Overweening Generalist


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On a Few of the Many Varieties of Codes and Deceptive Behaviors in History

Buckminster Fuller writes about the earliest Polynesian navigators, who were wizards who learned to sail East to West against the winds, with secret knowledge that was only shared orally with their sons, or coded in their chants: 

"Knowing all about boats/These navigator priests were the only people/Who knew that the Earth was spherical,/That the Earth is a closed system/With its myriad resources chartable./But being water people,/They kept their charts in their heads/And relayed the information/To their navigator progeny/Exclusively in esoterical,/Legendary, symbolical codings/Embroidered into their chants."- Synergetics, pp.749-751

I see this as an example of a small group who protect their knowledge because it was powerful and probably because it was thrilling for small-group cohesion.
How do we decode writing such as what you're looking at right now? In 11th century Fatimid Egypt, under science-loving Al-Hakim (who had become ruler at age 11, but then disappeared mysteriously during a solitary walk 25 years later), Cairo was the apex of learning in the world: lots of trade with Mediterranean neighbors, a fearsome army recruited from Sudanese, Turks and Berbers, the Polynesian's sailing code long since cracked. Among the brains that drained toward Cairo at this historical moment was al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (Western scholars called him "Alhazen"), from Basra. One project was to explain perception. Al-Haytham had read the recent translations of Aristotle and agreed that things we see enter the eye via the air, but al-Haytham elaborated with more physiological and mathematical suppositions about how perception happens. Furthermore, he said we perceive via a faculty of judgement, after inference. Pure sensation was different from perception, the latter requiring a conscious, voluntary act on our part. Here was a theory of gradations of consciousness, 900 years before Korzybski: there was first pure sensation (whatever we experience before words, analogous to Korzybski's "event level"); then we voluntarily attend to some phenomena (say, paying attention to letters and words and sentences on a page: perception); then we "decipher" the words, and finally: we are reading. Al-Haytham died in 1038. (I mention the 20th century polymath Korzybski; in the first half of the 18th century the Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Vico wrote, "People first feel things without noticing them, then notice them with inner stress and disturbance, and finally reflect on them with a clear mind."- The New Science, #53

                                 al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, b.965
                                 wrote possibly the first great work in 
                                 optics, influenced Roger Bacon and 
                                 Leonardo da Vinci

Roughly 200 years later, under Europe's Catholic mullahs (led by Pope Clement IV), Roger Bacon - one of those guys interested in everything - was interested in optics. He'd read Al-Haytham, but was keeping it on the QT and yet still got persecuted for "unorthodox teaching." There were a lot of Churchmen who insisted rather violently that scientific research was dangerous to Church dogma (They have made some progress since then...). Bacon explained to the Pope how optics/perception/reading probably worked. Bacon and al-Haytham had both realized it's got to be far more complex than they'd suspected. In 11th century Islam, al-Haytham was not persecuted. Roger Bacon, soon after trying to explain to the Pope roughly the same theory, found himself in a cell. 

250 or so years later, Leonardo da Vinci was interested in this same problem of decoding perception and reading. But he was smart enough to know he could get in trouble: he wrote about it in his notebooks in a secret code that could only be read when held up to a mirror. 

It's only in the last 80 years that we've gotten a thick neurobiological account of how reading occurs and there's still interesting problems being worked out at this minute.
When looking into codes and ciphers, codes are one thing, ciphers another; all translation from one language to another is codework; any language you can't read can function as a code to crack; at one time only priests, kings, and scribes/accountants knew how to write and read: for everyone else in the culture "writing" was a code. 

O! So many codes! And right out in the open. If only we could crack/hack/decipher/decode...
Not long ago I yet again re-watched one of those films from the Great Age of Hollywood Paranoia (c.1971-1976): Three Days of the Condor, in which Robert Redford plays a CIA agent whose specialty is reading novels, looking for codes embedded in them. These codes would apparently qualify as steganography. Messages hidden within other messages...and how do you know I'm not doing that right now? (If I'm doing it, please take my word for it: it's all in good, clean fun.)

I remember when I first saw Condor: I thought Redford's job was a fiction-writer's fancy. But apparently it's a real thing, and being taken more and more seriously by...yes, CIA, but all sorts of others working in the (not so) Great Game.

What if some of our best conspiracy writers and novelists of exquisite paranoia were leaving code in their books that hadn't yet been cracked? I mean...it could happen, right? Maybe not, but we never know. Let's not rule it out completely. Which reminds me of a passage in Don DeLillo's haunting, hilarious, deeply paranoid and postmodern White Noise. The main character - who is a professor specializing in "Hitler Studies"? - his ex-wife works for the CIA:

She told me very little about her intelligence work. I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures. The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation. She spoke Spanish to someone on the telephone, was a hyperactive mother, shining with an eerie stormlight intensity. The long novels kept arriving in the mail. 

It was curious how I kept stumbling into the company of lives in intelligence. Dana worked part-time as a spy. Tweedy came from a distinguished old family that had a long tradition of spying and counterspying and she was now married to a high-level jungle operative. Janet, before retiring to the ashram, was a foreign-currency analyst who did research for a secret group of advanced theorists connected to some controversial think-tank. All she told me is that they never met in the same place twice. (p.213)

Maybe it's just me, but "high-level jungle operative" makes me laff. 

White Noise is one of DeLillo's short novels, but there are some really "long serious novels with coded structures." Hmmmm...
Speaking of postmodernists, Douglas Rushkoff, in his wonderful book Program or Be Programmed, writes that the postmodernists were right to be suspicious of language and "reality," but they didn't go far enough: they hadn't accounted for the hidden biases of code writers whose codes were embedded deep within our digital gadgets. (see pp.83-84, ibid)
Well, the pre-postmodernists, often called simply Modernists? A few of them left works so cryptic (and therefore threatening to dull minds, like J. Edgar Hoover's), that they became suspect. 

Even though James Joyce never set foot on Unistat soil, Hoover saw him as a threat. Joyce had an FBI file. Because someone in Joyce's extended circle was a known communist, Joyce was suspected as one, too. (He was more of an individualist-anarchist of some sort.) From Claire Culleton's Joyce and the G-Men:

Even as early as 1920, Joyce had been plagued by rumors about him and his work, and he was (laughably) reputed to be a spy for the Austrians, the British, and the Italians. He even complained to his brother Stanislaus that Ulysses was believed to be a prearranged German code; Ezra Pound had heard that "British censorship suspected Ulysses of being a code." (p.45, Culleton)

Anyone who's looked at Finnegans Wake for 5 minutes might wonder what the eternally paranoid agents of Control thought Joyce must have been up to. If we go back to the early distinction between codes and ciphers, and al-Haytham's and Roger Bacon's and Leonardo's forays into human perception and reading, well, then surely Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are written in code, only in a different semantic sense than what an asshole like J. Edgar Hoover would sense as "code."

