Saturday, October 8, 2016

Republicans Praised for Reducing Stigma for Psychopaths

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Institute of Mental Health congratulated the Republican Party for helping to accustom Americans to those with mental illness, by elevating obvious psychopaths to positions of high office.

Doctor Fernando Lamas, chairman of the Institute, said at a press conference that Republican voters have done the United States “a great service, showing more so-called progressive Americans that those with antisocial disorderswho are typically demonized in popular horror filmscan be entrusted with political power as long as we shirk our civic duties and learn to keep lowering our standards for acceptable public behaviour.”

According to Dr. Lamas, the Republican Party began this initiative in the 1980s when Republicans found that they could concoct excuses for Ronald Reagan’s declining health, which he suffered due to an onset of Alzheimer’s. Prior to that, Republicans were embarrassed when President Nixon’s megalomania was unveiled by the Watergate scandal.

“But their reverence for the mentally ill really ramped up,” said Dr. Lamas, “when Republicans managed to keep a straight face as they elected George W. Bush as president. Perhaps inadvertently at first, but surely with a charitable intention thereafter, Republicans worked tirelessly to teach mentally healthy citizens not to ignore the deranged, as George Bush Jr.’s cornucopia of follies left the whole world dumbfounded.”

By excusing Bush’s daily embarrassments and epic fiascos, Republicans brought mental disorder out of the shadows. Dr. Lamas compared this Republican initiative to gay rights advocacy: “both Republicans and homosexuals flaunt their peculiarities, whether on the national political stage or in Gay Pride parades, forcing everyone else to become inured to that which they might once have loathed.  

"After Bush there was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential nominee. With her bizarre turns of phrase, her unabashed ignorance on all relevant matters, her clueless mix of Christianity, family values, and sociopathic Republican boilerplate, she took hysterical mean-spiritedness to a higher level.

“But it’s that party’s fearlessness in spotlighting such palpably-malignant personalities,” continued Dr. Lamas, “as though they could be entrusted with vast political power, that’s done wonders in removing the stigma from mental illness.” Republicans have been particularly generous with sociopaths, not just by thrusting them into mainstream discourse, but by “coaching them to be evermore lax in disguising their inhuman lack of empathy.”

“Sociopathy, an extreme form of Antisocial Personality Disorder, is a mainstay of the political world,” said Gwendolyn Bianca, political scientist at Fancypants University, who also spoke at the press conference. Bianca argued that since it’s axiomatic that power eventually corrupts even the most moral of individuals, we can expect that a disproportionate number of politicians (as well as businesspeople and other wealthy or powerful persons) lack the capacity to feel complex emotions.

“Conscience is a luxury they can’t afford,” said Bianca, “because a politician’s duty demands that he or she sacrifice others for the greater good, a burden that would be intolerable to anyone with some moral sense.”

Dr. Lamas said that because Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, has “given the game away, displaying no trace of shame or compassion, all Americans owe the Republican Party a debt of gratitude for its service to the mentally ill.”

Bianca added that “whereas Democratic leaders have opted for the traditional approach of hiding their elitist contempt for humanity behind feel-good messages and empty socialist promises, psychopathic Republicans have refused to sit at the back of the bus. Unlike Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton, whose antisocial personalities were formed when they were indoctrinated into the neoliberal technocracy and who thus mistake loss of conscience for exceptional rationality, Republican lunatics have shown no deference to the public’s prejudice against human predators.

“Republican elites wear their insanity on their sleeve, whereas Democratic politicians pretend to care about the little people. And bless the American voters for their bottomless tolerance for the absurd! Thanks to that recklessness, mental health issues have come to the fore, which has flooded mental health clinics across the nation with much-needed donations.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

When Madness is Normal: Sanity in the Minds of Animals and the Rise of Divine Persons

There’s a perennial debate about the psychiatric concept of mental disorder. Is that concept being abused? Are normal behaviours being pathologized to sell pharmaceuticals? But the truth of mental health and insanity seems far removed from this controversy.

