Sunday, November 13, 2011

Taking Thaumatagens

I posted my review of Morris Berman’s Why America Failed yesterday, over at Goodreads (here). One thing I did not address in the review was Berman’s critique of technology. I did struggle with that a bit. While I certainly agree with the premise that technology comes with unanticipated consequences, and limits some freedoms while expanding others, and we do need to engage in more critical thinking about technology to mitigate our current utopian technological idolatry, still… I think we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I admit that as a sci-fi fan from a wee age, I’ve perhaps drunk the Kool Aid, so to speak, and am in love with the wonder that technological advancement evokes. We could call technology a thaumatagen, a wonder-making drug. Indeed, like entheogens (“God-making” drugs), technology is like a drug under whose influence we experience and believe in wonders.

But like a lot of drugs, our perceptions under the influence of thaumatagens are widened in some ways but restricted in others. We love the high but we’re blind to their downsides. Yes, automobiles allows us access to places we might not have been able to travel to in the past, but once they were invented, society reorganized itself around them such that, in places like Atlanta, you simply have to have a car. The freedom to opt out isn’t freedom at all. The spell cast by thaumatagens prevents us from bringing foresight to bear on our inventions and anticipating how they might impact the common good. Instead of integrating tech into our human lives, we rearrange our lives and schedules at the behest of the machine. This is ironic because Prometheus, who brought us the Divine Fire that is often associated with invention, was forethought – that’s what his name means. So why don’t we have any? Is it because we are not actually the Prometheans we pride ourselves on being, but are instead Epimetheans, scions of Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought”?

While doing yard work today, I listened to Erik Davis’ Expanding Mind podcast (here). The guest was Jason Silva, who is a self-proclaimed techno “wonder junky.” And this is where it struck me that techno progressives (actually, techno transhumanists) like Silva are embodying the puer aeternis, the Eternal Child archetype. They’re off on flights of fancy and seek to escape the grounding – the laming – that comes from living in a mortal body. Meanwhile, Berman is embodying the Senex, the Wise Old Man archetype, warning the techno puers that they’re heading for a fall and they’re going to take us all with them.

Isn’t there a middle ground? A sacred way in which we can use these thaumatagens for insight without becoming addicts fated to crash and burn and hit rock bottom? Can we not have something akin to the ancient Mysteries, where we can take our thaumatagens in the context of the sacred and society? That is, use technology’s intoxicating effects not just for material gain but to enliven society and culture? Technology made in the context of culture, rather than the context of Capitalism and individualism. Tech that doesn’t cause us to “bowl alone” or only in virtual leagues in online games instead of in-person. Tech that brings us together rather than sets us apart, as in the individual cells of our automobiles during rush hour. How can we honor the puer’s sense of wonder without falling into the Senex’s depressive gloom?

I don’t know.

I think Berman’s right that an individual solution will only work for individuals. We need a systemic solution to address a systemic problem, and the alienating effects of technology are systemic to society. We don’t see it because we’re on drugs. And yet, I keep going back for more hits -- as this blog, and the Internet it rides on, attests. As does my livelihood, too – making computer games. Eternal Child, indeed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Our Secret Masters Return

In a previous post titled Our Secret Masters, I wrote about one of the ideas expressed in Grant Morrison's Supergods, that we are being authored by someone or some persons other than ourselves. I linked this idea to the daimon, that Classical idea of a twin or spiritual other in each of us. 

It turns out that Jeffrey Kripal has been thinking about this, too. I just finished his Mutants and Mystics, and it just so happens that that idea is what drives the whole book -- we are being written and we can become authors ourselves of our impossible lives. His previous book, Authors of the Impossible, explores this in some detail by singling out four "authors of the impossible" (Frederick Myers, Jacques Vallee, Charles Fort, Bertrand Meheuest) and how the paranormal intertwined with their work in unexpected and uncanny ways. I haven't read this book yet, but I certainly will soon.