Similarly, Ezra Pound, after being captured by the Allies in Italy, had to answer to the charge that his Cantos were some sort of code. (see one of my earlier posts on codes, HERE, skip down to "Modernist Investigative Poets Are Suspects (By Definition?)"
The great cryptologist David Kahn writes about the enigma of the "emotional bases of cryptology," reminding us that "Freud stated that the motivation for learning, for the acquisition of knowledge, derives ultimately from the child's impulse to see the hidden sexual organs of adults and other children. If curiosity is a sublimation of this, then cryptanalysis may be even more positively a manifestation of voyeurism." (p.755, The Code Breakers) Kahn follows with a long line of later psychoanalysts who basically agreed with Freud, and many who challenged his idea. Nevertheless, I find the idea cosmically funny. I mean: if Freud's right - and I don't think he is, but anyway - then if you've read this far and feel like you acquired some knowledge from the OG, 'tis only 'cuz you're some sort of very well-practiced voyeur! Which reminds me of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Fairly early in the book, you'll recall, Allied spies have noticed that US Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop has sexual conquests all around London, and they're followed by V-2 rocket hit - in the same place he had sex - a couple/few days later. They don't know why, but there are theories. Rockets and hard-ons...Slothrop's penis must have a "code" to crack...it - his dick - was possibly encoded by...who? Does he know? Slothrop seems to not know. How are they going to crack this code? Talk about an Enigma!

                                       psychedelický grafický umělecké dílo Bob Campbell

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize For Lit

Well, that was a surprise. Those Erisian Swedes! In the quantum universe next door, my main pick, Thomas Pynchon, won. Finally! He has not appeared in public to say anything. Of course. There are rumors he'll send Jon Stewart to Stockholm in his stead. (When Pynchon won the National Book Award in 1973, he sent zany Professor Irwin Corey to accept on his behalf.) Pynchon's publisher has given a very short press conference, saying Pynch has already given the award money away, to be divided up among Black Lives Matter, the 9/11 First Responders who still need medical relief, Doctors Without Borders, and John Perry Barlow, who, the press release reads, is a "member of the loyal opposition who needs it."

Since it was announced, I've caught myself thinking more and more about Dylan and my associated mental relationships to him. My mom had Dylan's LP Nashville Skyline playing when I was a a pre-teen. I remember looking at the cover and reading his name as "Bob dye-LAN." I loved my mom's Beatles records more than the Dylan. Hell, I loved her Carly Simon record, No Secrets, more than the Dylan, but maybe it's because Carly's braless look was jacking up the baud rate on my boy-organism.

                               believe it or not, this is really Dylan and not Cate Blanchett

Speaking of the Beatles, Dylan in 1964 was shocked to meet the lads and find out they hadn't tried weed. He turned them on, and there's a wonderfully drawn-out piece on this historical moment in George Case's book Out of Our Heads: Rock 'n' Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off.

A passage from Harry Shapiro's Waiting For the Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music:

In 1964, Dylan refused a request from Ginsberg to lead a peace rally at Berkeley and earned the unbending enmity of singer Phil Ochs, who called him "LSD on stage." Dylan reported that Ochs was writing bullshit because politics were absurd and the world was unreal. Dylan took his personal drug-inspired research for freedom and escape through "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Highway 61 Revisited," to the ego-dissolution of "Like A Rolling Stone" and Blonde On Blonde. Nevertheless, claims that all references to "railways" and "tracks" and capitalised H's on lyric sheets demonstrate that Dylan was a heroin addict or that "Blowin In The Wind" was secretly a song about the wonders of cocaine are probably best led in the more extreme realms of Dylanology.

In the early sixties, sharing the experiences of marijuana and LSD between creative spirits had a missionary zeal about it. Rock writer Al Aronowitz turned both Ginsberg and Dylan on to marijuana; Dylan in turn introduced dope-smoking to the Beatles. They met him on their first tour of America. Dylan was "anti-chemical" at the time, probably due to a surfeit of amphetamine, and suggested that the Beatles try something more natural. Dylan rolled the first joint and passed it to Lennon, who, too scared to try, passed it on to Ringo. The episode ended with everyone rolling round the floor in hysterics. (pp.116-117)

Sociologists who made a study of the "Woodstock Generation" found that, of the 1000 respondents, 43% believed most of the music of the sixties could only be understood by someone who had undergone the marijuana and psychedelic drug experience. This study was done in 1977-78, and the majority said their first pot experience was in a college dorm, with either Dylan or Led Zeppelin playing in the background. (Let us take: people who went to Woodstock who were age 20-25: they were born between 1944 and 1949: the first Boomers.)

Which brings me to Dylan's 1965 Newport Folk Festival "outrage."

Dylan appeared there playing an electric guitar, and much of the audience was famously outraged. It's difficult to gauge, in reading multiple sources, the extent of the disapproval, but when I learned about this historical moment, I was deep into playing Black Sabbath, Rush, and Deep Purple guitar solos on my electric guitar. I had always noted any overt response between what a person thought about the acoustic guitar versus the electric. I now think Steve Waksman's book Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience is the finest explication of the social construction of acoustic vs. electric. I also think the fascinating aspect of timbre and its cultural and existential-phenomenal impact is worth delving into, if it's your kinda thing. Dylan's move to electric illuminated the extent of culture's hidden ideologies surrounding electric vs. acoustic, and maybe he deserves a Nobel for just this....

Oh, but the Nobel was for Dylan as literature. Right. I got off-topic. Oh, well...

I consider "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to be proto-Jewish rap from the sixties.

One of my favorite bloggers, Tom Jackson, wrote a bit on Dylan's Nobel HERE.

"Acid isn't for the groovy people. Acid is for the president and people like that. The groovy people don't need to take acid." - Dylan in 1967, found on p.24 of R.U. Sirius's Everybody Must Get Stoned: Rock Stars on Drugs

A funny conversation about Dylan's win.

I like this passage from a June 1984 Rolling Stone interview. Kurt Loder had asked Dylan a question about starting out on guitar and Dylan gives the rundown from his first Sears Silvertone guitar to hearing Woody Guthrie. "And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over."

Loder: What struck you about him?

Dylan: Well, I heard them old records, where he sings with Cisco Houston and Sonny [Terry] and Brownie [McGhee] and stuff like that, and then his own songs. And he really struck me as an independent character. But no one ever talked about him. So I went through all his records I could find and picked all that up by any means I could. And when I arrived in New York, I was mostly singin' his songs and folk songs. At that time I was runnin' into people who were playing the same kind of thing, but I was combining elements of Southern mountain music with bluegrass stuff, English ballad-stuff. I could hear a song once and know it. (found pp.424-425 of 20 Years of Rolling Stone: What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been)

Dylan led me back to Woody Guthrie. Point: Dylan.

Paul Krassner writes about a moment when Dylan was taking Hebrew lessons:

"When I asked why he was taking Hebrew lessons he said, 'I can't speak it.' Now I pointed an imaginary microphone at him and asked, 'So how do you feel about the six millions Jews who were killed in Nazi Germany?' His answer: 'I resented it.'" - Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut, first ed, p.182

Mercurial Dylan Nobel Prize winner. Folk hero, beatnik, hippie, iconoclast, non-joiner, born-again Xtian, Jew, proto-rapper, proto-punk, oracle for a generation, influence on my god Hendrix, altered history by getting the Beatles stoned, enigmatic forever. I love Pynchon, but I'm okay with Dylan winning it.