Mental Disorder as Dysfunction

The latest psychiatric manual of disorders, the DSM-5, defines “mental disorder” as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”

The key to understanding this definition is the notion of a “function.” The psychiatrist wants to distinguish between normality and pathology, the latter being a deviation from a norm that calls for psychiatric action; more precisely, she wants to cater to cultural presumptions about psychological normality, which is why the definition adds that “An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder” (my emphasis). If a culture sanctions some behaviour, the behaviour cannot be abnormal or dysfunctional—unless the whole culture is backward and deranged from a modern, Western viewpoint. What, then, does “dysfunction” add to the concept of mere statistical abnormality, that is, to the concept of something’s rarity? Here the psychiatrist walks a fine line between calculating the difference between common and uncommon psychological and social patterns, on the one hand, and moralizing on the other. The latter is forbidden to the contemporary psychiatrist who seeks to align her discipline more with the hard sciences than with philosophy, theology, and the arts. In the past, psychiatrists did rationalize theological prejudices regarding the alleged evil of certain dispositions such as homosexuality and femininity. Jews and Christians read in their scriptures that women are inferior to men, and early modern, Western psychiatrists deferred to that unscientific, moralistic judgment, prescribing patronizing means for women to adapt to their alleged inferiority and lack of full personhood. But after R.D. Laing, Foucault, and others showed in the 1960s and ‘70s that the prevailing psychiatric criteria for mental health were subjective, psychiatrists developed objective tests in the form of checklists, thus preserving the scientific image of their discipline. (For a stirring presentation of this recent history, see Part 1 of Adam Curtis’ documentary, The Trap.)

The notion of dysfunction, then, is crucial to this larger psychiatric project. On the one hand, a dysfunction is an inability to carry out some process, to complete some expected relation between cause and effect. The fact that there’s a causal relationship at issue provides the generality to account for the norm which is being violated, since causality is the paramount scientific concept for understanding natural order. Psychiatrists see themselves as scientists exploring the mind and so they posit an order in the mental domain. The order investigated by scientists in general is explained with an instrumental agenda in mind, the goal being not just to understand but to control phenomena. Thus, scientists are minimalists and conservative in their theorizing: they objectify, explaining regularities in terms of force, mass, and other such relatively value-neutral properties. Real patterns are understood in terms of physical necessity—not as happening, for example, by free choice, since that would be a form of magic, a miracle that couldn’t be controlled and therefore couldn’t be scientifically (instrumentally and objectively) understood.

So a dysfunction is a deviation from, or a blockage in the furtherance of, a function, where a function is at least a causal relationship. However, because the psychiatrist sees herself as a medical scientist, she thinks she does well in the world, and so a mental function must be more than a regularity that merely happens regardless of any normative context. Functions are deemed to be good from some perspective, namely by a culture at large. Psychiatrists thus still kowtow to social presumptions, but they do so under the cover of scientific (instrumentalist, objectifying) rhetoric. Mental dysfunctions are, therefore, relatively bad irregularities: violations of social norms, causing suffering which is commonly assumed to be unwanted, and preventing the individual from carrying out her “important activities.” The goodness of mental health depends on a social evaluation, which the psychiatrist merely presupposes, but she’s quick to point out that not every conflict with society is pathological. Political, religious, or sexual rebels aren’t mentally unwell unless their behaviour is brought on by a dysfunction, as the DSM definition says. This means the rebel must suffer because of her inability to function, that is, because of a syndrome reflecting a disturbance in her thought processes. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: The Full Anthropocentricity of Religions

Art by Cameron Gray
Jurgen Schulze uses his Principle of Irony as a guide to metaphysical and cosmological truth. In general, he infers, there must be a self-negating deity to maximize irony and tragedy in the universe, “to cast everyone into the spiritual wilderness and thus to thrust a fully-charged existential quandary upon each reflective soul” (18b). The Truth must be “universally bewildering,” as Schulze once told me. Indeed, contrary to utilitarianism, which speaks of the obligation to maximize happiness, Schulze contends that enlightened individuals should discern how reality maximizes irony, establishing a gulf between natural facts and our intuitions and preferences.

