Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

Reflections On The Work Of Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis considers his films to be strictly journalism. 

Having unlimited access to the vast archives of the BBC library, Curtis snips and cuts the myriad fragments of visual history to arrange them around themes guided by his own narrative and analysis. To relegate these works to the narrow field of conventional reporting would be to entirely miss their import and effect. The subjects of his films dive deeply into the wilderness of inherent contradictions between reality and the artificial reproductions of reality, between fact and imagination, between linear narrative and memory, and the many ways we rearrange our perceptions of reality to serve our own agendas. His most recent work, the six part series titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head focuses on the dialectic between historical and psychological forces that drive individuals into increased feelings of isolation and helplessness and the barriers to effective collective action.

The emotional power of well selected images poised in sharp juxtaposition has been  explored as long ago as in the montage techniques pioneered by early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein. The use of montage takes us out of the illusory realms of objectivity and well into the territory of ideological expression. Directors like Jean Luc Godard and the ‘underground’ filmmakers of the sixties made radical use of the technique to purposely challenge the conventions of narrative film. While their work was perceived at the time as radical, our immersion in the frenetic medium of television makes them appear prophetic. The rapid disorienting shift between scenarios, the intrusion of seemingly unrelated sequences in commercials and the use of sound as compliment and contrast has increased our ability to shift attention rapidly from one image to another without loosing the narrative thread. Adam Curtis takes advantage of the growing sophistication of our visual language while pushing the form further with each successive work, encouraging us to take larger leaps along with him.

(My favorite film makers of the sixties were the French New Wave’director Jean Luc Goddard and the English director, Nicholas Roeg. Being a contrarian by nature I was always thrilled at the premier of a Godard film on my college campus and particularly pleased when a third to half of the audience walked out in bewilderment or disgust. This I deemed an indication of the film’s success. Both Godard and Roeg used techniques of radical montage to pit direct and sometimes disjointed, emotionally charged images against the linear revelations of plot. Godard went the farthest, often rejecting the very structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’ in films like 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Sympathy For The Devil and See You At Mao. Nicholas Roeg managed to corral these techniques into challenging narratives interrupted by out of synch and out of time sequences taking the viewer out of the linear present into realms of memory, imagination and pure emotion. His use of popular musical icons as actors in films like Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth became immensely popular with the psychedelic generation. 

At least since 1992 with Pandora’s Box, followed by the more ambitious Century Of The Self and into the present Adam Curtis has employed montage with increasing ambition to deliver films that offer historical analysis along with imagery that comes across with devastating emotional impact. To Curtis the purpose of journalism is not merely to report, but to explain. His method is to distill and arrange out of the many sounds and images of a given historical period a presentation of coherent themes that persuade the viewer that his interpretation matches the reality. Journalism in this sense is the art of persuasion. 

Human beings are addicted to narrative. If presented with a random set of images our minds will eventually assemble them into stories. If we stare at a wall long enough our minds will weave narratives out of the imperfections in the paint. This is a key to the methods of psychological testing that is critiqued in much of Curtis’ work. Ironically perhaps, it’s the key to his own art and his approach to journalism. When the reporter in a war zone decides to point the lens of their camera they are continually selecting the elements of their own narrative. When Adam Curtis wades through the BBC archives the images he selects are made to fit the preconceived patterns of a story he wishes to tell. 

Episode four of his most recent work is titled ‘But what if the people are stupid.’ It’s primary theme is how our disillusionment with institutions born out of the emphasis on individualism in the sixties and seventies morphed into a retreat into nationalism in the eighties and nineties. Curtis pulls together accounts that range widely across the period, from the unsuccessful coup of the Gang Of Four in China to the somewhat tragic life of a transexual pioneer in England, the rise of Al Queda in Iraq, disappointment in the wake of the Live Aid effort and events that led to the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square. All of these events are bracketed by accounts of psychological experiments carried on by Daniel Kahneman in the seventies leading to the thesis that people’s choices aren’t made primarily on a rational basis but are determined by their previous experiences and how they effect the deeper, mostly subconscious structures in the brain. By focusing on the personal dilemmas and contradictions faced by particular individuals against a backdrop of massive social movements Curtis dramatizes a specific and worldwide shift in our collective experience serving to frustrate our ability to organize coherent resistance to the growing power of elites. This sets us up for the next episode, ‘The Lordly Ones’, which explores the comforting national myths we construct to justify the blunders and atrocities carried out to maintain the rule of dominant capitalist elites over the rest of the world.

On the surface Curtis’ approach resembles that of an historian or archaeologist as much as that of a journalist. All are storytellers and agents of artifice, weaving our perceptions into coherent streams of interpretation and all deal with data fragments from moments gone by. The stories Adam Curtis chooses to tell center on the influence that modern psychology has  had on the manipulative techniques of advertising, the growth and dominance of consumerism, and most importantly the isolation of the individual in the shadow of the capitalist state, rendering concepts such as personal freedom and choice almost entirely irrelevant.

We’ve become helpless as collective societies to effectively act to change our circumstances. Instead, our every activity is measured, tabulated and arranged in predictive models that serve to anticipate and then to manipulate our behaviors. Human behavior has been programmed into machinery that uses algorithms to further the power and wealth of economic elites. Only by breaking free of the conceptual prison of the techno-capitalist state can we even begin to imagine a future that meets actual human needs.

