Archive for the ‘Higher Knowledge’ Category

When I suggested in the previous entry that our society is in the process of adopting a new standard of morality, I cited the acknowledgement of altruism by evolutionary theorists as just one example among several. But I’m thinking now that this single change could be the most important of all — that it has the potential to spark a philosophical upheaval that will redefine our entire culture.

Once we stop regarding the natural world as driven by ruthless self-interest, for example, it will compel us to undertake an equivalent transformation of our politics and economics. But even that would be only one minor aspect of a fundamental shift in our understanding of life and mind.

The greatest limitation of Darwinian theory has always been that it is hyper-mechanistic. It allows no role for consciousness or purpose, but insists that the entire history of life on Earth can be explained in terms of impersonal forces acting on organisms without their knowledge or assent.

For a strict Darwinian, living things have no goals in life other than to survive and pass on their genes. If creatures do happen to evolve — if fish turn into amphibians, or apes into proto-humans — it can only be the result of a series of accidental variations that turn out to have superior survival value.

But although this belief may have been acceptable in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the goal of science was to explain all of existence in terms of simple, physical cause-and-effect, it has now fallen out of touch even with its own field of study.

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Trying to make sense out of the stream of statements and press releases from Anonymous can drive you nuts. One moment they’re waxing all idealistic about North African revolutionaries or Bradley Manning, and the next they’re saying things like “Anonymous is not your friend” or “One thing you must know about Anonymous is, we only do it for teh lulz. We don’t care about your miserable life.”

Because of the hivemind nature of the group, in which everyone and no one speaks in its name, a certain amount of cognitive dissonance is probably inevitable. And yet I’m starting to suspect that what we’re seeing may not be simply a matter of competing agendas — that calling evil-doers to account on a global level and displaying a studied contempt for individual angst may be two sides of the same coin.

If there’s a paradox here, it’s much the same as the paradox inherent in the trickster figures who inhabit our most ancient myths. The trickster’s antics can be crude, outrageous, and even actively hurtful — yet they frequently have important and creative results.

In fact, mythic heroes of every kind are given to transgressive behaviors that would never be tolerated from any ordinary member of their society. They have sex with their sisters, insult their grandmothers, and are regularly lewd, vulgar, and obnoxious.

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I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

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After I posted the previous entry, Alexei remarked that he’d been impressed by the linked article about people responding to disasters with spontaneous self-organization. That told me I needed to go further into the subject — so here for consideration are the relevant paragraphs from “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim” by Johann Hari:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. …

On April 18th 1906, San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. … In San Francisco that week, all the city’s plumbers began — unpaid — to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organized into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. … It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after the disaster struck. San Franciscans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give away all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

These descriptions are mesmerizing — but they also raise a host of questions about the complex intersection of politics, human nature, and higher knowledge.

To start with, the response in San Francisco resonates strongly with the anarchist dream of a society run on the basis of everyone pitching in and doing their part. It’s somehow not at all surprising that when Dorothy Day grew up, she became a member of the IWW.

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 ”If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
   – attributed to Emma Goldman

Since finishing the previous post, I’ve kept puzzling over Tom Joad and why I don’t really warm to him. The last time I wrote about Joad, for example, was in an entry titled “The Democratization of Higher Knowledge,” where I described him as “hapless” and compared him unfavorably to that other mythic figure born of late 30’s populism, Bugs Bunny.

The difference between Tom and Bugs, of course, is that Bugs is an authentic trickster figure — the descendant of Rabbit and Coyote and Raven and all the others of that venerable lineage — and is totally in it for the Lulz. Tom Joad, on the other hand, is more like a Neolithic corn-god who achieves divinity through self-sacrifice without actually having to do anything.

It’s partly a matter of taste, I suppose — or perhaps not, because standing behind the persona of Tom Joad is the similar but far more dynamic figure of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill was a real person, a labor organizer and songwriter who was a member of the International Workers of the World (familiarly known as the Wobblies) — the group whose call for “one big union” is echoed in Joad’s “one big soul.” Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on what were apparently trumped-up murder charges and was mythologized after his death in the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” written in 1930 and set to music in 1936.

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I’ve noticed that a persistent theme runs through many of my blog entries, even those that seem on the surface to have little in common: the question of where history leaves off and myth begins.

I come face to face with that question whenever I speculate about prehistory. I do my best to respect the facts, so far as they are presently known, but I’m also aware than I’m telling stories based on my own ideas about human nature and the relationship between the past and the present. So I have to wonder: Am I writing about the real past or the past of my imagination?

Mythic themes also crop up in my present-day entries — but there I’m a lot more confident that I’m not just spinning tall tales. Julian Assange, Lady Gaga, and Anonymous are inveterate self-mythologizers. The people of Egypt and the people of Wisconsin have the courage to stand up against tyranny because they are touched by myth. Myth is the power source for all great historical events — but not for the great events alone.

The simple truth is that humans everywhere constantly engage in mythologization. We mythologize our own lives, the histories of our tribes or nations, and our accounts of the origin and fate of the universe. Every one of the cultural visions that I’ve been discussing in these entries consists of a mythic story woven around a framework of practical experience.

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Years ago, before I had a blog or even a website, I used to collect my stray thoughts and possible story ideas in an old-fashioned school notebook. One day it struck me that if sexism means discrimination based on sex, and ageism means discrimination based on age, then real-ism ought to mean discrimination based on degree of reality.

So I jotted down a few sentences about a world in which mythological creatures are the targets of prejudice and segregation — although some that are less fantastic in appearance might manage to “pass” as real. The politically correct, of course, would insist that all such beings were merely “differently realized.” And the excluded themselves would finally stand up for their rights and insist, “I’m exactly as real as I need to be!”

It never seemed to be more than a whimsy, though, so I left it at that and moved on. But recently, I’ve been getting a sense that other people have had the same thought — and perhaps took it more seriously than I did.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite websites, The Daily Grail, commemorated the recent death of venerable British occultist Kenneth Grant by linking to a review of one of his books written in 2002 by graphic novelist and chaos magician Alan Moore.

Moore begins the review cautiously enough, with a general discussion of Grant’s life and the “onslaught of compulsive weirdness” in his work, before tackling the vexing question of whether Against the Light should be taken as a novel masquerading as autobiography or a particularly deranged piece of non-fiction:

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When I described Julian Assange a few entries back as the living embodiment of the holism vision, I meant it quite literally. It was not intended as a metaphor. That really is how these things appear to work.

We humans may believe we invent the visions — but it might be equally true to say the visions invent us. At every step, they push us to become more fully human, or even larger than human. And they operate as if they have a life and identity of their own, going well beyond anything consciously intended by their makers.

In the course of writing these entries, I’ve repeatedly found myself saying things like “the holism vision did such-and-such” and wondered if I was just using lazy shorthand for “the adherents of the holism vision.” But it doesn’t feel like shorthand. It feels like a truthful description.

If the visions really do possess a kind of autonomous existence, however, that raises the question of how they organize, maintain, and perpetuate themselves.

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After I’d finished writing “The Great Migration Revisited” last week, I kept thinking about the mythic implications of sex with Neanderthals — and that led me, by a natural progression, to thinking about Lady Gaga.

I’d started thinking about Lady Gaga anyway, because she’s clearly important in terms of the cultural cycles that I’ve been charting and I want to understand where she fits in. But I haven’t been able to make much of her as a singer — her music frankly sounds to me like warmed-over bad-girl pop and I don’t hear anything new in it.

Lady Gaga as performance art, though — that’s something I can work with. So I took a book out from the library, Lady Gaga: Critical Mass Fashion by Lizzy Goodman, and I’ve been studying it for clues.

The first thing that strikes me about Gaga is the progression of her style, which went from basic rock ‘n’ roll outlaw in 2007, to hot blond with lots of leg and cleavage in 2008 — and then suddenly in early 2009 to a variety of outfits in which the human form seems to vanish under patterns of geometrical abstraction: triangular plates, spikes, bubbles, hoops, or disco ball mirrors.

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The closer I get to the present, the more difficult it is to make out exactly what’s been going on with the visions — and I’m finding creative imagination particularly challenging. This is partly because it’s still in its proto-stage, overshadowed by holism and multiculturalism, and has yet to take on a fully distinctive form.

But even the initial crystallization of creative imagination remains obscure. I’ve pegged it as falling around 1978-81, because I see those years as being equivalent to 1936-39, when multiculturalism emerged, but I haven’t been able to come up with any literary or artistic examples from that time. My suspicion is that visions based on inner experience, being the most esoteric, take longer than social or scientific visions to make a significant public impact.

I do see clear signs of a shift reflected in Alexei’s and my own work. In the late summer of 1979, as we were embarking on the final version of The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei wrote an introductory chapter that pulled together much of what we had been attempting to say since the early 70’s. It was so full of strange new ideas, however, that we soon realized it didn’t fit into our history of science fiction. We wound up detaching it from the book and submitting it separately for publication under the title “Science Fiction and the Dimension of Myth.”

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