Monday, October 31, 2016

a campfire tale

The emerald bauble of the planet, nested on a sequin-dusted jeweller's cushion of black velvet, this is not the world.  The several billion apes with improved posture that cavort across the planet's surface, these are likewise not the world.  The world is no more than an aggregate of your ideas about the world, of your ideas about yourselves.  It is the vast mirage, baroque and intricate, that you are building as a shelter from the overwhelming fractal chaos of the universe.  It is composed from things of the imagination, from philosophies, economies and wavering faith, from your self-serving individual agendas and your colourful notions of destiny.  It is a flight of fancy spun to while away those empty-bellied Neolithic nights, a wishful fantasy of how mankind might one day live, a campfire tale you tell yourselves and then forget is just a tale you are telling; that you have made up and have mistaken for reality.  Civilisation is your earliest science-fiction story.  You come up with it so that you'll have something to do, something to occupy yourselves during the centuries to come. Don't you remember? -- Jerusalem, Alan Moore, pp. 774-775
I found this interesting and broad example of a "campfire tale" in Alan Moore's latest novel, which I'm about 2/3rds of the way finished reading at the moment. One of the themes in the book is the way traditional communities are being swallowed up -- which has been discussed in connection with Trump, though Moore's book makes a solid case that, at least in England, this isn't just about an urban-rural divide.

Another recent article argues that the relative popularity of things like Trump and Brexit has not simply been due to economics and disenfranchisement, but that they are instead ways for pre-existing racist/xenophobic sentiments to become organised.  That's believable up to a point, but those sentiments don't come out of the blue.  If we think about Germany before the rise of Hitler: the Germans weren't exactly happy campers from an economics point of view. Scapegoating "the other" happens when that's an at least quasi-rational thing to do.

My own hypothesis is that it's mostly a loss of meaning that has brought about the situation we're looking at now -- so it makes sense that those most desparate for meaningful things would seize upon those meanings that are closest to hand. This is basic "pharmacology" -- so for example according to the Bruce Alexander theory, this is the main reason people become addicted to drugs.

Yet another article breaks the Brexit phenomenon down geographically: it would seem that it's not necessarily the case that the most economically deprived areas supported Brexit.  But, for example, Moore's home town of Northampton voted 58-to-42-percent in favour of "Leave".

(Aside: This latest link is to an interesting interview with Moore that touches in particular on an alternative way of making political decisions, based on a temporary jury rather than a designated long-term political class.)

To my way of thinking, these cultural topics come back fairly quickly (believe it or not) to contemporary discussions about artificial intelligence.  My point being that people have been talking about the way that mechanisation leads to disenfranchisement since the start of the machine age.  Civilisation as a science fiction story indeed!

Another point of reference that I've been wishing we included in our Networking Knowledge contribution is a reference to the switch from "earth god(esse)s" to "sky gods" in ancient times -- taking place in Greek, Celtic, and Nordic cultures alike, apparently.  I'd hypothesise that there's a technological aspect to that shift, namely as the sky becomes more relevant for navigation, sky gods become more relevant to culture, too.  Along with navigation, of course, comes mercantilism; something along these lines is the basic "theory" embodied in the Cellini statue, which was created by commission Cosimo I de' Medici, who was perhaps a rough equivalent to the later-day Goldman-Sachs and Morgan-Stanley.

I think one could argue that this "shift" recurs, with locally-based meanings being supplanted by long-distance connections (e.g. on this logic, TPP has a lot of the "sky" element to it). This coincides with various apocalyptic effects.  The difference between the end of the world as we know it and the end of the world per se is at least somewhat subtle.

Friday, October 7, 2016

...One More Time: Symbolic Castration and Technical Objects

What Orff can't seem to find are his old flame Luise, a woman who embodies the perpetual lostness of Eurydice; and his own lost inspiration, as Orpheus's tale and Orff's own gradually become intertwined in a heady and poetically potent blend of mythological riffing and daft comedy. -- from this summary of The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

...a massive No. 1 single, inadvertently started the late '90s teen pop boom, and created a public persona for herself that was simultaneously kid-friendly and pure male fantasy...

Perseus is holding Medusa's head like sort of sceptre, or proof of a mandate from heaven. Equally, in the sculpture-as-story Medusa has been "castrated" in a most extreme way -- ending her life, clearly, but not eliminating the magical power of her gaze.

Perhaps the issue is that her head, back when it was attached to her body, was already a sort of sceptre; and she was so closely aligned with that power as to become, entirely, a "phallus" in the Žižek and Lacan manner.

What's going on w/ all this weird lingo, you may ask?  Well there's frequent talk in Lacanian circles about how woman, or girl "=" phallus; this can be explained in somewhat more down-to-earth terms if we start again from the top. A king or queen, for example, is a human being. But with their crown and sceptre in hand, their humanness is pushed into the background. This is the so-called symbolic castration, in which the symbols of power "castrate" the powerful person, by partially removing their personhood.

OK, back in the story: Perseus intervenes and says "actually, no it is the head of this woman that is the phallus, and I'll prove it." (Further evidence: her head is covered with snakes.)
All I need to do...

To sum up once more:

(Phase 1) Medusa as magical being, whose vision projects and fixes beings as images. She seems to represent earthiness, femininity, holism, nature -- but all in a "negative" aspect.

(Phase 2) Medusa's head, as a sceptre-like prize -- representing something that organises power -- in this case, no longer natural power but political and commercial power. (Cellini's statue was forged for the Medicis.)

(Phase 3) "Perseus with the Head of Medusa", a real physical statue, which no longer "represents" per se, but *is*. Where's Medusa's head is a sort of prototype ("symbolic") technology, the statue is a bona fide technical object in Simondon's sense. (Further evidence: Berlioz's opera as part of a series of derived works.)

The Medusa Frequency, p. 8