It's a fascinating idea. Alan Moore has talked about this, too, referring to how Iain Sinclair developed a limp after writing in depth about a character with a limp. Was he writing himself? Or was he subconsciously aware of a problem with his leg that his mind alerted him to through his writing? Or was someone else writing his life? These things are curious and hard to fathom in our materially causal paradigm, although a paradigm that organizes life through meaning rather than the physics of dancing atoms comes closer to providing a coherent sense to it all. Jung's and Wolfgang Pauli's theory of synchronicity, for instance.

What I am especially curious about is the idea that we can turn all this around and author our own lives, not in an orderly, causal manner, but in a pattern centered upon meaning. We can write meaning into our lives and watch as elements imbued with that meaning are attracted to us in strange and unexpected ways. Doors open where before there were walls. I'm not talking about some egoistic get-rich scheme like The Secret, but a weirder experience, one we can't fully control but can participate with. 

Keep your eyes open.

Review of Kripal's Mutants and Mystics

I've just posted my review of by

Here's the link, if you want to read it there:

And here's the review, if you want to read it here:

This book was written just for me. I swear Jeffrey Kripal telepathically scanned my mind and knew all the buttons to push to make me devour this book. For someone like me who has spent years reading and writing sci-fi and weird horror in pop culture mediums – comics and games -- it's a welcome relief to see an academic take it all seriously. Well, not so serious as to make it boring and stuffy. Kripal admits that it was his remembering his love of comics as a kid that called him to take a fresh look at what comics have been telling us all these years, in light of his religious studies scholarship. That and a synchronistic X in a parking lot upon exiting an X-Men movie.

The book explores the intersection of pop culture – specifically comics and the sci-fi pulps – and the paranormal, and finds things are stranger and more uncanny than most readers, let alone sci-fi fans, are aware of. Kripal reveals the many hidden themes that all-too-often synchronistically crop up in comics and the lives of those who author them. He proposes that we are living in a Super-Story, an over-riding narrative behind the many sub-narratives we tell ourselves in pop culture. Well, we think we’re telling these stories, but we ourselves are being written. By what and by whom? That remains mysterious and rather Gnostic, but once we come to Realization we can move to Authorization and becomes “authors of the impossible” writing the stories of our own lives.

This is a good companion book to Grant Morrison’s Supergods. It covers some of the same territory, but now from a broader perspective than the experiences of just one artist (Grant Morrison); we also discover the weird and prescient lives and art of other key comic-book and pulp prophets as Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Ray Palmer, among others.

Next on my reading list is Kripal’s previous book, Authors of the Impossible. I’d previously read portions of his book, The Serpent’s Gift, and I plan to get back to that one soon, too. There’s a cornucopia of rich ideas and connections in Kripal’s work and I look forward to exploring them all.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More on Supergods

I recently posted my short review of Grant Morrison's Supergods on Goodreads. I really loved this book, as a comics fan from way back. But it's time to mention some of my concerns about portions of it.

The main one -- Morrison's discussion (or lack thereof) about the financial fates of Siegel & Shuster and Jack Kirby -- is well addressed by Paul Gravett, here.

For someone who used to be such a punk and rebel, Morrison is rather accepting of corporate control over his beloved superheroes, even when he discusses his own troubles with corporate overlordship during his run on New X-Men. There is a disconnect here that really could have used further discussion: the intersection between the individual creator, the audience, the corporate owner and the "real" superhero existing in the 2D world of ideas. I suspect Morrison shied away from the topic not so much to appease his own corporate bosses but because he's just not that interested in the topic. At heart, he's still that fan boy who wants to continue interacting with his idols in a personal relationship between his imagination and their archetypal existence in the Mundus Imaginalis. The sordid histories of corporate betrayal of comics creators are just more examples of the scummy 3D world with which we're trying to infect the 2D world of our heroes. Like shots of superheroes using the bathroom, discussions of corporate screwjobs don't belong in their world.

The other thing that bothered me about the book is the cumulative feeling I get that Morrison is way too enamored of money as a mark of success, which is ironic as he lauds Superman's great and enduring success at the same time he recognizes that his creators hardly saw a dime off it. Morrison repeatedly uses words like "lucrative" and "financially rewarding" to back up his arguments about successful comics, especially the odd sun-spot theory of culture's see-saw between rebellion and conformity. I get the impression that Morrison hasn't really gotten over his blue-collar class upbringing in Glasgow, where making money is the marker moving up and of liberation from 9 to 5 Hell.

