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:

Weird Tales

I became dismayed and extremely frustrated the other day when somebody for which I carry a lot of respect and affection parroted to me the same right wing propaganda that constantly proliferates on You Tube and Facebook. Both sources are essentially ‘Rabbit Holes,’ programmed to drive gossip, controversy and sensationalism while selling ads.

Between the paranoia and the propaganda, much of it not even generated in this country, our adversaries have gotten America’s number. We are a society that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Only the slightest encouragement is required to cause us to turn on one another like frightened dogs. Since Americans tend to trust our screens more than our actual experience we are VERY ripe for programming and manipulation. Tell a good yarn and it’s certain you’ll create a following. Provide a cliffhanger or sense of constant crisis and you can, like Trump, create a cult.

A cult functions like a cancer on the collective consciousness. Ideology is substituted for facts, programming takes the place of thinking, Individuals begin to function like robots. People once regarded as intelligent humans begin repeating the currently circulating memes and claims in a kind of science fiction nightmare that features suffocating hordes of mindless clones.

When a sufficient number are pulled into the myriad belief systems and ideologies that offer alternatives to the actual processing and evaluation of information, collective decision making becomes almost impossible. There can be no accord, because every position becomes an absolute. The quest for solutions becomes a battle between religions.

So, here we are America, trapped in our own tar pits of misinformation and increasingly obsessive fanaticism. As a nation we appear to be suffering various forms of mass psychosis, shouting at one another from totally different perceptions of reality.

The anxiety of the final days and weeks leading us toward our fate is that we don’t really know how bad is the disease. We know it’s pretty bad, and it’s spreading in waves, mostly driven by social media and those who profit from chaos. Everyday the stories and rumors get more imaginative and ridiculous, while people huddle in groups formed mainly to reinforce their own fears and premeditations.

Perhaps there are still enough Americans out there who are capable of rational decision making, who aren’t afraid of facts and data, who can make the mental leap to figure out that voting out of fear and insecurity will only lead to more of the same.

It’s hard to tell. Rational people find themselves trying to be heard above the noise, and the noise is everywhere. In the year 2020, with pandemic, racial tensions, climate change and election fever all appearing to peak at once, we will be forced to see more clearly, once the dust settles, just who and what peers back at us in the mirror.

Continue reading “Weird Tales”

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.

A Strange Year

I was laid off once from a computer software company with the boss saying to me, “You’re kind of a liberal arts sort of guy.” He had a point, and it was true that I didn’t really fit in with the climate and culture of the place. What he wanted was more on the STEM side of things. More about numbers and programs and accounting and less about words and magic. I’ve always had trouble with numbers but have never veered from a fascination with the hidden underside of things.

This was a year when all of the lessons I should have learned were taken out of the theoretical realm and brought rather severely to earth. The barriers between the worlds of wishful thinking and the awful realities that threaten our planet no longer held. It was time to put aside hopeful speculation and face down some awful truths.

It was a bad year for dilettantes. From January on it was as if, after the numb horror of events had begun to give way to the appalling normalcy of daily assault, an enormous dark sinkhole had opened in the collective psyche, and absolutely everything was sucked down into its depths so that all one looked at was somehow infected by the dread and anger that issued out of an unavoidable hellmouth, like something in a painting by Heironymous Bosch.

Now that we are past the initial shock and have accommodated ourselves somehow to the steady degradation of our public life we can perhaps leave it to unfold (and degrade) without the need to push or pull. It will unfold anyway, and perhaps someday the dirty tide will recede a bit of its own accord and meanwhile we can take stock of what’s going on in the world that lives inside of us.

I’ve always been compelled to take in everything there is in order to see the links between. To pursue one object or another to the end of its particular tunnel is an activity left to those so inclined, while my own interest is to follow the branches as they lead back from twig to trunk, fascinated less by the fleeting detail than by how it all connects. I could be called a ‘dilettante’ or perhaps a philosopher or something equally ‘iffy’ in terms of consistently reliable income streams. In the long run this generally places me somewhere at the ‘bleeding edge,’ or slightly on the outside of things that occupy most people from moment to moment. I often feel as if I’m looking on, observing with fascination, from some distance this or that quest for particulars and rarely feel fully engaged with those who spend most of their time in the weeds. Instead of attending to the particular I’m obsessed with the thread that connects this particular to another, and anot!
her, along the long and almost mystical yarn that comes from the past and stretches ahead to the future.

In this old year waning and new year dawning I’ve decided to go ‘cold turkey’ in terms of politics, hoping to free up energy for something a bit more connected to larger and longer streams that portend the creative or at least the positive. This past year felt like a full-on war, fought with words and images rather than missiles and bombs. All the words flung back and forth hammering relentlessly at any sense of civility or even responsibility, for the purpose of differentiating ‘us’ from ‘them,’ breaking the branch from the tree. All having a deeply corrosive effect on the bonds that make us feel connected in a way that makes some kind of collective sense. Most of us are reduced to sitting helplessly observing, trying to apply the old rules of civility to a situation where they’ve apparently become irrelevant. We are like mad children in some re-enactment of ‘Lord of The Flies,’ let loose to trample the bonds of the social order like they are brittle fur!
niture left around for us to trash.

I tell myself in better moments, when my mind isn’t so mired in the details of our day-of-horror unfolding, that out of chaos comes creativity. On other days I want to join in with the trashing.

Why should I even care? Even if politics and war are more entertaining than any other sport I could name, its become the sport by which we the people tear each other to pieces. My new thought is that I should stop being concerned or finding myself in any way responsible for the outcomes. My fellow citizens after all, dug this grave for themselves. Why should I not allow them to shit in their own hole and then lie down in it? Even if I must share the hole with them (there is no true escaping in this world), perhaps I can hold my nose and look away toward the sky.

Not so easy this for me, to be mired and yet to turn away as if nothing’s amiss. It’s like a sports addict deciding to turn off ESPN and ignoring the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics. Actually not so hard for me to imagine, as I’ve ignored these things for most of my life, politics being my ‘sport’ and the one interest that ties me to the things that apparently matter to the people around me from day to day.

I’ll turn to my only real audience, which is this presence inside of me, this all-judging voice that measures the world that I see and most of all that measures me. Instead of the usual ‘Politico,’ ‘FiveThirtyEight,’ Pod Save America,’ today I listen to ‘The Paris Review,’ and ‘The New Yorker Radio Hour.’ Instead of Netflix I find myself in books: Jack Kerouac’s Scroll, Haruki Murakami, Dave Hickey. I am edified and entertained, inspired even. I rearrange my apartment, twice.

Then, of course, there are all the counter voices, telling me, “You’re being irresponsible and arrogant. How can you be so uninvolved when the country is going to shit? You have to be INVOLVED, even if it’s only being aware and passing your awareness on. And I realize there is no way to be uninvolved, as the slippage we all feel is like some gravimetric beacon bending every current and pulling everything toward itself. We are all at some level compelled to respond, as we walk an ever narrowing collective path toward the future.

And of course, all things are political. “We’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Is there no escape? Of course there isn’t. The world moves on and we come around on our endless loops of self-doubt and over-confidence, trying to find that median place called ‘decision.’ We decide, we move on, we face the crisis brought about by yesterday’s decisions.

Amazingly, these two days off without once checking the news beyond the headlines, which are reliably and predictably grim, begin to feel like an actual weekend (even though my ‘weekend’ days these days are in the middle of the week). I realize that for the past year I’ve been living outside of myself, disembodied, a ghost on social media, juiced on the rage I see and feel all around me there, feeding it back in return, almost forgetting that I ever had a real life or that there are real people out there who are just living.

And yet, over the year I’ve written over a thousand words, mostly captions and short comments, an occasional thumb-length essay, and always in reaction to something OUT THERE. You can look at my Facebook page and find a running chronicle of anger and despair that’s book length and illustrated, a veritable museum exhibit of the Year in snapshots. But, very little of what you see goes beneath the armor. It’s merely a chronicle of suffering, as if every move we made was constrained by the straitjackets of fear and rage.

I fell into the very traps I’ve been warned to avoid and have warned others about. In my studies of magic and media and the dangers of astral space (where ideas and images are born and fed) I was aware of the potentials for getting lost in the endless gulf that opens between imagination and matter. Into that gulf is where the ‘enemy’ projects his tricks, his spells, his signals of doom. The tragedy is that we gave him the biggest platform from which he could play his tricks.

So we were played.

On the bright side, I learned to write with my thumb. This was entirely written and edited on my iPhone.

Arclist

Sex and Politics: The Resistance

Fox News is, more than anything else media headquarters for patriarchal resistance and institutional racism in America, just as the Republican Party is headquarters for it’s political arm. In the past few months Fox has lost their former ringleader (Roger Ailes), their leading female commentator (Megan Kelly), and now their biggest moneymaker (Bill O’Reilly) due to a pervasive climate of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.

Given that the prevailing attitudes at Fox and in the Republican Party are basically throwbacks to an era of ‘Madmen,’ which educated and aware Americans have grown out of, but Fox/Republicans and their constituency have not, this should be no surprise. While commentators like O’Reilly rail at manufactured bugaboos under the banner of attacking ‘political correctness,’ women broadcasters at Fox are evaluated according to their measurements and how closely they match some male’s beauty pageant ideal. Intelligence and competence must be overmatched by ample exposure of ‘legs and cleavage’ and the job description should read: Applicants preferred: blond and buxom (and very white).’

When news becomes a front for sensationalism and entertainment and government becomes nothing more than performance art the abuse of persons follows inevitably out of the abuse of truth. We have gone very far down that road, but the dumping of Bill O’Reilly demonstrates that the popular and political resistance in the Age of Trump is mounting and is indeed effective. While the forces of reaction circle the wagons a wave is growing with every abuse, every revelation of corruption and every broken promise.

New York Times: ‘Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out’

Winter Is Coming – Part One

More than a decade ago I published the following article on the Arclist and in the magazine “Annals of the Earth” that compared the fantasy narratives of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” which had just published it’s fourth volume and which I was advocating to my friends and associates at the time. This was long before anything was said about the series being made into a film. Martin’s imaginary world is dark and complex, without the clear definitions of good and evil presented in the worlds of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. It was in fact a pioneering work in the emerging genre of what was being called “adult fantasy” which meant that it has an uncomfortable resemblance to the actual world we inhabit.

Before television’s recent so-called ‘golden age’ and the rise of the cable series franchise a work that did justice to Martin’s expansive vision would have indeed been impossible. The success and emerging dominance of the extended narrative form has bridged the gap between the literary form of the novel and the realm of visual storytelling.

As much as I regarded George R. R. Martin’s work as the best in it’s genre I could not have anticipated the phenomenal success of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” based on, and now actually extending the cycle of narratives taking place in the Imaginary world of Westeros and lands to East. Not only has the series succeeded as the most ambitious cinematic production ever attempted for television, it has become a cultural meme that dominates whole sections of bookstores, is referred to in political and cultural commentaries and taken over vast sectors of Internet culture.

In the piece I wrote in 2005 my argument was that, as “Lord of the Rings” represented the ‘climactic’ work of an age dominated by literature and the rise of industrial technology. As a cinematic production it made more extensive use of digital technology than anything that came before and thus it marks the transition from a primarily mechanical/chemical/industrial process of filmmaking into an almost entirely electronic medium. “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a ‘formative’ work that announces the birth of a new ecology of consciousness and communication. It is produced entirely within the digital medium of television and not for theaters, so it represents a further step into a more intimate form of storytelling. I believe that my argument is supported by the immense popularity of this cultural artifact that crosses the generations from those of us raised by television onto the new denizens of a ‘digital’ age.

It will be enlightening to further explore the particular qualities that have elevated George R. R. Martin’s tale far beyond the boundaries of fantastic literature. To start with I’ll republish here, slightly edited for clarity, the original article entitled “Winter Is Coming.”

Meanwhile, there are weekly “Game of Thrones” parties everywhere.

_________________________________________________________________________
Begin forwarded message:

From: Ralph Melcher <melcher@nets.com>
Subject: [Arclist] Winter Is Coming
Date: November 1, 2005 at 8:35:09 PM MST
To: Arclist <Arclist@cybermesa.com>

I look forward this fall to the release of “A Feast For Crows,” the fourth book by George R. R. Martin in his cycle of medieval modern fantasy epics collectively titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Martin, perhaps immodestly, displays the same middle initials as J.R.R.Tolkien, while departing radically from Tolkien in his construction of a world based as much on history as on myth. (England’s “War of the Roses” provided inspiration for a tale of two battling royal families) Where Tolkien weaves an apocalyptic tale of a Manichaean clash between ultimate good and evil in which most of his characters appear more as classical archetypes than familiar people, Martin’s narrative proceeds through revelation of the evolving perceptions of a cast of very recognizable human characters. In Tolkien’s world every character’s move is the culmination of larger forces with origins deep in the mythical history to which he dedicated his creative life. As massive and ambitious as his popular masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings,” it was a small piece in a much larger and more ambitious tapestry that traced the mythical prehistory of humanity all the way back to the time of creation. George Martin’s intentions are modest in comparison, that is to tell a good yarn with engaging characters recognizable by modern readers. As different as these works appear, they each represent significant milestones in the evolution of a literary genre, as well as exposing the underlying foundations of the cultures out of which they emerge.

The cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, in his many explorations into cultural ecology, presents a critique of literature as cultural artifacts, in which there are three stages of that correspond to the unfolding of consciousness. The kinds of text that define particular stages in this model are the formative, dominant and climactic. “The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness through the work of solitary and shamanistic pioneers; the dominant work stabilizes the mentality through the work of an institutional elite; and the climactic work consummates and finishes the mentality for all time through the work of an individualistic genius.” (2)

Although Thompson cites James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as most clearly epitomizing the climactic work of the (last) age, I would argue that Tolkien’s epic more clearly and definitively fills that niche for a number of reasons, not least of which is it’s spectacular success as a genuine artifact of mass culture. Tolkien lived and wrote his myth while witnessing the titanic struggles of a century defined by the rising power of technology and industrialization. In opposition to the dominance of machine culture he identified with attempts to maintain some vestige of traditional memory and culture. The author was clearly conscious of the scope of the intent to summarize an age. He states in a quote, cited by David Day, “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country (England): it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff…I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I would dedicate simply to England; to my country.”(3)

David Day goes on to compare Tolkien’s undertaking as the equivalent of Homer first inventing Greek mythology single handedly before embarking on the “Illiad” and “Odyssey”. His argument is founded in a rather culture centric idea that England was the fount and seed carrier for much that reflected the transition from the medieval European world of moral absolutism to a transatlantic culture that worshiped progress and modernity. Tolkien’s work is reflected in it’s ambition by that of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” which was a similar attempt to both crown and transcend the operative form. “The Lord of the Rings” is a text that depicts in markedly Christian terms the final battle between good and evil, in which an agrarian civilization faces down the rising power of the machine. After many heroic struggles humanity emerges forever transformed, while the ancient powers and principalities of an older time are either defeated or simply fade away. Tolkien both sums up the moral landscape of a pre-modern civilization while proclaiming its ultimate replacement by a new world order in which the heroic tribal quest ultimately leads to a new bourgeois world of trade and acquisition governed by new rules and individual initiative. At the end of the tale, the heroes disappear in the west while Merry and Sam and Pippin take up the settled life of the Shire.

What better characterization of the historical nature of the twentieth century, where ancient tribal mythologies mingled with the ascending powers of technocracy and fueled the rise of new orders and empires that clashed in climactic conflagrations that involved the entire civilized world? Ultimately, at the end of two massive wars the nation state was subdued by a new order embodied in globalized commerce and transnational communication, where the centers of power were continually challenged and then overtaken by explosive evolutionary forces generated near the boundaries of the known. At the the century’s transition a reaction has set in as people seek retreat in familiar rules and in texts of a world that is rapidly passing away. Tolkien’s fantasy wistfully recounts the passing of a time when the simple desire for comfort, family and the hearth, represented by the hobbits of the shire, was sufficient. The ‘War of the Ring’ represents nothing less than our collective passage into a new age and a new order where values must be forged anew with little assistance from the guardians of the past.

Tolkien’s work portrays in many ways the rise and final conflagration put forth in the Judeo-Christian paradigm of creation and apocalypse. His work that invents cultures, races and language echoes the birth and rise of nation states. As in the Christian mythos, all things proceed toward a final apocalypse that results in the ascension of the savior-king as ruler of a new order and at least a temporary peace governed by principals of honor, charity and love.

If, as Thompson proposes, the solitary and shamanistic explorations of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” and Descartes’s “Discourse on Method,”(4) created the formative texts of the new mentality that replaced the medieval Mediterranean with the modern Atlantic cultural ecologies, then Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” surely fills the bill for “the work of an individualistic genius” which characterizes a climactic work that “consummates and finishes the mentality for all time.”  Interesting as well is the fact that Tolkien’s tale truly came into its’ own as a work that achieved mass popularity when it was turned into a movie; and not just any movie, but one that marked the transition from film as primarily an optical/mechanical artifact at the pinnacle of the industrial process, to the fully realized digital creation of total worlds out of the imagination.

George Martin’s novels can be seen in this light as a preliminary shamanic exploration into a new level of culture. Its’ structure owes more to television than to the classic film or novel. Martin began his career writing television scripts for popular shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” The importance of his background in television perhaps can be found in the quality of the epic feature film, where background is as much a character as the actors within the frame. Television, due to its intimacy as a virtual presence in the modern household as well as the size and shape of the screen (a limitation growing obsolete), has evolved around the close-up, or talking head. Television narratives are generally driven by a succession of character portraits which emphasize individual points-of-view, and which change rapidly from one to another in a sequence of abrupt cuts.

Martin similarly unfolds his epic tale in a sequence of intimate character sketches functioning like a sequence of various camera positions. Every chapter is named for a single character, and as the narrative proceeds our feeling for each character deepens with each mention of their name. The books could actually be read as a score of separate tales, each about separate characters, all woven together through a tapestry in time. In a sense, Martin’s story begins where Tolkien’s leaves off, in an age dominated by men, where evil and virtue are no longer the province of externalized forces embodied by magical beings, but carried in the heart and mind of every individual. One could say that “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a postmodern fantasy, where the battle between good and evil is played out in the choices each person makes in a moment of crisis based on their own unique perception of right and wrong. Yet, underlying the human drama and giving it ultimate shape is a much larger unfolding, determined not by good and evil, darkness and light, but by the immense and irrevocable powers of the natural world. The destinies of men are less a factor of their own moral virtue than the result of the ultimate relationship between society and the complex and inevitable cycles of summer and winter.

In the world of Westeros the timing of the seasons is unpredictable, every summer lasting more than a decade followed by an equally long cold winter. In a sense the summer fosters the powers of the day while winter brings forth the demons of the night. These cycles are long enough that generations forget the fact that all that is will inevitably change. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that the castles and kingdoms built by men are only as strong as their memories for, although the precise timing is unpredictable there are plenty of signs and warnings for those who can remember. It’s on this stage of the inevitable cycles of the natural world that the dramas and struggles of human society are waged, and we are made conscious that the quest for temporal power meets final judgment in the face of what is to come. If there is ultimate virtue it’s in the value people place on wisdom and long term vision over short term ambition and greed.

Two families epitomize the poles of this very human struggle. In the north are the Starks of Winterfell, whose family motto is “Winter is Coming.” Their demeanor is conservative, their colors white and grey, their values shaped by necessity and tradition. In the south, near the colorful fountains of trade and culture and civilization is the ‘Iron Throne.’ There dwells the Lannisters, hungry for wealth and power and jealous of all those who would challenge their rule over the lands of men. Within this tale the common order of classical heroic fantasy is followed more or less faithfully, as the outsiders in both families emerge as heroic figures in the story which unfolds. When the seasons begin to change, awakening long forgotten dangers out of the northern wastes, and as another force driven by fire and signaled by the rebirth of dragons rises in the south, one gets a sense that the synthesis of human aspirations with the seemingly implacable forces of transition can only be found by those less invested in things as they are.

As I look on at the absurd struggles raging across our lands in a time when a future filled with the present and looming crisis of war, pandemics, climate change, water shortage, overpopulation and the rest, I find the Stark motto, “Winter Is Coming,” to be a succinct characterization of the realities we collectively face in our world, as a species and a civilization. Many of us are outsiders with little at stake in the petty power struggles of politicians and our so-called leadership. We find ourselves in a shamanic role, as observers on the periphery of social events, living in a reality that challenges the assumptions of powers-that-be, transcending the narrow limits of an obsolete world-view. Tolkien’s magnificent epic leaves us with a challenge, to face the future as moral and responsible human beings, without the crutch of certainty provided by ancient texts and ancient prophecy. We are in a new world after all. George R. R. Martin offers a rather dire tale of the consequences of short sightedness while giving us hope that we may find a way, as we always have, through new leadership and pragmatic vision. Our constant temptation is to dwell on what we lack, and to be trapped in a struggle that keeps us bound to a world that is passing away. Our salvation lies not in belief but in clarity, and our faith must be found not in the past but in the future.

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1. Martin, George R. R. Martin’s cycle: A Song of Ice and Fire, includes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000) and A Feast for Crows (2005).

2. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 233).

3. Day, David, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

4. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being. St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 143).

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You can’t stop the signal.
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Sent from my iPad

The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

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Zombie Nation

The other night I was sitting having a beer in a friend’s house trailer, making conversation about the fate of the world, occasionally casting a glance at the flat screen television mounted near the ceiling. Not being a regular television watcher, the idea of having the image factory going constantly, even with the sound off is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the cavalcade of images that drew my attention as we talked.

The screen was tuned to the Discovery Channel and the program being broadcast was a two hour special called “Zombie Apocalypse.” This is apparently a guide to survival at the end of civilization. The documentary footage features grade B actors playing survivalists, ER physicians, college professors and various “experts” in the defense against attacking zombies. In past decades this would’ve been considered a satirical “mockumentary” approach to an obviously fictional scenario, but in the hallucinogenic culture of today I’m convinced that a large part of the population can no longer distinguish fantasy from truth.

In our America the true is no longer woven out of facts. The truth is merely a matter of belief. One can believe in virtually anything and make it real, turn it into a subculture, a reality show, or a political movement.

A couple of weeks ago in a great circling of the wagons that took place in Houston, Texas, somewhere around 70,000 people gathered for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The complexion and makeup of those who gathered most likely resembled those seen at a Republican National Convention, including a large contingent of conspiracy theorists, militia enthusiasts and (I’m sure) zombie fighters . The motto of this year’s convention was “Stand and Fight.”

An obvious question is, “Fight who?”

The answer no doubt includes criminals, liberals, the government, immigrants, zombies and all that the media so successfully markets as objects to fear. A recent poll found that 44% of Americans think that we are headed for an “armed rebellion.” Mostly folks wrapped in a belief that “freedom” is somehow synonymous with the right to arm themselves against all others.

I can actually understand their motivations and perhaps even sympathize with their fears, knowing that underneath all the various projections and fantasies of “the enemy” is the growing certainty of an entire culture being overcome and vanishing, as surely as have all the extinct tribes that have gone before. The pathetic irony is that nothing threatening this culture’s survival can be defended against with armaments, no matter how lethal or quickly loaded.

The foundations of what we once called “freedom” are vanishing as quickly as pond ice on a warm spring day. What remains of the American Dream of individual autonomy is confined to images cooked up in the fantasy world of theme parks and television. Nearly every community and every city, large and small, has turned itself into an artificial construct, where identity is constructed out of slogans and corporate logos. We are what we watch. New York and Paris and Shanghai are rapidly becoming collections of interchangeable parts as each city replicates a well oiled machine interface that balances a shrinking quotient of local novelty with the familiarity of recognizable brands. What we look for as we travel is the nearest Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks or MacDonalds.

I remember a time when I was very young and it appeared that civilization had a direction and my country had a sense of common purpose. I now realize that this perceived reality was a manufactured illusion, but now even that level of commonly accepted artifice is gone away. It went to Las Vegas, where all traces of human purpose are absorbed by our continual response to the demands of automated mechanisms of reward.

A recent statistic indicates that suicides among middle aged males has risen by 48% since 2010. Most of the gun deaths in this country are the result of suicide. Could it be that the relationship of the gun owner to his or her gun resembles that of the bulemic to food? In both cases the object of obsession is perceived as a shield from despair. In either case beneath the shield is a hidden death wish and it brings one ever closer to the very thing feared. Is it any surprise that the zombies we fight in our fantasy scenarios are the reanimated corpses of the very people with whom we are familiar?

Thus we have this sad gathering of the paranoid deep in Texas defending what no longer exists in any meaningful way; the “American Dream” of “the home of the brave and the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all.” What in our era do any of these words mean? What freedoms do we have beyond the freedom to shop? We can choose the 30 round magazine over the 15 round magazine or the 42 inch television over the 36 inch. We can navigate to our favorite web site to stoke our preconceptions or paranoid daydreams. We can decide who to cheer for or who to blame. We can switch channels, but we’ve given up almost every freedom but the freedom to be entertained.

“Daily skirmishes were now being fought, no longer for territory or commodities but for electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth. As the Era of Sail had depended upon the mapping of seas and sea coasts of the globe and winds of the wind-rose, so upon the measurement of newer variables would depend the history that was to pass up here, among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun.”

– Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
I don’t want to leave us with a feeling of despair. Despair doesn’t do anyone any good. Although nostalgia for the “loss” of individual freedoms can perhaps justify our desperate response, we may also consider that aspects of our loss may be part of a necessary evolutionary advance.

In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. At the beginning of the last century that number had grown to 14% and by 1950 it was 30%. It is now projected that by 2050 more than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. The population of the world’s cities is growing at the rate of a million and a half people every week. Can anyone realistically project that the values by which we navigated the past will not have to change substantially as we enter the future? (Sources: United Nations and Geoffrey West)
I once studied the ideas and architecture of Paolo Soleri, who proposed that humanity must structurally adapt in order to survive, just as life has always adapted to changing conditions and environmental pressures. As our population increases our lives have entered a new stage of complexity in which we must evolve a more flexible organism, one that is more compact and efficient and requires less energy to maintain. As the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals, so our sprawling urban landscapes must find ways to consolidate services and resources so that more people can inhabit less space while generating less waste. Soleri (who died on April 9th of this year) proposed a radical redesign of the urban environment that envisioned densely populated cities as single structures, called Arcologies, which functioned as integrated and tightly managed outgrowths of the natural landscape.

His view is controversial, because in order to conceive of such a project one has to envision a humanity as radically altered from what it is now as are mammals a radical departure from the life of giant lizards. How do we get from a world filled with religious warfare and ethnic hatred to one where diverse populations can live in ever closer quarters without civilization self-destructing?

That appears to be what we are seeing right now, as institutions appear to collapse under their own weight and complexity. Having left a century dominated by massive world wars we appear to have entered one where regional warfare is almost constant, waged within cultures even more than between them. Our politics are shaped by the struggles of rural versus urban, tradition versus technology, global versus national and a shrinking population of the privileged versus a growing culture of poverty.

Meanwhile the movies and television and the Internet fill with imagined apocalyptic scenarios of government conspiracies, environmental extinction, alien invasions, wars against machines and zombie attacks. I’ve come to realize that these are the nightmares of a culture that in fact faces very real extinction. And so it must, as a prelude to what Arthur C. Clarke would have called “Childhood’s End.” The new human being is being born at the same time that the old perishes. Rather than mourning what is passing I choose to search for indications of what’s to come.

(to be continued…)

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You Can’t Stop The Signal