Schulze seems to have reflected for long hours on the nature of religion, but his thoughts on that subject derive once again from a single principle, which is that all religious discourse is anthropocentric with respect not just to that discourse’s origin or cause, but to its reference. All religious statements derive from human primates, not from any extraterrestrial source; more surprisingly—especially since he posits a cosmic deity, in the name of Irony—Schulze says that all such statements have as their inner meaning some bearing purely on what has been happening in our history. The world’s major religions speak of gods, supernatural realms, and of experience that transcends the five senses. Taken superficially, literally, and exoterically, then, religious creeds point far beyond our sociopolitics and dominance hierarchies, our class divisions and relations to our environment and to other animal species. But for Schulze, every major religious utterance ought to be interpreted as metaphorical and, more specifically, as reflecting back on how we distinguish ourselves in nature.

In this respect, religious discourse would be like science fiction: taken literally, a sci-fi novel or movie is about some events transpiring in the far future or on a distant planet, but every science fiction author knows that those scenarios are just literary devices that are useful in creating the psychological distance to discuss prickly, often taboo issues that impact us here and now. Theology as it has been practiced in the major religions is a form of literary fiction—except that instead of suspending our disbelief for the sake of entertaining ourselves as consumers, religious devotees are entranced by religion’s literary devices and escalate their belief in the protagonists until the belief becomes unshakable faith in the absurd. We’re blind to the hidden function of religious language, because we’re gullible, lazy, and easily distracted by literal, surface meanings of the most outlandish statements. The greatest lies that preoccupy us by assuaging our fears and stirring up our unconscious longings are the most fervently believed. But, says Schulze, “this process of indoctrination is as anticlimactic as a magician’s trick: once you learn the secret of its success, the spell wears off and you’re left to marvel at the audience’s credulity. We’re led like pets on leashes, our mind furnished with preposterous beliefs like a dog forced to wear gaudy mittens and a silly yellow hat in the rain” (20b).

The deeper meaning of theology, for Schulze, which I discerned from my interviews with him and from some of the scraps that remain from his corpus, is that religious discourse is entirely self-directed. Again, his point about anthropocentrism isn’t the classic one, familiar from the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes’ charge that a donkey would interpret God as being donkey-like; the point isn’t that as we cognitively process that which lies beyond the bounds of our experience we filter it through humanizing concepts, distorting and taming reality so that as we confront it we might resort to our comforting, social repertoire, praying to the wind and so forth. Schulze’s point, rather, is that religious discourse isn’t a distortion, since religious phenomena are occurring right before our eyes, but we’ve grown so accustomed to them that we don’t appreciate their strangeness. Theology doesn’t employ humanizing transducers; instead, it “slyly retells the outlines of human history, but overlays a facade of fiction to preserve our modesty” (20c). In a word, religious myths and creeds are so many romans à clef. As such, the key to their interpretation is to perceive the connection between the fiction and the human reality. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Man Discovers Awful Truth, Shames Mass Media

WASHINGTON, D.C. 2017—Gerald Humphrey’s profound discovery began when he realized the American mainstream media’s treatment of Donald Trump’s Republican campaign for the presidency contrasted sharply with reality.

“CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and all the other major news outlets in the United States kept taking Donald Trump much more seriously than I would have thought any curious and sane investigator would have a right to do,” said Gerald. “They kept listening to what Trump said at rallies or on Twitter and then they talked or wrote about it a lot, without ever mentioning the obvious truth. It dawned on me that a vast cover-up was unfolding.”

Gerald surmised that the American press was embarrassed by what Trump inadvertently was revealing about their political establishment. But instead of alerting Americans to the appalling truth or calling for the revolution that was evidently needed, journalists tried to treat Donald Trump as an ordinary candidate.

“Even when the cable news programs featured angry talking heads who were astonished by Trump’s audacity,” said Gerald, “hosts like Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon would always strive to retain decorum or were quick to inject some empty right-wing talking point to balance the proceedings.

“It’s like the emperor who’s strutting in public with no clothes on,” Gerald continued. “Who’s going to be brave enough to be a witness to the shocking truth? Who’s going to overcome the shame of living in a place where the grand emperor could be so vain and gullible that he’d mistake himself to be wearing fine garments that are allegedly visible only to intelligent people who deserve to keep their jobs? Who’s going to yell out, ‘The emperor has no clothes’? Apparently not the 'serious' American media: the absurdity was too much for them, so they turtled up.”

