Monday, February 23, 2004

The Danger of Language
quote from Aldous Huxley

Language is what makes us human. Unfortunately, it is also what makes us all too human. It is on the one hand the mother of science and philosophy, and on the other hand it begets every kind of superstition and prejudice and madness. It helps us and it destroys us; it makes civilization possible, and it also produces those frightful conflicts which wreck civilization.

It is one of the ironies of our destiny that the wonderful thing which Helen Keller so eloquently describes as a giver of life and creator of thought is also one of the most dangerous and destructive things that we can have.

It is dangerous to try to impose symbolic order and meaning upon the world before you really understand what the world is like. Nevertheless, we shall always do this because it is very difficult for human beings to tolerate the mysterious as such-- what theologian Rudolpf Otto calls the Mysterium Tremendum of the world. It is so terrible and inexplicable that he has always to put up a smoke screen of symbols between it and himself. In one of its functions, it may be said that language is a device for taking the mysteriousness out of mystery.

We may say that the proper relationship between words and things, I presume, is that words should be regarded as arbitrary symbols standing for things. But the men of the Middle Ages looked at it the other way around. They regarded things as being illustrations of some general abstract principle to be found in Aristotle or in some part of the scriptures.

In our own time, we find that all the most horrifying aspects of contemporary life have arisen precisely from this wrong relationship between symbols and words. All the totalitarian tyrannies of our time have been based upon the wrong relationship o things and words; words have not been regarded by them as symbols arbitrarily standing for things, but things have been regarded as illustrations of words.

Take, for example, the whole Nazi racial doctrine. This would have been impossible if individual Jews and Gypsies had been regarded as what they were-- each of them a separate human personality. But they were not so regarded. Instead each of these persons was reduced to being merely the illustration of a pejorative label; the word "Jew" or the word "Gypsy" was regarded as a category. And the individual humans, who were of course the only realities, were assimilated to this category; they were made to be merely illustrations of a bad category, which as such could be exterminated with a perfectly good conscience.

We see the same thing under Communist regimes, where individual humans beings are lumped together merely as illustrations of capitalism, imperialism, cannibalistic bourgeoisie, and so on, and as such are regarded as something sub-human which it is permissible to destroy. There is no doubt at all that this tendency is one of the most dangerous which we have to face. It is one of the highest prices we have to pay for the inestimable benefit of language. We are forced to accept-- because we accept the grammar and syntax of our language-- the idea that whole classes of real individual things are in fact merely the expressions of some diabolic principle.

After all, one can say that wars can really only be fought if the purely human individuals engaged in them are disregarded and the opposit side is simply equated with the concretization of a bad abstraction. This is in fact what all war propaganda is: it is making people on our side believe that people on the other side are merely the concretization of very bad abstractions.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

A Warm Cold
by Callan Bentley

Today things warmed up in Washington, DC. It's been a cold winter. Today it was warm and springy: in spite of my headcold, I was thrilled to see it warm up. There were plenty of people out on the bicycle path -- running, cycling, walking. I walked, sniffling through the last of my winter cold. My friend Lisa went running. There was wind -- the tempest of changing climate. It was refreshing. Saw a red-tailed hawk mobbed by crows. Saw mallards by the dozen in Rock Creek, and a lone pair of wood ducks. I walked as long as the sunlight lasted, relishing its bright light, its promise of vernal temperatures. I blew my nose. I changed direction and saw Lisa, gave her a kiss as she passed me. There was a red balloon deflated and caught in tree branches. Two squirrels gathered acorns on the grass. I sneezed, passed into shadow, turned around and went back in the direction I came from.

Good health to all! Happy spring!

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Heroic Doses
by Skald

I like Terrence McKenna's term "heroic doses".... which he uses to describe what is necessary for achieving shamanic-level psychedelic visions. This is a clear distinction between "recreational" drug use and "shamanic" or "spiritual" use.

For example, its perplexing to hear people boast of taking Ketemin at a party and then dancing... My few experiences with Ketemin were in Nepal and it was a completely out of body experience-- definitely no chance of dancing or talking.... Perhaps I took a much bigger dose than most people do??

Another interesting tidbit from McKenna that I liked: he mentions that another distinction between recreational and shamanic use is that the neo-shaman approaches the experience with a great deal of respect and awe..... and even dread. This certainly describes the experiments with the salvia extract. It takes considerable time (weeks) to psyche myself up for the session. Though I have never had a "bad trip", I find the power of salvia to be very unnerving..... and the visions are thoroughly bizarre.

