The Human Factor: Animals, Machines, and Us

Before we all take the nonhuman turn, perhaps we should revisit what being human means in the first place. The debate has a rich pedigree. Situating the humans among the animals, as well as among our machines, is as fraught a philosophical position as one is likely to find. What separates us? Language? Self-awareness? Consciousness? Suffering? The machines themselves? No one, from Descartes and Kant to Heidegger and Levinas, seems to have a defensible answer. Two recent books explore the animal question in very different but interesting ways.

The human is a pointless and treacherous category.
— Kodwo Eshun

Burroughs to Ginsberg: “Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable.” — Tweeted by Steven Shaviro, November 28, 2009.

Building an elaborate three-way bridge connecting animals and humans and machines (a.k.a. “the cybernetic triangle”), Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines by Dominic Pettman (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) is a wildly engaging exploration of what it means to be human. From the philosophies of Agamben, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, and Heidegger to documentaries like Grizzly Man (2006) and Zoo (2007) and from songs like Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer to God” to Aerogramme’s “A Simple Process of Elimination,” Pettman swings wide in search of the lines we draw as well as the ones we cross.

Animals came from miles around
So tired of walking so close to the ground
They needed a change, that’s what they said
“Life is better walking on two legs!”
But they were in for a big surprise
‘Cause they didn’t know the law!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Pettman writes, “In Descartes’s time, the beating of an animal was, in most cases, the beating of a machine, akin to thrashing an unreliable car that would complain by beeping its horn. Compassion for animals was seen as a misguided and extravagant anthropomorphism” (p. 114). He cites Jean Baudrillard arguing that animal cruelty, specifically the late medieval ritual practice of hanging a horse, makes us more human by equalizing the two. He continues, “Today, we have widened the circle of empathy, depending on our cultural and individual sensibilities, although not yet to the extent that we would throw our arms around a photocopier were we to witness it being assaulted by an overworked librarian” (p. 114). The argument continues, citing a sort of Turing test of suffering, as if each species must prove to us (humans) that it is in pain.

The rules are written in the stone
Break the rules and you get no bones
All you get is ridicule, laughter
And a trip to the house of pain!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Donkeys are stoic in their suffering, forever keeping their cards close to their chests. They would pass the Turing test of animal suffering in only the most extreme cases. In The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World (Walker & Co., 2008), Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked. Head veterinarian Dr. Mohsen Hassan posits that most donkey mistreatment comes from ignorance not cruelty, and that most of the donkeys collective problems seen in the clinic could be avoided “with sensible handling practice and informed care” (p. 187). In short, respect for the donkey. The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

Merriman’s book follows his travels elsewhere through the southern regions of France and through many fictional tales of humans and donkeys and donkey treatment. They do not respond well to the prodding and beating they get. Donkeys need patience and gentle encouragement. Often their circumstances do not afford them this. Saying the same about us, Merriman writes, “Global donkey inequities mimic the human world’s inequities” (p. 191). Or, as Pettman puts it, “To err is human; to forgive, equine” (p. 110).

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Special thanks to Ken Wark for recommending Merriman’s donkey book.

References:

Elfman, Danny. (1983). “No Spill Blood”  [Recorded by Oingo Boingo]. On Good For Your Soul [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Eshun, Kodwo. (1998). More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.

Merriman, Andy. (2008). The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. New York: Walker & Co.

Pettman, Dominic. (2011). Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

Fear of a Black Metal: Cyclonopedia and Evil

Borrowing everything from the Scandinavians except the panda paint, America Black Metal bands blend the core aesthetic with other subgenres to great effect. Over the past few years, it has become my favorite accompanying sound for almost any activity. Its energy, its all-encompassing crests and crumbles, its sheer power moves me in ways no other genre has in many years. And I am not alone: The darkness of this stuff touches something in us, something buried deep in our beings, in our nature.