For weeks Gerald retreated to the confines of his basement, refusing to receive any news. “I thought maybe I was going mad,” he recalled. “How could I see the truth that was as different from what was being reported to millions of people, as night is from day? I mean, I wasn’t even in the news business! But even I could tell that Trump had knocked over the applecart and that anarchists should have been rushing up to him to thank him for proving their point: Western civilization is a sham. The most powerful country on earth is run by clowns in a circus and we keep stuffing our face with popcorn.”

Gerald was incredulous that political reporters would bend over backward to avoid denigrating the American political system. “Some anchorperson would be interviewing Trump,” said Gerald, “and I just couldn’t believe the interview always lasted more than five seconds. The minute Trump opened his mouth, any self-respecting journalist would have been obligated to say to Trump’s face—and for the benefit of the viewers—‘No, Trump, what you just said is retarded. Get the fuck off my stage, you psycho clown.’” 

Political scientist Renaldo Blackenpuss, professor at Pseudoscience University in Nowheresville, sympathizes with Gerald’s discomfort with the media’s treatment of the Trump phenomenon. “Corporate media figures are addicted to normality,” said the professor. “They’re not trained to uncover the truth; not anymore, at least. They’re trained to spin facts to sell a product to the beleaguered consumers, a product we call ‘the news.’

“Sometimes that involves distorting the truth to make it seem salacious, to titillate viewers so they’ll keep their eyes glued to the TV. Or it might mean ignoring a complex truth, offering up puff pieces or scandals, because the news producers know that in their spare time consumers mostly just want to vegetate or to act like ghouls. Or it might require throwing a wet blanket on the truth, to protect the enterprises that fund the collapsing journalism industry through advertising or that give journalists access to heavy hitters who have that godsend quality of gravitas.”

“In hindsight,” said the professor, it’s become clear that “journalists only pretended to care about objectivity, because most professionals want to seem scientific.” When asked whether this charade affects political scientists as well, Professor Blackenpuss hemmed and hawed and fiddled with the collar of the lab coat he wore for some reason.

After the fiasco of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Gerald set out to determine whether the American media were engaging in other cover-ups. “If our civic religion had degenerated to this extent,” said Gerald, “where our political pageantry and rituals mean so little we might as well be sacrificing babies on an altar to a sun god, what was our world really like? If the media could perpetrate a pretense of this magnitude, what else could they be hiding?”

What Gerald found shocked the world, earning him the Pulitzer Prize. Recalling his monumental discovery, Gerald said, “I simply looked really hard and then I saw it: the United States isn’t actually part of what we thought of as the North American continent. Instead, for all this time our whole country has been floating somehow, twenty miles above sea level.”

At his Pulitzer acceptance speech, Gerald was ambivalent. “When I first saw the astonishing truth,” he announced, “when I realized that night was day and black was white, the very next thought that came to me was: ‘Those bastards!’ How could journalists have missed such a basic truth that was right under their noses? Scientists could be forgiven, because they’ve made a trillion other discoveries.

“But what were American reporters blathering on about while no one realized the entire American landmass is physically disconnected from the rest of the planet? What video of cuddly kittens were they featuring instead as click bait? And what megaphone were they handing to an obvious narcissistic, sociopathic buffoon and senile conman like Trump?”

Near the end of his speech, Gerald urinated on the Pulitzer gold medal, but wasn’t shocked to see that the illustrious members of the audience ignored his protest. No outcries were heard. According to Gerald Humphrey, “they were fixated on the prize itself and on the system it represents which would lie in ruins were it not for our credulity.”   

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Fathom the Nature of Truth

What is really happening when a set of symbols, such as a statement or a thought, “gets at the truth,” as we like to think of it? What is it for symbols to be in touch with the facts? The use of symbols to uncover the truth about truth is bound to be fraught with paradoxes, and if a noncognitive experience of oneness with the mapped territory is the answer, this experience may not be as the Buddhist would have it. Instead of feeling at peace as a quieted mind at one with the sea of interconnected events, we might feel obligated to lament our absurdity with a round of horror or embarrassment on our impersonal creator Nature’s behalf.

