Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brows

Lowbrow, but I rock a little know-how 
- Red Hot Chili Peppers 
"Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands - a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!" - Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge. 
- Nietzsche

From Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason:

Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth century lyceum movement – when no one thought of culture in terms of “brows” – and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated.

…We did indeed, as (Virginia) Woolf observed disgustedly, have “pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters” on our walls; my mother’s taste ran to Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas, I can still see the Degas ballerinas who adorned my bedroom walls, and it would not surprise me if that early exposure to middlebrow reproductions had something to do with a passion for art that did not emerge until my mid-twenties.


…The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing. Remnants of earnest middlebrow striving survive today among various immigrant groups, but the larger edifice of middlebrow culture, which once encompassed Americans of many social classes as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, has collapsed. The disintegration and denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism from the popular suspicion of highbrows and eggheads that has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a part of the American psyche. What has been lost is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.


…I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude and regret rather than condescension not because the Book-of-the-Month club brought works of genius into my life but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers were one of the many sources that encouraged me to seek a wider world. In our current infotainment culture, in which every consumer’s opinion is supposed to be as good as any critic’s, it is absurd to imagine that a large commercial entity would attempt to use an objective concept of greatness as a selling point for anything. That people should aspire to read and think about great books, or even aspire to being thought of as the sort of person who reads great books, is not a bad thing for a society.

This is one of those rare, but always welcome, times when I find a swirling mass of inchoate thoughts in my own head suddenly expressed clearly and concisely by another writer.

I was busy entertaining dreams of a career in music in my late teens and early twenties, and despite the urgings of my parents, chose to spend my time and energy focusing on that in lieu of a college education (leaving aside a handful of courses at a community college mainly taken just for fun). Yet I had always been bookish and introspective from childhood, and a genuine interest in ideas for their own sake and a curiosity about the wider world was always part of me. Thus, the type of earnest, autodidactic striving Jacoby describes turned out to be my means of entry into a (more or less) intellectual life.

Serendipitously, it was one of those community college courses, Philosophy 101, that really set my mind on fire and gave me a serious passion for knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, an inkling that there might actually be answers to the big questions that had always seemed too imposing and forbidding to approach before. Reading along with some of the greatest minds in history as they grappled with those questions, thrilling to each insight gained, seeing entirely new ways of looking at the world open up before my eyes – I’ll never forget how exhilarating that all was.

It was right about that same time that my passion for music was in full bloom as well, and, having been pretty introverted and distant from most of my peers, I was a relatively late arrival on the rock music scene. Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence listening to whatever my parents were listening to – oldies, light jazz, soul and pop – my exposure to rock and heavy metal was no less of a revelatory, earthshaking experience than philosophy would be a couple years later. Again, there was the feeling of being awestruck, just rapturously taking in this entire new universe that had somehow existed outside of my awareness.

Of course, much of that music and lots of those books seem silly to me now, almost two decades later. But, like Jacoby, I'll always feel grateful and affectionate for them because they pointed the way towards more timeless works. Hearing a rock musician favorably refer to a classical composer or classic author meant more to me than hearing it from the expected authority figures - parents, teachers, etc. I suspect she might be more inclined to lump popular music in with "mass popular culture" than with middlebrow culture, but at any rate, that was the path I took.

I do understand what she means when she complains of the lack of an alternative to that popular culture, though. Personally speaking, I know far too many people who are intelligent enough, as far as that goes, but who nonetheless have zero interest in reading for pleasure, in being exposed to new ways of thinking, in just simply challenging themselves. Work at a meaningless job they hate and vegetate in front of the tv afterward. Gossip and drink. As much as it's helped keep me from being "successful", I'm glad I was questioning that way of living before I was even able to grow facial hair.

Ultimately, my own experience has led me to think that art is a two-way street; you can't really say how a given piece is going to affect a reader or listener due to their own background and preconceptions. I think the border between the browlands is much more porous than people think, and as such, I feel less inclined to condemn and judge anything done from the heart, so to speak, as if all these false prophets are going to lead naive beginners astray if they're not firmly put in their place.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Vox Lobotomized


Sigh.

