An interesting juxtaposition

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun–which motive seems to be imputed to me every time I say this–but I don’t care about seeing the new Star Wars movie and I would rather pretend it doesn’t exist. I discussed this with several people on Facebook, and it was interesting that with maybe two exceptions, everyone seemed to think I was saying that I thought the movie would be bad.

Instead, what I was saying is that I do not think this nostalgia that prompts us to relive movies over and over says anything good about our (American/Anglophone) society and its cultural projects. When I want to revisit the Star Wars universe, I watch Star Wars again. (Yes, it will always be “Star Wars” to me and not “A New Hope.” I know, I’m aging myself. It seems an appropriate way to celebrate finding my first grey hairs this month. You damn kids get off my lawn.) Don’t get me wrong. I get nostalgic like anyone else, and I enjoy a bit of escapist action cinema. Man, if I could recapture the sense of empowerment and inspiration I got from watching She-Ra as a kid I would not only magically leverage the hell out of it (something I am trying to figure out how to do), I would bottle and sell it. But I do not feel the need to constantly revisit-but-with-slight-cosmetic-changes-“improvements” the experiences of my youth. I certainly do not feel the need for a J.J. Abrams version of Masters of the Universe. I’m actually a little afraid that by having put that idea out there into the universe it’s going to happen. Please don’t let that happen.

Well, maybe if Wes Anderson had directed the new Star Wars, with Bill Murray as a jaded and cynical Luke Skywalker and Owen Wilson as Chewbacca…I might have gone to see that. But I digress.

My main complaint about the Star Wars prequels–which I refuse to acknowledge in my universe–is not that they were “bad” in so very many ways, but that they betrayed the whole worldview, philosophy, and cosmology of the original movies. I mean, midichlorians? Talk about selling out to scientistic-materialism. I know it’s not the ’70s anymore and the New Age is looking a bit tarnished and beat up, but it was so sad to see something mythic reduced to the merely fictive. So I want nothing to do with any further Star Wars elaborations, and the same goes for Star Trek (the Abrams version of which similarly betrayed/abandoned the mythos of the original–or to paraphrase some dude I don’t know on Facebook, Abrams made a good action movie, but he didn’t make a Star Trek movie), Tarzan, Point Break (not making that up), and all the other remakes, retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. I swear every time another Marvel superhero movie comes out an angel commits harakiri. Can we at least agree not to remake a movie until 25 years have passed since the original came out?

Setting aside my cantankerousness, I actually am dismayed by the way nostalgia has grown so out of control. I read an interview with Simon Pegg when The World’s End came out which I can’t find anymore, but basically he was complaining that

“…the growing consumerism attached to genre films that has preyed on audiences’ nostalgia for youth. Citing the philosophies of cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, Pegg explains how society has become infantilized to distract us from the real horrors of the world. ‘There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the “The Force Awakens” and the “Batman vs Superman” trailers,’ Pegg writes, ‘than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.'”

It’s ironic, if not maybe just a teensy bit hypocritical, that these words are coming from a guy who starred in both the new Star Treks and the new Star Wars, but I agree with what he’s saying here and for better or worse, the Cornetto Trilogy are among the very few films pointing out the extremes to which nostalgia has been leveraged by marketers and the mindlessness of the general populace in consuming it.

So anyway, that is my bad attitude to the whole thing. I feel a little vindicated that less-than-fawning reviews of the new Star Wars are beginning to appear. That (in part) is why I clicked on this link when a friend posted it on Facebook:

From “A New Hope” to no hope at all: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the sinister and depressing reality of expanded universes

The next thing I saw in my news feed was this link from Gordon:

Empire of Chaos preparing for more fireworks in 2016

The juxtaposition of the two is interesting. The subtitle of the first article could with equal truth be appended to the second: “When fantasy sagas never end, we see the cycles of brutality and totalitarianism that fuel them don’t, either.”

American exceptionalism and EU/ECB/IMF/NATO’s various politico-economic just-so stories are our fantasy saga. In light of that, read this synopsis of America’s current chapter of the saga:

Give Me Only Good News!

