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more notes on the imagination [Mar. 13th, 2014|11:39 am]
More Mildly Entertaining (Or Not) Notes On the Human Imagination

Re-reading various theoreticians who quarrel fatally with one another, I wish more than ever that we had a more comprehensive model of how the cultures into which we are born shape our psychological preferences. A concurrent perusal of my Facebook news feed, Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, my cousin Mary Stricker’s blog about fantasy Grimmella , and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s reconstruction of his youthful self’s peregrinations round the Black Sea in The Broken Road reveals parallel narrative and emotional structures that are modified by the time frame and gender-and-class conditions in which the parallel structures are being constructed by the human imagination. In other words, very different kinds of folks fall again and again for the same sorts of things, only different. And it matters very much whether we look more at the sameness or the difference, when we ought to be looking at both together, and looking both at what people love and what they hate.

We have a huge amount of academic fustian and intellectual obscuration taking place in unreadable journals, all discussing phenomena of the human condition that the academicians are examining in too small a sample, in too limited a geographical and historical circumstance, looking at too few variables.

Likewise, people in general like what they like, and know a great deal about the stuff they like, and do not think very much about why they like what they like, and why, under different circumstances, they happen to like something else.

I could try to struggle on for a few thousand more words on this topic, but you would stop reading after about one more paragraph, anyway.

This re-realization (it’s another one of those topics I rediscover about twice a week with the same sense of surprise each time) makes me feel like finally taking the time to work all the way through D. Fox Harrell’s Phantasmal Media, a new book to which I refer with monotonous regularity, simply because Harrell is trying to synthesize a good many theoretical approaches. It is possible to extract a number of different lessons from Harrell’s narrative even though his primary interest is how to make relationships of power and ethnic identity visible through digital media—or how to create politically and socially efficacious video games. Since he focuses on “how to understand and create evocative story worlds, poetic metaphors, critical conceptual blends, haunting visions, and empowering cultural experiences using the computer,” we can extrapolate beyond the “using the computer” part and look more broadly at that piquant juxtaposition of “haunting visions,” “empowering cultural experiences,” and so forth. Most of the people writing about one or two of those topics wouldn’t know the other topics if they performed the usual American-slang cliché on their posterior regions. (For my non-U.S. readership, that’s “if they came up and bit ‘em in the ass.”)
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further notes on the fantastic, visual art and John Crowley department [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:35 pm]
I have found another convert for the fiction of John Crowley—Joe Elias Tsambiras, ( whose artwork is Crowleyan without knowing it, but using a different visual vocabulary from the art John Crowley most admires (which means Mr. Crowley may not approve of it). Although I recommended Little, Big and the Ægypt cycle without further citation or explanation, it was the 2009 interview in The Believer ( ) that made a believer out of him, perhaps because so much that Mr. Crowley says in that interview would also apply to the art of Joe Elias Tsambiras.

Unfortunately Tsambiras is acquiring particular editions according to the cover art he finds most relevant and appealing to him, so I can’t guarantee the purchase of new copies, which of course matters a great deal to a living writer.
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a footnote most of my readership will not need [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:17 pm]
I am stunned to find that the annual conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts has a roster of academic papers and participating academicians that puts the American Academy of Religion to shame in terms of quantity: and this is only on one interdisciplinary topic, even if it is explored from many different perspectives.
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This essay on method begins with weather, passes through prehistoric Britain, and ends with folk art [Feb. 16th, 2014|10:20 am]
Fans of Ronald Hutton Should Be Patient. This Will Eventually Turn into a Review Essay About His New Book Pagan Britain

It is extremely unlikely that anyone encountering this on their LiveJournal feed will feel like stopping everything and reading eighteen hundred words about methodology and degrees of certainty in topics beginning with meteorology and cosmology and ending up with visionary folk art, while spending a great deal of time en route dealing with Ronald Hutton’s book on prehistoric religions and their possible survivals in Britain. I recommend clicking on the LJ-cut mark and then downloading or copying the whole thing for later perusal, if you find it of the slightest interest.

John Crowley might be particularly interested in a quotation from Hutton that I have situated at the very end of this much too far ranging essay. —Jerry Cullum

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hyperexhibition(s/ism) and their/its contents and discontents [Feb. 7th, 2014|11:12 am]
hyperobjects and hyperobjectives: notes towards an exhibition I do not actually plan to curate, but wish I did

I have the dubious distinction of being an increasingly elderly white male who still owns a considerably battered copy of the Marshall McLuhan issue of Aspen, “the magazine that comes in a box” that was the forerunner of numerous deconstructed pieces of print media (mostly artists’ books, though a 1968 issue of a college literary magazine I edited and an entire 1986 “bagazine” architecture issue of Art Papers took their cues from Aspen’s example). I assume Aspen took its inspiration from Fluxus’s intermingling of the highly aesthetic concept and the commonplace object, since Fluxus itself was the topic of one of the later issues. (All the contents of the seven years of the magazine can be viewed via ubuweb, but of course the point was to handle this incredible variety of objects and textures, and that sensory experience can’t be communicated online—yet.)