                               s'il vous plaît voir M. Bob Campbell à propos de plus psychédélisme

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Our Neurogenetic Archives: A Few Notes

I have a guitar student, and she had a high school assignment to write on John Locke and was worried. I piped up, unwisely: "Ask me anything about John Locke! I'm here to help ya!" She had the vaguest notion of what Locke was up to, but she did know he influenced the risk-takers and revolutionaries who established Unistat. I told her Locke has been shown to be pretty far-wrong with his notion of our minds at birth as tabula rasa. Already, I had lost her.

But aye...I think the jury has come in with a unanimous decision on this: we come equipped, fully loaded. For presumably many but not all imaginable things. This has been established, in historical time, a few seconds ago. Or say 1950-now.

But to what extent are we loaded? Is it only activated with experience in-the-world, with language, with education? Certainly we inherit a shuffled deck of genes from mom and dad. Is that it?

(Aside: this genetic inheritance, modified by drugs, learning, changes in environment, bombardment by cosmic rays, alterations in diet, etc: this is my best unpacking of "Plato's Problem" as mentioned briefly in the review of Knight's book on Chomsky, below.)

In his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968, Marshall Nirenberg talked about "genetic memories." Well of course, our genes can be said to have "memories" in a certain metaphorical sense, but details about this metaphorical sense? As I tried to read his lecture (quite technical...but it turns out Nirenberg was wrong about "nonsense codons"!), I can't get a line on it. He's certainly not going off about how the Akashic Records were "right after all!" or anything like that. Nirenberg gets as close to mentioning the astral plane as Keanu Reeves gets to winning Best Actor.

But that was way back in 1968.

Since then, there's been an explosion of knowledge about epigenetics: it turns out experience-in-the-world of our immediate forebears does have influence on our genes/lives. Poverty has been linked to epigenetic changes and mental illness, for example. Epigenetics is the study of how genes get expressed, and the more I read about it the more my head spins. RNA has much ado about gene expression. It's not merely a "messenger," as many of us were told in skool. Some genes get turned on or off like a binary light switch; others get modulated like a rheostat, gradually becoming more and brighter, or less and dimmer.

Here's another example from the past year: the methylation of the genes coding for the hormone oxytocin - a hormone linked to nurturing, trust and social skills - can get taxed by intense emotional experiences. What a wonderful example of the new reality of understanding biology: a gene that helps us do very important things such as falling in love with baby as soon as she is born? It's processed in the brain, like a drug. (Hell: I see oxytocin as one of the more interesting endogenous drugs we have, and we can synthesize it too!) This hormone/drug, via social interaction in the world, affects our behavior, and the social world/environmental feedback can alter the expression of the gene. This circular-causal feedback looping of nature/nurture ---> nature/nurture, ad infinitum, till death do us part - seems like a microcosm of how Everything works. (And remember: then the epigenetic effects can get inherited by the next generation, via what happened historically in the environment, and just, wow. So: death is not the end of our story. We're connected in ways we didn't know before.)

Gosh dad!: Father may pass down more than his genes: his life experience too?
Oh, my: a bad night's sleep can epigenetically alter your genes.
Our genetic cups runneth over: epigenetic drugs are in the works.
Not fair: Study of Holocaust survivors show trauma passed on to children's genes.

Think of how all this impacts the roiling and boiling issue of income inequality...

There's plenty more where that came in. A fine readable book for non-specialists that I can point to 'cuz I read it and was enthralled: Nessa Carey's The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance

Combine this with a few books on the new synthetic biology, CRISPR techniques, and what the hell: quantum computing and ye head shall be spaghettified.

But back to the neurogenetic archives. They seem to have some ontological status outside the drawing room where the Theosophical expert waxes on about past lives. But to what degree?

Darold Treffert is a psychiatrist who's been studying savants and autistic people with extraordinary abilities in some domain of life. He's been at it for many decades. He became personal friends with Kim Peek, the person "Rain Man" was based on (though that character was a composite of many savants, says Treffert). In the beginning he was a traditional scientist who read Jung and thought it wasn't science: too soft. Now he thinks Jung was on to something; he thinks we may have genetic memories of things experienced in the past by others whom we often cannot identify. See his two books (mentioned in the text linked to) and give us a better explanation.

How wild this is! We can inherit knowledge? We can get bashed in the head and suddenly write symphonies, when before we couldn't even carry a tune? (Being somewhat conservative in certain areas, I'd rather not get my head bashed in and instead risk continuance of not being a genius.) Treffert says we inhabit a metaphorically left-brain (linear, rational) society; maybe activate latent abilities by spending more time doing what the Kulchur is telling us as "wasting time": doing art. (Here's yet another argument for Basic Income?)

Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson have a collectively dizzyingly rich series of speculations on neurogenetic memory, based on their reading in genetics, mythology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, and literature; they scattered their ideas throughout their many books, and I'd point to Leary's Info-Pyschology and Wilson's Prometheus Rising for starters...

David Foster Wallace, in an essay on David Lynch collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, riffs on our topic, saying our internal impressions and moods are, "An olla podrida of neurogenetic predisposition and phylogenetic myth and psychoanalytic schema and pop culture iconography." (p.199 in my copy) I hadda look up "olla podrida."

Well, now I said to myself, "I think I write too much for this texting world. I'll try to make this OG spew a short one," and so I'll end with a quote from my favorite cognitive neurolinguist, George Lakoff:

"When we understand all that constitutes the cognitive unconscious, our understanding of the nature of consciousness is vastly enlarged. Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia, beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all of the above, plus the immeasurably vast constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all."
Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, p.11

Thanks for bringing your immeasurably vast constitutive framework of your cognitive unconscious to the OG: see ya!

                                      художник Боббі Кемпбелл зробив цю графіку для мене

Monday, September 19, 2016

Decoding Chomsky, by Chris Knight

Noam Chomsky has often discussed "Plato's Problem," which he obviously finds fascinating. The problem is this: how can people know so much given a relative poverty of stimuli? Just today you found yourself talking to someone and the words just flowed out of you; you didn't have to think about them beforehand. You probably never uttered some of those sentences before, in the exact way. We all take this for granted, easily. Plato wondered about it and surmised that the reason we are able to know so much is because we already knew it in a previous life! You just talk to each other and knowledge sorta miraculously emerges via a quasi midwifery. Or rather: our forebears knew things and passed this ability to know (best example: apprehending our native language so easily) on to us. In a sense, we already "know" everything, but we need it drawn out by some...process. Today, people talk about genes. Chomsky takes Plato's "soul" and changes it to something like "biological language acquisition device," but you already knew that. (<----see what I did there?)

But this Plato Problem still seems iffy to me.

Chomsky has often written about "Orwell's Problem" too: how can people not know so many things that truly impact their lives, when the information is basically right in front of them? Noam has offered a solution to why this problem exists in books such as his famous one from 1988 (co-written with Edward Herman), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Very sophisticated propaganda tools have been developed during the 20th century, suffice to write, for now.

                                     Chris Knight, radical British anthropologist, studied
                                        Chomsky's works for over two decades

In the 1970s an intellectual proposed there's a "Chomsky Problem," which is this: how can one man write a massive body of work on linguistics, while never mentioning the social world or politics in those books, while at the same time issuing scads of books critical of his own country's foreign and domestic policies? In Chomsky's political books the mention of science, much less linguistics is basically zero. The writer who (as far as I know) coined the "Chomsky Problem" thought Noam's linguistic work was brilliant; his political writings were, IIRC, "naive." 