Three Faulty Theories of Truth

There are three popular philosophical explanations of truth, none of which is adequate. First, there’s the contention that a true statement is one that corresponds to, or that agrees with, how things are. This view must be a holdover from the ancient theistic worldview which personified nature as God’s handiwork. The idea of agreement is folk-psychological in that agreement occurs between minds, not between a mind and a non-mind. When two people agree, they share the same attitude, experience, or belief. But the non-living majority of nature has no mental properties, so there can be no agreement between it and our statements about it. Early analytic philosophers like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell pioneered the correspondence theory of truth, writing, “Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.” These pompous philosophers dismissed theistic religion as gauche and not even worth discussing; they thus lacked the Nietzschean fortitude to appreciate that God’s death renders the secular humanistic notion of truth-as-correspondence—as well as all secular liberal vestiges of god-talk—just as obsolete as theism.

At best, this conception of truth appeals to a metaphor, comparing a mind-to-mind relation to a mind-to-non-mind one, but the comparison is weak not just because of the obvious and relevant dissimilarities, but because of the dubious origin of this way of conceiving of our role in the world. If a mind such as God is the ultimate reality, and God created us according to a plan which would have us use natural facts for our benefit or to demonstrate our worthiness to spend eternity with God, then a factual description of something might be one that indirectly puts us in harmony with God. God’s artifact, that is, the world we describe, would be aligned with our artifacts, namely with our utterances and mental representations, and so this conception of truth would be no mere metaphor. Just as mortal minds can agree with each other, so too they could literally agree with the divine mind. But if we assume atheism, as we must when practicing philosophy while being faithful to the spirit of our time, we’re faced with the awkwardness of any attempt to salvage this theistic projection of ourselves onto a horrifically-impersonal world. Assuming theistic religion was perpetrated to further sundry inauspicious agendas, such as early Neolithic warlords’ domestication of large populations, the tainted remnants of that sort of religion are unlikely to augment a pure-hearted pursuit of knowledge.

Next, there’s the coherence theory of truth, which says a statement is true if it coheres with other statements such that the system’s self-consistency rationally justifies us in believing any of the cohering statements. As you can see, this theory merely reduces truth to an epistemic criterion of reasonableness. One sign that a speaker may be onto something is if her statements hang together so that she’s not contradicting herself like a deranged person. For example, if someone’s narrative of what happened the night she witnessed a crime doesn’t change when the police press her for details, a jury would have reason to trust her report. We assume that the world doesn’t contradict itself, that we occupy a natural order bound by some metaphysical logic, not a chaotically-shifting pseudospace, and so we think our belief systems should mirror this rational wholeness of facts.

However, this second conception of truth is abortive for at least two reasons. First, there are plenty of cases in which a coherent worldview, the internal order of which gives us some reason to trust it, turns out nevertheless to be wrong. Monotheism, astrology, Nazism, and the like may all be more or less coherent systems of thought, but none has the merit of being true. At most, coherence is an indicator but not a sufficient condition of truth. Likewise, a statement must be meaningful to have a chance of being factually true, but many meaningful statements are mistaken or even preposterous. Second, coherence in general can’t be the same as truth, because natural systems throughout the universe are coherent with respect to how their components operate, but that doesn’t mean, say, a solar system is a veridical account of anything. Again, the reason epistemic coherence is regarded as meritorious is because natural events in general are assumed to be regular and orderly. This point, though, goes both ways: if a belief system should mirror natural regularities, by being self-consistent, those systems must already be coherent even though they obviously aren’t themselves true with respect to anything. So coherence can’t suffice for truth. And if we say it must be statements or beliefs that cohere for there to be truth, their key distinguishing feature is their semantic meaningfulness but meaning turns out to be just as mysterious, not to mention as originally magical or supernatural as truth. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The American Spectacle