I bought said volume with considerable excitement because it was clearly attempting to extent McLuhan’s insights regarding the impact of media by defeating our expectations of what a magazine ought to be while forcing us to think, via what a subsequent generation would call the deconstructed print medium, about the new electronic media. In so doing, it questioned the limits and the legitimacy of both.

Or so we thought, anyway, even if we didn’t quite understand what McLuhan was telling us about the dialectic in question.

The reason we didn’t quite understand was that a great deal of what McLuhan was saying was nonsense. And this is a problem I have encountered again and again over my lifetime: the writers who perceive the full dimensions of a previously unconsidered question almost always articulate their perceptions unintelligibly, with explications of the topic that are frequently just plain wrong when they can be deciphered at all. But the fundamental perceptions behind the wrongly conceived articulations are completely valid.

This generalized insight could be pursued in so many different directions that for once I do not wish to attempt to analyze all of them in a single blog post. However, I do want to present references to two or three ideas that I may never get around to pursuing beyond these preliminary notes. (My blog seems to be turning into a series of prefaces to projects that are never begun, something that in itself has a distinguished history, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project being a classic example of the larger category of books for which there exist an immense amount of preparatory materials but no actual product beyond a few preliminary fragments.)

Anyone who wishes to pursue this topic on the other side of an LJ-cut is welcome to click hereCollapse )
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the routes of wonder, take two [Feb. 4th, 2014|01:21 pm]
“our hearts are restless...and we don’t know why,” part two

I am afraid that, based on my earlier musings on why we should ever have become lovers of impossible wonders, I am going to inflict some reflections of the imaginal and the imaginary on my readers without benefit of citations of most of the theoretical volumes that have probably influenced my ideas.

Lonnie Holley’s performance “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants” is an excellent test case, because a good many people will react to it with dismissive irritation simply because for them, the whole premise of six space shuttles and 144,000 elephants celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s birthday is arrant nonsense. Those of us who delight in it may find pleasure in its incongruity plus its intuitive formalism: after all, space shuttles and elephants are logical opposites when it comes to soaring versus being difficult to get off the ground, but both possess the quality of being large and attention-getting, hence obscurely appropriate for a celebration of royal power (think ancient Roman processions and contemporary Air Force flyovers). The off-the-wall numerology borrowed from the Book of Revelation signifying the population of redeemed souls further reinforces the notion that something very important and dignified is being symbolized by a juxtaposition that, nevertheless, is incongruous enough to be hugely amusing. Whether this leads to serious reflections on what constitutes incongruity and why we find it funny—that depends on who we are.

The amusement or disgust at violations of the rules of “things that go together” and “how things ought to be done” is functional enough in terms of maintaining social order, but it does raise the question of why “we find him, as far back as we can trace, making this thing other” (misquotation of David Jones somewhere in The Anathemata, I think, and in Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body). We can understand why our remotest ancestors buried objects with their dead (whether they did it because they expected the dead to use them in the afterlife or because objects once used by the newly dead made them feel nervous). The motive for metaphor is a little more obscure; the part for the whole, or the abstract image that apparently conveyed as much meaning as the exquisitely rendered animal or cartoon shaman(?) in the cave painting.

It’s curious that Aby Warburg should have intuited the relevance of the question when he used his researches among the Hopi to ponder the implications of Renaissance iconography and image-making in general—a career choice that horrified both his relatives who still practiced Judaism and his assimilationist family who had found a language-centered Protestantism an easy enough leap from a militantly aniconic Jewish tradition. (I started out with the Warburg Institute folks when I was twenty-two, but this latest meditation is based on Michael P. Steinberg’s “Aby Warburg and the Secularization of the Image” in the 2013 survey volume Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy, eds. Peter E. Gordon and John P. McCormick.)

I can see how the capacity to pursue multiple lines of thought that turn out to be useless dead ends would actually be evolutionarily useful—the solution that no one had yet thought of comes out of all that maundering and idea-mongering, more so than from simple trial and error. But how we as a species got so fundamentally wedded to dysfunctional pursuits, behaviors that make individuals and sometimes whole societies less likely to survive—well, that was a question being discussed in anthropology half a century ago, as belief in the dogmas of functionalism waned. The notion that a dwindling number of economists and far too many evolutionary psychologists still operate as though functionalism were the default position is nothing short of dismaying. There is a large enough number of human beings who actually do operate according to what seems to them the most immediately advantageous course of action, and who have no use for any aspects of their own culture that doesn’t offer immediate sensory rather than intellectual gratification, to make us wonder why the more functionless imaginative options have survived, plus why the excessive social rules that such folks treat with cynical disdain ever became so excessively codified in the first place. As in the once-contemporary idiom that comes to mind at the notion of six space shuttles and 144,000 elephants celebrating the Queen’s birthday: “that’s just wrong.”
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the routes of wonder, take one [Feb. 4th, 2014|01:20 pm]
“Inquietum est cor nostrum...nescimusque cur,” Augustine did not write.