For at least 20 years I've wondered about the Chomsky Problem, but as I read more and more I came to the opposite conclusion: I thought Chomsky's linguistics were preposterous, while his criticism of the official lies of the State Department (and much much much more) were astonishingly acute.

I read books from the Right about Chomsky that were mostly ad hominem character assassinations. I've read far too many books by academics on his linguistics that see his grammar models as genius. Of course, the worldwide Left love his political books. There are at least five intellectuals who seem to have made their careers out of explaining, collecting, and championing Chomsky's oeuvre. 

George Lakoff is one cognitive neurolinguist whose work makes a hell of a lot of sense to me, and he seems to despise Chomsky. Chomsky seems to despise Lakoff. (See Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars on this, and I understand Harris has an update in the works!) Chomsky answers Lakoff's barbs by saying Lakoff doesn't "understand" his work. But Lakoff was one of the early bright followers of Chomsky's linguistics models, only to break with him - radically - when it became apparent Chomsky's linguistics would never be able to account for semantics (by which I mean meaning in language). And Lakoff (who has amassed quite a large body of scholarship himself) has barely had anything to say about Noam's politics. Lakoff is definitely a liberal of some sort...
So: Social Anthropologist Chris Knight (Wiki) has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I've been trying to solve it for 20 years; I now feel the euphoria that one of us has solved it. My many blogspews here as the "Overweening Generalist" on my own attempts to solve the Chomsky Problem now seem horribly unsophisticated. And so it goes...

 Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics, recently released, is an astonishingly well-written and researched volume that will probably be the most important work in the history of ideas, post World War II, that you'll read for quite some time, and I say this if only out of Chomsky's massive influence. Knight has made a stellar contribution to the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of intellectuals 1945-now, and has explicated lucidly a new and dynamite version of how the "cognitive revolution" arose. 

Knight has apparently spent the past 20 years researching this book and has managed to boil it all down to 240 pages, plus endnotes, a massive bibliography, and index. In an interview he mentioned that he'd finished a work in his field of Anthropology and hadn't really covered the origin of language in humans, because he felt he didn't know enough about the subject. Knowing Chomsky was Mr. Linguistics (having virtually single-handedly made it into a science and moving Linguistics from the Anthropology Department into the new Cognitive Science labs at your nearby Big University), he read Chomsky's linguistics in order to understand. And he ran into what I ran into: it's a cold, abstract to a painful degree, literally meaningless, an unworkable series of models that, - get this - by definition, has nothing to do with humans communicating with each other

Chris Knight says he admires Chomsky's political work, and there's no reason not to believe him; he clearly admires Chomsky's scholarship and courage in this regard. As do I. At times Knight's said there are a lot of conscientious academics and intellectuals who have criticized the US as imperial power, but no one really even comes close to Chomsky. That said...

                                    Noam Chomsky, whose linguistic models are 
                                   (finally!) seeming to be exposed as going nowhere

Anyone who has tried to follow Chomsky's many models of "Cartesian Linguistics" (AKA masochists) and thought to themselves, "Either I'm an idiot or this is a put-on, or possibly massive fraud" - that was me at one point - will know what I'm referring to: "Phrase Structure Rules," "Transformational Rules," "Grammar," "Deep Structure," the nature of the "language organ," "The Minimalist Program," "Universal Grammar," and "Merge"? All scientistic, all going nowhere, basically. (Knight runs all these down, pp. 173-179)

So, wait a minute: What? How can Noam write about lies and propaganda - which are by definition language and signs and symbols and social work among human beings - while his linguistics work has nothing to do with our social being? Because of an admitted "schizophrenic" life Chomsky admits he must lead, because, since the 1950s, he's worked in the very place that the Pentagon has funneled enormous sums of research money into: MIT. Perhaps because his quasi-kabbalistic linguistics allowed him that Ivory Tower opiate he needed to deal with the cognitive dissonance? If so, if this is anywheres near a close view of Chomsky, then it's dramatic and strange to the nth degree, no?

Chomsky once wrote an article on the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. He greatly admired the anarchists. He had just turned 10 years old. He decided he'd rejected Trotskyism by age 12. This is an interesting fellow, eh? 

Noam had friends help him land the job at MIT, where he was able to work on the Pentagon's new idea: that computers and cybernetics and information theory would help make the world safe for capitalism after WWII. The idea that there's a language acquisition device - a very sophisticated computer - inside every human being's head? Very appealing to Pentagon folk. This was a computer whose source code must be cracked! And Chomsky's work looked like it was moving in exactly the direction they wanted. Maybe we can develop a computer that can translate any language into English; that should help in the Cold War effort against the Godless Commies. Let's let Chomsky lead a disembodied cognitive revolution. And he did. But: Noam didn't want to do any intellectual work that would help kill people in the name of Omnicorp.

Here's where adept conspiracy theorists can take this book and run with it: did Chomsky hijack linguistics and purposefully make it useless? Neither Knight nor I believe this to be true: Chomsky seems to genuinely have ideas - which seem bizarre and fruitless to me - about a sort of purity of work in "science." There's one of William James's lectures on pragmatism from the early 20th century, in which James talks about two vastly different temperaments among thinkers: the "tough-minded" and the "tender-minded." Somehow, Chomsky is the apex of "tough-minded" when doing his political work, while his Linguistics is the very apogee of the "tender-minded."

His persona as a man of conscience and political integrity seems to have been a perfect match for the Pentagon: see? The top man in Cognitive Science is free to write his books, give talks criticizing the Pentagon all over the world. Because we're a free society! 

But how does Chomsky manage this cognitive dissonance? Does he feel it? What have been the unintended consequences of Chomsky's total oeuvre? Knight answers these questions to my satisfaction. To those of you who've heard or read that Chomsky defended a Holocaust Denier named Robert Faurisson, was/is friends with former CIA director John Deutsch, and went against virtually the entire faculty and student body at MIT in defending Walt Rostow in getting his job back at MIT, even though Rostow has been nailed overwhelmingly in Chomsky's books on Vietnam? Knight satisfactorily answers these queries, too. 

As an Anthropologist, Knight treats the heavily-funded-by-Pentagon cognitive scientists as a "tribe." Why did this particular form of nonsense catch on so wildly in postwar Unistat? Knight gives a fascinating answer. If the only other superpower seemed to run on ideas based in matter (Dialectical Materialism), then what if we do away with matter? And, to a large extent, they did. Information/data is weightless, travels at the speed of light: matter is secondary. So is the Body...

Along the way, you'll learn about the deep roots of Sociobiology (and a form of scientific feminism that needs to come back from being beaten down by anti-science Leftists in academia), how a Russian Futurist/surrealist from the first two decades of the 20th century influenced Chomsky without Chomsky seeming to know about it, and much more.

If you had to ask me, what was the overall value of Chomsky's linguistic work at MIT? I'd say it was  "Don't study language using this approach! Language is and has no doubt always been a deeply social thing!"

