Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Gnostic Themes in American Politics

Events are sometimes grand enough to take on a mythic resonance that can be discerned even by those preoccupied by profane matters. The Great Recession and its aftermath have been such events, and a myth that captures those moments and their paradoxes is the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. As I explain elsewhere, what we learned from the bursting of the housing bubble is that Western economies are dominated by feckless supervillains who retain their godlike plutocratic privileges even though they don’t deserve to be worshiped by the herds of little people. The American and European bankers led deregulation of the financial markets in 1990s (via lobbying, the revolving door, etc), orchestrated the real estate fraud through financial scheming, won a no-strings-attached, one-sided bailout through their capture of Obama’s economics team, and subsequently pushed through austerity measures to further squeeze the middle classes (via their think tanks' ideological capture of the neoliberals in government). Those bankers thus demonstrated that the Western political and economic systems are corrupt in that they no longer serve the interests of the majority of Western citizens. European countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal revolted against their political Parties’ handling of the European debt crisis.

But nowhere are the mythic proportions of the scandal more apparent than in the American presidential campaigns. In both Parties, the establishment is faced with insurgencies from political outsiders. Despite the fact that the US leads the Western world in its enthrallment to market logic, creating what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle, a society in which false realities or images rule by commodifying every aspect of social life, that forlorn nation appears to be the site of a progressive revolution. Whereas ordinarily the multitudes are blind to the corruption that’s become so pervasive it’s been normalized, so that far from fighting for their political rights, they cheer on figures who promise indirectly to further entrench the oppressive social systems, as explained by Thomas Frank, American Democrats and Republicans have now struck upon a populist language that can’t easily be coopted by the deep state. This is the language based on the dichotomies of insiders and outsiders, and of the corrupt establishment and the promise of renewal by radically transforming the social systems. On the left, the solution is democratic socialism, on the right it’s nativism, theocracy, or fascism.

As summarized by the Wikipedia article, the Hymn of the Pearl, found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, ‘tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.’ In the ancient Jewish context, Egypt stood for corruption, so the Egyptian seducers are the demonic archons who serve as prison wardens, distracting us with sinful pleasures so that we’ll lose our chance of enlightenment or gnosis. The Hymn is an allegory, the point being that we’re all like that boy, lost in a profane world; we’ve forgotten our true calling and our authentic ideals and must be reminded by an outsider. In Gnostic systems, there’s often a transcendent redeemer emanating from the ineffable ground of being, a prophetic saviour who informs us that we’re in the ultimate bad news/good news situation: we’re imprisoned in the fallen natural universe so that even our bodies lead us astray, but there’s a perfect, more real world beyond which is our true home, and we can return to it by taking various mystical or ascetic steps.

The Gnostic Connotations of the 2016 Democratic Campaigns

In the American presidential election, there are likewise outsiders and insiders, transcendent redeemers and archons, angels of the Demiurge. Let’s begin with the Democrats. Bernie Sanders’ entrance to the American mass media narrative was delayed for months, because the corporate media, which serve up the cultural spectacle, what Marx called the ideological superstructure that explains away injustices in the economy, are of course part of the establishment. The media establishment defends the status quo, putting systems before people, whereas the predominant social systems are typically Trojan horses for natural hierarchies and cycles, and people have the anomalous potential to transcend or subvert natural processes. So Hillary Clinton was touted as a shoe-in for the Democratic nominee, and the “free” world’s so-called leading nation was poised to welcome another political dynasty. But Sanders was supported by a grass-roots movement, fuelled in part by disappointment with Obama who had campaigned as a transformative, Rooseveltian figure but had governed as a centrist, having evidently fallen under the archons’ spell. Obama thus stands for John the Baptist, Sanders for the Christ-like real deal, for the true, incorruptible redeemer who will separate the wheat from the chaff, washing away the Egyptian seducers, like Moses at the Red Sea. Having become too popular to ignore, the corporate centers of infotainment ended their media blackout, opting for the standard framing devices of a horse race or a boxing match between equals. In any case, Bernie Sanders is still manifestly the outsider, the old, Jewish socialist who takes no money from Wall Street and promises specific radical changes, such as universal health care and education paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation so that Wall Street can return the favour and bail out the middle class. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Teen Angst and the Omega Mentality

Romantic and Rationalist histories from the early modern period in Europe sometimes compared the stages of our collective phylogeny with those of each individual’s growth. These comparisons were mirror images of each other, because the Romantic assumed that the past is better than the future, whereas the Rationalist drew the opposite conclusion. So Rousseau, for example, maintained that children are inherently innocent and that the first humans were admirably childlike, uncorrupted by the antihuman conventions of mass society. By contrast, Auguste Comte assumed that reason is the driving force of progress and that the “positive,” fact-based scientific thinking of the contemporary Age of Reason was thus an improvement on the ancient stages of what he called more theological and metaphysical cultures. Naturally, the growth from the temper-tantrum-throwing child to the rational adult would likewise be one of progressive maturation.