So bizarre that I had thought them unique, until I came across an obscure quote from an old colonial anthropologist. He writes that the Indians (in Mexico) who use Salvia regularly cite visions of "spiritual dwarves". Meanwhile, Terrence McKenna writes of "elf-infested space".... yet another parallel to the strange "PeeWee's Playhouse Micro People" that visit every one of my salvia visions.

Just what the hell is going on? McKenna believes that certain plants open a doorway ... that these beings are real and are trying to communicate. I'm reminded of that Richard Gere movie, "The Mothman Propechies", when I read McKenna's comments.

Of course, maybe its all crazed speculation.... probably is. But it is certainly an interesting phenomenon..... and damned more engaging than TV and Wal-Mart.


[At the moment, Salvia is completely legal and can be bought on the internet. Check out the Herbal Shaman link on the sidebar. Also, I highly recommend scanning the Erowid site (see sidebar) and reading about salvia before trying it. I recommend the 10x extract. Finally, use a sitter (a friend to sit with you and assure that you remain safe).]

Missionary Rage
by Skald

Excerpt from Journal:

"Fuck!!! Just walked by two Christian-Fucking-Evangelists in Banglumpoo... screaming, bug-eyed, red-faced, and angry.... pouring sweat..... pounding their bibles.

Can I never escape these freaks? I travel half way around the world.... to a 90% Buddhist country,..... and still I'm harangued by these goddamn redneck bible thumpers. Is this some sort of curse I suffer from? Why do they always pick me out of a crowd? Perhaps they sense that, below my pious exterior.... Im a vile drug using subversive?

I have no idea... but I do know that these people are vermin. Locusts. Cultural cancer. I wish the Thais would drive these bastards into the sea .... drive them back to whatever southern American backwater they came from.

I hate seeing them here. Hate to see them trying to undermine Thai Buddhism. Hate to see them spreading their lies, their homophobia, their anger, their fear of sex..... their puritanical terror.... Hate to see them setting up charities and "helping" people, because it is only bait on a hook-- a con game for harvesting more members in their cult.

This is really the last place I expected to find these pests. Despite the shock, I am at least consoled by the utter idiocy of the evangelists: screaming like drunks... they know nothing of Thai culture..... one of its greatest taboos is the public display of anger. Thais detest volatile, enraged displays in public. And so these fools are at least undermining their own cult-- which is a consolation I suppose. It was fun to watch the Thais skirt away from them like they were diseased lepers.... their only audience was a small collection of drunken and combative tourist-- trying to argue with them.

All in all, it was another fine moment in the history of missionary Christianity.

God bless them, every one."

Monday, February 02, 2004

Callanís Critique of the Super Bowl
Panthers vs. Patriots, Callan vs. the TV experience
by Callan Bentley

Last night, I joined my friend J in watching the Super Bowl on television. Neither J nor I are sports fans, but this was the third year in a row that we gathered at his house in Takoma Park to watch the big game. Why do we bother? I canít speak for J, but I enjoy participating in the spectacle of the game. Iím interested in the Super Bowl more as a sociological phenomenon, and as a carefully orchestrated piece of entertainment. Yesterdayís game was in Houston, a match between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers.

Costumes

Perhaps the most basic observation I can make on the Super Bowl is that the game is an extravaganza of visual imagery. The digital graphics employed by CBS in the broadcast of the game are the advance guard of the imagery to come. This yearís Super Bowl was the 38th, but it is written in Roman numerals, making this year officially ìXXXVIII,î as unwieldy a number as you will encounter until the 88th Super Bowl (ìLXXXVIIIî) fifty years from now. This top-heavy number was crammed into the screen at every break between game and commercial advertisements, an almost-seamless transition that took place every minute or two. A play, a commercial, another play, another commercial.

The coaches wore fantastically large headsets this year. I presume these headsets are connected to a sort of walkie-talkie network that allows coaches to communicate with their sub-coaches and perhaps even with their players. But why are they so big? As anyone who uses a cell phone knows, wireless communication devices have been getting smaller in recent years, not larger. Jís wife, E, speculated that these enormous contraptions were purposely distorted to intimidate opposing coaches. She postulated a sort of arms race between teams, with headsets getting bigger and bigger over time. It canít go on forever, though ñ sooner or later the coachesí necks started listing permanently to port. As of yesterdayís game, they resembled bighorn rams with only one horn.

