Archive for the ‘Emerging Visions’ Category

 ”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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Having written last week about the Family Farm Defenders’ call for a convoy of tractors to join the Wisconsin protests, I was particularly interested in the speech delivered on Saturday by that group’s representative, Tony Schultz.

The first thing I noticed was that Schultz was wearing a trucker’s cap almost identical to one in the image of a stereotypical hipster that I’d linked to in that same entry — but was doing so without any trace of hipster irony.

I’d suggested there that “guerrilla gardeners give the impression of acting more symbolically than out of a sense of necessity. Hipsters similarly long to put their holistic ideals into practice but wind up embracing such eccentricities as fixed-gear bicycles. But radical farmers, driven by the urgent politics of food, show no such self-consciousness.”

Damn, I love it when the universe makes my points for me.

What struck me even more strongly, though, was that Schultz began his remarks by asking jocularly, “Has anybody seen Tom Joad?”

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It’s always pleasant when people show a proper sense of historical precedent. So I was gratified to find that the latest video from Anonymous, which announces an all-out attack on the current corrupt financial system, concludes with the classic call for civil disobedience issued by Mario Savio during the Sproul Hall sit-in at Berkeley on December 2, 1964:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”

I quoted that speech a year ago in the course of an entry on the rejection of machine society by the 1960’s counterculture. And in another entry a few weeks later, I identified its inspiration as a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), which first set forth the principles of civil disobedience:

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Thoreau, like Savio and now Anonymous, was issuing his call for civil disobedience at the very onset of a countercultural period. All three are kindred spirits, speaking to one another across the years from identical moments in the cultural cycle.

And though it’s the 21st century now, and the old imagery of inexorably grinding machines may no longer be as relevant as it once was, that call still resonates as strongly as ever. “Until our demands are met,” Anonymous warns, “and a rule of law is restored, we will engage in a relentless campaign of non-violent, peaceful, civil disobedience.”

Just what Anonymous may be planning, and how effective it will be, are yet to be seen. But as a sign of the times, the attempt itself appears both appropriate and inevitable.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

As the emerging counterculture takes shape, the pieces of the kaleidoscope are starting to shift and fall into new patterns at a rapid pace. One of those patterns has been revealing itself in Wisconsin, where we are seeing an unexpected rebirth of union activism for the first time in more than 50 years.

By the 1960’s, unions in the US had effectively ceased to be a force for change. They had bought heavily into the American dream after World War II, and as long as wages were high and industry was booming, their inclination was to resist anything that threatened that way of life. Their membership was for the most part socially conservative, wary of desegregation, and fiercely anti-communist.

The inevitable outcome was a parting of the ways between the social and political radicals of the 60’s and the unions. There was always a certain regret about this in the counterculture, and the occasional working-class hippie was treasured as a badge of authenticity. But as Nixon’s silent majority turned into Reagan Democrats, the divide only grew wider.

Over the past decade, though, something has started to change — as can be seen in the fetishizing of working-class style by middle-class hipsters that began about 2002. But the hipster embrace of blue collar chic has been unilateral and imbued with self-conscious irony. This makes the sincere and entirely non-ironic nature of what is happening in Wisconsin all the more striking.

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A few weeks back, I commented in passing on the devastating attack recently directed by hivemind group Anonymous against internet security firm HBGary.

Despite that stinging humiliation, HBGary planned to go ahead with a presentation it was scheduled to deliver at a major security conference — until the presentation team arrived to find a sign in their booth reading, “Anon . . . In it 4 The Lulz.”

At that point, the team packed up and left, complaining, “They decided to follow us to a public place where we were to do business and make a public mockery of our company.”

Mission accomplished, at least as far as Anonymous was concerned. But I’ve been wondering ever since about that mocking sign and the strangely cryptic word “Lulz.”

For those who are just coming in on the story, Lulz is a noun derived from the exclamation LOL — as in lolcat — which is, in turn, an internet acronym for Laughing Out Loud. If you look it up in online dictionaries, you’ll find doing something “for the lulz” defined at doing it for laughs, often at someone else’s expense.

But although saying “I did it for the lulz” can certainly be used to justify bad behavior, its application to the HBGary situation suggests something deeper.

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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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I’ve got the midwinter doldrums and heavy-duty posts are coming hard. So I’m going to take a break by doing a simple round-up of some of the trends and movements that I see as about to coalesce into a holism-based counterculture.

Trends alone are not sufficient, of course. A counterculture explodes only when there is both a volatile mixture of elements and a spark to ignite that mixture. But these trends are what will fuel the fire — and each of them is already displaying the distinctive pattern of thought that will shape the next decade.

The movements that have been catching my eye are primarily offshoots of the environmental activists and computer hackers that I previously described as heretics of the 1980’s. Their roots go back to the potent blend of holism, multiculturalism, and do-it-yourself-ism nurtured by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But what I’m seeing now suggests a new degree of assertiveness and philosophical self-awareness, along with a dedication to the nitty-gritty of everyday life that is very different from the ecotopian romanticism of the 80’s.

These movements fall into three broad groups, which intermingle at many points. The first is typified by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. It is rooted in the hacker ethic and in the belief that access to tools and information should be considered a fundamental human right.

The second, which I’ve only become aware of recently, involves a new wave of environmentalism that over the last two or three years appears to have moved away from any expectation of government-based solutions and applied itself instead to direct action.

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I learned a new word this week — “horizontalism.”

I’ve actually run into it twice now, both times in the context of the Egyptian protests. The first use I spotted was from a poster in the anarchism forum at reddit, who wrote:

I finally heard on the Al Jazeera stream an answer from a real protester, instead of a talking head, to the question they keep flound[er]ing over, “Don’t the protesters need a leader?” — the answer finally came from a blogger who has been in the square, “the people are self organized, there’s no need for a leader to tell them what to do…people are feeding each other, cleaning the square, we all have the same demands, there’s no need for any leaders to tell us what to do”. …

People of reddit, and the anarchism subreddit specifically, I call on you to spread the anti-authoritarian / horizontalist analysis of what’s happening, the reality on the ground is different than how the media, yes even Al Jazeera, is playing it. The ‘international community’ is waiting to figure out who the new authoritarians they can interface with will be… but what is happening on the ground is a rejection of that failed model.

That post really jumped out at me because it sounded so much like what I’ve been saying here about the difference between the failing democracy vision, with its continuing reliance on hierarchical authority, and the completely self-organizing multiculturalism vision.

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When I began working on the previous entry, I intended to discuss a number of ways in which the holism vision is overturning the old concept of the autonomous individual. But I wound up focusing entirely on recent developments in biology — and that tells only half the story. The other half has to do with the emerging concept of a global community of mind in which every one of us participates — what is coming to be known as the hivemind.

The idea of the hivemind is not new. It has been associated with the holism vision since the 1920’s, when the South African writer Eugene Marais theorized that every termite nest functions essentially as a single organism. Marais’ ideas were plagiarized by the prominent Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck in his enormously influential The Life of the White Ant (1926), and from there they quickly passed into science fiction.

Initially, any speculation that human beings might have hiveminds of their own was treated as a grounds for almost Lovecraftian horror. David H. Keller’s trail-blazing The Human Termites (1929), for example, begins by hypothesizing that wars occur because nation-states are “really collections of human beings organized as the termites are, each under the control of a Supreme Intelligence” — but it soon veers off into nightmarish fantasies about human-termite crossbreeds and giant insects destroying New York City.

Even 25 years later, J.R.R. Tolkien could use a grotesque image drawn directly from Maeterlinck to describe the effect on the armies of Mordor of the destruction of Sauron’s Ring: “As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless.”

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