Why are we lovers of wonders?

Lovers of unheard-of luxuries, yes. The imaginations of the powerful in all ages have led to the creation of objects that fulfill the most extravagant fantasies, all of which fantasies are no more than refined versions of the Land of Cockaigne where food and drink and comfort arrive effortlessly (the Big Rock Candy Mountain being a more recent American version of this). The sufficiently well-to-do in more imaginative times have created earthly paradises far beyond ordinary wish-fulfillment and paid scholars to make them immortal within their alternative worlds. (Today, luxury objects and luxury environments are merely fancier versions of the common folk’s geegaws and getaway pleasures, and the quest for immortality involves flatfooted genetic manipulation, but all that is another story.)

We need not agree with Augustine or C. S. Lewis about the God-shaped blank or the notion that there must be a fulfillment for the wish for an absent Paradise just as there is a fulfillment for the wish for sex or for food. (Strange that a man who composed about allegorical fantasies and wrote them himself did not think as he composed the argument-from-Sehnsucht, that his argument was identical to “we have a desire to see unicorns, and....” But for him, Aslan and Narnia were symbolic parallels to the shape of the real world that was there but that could not be seen or spoken of openly.)

Evolutionary psychologists seem curiously oblivious to this dysfunctionality of the human condition. (Harrell’s new book Phantasmal Media confronts, happily, the computational model of consciousness with the imaginal model—although his focus is the potential for social manipulation and social liberation through such images. But the larger point is that the human mind is doing more than operating probability-calculating wetware.)

For survival, we must visualize more or less adequately as well as compute probabilities, but even so, it seems highly unlikely that ancestors inclined to sit down and fantasize about all the wonderful things that could or ought to be on the other side of that grove of trees, rather than finding out one way or another and/or figuring out how to make the desired result happen, would have passed along their genes in sufficient quantity to make fantasy and the lust for wonders into such a major human capacity.

We may be a storytelling species, but why aren’t our stories more consistently humdrum? There certainly are enough people for whom the humdrum is sufficient to make us curious as to why it isn’t a universal trait.

Is it just that once the capacity for imaginative solutions has been inherited as a genetic trait, there is no stopping it at functional limits? Imagining the impossible, and enjoying imagining the impossible, would have their own desirable outcomes.

But why should we enjoy imagining the completely impossible in the first place? As distinct from imagining the not-yet-possible, or the world that might very well exist out there beyond our immediate perception...but here we are getting into the problem of whether all fantastic stories begin as tales of belief, or alternately, as conscious lies. Our capacity to state the counterfactual even as we know that it is counterfactual obviously comes into play in the initial creation of fantasies...adults’ fantasies and children’s fantasies both. But why the capacity for the counterfactual hypothesis should stretch from childhood to adult tale-telling...this takes us into realms of psychology that presumably have been researched to the point of boredom, but who has written the definitive study of how narrative is birthed from childhood’s early imagination? The famous studies of children from sixty years ago were grounded in local cultures and social classes so much as to make their conclusions hopelessly suspect, though we have a good many collections of stories from around the world that offer evidence with which to supplement them.

Obviously there is something evolutionarily desirable in the extension of the childhood fluidity between the real and the unreal...but if the ability to fantasize leads to ritual and social order, it also leads in more or less equal measure to pointless pathology and to productive (even when functionless...) art. I presume that this dual outcome is a structural constant of the capacity to imagine and the influence exerted upon it by early childhood experience. (This allows guardians of social order to equate functionless art with personal pathology, as we know very well from the past hundred years or so of history.)

I am plodding painfully through what is very familiar territory for various academic disciplines, because I now have trouble making the academic disciplines line up satisfactorily. Every one of them picks up at a different point in the human story, and I cannot quite discover how some imaginative faculties can remain dormant for so long until refined by circumstance (this is nothing mystical...I mean such things as the ability to see, to understand preverbally, what is going on in a painting, for example, something of which I was incapable even after years of graduate study in verbal disciplines...something of which some would accuse me of still being incapable, but my life as an art critic depended on having developed a certain amount of capability in this department).
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Lonnie Holley gets global recognition at last [Jan. 24th, 2014|05:21 pm]
Fresh from a triumphal tour of music venues all over Europe (smaller venues, but extremely enthusiastic audiences), the African-American self-taught artist Lonnie Holley is the subject of an extended profile in the New York Times Magazine:

Holley has been a legend in the folk or vernacular or outsider art world (whatever you prefer to call it) at least since his spectacular site-specific installation in the "Souls Grown Deep" exhibition presented in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Now his recordings from Dust-to-Digital (which is an enterprise that deserves a post in and of itself) have been named by more than one music critic as among the best releases of recent years.