I realize this comes off as awfully pessimistic. I don’t want to make things harder for you this Bickanytide*. As when I first suggested to my Facebook acquaintances that perhaps a new Star Wars doesn’t really warrant pants-wetting levels of enthusiasm, I am only suggesting we widen our perspectives a bit to look at bigger patterns and maybe just maybe have a good think about it. But what am I saying? If you’re reading this, you are already my kind of weirdo. I wish you a happy midwinter and a wond’rous feast of St. Bickany!

*Totally stealing that from Gordon. Too perfect to pass up.

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Facebook and the culture of violence

panopticonIn the wake of the shooting in Oregon–which is still fresh in people’s minds though by the time this post is published, it will probably be a couple weeks old and, who knows? perhaps eclipsed by a new shooting–my Well-Meaning Liberal (WML) Facebook acquaintances have been all in a dither about gun control. The discussions all go like this:

“Another shooting! What is this country coming to?! We must have more gun control!”

“But how? What exactly should we do?”

“I don’t know! Control the guns! Control the mentally ill! Stop them from getting guns!”

So a friend of mine–someone I have actually been friends with in real life, though we live halfway across the country from one another now–posted something similar, and because we are friends I broke my cardinal rule: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. No wait, the other one: Never get involved in a discussion about an emotional, controversial, or sensitive subject on Facebook. Since people get butthurt on Facebook like it’s their job, that actually means that I can’t discuss anything that matters, unless I’m just reiterating the party line. Which I never do.

It’s not like I’m the first person to comment on the degenerating level of interaction on Facebook. I don’t use Facebook for the groups or anything, just to stay in touch with my friends far away and for publicizing lost and found dogs to get them home. I have longed to abandon it completely but I know this would probably mean completely losing touch with some people even if I tried to maintain contact via other means. Perhaps it’s time I realize that if they can’t be bothered to do their part in keeping in touch, I can let that friendship go; but then I feel like a hypocrite because I can be pretty terrible about keeping in touch myself. But anyway, at least you used to be able to exchange empty pleasantries. Now it’s like:

“Nice weather we’re having, huh?”

“FUCK YOU YOU HAVE TRIGGERED ME YOU INSENSITIVE FUCKWAD I HATE YOU DIE DIE DIE!”

So anyway, yesterday this friend posted something to the effect of “more gun control! stop the mentally ill from getting guns!” and I said, I thought pretty diplomatically, that I consider gun violence and much of our mental illness to BOTH be symptoms of the same deeper issues, among them materialism, hyper-capitalism, and pathologization of normal emotional states for the sake of Big Pharma. “Cui bono?” I said. I also pointed out that I am increasingly seeing reports that antidepressants cause suicidal and aggressive behavior in young people, that they result in further chemical imbalance in the brain, and that the chemical imbalance model of depression was being challenged in the first place.* Therefore, I proposed a thought experiment: What if gun control is just a band-aid on a gaping wound? What if mental illness and gun control are both symptoms? (I suggested this in less detail in my last post.)

You would not believe the amount of pearl-clutching approbation this comment received. Some person I have never met or communicated with in my life–some other friend of my friend–went immediately for the ad hominem and straw-man attacks, lecturing me with the consensus opinion on mental illness as if I had the luxury of not knowing it thoroughly, and even my friend accused me of being cruel and unsympathetic to people who suffer from depression and use antidepressants.

Well, that pissed me off. Because that friend was around when I was going through severe depression. We talked about taking antidepressants, compared the side effects we were having from them. (Side effects I’m still struggling with years after stopping the pills, which never really worked, by the way). The fact that she doesn’t know me better than that after all these years…well, some people would write a person off for a lot less. See the thing is, I don’t judge people for taking antidepressants. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive, to drag yourself out of bed and face the world. For some people, antidepressants make that possible. But no one in their right mind (heh heh heh) can deny that non-pharmaceutical alternatives are under-explored and under-promoted. I found mindfulness, and that’s what worked for me. But I had to find it on my own because I was desperate to get off the pills. While they did take the edge off the pain enough for me to get through the day in a benumbed haze, they utterly wrecked my endocrine system. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. But the fact that some people get benefit from placebos antidepressants is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether mental illness is the cause of gun violence (it’s not) or a corollary symptom.

(Before exiting the conversation I clarified my point of view, admittedly not in the nicest of terms–that friend of my friend was a nasty bit of goods–but I then wrote a private apologia, reminding her that I have personal experience with the issue, had no intention to wound, and that Facebook is a cold medium that breeds misunderstandings. I have yet to receive any reply and if I don’t, well, that’s that then.)

