another specialist is assumed to be talking about, and then presents an alternative view; on occasions when this has actually happened, the specialists being paraphrased have protested that that isn’t what their work is about at all, then proceeded to provide a cartoonish summary of their opponents’ views that itself reflected a hitherto unsuspected mistake. After that, productive discussion sometimes followed.
joculum: (mughal virgin and child)
[This is probably an absurd post, even more provisional in its judgments and ideas than most of my generally too-hasty postings. But I increasingly feel that I have to get my glimmers of understanding out there before I lose sight of some particularly fugitive insights or pseudo-insights.]

In the first days of recovery from total hip replacement surgery, I began but quickly abandoned a series of heavy-handed allegorical photographs, starting with the bright yellow “Fall Risk” wristband I found attached to my arm in the hospital and continuing to the initially accidental juxtaposition in my bedside table at the physical rehabilitation center, where my copy of The Outer Limits of Reason reposed in a drawer next to a package of Premium Adult Wipes.

The symbolism seemed appropriate for what I had been finding wrong with Noson S. Yanofsky’s book (subtitled What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us). Yanofsky’s summaries of the physical and computational limits of the universe that ensure that some questions are necessarily unanswerable were frequently frustrating when they should have been enlightening; however correct his understanding of the computational powers of reason and its instruments, again and again I would read his confident summation of some philosophical point and exclaim, “No! That isn’t what that means at all!”

Even when he acknowledges the existence of physical limits to rational analysis, Yanofsky seems almost oblivious to the extent to which reason is housed in a not very reliable physical system, surrounded by a distinctly unreliable matrix of cultural assumptions that it is reason’s role to unsettle whenever possible. Finding myself confined to bed in a situation in which all the bodily functions had been put under question, including the mental clarity with which I had been analyzing Yanofsky’s book pre-operation, made me wonder still more about the unexamined conditions in which science, mathematics, and logic can tell us anything. (I still haven’t tackled the whole thing, but I know what I think Yanofsky gets wrong when he talks about topics about which I know a modest amount. I need to give his book a fairer evaluation, one that discusses its virtues, which are many.)

Science, of course, had a great deal to do with the specific structures of the post-surgery situation into which I had been put—although the sheer range of personal responses and expectations of the multinational staff of the rehab center made me think that cultural anthropology was one of the sciences that was as important for my satisfactory navigation of the recovery process as any measurement of my vital signs or progress in physical therapy.

Specialists in the “hard” sciences, of course, think that for a cultural relativist to take such considerations into account must mean that the cultural relativist doesn’t believe in objective truth whatsoever, and a physicist, if I recall correctly, successfully published a memorable satirical paper in a philosophical journal to prove his point that social constructionists would believe any kind of nonsensical assertion about the social origins of scientific discovery. (The editors said that the paper’s thesis had struck them as open to serious disputation, but that it was logically argued from its initial dubious premises and it wasn’t their business to suppress debate on perspectives even if they found them questionable.)

In reality, of course, cultures are bounded by, if nothing else, the hard facts of the environment, which punishes sufficiently serious cultural miscalculations by the extinction of the holders of the beliefs—although enough of them survive under ordinary circumstances to ensure that the most dysfunctional of opinions endure, generation after generation. Everyday logic and culturally inflected assumptions operate on a “just good enough” principle akin to the “ecorithms” proposed as a mechanism of evolution in
Probably Approximately Correct, another one of those recent books I would be able to summarize more adequately and accurately had I not been in no shape to study its argument when I acquired it. (I believe, based on a first very fragmentary encounter, that the book’s hypothesis is primarily addressing the pre-linguistic internal algorithms of systems in nature and has nothing to do with language-based human cultures, but the notion provides a useful metaphor applicable to the larger question of culture.)

Edward Frenkel—who I now realize reviewed Probably Approximately Correct for the New York Times—views mathematics as a Platonic absolute in Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, but is acutely aware of the issues of cultural relativism, having had to overcome some of the most absurd cultural limitations of Soviet anti-Semitism just to be able to become a mathematician. What impresses him most is the extent to which mathematicians from the most diverse cultural backgrounds, whatever their other presuppositions, can contribute at once to one another’s perceptions of problems raised at the outer limits of mathematical theory, and the astonishing extent to which the discovery of new mathematical relationships suddenly illuminates the nature of an unsolved problem in the physical sciences, quantum physics in particular.