A new survey of the USA's religious beliefs and practices finds 55% of all adults — including one in five of those who say they have no religion — believe they have been protected from harm by a guardian angel.

I believe it was the philosopher George Carlin who said:

What is all this nonsense about angels? Do you realize three out of four Americans now believe in angels? What are they, fuckin’ stupid? Has everybody lost their goddamn minds? Angels, my ass! You know what I think it is? I think it’s a massive, collective chemical flashback from all the drugs smoked, swallowed, snorted and shot up by all Americans from 1960 to 2000. Forty years of unadulterated street drugs will get you some fuckin’ angels, my friend! Angels, shit. What about goblins? Doesn’t anybody believe in goblins? And zombies, where the fuck are all the zombies? I say if you’re gonna buy that angel bullshit, you might as well go for the goblin/zombie package as well.

I have an idea for a tv show, starring myself. A godless materialist will go around confronting people about their religious/spiritual beliefs, mercilessly skewering the narcissistic delusions and metaphysical absurdities that underlie them, teaching them to courageously confront life as it is while still deriving meaning and purpose from it. I'm thinking about calling it Touched by an A-hole.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dueling Scriptures

This is a few weeks old, but I'm lazy, so I'm just getting around to commenting on it.
"Mrs. Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor."
I know it's a fait accompli, but I've always been annoyed at the way both Republicans and Democrats try to pretend that Jesus would be voting their way if he were around today. I'm not a fan of arguments from authority in any event, especially when the authority in question is the equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. Quelle surprise! These people don't seem to be too impressed with all that turn-the-other-cheek stuff! And oh my stars and garters, popular conceptions of him have changed repeatedly to reflect contemporary hopes and fears!

I know, I know: the Beatitudes! Rich man, camel, eye of a needle! How can you deny that he was the ur-Marx, the original righteous dudemeister who just wanted us all to hold hands and sing? I've heard all that, but there's a few others that don't seem to get the same attention, for some strange reason:
Mark 16:16 - Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

2 Corinthians 6:14 - Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Mark 3:29 - But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.

Matthew 12:30 - He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

Matthew 10:33 - But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

Matthew 10:34 - Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Luke 14:26 - If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
Dude, you're harshing my mellow! And that's the stuff that made the final cut; some parts that ended up on the cutting room floor make him look even worse. In the non-canonical Apocalypse of Peter, he takes Pete on a guided tour, Dante-style, of heaven and hell, where he shows him the torments awaiting sinners, such as:

Children who disobeyed their parents being torn apart by savage birds of prey

Slaves who disobeyed their masters being forced to gnaw their own tongues

Blasphemers being hung by their tongues

Rich people being tossed onto a "razor-sharp" pillar of fire

Women who braided their hair to look attractive to men being hung by it

Men who were attracted to it being hung by their genitals
I'm always amused by the way people quote passages verbatim when they agree with the supposed message, but when passages like those above seem to be out of harmony with the overarching theme, we have to interpret them symbolically or figuratively until we make them mean what we want them to mean. Funny how that works.

Anyway, leaving aside all the problems with ancient texts that have been misinterpreted both accidentally and willfully over the course of two millenia, and leaving aside the fact that the Gospels were intended as propaganda, not a detached, neutral, objective, factual description of historical events so that people twenty centuries later would know exactly who said what and why, it seems clear that if - and I am saying if - Jesus actually existed, he was an apocalypticist who really, truly, literally expected the world to end any minute.

Mark 9:1 - And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

Mark 13:30 - I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Mark 14:62 - "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Suddenly his exhortations to give no thought to the morrow make sense; passages like Luke 14:26 seem to portray the mentality of a typical cult leader. He wasn't trying to create a blueprint for a peaceful, tolerant society for future generations to enjoy; he didn't think there would be any future generations. Maybe the people who best represent his message today are the guys walking around with sandwich boards telling you to repent.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

No, Rousseau, No

A friend loaned me the movie Into the Wild recently. I found it to be trite, typical romanticist nature worship, with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist - a spoiled college kid who thinks his parents are just, like, so shallow and materialistic, man, so he runs off on a two-year journey to the Alaskan wilderness where he starves to death, but not before arriving at the stunning conclusion that there's nothing particularly moral or impressive about living a narcissistic life removed from all human contact. Most of us manage to figure that out without leaving our family to agonize for years over our well-being, until they finally get news of the discovery of our corpse, but apparently I was supposed to be impressed by his determination to find authenticity. I was more struck by the way he didn't bother to tell his younger, adoring sister goodbye, nor contact her during his absence. In fact, several wiser people throughout the film attempt to make themselves available to him, but his head is too full of idealistic clichés (and too far up his own ass) to take notice.

In light of the fact that the above review is so inexplicably positive, I thought I'd dig up one written more than a hundred years before McCandless ever picked up a Jack London novel, but which nonetheless is far more penetrating:

You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wheels Within Wheels

(This is basically a prelude to Arthur's post below, which was largely his half of a conversation we had recently.)

Too funny.

I do have to take issue with the way Taibbi framed the narrative in his book, though. He essentially takes a look at how Uncle Sam has disappeared into his own navel, choosing to eschew quaint old reality in favor of narcissistic fantasies - on the right, typical religious fundamentalism; on the left, the "9/11 Was an Inside Job" nutcases. (I actually saw that on a bumper sticker on my way home this afternoon.)

I don't doubt that some liberals have let their understandable and well-deserved hatred of George W. Bush lead them down the rabbit hole into thinking that somehow he and his cronies pulled off the crime of the century. But I really don't think this is a genuine leftist phenomenon. I feel - from my own anecdotal experiences in lieu of anything like serious study, of course - the majority of conspiracy theorists are a bipartisan group that exist in their own bubble. Politics provides some of the details and setting, but the basic plot, that some evil overlord is hatching nefarious schemes and doing whatever it takes to keep them covered up, is the real heart of the myth.
I guess they just sit around, watching their old X-Files DVDs until something like this happens, and then pick up right where they left off with whatever shiny object held their attention previously.

Back in my anarchist youth, I read a lot of stuff in that gray area where lefty anarchism overlapped with more rightward libertarianism (and where both had a nodding acquaintance with the black helicopter, fluoride-in-the-water crackpots). I remember reading the exact same stuff regarding the Oklahoma City bombing, such as "retired military/demolitions experts" claiming that there was no way a fertilizer bomb could have possibly done all that damage, that it had to have been done by high-tech interior detonations.

Then there were claims that some old copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine (I think it was) had a group picture with a man identified as a government agent who looked exactly like Timothy McVeigh, which proved that for some odd reason this clone was used to frame McVeigh for a crime that the government committed. Apparently he "knew too much" (don't they all) from his days as a solider and had to be silenced, or something. That one is a favorite of mine - imagine thinking that one photo of a guy in a magazine is enough to conclude that he's someone else's identical twin, even though you've never met either one in person, let alone examined them carefully.

It supposedly beggared belief that this guy could plan out this complicated scheme and then get caught by doing something as boneheaded as driving away with no license plate on his getaway vehicle. Or that he would murder a couple hundred people and yet calmly allow himself to be arrested by some Mayberry deputy.

And no conspiracy would be complete without Tha Jooooz
! making an appearance - apparently they (the Mossad) did it supposedly to pin the attack on this or that swarthy Arab country so that we'd go bomb them in retaliation. And of course this one got taken out of storage and dusted off, with the added myth that Jewish workers in the towers were warned in advance not to go to work that day.

So when I saw the same nuts come back out in 2001 with the same warmed-over theories after disappearing earlier when McVeigh admitted to Gore Vidal that yes, damn right he did it, I began to realize that they'll just attach this kind of convoluted scheming to any sort of disaster, regardless of who the president is or what political party is ascendant (and usually, the coverup is assumed to be bipartisan anyway. They're all part of the One World Government!) They've mastered the art of raising a ton of questions that don't often seem completely batshit crazy taken individually, so they leave one with a feeling of, "Hey, maybe there is something to this..."

One blogger *coughBartCopcough* who's gone a good way down this particular rabbit hole has a thing where he prints letters from people who are bemoaning the fact that he takes all this seriously, and responds with a hypothetical: "Would evil men kill for power and money?"