Liberals and globalists (proponents of globalization) are aghast at the Western conservative’s retreat to infantile, care-free farce, as in Brexit and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, the latter having been preceded by the astroturfed Tea Party diversion from the economic causes of 2008’s American housing market crash. The suspicion is that American and British white male losers in the global marketplace are scapegoating gays, Muslims, or Mexicans because these whites no longer know how to be men enough to recognize the reason why their middle classes have vanished, which is that the postindustrial environment spoils these men and so they can’t compete with the likes of the hyper-pragmatic Chinese. Heretofore the aristocratic winners in the genetic lottery that ruled their segregated societies until the 1960s’ social revolutions, whites in North America and Europe must face the prospect of being marginalized in the global melting pot, as not just Chinese and Indians but also machines come to dominate the workforces. Partly also as an unintended consequence of feminist overreach in liberal societies, Western men have lost touch with their innate sense of honour, and so they’d sooner drug themselves to death than admit that their history—from the medieval Christian atrocities in Europe to Spain’s genocide against Native Americans and the African slave trade—is sordid and wholly unforgivable, and that whites need a spiritual, existential awakening or risk becoming a laughing stock class of deluded crybabies.  

The Debordian Spectacle of Trump and His Minions

Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle can partly explain the Trump phenomenon. According to Debord’s postmodern (i.e. pretentious and obfuscating) application of Marxist theory, capitalism is a process in which “the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” Social interactions become more and more mediated by mass media images, to which we passively defer, and we live in an infotainment bubble in which past and future are conflated to make capitalistic culture appear eternal and immutable. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” says Debord. “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence. The fetishistic, purely objective appearance of spectacular relations conceals the fact that they are relations among men and classes: a second nature with its fatal laws seems to dominate our environment.” The spectacle “is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement…”

This concept of the spectacle, of the image or other representation that functions as an oppressive cultural intermediary, needn’t be restricted to a Marxian analysis. There are social spectacles or myth-laden images, and there are individual ones just as there is culture and there’s the stage in each mind in which stereotypes compete for the spotlight of our personal attention. Society flatters its economic structure, defending the power allotments in its dominance hierarchy, and we each spin a private tale, the narrative of our life in which we’re the starring protagonist. Images from our dreams and symbols of the idols to which we dedicate ourselves compel us to trust the judgments issuing from these self-serving thought-worlds, from the mental space we inhabit when we live in our heads with existential inauthenticity. The alternative isn’t to trust in The Force, to walk the heroic path like Neo from the Matrix, without thinking we’re on it. Animals are the relatively thoughtless ones; thoughts—including second-order and objective ones—are weapons in our war against the godless environment. What we need isn’t nirvana, the inner peace from detaching from our thoughts as a result of our personal self-destruction. Instead, we should learn to tell better stories; we need to learn how to be self-respecting artists.
In any case, Trump, then, is a phony revolutionary. His supporters believe that he’ll save the white portion of the lower middle class, by protecting the US economy from foreign cheats such as the Chinese (who actually just work a hundred times harder than North Americans and a thousand times harder than Europeans), or that he’ll punish the double-dealing political class by blowing up the whole American government. But those are wishes, not rational predictions, and anyway empirical interpretations of Trump’s intentions are irrelevant, from a Debordian perspective. Mainstream Trump is a symbol and his cultural significance is determined by underlying economic processes. Ever since Nixon brokered a deal with Strom Thurmond, creating the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Republicans have pretended to champion the backward social positions of the antediluvian white southerners, while double-crossing them with free trade deals and other plutocratic economic policies that have hollowed-out the American middle class. Again, instead of taking responsibility for having been duped as gullible, irritable voters, these southerners together with low-information blue collars prefer scapegoats. Now Trump is merely doubling-down on this trusty political strategy. Superficially, Trump has the capacity to fight for this once-dominant social class (again, a class that deserves to languish for having benefited from the atrocities of its forbears). Technically, Trump could repair the American infrastructure by establishing a Democratic-style, protectionist welfare state under the cover of xenophobic bluster. But the profound ironies of social reality are perceived only at a more rarified level. Trump is himself a plutocrat, after all. Instead of controlling the government’s policies from a distance, with lobbyists and Manchurian candidates, a hero of the power elite has decided that pulling the levers directly is more efficient. We get the candidates we deserve, but the question is: Who are “we”?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: The Irony of God and Cosmos