These analyses tend to oversimplify. For one thing, children are far from innocent. Of course, legally they can’t be held accountable for their actions, but ethically they’re tyrannical. True, their selfish impulse to jealously guard their private property is reinforced by their parents in capitalistic societies, who swell their egos, while more egalitarian societies might not impose such materialism on those impressionable minds. But the child’s desire for tyranny is instinctive. Children are inherently racist and ruthless in preserving class distinctions. Bullies arise from an early age, as do followers and ostracized outsiders. Those who are different from the in-group norm are excluded, due to our instinctive fear of the unknown. Moreover, children naturally resort to violence to get their way. Likewise, the positivist oversimplifies by running together scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, with broader social progress, on the other.

But there is a sound basis for some such analysis that compares the evolutions of groups and of individuals. As Spengler pointed out, societies begin, develop, and end—just as our species as a whole had a beginning (or more than one beginning in our now-extinct fellow human species, such as the Neanderthals), is currently dominating the planet, and will inevitably go extinct, possibly by transitioning into some other species. Likewise, each individual is born before it grows, lives, and dies. Moreover, the early period in either case is marked by ignorance due to a lack of collective experience and memory, while the middle and late periods are oppositely characterized. Memories accumulate so that the adult can’t play with the same carefree abandon as the child, because the adult knows, for example, how the play would be perceived by jaded adult observers and is afraid of being embarrassed. Of course, some adults are more carefree than others, but even the most spontaneous and lighthearted ones will seem inauthentic and irresponsible, because unlike children, they ought to know better. Finally, the counterintuitiveness of objective, scientific methods of inquiry entails that these methods would have had to be relatively late historical factors, because they had to be discovered by trial and error; in particular, modern reason had to be defined in opposition to centuries of religious faith. And the technological power that follows from advances in empirical knowledge corresponds to the adult’s greater autonomy, as language and the cerebral cortex gradually assert their control on the brain’s emotive and other hardwired circuits. The upshot is that advanced industrial societies are freer than premodern ones, even if that freedom is tainted by the modern’s tragic understanding that a child’s fictions diverge from natural reality.

This starting point implies, at best, that early and late historical periods have some childlike and adult tendencies, respectively. There are further complications, however, such as that ancient adults must have been less childlike than their children or else our species would hardly have been able to endure. Moreover, instrumental improvements to technology can evidently infantilize rather than liberate us; more specifically, they liberate in the negative rather than the positive sense, meaning that they allow us to satisfy our desires without helping us determine what we should desire in the first place, so that the users of technology can regress rather than mature. To gain some insight from the forgoing comparison, then, we need to add another dimension to the analysis. Sociologically, the stages of personal growth are curiously correlated with the three main classes of any social species’ dominance hierarchy. The tyrannical child, lacking the ability to censor her impulses, corresponds to the sociopathic alpha predator, while the responsible adult matches up with the beta follower of alpha-written or approved social conventions, and the angst-driven teen bears a remarkable similarity to the marginalized omega who is last to receive the group’s bounties. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Cosmic Horror for Clever Animals is available now on Amazon!

The paperback edition of this blog’s central articles is available now on Amazon and Createspace. The book’s called Cosmic Horror for Clever Animals, it’s 774 pages, and it includes an index as well as an introduction and a short story that haven’t appeared anywhere else. Here’s the description from the back:

“Most times and places are lifeless. In a miniscule fraction of the vast outer reaches of time and space, life evolved and one out of millions of those species accidentally discovered the means to survey the cosmic vistas, to understand its nature and role in the universe. What awaits the prophets, mystics, artists, and other outsiders who face up to the humiliating truth is horror, a precondition of enlightenment.

“This dark existential philosophy, first formulated in the modern West by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and H.P. Lovecraft among others, clashes not just with the grotesque exoteric delusions of mainstream religions, but with the secular bromides of liberal humanism, New Atheist boosterism, and materialistic consumer culture.

“Anthologizing the central articles from the blog, Rants Within the Undead God, Cosmic Horror for Clever Animals lays out what is effectively the hidden, naturalistic wisdom of our species, explores the social conflict between the enlightened few and the less honourable many, and shows that there is a silver lining: not the option of collective suicide, contrary to nihilists, anarchists, and antinatalists, but the aesthetic perspective which allows us to perceive the tragic greatness of the best life. When we fulfill our godlike potential, we stand against the abomination of nature, replacing the nightmarish wilderness with our artificial refuges.”

Here are the links to purchase the book from American AmazonEuropean Amazon, and Createspace. (For some reason, buying a book on Createspace gives the author twice the royalties.)