machine cycle upgrade

Humanism, Modernity, Philosophy, Poetry


“Expelled as commander to be integrated as connector, the human is transformed by its own works from a brain legislating life to a ligament binding machine cycles.”

Brian Massumi, quoted by Pierre Joris in “Nomad Poetics”

I stayed in a Mercure Hotel last night (the picture’s the view from my room), and was struck by the contrast between its lovely staff and its ineffective IT and management systems. If I’d stayed in a more expensive hotel, I wouldn’t have been paying for better people but for better organisation and technology.

James Cameron meets Masaccio in Santa Maria Novella downtown

Art, Film, Human power, Humanism

I saw James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ over Christmas. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, injecting new possibilities for the creation of wholly artificial, wholly convincing dramatic worlds into cinema. In that, it reminded me of Masaccio’s masterpiece ‘The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and Two Donors’, in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church:

Masaccio’s work was the first painting to build on Brunelleschi’s understanding of the mathematics of perspective. It demonstrated new possibilities for the two dimensional representation of three dimensional space, creating an image that attempted to directly map, rather than indirectly represent, an imagined space. In that, much like Cameron’s film, it was at once radical, and revolutionary; in fact, it’s generally regarded as one of the key catalysts that triggered the Renaissance.

However, ‘The Holy Trinity’ was also a very conservative work. It was commissioned by the very wealthy Domenico Di Lenzi, who kneels at bottom left. He is dressed as a Gonfalonier of Justice, the titular head of the Florentine republic. His wife kneels opposite him; the tomb beneath them is a family tomb.

The surging structure of the image – leading the eye up from the tomb and its skeleton, past Domenico and his wife, and towards the Trinity, makes it clear that the way to Christ is through the pillars of Florentine society; its powerful families, its civic functionaries. Earthly political, judicial and financial structures are the first step on the way to divine structures. To question one is – by implication – to question the other. Wealth and power are divine properties, automatically deserved by those who hold them.

Much comment has been made on the supposedly subversive properties of ‘Avatar’. James Cameron’s film has been read as being deeply anti-corporate. Certainly, its narrative – proceeding in crude, black and white terms – shows those beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘bad’, and those not beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘good’.

However, when viewed from an economic and technical point of view, it becomes clear that ‘Avatar’ is in fact a ferocious corporate rearguard action, responding to the democratisation of film making and distribution that digital technology enables.

Budgetted at $500,000,000, it is an artefact whose cost is so huge that it – and others like it – can only be commissioned by corporate interests. Technically speaking, its central achievement – the 3D experience – can only be fully experienced in large or IMAX venues. Again, these are exclusively owned and operated by corporate interests.

‘Avatar’ masquerades as a radical critique of corporate power. Technically, it in fact reinforces that corporate power, attempting to reclaim peak cinematic experience (and, by implication, corporate resistance) as something that can only happen as a result of corporate mediation. In that, it is directly equivalent to Masaccio’s masterpiece which – for all its technical brilliance – preaches that the only way to enlightenment is through the state and its pillars. Both works are – in the final analysis – propaganda, surprisingly equivalent in their aims and achievements.

Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.

We’re the Shoggoths now

Aliens, Despair, Heaviosity, Horror, Humanism, Modernity

Well, there hasn’t been much weird pondering for a bit – but now, I’m back, and thanks to China Mieville’s excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, once again I’ve been a-pondering H. P. Lovecraft.

China sees him as a kind of crazed pulp modernist, breaking out of tradition despite himself, and deriving his sense of horror from his own fear of the shock of modernity – of the city, of other classes, of other races. He’s particularly interesting on Shoggoths, reading them as a Lovecraft’s image for the overwhelming hordes that surrounded and overwhelmed him in New York – ‘a hysterically hallucinated coagulum of the victorious insurgent masses’.

That difficult relationship with the masses is a very modernist thing; but I think there’s more that can be read into the Shoggoth. And that feeling comes from looking at Old One iconography, and understanding how Old Ones and Shoggoths interact within ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.

Let’s start with iconography. The key, repeated Old One motif is the five pointed star. Old Ones have five pointed ‘heads’, and they bury their dead within five pointed mounds. For them, the pentagram is both the physical and metaphorical seat of the self. And of course, the number five has a broader physical significance for them; five ridges run down their bodies, they manipulate the world with twenty five (five by five) tentacles, and they move through it on five separate five veined triangles.

Both humans and Shoggoths destroy five-ness. Humans dissect Old Ones, and (by implication) dig into their five pointed burial mounds; Shoggoths kill Old Ones by removing their five pointed heads. The human attack is – interestingly – far milder than the Shoggoth assault, taking place on a cultural rather than a physical level. I’d see it as emblematic of the initial human failure to comprehend what the Old Ones really are. By the end of the story, that misunderstanding has been rectified, as Dyer (the narrator) directly and enthusiastically claims kinship with the Old Ones, in his remarkable ‘they’re humans too’ speech – ‘radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’, as he puts it.

By claiming the Old Ones as fellow humans, Dyer both forgives the Old Ones’ dissection of one of his own colleagues (and their slaughter of several others), and implicitly apologises for human intrusion into Old One tombs. For him, commitment to scientific knowledge trumps murder and related mayhem as a signifier of intellectual and emotional equality.

That’s a problematic stance; but let’s pass over that for a moment, and ponder the Shoggoth. Their attacks are more brutal, and more direct. They kill the Old Ones that the Pabodie party has discovered, just as they once rose up and massacred the Old One race. And they do so in a very particular way – by a beheading.

Humans made a symbolic assault / penetration into a dead Old One culture, and found equals; Shoggoths find (one assumes) abomination, and – having completed the destruction of a culture – now complete the eradication of the race. They smash Old One rationality, both on a general cultural and a specific personal letter. They break the fiveness – the orderliness – of the Old Ones, and that smashing is made literal in beheading.

It seems odd to use that word – beheading – when talking about animate vegetables from beyond time, but in fact – within the symbol structure of the story – it’s very appropriate indeed. Humans think from the head; Dyer understands Old Ones to think from the five pointed star; removal of that five pointed star is a beheading, both literally and in the broader sense that a rational, ordering intelligence has been destroyed.

Intriguingly, it’s only in mourning that intelligence, that Dyer realizes his kinship with it. It’s a very particular mode of thought; a mandarin rationality; an elite, ordering mind that views the world from a privileged, separate location and as such is in a position to dissect it (as the Old Ones dissect various dead humans and dogs, as we dissect them), to classify it (as the Old Ones are classified, and as they must have classified us), and thus to set itself at the world’s centre, and control and contain it.

Shoggoths break such controlling, mono-cultural rationalisation, and China reads such breakage as an emblem of Lovecraft’s horror at the New York masses that surrounded him; a symbol of the revolutionary mob, that unseats reason and breaks the high culture that HPL held so dear.

In this context, the fact that Shoggoths behead is fascinating; after all, beheading is a key revolutionary signifier, rooted in the guillotines of the French Revolution, the death of Charles I, and a broader sense of revolution as the decapitation of a certain kind of corrupted state.

But I digress. For me, the Shoggoth is more than a symbol of the revolutionary mob; it is (to return to my ongoing rant about the weird death of Humanism) an utterly compelling and utterly fantastic (in every sense) symbol for the conditions of the 20th century that broke the Humanist worldview, and that continue to make it an impossible one to sustain.

To understand just how that works, we need to go back to the core symbol of Old One rationality and culture, the five pointed star. At heart, it’s a pentagram; but the five pointed pentagram has a meaning that stretches far beyond magic, combining the Christian and the Classical to potent effect.

Including the five vowels, the five lettered name of Christ, the five letters of the Latin ‘salus’ (safety), the five wounds of Christ, the five senses, the Classical five elements, the five planets of the Renaissance solar system, and much more, the five pointed star is far more than just a vegetable head.

It triggers a complex set of associations to both Christian and Pagan culture, a set of associations that – combined – underpin the Humanist worldview, and that help support its sense of a rationally ordered comprehensible cosmos, with a divinity that is mirrored in man at its heart, and from that locus a total viewpoint that encompasses and orders all.

So, when Shoggoths attack, they’re doing more than beheading vegetables; they’re breaking the Humanist world view, and replacing it with something far more chaotic, far more anarchic, far more accepting of a chaos of multiple viewpoints and multiple versions of truth. Something very close to the postmodern worldview, in fact, which accepts multiplicity and a consequent inchoacy as a fundamental, defining principle of life.

That multiplicity is very literally represented in the Shoggoth, with its ‘myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down on us’ – perpetually renewed constellations of viewpoints, looking down on poor, scientific, monocular Dyer – taken literally, Die-er, an emblematically Dying man – and breaking his sense of the real.

Shoggoths are a blizzard of eyes; a cosmos of seeings; an inability to settle into any single, static, perpetually correct and ordered viewpoint or opinion set. From that point of view, Shoggoths ARE modernity, a modernity that embraces incoherence as a core principle of being. Shoggoths kill Old Ones, and Old Ones are representatives of an outmoded civilisation; a civilisation rooted in an impossibly ordered, impossibly rational worldview, a civilisation that Dyer recognises as being fundamentally human, by recognising its proponents as being like him.

But that civilisation is dead now, and its proponents are anachronisms. That might horrify Lovecraft but – visionary that he was – he could only see truly, and he shows us the truth, in fact he prophesies the truth. Humanism died with the 20th century, and as post-Humanist people, living in a post-Humanist world, we all helped kill it. If HPL met us, he’d be terrified; because we killed the Old Ones – the elders – the ones who made us, who made European civilisation – by moving beyond them. In 1931, Lovecraft wrote us all; mob that we are, we’re the Shoggoths now.

On becoming an optimist

Humanism, Modernity, Optimism, Philosophy

Well, I wasn’t going to blog tonight (sleeping being very preferable), but while reading in the bath I’ve just had a fascinating collision between three interesting writers, so I thought I’d do a quick post.

So – I’d been planning to start on a novel, but couldn’t be bothered, so took Adorno’s ‘Minimalia Moralia’ in with me. It comes in bite sized chunks that are always deeply thought provoking – perfect! And the paragraph I started on was profoundly and unexpectedly resonant with some other interesting recent reading.

Adorno is talking about the grandiose posturing of ‘spiritual giants’, and notes that it is built on ‘a sublimity ever ready to trample inhumanly on anything as small as mere existence’ (para 53). A page later, he describes the reductive nature of idealist thinking, commenting that it ‘reduce[s] everything in its path as unceremoniously to its basic essence as do soldiers the women of a captured town’, before positing an alternate, more humane way of seeing – ‘contemplation without violence’ – that ‘presupposes that he who contemplates does not absorb the object into himself; a distanced nearness’ (para 54).

That first of all resonated very profoundly with John Gray’s fascinating new book, ‘Black Mass’, wherein he criticises much modern political posturing as being spilt religion; a series of poses that aspire to disinterested, rational liberalism but in fact achieve and are built on a kind of dehumanising apocalypticness, one that redefines mass slaughter as moral good on the ironic basis that it’s eradicating evil from the world. Surely sublime and inhuman trampling in all its terrifying action?

Secondly, it took me back to therapy maven Carl Roger’s ‘On Becoming a Person’, that I’ve been using to (rather surprisingly) help me think about mobile phones. Roger posits an open and engaged state of being as a human ideal; his sense of a live lived fluidly and receptively is absolutely opposite to the kind of self-indulgent, destructive posturing that both Adorno and Gray identify so clearly, and is in some ways an exemplification of Adorno’s ‘contemplation without violence’ in action.

No sublime conclusions to draw beyond ‘how interesting…’ – and now that’s typed up I’m off to bed, feeling thanks to those three coming together much more optimistic than I did last night. Good night!

Martians kill Humanism

Culture, Horror, Humanism, Philosophy, Poets, Science Fiction

I finished off a collection of Leigh Brackett’s Martian romances over the weekend – ‘The Coming of the Terrans’. Some great stories in there, but there’s more going on than just pulp mayhem.

Brackett’s Martian stories are set on an exotic, faded Mars. In her world, humans arrived there to find an aeon-shadowed (thanks, HPL) civilisation in the final stages of decline. The dessicated, decadent atmosphere of that fading culture is key to the stories’ success.

The stories in ‘The Coming of the Terrans’ show what happens when humans encounter that culture. In each case, the human engages with the Martian, and as a result the limits of his humanity are (more or less) brutally exposed.

One protagonist hunts down a disappeared girlfriend, and in doing so is forcibly de-evolved and bluntly reminded of man’s fundamentally bestial nature. Another encounters an ancient Martian god-thing, but represses all knowledge of lest it destroy his academic career, and is destroyed by that repression. A third discovers just how futile – not to say absurd – human efforts to re-vivify the Martian deserts by tapping into hidden water supplies are.

In each case, human rationality is broken against far more enduring and deeply rooted alien structures. Initially, I read this in quite a Jungian way, understanding the human to represent the conscious mind and the Martian cultures and landscape to image the archetype haunted depths of the subconscious.

That points to the fundamental misunderstanding-of-self that Jung exposed in his writings. We commonly believe that the superficial structures of the conscious self are the core, enduring definers of what it is to be human. We choose what we are on a daily basis; our humanity lies in those choices.

In fact – Jung pointed out – that’s a profoundly deluded viewpoint. The common self of humanity lies in the deep subconscious. We inherit archetypal patterns, modes of behaviour, from those shadowy regions – and they are our shared human heritage.

Next to them, the conscious self is a useful but ultimately entirely transient structure that gives a useful purchase on daily life, but not much more. Archetypal structures endure through millennia; the self gets three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

There are clear parallels with the basic structures underlying Brackett’s Martian stories. But I think there’s something else going on there as well, something deeper and in some ways far more interesting.

It’s part of a broader trend in 20th century literature. Brackett wrote about the failure of a humane, rational, human centred worldview. She wasn’t the only person to do so. From pulp visionaries like H.P. Lovecraft to broken epic poets like Ezra Pound, the failure of that kind of narrative of the self was a common, obsessive theme.

What I think Leigh Brackett was really charting was the final failure of the Humanist project. Born in the Renaissance, it posited a universe that demanded liberal, humane, rational behaviours as the most productive mode of being possible.

For Humanists, the cosmos existed to reflect back human enlightenment and benevolence on us. Archetypal Renaissance mage Giordano Bruno described an ideal mind state; full of classical learning, the enlightened man should step out of his house and, looking around, see benevolent connections uniting everything around him.

Of course, Giordano was burnt at the stake. Even back then, Humanist optimism faced very substantial real world obstacles. But it’s taken the 20th century’s combination of deep science and deep brutality to really finish it off. The universe isn’t necessarily ordered around anything; it certainly doesn’t run like a benevolent ticking clock.

It’s that death of Humanism that’s exposed in Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances. Against the impassive, often bizarre, and always unshakably experienced ancients of Mars, Humanist thinking is exposed as being at best naïve, at worst downright damaging.

And that exposure is echoed in the 20th century itself, the moment that broke Humanism against events ranging from the discovery of the fundamental oddness of matter itself to industrial genocide on an unprecedented scale.