If you're interested in politics, philosophy, and the idea of "science" being an open and public - and possibly ultimately unified thing?: Decoding Chomsky is for you. If you're already a seasoned reader of Chomsky, I feel safe to say you'll learn a few new things from this book. For me, the book spoke to my interests in the origin of language (of which Chomsky's work is literally laughable) and the fallout from the new and wonderfully interdisciplinary "cognitive sciences." Knight let me on to some reasons I hadn't even considered about why my valuation of being a "generalist" has taken such a beating since the 1950s. Not long ago I wrote a piece about why I thought Alfred Korzybski's work had waned, and Knight fills in a lot of gaps there, too. I'm interested in the history of Structuralism, the academy, "PR", mass stupidity, intellectuals, embodied knowledge, Descartes, Plato, Newton, Galileo and Bertrand Russell, the possible synthesizing of all knowledge, why many people have the idea that "science" isn't for them, the idea of theory and practice going hand in hand, and the timeless notion that ideas have consequences and one clue to this is looking at the time and place and social situation in which ideas blast off and catch on. 

So, I loved this book. My intellectual friends have already heard WAY too much about my problems with Chomsky, and I'm only so lathered up over Noam because I love him, although I know it doesn't seem like it. Ya just hafta take my word. - OG

Chris Knight's website for further ideas about Chomsky and MIT

Here's an interview with Chris Knight in the journal Radical Anthropology from five or so years ago that gives a lot of the gist and pith of Decoding Chomsky. It was this interview, sent to me by Sue Howard, that felt like a revelation: "Here's a guy who seems to have maybe solved the Chomsky Problem!" 

If you have been taken by Chomsky's ideas about language and want to remediate, some suggestions:

-The Major Transitions of Evolution, by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary
-Adam's Tongue, by Derek Bickerton
-Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, by Michael Tomasello
-Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
-From Molecule to Metaphor, by Jerome Feldman
-Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Hrdy
-The Way We Think, by Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier

Here's something many of us are looking forward to: 7000 Universes: How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think, by the stellar Lera Boroditsky. Gotta wait till 2018, though...

If you're way too busy and don't think you can get to reading Decoding Chomsky soon, HERE is a pretty damned good podcast interview of Chris Knight about Chomsky, by the thoughtful and erudite publisher and science fiction writer Douglas Lain.

Post scriptum: After writing about the Two Chomskys in light of William James's ideas of the "tough-minded" and "tender-minded" I remembered I blogged on it four years ago.

                                         Psychedelische Grafik von Bob Campbell

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Surveillance in Unistat Pre-Snowden, File #23a

"Life is either a great adventure or it is nothing." (see below)
"A case can be made...that secrecy is for losers. For people who don't know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of all Cold War regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us."
-Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1998 book Secrecy: The American Experience, p.227

Moynihan the intellectual in the Senate. Published 10 books before going to Congress, vacillated from NeoLiberal to NeoCon. You figure it out.
Meanwhile, after the Berlin Wall came down, the intellectuals I was reading (kicked out of academia or were never part of it), or Noam Chomsky (as special case), were (mostly) predicting "Islamic Terrorism" as what the Pentagon would need in order to keep their rotten Show on the road. None of these writers I was reading were allowed on TV, so for most Unistatians, this idea didn't exist.
                                                Kathryn Olmsted, History professor at
                                                 University of California-Davis, who writes
                                                books on spies and national security issues

Earlier this year I read U.C. Davis History professor Kathryn Olmsted's book Right Out of California, which has the thesis that the Unistatian Right as it's now constituted started in the farmland of California in the Depression, because FDR's labor people realized he needed the South, so there were no protections for labor organizers of the farmworkers in California. I found it fairly persuasive, and I'm a fan of Olmsted's books now.

In this book I happened upon the story of a US General named Ralph Deman, who had accumulated a massive file on anyone he thought might harbor thoughts he might deem "dangerous," that is: anything that didn't toe the corporate state line. And he shared his files with right wing groups and the cops. (See Right Out of California, pp.151-157)

And some of us at one time thought J. Edgar Hoover was the only one. I thought so in my 20s.

*-regarding Ralph Deman, one of Olmsted's grad students responded to an email query about information sources on him. Obviously you can Duck Duck Go Deman, but Scott Pittman cited books titled Policing America's Empire and Negative Intelligence.
Esquire magazine decided to send William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Jean Genet to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in "Czechago." Genet had a line: "The danger for America is not Mao's Thoughts; it is the proliferation of cameras." (see Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, p.98)

Poet as Distant Early Warning system?
While Patty Hearst's trial was ongoing, it came out that her mother - Catherine - gave or lent $60,000 to $70,000 to a company called Research West back in 1969. What was "Research West"? It was "a private right-wing spy organization that maintained files supplied by confessed burglar Jerome Ducote." (Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders, Paul Krassner, p.35) There had been journalistic investigations of this, but Hearst-owned newspaper reporters were told to stop investigating, for obvious reasons. A Santa Cruz paper - the Sundaz, not owned by the Hearsts, did investigate, and found that, before Mrs. Hearst bought it, it was supported by "contributions" averaging $1000 and, well, I'll quote Krassner here on who was "contributing":

Pacific Telephone, Pacific Gas and Electric, railroads, steamship lines, banks, and [Hearst's own] The Examiner. In return, the files were available to those companies, as well as to local police and sheriff departments, the FBI, the CIA and the IRS. The Examiner paid $1500 a year through 1975 to retain the services of Research West. (p.35, Krassner)

It gets deeper and more (of course!) nefarious, but I'd like you to read Krassner's book to see how much we've missed from the Official Story.

                                        Investigative satirist and national treasure
                                         Paul Krassner

The good folks at Open Culture are currently (as of the date I'm writing this) featuring an animated 1958 Aldous Huxley predicting our world. "Dystopian threats to freedom." How alarmist! And yet...
Aldous immediately presented a threat to assholes like J. Edgar Hoover (who denied the Mafia existed, because they knew he was gay and could crush him, and furthermore, he protected and was friends with a major mobster, Frank Costello, see The Secret Histories: An Anthology, ed. by John S. Friedman, article "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," by Anthony Summers, 1993, pp. 192-200), and other protectors of the 1%. Huxley arrived in Unistat in 1938, and author Herbert Mitgang obtained Huxley's FBI files. "Of the 130 pages, 111 were released to me, many heavily censored. The net of them: he and his daring and original writings were watched." - Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors, pp.192-194

Mitgang surmises the FBI tried to understand Huxley's famous book Brave New World, but apparently couldn't. Most bright 10th graders I know understand it. This has always been what we're dealing with, folks: losers. Cops who profess to love the Constitution, but in reality hate every bit of it. They (not all of them, of course) seem to be carriers of what Wilhelm Reich called "the emotional plague." 

Mitgang notes from Aldous's file that Hoover and his loser cop-pals thought Huxley was a threat, largely due to his overt pacifism. Think about that for awhile. Furthermore, the FBI subjected Brave New World to "cryptographic examination," and Mitgang observes, "but nothing subversive was discovered."