We cannot understand and fight evil as long as we consider it to be an abstract concept external to ourselves.
— Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, p. 231

Among the best of this mix of subgenres (e.g., Seidr, Panopticon, Deafheaven, Liturgy, Krallice, Falls of Rauros, et al.), the undisputed masters stateside are Wolves in the Throne Room. Their Cascadian Black Metal is as majestic as it is monolithic, mixing the forest and the trees, their epic songs can be as dense as they are sparse. In a 2006 interview, they explain the draw of Black Metal:

True Norwegian Black Metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that winter is eternal. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying humanity; destroying ones own self in an orgy of self loathing and hopelessness. I believe one must focus on this image of eternal winter in order to understand Black Metal for it is a crucial metaphor that reveals our sadness and woe as a race. In our hubris, we have rejected the earth and the wisdom of countless generations for the baubles of modernity. In return, we have been left stranded and bereft in this spiritually freezing hell.

To us, the driving impulse of Black Metal is more about deep ecology than anything else and can best be understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable? Because our modern culture has failed – we are all failures. The world around us has failed to sustain our humanity, our spirituality. The deep woe inside black metal is about fear – that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level. Black Metal is also about self loathing, for modernity has transformed us, our minds, bodies and spirit, into an alien life form; one not suited to life on earth without the mediating forces of technology, culture and organized religion. We are weak and pitiful in our strength over the earth – in conquering, we have destroyed ourselves. Black Metal expresses disgust with humanity and revels in the misery that one finds when the falseness of our lives is revealed (quoted in Smith, 2006).

The urge to return to our roots is a prevailing ethos in Black Metal of all paints. In Norway, it’s about returning to the Norse traditions that predate the Christian and Western influences on the culture there. For Wolves in the Throne Room, it’s about a return to nature. “Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveal themselves with age and experience,” they continue. “Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives” (quoted in Smith, 2006). Drummer and one half of the brothers that make up the core of Wolves in the Throne Room, Aaron Weaver was taken by Black Metal upon first hearing it. “… it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, it’s not head-banging music at all… It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted. It’s about putting on a big show and head banging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself” (quoted in Moyer, p. 42). Having seen these guys live last year, I can truly say that their music is introspective to the point of turning one inside out.

Weaver discusses the connections between Black metal and the radical Northwestern culture he and his brother are immersed in, both of which are about “critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that we’ve perhaps lost as modern people.” That’s not the whole of it, of course, he adds, “Then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the Black Metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought” (Moyer, p. 42).

We are going back to the future and forward to the past, engaging all of history’s villains and saints in quick time… Ancient ethnic sores are belching fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business oblivious to the fuedal past below. — Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 18.

Aside from Lords of Chaos (feral house, 2003) and the documentary Until the Light Takes Us (2009), Hideous Gnosis (CreateSpace, 2010) is the most in-depth exploration of what Black Metal’s not-so-joyous noise might mean to fans and to theorists of same. Though it’s a compilation of essays, documents, and thoughts from a symposium by the same name, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, the book stands alone well as a collection of academic work on the subject. Edited by Nicola Masciandaro, it brings together pieces by Steven Shakespeare, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of Liturgy), Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, and Evan Calder Williams, among many others, as well as naysayers and haters from the blog’s comments section, “to bask in the speculative glory of the problematic,” as Reza Negarestani puts it (quoted in Masciandaro, p. 267). Whenever academics or nerds turn their attention to something so sacredly held as Black Metal, its fans are likely to be wary. But if you, like me, enjoy immersing yourself in as many aspects as possible of the things you love, this collection is a welcome addition to Blackened Theory, the literature, music, thought, and culture that is Black Metal — and the internal, eternal evil that drives it.

@1jamiebell: What’s the speed of dark? (Tweeted March 22, 2012)

Another symposium collection, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium (punctum books, 2011) brings together scholars to discuss Reza Negarestani’s world-warping book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008). Not since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) have I been so simultaneously intrigued and scared of a book. It is a return to the “hidden prehistory” (as Steven Shaviro describes it) of the dark global forces of the twenty-first century. It is at once philosophical fiction, nomad archeology, Middle Eastern occult study, object-oriented ontology, and straight-up horror, all centered on Western civilization’s lust for oil, the darkest of matters. Leper Creativity sets out to excavate this work’s dark secrets. Their own introductory language reads as follows:

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

More than worthy of a symposium as such, Cyclonopedia bridges and problematizes the divide between modern, global politics and the dark forces of ancient humanity. Claudia Card (2002) wrote, “The denial of evil has become an important strand of twentieth-century secular Western culture” (p. 28). To deny evil is to deny ourselves, to deny a part of our positive nature. Cyclonopedia digs deep into both sides. It is a triumph in both form and content. We’re dropped into the first hole in the plot as a young American woman arrives at a hotel in Istanbul to meet an online acquaintance with an unpronounceable name who never actually shows up. She finds a manuscript in her hotel room and begins culling its clues leaving her to wonder if her friend from afar was real at all (as Johnny did Zumpano in House of Leaves). “Meanwhile, as the War on Terror escalates,” the jacket copy explains, “the U. S. is dragged into an asymmetrical engagement with occultures whose principles are ancient, obscure, and saturated in oil. It is as if war itself is feeding upon the warmachines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” As Howard Bloom (1995) explains, “Behind the writhing of evil is a competition between organizational devices, each trying to harness the universe to its own particular pattern, each attempting to hoist the cosmos one step higher on a ladder of increasing complexity” (p. 325). The Middle East is sentient, alive, proclaims the embedded manuscript’s author Dr. Hamid Parsani, dark forces its lifeblood, its story the evil of all of history — human and nonhuman.

“Evil is a by-product, a component, of creation” Bloom (1995, p. 2) writes matter-of-factly. To understand its legion forces, we have to look extensively at the edges between nefarious, non-human history, as well as the insidious inside ourselves. It is in this way that the draw of Black Metal and the study of its ethos is something we cannot afford to ignore.

—————–

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium is available as a free download from punctum books. Many thanks to Kenyatta Cheese who emailed me about Cyclonopedia almost two years ago. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

References:

Beck, Don, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bloom, Howard. (1995). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Card, Claudia. (2002). The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Moyer, Matthew. (2011, Winter). Wolves in the Throne Room: From Mount Olympia. Ghetto Blaster, 30, 40-42.

Negarestani, Reza. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. New York: re.press.

Smith, Bradley. (2006). Interview with Wolves in the Throne Room. Nocturnal Cult.

Keller, Ed, Nicola Masciandaro, Nicola, & Thacker, Eugene. (eds.). (2011). Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. New York: punctum books.

Svendsen, Lars. (2010). A Philosophy of Evil. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive.

The Deleuzian Delusion

Michel Foucault once said that the twentieth century might eventually be considered Deleuzian, and he still may end up being right.  Gilles Deleuze, and his frequent cowriter, Félix Guattari, wrote some unignorable books in the late decades of last century, the two volumes Anti-Oedipus (University of Minnesota Press, 1983) and A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) being the two most prominent in either’s canon. Each has an extensive body of work in his own right, but Deleuze casts a large shadow over his friend and colleague. Such a shadow in fact, that it prompted Ian Bogost to Tweet the following on March 3rd, 2012:

@ibogost: Earnest, snark-free question: how did Deleuze get so popular? What is it about Deleuze that is so appealing to so many?

Assemblages, rhizomes, bodies-without-organs, repetition, difference… I can’t claim to have an answer to Bogost’s question, as I can’t claim to understand much of the Deleuze that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of it, and a lot of it more than twice). I do know that a lot of it is difficult simply by dint of the contrarian angle on subjectivity: These books challenge the fundamental way(s) most of us tend to feel that being in the world works. Holland (1999) opens his book with the obvious: “The Anti-Oedipus is not easy to read” (p. 1). About writing it with his coauthor, Deleuze said, “Between Félix and his diagrams and me with my verbal concepts, we wanted to work together, but we didn’t know how” (2006, p. 238). And about A Thousand Plateaus, he mused, “Now we didn’t think for a minute of writing a madman’s book, but we did write a book in which you no longer know, or need to know, who is speaking…” (quoted in Nadaud, 2006, p. 19). On page 22 of the latter, they even write it out, in black and white: “We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is compose of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs.” How is one to make sense of bastard philosophy such as this?