All that aside, the book is still a good paean to our archetypes, which, as Jung has so often pointed out, are eternal. They exist beyond the exigences of our worldly financial dilemmas, and yet still come to life amidst them, just as we do.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dragon Con 2011

It's that time of year again: Dragon Con is coming up on Labor Day Weekend.

Here's the panel I'll be doing:

Title: It's Game Time!
Description: Writing and developing games for this fast paced market can be difficult to break into. Let these pros give you their best advice.
Time: Sat 11:30 am  

Location: Manila / Singapore / Hong Kong - Hyatt 
(Length: 1 Hour)

See you there!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Our Secret Masters

Grant Morrison elaborates in "Supergods" on a theme that's been important in his work over the years: those moments when the 2D reality of the comic book and our 3D reality intersect. Way back in "Animal Man" he introduced himself onto the pages of the book -- Animal Man met his author. This of course was meant to make us wonder: our we being authored, too? Is there a writer scripting our lives from some higher dimension?

The weight of this idea didn't hit me until just now, when I realized that James Hillman's concept of the daimon, as elaborated in his "The Soul's Code", is a damn good description of what such a higher-dimensional author might appear like in our lives. Our soul wants what it wants, our egos be damned. The classical view is that the daimon is part of us, and yet is a separate being or personality. But what if it's not part of us -- but we're part of it? What if our lives are scripted entertainments (or, if we're lucky, art forms) authored by pulp writers from the 5th dimension?

Hillman speaks of our daimons as if they're singular -- that is, we each have one for our entire lives. But what if the ups and downs of our lives are due to the influence of multiple daimon/authors? One month we're being written by Len Wein, the next month by Steve Gerber. We're constantly getting retconned when a new author takes over the continuing series of our lives. There might be some editorial control from yet another daimon, ensuring that we stay true to some core idea despite the ups and downs written for us by the latest author, but even he could be subject to the demands of some 5th-dimensional audience and market of ideas.

I hope my continuing adventures continue to sell well in the higher-dimensions.

I do have a request from my daimon/author: How about writing me a super-power?

A Power Greater than Doctor Manhattan

I'm reading Grant Morrison's "Supergods" and it reminded me of something that bugs me about Alan Moore's "Watchmen". Doctor Manhattan was not the only superhuman. While the rest of the cast are all Golden Age hero types, just guys and gals in masks and tights who fight crime with their astonishing but still mundane skills, Doctor Manhattan was heralded as the first true superhuman, the game changer.

Nobody remembers the psychic.

Sure, he's dead and appears only as background info about a stolen head, but HE'S THE KEY TO OZYMANDIAS' PLAN. The only reason Ozymandias' cockamammie alien invasion incident is given any weight or reality in people's minds is the psychic resonance it carries. Ozymandias admits this. His genetic engineers took the dead psychic's brain and grew a psychic resonator from it -- McCluhan's statements that "The Bomb is an idea" made real.

The content of the bomb -- the giant squishy alien -- is practically irrelevant. Presumably, Ozymandias could have encoded just about any apocalyptic scenario into his bomb. He probably needed it to evoke fear, a deep, irrational reaction in the amygdalas of the human race, but this could have been done in any number of ways. Sure, the alien invasion scenario is the only one that would have united humanity against an outside threat and then spurred a new tech boom to take us to outer space to confront our enemies. It doesn't matter.

The real horror of "Watchmen" isn't the existence of Doctor Manhattan and the metaphysical and existential ramifications of that existence. The real horror is that psychic powers exist and can be manipulated to control the entire human race. We're all just buttons waiting to be pushed.

And that's the flaw of "Watchmen". Moore uses the psychic as a handwave, a MacGuffin to explain Ozymandias' plan, but ignores its implications. He's so enamored of Manhattan that he misses the landmine he's casually placed.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe a re-reading of the work will reveal that he's aware of this secret thread and has taken pains to make it secret and yet implicit throughout. The work certainly does operate on many levels.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Super 8

I just saw Super 8 and I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on it while they’re still fresh in my mind.

WARNING: SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might not want to read this yet.

In short, I loved it. Good movie-making.

This movie pressed a lot of personal buttons for me – hell, the main character is me. Well, no, not really, but Joe and me have a lot in common. We’re about the same age, we love movie monsters and filmmaking, and… we both lost our mothers at around the same age.

Joe’s father is the town deputy. Not the sheriff, but the deputy – the sheriff’s right-hand man. He’s the Good Right Arm of the Law. Joe, however, with his fascination with monsters, follows the “left-hand path” (i.e., the Dick Smith monster makeup course – I remember that!). His father, on the right-hand path, cannot understand his left-hand son. The mother was the mediating heart between the hands, making them one body; with her loss, the gulf between the two is exposed. The body is dead yet still animated.

The movie begins amidst the moving and smelting of heavy steel. This is what killed Joe’s mom – crushed her, as we overhear. She has gone underground, into the Underworld. The first shot of Joe is in winter, the bleak time when Persephone resides in the Underworld.

We learn that the monster is “subterranean”, although he’s trying to return home to the stars. He, like Joe’s mom, has gone underground, where he moves and smelts heavy steel to build his vehicle. Joe’s journey underground to rescue his true love is, mythically, a search for the lost mother – not in a Freudian icky sense, but as a search for his lost heart. Like the Tin Man in Oz, Joe’s only connection to his heart is his mother’s heart-shaped locket. The emotional life of his soul is bound into that locket, such that he clings to it and grips it as a source of strength amidst danger. His rescuing Alice is his path toward regaining his heart.

When Joe confronts the alien, he does so to protect his newfound heart. The alien is the part of Joe’s soul that entered the Underworld with his mother and was trapped there with no star – no love – to guide it. The very night that Alice joins the boys to make their movie, the creature bursts from its boxcar cage, where it had been held by the Law – not his father’s small-town law, but an inflated, military version of the Law his father represents: the right hand in its mythic form. As the Law hunts the Joe-creature, the Joe-creature tries to build its escape craft, desperately stealing people in a search for the heart it needs. (It also builds its craft from the engines of used cars – from the town’s used-up drives.)

Joe’s friend wants to blow up his train model, but Joe is clearly disturbed by this, and yet capitulates. Alice tells him not to let them blow it up. She senses that the boxcar is the container for Joe’s soul. It’s already been blown up, releasing the Joe-creature, but this is the model version, built by his hands and his love. To blow up his model is to destroy his escape craft before it can be completed.

Joe confrontation with his chthonic soul is what finally triggers the completion of his work. As soon as the Joe-creature drops Joe, the escape craft spins up, signaling his immanent return home – his escape from the Underworld to the transcendent world of spirit. This is the journey of the soul, from a Fall into earthly matter to an Ascent into spirit and light.

But as the Gnostics knew, this journey requires Sophia, loving wisdom. (Joe’s last name is Lamb.) The ship cannot take off until Joe has relinquished his old heart – his mother’s locket – and placed his left-hand in the right-hand of his new heart: Alice. As soon as he releases the locket, it takes its place in the heavenly chariot, crushing the steel water tower and releasing its waters -- the pent up tears.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Morris Berman's "A Question of Values" reviewed

I just added a review on Goodreads of Morris Berman's collection of essays, "A Question of Values."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shambhala and Shamanism

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Andrei Znamenski, author of "Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia". He was on a book tour at Books-A-Million at Discover Mills -- not a place you'd expect an audience of esotericists to show up. Alas, it was only me and my brother, but we had a good time talking with Mr. Znamenski. My bro is well-read on the subject matter of Shambhala, and I'm well-read on the subject of shamanism. It turns out Znamenski has an earlier book, "The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination". How did I miss this one? I admit I haven't read as deeply in current shamanic literature of late, being immersed in other topics, but I had to order a copy.

Znamenski is coming back to Atlanta on July 21st for a signing at Barnes & Noble in Buckhead -- a much better venue. Check out the links above and please come out if the book looks interesting to you. Let's get lots of people there for Mr. Znamenski!


I occasionally post book reviews up on Goodreads. Check me out here.