[NB: A bit of divagation: The British philosopher Peter Strawson would read my judgments on Hoover and his minions (as "assholes," etc) and assert that my judgments, which merely imply that they should be held accountable, reflect attitudes which derive from my own participation in personal relationships: forgiveness, resentment, gratitude, indignation, etc. I find this a very plausible idea.- OG]
I'm a subscriber to Muckrock, which specializes in obtaining and making public government information via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Not long ago I wondered about Robert Anton Wilson's file, so I made a request and got nowhere. Then I realized Michael Morisy of Muckrock had already tried to get RAW's FBI file, and posted THIS. Note the FBI were "unable to identify main file records responsive to FOIA." ("Main file records"? What others might there be?)

Then, as we read "Congress excluded three discrete categories of law enforcement and national security records from the requirements of the FOIA." You and I wonder what this means. We can't know. We're given some bureaucratic numbers and symbols to prove that what Congress did is true. Okay. Obama ran promising the "most transparent" administration ever, and yet 'tis more Orwell: he's probably been the least transparent. What do these assholes think "Freedom of Information" means?

Stupidly, I then realized my blogging friend Tom Jackson had already covered this in 2013. (Note the one comment was from Bruce Kodish, who has self-published a wonderful fat biography on Alfred Korzybski. If you're as interested in Korzybski as I am, you must get hold of this; it's a gem and divulges scads of info on its subject, info that seems to have only been privy to Korzybski's closest colleagues.)

If you've been involved in trying to get info under FOIA, you may have acquired government files that are so redacted that what's left is meaningless. So, we go from Orwell to Kafka. If you're not convinced, look at what the FBI sent Morisy on RAW: they say records for the request might exist. Or they might not. They won't tell us.

But we can be practically certain RAW has a fairly substantial file, somewhere in the Belly of the Beast.

From RAW's introduction to Donald Holmes's book The Illuminati Conspiracy: The Sapiens System:

During my last year of employment as Associate Editor of Playboy, a certain executive came into my office one day and closed the door behind him. He told me that my home phone was tapped and that I was under surveillance by the Red Squad of the Chicago Police Force. 

I was stunned, and asked how he knew this. 

He replied that certain people in the Playboy empire had made an arrangement with a Chicago police official. The official received regular money through some circuitous route that was not explained to me; in return he notified his Playboy contacts whenever an executive of the firm was under police investigation. 

That was when I first realized how often there are spies spying on spies.

RAW finds that, because he was involved in the anti-war movement and had talked to some Black Panthers, some spook for some agency dreamed up that RAW was running guns to the Black Panthers. RAW guesses some low-level spy wanted to beef up his reports to justify his work. Later RAW found out that there were "over 5000 government agents assigned to infiltrate peace groups in Chicago alone" (p.8), and that this was all part of COINTELPRO, which was meant to make everyone in a peace group paranoid that one of another of their fellows were spies for the government, and in effect reduce the efficacy of the peace movement...because we're a "free country" and our "way of life" is so superior to the Rooskies.

RAW says no one at Playboy thought he was dangerous, and offered to support him legally if anything happened.

Then RAW became an intimate of Dr. Leary, so that file must be very thick. Or one would think. But we don't know how to ask/guess the right questions in order to obtain why they thought Robert Anton Wilson was worth surveilling/wiretapping, etc.

Through most of his time as counterculture writer and activist, RAW knew he was being spied on, but decided to be amused by it, quoting Helen Keller: "Life is either a great adventure or it is nothing."

I know all of this seems comparatively ultra-innocent in light of what we know now that we're in the Snowden Era; I just want y'all to be aware of how the Official Story about "who we are, as a nation" clashes so radically with "reality."

                                                  grafikai Bob Campbell

Friday, September 9, 2016

On Compulsive Diarists, of Which I Seem To Be One

As of yesterday, I've been "keeping" a journal for 27 years now. I've probably missed writing something for a given day maybe 20 times, probably less. It is compulsive, and obviously a habit.

I've filled cheap spiral-bound lined notebooks - the cheapest I can find at a stationery store or supermarket - both sides of the page, with lots of lists of things in the top margin of the page, little bits of arithmetic.

I'll fill one up over 11 to 16 months, find a swatch of cheap masking tape and write the beginning and ending dates on it, then plaster the tape onto the cover of the notebook, then stash it away in a closet with the others.

Sounds kinda sick? Maybe. Sounds like something Prozac might help? Maybe. After a couple of years of doing it, I went on a kick of reading all of Gore Vidal: his historical novels, his quasi-surrealist "outrageous" novels (like Myra Breckinridge, but there are others), but - and Gore would've hated to see this - I think he was a better essayist than novelist. Even though I often vehemently disagree with Vidal - especially on the value of certain writers over others - I'm always impressed with his quite great ability as an essayist.

                            Gore Vidal, who half-jokingly asserted that diarists were dangerous.
                            When he was in his early twenties he lived with Anais Nin.

And one day I was reading an essay when the topic of diarists came up. Vidal thought - perhaps this was part arch-humor - that diarists were suspect. He linked assassins (like Arthur Bremer, for example) to their diaries. People who wrote only for themselves were suspect. It hurt, a little. But I kept on.

What the hell do I write? Well, the first few years I'd write a lot, every day. Because my life seemed exciting, and I wanted to remember it. Many years later I sat down and read the things I wrote in my early twenties...and it seems like I'm reading someone else's life. Frankly, I sound like a precocious 14 year old girl. "I fixed my bike!" Exclamation points. I'd like to think I'd been putting off re-packing the ball bearings, but I probably just fixed a flat and...was glad I was able to ride again. (!)

Now, I'll often note the mundane. I'll cover four days on one page. Whether I did yoga or not, stuff I ate, people I exchanged emails with. A particular interaction with a guitar student from the day. Oh-so quotidian, and I know you'd be bored to read it.

A reader may note I used the term "diarists" in the title of this blogspew, but when I talk to my friends, I say "journal." Because I've read many famous published diaries (Anais Nin, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, the usual suspects) and they seem like "literature" to me. We know Nin thought there would be readers of her diaries. Having an audience in mind greatly changes the content and tone, to put it mildly. Certainly there are entries among my logorrhea that seem fit to be read by others, but when I think about it, I'm one of those compulsive jotters who's really okay with them not being read after my death. What the hell? Page through them for a day or two, have a laff, learn something new and lurid about beastly-dead Michael, then fer crissakes: burn the things for warmth. Or light.

Or just to buy space in a closet.

Okay, some of you actually liked finding great-grandma-ma's diary from the late 19th century. I get it. Do I see myself as great grandma-ma? No. But perhaps I should...

Another reason I don't call myself a "diarist" is that I used to think it gendered: women keep diaries; men write in journals. I don't believe that anymore, but I'm okay with being stuck in my ways. Also: there's a sense in which the bulk of my dull recordings of my days seems almost more like a "log" and don't even deserve the same term as what Anne Frank did.

To return to Gore Vidal's riff - which he repeated a few times - I think he has a point. When Jodi Arias was arrested she wrote a memoir (apparently) in prison, "in case I become famous." Ted Kaczynski, rather famously, had a manifesto. Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 and left over 300 injured, gifted us with a 1500 page Facebook document in which he railed against immigrants, multiculturalism, how Western culture is dead, how he felt close to his "Viking" heritage, etc. He also dropped some of his charm onto YouTube, which I haven't seen. Breivik plagiarized from Kaczynski too. The unkindest cut.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others, was found a paranoid schizophrenic concerned with the English language, alternative currencies, and a fear of mind control. He bequeathed something for us all on YouTube before heading down to the rally to shoot. (Understanding and representation of Loughner in my neural circuits are adjacent to Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle and secret service guys, and in a private moment, "Are you talkin' to me? And no wonder: Screenwriter Paul Schrader had Arthur Bremer in mind.)