I once asked my friend and mentor Steven Shaviro what path to take as I embarked upon the plateaus alone for the first time. He suggested using Claire Parnet’s Dialogues (Columbia University Press, 1987) as a sort of crib notes to the two major volumes mentioned above. Dialogues was compiled between the writing of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze talked about the book’s in-betweenness (i.e., its being between both the two books and the three authors), writing that what mattered was “the collection of bifurcating, divergent, and muddled lines which constituted this book as a multiplicity and which passed between the points, carrying them along without going from one to the other” (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987, p. ix). And so it goes. My Deleuzian delusion is that I’ll ever get a handle on this stuff.

Somewhat thankfully, there is now Gilles Deleuze: From A to Z (Semiotext(e), 2012), a three-DVD set of those liminal lines between Deleuze and Parnet. Covering topics alphabetically, from A for “Animal” to Z for “Zigzag,” it’s a rare and interesting look at the man and his letters. Unlike the film Derrida (Jane Doe Films, 2002) on Jacques Derrida, of course, this is not really a documentary. Parnet, a former student of Deleuze’s, knew him well, and director Pierre-André Boutang likens Deleuze and Parnet to a Jazz duo, playing off of each other in an improvisation of concepts and cons, using the alphabet as a grounding framework. “Deleuze had taken into account the fact that each reel lasted ten minutes,” Boutang (2004) wrote, “which produced a rhythm. And the charm of 16mm film is that the sound reel lasts longer than the image. With some people, you cut once the image stops. You don’t feel like doing that with Deleuze” (p. 7). During the discussion about culture (C is for Culture), Deleuze says, “Talking is dirty. Writing is clean.” If you snuggle in to watch this DVD, get ready for four hours of dirty, dirty talking.

Many others have tried to make sense of Deleuze in book form, with various tropes and varying degrees of success. The most recent being Gregory Flaxman. Flaxman is not new to Deleuze: His previous book was The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). His latest, Gilles Deleuze and the Fabulation of Philosophy: Powers of the False, Volume 1 (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), uses the idea of friendship as an initial condition from which to reexamine Deleuze’s philosophy. Covering everything from Deleuze’s apprenticeship with Friedrich Nietzsche to his vow to overthrow Plato, Flaxman reintroduces aesthetics to Deleuzian studies, showing how Deleuze situated fiction in the center of a minor philosophy. He writes, “Deleuze declares no abiding loyalties: not only does he mingle with countless philosophers, but he flirts with just as many writers, filmmakers, and artists” (p. 181). This nomadic “promiscuity” is one more reason that the well of Deleuze’s ideas isn’t likely to run dry any time soon, and Flaxman’s is a deep and welcome reconsideration. Moreover, his focus on friendship is intriguing. Stivale (1998) wrote, “This rapport of friendship lies, I believe, at the very core of these authors’ collaborative engagement…” (p. ix). Nietzsche freed Deleuze from the arid areas of academe, and Deleuze focused Guattari without truncating his thoughts too much (which, if you’ve read any Guattari without Deleuze, you know they needed a trim here and there; though Deleuze might not agree with my assessment: He speaks highly and fondly of Guattari in A to Z [L for Loyalty]).

Speaking of friendship, if you’d like a more personal — and historical — look at Deleuze and his main co-conspirator, there’s François Dosse’s Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (Columbia University Press, 2010), which, appropriately enough, is 651 pages long. The duo met shortly after the revolts of May, 1968 (to which Anti-Oedipus is largely a reaction: “Initially it was less a question of pooling knowledge than the accumulation of our uncertainties,” Guattari said in Chaosophy [2009, p. 69]). Guattari had just been passed over as Lacan’s successor, which sent him into a deep depression tempered only by throes of mania. With a milder manner and more comfort within his confines, Deleuze was the calm of their storm, a storm that still surges through classes and discussions in philosophy, postmodernism, post-structuralism, cultural studies, film studies, net criticism, and so on. So, what was their beef with Marx, Freud, Plato, and every other thinker (save Nietzsche and Foucault, of course) that preceded them? It’s all here. Dosse’s book is the definitive story of these two major collaborators, thinkers, writers, jokesters, and, perhaps above all, friends.

Desire is under it all, according to the iconoclastic French duo. The capitalism machine creates layers and layers of desires and subsequently splits selves into schizophrenia (hence the subtitle of both volumes of their two-volume work: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). William Carlos Williams (1923) once wrote, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That’s not exactly what they meant, but maybe that’s why Deleuze, along with Guattari, have such a hold on the academy’s mass mind: Our spirits are all spiraling apart in so many separate ways, just as they said they would all those years ago. But maybe, as they were, we can still be friends.

References:

Boutang, Pierre-André. (2004, February). Everything About Gilles Deleuze and Nothing About Gilles Deleuze. RevueVertigo, no. 25.

Boutang, Pierre-André (Director). (2012). Gilles Deleuze: A to Z, with Claire Parnet [DVD]. United States: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Letter to Uno: How We Worked Together. In Two Regimes of Madness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Parnet, Claire. (1987). Dialogues. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1995). [front cover copy]. In Gilles Deleuze Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Guattari, Félix. (2009). Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. New York: Semiotext(e).

Holland, Eugene W. (1999). Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

Massumi, Brian. (1992). A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nadaud, Stéphane. (2006). Love Story between an Orchid and a Wasp. In Guattari, Félix, The Ani-Oedipus Papers. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 11-22.

Stivale, Charles J. (1998). The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari: Intersections and Animations. New York: Guilford.

Williams, William Carlos. (1923). Spring and All.

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I am indebted to Steven Shaviro, Katie Arens, and Ken Wark for what little I understand about the subject(s) at hand.

Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

Expanding Minds: Books on Hacking Your Head

Thinking about our own minds often seems so pataphysically impossible as to be useless and silly, but, to paraphrase Steven Johnson (again), trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves. By contrast, trying to expand and enhance it seems much easier. You can expand your mind without really understanding how it happens. There are many ways to make your brain feel bigger, and these three new books provide many steps in that direction.

Upgrade your grey matter because one day it may matter.
— Deltron 3030

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level by Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans (Wiley, 2011), the “unofficial sequel” to Ron’s previous book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain (O’Reilly, 2006; which I mentioned previously). From the sublime to the silly, extensive lists of mental activities, experiments, and games comprise these books, and they’re as fun as they are fertile.

Many of the hacks here take advantage of the fact that the way you see your mind and your world are often radically related, if not often the same thing. What I mean is that a lot of these are not just mental exercises, but tricks for productivity, ways to communicate better, hacks for breaking bad habits, tips for time management, and creative ways to be more creative. It’s not just about the hacks though. Mindhacker is also stocked with other (re)sources: Relevant URLs, books, and articles are listed on every page, along with the stories of the hacks’ origins, and the book’s website has even more, including pieces of code as well as complete programs.

Speaking of programs, Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008) tackles maximizing the mind from a programmer’s point of view, and it overlaps and complement’s the books mentioned above nicely. Maps, models, recipes, and other scripts and schedules are a part of Hunt’s push, but you don’t have to be code nerd to get plenty out of this book. It has helpful tips for everyone. Chapter four, “Get in Your Right Mind,” even suggests rock climbing, which I regularly use to clear my mind’s cache.

From the grounded to the grandiose, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2011) stretches the mind in multiple manners, also blurring the line between the brain and the world. Clark’s extended mind thesis posits the mind beyond the body… Sometimes. That is, sometimes we perform a Dawkinsian flip, seeing the biosphere as an endless network of DNA regardless of organismal boundaries; sometimes our brains and the brains of others are emphatically embodied. It’s a simple but sizable distinction. Where we draw those lines changes everything about how we see the mind and the world.

Other than a few minor missteps (e.g., In his conclusion, Clark unfortunately defines the mind as a “mashup,” when really he just means that it’s extremely diverse, infinitely adaptable, and ultimately mysterious), Supersizing the Mind is one of the better books I’ve seen in the neurosciences in a while.

If you want a brain book that’s handy and fun, I definitely recommend Mindhacker and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Those two, along with Dan Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006), will get you a long way toward optimizing your cognitive output. If you want something a bit more theoretical, check out Supersizing the Mind. Either way, get to mining and minding your mind. It is still legal.