Another notable aspect of dress were the athletic stripes on Deion Sandersí collar. Though wearing a pinstripe suit to demonstrate his new status as a commentator, I assume Sanders opted for the bizarre piping on his collar to demonstrate how deeply athletic he actually is. Or perhaps just to emphasize his former prowess on the field, especially in comparison with his pasty fellow talking heads. You can take the player out of the game, but you canít take the game out of the player?

The players themselves were dressed disconcertingly similarly. Itís hard enough for a novice football fan like me to follow whatís going on without the two teams wearing identical uniforms. Even the teamsí logos were remarkably akin to one another: little triangular wedges of speeding cat/Elvis heads.

Some of the Carolina Panthers had dark visors that hid their eyes inside their helmets. I can imagine that hiding oneís eyes is a sort of ìpoker faceî strategy for a football player, masking the micro-expressions that might broadcast an imminent move. Possibly they were emulating their hammer-headed coaches, and did it to intimidate their opponents. At any rate, the came off looking like Storm Troopers in Star Wars.

Cameras

There were other aspects of Star Wars in yesterdayís game, too. A new camera that dropped to just above field level suspended on cables provided some magnificent close views of the action. By and large, CBS trimmed shots that included this camera hovering above the field. They left it in a few times, though, and it resembled the drone stalking Luke Skywalker on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. Iíd like to see this camera technology taken to the next level, with the camera swooping down to follow the ball as itís kicked down the field, a few meters behind the pigskin as it soars high in the air, far from any human. J seconded this motion, suggesting that it be akin to the camera shot in Robin Hood, where the camera follows the perspective of an arrow as it streaks through Nottingham Forest.

Another advance in Super Bowl camerawork was the ìMatrixî shot. In replaying certain mid-field plays, the action would be shown from one angle, then freeze, the perspective would swing around 90 degrees to the opposite corner of the stadium, and then action would resume. The cumulative effect of this trick was to resemble the 3D time-pausing action sequences in the Matrix movies. As the football froze in mid-air, I couldnít help but be reminded of Carrie-Anne Moss about to deliver her patent-leather karate kick.

Commentary

The two gentlemen giving the play-by-play commentary during yesterdayís game were Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. Mainly the television audience just heard their voices, but occasionally they were shown on camera. This shot was invariably set up so that the leftmost two-thirds of the screen were dominated by a television monitor with the golden ìXXXVIIIî imprinted overtop an American flag, the monitor itself set on a cross-braced scaffolding. Simms stood next to the TV on the right side of the screen, and Gumbel was squeezed into the very rightmost area. In several shots, Gumbel was cut in half by the edge of the camera angle. It was a weird set-up: why so much emphasis on the television screen?

For all the ignominy of being clipped by the camera, Gumbel at least delivered reasonable commentary. At least he didnít say anything directly stupid, as Simms did. While Gumbel acted in a sort of ìyes manî role to Simms, with ìOh yeah?î and ìThatís rightî being his stock phrases, Simms made gaffe after gaffe. As the halftime show ended and play resumed, Simms made the observation that ìHistory tells us that a lot goes on in the second half of these Super Bowl games.î No kidding, Phil; as much as the first half? And, in the most dramatic moment of the game, when in the final minutes the Panthers evened the score with a dramatic touchdown, Simms quipped, ìWhat a turn of events for the New England Patriots! ÖAnd the North Carolina Panthers!î Yes indeed: a dramatic turn of events for both teams. Not just one. Simms obviously sees the Big Picture; I guess that's why he's the commentator, and not me.

Chronology

Game time is weird. Time extends towards the end of each half of the game, or at least thatís how it seemed yesterday. There is official Game Time, which is four quarters of 15 minutes apiece, and then there is the actual amount of time that it takes for me, sitting with Jís cat on the couch, to watch the game. With timeouts and off-sides and commercials, Actual Time is far longer than Game Time. But for the first half of the first half and the first half of the second half, the two timescales were pretty close. In the final few minutes of both the second quarter and the fourth quarter, though, Game Time overwhelmed Actual Time. It seems to be correlated with points being scored. As touchdowns are made, time slows down. Iím sure Einstein must have meant to include that in the theory of relativity. No points were scored in the first 26 minutes of the Super Bowl (i.e. most of the first half), but then in the final three and a half minutes of the second quarter, 24 points were scored (and the Game Time expanded to take up well over half an hour of Actual Time). The same thing happened at the conclusion of the fourth quarter, when again the ratio of Game to Actual was about one to ten. Half an hour before the Super Bowl ended, there were less than three minutes on the clock.