Having written about Holley for many years, I am gratified at this breakthrough in terms of international attention of his unique oeuvre.
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authors and the impossible [Jan. 8th, 2014|08:10 am]
As I mentioned, I'm looking forward to tackling D. Fox Harrell's Phantasmal Media for its perspectives on how things can or cannot be changed for the better, and by whom and under what circumstances. (The relationship to such movements as Afrofuturism is a side topic of the larger issue, which I state as baldly and stupidly as possible.) Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming approaches the same problem from the direction of design rather than digital media, and with less awareness of the perspectives of specific ethnic communities; but part of the point is that those perspectives are altering with increasing speed in advanced digital society, anyway. Part of the problem is that those perspectives are being reinforced in other quarters by the dislocations created by advanced digital society, as it is presently constituted. (Joe Nocera's summation, in his January 7 New York Times column, of Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? cites Lanier's point-blank observation that corporations have engaged in technological activities that result in the impoverishment of their own customer base—never mind whether the bottom-rung employees still left are being paid fairly for their services, which is a separate issue from whether there will be enough bottom-rung jobs to keep the potential employment pool from scrambling in desperation to have them. Whether Lanier's core idea makes sense—that of renewing the middle class by paying people for clicks on such things as essays like this one—is a side issue, however important. And discussing how corporations maintain their own sustainability in the face of dwindling demand by investing capital in financial transactions and decreasing employment is most decidedly a side issue en route to where I am going.)

Dunne & Raby may be hopeless utopians in their insistence that keeping imaginative alternatives in play is itself an activity that makes possible a different future. That leads back into some of the questions Harrell is dealing with in Phantasmal Media, and a good many other questions.

What brought me up short, early in the book, was their offhand discussion of defining possibility by showing how little is genuinely impossible, rather than merely improbable. Citing a book (and previous TV series) by Michio Kaku, they state that scientifically, there are only two genuine impossibilities: perpetual motion and precognition. Either one would require a complete reformulation of our present knowledge, whereas some of the most impossible-seeming of other eventualities would not.

Dunne & Raby may well have misconstrued what was meant as an observation meant to grab the attention of a mass audience, but the claim sheds a different light on any number of topics I have written about previously, from the chequered legacy of Ernst Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung to Jeffrey Kripal's attempts to revalorize the only presumptively impossible.
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one thing leads to another...always, fortunately or unfortunately [Jan. 8th, 2014|07:14 am]
I belong to a generation that cannot read or hear “Dinka and Nuer” without thinking “Evans-Pritchard,” probably because the only core-course lectures on anthropology we heard had to do with Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard (lectures that led some of us to be delighted when we encountered the line from the Fugs’ song “Nothing,” “social anthropology, a heckuva lot of nothing”).

Having long since left behind Evans-Pritchard and his ilk (though his student Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols was one of those books we swore by rather than at in my youth), I was shocked to learn from the Wikipedia entry that Evans-Pritchard’s youthful fieldwork among the Nuer and the Dinka had begun as recently as 1930. The difference is less than two decades, but I had vaguely placed him with the generation of Malinowski, legendarily stranded in New Guinea as an obviously harmless enemy alien, unable to return to England but allowed by the Australian colonial authorities to potter about with the Trobriand natives. (Incidentally, how many great moments of modernity depended on would-be humdrum intellectual careers being blocked by war and shunted off in different, more consequential directions? I can think of several, but that would be a monumental digression.)

Instead, Evans-Pritchard belongs to that generation of the colonial ’30s that then had intriguing adventures with folks whose descendants also show up in more recent history (he was an administrator in British-occupied Cyrenaica, where he wrote about the Sanusi resistance to Italian colonization, and before that, he had been facilitating guerrilla activity with the Anuak people of South Sudan against the Italian occupation forces in Ethiopia).

“They do say that all things are connected,” goes the line in a traditional teaching story, and although many of the connections are ridiculously inconsequential, some are not.

I cringe at the thought that the Guinea worm eradication program is being put in jeopardy by the mass migration of refugees in Mali and South Sudan, just at the point when eradication seems possible. A few freshly contaminated bodies of water in the adjoining countries, and the disease is off and (almost literally) running again.
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