The Virginia Tech killer, Seung-Hui Choi, sent an 1800 page statement to NBC, with a cache of personal videos and photos. He was inspired by Columbine. LAPD cop Chris Dorner, who was fired from the Ramparts division, left an 11 page manifesto about why he had to kill (it was a "necessary evil"), and he was pissed about the Rodney King incident and how he was treated by fellow cops. So he lost it. I remember watching that manhunt live on TV in Los Angeles. The cops looked about as ready to take Dorner alive as they were ready to take the SLA alive, once they were sure Patty Hearst wasn't in that safe-house in Los Angeles.

I could go on. And on and on. And you may say, "Yea, but you're talking about manifestoes and YouTube videos and Facebook rants." And I say, yea: I think social media has made a lot of people into diarists of a sort.

But really: the Vidal riff is too arch by half. Most of us do it for therapy or simply to ward off "real life" when it becomes a bit too intense. When I read a greatly abridged version of Pepys's diary a few years ago, I was struck by how often he went to the theatre and saw Shakespeare. He notes which play, and I think, "Gee, he saw Taming of the Shrew just a few months ago." But I'm like that with film noir. Read my...errr...journal and note how often I re-watched Double Indemnity or Out of the Past or The Killers or even Armored Car Robbery (saw this again two nights ago: lots of 1950 location shots near places in LA I used to live, and Charles McGraw may be the most hard-boiled actor in all of noir)...

The writer Sarah Manguso published a 93 page book about her 20+ years of compulsive diarizing, and I found this interview with Julie Beck interesting. I think Manguso's sickness (rare autoimmune disease that she wrote a book about) and middle class upbringing must have something to do with writing 800,000 words and counting. I have never counted words, not really caring. Manguso resonates with me about when she started: things in her life seemed momentous, and so much had happened to her, to her own mind. And she wanted to remember it. It is a way of dealing with mortality and memory, no doubt. She thinks keeping a diary will serve as a prevention against "living thoughtlessly." I can see that. But I'm too close to it all to be know to what extent it worked. It does provide solace amid anxiety. The word "graphomania" comes up.

For Manguso, pregnancy and its hormonal cataclysm changed her view of her compulsive diarizing: ordinary "reality" became as important as those "momentous" events, which usually, in hindsight were not so momentous. My favorite line from the interview:

Every exchange that I had with another person, everything I observed, every little throwaway moment I had on the subway observing this and that, the denseness of the experience just seemed unmanageable without writing it down.

For me, this is redolent of a Borges piece, or maybe something from Oliver Sacks.

Here's a huge difference between Manguso and me: I tend to want to "manage" my excitement over ideas I've read in books. Rarely have little impersonal moments with strangers made it into my log/journal/diary, unless they were exceptionally funny or wonderfully weird. I have witnessed verbal tiffs between friends and acquaintances and wrote what I could remember when I got home, in case anyone asks later. What did we do last Christmas? Hold on, I'll go look it up.

In the Beck interview Manguso comments on her diary book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, but also her other books. She says narrative, whether in reading or writing, doesn't come easy to her, hence her style. Then she adds, "and I don't need to read or re-read an entire book or re-watch an entire movie." But I love to re-read my favorite books. With each re-reading I'm able to see more and go deeper into that world. Same with films. But: I am not enamored with narrative either; I return to my books and films for mood, style, effects, form. Last night I saw Truffaut's Jules and Jim for maybe the eighth time. And still, it's only as the film nears the climax, that I'm reminded of the ending, which I remember being shocked by the first time. It's quite a climax...so why do I seem to only remember it hazily? I think because I watch it for the friendship of Jules and Jim, the depiction of countryside in France and Germany 1900-1930, French manners, the simmering mental illness of Catherine, the way they negotiate the menage, the accepted insanity of WWI and Jules and Jim being terrified they might kill each other, the interspersed file footage, the cuts and freeze frames and sheer beauty of Jeanne Moreau. The voice-over. Last night I noted that the first five minutes seem "new" to me (they're not, of course: my brain is blitzed by the romantic mood of the opening), and that the denouement seems to barely register for me.

I guess some relatively compartmentalized area of my self sees the climax, remembers the shock from my first viewing, sort of shrugs it off as "Of course you had to end a film like this that way for it to have the emotionally logical effect of such a plot, its syntax, the chaotic madness of the femme etc..." Then I quickly go back to being bathed in the incredible pathos of the film. (In truth I love Truffaut's 400 Blows even more.)

What actually happens to the characters at the end of Jules and Jim seems trivial to my emotional needs, apparently. I once worked with a librarian who could give a detailed chronological synopsis of what happens in a work of fiction, and I thought her simply marvelous for this display, so different was her mind from mine.

This apprehension of how individual nervous systems abstract signals from our environment and concentrate them: this otherness of other peoples' minds is what makes me love them. Because, somehow, perhaps my diarizing helped me in this appreciation, via personal feedback?

Finally, I put forth the idea that "social media" has made many of us diarizers. This may be part of why I don't "do" social media. I've yet to Tweet. I was on Facebook for one day. I've heard of "Snapchat" but I don't really know what it is, nor do I care.

However, I started blogging in order to see what I think about ideas, and maybe entertain certain strange minds that resonate with mine. If blogging of the OG sort can be considered social media, so be it: I do social media. But no doubt that rare handful of posts that are mostly about "me" must qualify as social media. And this post seems the most self-indulgent one I've done. I'll try to wait a long time before I write in such a personal way again. Some aspect of my nervous system seems to be pushing itself to the fore and saying "This wasn't an OG post!"

Oh, well.

Some Sources Read Just Before Writing This
"Poor Historians: Some Notes on the Medical Memoir," by Suzanne Koven
"The Pleasure of Keeping - and Re-reading - Diaries," by Elisa Segrave
"Personal Manifestos: Never A Good Sign"
Jia Tolentino's insightful review of Manguso's book about her diary

                                         ont bob campbell faire oeuvre graphique pour 
votre blog en demandant ici!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Occultists, Mystics, Artists, and Asthma

Recently, in the group reading of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger Vol 1 over at RAWIllumination.net (see this entry), there is a brief discussion about ceremonial magicians and their problems with asthma. MacGregor Mathers, Allan Bennett, Aleister Crowley, and Israel Regardie are mentioned as occultists who had varyingly lengthy bouts with asthma.

In Regardie's book on Crowley, The Eye In The Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley, there is a passage about when Allan Bennett moved in with Crowley and taught him a lot about magick:

Bennett must have also taught him the art of skrying in the spirit vision, traveling clairvoyance, investigating symbols, their meanings known or not, so that their true significance could be divined. He must have given Crowley a good training in Qabalistic processes too. There is an essay or two of his remaining which indicates profundity and depth of insight. It was an invaluable training for Crowley -- one too that is at the bottom of the very real skill he came to have in practical occultism. 