Celebrities

The halftime show was a frenetic burst of glitz. Jessica Simpson began the performance by negating a preceding voting commercial (ìChoose to care, choose to voteî) by screeching, ìHouston, choose to party!î Though she was billed as one of the hot celebrities to watch in first-half advertisements for the halftime show, these four words were Simpsonís only contribution.

Other performers had similarly abbreviated performances. Janet Jackson wore plumes resembling an ostrich tail for her first song, which lasted 40 seconds. She arrived on the stage by descending a cylindrical elevator from nowhere. Nelly followed with a 45 second song, whereupon he was joined by P. Diddy for a duet that lasted 20 seconds. MTV, which sponsored the halftime show, definitely conformed these performances to their short-attention span rule, where no camera shot lasts more than 5 seconds. As soon as you had absorbed the fact that one performer had taken the stage, their time was over, and it was on to the next big name.

Kid Rock was next on the revue, and he had the longest solo song, lasting a minute and seven seconds. He wore an American flag like a poncho, his greasy head popped through a slit in the center of the flag. He sang about himself singing at the Super Bowl halftime show ñ postmodern irony, though he may not have intended it as such.

Then the camera panned over to a Rollerball Terrordrome sort of stage, where Janet Jackson again rode an elevator to the stage (an ascent this time), wearing a sort of leather Samurai outfit. She sang a number which had as its tag line, ìItís time to give a damn, letís work together.î This song mentioned combating illiteracy, which is certainly a noble cause. But it seemed a weak effort at do-gooder reform, considering that U2ís Bono was rejected from performing at this yearís halftime show because he said he wanted to sing a song about fighting AIDS. Because I knew that the Super Bowlís organizers had made a deliberate decision to not mention AIDS, this token illiteracy name-drop struck me as a bit shallow.

The Terrordrome was surrounded by banks of grey balloons. Just in case viewers werenít sure which superstar was performing on stage at the moment, their names were projected up onto this bank of balloons, white graffiti on a stone wall. It changed from JANET to JUSTIN, and Justin Timberlake rode Janetís elevator to the stage. They sang a ìsaucyî duet which lasted 30 seconds, and concluded with Timberlake ripping off the bodice of Jacksonís costume, revealing her right breast for a fraction of a second before CBS cut away from the shot. Both performers, MTV, and CBS have all issued apologies for the incident.

Commercials

One of the most celebrated aspects of the ìpopular entertainmentî portion of the Super Bowl is the creativity of the commercials that accompany it. This yearís commercials fell flat, in my opinion. There werenít any really great ones, though a few made me laugh.

For my money, the big charmer was the donkey who wants to be a Budweiser Clydesdale. Voiced over by a sensitive, thoughtful man, the Donkey explained his training (hauling a six-pack in a cart) and hair implants (on his legs) and final interview with the Clydesdales (where he brayed, and was accepted as their lead hoofer). There was also a memorable race between a pair of cutthroat senior citizens, each sabotaging the other in a quest to eat a bag of potato chips.

Other than those two, there were a bunch of car commercials, and a bunch of impotence drug commercials. Erectile dysfunction drugs have proliferated in the past year. Viagra is now the establishment, and Levitra is dominating commercial airtime in an attempt to challenge the incumbent. While they continue to employ their tired football-through-the-tire-swing analogy, Levitra took a new tack this year with an exposition by Mike Ditka comparing football to baseball, and concluding that baseball was as flaccid as a limp dick, whereas football was a proud, erect cock (not in so many words, but that was the implication). Nice work, Mike, I hope they paid you well to make that statement. Cialis is another drug for the same purpose, and they also bought some Super Bowl airtime. Their commercial was unremarkable except for a subdued warning statement in its final seconds: the disconcerting reminder that ìErections lasting longer than four hours, though rare, require immediate medical attention.î

Conclusions

I still donít care about football, but the Super Bowl was fun to watch. Thereís a lot going on there besides the game. Iíll be tuning in again next year.