Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cannibals and Kings

Cannibals and Kings provides a great deal of compelling anthropological thought; it focuses on a systemic view of the ebbs and flows of culture, and has been quite a mind-fuck for me, as I've been reading it in stops and starts alongside Manuel De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. Harris' style is dry but concise, and considering that dryness it is surprising what a quick read this is proving to be. (1000 Years of Nonlinear History, on the other hand, may take me about 1000 years to finish.)

I won't reiterate the central thesis of the book, as it is easy to find on the net. I will say this: a central conceit of this book, and many other works of (theoretical) anthropology that I've encountered, is the premise that there is some intention lying behind the large-scale endeavors of man. Though many of the ebbs and flows discussed in this book-- as one method of production and consumption is outmoded by population increases and so on-- can be understood to operate almost like a thermostat, lying underneath his arguments is the idea that there is something intelligible, something orderly, something sensible in macro- scale human behavior. I'm not saying I agree with this premise, or disagree. I don't honestly see a way that we can know one way or the other. But it's the invisible hook you have to swallow to follow him where he wants to take us. (I was going to say "implicit hook" but I really don't know how a hook can be implicit.)

Purchase book.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales

A Jungian analysis of Fairy Tales. (Or is it the other way around?) Though many Jungian analyists have a "pat" method, von Franz recognizes that this is contrary to Jung's own intention in creating guideline concepts like the anima/animus, shadow, etc. As I had been hoping, she uses fairy tales as a method of showing the various ways that our inner lives can become tangled, or confusing, and sheds light on these through the examples provided by fairy tales. (This is contrary to the approach which would use Jungian analysis as a method of shedding more light on the literary elements of fairy tales, which would be less interesting to me.) Part of her thesis is that fairy tales are often even better indicators of psychological tendencies within a people, certainly within the lower class people, (the "folk") than the more traditional myths of a civilization that we might now encounter in Bullfinch's. I'm not sure if such a clear distinction can be drawn, but generally, it seems plausible, especially within the context of this work. (Goodreads review.)

Purchase book.

Myths of Capitalism (continued): The Inside Solution Fallacy

In the face of ecological and environmental challenges, which I don't think I need to enumerate here, I've often heard people make an assumption: at some point, they say, people will have to "wake up," and bring about some kind of change from the bottom up. I've even somewhat flippantly supported this premise, that if people "vote with their dollars" that, within the framework of capitalism, if the vote comes from a majority, it'll force a shift of priorities and may be the only way for a capitalist state to maintain cogency in the face of declining resources (material and human) that cannot support a never-ending increase in profits, even with the addition of technological advance in the mix. I even once wondered if this was an underlying element of the Obama administration, though in light of actions taken since he has taken office, I can only see it as a part of the narrative of the administration, rather than the reality- though this could be due to external political, economical, or social pressures.

Be that as it may, having spent many hours thinking about this, I've been wondering if the underlying premise is flawed. We may be able to generate cultural reform from within the system in the way that counterculture attempts- and more rarely, succeeds at doing. But this does not extend nearly so far as we'd like. Consider instead the idea that the ecological and economic pressures are already intensifying, the destratification is already underway, though we have a hard time seeing it because even rapid change in a historic sense may still seem slow to our eyes. What's the result of these pressures? Depression. Wild hope. Fear. Panic. In that order, the hoi polloi may become more pliable, not less. All of these things make people easier to manipulate, not less. We do see anger and outrage, embodied, for instance, by the exaggerated posturing of the Teabaggers, but it seems fairly impotent in terms of enacting the kind of change that would actually bring our culture back into alignment. The new slaves don't build pyramids, they work in Walmart and Mcdonalds. It is a mistake to assume that at some point mistreated, underpayed peasants will inevitably rise up in arms. For thousands of years civilizations such as the Egyptians build their empire on the back of a workforce living little better than their livestock. This has been, if anything, the norm rather than the exception over the past 3000 years.

We may also want to look at the history of the rise of Capitalism to understand the seed of its undoing:
Capitalism is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production, however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. Freed from the restraints of despots and paupers, capitalist entrepreneurs still have to confront the restraints of nature. The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals or plants put into  a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the intention of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted. (Cannibals and Kings, Harris.) 
This follows from Harris' general thesis, that the processes of human history shows groups and even civilizations following a certain pattern of production which, if population is not kept in check through internal or external means, results in a forced movement to another method of production which often has a decreasing effect on the standard of living. In plentiful times, effective hunter gatherers have to put in far fewer hours per day than farmers, who have to invest their energies into the entire life cycle of the plants that they are harvesting, as well as deal with the repercussions of the strain that may put on the environment as population increases.

My point being that the argument that the ills that capitalism produces will inevitably outweigh the boons, and that it may be unlikely that a transition to a different method of production can occur from within that same system. If history has anything to say about this, it simply cannot. What history cannot show us is the results of production on the scale that it is presently in place, nor on the effects of globally intertwined civilizations and economies. But it may not be very hard to guess... it certain stands to reason that this is one of the reasons why the apocalypse myth has so forcefully become the zeitgeist of our age, even as capitalism tries to pull a profit out of that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Murder, Sacrifice, and Punishment

I had a thought the other day. It was mostly a joke, an odd joke, that I repeated to several people. But, as often happens with jokes, it popped up again outside, and in a more serious context. Comedy masks and tragedy masks.

It goes like this. It is inevitable that we will all die. Murder is, in essence, the act of taking personal control of time, of speeding it up. A killer is a time lord.

The truth is, this idea actually mirrors many primitive ideas on the subject.
The habit of killing bad criminals by hanging them on trees is a very archaic one. It was originally practiced as a sacrifice: Germans in older days, for instance, hanged prisoners as sacrifices to the God Wotan. ... In Christianity you meet this archetypal idea in the form of the crucifixion of the Christ, and in the area of Asia Minor, Attis was suspended from a fir tree. We have to ask what lies behind the idea of killing an enemy not as social revenge or in judgement, but by the more archaic form of a sacrifice to the gods. I think that there is a much deeper and more meaningful idea than that of just punishment. If one has to fight against demonic evil in a human being, what strikes one most is that if people are outstandingly destructive, not just through the small mistakes of laziness and cheating, etc. which take place with every human being, but if they are seriously destructive, one's immediate reaction is that it is inhuman, ... and concomitantly so "divine," that one is overwhelmed. ... We use the word "inhuman" but one could equally well say "demonic" or "divine." (Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, von Franz.) 
The linguistic linkage between devil, demon, and devi, divinity, is one I've already prattled on about here. The central point is that a criminal has essentially embodied - or has been possessed - by something outside of the human, or at least social, sphere. They must then be returned to their source, to divinity, through the methods most fitting of such a union. The myths of Gods and heroes being dismembered, hung, and so on are of course numerous. To name a few: Wotan, Orpheus, Attis, and of course Jesus.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

And now for something completely different: butts.

You're welcome.

America's Creativity Crisis

Newsweek ran an article recently on the supposed "creativity crisis" in America: 
...after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”
Read full article.

I'm actually dubious of the ability to perform a standardized test of creativity. What exactly is being tested? How does the bias of the evaluators color the results?

However, I will say that it seems patently obvious that if there is indeed such a crisis - which I don't otherwise doubt - then it is this very homogenizing impulse that is the real culprit.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Dionysus, Tequila, and Kung Fu don't mix.

I don't want to give the impression that the only modern expression of Dionysian energy is to be found in drum circles. Far from it. Nor, as we've said, is ecstasy the only human experience that brings us in touch with it.

I've had many experiences which I think fall into this other category. However, one comes immediately to mind. It has the added benefit of being comical at my expense.

When I was in my early twenties I become very interested in Kung Fu, both Shaolin and Bagua. I never got incredibly good at it, but I was certainly more expert at it than the average person. This is always a dangerous amount of knowledge.

I was at a party over the summer. It was a picnic kind of event, with alcohol and live bands. I decided to dress up in one of my Shaolin outfits, and was already pretty punchy by midday. A friend was bartending, and lit a shot of what looked like Windex and 151 on fire. Quickly blowing it out, I grabbed it and prepared to down the thing. However, an invisible flame was still burning off the fumes, and the glass was scorching hot. I twitched, and the alcohol poured across my hand, re-igniting in the process. I stared for a moment at my hand, as the skin bubbled. My friend grabbed a bucket of ice, and very much like a cartoon, I shoved my hand into it, expelling a little huff of steam.

I wrapped the hand up, and then proceeded to wander around with the obligatory bottle of Patron, as I was want to do in those days. Afterwards, I started doing my daily stretching exercises and forms - a little bit of alcohol and a burned hand wasn't about to stop me. I'd also worked up quite a bit of the mad kind of enthusiasm that can come from an energetic practice like Kung Fu, especially when mixed with alcohol.

Some people noticed me, and somehow a short demonstration of some exercises turned into a full out sparring match. Ten or twenty of us were fighting in the back yard- some with shinai, others (such as myself) bare-handed. A couple minutes in, two people approached me to attack simultaneously with their shinai. Without thinking I took two sprinting steps and lept into the air, connecting with each of them with my feet. What I hadn't counted on was connecting slightly below their center of gravity, and I also had no particular plan for how I was going to land after landing this attack. So they fell on me, and there was a loud crunch.

When I got to my feet, I was greeted by a flock of people staring at me in disgust. I still remember the look on one girl's face- it was a look of horror that you might expect, say, if a giant centipede had just burst out of my chest. I couldn't imagine what was causing this reaction. I felt a dull kind of pain, but it didn't match what I saw when I looked down. My arm was bent at a near ninety degree angle, about six inches below my wrist. Both bones in my forearm were clearly snapped, though thankfully they hadn't punched through the skin.


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