Well, in the abstract realm of Platonic Forms, sure, but you can easily spot the sophistry here: just because some generic "evil men" might under certain conditions doesn't mean that these particular scumbags did in this particular instance. The dishonesty of that hypothetical is that it tries to imply that you're defending BushCo. as too moral to do such a thing for such an overwhelming temptation, and takes your inability or refusal to do so as some kind of circumstantial proof in favor of the conspiracy. The problem for them is that this kind of vague "what if this, couldn't it be that, isn't it strange" shit is all they have to offer.

And how deluded do you have to be to think that you, sitting in front of your home computer in your stained t-shirt and Underoos, are going to somehow dig up and view all the pertinent evidence from the thousands of sources available, talk to all the witnesses, and so on, even granting the assumption that you're qualified to analyze it accurately?
I recall reading something written after Princess Di died, when there were theories galore about how the royal family had snuffed her out to prevent her from marrying her Arab boyfriend, etc. - the writer said that what struck him/her about these conspiracies is the way the believer seemingly needs to believe that absolutely nothing ever happens by chance, that every important event is the result of someone's careful planning. Even though it seems like a dystopian nightmare to think that some evil overlord is pulling all our strings, it can be strangely comforting for people to at least feel that someone is in control of the whole enterprise, rather than the more likely explanation that not only is there no one at the wheel, there's no wheel to begin with.

An Epistemological Immune Disorder

Conspiracy theories don't appeal as plausible explanations of important events just because of the internal coherence of their arguments. They take advantage of the intrinsic implausibility of even ordinary events in the world. (And isn't life itself implausible? The Universe? Did it just happen? Religion is the ultimate Conspiracy Theory. Conspiracy Theories are the Creation Myths of our postmodern woes.)

Why isn't there a photograph of the wreckage of the airliner that supposedly crashed into the Pentagon? Why was there not more damage? Yes, you're absolutely right, the cogency of conspiracy claims can't survive an encounter with Occam's razor. But Occam's razor favors the simpler or simplest of explanations for phenomena. Real-world events are never simple. There are always ragged edges, elements shrouded in obscurity, horizon on horizon of potentiality and possibility, contingency and conditionality (it could have happened that way, therefore it did; think who'd stand to gain... Wouldn't it be just like them...). CTs couldn't flourish if even non-conspiracy-created events didn't have baffling inconsistencies, poor special effects, fuzzy production values, and bad acting. Into each life a little Roshoman must fall.


We agree that there is a metaphysical hunger for order, meaning, design at work in (some) conspiracy theorists. Yes, it is distressing to think that literally world-shattering events happen by chance, or at least contingently. Yes, the thought of powerful human or divine forces at work behind these events strangely dignifies them and palliates the suffering they cause. But sometimes it's precisely the human agency that's hard to stomach. JFK conspiracy theorists would rather believe any group or associated group of powerful people (CIA, Nixon, Johnson, Castro, Mafia, et al) was responsible for the assassination than admit to themselves that a random sub-nonentity named Lee Harvey Oswald managed to blow a gaping hole in world history. Maybe there's a holdover nostalgia here for the days when only gods, Saviors, kings and generals determined history. Democracy and the ascendancy of the masses gave us Hitler (who is simultaneously a conspiracy theorist, a conspirator, and the cause of the worst war in human history -- a walking trifecta of evil). They gave us even less accomplished and apparently peripheral individuals who suddenly emerge here and there (Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray) out of the shadows and fuck things up on a massive scale. Perhaps they act out the darker side of our own residual longing for imperial cogitos at the history-making controls. They're the stalkers of grandeur whose one aim in life is to bring those that loom over them down to ground level or six feet under.


Paranoia seems the most apt word to describe the globalizing, totalizing mania to connect disparate, chancy events into one mega-conspiracy, with Judge Schreber's solar god at the center fucking us all in the ass from a great height. But the evil acts of our government, themselves committed by paranoiacs, spread paranoia among even sane people like a virus, and evolutionary survival mechanisms tend to kick in wildly when the world around you takes on an opacity filled with a mixture of real threats and threatening fantasies.

It was the philosopher Stanley Cavell who suggested skeptical knowledge in a post-Cartesian world has a paranoiac quality because it systematically denies the intuitive empathetic knowledge we have of others. He takes Derrida as a prime example: Derrida denies any logical connections or motivated links between words and meanings, not only between I and thou.

One scholar (Bernard Yack) traces our predicament to Rousseau and the French Revolution. In classical times it was assumed that fate or free will were the ultimate deciders of one's actions and ends. The government might be as evil as it will, it in itself was not the source of basic metaphysical/existential unhappinesses. Rousseau changed all that. Henceforth it was the state that reached into our very souls and kept us in chains. Only by a radical change of regime could we accomplish a radical improvement in our inner selves as well as in our economic conditions. The French Revolution fed on Rousseau and gave us paranoia, for the first time, on a grand scale and as a mass-motive of political history. And once again, paranoia was both the cause and effect of the fact that everyone was in fact conspiring against everyone else. And Marxism fattened on the same mentality, and that led to the paranoia of the Red Scare, and now paranoia was enshrined in the logistics and ballistics mutual suspicion known as the Cold War. Human destiny was fed into a vicious feedback loop, but a centralized and monolithic one. In the age of terrorism the feedback loop is plural, more like a feedback labyrinth of awful possibilities and floating dread as terror cells cancerously proliferate on the sick body politic of failed nation states and metastasize via the airlines and the Internet from anywhere to your door.

CTs rose to prominence in the wake of the Nixon debacle and such revelations as the exposure of the Tuskegee experiment, Army experiments with exposure to nuclear radiation and LSD, the Watergate Scandal… All these fed the rise of CT in the 60's and in recent times gave birth, of course, to the cult of The X-Files. Again, suspicion of the government is justified by repeated acts of evil on the government's part. But paranoia so generalizes suspicion that it dulls it. The evolutionary value of wariness depends on directedness, accuracy, discrimination, and the ability to turn the state of mind off. Paranoia is wariness turned up high and stuck in the on mode.

The Nazis’ Aristotle, Carl Schmitt (a darling of neoconservatives in general and John Yoo in particular) traced the origins of the state (and, indirectly, CT) back to a primordial right-wingness in the human psyche. The primal dichotomy is not between Self and Other (a namby-pamby coffeehouse abstraction) but between Friend and Foe. Here's the vicious feedback loop that feeds all subsequent feedback loops. He must have been a fan of Hobbes.

Even more primordial, one could even say autonomic, epistemological dichotomy is that of Me not Me: the macrophage’s shibboleth with which it confronts all microorganisms in its role as one of the immune system’s foot soldiers. If the bacterium, for example, doesn’t flash the right papers, the macrophages swallows it. When the body conspires against its own health and the immune system attacks itself, the result is (e.g.) lupus. Paranoia is an epistemological immune disorder.

To get back to the starting-point: conspiracy theorists need to see the pattern in the carpet. The one factor that unites all the disparate phenomena they classify as hoaxes is the compulsions of the theorists themselves to see all crucial events as hoaxes—not a conspiracy-based interpretation of any one historical event (which could be valid and may even be correct), but the wholesale buying-in that extends to any and all of the many CT-interpretations circulating out there. This kind of paranoia may ultimately stem, not from the sexual self-repression Freud gave as the ultimate etiology of Schreber’s psychosis, but from a repression of the otherness inside us. Maybe one’s own existentially-stressed-out interiority, in a random-quantum-"chasmos" of possibilities still subject to the classical physics of death, is the real repository of the alien, the enemy, and the parasite. Our own psyches are crowded with processes and cross-purposes just too strange to look squarely in the face – unless you’re Nietzsche. Someone out there must be, not controlling, but fumbling around with these thoughts. A C-student demiurge, perhaps?

What Wilde said to a bad poet who couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get published may apply here. The poet said, “There’s a conspiracy of silence against me. What should I do?” To which Wilde replied: “Why don’t you join it?” Conspiracy theorists should give up and join the tiny conspiracy against mass hysteria.

Arthur Chapin

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Very Base String of Humility

Today marks the day that I am the exact same age that Mozart was when he died.

So, I have until tonight to write 41 symphonies and a few hundred sonatas, concertos, operas, arias and overtures, or I have to conclude that my life has been a wretched failure.