However, there was something else that must have had a far-reaching effect on him. And that was bronchial asthma. I imagine the damp, wretched English climate did nothing to alleviate this condition.

                                           Allan Bennett: taught Crowley a lot, severe 
                                           asthmatic, Buddhist, died in 1923.

Regardie mentions (this period with Bennett was around 1898-1900) that the drugs prescribed for asthma then were opium, morphine, chloroform and cocaine. These worked for a while, but then "narcosis" brought an end to a drug's efficacy. In Lawrence Sutin's biography of Crowley, Do What Thou Wilt, Sutin writes that Bennett's asthma was worse than Crowley's and we get this picture of Bennett from Uncle Al:

Allan Bennett was tall, but his sickness had already produced a stoop. His head, crowned with a shock of wild black hair, was intensely noble; the brows, both wide and lofty, overhung indomitable piercing eyes. 

Crowley believed that due to Bennett's asthma, Bennett, "regarded the pleasures of living (and, above all, those of physical love) as diabolical illusions devised by the enemy of mankind in order to trick souls into accepting the curse of existence." -p.66

Yea, I can see how asthma might contribute to such a worldview. Especially when whatever drugs you were using stopped working. Or made things worse.

Crowley's asthma got worse and worse through the first 15 years of the 20th century, and by 1919, when he came back to England after spending time in Unistat during World War I, a doctor prescribed heroin. He remained hooked for the rest of his life, one of the horrible ironies of Crowley's life, which was overwhelmingly about using the powers of the human Will to overcome anything.

In Wilson's book, asthma is discussed as a "chest disease" which some people catch and some are eventually cured. Because of my lifelong "moderate-severe" asthma, which has long been under good control by allopathic medicine, I dispute this picture of asthma, but acknowledge the wheezy sufferings of others quite readily. For example, Crowley smoked, according to Regardie (who for a while was Aleister's personal secretary), "dark perique tobacco by the continuous pipeful, which could only aggravate the already grossly irritated condition of his bronchi." (Regardie, p.114)

Regardie links asthma to stress, and I think he's probably right, but stress seems to make a flare-up of my own asthma less likely. This is one reason why I subscribe to the psycho-biological idea around asthma as a syndrome. Any asthmatic can tell you of conversations with other asthmatics in which a discussion of what your "triggers" are vary wildly. For instance, Regardie assumes the "wretched English climate" made Bennett's asthma worse, but I do really well during cold, damp rainy weeks. When growing up in the San Gabriel Valley part of Los Angeles, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds were menacing and treacherous to me. (ER at 3AM).

So certain climates, pollens, foods, exercises, pets, etc: there's quite a variance among asthmatics. It does appear to be an autoimmune disease, but read the best, most up-to-date technical literature on what happens with with the immune system and you'll quickly realize it's a pretty complex cascade of events. For some "reason" your body thinks it's being invaded by something dangerous, and over-reacts.

I assume this has something to do with epigenetic effects, early exposure to smoke or smog, the individual's microbiome, and the Hygiene Hypothesis probably has something to do with it too.

Regardie, after getting into a tiff with Crowley and splitting with him in 1932, developed asthma, and relates the time he spent with occultist Dion Fortune and her physician-husband, and Regardie's asthma attack, and how they took care of him. Regardie returned to New York and kept a correspondence with an asthmatic English writer interested in the occult, and this was where Regardie learned of the idea "that somehow asthma is an occupational disease of occultists and mystics!"-p.116

By the mid-1930s ephedrine and epinephrine inhalers were available, and these work better than anything else for asthma attacks, but they stimulate the heart too much. Regardie thought he had a heart attack at one point, eventually received Reichian therapy, pronounced himself "cured" and had little problem with asthma after that. Makes me wonder...

Occultist/magician Andrew D. Chumbley died in 2004. Seems like his asthma was as bad as Bennett's.

Robert Anton Wilson (who got polio at age 4, in 1936, and was "cured" by Sister Kenny's method, pronounced as "quack" medicine by the AMA) gave a long interview with Michael Taft in the final decade of his life. I find this section germane:

Taft: Do you think the early experience of polio had much effect on you?

RAW: Yea, I think it underlines the tone of anxiety and paranoia that you find in all of my novels. Basically, all the characters in my novels come to a point where they're convinced the universe has been organized just to destroy them!

This makes a lungful of sense to me. Not that I think asthma is anywheres near the catastrophe of polio, mind you. I do think being a young person, holed up at home sick, becoming fiendishly bookish and spending a lot of time alone with your own imagination? It can have lifelong effects. And there will be drugs...

[Asthma seems to accompany pronounced problems with anxiety, for reasons to be easily guessed at. And we all desire a feeling of agency, but I suspect childhood-into-adulthood debilitations such as autoimmune diseases (and polio) enlarge and distort this desire, possibly leading to a life of mysticism, art, or magick. A third desire that seems to bubble out of this for sombunall asthmatics: a yearn to escape. Okay, okay Dear Reader, you say you've always been perfectly healthy - if "anxious" -  and yet you desire these same "things"? You're in the club with us! Even when we're not suffering miserably, we love company. Mostbunall?]

Regardie says Crowley's "association with Allan (Bennett-OG) had another very important sequel. I have already indicated that he used drugs to assuage his sufferings from asthma. In doing so, he must have discovered that some of them had a distinct effect on the mind. They expanded consciousness, and produced a simulacrum of the mystical or religious experience." -p. 117

In the 1950s-early 1960s, Asthmador could be bought over-the-counter at drug stores. It had datura in it. It had datura's nightshade cousin, belladonna, in it. These, in sufficient doses, were truly hallucinatory. HERE's a trip report. RAW discusses Asthmador, and other nightshade hallucinogenics, in Sex, Drugs and Magick, pp.84-104.

RAW - one of the great scholars of the occult/mystical/hermetic tradition, said that modern occultism had three main roots: Madame Blavatsky, Crowley, and Gerald Gardner, who revived pagan Wicca, which thrives today. Gardner too had asthma.

I've not seen evidence that Blavatsky was asthmatic.

When I was a kid, I looked for lists of famous athletes who were asthmatic. As I got older, I pay attention when I find out certain people had it: Beethoven (coffee was probably the best remedy he had); Vivaldi, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Leonard Bernstein; Ambrose Bierce; Orson Welles; Jean Gebser. Etc. There are a LOT of us. Proust...

The best writing I've seen on the nightshade/tropane alkaloids is in Dale Pendell's Pharmako/Gnosis, pp.243-264

Tomatoes, potatoes, and hot peppers are also part of the nightshade family. Kinda makes me wonder.
The best history of asthma I've read was Asthma: The Biography, by Mark Jackson
The best book of a modern personal account of living a life with asthma that I've seen is easily Catching My Breath: An Asthmatic Explores His Illness, by Tim Brookes
Cannabis is a well-known bronchodilator. It works in a pinch, and because of Reagan's War on Pot, our best gardeners went underground, fiddled with the genetics of cannabis indicas and sativas, and now it's so good you hardly have to inhale much vegetable matter...which in the long run can't possibly be good for the bronchii, can it? At any rate, less is more with the Green Goddess.

                                                arte psicodélica por Bob Campbell