Perhaps we expect that journalism and documentary gives us a more accurate glimpse of the real and the true. What we should have learned in an age of propaganda, ‘fake news’ and the Internet is that in the selection and manipulation of images just about any version of ‘reality’ can be made to appear as truth. In the view of Adam Curtis the true value of journalism is to ‘make sense’ of the world in new and original ways that evolve continually with our continual appetite for the new. This is the only way that we can cast off the oppressive chains of the past. We might do well to make his revolution our own.


Thoughtmaybe.com for access to a full catalogue of Adam Curtis Documentaries and many other worthwhile films.


An outstanding interview with Adam Curtis at: Jacobin.com

The Plague

It’s like a fire came through here,
even though everything is concrete and asphalt.

Whatever it was, it reduced everything to one or two rooms, 
concealed behind masks, wearing protective clothing like prison uniforms.

My friends were made crazy, and so was I, 
burrowing into ourselves, creatures I no longer recognize.

We are like the abandoned buildings of bankrupt businesses,
withdrawing behind curtains, looking outside and seeing only a strange desert.




The only time I’m not alone is when I leave this empty city, traveling in landscapes, listening to the words coming out of speakers in my metal travel pod.

These voices are my new friends, reliable, regular, 
opinionated but never threatened, storytellers.
 
As I drive among these hills, under the sky, 
they comfort me, never judging and never giving advice.

There is always sunlight here, 
and these places on the road are never empty.



There is nothing I can do for anyone.

Revelations

Living through the plague and having cancer at the same time is sort of like entering a mysterious room where all the doors and windows are locked, then finding at the back of the room a strange door. Behind that door is another room, smaller, with fewer doors and windows. You get used to the fact that there are at least two exits between you and anything resembling the world outside.


My body started mysteriously falling apart just before Covid descended. It began with my hands and wrists, and gradually it spread to my whole being, until I could barely stand without reaching desperately for breath.


I had ways been proud of my youthful appearance, my enduring health and stamina and ability to heal quickly those rare times I was injured or sick. When people told me they couldn’t believe I was as old as my age I’d tell them smugly, almost arrogantly, that it ran in my family. Perhaps I thought I’d never truly get old, or even die. At seventy most people saw me as fifty, and until this turning I’d mostly felt the way I looked. 


In those first months, just when I’d passed the age of seventy, I assumed that  the vicissitudes of age had finally caught up with me. The work I’d done for a living had taken its deep toll on my body. My shoulders were a tight mess, the tips of my fingers had grown numb with the effects of carpel tunnel, and when I took out my bike for the first time in the Spring I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount. My plans for the future, the paying off of debt and for another sort of life were all in serious question. Suddenly the question of mortality descended like a mysterious spirit taking possession of my bones.


One day early on in the pandemic, before things became really dire and after the panic closed down most of the tourist businesses and bars I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves in circles around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me, past closed galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating outside of our dwellings the blossoming trees and an opportunity to briefly breath without our masks and appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to podcasts of Zen talks from Mount Tremper in New York while contemplating my own conflicts and contradictions in regards to the present and the future. 


Although the final diagnoses wasn’t yet in I could see that the world around me was in straights that reflected my own distress. All that was familiar had changed.  


It took months to find answers, the search delayed by the plague, as alarms were sounded and offices for inquiry and treatment were closed down. At long last I was diagnosed with cancer and by that time my hands were severely crippled and I was no longer able to work. As the plague spread its shadow across the land I was, like most of us, forced to retreat into my own private wilderness.


Meanwhile, as we careened toward an election and a clash of alternate realities, the deeper shadows of collective victimization had become the undercurrent of an American culture overcome by grievance fed by media madmen. America was sicker than I was. The creeping diseases that we’d been feeding for decades had broken fully to the surface and the future filled with hope had been replaced with a question of survival. Most of us prayed that whatever was overcoming us would just end, but it had become harder to see the future beyond the violence, the isolation and the plague.  


My birthdate is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, April 13th. From what I’ve read, I can personally relate to his personality of restless passions and contradictions. Particularly familiar to me is a sense that my vision far exceeds my own grasp. Jefferson was a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery. As an obsessive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, his restless mind wouldn’t allow him to reside in any fixed station. His thoughts propelled him toward an ideal world – nonexistent in his time, where every human being had – by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights. His was a world where the term ‘human being’ hadn’t yet reached an equitable definition. I live in a different world, where the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole is contradicted daily. As a nation we worship the pursuit of personal wealth as the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, substantially devoid of considerations that transcend the possession of individual power and the illusion of control. We have, in fact, managed to turn every ideal taught in our various catechisms of church and school entirely on their head. 


Now, one year since the plague jumped us I’m looking at a civilization that is slowly coming apart. Although the traffic is once again flowing as people strive to maintain some kind of life as usual, there are more closed and abandoned businesses, empty real estate and a pervasive feeling of alienation and wistful uncertainty. Friendships have become more distant and physical contact still mostly a wishful dream. The brief month-long sigh that so many of us felt after the election is replaced already by the anger and dread and fallout promoted leading up to it. Even if the Covid shadow passes us by we’ll still be left with the deeper shadows of racism, bigotry and general thuggery at the heart of the long American nightmare. The monster has been unleashed and is tearing out our heart. The next two years will most likely resemble the past five years. We are in parallel acts of slowly dying and transforming as a culture and the serpent is not about to let us off the cross. 


When I look in the mirror I see an emaciated old man, someone who has aged ten years in one. There are red rings around my eyes, my teeth and gums are hurting, I look like a starving inmate. At the same time the doctors tell me that my numbers are improving. My stamina is up. My hands are still crippled but may be slowly getting better month by month.  I still can’t walk very far and I can’t get on my bicycle. Soon I’ll be seeking another place to live, and it may be somewhere out on the road.


We are told as Americans that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, that our numbers are improving. I’m not sure what the numbers mean anymore. I’ve been on the list for a vaccination for several months but haven’t been given a date. That all appears distant and unreal, more than two exit doors and a couple of hallways away. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘back to normal’ it evokes a feeling of mass delusion. Life is something that passes quickly, day by day.


I’ll keep in touch.
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The Ministry For The Future – A Review

The Ministry For The Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry For The Future’ is much more than a novel. It’s a book on Revolution, the closest thing to an ecological manifesto I’ve ever read. As a work of fiction it’s even more ambitious than his much acclaimed ‘Mars’ trilogy, which could be seen as an early preparation for this book. Like the Mars books it unveils a complex weave of systems embracing every aspect from molecular biology and atmospheric science to human psychology to political and economic philosophy.

But ‘Ministry’ has no interplanetary or futuristic disguise. This is a book about the present and the immediate future of our civilization, specifically projected over the next 30 years. There are chapters on ecology, economics, geology, political philosophy, environmental devastation, human exploitation, mass extinction and geoengineering. There are chapters addressing all forms of resistance and revolution and the inevitable dismantling of capitalism through systemic collapse, civil disobedience, sabotage and assassination. Central to everything is informed speculation on the likely consequences of climate change and the forces that have already been set in motion.

The future is a puzzle and we need a framework in order to make coherent sense of our daily diet of news in the present. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said, “It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” At a time when such visioning becomes increasingly urgent, Robinson’s novel is a bold attempt to see our way to the other side of disaster.

Perhaps not since Karl Marx has there been such a bold and compressed dissection and set of proposals for the total reorganization of society toward a sustainable future.

The Ministry For The Future

A Conversation with KIM STANLEY ROBINSON:

Arclist? The Name

Arcosanti Performance Space

Driving west across the long and high desert landscape of northern Arizona with nothing but clouds on the horizon one passes occasional reminders of a distant prehistoric past. The landscape is briefly broken by flat windswept mesas and ancient water scored canyons where pockets of the ravaged and looted remains of petrified forests linger. Most of what was here when European nomads encountered these magnificent ruins have long since been removed and scattered elsewhere. What’s still preserved in shrinking pockets reminds us that the land has changed drastically over the eons. There have been oceans here, and forests and beasts that now exist only in souvenirs and billboards and plaster replicas occasionally parked along the side of the highway.

On the route west are a few small cities filled with retirees and refugees from big cities, visited by tourists and travelers, traveling fairs, flea markets and gun shows. After a long flat journey the road enters another kind of landscape of steep ridges, craters and deeply carved and colored canyons, and then it turns south near Flagstaff, winding downward following carved watercourses on the long twisting route toward the Martian valley that contains the city of Phoenix.

When my son was twelve or so we visited Arcosanti, architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri’s experimental prototype for a city of the future, located on the edge of a canyon about 70 miles north of the sprawling air conditioned metropolis of Phoenix.

We took the exit at Arcosanti Road, a gravel paved track that heads into the backcountry and eventually arrives at the destination. We parked, entered, signed in and located our room along a balcony that overlooked a long and inviting looking swimming pool. The room was cheap, comfortably simple and functional. After settling in we set off to explore the facility and the grounds of Arcosanti. I can still picture the impressively arched and vaulted structure overlooking the shallow canyon and featuring sweeping concrete forms of arches, chimneys and balconies surrounding a wide central well. That day we explored the bell casting workshops, the cosy and cool living units around the core, a communal kitchen and coffee shop and a gacefully vaulted concert and performance space ringed with beautifully tall forms of Italian cypress trees. At the edge of the desert were a couple of cranes for hoisting sections of concrete onto the still incomplete structure. Off the central well with its ascending balconies overlooking the commons there was a bookstore and gallery that featured the iron bells and artifacts made in the foundry that provided some of the funding for the project. It all had the feeling of a high tech commune.

While watching my young son scampering atop sweeping concrete walls and taking in the canyon views from the suspended balconies I had a revelation. I was surrounded with an architectural expression of a distinct set of evolutionary and philosophical ideas that I’d encountered years before and had fundamentally reshaped my views of the world, of cities and of the future. When I standing on the balcony looking down upon the floor of the commons at Arcosanti I could sense the life that flows through veins in the concrete and the movement of air and light through the central structure. I looked into a space that resembles a living organism, one that couyld be embraced by my limited individual consciousness and yet fosters a physical identification with community. Here is an experiment, a prototype, a demonstration of what’s possible. Arcosanti is a kind of high tech commune made of concrete and living ideas.

When I attended Case Western Reserve University in the late sixties, while studying english and history and anthropology, I was radically distracted by adventures in the world of psychedelics and cultural revolution. In my quest to integrate these divergent realms I’d came across a book,‘The Phenomenon of Man’, by the scientist, philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit cleric Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. He wrote following the Second World War, a time when enormous destruction was followed by a vast reorganization in world affairs. I encountered his ideas when my world extremes of urban decay and suburban expansion. Cities were going broke, rivers and lakes and air were filling with industrial waste, we were caught in Vietnam, the first of our endless failing wars. While the moral and ethical foundations of the American dream were being questioned, new realms of possibilities were opening up. I needed an assist to help me straddle the gulf between rational thinking and the revelations of a wider world revealed when constricted barriers of conventional thinking are left behind.

Being both a man of the church and a scientific thinker Tielhard strove to weave together two trains of western thinking that had been sundered as far back as the times of St. Augustine. On one hand the pursuit to understand the workings of the material world through experimentation and empirical thinking was seen to be entirely separate from exploring the mysteries of faith in God’s Kingdom. He strove to reweave the two streams of thought by demonstrating that a careful empirical study of the processes of evolution revealed an ultimate and inevitable movement toward a divine revelation.

From the earliest stages of the physical universe being illuminated by modern physics Chardin described two interwoven and distinct trends. First, he perceived the material universe trending toward increased complexity and ultimately toward entropy. Counter to this he theorized an opposite movement manifesting within matter and connected with the spiritual destiny of all creation and the ultimate impulse behind evolution. As the universe initially expanded the simplest elements of atomic substance multiplied in density, combining into increasingly complex forms, from atoms to molecules to the entire table of elemental matter. The dust and gases of creation coalesced into stars and suns and planetary bodies. Within the primeval ooze on the surface of a planet, complex molecules combine to form the first elements of biological life. Ultimately, within the carpet of biology covering the earth consciousness emerges and eventually self-awareness. In this view the earth that we know can be viewed as a multilayered sphere with matter at its base, enveloped in a shell of biological life and a layer of consciousness and ultimately a collective consciousness that he referred to as the ‘noosphere’. All is drawn toward a final coalescence of spiritual awareness and transcendent unity that’s resolved in what can be conceived as the consciousness of Christ.

This decidedly Christian vision of a universe that has a distinct beginning and middle, with a final spiritual resolution, offers (a particularly Eurocentric) perspective that one can accept or reject without discarding some of its essential observations about the processes of evolution. Most relevant as a central tenet of Tielhard’s vision is the concept of ‘miniaturization’. In evolutionary terms, things become increasingly complex while occupying less and less space by arranging themselves in more centralized and adaptable structures. We see these trends in every branch of the evolutionary tree, from single cell to multicellular organisms, dinosaurs to hominids, to computer chips with their ever increasing storage capacity.

Paolo Soleri offers a reformulation reformulation of these concepts in his own words:

“Miniaturize or die had been the key rule for incipient life.”

“Society is still an awkward animal suffering from a kind of ‘flat gigantism’ that nails it to the surface of the earth.”

“Society must become a true organism that will perform adequately. This will be made possible through the power of miniaturization. The physical miniaturization of its container, the city, is a necessary step to this end.”

The principle of miniaturization is at the center of Soleri’s architectural ideas. The city is seen as both a container of human culture and as an evolving organism that must be evaluated in relation to the total environment. Like any organism our future depends upon efficiency and adaptability against the background of environmental conditions and environmental change.

My visit to Arcosanti was not my first contact with Solari’s work. From 1968 on I’d read every issue of The Whole Earth Catalog from cover to cover, and I’m pretty certain that it was in those pioneering pages that I first came across his thinking. In 1973 after moving to Denver I came across a full-size M.I.T. Press edition of the book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man’ in a local bookstore. It was full of wide formatted drawings and plans for futuristic cities that resembled enormous spaceships tucked into wild landscapes. While crouched in basement hallways in elementary school, confronted with the possibility of nuclear winter in elementary school, I’d filled my head and later notebooks with my own sketches of vast self-contained underground cities. Solari’s cities seemed like a fulfillment of my own fantasies. I carried around a ragged paperback version of the book for many years and recently purchased a 50th Anniversary edition of the original tome.

The term ‘Arcology’ combines the words architecture and ecology. In Soleri’s vision the requirement for human survival is in the balance between the congruence of disparate elements in the natural world and the pursuit of equity in society. When this balance isn’t achieved the result is instability, chaos and eventually self destruction. When society fails to understand its congruent relationship with the natural world the pursuit of equity is bound to fail. The role of architecture is to provide containers providing a buffer between the factors that foster stability and survival.

When I returned briefly to Denver a few years ago I witnessed a monstrous example of incongruity, unfortunately typical of many if not most American cities. I lived in a suburb that had once been a small town which had been surrounded and absorbed by urban sprawl. The inherent efficiency of the city is offset by the amount of energy and stress required to accomplish anything. The scale is inhuman, based more on the needs and necessity of the internal combustion engine than the natural interactions of human commerce. As the city spreads across landscapes without limit the distance required to meet a person’s needs become greater while problems of congestion and pollution put increasing strain on resources and human stress. People are more isolated from one another as the street is given over to automobiles. The life of sidewalks and the commons is shifted to distant shopping centers. There remain only scattered pockets of centralized commerce not dependent on superhighways and vast parking lots, strip malls and rubber stamped franchises. Convenience is seen more and more in terms of parking rather than walking. I do not know my neighbors. I commute to work. I sped too much of my time in slow moving traffic. This way of life is neither congruent or equitable.

In the present we are confined collectively in this long march to overcome the plague. We are confined and isolated and the distance between us appears to have widened. In one sense we seem to be moving faster toward extinction. On the other hand the pandemic has exposed more clearly the inherent instability of our hitherto unconscious dash toward collective oblivion. It has in some ways moved us forward as we awaken to a sense of collective responsibility. Meanwhile the streets of some our biggest cities are reclaimed by human traffic as our technologies allow many of us to see beyond our dependence on the automobile. At the same time that technology is forcing us to rethink all aspects of our relationship to work and our collective well being. The lesson perhaps is that crisis more than ideals is what drives us forward. When faced by crisis we are above all a race of both storytellers and problem solvers.

Soleri’s cities accelerate and concentrate their natural function partly by building vertically rather than horizontally, in a model inspired by the upright human form. Essential services, heat and water, waste disposal, ventilation, illumination and shopping are arranged around an open central core, increasing efficient circulation and eliminating the need for long distance vehicular travel. Most human interaction is accomplished by walking, taking steps or elevators between levels. Every necessity is close at hand. Rather than spreading over the landscape the human container becomes a node in networks of communication, transportation and commerce that connect separate nodes to one another. Embedded within the natural environment rather than overcoming it, the life in cities allows it to be restored to the purposes of recreation, sustainable resource development and the production of food. Access to the natural world is made more accessible and less invasive because it’s no longer viewed as an adversary to be conquered but as the vital container of our well being.

Cities, even sprawling ones, are inherently more efficient on an individual level, as public services become more centralized in relation to where residents live and move. 68% of humanity inhabits cities and the number continues to scale upward through the decades, driven further by the results of climate change and the collapse of rural economies. Solari contends that the continued expression of ‘megalopoly and suburbia’ runs against the natural vectors of human health and evolutionary survival. He compares present cities, with their sprawl and inefficiencies spread across the landscape to the broken branches that fall from the evolutionary tree. Although the human animal has proven to be one of the most adaptable and complex creatures on earth, the advantage of self-reflection has brought us to the next stage of evolution and our collective future in society. To achieve both equity and congruence within our changing environment we must build our cities to be complimentary to the natural world rather than the devouring it.

Central Plaza Taos Pueblo

Driving in any direction out of the city of Santa Fe takes me past the Pueblo villages of Northern New Mexico. The strict building codes of Santa Fe are in fact inspired largely by the colors and shapes of the Pueblo culture, deliberately designed to attract tourists who search for some reminder of a community long lost in many of our cities. When I first moved to New Mexico, and to some extent even today the pueblos were mired in poverty and loss and yet were magnets that drew people from around the world looking for an echo of the past or a vision of the future.

Leaving ancestral traces in the mysterious ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon, the still viable communities of Cochiti and Jemez and Santa Domingo and so many others are have adapted and endured for millennia. They threw off conquest and survived through the strength and cohesion of their traditions. With the onslaught of railroads and interstate highways and the rise of a casino driven economy some of those bonds are being challenged, but there remains an essential community structure that holds them together through all the changes over time.

Nowadays around the outer edges of the villages and near the highways there are new developments characterized by the crackerbox construction of government built housing that echoes the sterile tropes of suburban America. When one goes deeper toward the center of the circles surrounding the community’s timeworn heart it’s still possible to encounter places where the ancient soul of the people is protected and preserved. Although in many cases folks have abandoned the older dwellings that surround the central ceremonial plazas, a sense remains of interior spaces that define and preserve the collective sense of home and identity. While these structures have become templates for architecture copied by newcomers in the gentrified cities, I’m convinced that the expression of centralized self-sufficiency and environmental congruency was one major inspiration for Paolo Solari’s vision for the inevitable future of civilization.

When I began the Arclist in 2001 we were still within the early years of the Internet boom, a time before interpersonal communication had become overrun by commerce. We who dwelled in these virtual spaces were incredibly naive but infinitely hopeful. What was happening online was seen as an alternative venue for the creation of communities defined by a sense of common identity and the emergence of a dazzling array of public commons where creativity could thrive. For a time we felt ourselves moving along vectors toward possibilities of a more equitable and enlightened civilization. Unfortunately, as part of a highly educated and ‘enlightened’ elite we didn’t anticipate the horrific abuses that would inevitably emerge out of a commercialized commons.

I remain hopeful. A collective awakening to our common crisis rises as we’re faced once again in these very difficult times with the necessity to rearrange our collective priorities if our civilization is to survive. I named the Arclist in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vision, and that vision continues to inspire me with the possibility that the future offers radically new possibilities.

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http://arclist.org

ROXBURY

Bill Halas briefly attended Goddard College in the early seventies, a rather progressive college for that time. It was rather small, compared to the University I’d attended, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Vermont. In this, our first journey to the East after we’d both dropped out of our respective colleges, we stopped at Goddard to pick up a few artifacts that remained from his stay, and then we proceeded on to Boston.

There we met with another Goddard alumnus, a friend of Bill’s. We chased him down as he was selling green carnations and flower bouquets on the sidewalks near Harvard Square. With his imposing height, girth, burly beard and wide expressive face, he was a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov. With a performer’s verve he swooped along the sidewalk. Concertina in hand he pranced alongside his basket of flowers. He made barely enough money to eat.

We stayed with him for one night in one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. He’d claimed a small section of the second floor in a ramshackle, unkept three-story wooden house. The house had been abandoned and was now occupied by Bill’s friend and at least two other families. Someone had tapped into the city’s electrical grid by stringing a wire over to the cable on a nearby telephone pole. The place had a sharp stench of backed up toilets. It was one of the coldest nights of a Boston winter and the plumbing had burst. We tried to sleep curled up in our sleeping bags, crammed into a space the size of a closet. The only outside warmth was that of a hot pad used briefly before bedtime for making tea. We stayed up long enough to drink a cheap bottle of wine purchased with the proceeds from carnations, have a short conversation, and try to find a pocket of warmth to sleep in. That night somebody had an argument out front in the middle of the night and someone crashed in a front window while shouting in anger, adding to the cold.

The next day we crawled out to have breakfast somewhere and afterwards we crammed us all into our small compact car. After loading up at the flower store with green carnations we stood with Bill’s friend most of the morning, helping him to sell flowers on the street. We actually raked in a good bit that day. Bill and I collected a small but generous stipend for gas money and then we made our way out of Boston, heading south.

Roxbury is sometimes called, according to Wikipedia, the “heart of Black culture in Boston”. We arrived a decade after the Great Migration, and there were still some remnants of the English, Irish and German immigrants that had populated the neighborhood since the early 20th century when there were opportunities in the local foundries and breweries. Most had fled as blacks moved in and the property was arbitrarily devalued by the city. Eventually the foundries and factories were replaced by warehouses and retail businesses. The aging infrastructure, much of it built in the 19th century, began to seriously deteriorate along with the fading tax base.

Boston was known for its riots, going all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. There were 103 riots between 1700 and 1976. Everyone had their turn. There were riots over food, the British, the Stamp Act, race and slavery, anti-Irish, anti-Union, anti-busing and…you get the picture. When we arrived it was a couple of years after the riots of 1967, and large parts of the Roxbury neighborhood had been devastated, littered with abandoned buildings and homes. The poverty and discontent that had infested communities for centuries had been passed on to the latest group of people that had immigrated into the neighborhood in flight from poverty and brutal oppression where they came from. In this last instance the flight was from this very country and the Jim Crow policies of the South. They were poor, and in this instance most of the rules and regulations were stacked against them by reason of race and thus the opportunities for leaving were very much narrowed.

Before I came to Roxbury I’d skirted the edges of black culture, more or less as an invited guest. My family was poor enough and I was smart enough and ornery enough to be allowed into a government War On Poverty program called Upward Bound, that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the growing unrest and uprising in the black community. I’d previously been considered for a similar privately funded program at Yale, and when I hadn’t made that cut I was offered a similar opportunity much closer to home. The program, which still exists, was for lower income students that had somehow demonstrated great educational potential but, without a major assist, weren’t likely to meet that potential.

Being in Upward Bound meant spending my high school summers attending classes and workshops and hanging out in the dormitories of University that I’d one day attend. Of the 80 or so students in the program at that time, about 65-70% were black. The rest were divided between mostly Puerto Rican and a smattering of white folk like me. Most of the graduate student counseling staff were of a similar mix and the local head of the program, who later took me under a wing, was black.

It was in the years between 1965 and 1968 that I attended the program. While there I was given a crash course in everything I couldn’t learn back where I was from on the West Side of Cleveland, one of the most segregated cities in the north. I soaked up literature, history, art, music and dancing, hair straightening, getting drunk and getting stoned, making movies, talking without being afraid. I was introduced to the sounds and words of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X and The Temptations. I participated in debates about civil rights strategies and black culture. We were all trying to determine our places in the world. In 1967, I sat with my friends, black and white, and watched from our dormitory windows a horizon filled with flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were silent, filled with a stunned awe at the sheer immensity of the burning. In days after we watched the jeeps and personnel carriers of the National Guard enter and claim the campus, which was surrounded by the ghetto. At night we watched them leave the campus in convoys sent out toward the burning. On our way to classes we passed Guardsmen in the Student Union, some lounging, one playing beautiful Gershwin on the grand piano in the reception hall.

During the school year I’d take all of this back to my almost all-white high school in the western suburbs. Surrounded by fences and barbed wire and rules, I was slotted into a college prep channel and got to hang out with the nerds. I was pretty comfortable with my fellow nerds, but it always felt like I had a secret life and a secret identity born of unique experiences, that I’d never be able to truly convey to anyone.

The next years, those spent in college, were a blur of education and rebellion and drugs as the awareness and protests against the Vietnam War eventually merged with the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Like two rivers meeting, they fed a new level of interchange between races and cultures. The divides between black and white music fell down, fueled by resistance and protest and beautiful passion, accompanied by floods of psychoactive chemicals and a rising ecstasy of imagined futures. During those years my ‘secret’ identity was submerged or merely merged into the template of my upbringing. Although many of my black friends attended the same school, I found myself pulled more and more naturally and irrisistably onto the track of white privilege. There were simply more doors open for me, and I went through without much thought.

My chief nerd friend, Bill Halas and I, after we missed out on being sent to Vietnam via the lottery, decided that what we’d seen of the world rendered it difficult to just ‘follow the program’. We both dropped out of college and decided to take a trip together in his small compact to visit various friends on the East Coast. Thus, on a particularly cold night of the year, we came to Roxbury. Where we stayed was where the fires had burned back in 1967, here, there and everywhere. This was the damage and the aftermath.

At the end of 2019, while black men and women were being publicly executed by police and during the aftermaths of grief, protest and more police violence, an HBO drama vividly opened with a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of black citizens in Oklahoma in 1921. ‘Watchmen’ traced the lifeline of a survivor of that massacre to a sort of poetic justice, ending where the descendants of the perpetrators of white supremacy and their army of thugs meet their just rewards. Whatever else that drama did, it brought into the conversation one of the biggest racial crimes of the last century. More satisfying and more challenging was another drama on HBO, ‘Lovecraft Country,’ which takes place in the 1950’s and brings the viewer deep into the visceral horror that lurks behind the day to day commonplace of being a black American and a black family in a racist culture. Most recently the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was produced and displayed by Netflix, offering a raw portrait of the passion, the creativity and the rage that fuels the black experience.

I see all of these productions and so many more as having cracked open the doors of memory so that more of us can face the sins and crimes of our history and begin to make amends. They bracket a particular period that began to incite conversations that can either lead to a national resolution or become the basis for a nation’s further fragmentation.

I’m told that Roxbury’s still the poorest section of Boston and, like in every northern city, the symbol of a segregated culture, but that there are efforts to revitalize the district with access to rail lines and shopping districts and revitalized housing. I hope that’s the case. During this long cold pandemic, however, when I see the statistics on joblessness, homelessness and increasing poverty my memory summons up that cold night in an abandoned house, with a family next door, surviving in almost impossible conditions on the edges of America.

AN INVITATION

My Publishing Career

When I was in elementary school I was given for Christmas a small printing press  that could make stuff the size of business cards or raffle tickets. I started a number of membership organizations among my classmates that could be activated simply by asking for a card: ‘The Hoppity Hooper” Fan Club,’ ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Fan Club,’ and our final, three color masterpiece, a membership in ‘Camp Palumbo’ along with a small certificate of the official currency, the ‘Pazzuza.’ 

Later on my neighborhood friends and I, all bing in the same Boy Scout Troop, would take each issue of the Official Boy Scout Magazine paste in alternative headlines and captions cut out of other publications and turn Boys Life into what we thought was a hysterically funny parody inspired by Mad Magazine, a publication we really took seriously.   

In high school, myself and my high-minded friends published and repeatedly got in trouble for a series of independent journals printed via mimeograph machine and silk screen press at our local Peace Movement Offices. I continued this though college and after, until moving to Santa Fe, when I got a bit more seriously embedded in the writer’s world. 

In 1984, after attempting to convert reams of handwritten notes, poetry, short stories and essays into a publishable form into typewritten documents (a frustrating process) I took a class in the new Word Processing technology at the local community college. About midway through the course the teach came into class entranced by the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. I don’t remember what he said but his trance was somehow infectious, and before the end of the year I’d acquired my own machine and the accompanying laser printer.

For a number of years I published articles and reviews in ‘The Journal for Humanistic Psychology,’ ‘Annals of The Earth’ and ‘Shaman’s Drum’ magazine. 911 happened. I was not particularly surprised that it happened but that didn’t make me less angry. So, I started a blog, called ‘The Arclist,’ which continued view email and website for the next 20 years. After the 2016 election the list pretty much was reduced with short headline introductions to various news and resistance links and very little else. Meanwhile the host site and software became contaminated and obsolete and harder to manage, until a couple of weeks ago I decided to abandon the list in email form and rethink the whole thing. 

I was diagnosed with cancer. This marked an opportunity to rethink everything. I went though my existing contact list and entered them into another email client service that I’d learned to navigate through as a business application. More up to date and flexible and easier to manage in creative ways, I’d like to take advantage of this by setting up a new version of the Arclist, more in the tradition of a Journal that accommodates creative ideas, creative projects and creative discussions between interested folks. I think we are all somewhat anxious to move beyond obsessive focus on the disasters of this past year and turn our attention to future possibilities. Perhaps this could provide an opportunity.

I have a list of names that I’ve gleaned from my contact list. Many of you were part of the previous mailing list or were listed as a ‘friend’ on my Facebook page. Some of you might have gone away for any number of reasons. Some of you may not wish to hear from me ever again. Before engaging the new list I want to send a formal invitation for you to respond, either positively of negatively, and I will then formally activate or delete your membership. If your answer is ‘YES,’ and I hope it is, I will begin sending out my creations, or forwarding others, on some semi-regular basis.

Meanwhile, I’ve attached to this invitation a sampling of the sort of stuff you might expect to receive on the New ARCLIST. Should you wish to subscribe and get the material on this site in our email just send a reply to remelcher@arclist.com, or leave a Reply at the bottom of this page.    


My Favorite Podcasts (Current) 12/13/20

Not included are podcasts I’ve favored In the past but I’m no longer following regularly (this American Life, Masters of Scale) or podcasts that were short form or serialized or no longer being produced (‘Studio 360,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy Balls’). By ‘current’ I only mean current, and this list will continue to shift from day to day as I get turned on to new podcasts.

History

Throughline

One of NPR’s Most Popular Daytime Shows, this hour long documentary style delves into all of the corners of history we are never/rarely taught in school. To fully understand the present events in the context of historical realities the show is unmatched. The two hosts are from first and second generation Iranian and Palestinian families, which may give a clue  to the unique depth of their approach to telling stories.

The United States of Anxiety

A little scary but enlightening as it focuses on the areas in American history that indicate the conflicts that have split the body politic from the beginnings of the USA.

This Day in Esoteric Political History

Somewhat oddly named, focusing each day on a single event (many of which I’d never heard of) at a particular moment in American History, a lively and educated discussion of the event’s historical environment and its influence and indications in the present.

Politics

Hacks On Tap

Political strategists from both sides of the ‘aisle’ toss around their critiques and projections about both parties. Anchored by David Axelrod (Democrat) and Mike Murphy (very ‘anti-Trump’ Republican), with a variety of chummy guests, the analysis is delivered with a good deal of humor and real ‘insider’ knowledge of how political campaigns actually work.

FiveThirtyEight

I’ve been listening to these guys since 2015. A relief from the general alarmist nature of political news and analysis. Sometimes a bit over-the-top ‘wonky,’ I favor 538 for a strictly data-based view of political realities balanced by a crew of mostly contrarians in one form or another. I simply like these guys. As I was about to write this review, unfortunately the departure of Clare Malone is a great loss. Relative newcomer Harry Bacon Junior has brought a similar contrarian sensibility and a much needed black perspective to the panel, Malone brought an equally important feminist and Midwestern (Ohio) perspective. 

The Ticket

One of the better interview shows from The Atlantic. Host Isaac Dovere chooses subjects that are generally slightly out of the mainstream news but closer to actual events. Always new information and insights.

The Axe Files

Long form, one hour interviews of a range of public figures, illuminating their biographies and focusing on their positions in regards to contemporary politics. David Axelrod, currently head of The U. Of Chicago School of Politics and once Obama’s chief campaign adviser, is relentless in his ability to get beyond easy rhetoric to the true nature and personality of his guests.

Amicus

A bit alarmist in the ‘Slate’ style this is the best way to keep up with the arguments, decisions and implications for the future of the Judicial branch of government.

Intelligence Squared

Both sides of every question, thoroughly and respectfully debated. Particularly helpful to those in the habit of considering the ‘other side’ to be totally without brains or merit. (Note: This applies only to arguments that actually apply when a et of common facts are agreed upon.) 

Reporting

The Daily

The New York Times, in its breadth and depth of coverage is still at the top of the media heap. This podcast offers a sampling every morning, with a single news story or interview and a short headline summary. On Sunday an archived ‘feature story’ is read in entirety. I highly recommend checking out the Dec. 6th edition: “The Social Life of Trees.” 

Global News Podcast – BBC

I start the day with this one, as the focus isn’t obsessively on America and it’s ridiculous politics, it’s coverage is delivered with an almost universally cheerful, or at least less apocalyptic stance. Given all of the ‘Brexit’ angst in Briton these days, I suppose several hundred years more of living history kind of levels out ones perspective on the present.

The New Yorker Radio Hour

I wasn’t sure just where to place this since the coverage is as much news as it is cultural commentary. I decided that since the coverage is essentially ‘journalistic’ in approach, this fits.

Business/Journalism

Pivot

Two of the most knowledgeable people on the fringes of Big Tech, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway make a ‘perfect couple’ with their insights into current and future trends in business, investing and the politics around technical innovation and culture. Punctuated by personal banter and good natured kidding these two have been going at it for a couple of years of successful and popular podcasting. Swisher, the journalist, keeps things on track while almost cagily draws out brilliant insights from Scott, the NYU business professor and investor. Guests are featured with back and forth interviews by both Kara and Scott.

The Professor G Show

Scott Galloway’s own podcast (see above), where he calms down while proving himself a capable interviewer, while giving himself some time to deliver, John Oliver style, some incredibly insightful, critical, and sometimes inspiring ranting about ethics in politics and business.

Sway

Kara Swisher’s new interview show from The New York Times where she is featured as a regular Opinion columnist. The NYT is managing a very successful and profitable switch into the digital medium. Swisher is a digital candidate for the Maureen Dowd chair of journalism. Her interviews so far have included a diversity of subjects (from Dowd herself to Hillary Clinton to Jane Goodall).

Science

New Scientist Weekly

Friendly, British, delivered with a touch of humor, the most up-to-date international coverage of the scientific progress on Covid-19, and the latest questions and discoveries in scientific research.

Philosophy

Hi-Phi Nation

Philosophy revealed through contemporary storytelling and interviews that reveal in our present dilemmas their deep roots in philosophical discourse. A uniquely illuminating approach and my ‘great discovery’ of the month.

Into the Zone

An original approach to ideas and storytelling from novelist Haru Kunzru, who focuses on how ‘opposites’ shape our world. While founded in stories from the ‘real’ world Kunzru’s approach is delightfully filled with literary twists and turns and metaphor. I was turned on to him in an interview with ‘The Book Review’ podcast (see below).

Storytelling/Literature

The New Yorker Fiction

I’ve been listening to this podcast for more than 10 years. It’s one of my main links to the world of short fiction. A writer each month gets to choose one of their favorite stories from another writer in the archive and to read it out loud. Afterwards the author/reader discusses the story with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, focusing on how the story inspired and influenced them.

Imaginary Worlds

Being a heavily invested fantasy, sci-fi and comic book geek, how could I miss this one. ‘How we create Imaginary World and why we suspend our disbelief.  ‘Nuff said!

The Book Review

From the New York Times Book Review, but less intimidating. It features author interviews plus short discussions and reviews of some of the latest books out on the shelf.

Poetry Off The Shelf

A refreshing break into the dimensions of pure sound and word. Poems are read, interviews and analysis are delivered. A little Poetry Magazine online.

Humor

Beef and Dairy Podcast Network

I cannot really desgribe this to you. It’s British and hllarious. Every episode begins nearthe absurd nand then carries one beyond…

Mission To Zyxx

By now an old stand-by for fans of imprvisational humor, sci-fi and those with a need to fill the void between space-based intergalactic blockbusters.

Seventy

This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.

Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.

In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.

The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.

For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.

For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.

For this I am deeply aggrieved.

Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.

What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.

* * *

In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.

The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.

Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.

Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”