This takes us into the central debate of a question that may turn out to be one of the insoluble problems to which Yanofsky refers: Mathematics is a cultural construct. (It has to be, because the simple use of Arabic numerals and agreed-upon meanings for the letters of several alphabets is a cultural construct—although the relationships expressed by the equations would be identical if numerals and letters from some other cultural background were substituted. Suddenly I want to go tackle Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, a multivolume work that Needham claimed only he and his wife had ever read in its entirety.)

Mathematics, as it is written down on chalkboards or computer screens, is a cultural construct, but it reflects relationships in the order of the universe, far, far beyond the simple arrangement of discrete objects from which basic arithmetic presumably arose in immeasurable depths of prehistory. If mathematics in its essence is cross-cultural, is it also direct perception of the nature of reality? If the math only makes sense when there are ten dimensions and not four or eleven or twenty, are there then really ten dimensions, even if we can never prove this by experiment? Or are there areas in which mathematics leads us astray, as its elegant logic shades off into sheer fantasy?

Good question, and few people are qualified even to hazard a well-informed guess, much less an argument in favor of one side or the other.

D. Fox Harrell’s Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression may or may not shed light on that problem, but it certainly confronts some of the most vexing questions of cultural presuppositions and inflections, and offers insights into the uses of digital media to explore and reveal “cultural phantasms” in ways that almost certainly rhyme with the concerns of Afrofuturism, even though the word does not seem to appear in Harrall’s text. (I await the arrival of the catalogue of the Studio Museum’s current exhibition on that topic, The Shadows Took Shape, a title borrowed from a Sun Ra album.)

Harrall does cite a digital work by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Ali Dagar, The Chica-Iranian Project, that mashes up Mexican and Kurdish mythologies and ethnic signifiers under such rubrics as “Test your ethnic profiling skills!” This takes us off into indisputably different territory from the epistemology with which this blog post began, but Harrell gets to “Cultural Phantasms” by way of a chapter titled “Expressive Epistemologies.”

Nonetheless, all of this deserves to be discussed under the rubric of cultural inflections, for we have gotten a long way away from mathematics and the outer limits of reason.
joculum: (mughal virgin and child)
Problems for Posting on Saint John’s Day (just because that is what today is in the liturgical calendar): When Is Myth Actually Analogy Right from the Start?

I actually have a couple of notes on topics relating to myth, one of them written two or three days ago, but since I have learned that stringing together such topics in what I consider sequential order only confuses everyone, I am striving, for once, to keep it all apart. Here is number one. Number two may continue to be delayed.

David Brooks’ annual Sidney Awards for remarkable essays of 2013 (published in his column in the December 27, 2013 New York Times) includes a summary of opposing essays in The New Republic by Stephen Pinker and Leon Wieseltier regarding what Brooks describes as “the proper role of science in modern thought.” [Brooks seems to be rehabilitating “modern” as a synonym for “contemporary,” incidentally.]

Brooks summarizes Pinker as saying that science “has demonstrated that ‘the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans and societies—are factually mistaken.’” He quotes Pinker directly about science’s alternative view of things: “’The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for ourselves, our species and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces.’”

Wieseltier retorts that (I continue to quote Brooks’ summation) “few believers take Scripture literally. They interpret. Meanwhile, science simply can’t explain many of the most important things. Imagine a scientific explanation of a beautiful painting, based, say, on a chemical analysis of the paint. ‘Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.’ The scientists deny the differences between the realms of human existence and simplify reality by imposing their methods even where they can’t apply.”

Reading this, I recalled my late mentor Thomas O’Dea’s description of a debate between Wilfrid Cantwell Smith and Morton Smith in which W.C. Smith asserted that the scholar of religion had to be a believer because only a believer can know what the interior condition of belief is, while M. Smith asserted that on the contrary, the scholar had to be an atheist because otherwise he (this was a long time ago; he meant “he”) would believe that angels really appeared to the British doughboys in World War I. [This was a slightly distorted shorthand allusion to the incident in which a piece of fiction by Arthur Machen became the basis for the popular legend of the Angels of Mons.] O’Dea said that if the two had been his students, he would have interrupted and explained some basic things to them; but since they were two of the most respected men in their academic discipline, he couldn’t.

Likewise with Pinker and Wieseltier. Part of the problem is that the English language doesn’t do a good job of using the word “science”; French and German have no such difficulty when it comes to asserting the continuity between the physical sciences and the human sciences...even though it is now necessary to assert more decisively than ever before that there is a continuity, and not some kind of fundamental break where the qualities of the human species are under discussion.

That beautiful painting of which Wieseltier makes so much? Well, my growing pile of important, but not yet read, books now includes some newly published volumes in which the biological and mathematical foundations of beauty are discussed alongside the physical conditions necessary for such activities as painting to arise in the first place. Let there be no pigments, however, and human beings will scratch their pictures into sand or rock. And although chimpanzees have been known to develop passionate attachments to non-functional objects for reasons that resemble aesthetic pleasure, we can’t really reduce the problem of “beauty” to the pre-linguistic emotional responses for which we can pretend to map the neural circuitry. (Many neuroscientists other than Pinker are careful to discuss the problem of deciding what those neural maps are really showing us about the mental territory.)

Wieseltier is right to imply that Pinker’s map of the neural circuitry is more akin to the chemical analysis of the paint on the canvas than of the conditions under which the artist painted the picture and the conditions under which the audience for the painting responds to it now, or has responded to it in the past. But audience response, and the origins of particular moments of creativity, and the particular weighting of historical forces versus psychological peculiarities and inbuilt biological limits and possibilities, are all topics that remain under vigorous debate in the “human sciences.”

The inability to prove which factor ought to be considered dominant is increasingly thought to be evidence that none of them are dominant except in the most transient fashion. There are, to take the most trivial approach to the problem, cases in which a literally starving painter makes a huge body of work without concern for whether anyone else will ever see it, and cases in which the primary motivation of the painter is to make as much money as possible, or to be regarded with the highest possible esteem by society; but given the right circumstances, the resulting paintings by the two artists might look very similar to one another. Why that might be so would involve a discussion of many historical variables regarding, among other things, the implicit or explicit rules for making “art.” And that would lead us down several other increasingly tortuous trails of inquiry and vehement debate among investigators of the human condition.

So it is silly to say that “science imposes its methods where they don’t belong.” The problem is that most English-speaking “scientists” don’t understand what science is, and why the so-called hard and soft sciences can’t be separated from one another or ranked by degree to which they offer provisional explanations of the world.

And those “provisional explanations of the world” are surely what religious believers ought to assert that the forces of transcendence were offering to those to whom they originally spoke. This might be considered “interpreting” rather than “taking literally,” but this is only because well-informed believers know we can’t take anything literally. Everything is a relative statement based on historical forces and psychological and linguistic limits, whether the statement is made by a literal-minded believer in absolutized notion of “science” or by a priest, a prophet, or a poet.

Everything has to be explained in terms that fit the prior assumptions of an audience, and that means working by means of analogy most of the time, or by “approaching the unknown in terms of what is called ‘known’ by the audience.” So much of what we call myth might, for believers, be considered shaping the information into forms the audience of the time would consider meaningful.

Edward Frenkel’s hybrid book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality begins with a biographical description of how his life as a Jew excluded from certain career paths in the Soviet Union led him to become a major explorer of the farther reaches of contemporary mathematical theory, then embarks on a chapter by chapter attempt to make intelligible for the ordinary reader “a grand unified theory of mathematics,” the Langlands program that the New York Times reviewer of Frenkel’s book [I apologize for not citing more profound sources; the NYT is the easiest resource for quick reference] describes as proposing that “the hard questions in number theory can be answered by employing the methods of a seemingly unconnected field called harmonic analysis.”

Let’s imagine Frenkel suddenly becomes a time traveler intent on explaining his knowledge not to English-speaking readers with a little bit of recollection of elementary mathematics, but to various communities in the ancient world. He could probably get a long, long way with Archimedes or Pythagoras; even if they began to dispute some of his more arcane premises in terms of their own worldview, they might well understand what he was talking about and even debate the adequacy of the logical analysis underlying his higher mathematical constructions.

If Frenkel were plopped down in the middle of one of those imagined ancient communities in which there were no names for numbers higher than, say, seven, he would have to start at a rather more elementary level, and even the group’s best intellectuals might have trouble learning how the abstract concept of number might relate to descriptions of shape, and so on. There would be many stories to tell and analogies to make that would gradually lead this fictional group’s thinkers past the point at which discrete objects turn into a blurry pile, and on to notions that would allow them to connect realms of their world they had never previously conceptualized as in any way related to one another.

Any number of believers I have encountered, though usually ones not shaped by university educations about the nature of myth, have suggested to me that the inbreaking reality known as God would not get very far trying to make a bunch of nomadic herders understand the nature of quantum reality. When you know the whole story and they don’t, no surprise that all that gets transmitted is, “I am the LORD. My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts.”

This implies a belief in ongoing revelation that is not accepted by any of the orthodox religions assaulted by Pinker, but it suggests that an ongoing current of heresy has long addressed the problem of supplanted cosmologies and found no difficulty in supposing that transcendent forces have been trying to have a conversation with humanity ever since the species acquired the capacity for language, and that the conversation is evolving along with the species.

It’s an interesting subtopic in the history of religions, and as such is as open to scientific inquiry (in the sense of the “soft” sciences of psychology, history, anthropology of all societies, et cetera) as any other, without accepting or denying the premises from which such believers start. It presents a view of religion less as merely symbolic representations of an unknowable dimension of reality, and more as a combination of simplified explanations and outright failures of hearing as in the “blessed are the cheesemakers” burlesque of the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s legendary Life of Brian.

We can track such hybrid hypotheses and explore their past sociological consequences without offering an opinion as to their ultimate truth value beyond their observable effects, or we can construct our own provisional hypotheses as to what might have been “really” going on, but regardless of how we approach the problem, it’s further empirical evidence that when it comes to the human condition, Pinker and Wieseltier don’t understand the half of it, any more than the one Smith and the other Smith did. (Huston Smith would have been an interesting third interlocutor in the discussion that O’Dea described nearly half a century ago, but he presumably wasn’t there.)
joculum: (mughal virgin and child)
I have recently begun to summarize the chief concerns of my several blogs (I won’t dignify them any longer with the title “webjournals”) and have been discovering to my dismay that the result is almost as dense as the original labyrinthine exploration by which I eventually defined what I was doing.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; coming at the problem from one direction, I begin really? )
joculum: (Default)
Bringing together the various strands of the task I set myself forty-four years ago is probably more than I can accomplish, but at least the reasons why the strands can and should be tied together has become clearer, for myself if not for anyone else.

I currently find myself facing the task of plowing through large parts of the early nineteenth century that are singularly revelatory in terms of being bridge passages between one characteristic mind set and another—historical territory I’ve traversed before, but only in terms of what this or that thinker believed.

I’m trying to clarify for myself what little I’ve learned about the complex nature of human self-awareness, and about how difficult it is to achieve self-awareness, and how it relates to various conditions of consciousness that are almost never understood by mainstream thinkers—because, whether the conditions in question are mental illness, mathematical insight, or mystical rapture, so few of them ever experience anything remotely similar. They dismiss all of them except when the practical results are so spectacularly successful that they have to mention them in a footnote.

The problem is that everybody is a combination of quirks imposed by early childhood experience occurring in a specific society, within neurological and biochemical limits; education by the prevailing social order, parents, and peer groups; the usual challenges common to all human beings, as modified by the previous two limiting factors; and individual responses to the larger accidents of history that frequently are more fundamental in shaping the human being than any of the deliberate impositions of ideology. (Hurricanes, the Holocaust, what have you...including the dramatic ups and downs of national economies, the ups as well as the downs.)

