||[Sep. 28th, 2013|08:51 am]
Preliminary Notes on Re-Mapping the Human Condition: a review essay, of sorts|
Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, a far more scholarly book than its title would imply, dispenses with most of the myths surrounding psychotropic mushrooms: the fly agaric was never widely used by Siberian shamans (who in turn were and are a far more diverse lot than the word “shamanism” would imply), and in fact fly agaric mushrooms did not play nearly the role in world religions that enthusiasts believed they did (nor did the far more effective psilocybin mushrooms). However, contemporary practitioners find that their mushroom trips leave them with the sense that “the world is not as sterile as science maintains, meaning resides within all things, and the essential quality of the universe, its quiddity, is one of enchantment.”
Following this thread of perception or shared delusion would lead us into the territory mapped by a new, dense MIT Press anthology of scholarly papers by psychiatrists and neuroscientists and philosophers on the topic of hallucinations (Hallucination: Philosophy and Psychology, an introduction to the philosophy of “disjunctivism,” q.v. in Wikipedia). It has the distinction of being almost unreadable, unlike Oliver Sacks’ popular compendium, Hallucinations, full of mysterious anecdotes of monitory appearances by figures who couldn’t have been there, until the doors of perception end up seeming as dubiously permeable as Aldous Huxley claimed they were, but without benefit of psychedelic substances. (Huxley’s The Doors of Perception was an early book on the topic, taking its title from William Blake’s maxim “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear... as it is, infinite.”)
All perception is physically and socially constructed perception, grounded in neural networks, modified by individual psychology, shaped by social surroundings.
That implies a will-to-meaning that inevitably distorts our perception of the world at large, and of ourselves (assuming “ourselves” is a meaningful term, which ordinary language and our own dubitable perception would lead us to think). Not only do we never see truth whole, we are never sure what the word “truth” actually means even in ordinary usage, as a memorably cynical wisecrack by a Roman governor reminded us almost two thousand years ago. (See: John 18:38.)
We seem to be evolving a twenty-first-century style of meaning that is a willful combination of having and not-having, of believing without belief, beyond belief. (I quote these phrases from William Hamilton’s death-of-God theology of the 1960s and from Wallace Stevens via Robert Bellah’s sociological study of that era, Beyond Belief.) Bruno Latour is the French history-of-science hero of the currently fashionable philosophy of object-oriented ontology (a.k.a. OOO, not to be confused with object-oriented programming, or OOP). Latour, unexpectedly enough, has written a book on the functions of religious language without religion (Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech), which oddly parallels German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s book on the function of religion as practice rather than belief (You Must Change Your Life, a book which takes its title from Rilke’s poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo”); the American philosophical theologian Adam Miller has written a book on a/theology, transcendence, and immanence that even more strangely parallels the arguments fifty years ago over the meaning of the death of God (Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology).
Just pursuing the Wikipedia entries (some of which are stubs) for the aforementioned philosophers leads to more potential dead ends than I wish to consider here or hereinafter, because I considered some of them heretofore and discovered that they were, indeed, dead ends, ones that required backing up and beginning the task of rethinking. The topics with which these men deal (and they are all men, though there are certainly women dealing with their topics) are the central issues of our time: globalization; the nature of consciousness; the relationship of human beings to the environment in which they exist physically and mentally and economically and conceptually; the unwieldy immensity of the multidisciplinary pursuits necessary to understand the foregoing problems; and so many other topics with which I have dealt previously in my joculum LiveJournal that I shall not bother to list them further here.
I have, I hope, learned not to try to discuss all the aforementioned subjects at the same time—although they do need to be remembered all at the same time, for otherwise we shall have an even more distorted picture of the world than the one we might achieve if we “widen the area of consciousness,” to quote another of my persistent topics.
My present essay is concerned only with belief and its contents and discontents, or the second of Immanuel Kant’s three questions: “What can I know? What may I believe? What should I hope?” (This is how I recall the late Walter Capps paraphrasing them in his seminars and his subsequent book on Ernst Bloch and Jürgen Moltmann, though I seem to be the only online source to have put them that way.)
Concurrent to the previously mentioned developments in intellectual history, Victoria Nelson has written a book titled Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural that provides a flabbergasting survey not just of the most recently popular versions of fantasy characters in movies and fiction, but of the fiction-based religions that have evolved from such portrayals. These religions are serio-comic affairs, only one step away from the open satire of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, yet incredibly elaborated in their quality of wresting and wrestling dogma and ritual out of writers from H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen all the way up to...well, let’s not go there, although Nelson does.
Like the Church of the SubGenius of a generation ago, these groups are dealing with real epistemological issues, in a way that incorporates mockery but also transcends it, in much the way that Hegel’s slippery concept of Aufhebung meant simultaneously “raising” and “cancelling” or “transcending” and “abolishing.” (And we are back to Bruno Latour and company again...strange fantasy-fanfic company for them to keep, indeed.)
Historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal’s 2011 book Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal has generated blog reviews that range from expressions of bafflement to outbursts that are genuinely baffling in their own right: see Kripal’s response to a few early reviewers at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/takeandread/2011/11/yep-were-all-superman-mutants-mystics-jeff-kripal-responds/ and a more recent whacked-out reaction to Kripal’s book at...no, actually I would prefer that the sufficiently curious reader locate that one via a Google search, because even to mention it takes us off into new territory that I would prefer not to explore, given the option.
Kripal’s book offers a meandering history of the American pop-cultural imagination over the course of two hundred years or so (territory explored in a different key and to different purposes by Harold Bloom in The American Religion and Omens of Millennium, and assorted other volumes) but his ultimate point is that it is the genuine margins of human experience that has generated genres of fiction relegated to their own kind of marginality. Mainstream experience is the stuff from which respectable mainstream fiction is crafted; the otherworldly is restricted to the disreputable realm of fantasy, even if some writers would hold to Paul Éluard’s dictum, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” (This was attributed to Éluard half a century ago, in, I think, Elizabeth Sewell’s The Orphic Voice, but it now seems to have drifted onto the Internet misattributed to W. B. Yeats, and nobody seems to be able to find it in Éluard.)
Kripal would insist that there is indeed another world in this one, a world that we make up as much as we perceive it—and he would insist that that world contains precognition, synchronicity or at least improbably repetitive coincidence, and all the other paranormal phenomena that we almost certainly misinterpret every bit as much as we misinterpret the doings of the world economy or the world ocean currents.
This particular set of interests and speculations dates back at least as far as the Romantics, with whom Harold Bloom began his career in his book The Ringers in the Tower, and whose belief-without-belief M. H. Abrams characterized more systematically in Natural Supernaturalism. Lately there has been renewed interest in the Romantics’ perspective on psychology and epistemology, an interest which ought to overlap, but does not, with the current fascination with the relationship between the physical substrate of perception and the environing world that is perceived.
An art exhibition incorporating this last-named revisionary point of view has recently been staged at the Menil Collection in Houston: “Byzantine Things in the World,” with the thematic emphasis placed equally on “things” and “world.” Byzantium has not been subjected to a more thorough re-viewing since W. B. Yeats made it his paragon of the “unity of being”—although in this case the unity is between object and perceiver and environing world, a single relational entity that might as well be called “being” were it not that the relationship in question has more in common with what ancient philosophy would have called “becoming.” The eponymous catalogue for the exhibition, distributed for the Menil by Yale University Press, is as elusively mindbending in its own way as anything ever written by Jeffrey Kripal.
All of this has been demanding my attention lately, but so (unfortunately) have a host of other mundane issues, so at this point I can do no more than cite the previously mentioned subjects as worthy of further study and elucidation. The several books and topics I have named in this survey all serve to reinforce my hypothesis that we are living in the age of the rise of a variety of (w)hol(l)y agnostic perspectives—beliefs without belief, beyond belief.
And that topic interests me in my various roles as historian and critic of art, religion, and culture, incorporating the current fascination with neuroscience into the foregoing topics both as a source of information and a new cultural perspective that deserves analysis as such.