I never cease to be amazed at the hypocrisy of both political groups in this country, but I think I’m more offended when I encounter it in liberals. At least the conservatives don’t make a pretense of being the Nice Guys. They also do a lot less simpering and hand-wringing, which I have to say I appreciate. I’m astounded that these WML extollers of empathy don’t see that labeling people as mentally ill (many of them suggest doing this to children and then isolating them from their peers and subjecting them to pharmaceutical “intervention”…because that couldn’t possibly have any negative results) and essentializing the mentally ill as The Cause of Gun Violence, they are scapegoating an already vulnerable, marginalized population. Precisely the sort of people who they claim to defend. It’s truly sickening and I have no time for that bullshit.

Between you and me, dear readers, I think these shooters are more sick at heart than sick in the head. And it’s not just their sickness, it affects our whole society. We can’t address the real problems because our ontology, our identity politics, and our rulers won’t even let us acknowledge them, let alone take action. All we are allowed to do is double down on “solutions” that have never worked. New ideas would require new perspectives–thought experiments such as the one I proposed–but new perspectives are non-canonical and thus, heresy.

But this encounter on Facebook made me realize that Facebook is itself a crucial element in the “culture of violence.” It’s always easier to misunderstand someone in print than in conversation; but even if you leave aside the creepy emotional manipulation Facebook (and their pals DARPA) do on people, there is something about that platform that riles people up, frays tempers, causes people to draw battle lines and turn on old friends. I don’t know exactly what factors are involved, but I think a big one is the sense that others are watching us. Identity politics and image management then take precedence over sincerity and empathy. Intimate truths and sensitive communication cannot happen within the Panopticon.** What is so insidious about Facebook is that it uses our own friends as the disciplinary mechanism. All that would be horrifying enough without Facebook actually working for the military-industrial-archonic complex. Truly, it sends shivers down my spine.

So before we tsk-tsk at all the tragic shootings, shrug our shoulders and sigh at the tragedy of undiagnosed mental illness in America, we each need to consider our own role in contributing to the culture of violence. Our Facebook personae are a great place to start.

*I’d love to Google that for you and give you a full list of citations but life is short. If you go to Google Scholar and type in something like “antidepressants cause chemical imbalance,” you’ll get a lot of hits. You might also enjoy Gordon’s Apocalypse Pharmaka series.

**When searching for an image for this post, I discovered that others have made this connection as well. I’m relieved to have finally found the words to articulate the creeping sensation of horror that Facebook gives me.

Towards a spiritual ecology of fat

pacific-walruses-913165_1280

This post was born as a discussion on Facebook with the herbalist Rebecca Altman (of Cauldrons & Crockpots and King’s Road Apothecary; both her blog and the KRA newsletter are replete with insightful discussions of herbs, if you’re into that). Rebecca raised the question (paraphrased), “Why do we (21st century Western society) have such a problem with fat and fatness?”

There were many insightful comments and all the participants share some of the credit–or responsibility? heh heh–for helping me formulate my thoughts. They gave me much food for thought which is damn rare in a Facebook discussion (that, by the way, is another topic I plan to write about soon).

Now, I’m not talking here about the medical etiology of obesity. I welcome comments but don’t even bother if you’re just writing another iteration of obesity is so unhealthy and what a terrible epidemic, because that is off topic. I’m also not going to get into the nefarious corporate machinations that are at least partly responsible for the high rates of obesity (but if you’re interested in that, you might like Gordon’s post on the topic). What I am trying to do is to (as they say in academia) interrogate and unpack common assumptions and approach the idea from another perspective. Which is all I really do on this blog. It’s food for thought. Rich, delicious, savory food for thought…here, have another helping.

So Rebecca’s question was specifically about our negative societal attitude toward fat–both as a dietary component and as stored fat deposits on fellow human beings. Though you’ll often see the argument that disgust toward overweight people is a natural or evolved response to their unhealthiness, we must be very wary of such naturalistic arguments. They are always oversimplified and not only overlook but usually deliberately elide the human choices–and responsibility for said choices–that go into creating and maintaining any attitude. They’re also ahistorical. (There have been cultures where obesity was prized and deemed lovely, no matter what the health consequences may have been, for example in present-day Nigeria and Uganda and various Polynesian cultures.) More worrisome, naturalistic arguments are too often use to legitimize very bad behavior.

For example, one cannot overlook that there is a major class-hierarchy element underlying our negative attitudes toward fatness (as well as the actual material anifestation of fatness). While affluent people can afford personal trainers, gym memberships, South Beach and palaeo diets, and have sufficient energy and leisure time to exercise or do recreational sports, how many poor people come home at the end of working two jobs and have the energy to cook an optimal meal? Cheap food is unhealthy food. It is possible to eat healthfully without spending too much money (easier in regions where veggies are available year round), but diet is as much about time, energy, stress, and emotional state as it is about money. Class is certainly a factor. In the old days, poor people were skinny and only the rich could get fat; now it’s the other way around.

Then of course you have sexism and beauty commodification. Does anyone remember the episode of Friends where Ross over-bleached his teeth so that they glowed in UV light and everyone made fun of him? Now every celebrity, model, and anyone you see in an ad has teeth at least that white. Yesterday I saw a commercial where a woman with porcelain-white teeth bemoaned how “yellow” they were. My point here is that our beauty standards are neither arbitrary nor evolutionarily determined–they are the result of advertisers creating a sense of lack so they can sell us a product for literally every part of our body. Women, whose value has long been determined primarily on the basis of fuckability, are the main victims of this, but men get a big dose too. For women, it has become so extreme that we are now supposed to worry about the skin tone of our armpits and anus and the internal symmetry of our vulvae. There is literally not an inch of our bodies that isn’t policed, critiqued, denigrated, and male-gazed at on a daily basis (FYI male gaze can also come from women). So that’s an issue too.

Now that those disclaimers are out of the way, the most interesting idea that emerged from the Facebook fat discussion, for me, was the notion that fat could be medicine. A couple of commenters viewed overweight from an Ayurvedic perspective, opining that Western society can be described as choleric/pitta in nature with sanguine/vata tendencies, and overweight develops as an attempt to balance the scales with kapha. As so often happens when one tries to compensate, we overcompensate. Another take was that people are storing fat for hard times that they perceive a-comin.’  Rebecca notes:

I see this a lot here in LA, people who want to be fully open, fully bright white love and light without any dark, damp, deep and slow, and I think its pathological. I think, when it comes down to it, the dark, damp, deep and slow (which to me is represented by the fat, too), is something we are terrified of in ourselves because its where we store our pain, and we dont want to deal with that shit. People who build up protective fat layers are often incredibly emotionally sensitive, and bloody well need that protection (at least until they can find another way to feel safe). We store our pain there in the darkness, and not all of us want to face it. Maybe easier to stick to love and light and quickness and ‘high vibrational energy’ (whatever the fuck that is) and hope the rest of it goes away. Or at least hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.

Almost any medicine can become a poison in excess. So too with fat. I am, as I have written before, very sensitive to both physical and emotional stimuli and it can get really raw at times. Even if I am more constitutionally sensitive than many (or at least, more so than most people who are not on the autism spectrum), I think that all Westerners are living on a knife edge of overstimulation. Some of the stimulation comes in the form of plain old stress. The planet is overpopulated and its resources overexploited, hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal values treat people as yet more resources to be used, materialism–both the consumer and metaphysical varieties–doesn’t provide any kind of solace, and we are on the fast track to a civilizational downgrade which I think many sense but cannot bring themselves to believe because they have been fed a steady diet (pun intended) of progressivism and technological salvationism for generations. Meanwhile, the economy sucks and is getting worse. Light pollution and lack of sleep fray the nerves. Our hormones are messed up from all the xenoestrogens in water, meat, dairy, and plastics. I sense palpable depression and desperation in the air. And this we pathologize and medicate with expensive placebos. It drives a lot of people to seek oblivion via TV, games, social media, and aimless net surfing–arguably the most heavily marketed items are toys (smart phones, tablets, etc.) which, with their shiny cases and glowing lights, titillate our lizard brains–but all this is just more stimulation.

Fat, perhaps on an esoteric level as much as on the physical, is a buffer, a layer of protection, a softener, a damper. It rounds the hard edges, cushions the hard knocks, smooths wrinkles. It’s armor. I have certainly used my stored fat deposits as protection from the male gaze. Maybe it’s also a clinging–it could be for perceived hard times, or just for comfort. It is a medicine for the sickness of the age.

There may be some people who read this and feel triggered (as the kids say these days) by it. Whether or not I field a flurry of comments to the effect that I am making “excuses” for the obese, or failing to treat obesity as the scourge of the ages, will be a litmus test of (1) how well I am communicating here and (2) how much you, my dear readers, have internalized conventional fears of fatness. Because those issues are red herrings that, I believe, distract and deflect us from seeing the root cause. A couple days after the Facebook discussion that started all this, some guy went into a community college in Oregon and murdered a bunch of people. That headline is become wearingly common in the US. Lately all I hear in the media and well-meaning liberal circles is that we must have more gun control, better care for the mentally ill, and especially more ways to prevent the mentally ill from acquiring guns. I suggest that those are all short-term band-aids on this societal wound. Not only do I not think this addresses the real causes of America’s gun violence problem, I worry a lot about this labeling of shooters as mentally ill. They may be, functionally–though they need not be clinically or legally. But I worry about all the people struggling with mental illness (or perceived mental illness) who are going to find themselves essentialized, labeled, subjected to childhood “interventions,” and just generally forced to deal with even more stigma than they already do. All so that we can–to borrow Rebecca’s apt words–“hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.”

Could it be that the “obesity epidemic” and the “gun violence epidemic” are symptoms of the same societal ills? Just think about it.

Cursive as spiritual practice

Spencerian handwriting of the Victorian era
Spencerian script of the Victorian era

I think I mentioned previously that I’m going through a dry spell with regard to magic, basically a lack of sufficient energy. The energy I have at the moment has to be directed to maintaining my meatsuit and basic mental processes (sometimes just the very basic ones, alas). It’s frustrating, but we all cycle through stages like this.

Anyway, I’m a fan of old-timey things and skills, hence the archaeology degree. Well, not too long ago I heard that children aren’t being taught to read or write cursive anymore, since all they do is type or occasionally print. It creates difficulty when the kids at some point encounter documents handwritten by oldsters like me, but I guess that is becoming a more and more rare occurrence. So I thought, it’s understandable that cursive would fall by the wayside but it’s kind of a shame that we have lost the skill (and appreciation) of good penmanship.

Mind you I’ve never had good penmanship. I mean I’m perfectly content with my hybrid print-cursive, I can read it and I can write fast, and I don’t think it’s too ugly to look at. But it isn’t penmanship. I mean, think about that word: Penmanship implies that one could be a pen(wo)man, like someone who lives by the pen, an artisan.

One thing I have always admired in Japanese culture and which I wish we had more of in the US is the belief that any activity, no matter how humble and mundane, can be elevated to an artform through dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness. Even something as simple as making tea, or writing. You don’t have to be able to afford fancy tools or equipment, you don’t have to be young and full of vigor, you don’t have to be a man, or a woman–you just give it time, attention, and commitment. And the result is always beautiful. But even more important are the changes in one’s own heart, mind, and spirit that result from cultivating dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness.

Turning an everyday activity into an art also means spending time absorbed in something. You are simultaneously alone with your naked self (I don’t mean naked physically–unless you’re into that, in which case, you do you, honey), with nothing to distract you from your demons; and at the same time, your focus on the task at hand lets you get away from the hamster-in-a-wheel thoughts that go round and round in your head all day. It’s meditative.

So a couple weeks ago I got the sudden urge to re-learn how to write proper cursive. Just to make sure that, within me, it doesn’t become a lost art. It was a pretty weird impulse, in retrospect. There are so many other nearly-lost arts that I might have taken up instead, which I would have imagined would be more inspiring. But cursive penmanship is probably a good choice because it doesn’t require any money, facilities, or special equipment, and can be done pretty much anywhere one finds oneself.

Just presence, pen, and paper.

Then a couple of days ago, it came to me from the aether that this is to be my magical practice for the moment. While I don’t have the energy for big workings (or even minor ones), I can devote a little time every day to the cultivation of my soul through dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness. I’m not sure who or what put this thought in my head. It has the feeling of having come from “beyond”–much like this blog, in fact. And far be it from me to ignore the call.

UPDATE 26 Feb 2016: Today I found this article, explaining why writing by hand can help you learn and be more creative.