All this stuff typically doesn’t add up to a completely stable set of components, which is why therapists or spiritual advisors have been around since the Paleolithic, under one name or another, and why human societies exemplify all the weirdnesses that they do.

I happen, for reasons of my own, to be drawn to the test cases of potentially insightful individuals caught between incompatible cultural choices, or ones who find ways to bridge seeming incompatibilities or operate between the options.

I hadn’t realized until revisiting Terragni’s Danteum in the previous post that his geometric Casa del Fascio followed the plan of a particular Renaissance palace exactly, except for all the frills, frou-frous, and cultural accidents. I suspect that the dialectic of Terragni’s encounters with historical forces might be as intriguing as Oscar Niemeyer’s, whose sensuously involving but not always human-scale buildings in Brazil might or might not be profitably discussed in terms of the socialism and atheism that led him to design the headquarters of the French Communist Party while he was in exile during the rule of the generals. One can’t reduce either architect to his politics or his religious beliefs or lack of same, and in general neither can be “reduced” to anything. So it is no wonder we just look at the Casa del Fascio and the Danteum or Niemeyer’s Brasilia and Ibirapuera Park and don’t try to make our way through the tangles of personality and history behind them.

There are so many cases where we can’t begin to guess, in fact, that it does little good to speculate.

But it induces vertigo to realize, for example, that at the moment when the European and American Romantics and their opponents were being enthralled or appalled afresh by the eternal silence of the infinite spaces that had horrified Blaise Pascal, some of their contemporaries further east were blithely explicating the nature of multiple universes and how they might interact, but were not doing so in a way that today’s theorists of the multiverse would find even remotely intelligible. There is neither intellectual profit in trying to explore, nor even the possibility of getting at, the nature of the personalities involved, but it is intriguing that in the early nineteenth century A.D./C.E. this type of complex imaginative cosmology was being spun out near one end of what had been the Silk Road while the Tibetans were working out a similarly involved cosmology of conscious illusion near the other end of it; and Europeans, confronting a less complex traditional worldview, were doggedly plowing ahead with a “Just the facts, if you please” investigation of what could and could not be known about the physical universe. (Whether there was anything that could be known besides the physical universe was one of the dividing lines, of course—but that, too, was a more complex question in those regions than the traditional European duality of “matter and spirit” that the Romantics were resolving in their own fashion.)

Divided in a different way, the “history of the human community” looks considerably different—but of course every part of the human community always also had to figure out who was going to bake the bread and harvest the vegetables and which persons were entitled to have a little more garlic tossed in their soup. “Some of them got it, some of them didn’t,” as Kenneth Rexroth’s poem has it, and some of them were artisans who produced the most exquisite objects the world has ever known, and others were...the list of possibilities goes on and on, obviously, through all the positions of any human society.

And if the original point of this meditation was to figure out why the prescriptions of fairly unimaginative experimenters so seldom succeed in shaping human destinies, maybe we should pick and choose which of these cases to investigate, in which of their dimensions.

We can appreciate, for example, a Yuan Dynasty bowl in and for itself without caring the least bit about the psychology or social circumstances of its maker, although the broad historical outlines of the Yuan Dynasty might give us further grounds for reflection. But first we have to learn to care about Yuan Dynasty bowls, and there are many people who wouldn’t notice they were any different from the ones from the big-box store down the road.

Even investigating the reasons for that lack of understanding is dispiriting; the point would be to get from cluelessness to comprehension in as short a time as possible, and this is something that the world’s traditional psychologies have excelled in doing. Sometimes.

And as the world’s traditional psychologies have taught us (or contemporary interpreters of them pretend they have taught us, anyway), most people will approach the problem from the particular points of view that seem most interesting to them. Other people will find those points of view boring, unintelligible, or both. As you doubtless may find this preliminary note.
joculum: (Default)
Re-Mapping the Human Condition, Historical Division: Further Considerations

One of the so-called mystical traditions that interested me in past decades (and whether it simply imported its insights from contemporary sociological and psychological journals remains to be investigated) dealt extensively with the barriers to understanding: why we are so persistently unable to understand what it is we don’t understand.

There is now a growing literature about this topic, but much of it is specious, based on inadequately conceived research and insufficiently concerned with the contributions of history to our persistent failure to comprehend what is before our faces. (Apologies for the allusion to Logion 5 from the Gospel of Thomas, one of the earliest corrections to the Greek supposition that knowing oneself was sufficient for transformation, rather than also knowing the actual condition of something apparently external.)

Given the extent to which contemporary research corrects old errors by replicating previous generations of errors that no one remembers ever having been made, it would be salutary to look at where it all went wrong in various fields of endeavor, and trying to glean at least a few lessons from the experience.
more? )
joculum: (Default)
Re-Mapping the Human Condition, Historical Division: Further Considerations

One of the so-called mystical traditions that interested me in past decades (and whether it simply imported its insights from contemporary sociological and psychological journals remains to be investigated) dealt extensively with the barriers to understanding: why we are so persistently unable to understand what it is we don’t understand.

There is now a growing literature about this topic, but much of it is specious, based on inadequately conceived research and insufficiently concerned with the contributions of history to our persistent failure to comprehend what is before our faces. (Apologies for the allusion to Logion 5 from the Gospel of Thomas, one of the earliest corrections to the Greek supposition that knowing oneself was sufficient for transformation, rather than also knowing the actual condition of something apparently external.)

Given the extent to which contemporary research corrects old errors by replicating previous generations of errors that no one remembers ever having been made, it would be salutary to look at where it all went wrong in various fields of endeavor, and trying to glean at least a few lessons from the experience.

Suzanne L. Marchand’s remarkable historical survey German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship leads me to think that her earlier Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1730-1970 would be its perfect complement in terms of interpreting how the scholarly fictions we create about the world’s cultures (no matter who the “we” in question might be, or the particular fictions) mask immediate historically given concerns. Those concerns are not necessarily economic or political; they can be bound up with anxiety over the status of personal religious belief, the identification of one’s own place in the universe, what have you, and the answers being sought may not always have been to the financial or social benefit of the seeker. Obsessive and consequential mistakes are made almost as often in the name of abstract truth as in the name of concealed motives of conscious exploitation; all that matters is that the mistaken researcher be unaware of the implications of his or her framing of the research. Marchand’s focus on German orientalists are parallel to recent re-readings of British and French orientalists, and all of the scholarship is implicitly revising postcolonial studies; footnotes to Edward Said, without negating the notion that in some if not all fields of human endeavor, disinterested scholarship is impossible. The problem facing the researcher is to identify as many of the hidden or unconscious interests as possible, rather than having someone else do the debunking for them.

The unconscious influences of previous decades of scholarship continue to have consequences as new circumstances cause their evolution into unexpected popular forms, which in turn have consequences for the decades after that. I suspect, though I haven’t confirmed this, that Marchand’s essay in the newly published anthology of essays Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy would lead in some very interesting directions, just based on its title and what I know of the time period in question: “Eastern Wisdom in a Time of Western Despair: Orientalism in 1920s Central Europe.” Reviewers have suggested that this volume incorporates enough recent scholarship and corrects enough previous factual errors as to make it an indispensable contribution to the history of Weimar thought, and since it covers an unprecedentedly wide variety of topics it may well supplant a good many previous efforts, which is good news for those of us whose shelves are groaning with earlier volumes (future scholars who restrict themselves to e-books will not have this problem, though they will have many others).

The legacy of Weimar is or was well known; a whole generation of American thinkers grew up under the direct or indirect tutelage of German refugee intellectuals, and the generations since then who learned from those Americans may not always realize the extent to which their present-day ideas germinated in the 1920s.

This is only one reason why I am fascinated by the proto-debunking of Georges Bataille’s short-lived magazine DOCUMENTS, which suffered from the necessary limitations of its historical horizon ca. 1929 while reframing or rendering unexpectedly alien most of the received scholarly and popular ideas of its epoch. Undercover Surrealism: George Bataille and DOCUMENTS provides an excellent anthology of excerpts from the magazine (including its provocative juxtaposition of ethnographic and popular-culture images, often presented without further comment), a good starting point for tracing the intellectual legacy of a magazine that probably influenced hundreds of thinkers and artists who never knew it had existed—though I can’t prove this, and don’t feel much like perusing the individual biographies to figure out the lines of generational influence.

All of this intellectual ferment ca. 1930 was about to be spread worldwide by the rise of the dictators and the subsequent Second World War (the unintended intellectual consequences of global conflict ought to be looked at from a fresh perspective; cf. Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire and Marchand’s chapter on “Orientalists and ‘Others’”). Stalin and Mussolini did their part in disseminating dissident thought by sending its thinkers fleeing for their lives to the far parts of the earth.

This is also a reason why I keep wishing I could find time to analyze the eleven issues of Civiltà: Rivista della Espozitione Universale di Roma. I suspect (from extremely partial evidence) that proportionately fewer cross-culturally-minded scholars emigrated from Italy before the outbreak of war rendered that option impossible; yet their perspective was clearly excluded from the official magazine of the planned 1942 “Olympics of Civilizations,” which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Roman-Classical and Renaissance inheritance—including, however delicately the topic might be raised, the superiority of the Italian Renaissance over the inferior German cultural product. The magazine’s very title contains a longstanding cultural coding that predates Italian Fascism: medals commending the “defenders of civilization” were cast for Italy’s military efforts in World War I and in the earlier, but not that much earlier, wresting of Libya from Ottoman Empire control.

The Wolfsonian in Miami is devoting autumn 2013 to a series of exhibitions exploring the curious dialectic between Italian Modernism and the “Rebirth of Rome,” a governmentally sponsored effort that was explicitly intended to demonstrate how the totalitarian state was the perfect rebirth of the ideals of Roman civilization, embracing both the spirit of modernity and historic Romanitas.

Since there will be a catalogue documenting the interwar Italian portion of the Wolfsonian’s collection of decorative and propaganda arts (originally assembled by Mitchell Wolfson Jr.), it would be interesting to use the occasion to revisit the monumental catalogue of the Guggenheim exhibition of fifteen or so years ago that presented Italy’s unparalleled upsurge of trend-setting creativity in cinema, design, and art that began in Allied-occupied cities almost before the end of hostilities. Governmental encouragement of modernist design and architecture had gone into eclipse almost a decade earlier, and what happened in the 1936-1946 time frame is a topic that must have been explored extensively by now, but I don’t know by whom. As with the potential multiculturalists who did not or could not emerge under those historical conditions, there seems to have been a great deal going on of which we know almost nothing.

An interesting bridge between the two eras might be Giuseppe Terragni’s unbuilt Danteum, an allegorical structure meant to transport the visitor from the entangled hell of earthbound error to the heaven of an architecture that was literally openly transparent. As proposed in 1938 as a structure to be in place in time for the Universal Exposition of 1942, it contained heavy-handed thematic references to the glories of Roman civilization (much as Dante’s Divine Comedy does) on the ground level before moving to ever-higher levels of numerologically defined geometric abstraction.

Thomas Schumacher’s book of some decades ago remains the definitive study, as far as I know; it is amusing that the Wikipedia entry for “Danteum” indicates that while the project was never completed, the maquette for it was exhibited at the Universal Exposition of 1942—which in reality was itself a project that was never completed.
joculum: (Default)
“A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith,” a recent New York Times story by Kim Severson about the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, begins with the assertion, “Quantum theory tells us that the world is the product of an infinite number of random events. Buddhism teaches us that nothing happens without a cause, trapping the universe in an unending karmic cycle. Reconciling the two might seem as challenging as explaining the Higgs boson to a kindergarten class. But if someone has to do it, it might as well be the team of scholars, translators and six Tibetan monks clad in maroon robes who can be spied wandering among the magnolias at Emory University here.”

This is a cognitively odd way to begin, since the notion of causality, if not of karma, has been pretty much uppermost in Western thought despite the best efforts of David Hume and, lately, the New Materialists and the Object Oriented Ontologists. (Which, by the way, would not make an excellent name for a rock band.)

The notion that randomness rules is also as old as the Pre-Socratics, but the argument over whether God plays dice with the universe remains one in which it is possible to take sides in hard-nosed physics, even if quantum randomness seems to be winning against old-school determinism time and time again.

So why aren’t the Tibetan monks trying to grapple with the extent to which their traditional ideas agree with current research, instead of struggling to reconcile them with opposing beliefs? The answer is, they are doing both, as Severson indicates. “’We understand impermanence of things as simply existing through our traditions,’ said Jampa Khechok, 34, one of the new monks on campus. ‘We are now challenged to understand the nature of impermanence through the study of how fast particles decay.’”

It might be more profitable to consider Buddhist impermanence alongside, say, the successors to process philosophy, but the findings of the hard sciences are what have to be grasped first. They are now a required part of monastic study, thanks to the decision of the Dalai Lama seven years ago to bring Tibetan Buddhism into the twenty-first century by letting the neuroscientists study the monastic techniques and requiring the monks to study all the sciences. (I would like to own the ETSI science textbooks just for the English-language pages facing the Tibetan translations on the opposite page—an introductory survey course for grown-ups.)

The Dalai Lama has remarked that the Buddha told his disciples that if anything he said proved to be incorrect, the disciples must discard it at once and go with the truth rather than with the words of the Buddha. So getting rid of the traditional assertion that the world is flat was easy enough; just as Westerners always said, the cosmic mountain linking earth and heaven is a metaphor for inner relationships with higher realities (“inner” and “higher” also are spatial metaphors, but let that pass). But the inner relationships have measurable physiological effects, and this is where the neuroscientists come in.

But what is the relationship between quantum randomness and the churning ocean of impermanence that Buddhism envisions as the actual state of affairs behind what looks to us like solid reality? Might the preposterous-sounding claim of karmic entanglement throughout the universe be an analogue to the outlandish claims of quantum entanglement, despite our resistance to what surely must be a misunderstood metaphor that, in any case, cannot possibly operate on the macro level even if it describes subatomic particles well enough?

Einstein didn’t think entanglement worked on the micro level, either; just as he claimed he couldn’t believe that his nonexistent God played dice with what ought to be a rigidly deterministic universe, Einstein sneered at “spooky action at a distance.” But Tibetan Buddhists have no problems with spooky action at a distance; it’s what the universe is made of in its very core, as far as they are concerned. All relationships are interconnected by a subtle chain of causality through which small interactions in one corner of the planet may eventually or instantaneously lead to large interactions in some other corner of it.

If the Dalai Lama wants to get rid of whatever parts of Tibetan Buddhism are not demonstrably correct, can Eastern and Western empiricism meet? Or are the conceptual gulfs just too enormous, given the fact that the conceptual gulfs within Western thought are too great to allow for meaningful conversation among many academic disciplines?

Donald Lopez is skeptical of current efforts to create a “Buddhism for atheists” that downplays the religious aspects of Buddhist practice, and makes note of the year in which this kind of thinking first arose (I think it was about the time of the World Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Fair, a singularly consequential event, as it turned out). But Tibetan Buddhism has evolved dramatically from the collision between literalistic folk beliefs in assorted gods and subtle South Asian psychologies of mental transformation, with a little shamanistic visionary practice thrown in for good measure. Who is to say that it cannot continue to evolve, or that it is misleading to claim cognitive benefits for it?

The problem arises when the claims are shoddily conceptualized, and there has been enough of that at some of the gatherings of monks and scientists. But it hasn’t been the monks doing the shoddy conceptualizing; scientists seem as capable as anybody of misunderstanding or failing to recognize metaphors, or drawing the wrong conclusions from experimental research.
joculum: (Default)
Friend and Facebook friend Faith McClure has just now posted Cassini's photograph of the pale blue dot of Earth barely visible beneath the rings of Saturn.

It has been used as a symbol of the insignificance of our speck in the cosmos, but it is all a matter of perspective.

Here we are, seen with greater magnification:

earth from space

Now don't you feel happier about living here? Unless of course you dislike abstract art.
Page generated Sep. 25th, 2017 04:59 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios