Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Everything You Know is Wrong

Image Source: Free Will Astrology.

Pessimism dominates the Millennial Zeitgeist. The thrill of predicting apocalypse is everywhere, whether you are an environmental activist, a light sweet crude oil trader or a religious eschatologist. After the stock exchange, one of the areas of our culture most devoted to predicting the future is astrology. Without discussing its credibility, one can find in astrology's popularity an index of our desire to read the signs and predict what is coming. It is a gauge of our interest in knowing time that is unknowable, and of how we try to know it. 

The astrologer Rob Brezsny advocates optimism. To teach spirituality, he inverts beliefs we take for granted. A few years ago, he went out onto a freeway in California and gave away handfuls of money to passing motorists. This was his attempted karmic counter-balance to the greed of pre-Great Recession America. At the time, it looked crazy. But remember that Brezsny spends a lot of time thinking about the future. And in a way, what he did that day was a true indicator of what was coming. A Recession-ridden society is one forced to reevaluate its priorities and values, to give rather than take, to return to its roots.

Brezsny's optimism is a far cry from the bright eagerness of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who hang their hopes on the Technological Singularity. Boomers both, still driven by the courage of their convictions as well as irrepressible confidence, it is Brezsny who appears far more attuned to the human side of massive change. One thing he argues is that we are living through the apocalypse right now. (Others think that the apocalypse has already happened and we are blindly toiling through the wreckage; in this view, World War I is often seen the turning point that changed everything.) In five years, or ten, or twenty, we will look back and say Brezsny was right, in the same way we might now say it, looking back on his antics on the motorway before the Great Recession. What does it mean if our world is on the verge of becoming 'post-apocalyptic' - and why should that be a good thing?

Der Totentanz (Danse Macabre or Dance of Death.  Matthäus Merian.  Image Source: Bavarian State Library via Biblio Odyssey.

Caption for the above image: Murals of the dance of death (danse macabre or totentanz) scenes were painted on walls in a church and a convent in Basel in the early to mid-1400s. They are important examples of the tradition since they are the link back to its medieval origins and also because they served as the inspiration for the classic iconography produced by Hans Holbein the Younger in his 'Imagines Mortis', first published in 1527.  The murals were eventually destroyed and the most faithful reproductions of the figures in those scenes were said to have been engraved by native Basel artist, Matthäus Merian, for his 1621 book 'Todtentanz, Wie Derselbe..'. ... the first full version of this work was made available online recently by the Bavarian State Library.

Picking through the daily avalanche of information to find the thread that will make the stuff of mainstream history, the core narrative future people will tell themselves is the essence of what 'really happened' in our times, is nearly impossible. Yet there are plenty of people who are paid a lot of money, especially in the financial and commercial market research industries, to do that.  For the most part, they are doom-sayers mobilized to drive home a miserable, self-fulfilling prophecy.

As I have mentioned before on this blog (here, here and here), visiting the oracle in Greek tales is a symbolic sign that the protagonist is in trouble. The regular reality the character trusts has come apart, and the hero is giving up control over what remains as a last resort in an effort to gain forbidden knowledge. Weirdly, the last stab at maintaining sanity and stability is heading over to the temple to read sacrificed bird entrails. We have reached that point. The Technological and Information Revolutions have upset regular reference points.  Everything looks the same, yet is different. Over the past decade, this trend has been unsettling anyone sensitive to upheaval. And when the stock market failed, our usual oracles failed us.

Millennial kitsch from Design Toscano: A zombie garden ornament.  Image Source: Telegraph.

This is the source of 'doom and gloom' culture. It is somewhat similar to the Medieval dances of death. Our obsession with zombies and vampires falls into that territory. These tropes fit well with the conviction, whether cultural, environmental, economic, political, religious, or purely metaphorical, that the forces of good and evil are locked in an ever-escalating conflict where there is no sure outcome, where evil may win.

Brezsny is one of few people who thinks otherwise. He feels we are "getting closer to waking up" and that "evil is boring." He has written a book about his ideas called Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: "We're not looking for starry-eyed optimism and repressed boosterism. Pronoia is not boosterism for empty-brained people." He writes:
"In recent years, the doom and gloom prophets have become even more strident and brazen in blurting out their cacophony of curses. Joining them in the mad rush to shower condemnation on the entire human enterprise have been millions of emboldened everyday complainers who've also become addicted to the sick thrill of chronic rage.

I'm sometimes tempted to view the growing hordes of fulminators as a black magic army flinging hexes and maledictions on everything they see.

But whenever I brush up against that fear, I stop my mind from its careening and refocus my inner eyes. ... I soon realized that I was by no means a lone crank crying in the wilderness. I became aware of an ever-growing rebel crusade -- swarms of pilgrims and activists and artists and creative optimists who had signed on to the conspiracy to shower blessings, devoting themselves to the work of not just saving the world but making it more beautiful and mysterious and interesting.

I wasn't under any illusion that they were suddenly arising because of my influence. Rather, my sense was that my book was just one symptom of an energy that was awakening in the whole world. I was a current in the flood."
Brezsny has posted a link to a related initiative called Pronoia Resources, a site that doles out uplifting messages. Among these is a link to a TED video below, featuring a lecture by Harvard's Steven Pinker, originally entitled Everything You Know is Wrong (original link here).

Steven Pinker on the steady rise of civilization. Video Source: Youtube.

Caption for the above video: "Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world's leading thinkers and doers are invited to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes -- including speakers such as Jill Bolte Taylor, Sir Ken Robinson, Hans Rosling, Al Gore and Arthur Benjamin. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, politics and the arts. Watch the Top 10 TEDTalks on TED.com, at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/top10."

So there it is.  Today's wisdom, straight from California (which happens to be bankrupt - but never mind): Don't worry, it's all good.


  1. You're probably already familiar with the Firesign Theatre album whose title Pinker appropriated, and its dystopian predecessor "I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus". (And speaking of shadowy Big Brother scenarios, Spellcheck just told me that 'dystopian' isn't a word!) If not, "...Bozos..." is a 1971 album about a future where the United States is subverted by a Disney-style corporation which employs a robot cowboy cartoon character as President (so that would be, oh, ten years in the future?). Eventually, monkey-wrenching reactionaries cripple the automated machinations by posing a paradoxical question to the main frame. There are, of course, precedents in American pop culture for scenarios for which the structures (social, political or even mechanical) in which people put their trust go horribly wrong ("Dr. Strangelove", "The President's Analyst", numerous "Twilight Zone" episodes), but "...Bozos..." was an example of science fiction stories no longer needing to use alien invasions as metaphors for political conflict. Scientific innovations were then being actively pursued for sinister purposes. The Soviets claimed to be experimenting with ESP for espionage and we followed suit with a psych/ops department. State of the art wiretapping techniques were behind the Watergate scandal and in 1975 Donald Rumsfeld famously accused Russian submarines of carrying "radar-cloaking devices", which he claimed was sufficient justification for launching a nuclear first strike. (There was no such technology being employed, but thankfully Pres. Ford didn't see Soviets being sneaky as a reason to kill millions of civilians.)
    In the U.S., the Watergate-era feeling of having trusted an authority or government who eagerly betrayed or even endangered you translated into "Silent Running", "Soylent Green", "Westworld", "Futureworld", "Logan's Run", "Omega Man", "THX1138", "Dark Star", "Terminal Man" and finally "Wizards", the Bakshi animated feature that ran up against the optimistic brick wall of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters..."
    It's not a coincidence that there was an explosion of personality-driven cults in the U.S. at the time. And no matter how benign or malignant their methods, the one thing they all have in common is circulating misinformation about general danger and reinforcing fears that normal avenues of addressing danger are in fact more dangerous themselves (the classic case is Scientologists characterizing failures in the psychiatric profession as being their whole secret purpose). There is an endless parade of self-appointed messiahs who have convinced large groups that their predatory sexual behavior is a small price to pay for being shielded from the outside world. An outside world, incidentally, described to them entirely by the predator, since they don' experience it themselves.
    This is what mass media has become. When I was a kid it was used to convince you that you were ugly and smelled bad and couldn't be loved unless you bought products that changed that. Now that same methods are being used to convince you that your government is a foreign invader from some place else and that you don't actually take part in it. Your only chance for survival is to dismantle it, leaving you in need of someone to give you security and protection. Oh, look, that big strong capable corporation is being friendly and benevolent by allowing me to breathe air and drink water without even asking for their permission. I wonder if they'll be my friend?

  2. PBLFSDA - thanks very much for your comment. For readers who do not know the Firesign Theatre album, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everything_You_Know_Is_Wrong

    I'm not sure how much pessimism is due to the actual creation of shadowy power structures, for example in misdirected mass media manipulating us into needing to be controlled. Sometimes I feel pessimism is an excuse for people who do not want to be individually responsible as citizens in society. I tend to question most knee jerk assumptions, such as the idea that all corporations are big and evil. It's true that their long historical roots channel our impulses toward the anti-democratic. Yet we have tolerated them for centuries. In other words, I'm not sure how much pessimism is actually justified by reality and how much of it gets people off the hook from actually trying to make things better.

    I would definitely say that paranoia and pessimism go hand in hand and that some predatory personalities take advantage of that. In this atmosphere, yes, you typically see a cult of personality: you reminded me of Philip K. Dick's 'Nicole,' who is an avatar character, an actress playing a long dead but extremely pretty and nice wife of an also dead benevolent dictator. Ironically, debunking the kind of pessimism and paranoia that could come up with such scenarios is usually a joyless exercise.


  3. Yes, pessimism (any kind of fatalism, actually) is a convenient excuse for abdicating civic responsibility. Cynicism, on the other hand, can paradoxically be facilitating happiness, or at the very least an inoculation against disillusionment. Just to call back the Watergate example briefly, if more people hadn't reflexively assumed that Nixon was a pillar of morality when he mirrored their beliefs and reactions to events in his first term then they wouldn't have been quite so dumbfounded when they learned that he treated the office like a dictatorship in which he would be above judgement. It wasn't clandestinely recording his political opponents that upset people as much as his proclamations that if the president does something, then it can't be illegal.
    Speaking of morality, I would be extremely reluctant to describe corporations as evil, as they don't seem to have any moral dimension whatsoever. Two points here:(A) on the matter you mentioned of evading responsibility and passing up opportunities to enact real improvements, our Supreme Court recently made a hideous and dangerous mistake in extending constitutional protections normally reserved for humans to corporate entities-- not CEOs or other employees or officers, but the companies themselves. I have likewise always thought that it was foolish to lecture companies about their responsibilities when trying to solicit charitable donations or influence internal policies. The people who run those companies would have civic responsibilities simply because they're people. The companies don't. Every time we speak in terms of companies having a responsibility to the public it reinforces the delusion that those responsibilities don't fall on all of us, including those in the office. "Don't look at me; the company ought to do something". A company's only purpose should be to make money. If it can't do that in a socially responsible manner, then the greater society should have the power to dismantle it in order to protect themselves from it. Companies aren't people and they're not sacrosanct. Nobody is dying when a company is destroyed. The people who ran and owned it could retain their capital, even their material holdings in most cases, and start all over again. Then (as now) cost-effect analysis would rule decision making. The only differences would be the nature of the costs to be considered.
    Point (B): Seeing as how you may be attending a Giger press conference soon () the question of corporations being evil calls to mind a conversation I had four years ago with a coworker. Would you consider John Carpenter's Aliens to be evil? I think that most people, after serious consideration, would question whether the Aliens make conscious decisions at all and conclude that they are driven by survival imperatives. They don't give any evidence of having their own literature, their own music, in fact any tangible cultural ephemera, any political structures, religious structures or civic structures. They just kill, reproduce, swarm, kill, reproduce, swarm, etc. They don't rationalize or justify their actions. They are a metaphor for unregulated corporations. They're not evil; they don't seem to have any moral dimension whatsoever.

  4. Thanks pblfsda - I am not in Vienna now, so did not go to the Giger press conference. The Giger exhibition is making going more than usually tempting though.

    The Aliens movies involved a lot of reproductive technological themes around the humans and the aliens. The two species clash, and ultimately cross, forming a symbiote. The real antagonist is The Company, Weyland Yutani.

    As for the rise of corporations, there's an interesting piece (link below) that I will expand on in a future entry. The decline of left and right, the erosion of the nation state, the rise of corporations as autonomous entities:


    This state of affairs was anticipated by Kim Stanley Robinson in the Mars Trilogy. In terms of real politics, it looks like updated versions of early modern corporate forms are set to enjoy a resurgence. How individuals will conceive of their role in response to that is not yet established.