You may have heard of the radical exploits of Jurgen Schulze. But I was his psychiatrist before he escaped from Borsa Castle, the Transylvanian mental institution, and before he formed his infamous, bizarre cult. “God is dead,” he told me in one of my weekly evaluations of his mental condition. “Long live the gods,” he added, grinning at that gnomic remark. Only after his unprecedented and mysterious escape did I read his actual German writings, although by then mere scraps survived his attempt to burn the text; apparently, he’d done so just prior to his escape. I found the singed remnants in a corner of his residence, and judging by the pile of ashes, only a very small portion of the whole remained legible, one of which is the title, Lebending und Wach in der Totte Gott. Nevertheless, piecing these together with his peculiar remarks in the interviews, I’ve reconstructed Schulze’s philosophy. The public often prefers to demonize the mentally ill, on the basis of its prejudices, but perhaps there’s an appetite abroad to warrant this exposition of Schulze’s rather hair-raising worldview.

According to Schulze, the history of cosmology shows that from the most naïve, parochial myths of ancient times, to the experimental, objective theories of modern physics, explanations of nature approach the truth as they become maximally ironic. This means that nature surprises any species that searches for the ultimate truth, by anti-correlating intuitions with facts. Intelligent creatures evolve to exploit a niche, a way of surviving in an environment. Creatures that endure long enough to reach equilibrium with their territory, because their genes have created winning uniformities in their traits—and have built thus an adapted body-type or a species, as such—rely on those innate abilities that allow them to succeed. In that respect, creatures are inherently conservative in evaluating their intuitions, reflexes, and other habits or traditions. Creatures that are interested solely in surviving under those terms we call animals, while those that survive in virtue of their rational powers of understanding become aware of more and more possibilities until their sights are set on a universe that’s worlds apart from the locale in which they’re evolutionarily suited to succeed. Had the universe been as large only as the mythical Garden of Eden, or were there no life forms that could see further than their neighbourhood or that could think other than in their nakedly species-centric fashion, the pursuit of knowledge wouldn’t be ironic, because there would have been no knowledge in the first place. But because it’s evidently possible to be excluded from the Garden, as it were, for creatures to ponder matters that are at best tangentially related to their biological life cycle, so that there have arisen persons or independent agents, ultimate knowledge is also theoretically possible—and that knowledge is necessarily not just counterintuitive but fulsomely so. On these grounds which he expressed in several of our sessions, Schulze declares in one of the intact fragments of his philosophical writings, “This is why the more exquisite the humiliating implications of a theory of the nature of reality, the greater the theory’s chance of being true” (3a).

Cosmology began with religious myths which assume that there are divine, perfect persons who create nature for our benefit. For Schulze, this is the maximally naïve way of misunderstanding the universe, by means of which we project our prejudices onto the wider world. The opposite, atheistic scenario, however, isn’t necessarily the most ironic and thus the most epistemically justified. Today, physics stops at the point of positing objective causes and effects and other quantifiable phenomena, and so excludes magic and the supernatural from its universe of discourse. Instead of being created by God, nature creates itself from chaos according to laws, principles, and free parameters which the physicist nevertheless inevitably smuggles into the picture of the chaotic starting point. This is because whereas chaos or the nonbeing out of which nature emerged has no need to conform to human reason, physicists are methodologically bound to rational ideals which must guide their explanations. But were the universe fundamentally material and objective, as scientists understand it to be, cosmic irony would not be maximized, because our expectations have adjusted after the Scientific Revolution. Schulze therefore writes, “The ultimate theory of the world must confound both the gullible, narrow-minded zealot and the cynical, self-abnegating scientist; otherwise, cognitive progress might end in harmony between intuitions and facts, which is contrary to the principle of irony that’s entailed by the history of cosmology” (3b). The universe may or may not be harmonious from its impersonal frame of reference, although this is technically an incoherent figure of speech; certainly, though, the nature of the metaphysical facts conflicts with any intelligent species that arises to attempt to explain them, since such a species will pride itself on its dignity which the natural facts are bound to drastically undercut. The perfected theory may prove adequate to the facts, in some epistemological respect, but those facts will confound the species as a whole, including its intuitions, preferred self-image, and life-sustaining cultures.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tenth PDF Installment of RWUG and a Necronomicon

Here's the tenth eBook installment of this blog, collecting the last several articles in PDF format. The other installments are located here


P.S. I'm working now on a Necronomicon formulation of this blog's philosophy, somewhat like Cyclonopedia. The conceit is that the ultimate, horrific theory of the nature of reality might be scrawled on a wall by a madman, and the revelation is preserved and published in textbook form for your perusal (at the risk of the loss of your sanity). The result is a peculiar blend of fiction and nonfiction, secular science and religious megalomania, dry academic jargon and ecstatic poetry. I'll likely post this RWUG Necronomicon in individual chapters as I complete them, and afterward I'll anthologize them. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hit Music: The Assault on the Brain

Let's take on the pressing mystery of a type of so-called “hit music,” such as the kind often played on Virgin Radio. A few days a week I leave work at lunch to get a sandwich at Mr Sub, and they always play that radio station. I’m treated then to certain recurring songs, interspersed by the banter of Ryan Seacrest and the blather of ads.

What these songs have in common is minimalism. There’s hardly anything going on in them. I’ll give you some examples: “One Dance,” by Drake, “Love Yourself,” by Justin Bieber, and “Hands to Myself,” by Selena Gomez. Not all the hit songs on that radio station are minimally musical like those examples. Most, in fact, are dance, rap, or soul songs. In the case of rap or soul music, the instruments might be low-key because those songs feature the lyrics or the soaring voice. But then there are these minimalist songs where the instruments, the voice, and the lyrics are hardly even there. Those are the ones that especially cry out for some explanation. Why do they exist? What do these ghostly, gutted songs reveal indicate about the current state of Western art?

Now, in my opinion, 98% of all Virgin Radio’s hit music is abominable: balless, brainless, vapid, happy-talking, and/or annoyingly repetitive. But if I were to vent that opinion for the next little while, that would be a mere cliché. Hit music is made mainly by young people for young people—younger than me, at least. And we all know that older people lose touch with young people’s culture. Besides, we’d be talking about taste in music, and that’s subjective. So instead of committing the old guy’s fallacy of mistaking his aesthetic taste for knowledge of some objective fact, I’m going to leave aside the value judgment and point straight at the objective features of those minimalistic songs. On YouTube, you can listen to the ones I listed and then you’ll know what I mean, if you’re not already familiar with them.

For some background, I recommend this video interview of John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, and this article that discusses the recent history of hit-song writing. The upshot is that hit music today is manufactured by teams of song engineers who fill in the blanks of the track-and-hook template, following rote procedures made possible by the computers on which almost all of this music is made. The beats are separated from the melodies, and teams of producers are swapped by studios to work on dozens of songs for each headlining “artist,” like Rihanna, Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, which are then pared down to form the CD. This method of engineered, assembly-line music-writing is very different from the romantic one of the 1960s and 70s, in which individual artists expressed their vision on account of their personal talent. Think of The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin. Hit music now is like fast food or the Marvel comic book movies that have taken over Hollywood. The food is manufactured to exploit weaknesses in the human brain, such as its love of sugar and fat, just as the movies are made by armies of computer graphics engineers who serve up action and teenager fantasies. Apparently, the brain also has an infantile love of repetition. The brain releases dopamine if we can predict when the song’s hook will reappear, so a hit song must be simple and catchy.

This, though, is the formula for hit music in general. Again, the result is commercial music that has no existential impact and poses no artistic challenge to dubious conventions. But where does the absurd minimalism of a subset of hit songs enter the picture? Here are a few possible explanations. First, the musically-minimal songs push the boundaries of computer-driven hit music, by catering to no one, with virtually no attractive features. As machines and computers dominate the landscape, we must dehumanize ourselves to adapt to that inhuman environment. Hit music isn’t aimed at whole persons, with our everyday concerns and existential questions. Instead, the music targets the brain’s pleasure center: the song is formed by mechanisms of mass production that trigger the listener’s complementary neural mechanisms, to complete a capitalistic exchange of money for the fleeting pleasure taken in the bare-bones sounds inserted into the track-and-hook template. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sexual Bliss and the Anguish of Enlightenment

Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?

The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.

Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.

The Revelation of Sex

The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh.